Travel: Europe explained

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The Independent Travel
QUITE the best book I've read this year is Foreign Bodies: A Guide to European Mannerisms (Simon & Schuster, pounds 14.99) by Peter Collett, which provides a fascinating array of information on the habits of our Continental neighbours.

Why are the French called Frogs? Not necessarily because frogs form a notable part of the Gallic diet, says Mr Collett. 'The coat of arms of the early Frankish kings consisted of three leaping frogs . . . These were later replaced by fleurs-de-lis. Much later, when the French court was established at Versailles, the courtiers tried to conjure up the glory of the old Frankish kingdom by referring to themselves as toads, and to the inhabitants of Paris as frogs - les Grenouilles.'

The book has a particularly good chapter on driving habits. Greece is not the place for a fly-drive break: the country has more deaths on the road than any other European country - followed by Portugal and Spain. Britain is bottom of the league with 4,500 deaths on the road per year, just half of Spain's total.

Mr Collett says it used to be thought that poor maintenance of roads and cars was the key factor in road safety. 'Although environmental factors play a part, they are not the only causes of accidents, and the way people actually drive is the real culprit.'

While the British faithfully heed traffic lights and parking restrictions, in other European countries they take a more pragmatic attitude. 'Italians view traffic regulations as flexible guidelines, something they can afford to ignore, provided the police don't cause any trouble and nobody gets hurt.

'In France, and in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece, driving has become a test of character and, in the case of male drivers, a measure of their manhood. That is why male drivers in these countries are so much more opportunistic and aggressive, and why they are so ready to shout at each other, gesticulate and honk their horns.'

For enthusiasts of clean lavatories - of which I am one - Mr Collett supplies a league table of the best in the world. It seems the cleanest - according to a survey of British travellers - are in the US (not my experience, I must say), Britain, Switzerland and Germany. '. . . the per capita spending on toilet cleaners in Germany is almost double what it is in France, Italy and the United Kingdom - suggesting either that the toilets in German homes are cleaner than most, or that they require twice as much cleaning liquid to keep them clean.'

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