National Geographic : 2002 Jan
trains (the French TGV), and highways. I like to drive at speed, but I'm a piker compared with the Europeans. Racing to a meeting in southern Germany last year, I tooled down the smooth, fluid autobahn at 110 miles an hour and lost count of the number of cars that came up from behind and passed me. Nothing illegal about it either; the speed limit in Germany is whatever you can safely maintain. European travelers don't even have to slow down at border crossings anymore. Most Western European countries have signed the Schengen Treaty, which eliminates passport and customs controls. If you drive, say, from Stock holm to Seville, you'll go through seven coun tries and never see a border guard-a boon, no doubt, to many travelers, but a bummer for people like me, who cherish all those visa stamps in the passport. For my money, the best way to get around Europe is the rail network. And for sheer traveling pleasure, it's hard to match the French national railroad's Train a Grande Vitesse, or "train of great velocity." The sleek bullet-nosed TGVs race from London to the Alps, from the North Sea to the Pyrenees. You zoom along smoothly at 186 miles an hour, sipping a perky young Beaujolais and watching the handsome church steeples of rural France race by outside the window. C'est magnifique! Sadly there is one little flaw in this magnifi cent mode of travel. Every 30 seconds or so your quiet reveries are interrupted by the bane of European trains, subways, and theaters: the biddly-biddly-beep of somebody's cell phone. The incessant telephonic beeping that plays like tinny background music beneath the rhythms of European life these days is actually evidence of another great Pan-European con nection: the GSM network for cellular phones. The handheld phone has caught on around the world, but no place has warmed to the wireless as eagerly as Europe. That's largely due to the GSM standard, which means people can use the same phone without a hitch in any corner of any European country. What the industry calls the "penetration rate"-that is, the per centage of the population owning a mobile phone-is higher in Europe than anywhere else on Earth. In Finland, which in 1998 became the first country to have more mobiles than fixed-line phones, the rate is 75 per cent. Virtually every Finn over 14, from the busy Helsinki businesswoman to the reindeer rancher in Lapland, has a mobile phone. At the Stockmannin Kulma cafe on Hel sinki's handsome central esplanade, I talked telephones one day with some world-class mobile users-students at nearby high schools. "We call the phone a 'handy,'" said Petra Gus tafsson, a junior at the famous music school, Sibelius Academy. "And that's a good name, because it is like an extension of your body." The kids told me they make or receive 20 to 30 calls a day, but they use the phones even more and selling bananas by the pound.