Encouraged by news of the enthusiastic take-up of electric cars in the Netherlands and the extensive infrastructure provided, we were relaxed about travelling to the Hook of Holland on the Sunday of a public holiday weekend. We had not signed up to the Dutch charging point company however, baulking at the considerable cost of the connector. This meant we were reliant on garages for fast charge or campsites for slower. Having charged up near Utrecht at Nick’s brother’s overnight (an outside socket conveniently placed on a wall by the driveway), we just needed one more charge. This proved trickier than we had imagined. A look at the website http://www.lemnet .org and at the Nissan website proved less informative than we had hoped, giving us a list of garages with the possibility of fast chargers but not indicating certainty. Our satnav was less than helpful too, apparently unaware of one-way systems, new roundabouts and inconveniently placed canals. Our first attempt to charge was at a BP ‘Energy Station’ which offered petrol, diesel, LPG and electric. However, we needed a special card to use the fast charger, and we could not buy one in the shop. (BP – why not?) A nearby Nissan dealer either had no charging station, or had locked it behind its high gates, and another only had a slow charger. (Though many thanks to the helpful cleaner who offered us a coffee if we wanted to wait.) We eventually went back to the fast charge station at Leiden we had used on the way down; thank goodness there was no high fence and padlocked gate here. On to the ferry terminal where we hooked up on the boat, along with the refrigeration lorries, and two fast charges at Nissan garages on the way back to London meant that we glided silently back home in the late morning, the car still performing perfectly.
Having to get back to the UK for various engagements we opted for a car train to take the brunt of the journey. Deutsche Bahn run an efficient weekly car train; you load up on Saturday afternoon and after speeding through frontiers, mountains, major rivers and lush farmland you arrive in Dusseldorf at 9.30 am on Sunday. There was no problem about loading or unloading the car; we drove it on and off ourselves. Straight on to the road north, where we saw more bikes than cars; the whole population seemed to have turned out on two wheels. We stopped for a charge at a camp site by a lake on the edge of woodland. A Sunday heatwave, and the place was packed with bodies in varying degrees of tanning. Not the slightest fazed by our request for a few hours’ electricity, the manager directed us to his garage where we hooked up to the electricity supply. Conveniently located by a friendly café we had plenty of opportunity to present the car to fellow customers.
Our final school visit is in Slovenia, to a state school in Ljubljana. One of the first schools in this part of the world to introduce an international curriculum, they were consulted by the government when the national leaving exam was established. They have been offering places on their IB Diploma course to students from all over the country for some twenty years. The school has added an international section as well, and all the students (over 1000) take part in the community service activities. One particularly impressed us. A group decided to investigate the cleanliness of the water in several areas of the Balkans, and to try to alert local students to the threat to this important natural resource. They travelled to Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia testing the water and giving a presentation to students in each place. They managed to get a fair amount of publicity and produced an excellent CD. On a smaller local scale, the school is currently collecting the tops from plastic water bottles, apparently more valuable for recycling than the bottles, to give to a charity towards a fund for providing a girl with a more comfortable wheelchair than the standard issue. A good example of practical targeted fund-raising which also contributes to recycling.
The Slovenian countryside is beautiful; dense woodland interspersed with meadows of wild flowers and small farms, with local fruit and honey in plentiful supply. Bikes to rent here as elsewhere, but here the first hour is free and an annual rent is only 3 euros. Cars are banned from the stylish historic centre, and those unable to walk are transported around by electric shuttles. The students we meet have been well taught about recycling but are not convinced that all their schoolmates observe the separate rubbish collections nor understand the problem of river pollution. We also hear that despite the efficient centralised heating and water provision in Ljubljana coal is now being imported from Indonesia to service them, the local mines having been closed.
Travelling by electric car goes in fits and starts of necessity; 75 miles is what we have found to be a sensible maximum for a single charge, allowing a safe margin for finding the next charging point. Until towns provide them in sufficient numbers (as Oxford has recently announced it will) the most reliable sources we have found so far are campsites. Modern caravans and campers often require 10 amp supplies so apart from Italy, where sockets with as little as 3 amps can be found, many campsites in Europe offer spaces with this facility. After checking the electricity supply the response of campsite reception staff to our request for a six-hour daytime or an overnight charge has been variable. In one or two places we had a curt refusal; in some a little gentle persuasion (“they let us charge at the last campsite…”) is needed. The best answer we had came in Croatia: “Of course you can charge up here. No fee at all; we support all efforts to help the environment”. Once set up and charging there are various other factors: internet access, if possible free, for planning the next charging stop or overnight stay; shade, sun or shelter depending on the weather; decent washrooms; laundry facilities; a pleasant café; a shop for groceries; opportunities for scenic walks. It’s rare to find a site which meets all the criteria; one particular Adriatic site comes to mind though; an additional unexpected feature that morning was a practice session by the dance troupe to liven up our coffee.
Bosnia does not have a good image as a protector of the environment, according to the students we talked to, both from inside and outside the country. Litter is dropped carelessly everywhere in town and countryside, plastic bottles and bags are used once and disposed of anywhere, there are few attempts to separate rubbish either privately or publicly, rivers are polluted by industrial waste, cars and motor bikes are driven fast and noisily. Why should this be? The young people had several ideas; concern for the environment is the privilege of wealthy nations; economic development must be the first priority, even if it comes at the cost of environmental damage.
People don’t care about litter in the streets or fields if the politicians don’t bother to get recycling organised – and who trusts politicians to make anything better anyway? And yet there are signs that things are changing. There are gleaming new recycling bins for four distinct rubbish types, proudly standing empty outside the city hall: maybe a token gesture but at least showing willing; one of the local students we met was indignant at friends who threw litter indiscriminately and many were sad at the state of the water in the fast flowing river near the famous bridge. They know there is a lot to be done to repair the natural beauty of their country, and now that determined rebuilding of the community is happening in earnest, civic pride can follow.
After nearly a week’s travel at electric car pace through Slovenia and Croatia we finally make it to Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina. We are excited to be able to experience first-hand an international schooling initiative which we have admired for long from afar, and we are not disappointed. In fact we emerge elated from a morning with students and teachers and a tour of the old town by students.
The school is housed on the top floor of a public ‘gymnasium’ which had an esteemed academic reputation before the war. Severely damaged by gunfire it has been restored and repainted in the original ‘pseudo-Moorish’ Austro-Hungarian style of the early 1900s. Inside the division which erupted into the devastating war of 1992-5 is perpetuated; the school is segregated into Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian) and Bosnian Croatian sections, with different curricula, teachers and even separate entrances to avoid any contact between the two groups. The international school is located on the third floor and represents a beacon to reconciliation. A good proportion of the students come from both sides of the divide in the city; the rest are from over 30 countries. They all live in student residences, each sharing a room with someone from another country. They follow an international curriculum, which of course represents challenges for subjects like history. The approach is more student-centred and focused on personalised learning than that of the traditional local system; regular workshops are offered to teachers in the other sections of the building as well as those from high schools from all over the country. These are much appreciated, and demand is substantial, while the reputation of the school is now well established; we are told that there were 200 applications for the 22 places for local students allocated last year.
The group of students we meet, straight from exams but still alert and sparky, come from Turkey, Czech Republic, Egypt, the US and several from Bosnia/Herzegovina. They have lots to say about environmental concerns in the local area and their home countries. While critical of the lack of recycling in the town there is also a sense of frustration at the don’t care attitude of most residents. River pollution is another big problem; but how to woo factories back to the country while making expensive environmental standards obligatory? With 40% unemployment and high emigration rates would the cost be too high? But a student from Louisiana reminds us of the catastrophic effects of the oil spill there, while one from Utah warns of tar sands there. Americans were shocked by the careless attitude to litter in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially plastic, but we are told that in Turkey there is now a real drive for recycling, and the creeping introduction of cloth bags to replace plastic is happening in many parts of Europe.
Our tour of the town reveals first bullet-ridden banks across the street from the school, but then a bustling old town bristling with chain stores and handicraft/souvenir shops. The tourists are there in plenty too; we jostle past them to take photos of the famous bridge, destroyed in the fighting but rebuilt true to the original sixteenth century model, even using some stones dredged up from the river. Linking the two communities, who had retreated to different sides of the river, the bridge represents a monument to reconciliation in stone and mortar. The educational initiative and the students we met are the human reconcilers of the future.
The school we visit adjoining a castle high on a cliff top overlooking the Adriatic is truly international; they have students from over eighty countries there for their final two years of high school. Interest in the
car is striking from the moment we arrive and students usher us into the main courtyard so that everyone will be able to inspect the vehicle. We meet the dynamic spokesperson for their Sustainability Group who tells us enthusiastially about their projects for solar panel charging for mobile phones, compost in the school garden and more selective recycling. We take our evening meal outside to sit on the grass with a big group of students after a day of exams and they tell us about the degree of environmental concern in their home countries. Some wonder if Northern Europe is self-
satisfied, believing that they have all the correct initiatives in place, and ‘green’ activists are just trying to make themselves look cool. Why should developing countries have to meet the same strict environmental controls as their richer neighbours? An argument heard in Pakistan against separating rubbish for recycling is that it would deprive scavengers on rubbish heaps of an income. And isn’t economic wealth more important to a country than sustainability concerns (from a native of a highly developed country). But some governments give financial incentives for installing solar panels, and bikes are replacing cars for young people in cities. Big companies use an environmentally friendly image to sell their products; how cynical is that? But maybe if you get your message over it doesn’t matter how you do it? Yet getting that message across is difficult; educating people to think green is hard. Is ‘global warming’ is becoming a tired phrase, rammed down throats to boredom level. Do we need a new term to convey the urgency? The debate is animated. Then the demonstration of the car produces a whole new set of questions: Why aren’t hydrogen cars replacing electric? What happens to the batteries when they are used up? (What indeed?) Why don’t we have photo voltaic cells on the roof? Where do we get our electricity from – alternative sources? And a great final question: what happens when everyone has an electric car?