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Worlds apart

OTTAWA, Ont. - While driving a truck across Europe, one of Roger Escuain's favourite things was to be laid over for the weekend in France or Germany. Traffic is forbidden in those countries on Sundays...

WORLD TRAVELLER: Roger Escuain left his native Spain for Canada in April of 2005 and hasn't looked back since. Photo by Adam Ledlow

WORLD TRAVELLER: Roger Escuain left his native Spain for Canada in April of 2005 and hasn't looked back since. Photo by Adam Ledlow

OTTAWA, Ont. – While driving a truck across Europe, one of Roger Escuain’s favourite things was to be laid over for the weekend in France or Germany. Traffic is forbidden in those countries on Sundays, so drivers would gather together for a makeshift truck stop potluck, with each driver adding a dish to the mix and sometimes even a little wine.

“I learned most of my cooking at the side of a truck,” he explains. The cooking was gourmet compared with what he’s been eating in Canada over the last year or so, and as a result he’s dropped about 25 lbs. But Escuain’s real appetite has always been for vehicles.

The 25-year-old was born in Sabadell, Spain, not far from Barcelona, where he was raised by a Canadian mother and a Spanish father (who also happened to be an English-Spanish translator). Though the young Spaniard would occasionally flip through truck magazines, he was always more fascinated by cars and wanted to be a mechanic someday. He finished mechanic school at 19 and brought his resume to a couple of truck dealerships where he eventually landed a job.

“I liked the job, I just didn’t see any opportunity to grow,” he said. He did, however, see some opportunity behind the wheel of a truck.

“I’d see the truckers leaving on their trips after having their oil changed or something, so I kind of drooled over that idea, to go to Germany or to Belgium, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve never travelled.’ I have no family, I’m a younger guy, so I said, ‘It’s now or never: I’m going into trucking.'”

The decision took him all over Europe with his furthest trip taking him as far as Budapest, Hungary (about the distance between Toronto and Saskatoon).

“That was about 3,000 km from Barcelona and I thought I was going to the other end of the world. What really makes it feel like the end of the world is all the countries you pass: France, Italy, Austria and then you get into Hungary, an Eastern European country,” he said. Passing from country to country is one of the things that can make driving in Europe so appealing, Escuain says, but also a lot more challenging than North America.

“If I go from Portland to Montreal, you see the same things, you speak the same language, you have the same kind of houses, but it’s totally different (in Europe),” he says. “The country where I had the most problem (communicating) was the Czech Republic. I went there shortly before coming to Canada and I was used to going to Germany, France and I could usually get myself to understand, but I didn’t know a word of Czech. So that was a totally new experience, finding directions, using sign language, I felt like a fool, you know?”

But that experience should be considered an anomaly. Escuain certainly knows his way around language, speaking fluent Spanish, Castilian (the standard Spanish dialect spoken in Spain in the north east), English, as well as conversational French and some German thrown in as well. Portuguese and Italian are also close enough to Spanish that the three groups can almost always understand each other, Escuain says.

“It’s just part of the job,” he says. “But there’s a lot of truckers that don’t know a word of anything at all. They only speak Spanish and they do the sign language, and they do okay. I’ve known people who have done it for 40 years and don’t know a word of (anything but Spanish).”

While language barriers still pose a problem from some, border crossing is easier than ever overseas, thanks to the free market created by the European Union.

“For trucks, you never have a slow down” at the border, Escuain says. “Somehow there’s never been a question (of terrorist activity) with trucks, but there’s always a huge line up of cars.”

One escape from rush hour traffic for Escuain was always night time driving in Europe – a luxury no longer available working in the congested GTA.

“I used to enjoy driving at night in Europe. I would drive from Leon to Barcelona, which is about an eight hour trip. I’d load up at night and drive and it would just be a breeze,” he says. “That’s one thing I was surprised about in North America. On the trip from Toronto to Montreal there’s always a lot of traffic, even at 2 or 3 a.m.”

The infrastructure in Europe can also afford some challenges unknown to most North Americans. Driving in Great Britain has some of the most glaring truck-troubles, including ancient cobblestone streets, driving on the other side of the road and the dreaded English ’roundabout.’

“London has one of the oldest industrial areas in the world. These areas were designed for horse carriages to go in – not for trucks,” Escuain says. “You don’t want to get lost there. You think you’re going the right way and then all of a sudden you come to a stream or bridge or one of those Roman waterways so you’d have to reverse 500 metres and try and turn around.”

The sheer numbers of drivers in the U.K. is another constant headache, with about 60 million people jammed onto an island about the size of Oregon – though Escuain admits, it has made them very good drivers.

You won’t see many tractor-trailers barrelling through major European cities anyways, Escuain says, as most of the warehouses have been built on the outskirts of the cities.

“It’s a very rare sight to see a full-sized transport truck in Barcelona, for example.”

Yet for all Europe’s prehistoric roads, Escuain says trade his North American equipment for an Old World ride any day. He describes North American vehicles as having a more rugged appearance and being at least 20 years behind European technology.

“One of the things I miss the most is, the trucks I used to drive there: the tractor had two axles, the trailer had three axles (and) disc brakes another single axle. You press the brake and it just slows down like a car,” he says. “Here I have to be a lot more aware of how I brake, the distance I keep, the weight I’m carrying. It’s a lot more effort to just to slow down or go down a hill. You have to concentrate a lot more. In Europe I wouldn’t even worry about that.”

But despite North America’s slow technological progress, Escuain has been enjoying his time in Canada and feels more at home than ever before. He’s been especially surprised by the treatment he’s received from his employer, Erb Tranport in New Hamburg, Ont.

“In the trucking business here (in Canada), you get companies that really treat drivers like people. In Spain I was working with one of the most reputable companies and they treated you like dirt. As if you had the privilege of working for them. Probably you would have better companies in northern Europe, but in Spain it’s just a big joke,” he confesses. “When I came here, I thought, ‘Wow.’ All the companies in the paper looking for drivers and all the marketing involved in looking for drivers. I’m working for Erb now and I couldn’t be happier. Coming to Canada started as a wild idea in my imagination, but everybody encouraged me and then I started thinking, ‘When I’m in my 40s, I would like to look back and say I’ve done something interesting with my life.'”

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