Today I’ve been thinking about my first time to Europe as an American. I was 15 years old and totally out of my comfort zone. My emotions during that first week were a strange mixture of fear/awe/shock/comfort.
The trip was a week-long educational tour across a few European countries, so…. that’s why it only lasted a week. Duh.
I went back five years later, this time for two months. I studied Italian in Siena, with an apartment and normal school schedule every day alongside a bunch of American peers
That time, the fear/awe/shock/comfort lasted two months. DUH.
Two months isn’t a super long time, I know. Out of the two months and one week of my life I’ve spent on the continent, I guess it’s pretty understandable that I’ve never become quite settled in the European way.
At the same time, though, there were many moments and places that felt so comfortable it felt like a new and different home was instantly created. Especially in Italy. These are the things that I remember when the travel bug bites while I’m at work and I start looking up plane tickets, hoping to go back soon.
I’ve read lots of lists based on the main differences between Europe and the US, from people much smarter than I am. Things like education, politics, etc. But from a simple person still not recovered from her culture shock, these are the main things I noticed about what makes Europe different.
1. Buildings are treasures. Every European city felt different. It looked, smelled, sounded different than any American city I’d ever visited. The day I realized this difference was the day I saw a Pizza Hut embedded into Shakespeare’s neighbor’s house. The buildings are ancient and beautiful everywhere you look. Even the dirt ingrained between every brick is magical. It’s like glitter.
2. Food is slow. You learn quickly that, to be able to survive off their small un-American portion sizes (the horror!), you have to eat verrry slowly. To be able to keep enjoying this pasta with bell peppers that taste unlike any other bell peppers you’ve ever tasted before and that you will never taste in America, you have to eat slowly. To be able to fill up the time that essentially everyone takes to close down their shops and just eat, you have to eat slowly. Soon, you wonder why you ever ate quickly, because it starts to seem like life is all about eating slowly.
3. People are fearless. While I generally dislike stereotypes, in my experience the people I met in France had the “appearance” of being “rude” and sometimes “terrifying” (I’m qualifying so much because I don’t want them to kill me). They are not afraid to get short with strangers, or speak their mind. My bump-in with my hotel matron was enough to scare me into never accidentally stealing hot chocolate ever again (I promise, accidental). In Italy, none of the boys were the least bit afraid of sexual rejection. A “no” would be met with laughs and lighthearted pats on the back from his friends. Although I am not a scary person in the least, I did realize that there is a sort of overall fear that governs the way strangers interact in the US. I never felt this in Europe; if there was no language barrier dividing two people, there was always room for conversation (no matter how heated).
4. Nights are alive. During my study abroad, I ended up in Rome between the hours of 3-6 in the morning, trying to kill time. Being a traveler in Europe will hopefully afford you these kinds of situations: ending up in a city, spur-of-the-moment planning, and with nothing to do but to walk and see. While every city was beautiful, the nights were absolutely something else. I’m not sure if it’s the attention to lighting that these cities seem to have or the late-night musicians that choose to play for nobody in the wee hours of the morning, there is a suspicious sense of security in the dark there. There are less people, and its the city itself that comes alive in the night. That sounds like a cheesy cliched way of saying that it’s pretty cool, but this right here is the inexplicable difference between Europe and America. It’s a different planet, and you just have to see it for yourself.