Journals from England Fall, (University of Nottingham)
2009-12-24 Seasons Greetings, or, pt. 1 of a European Odyssey
24 Dec. 2009
In the last two weeks, I've flown from Nottingham to Rome and taken the train to Florence, Munich, Nuremberg, Paris, and now, here I am in Brussels. I've seen so many amazing monuments, buildings and museums, many of which I always could only imagine in my head and they never seemed real to me. I've found myself staring at the Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica, the statue of David, and the Eiffel Tower, and suffering through 5 degree weather in Nuremberg... I've indulged in the traditional food and drink of Italy, Germany, France, and Belgium, and found room to fit in some fruits and vegetables every now and then. I've been lost and completely turned around through tiny, winding European streets more times than I can remember, but I've always managed to find my way back, and here I am, safe and warm in Brussels typing out this journal from my hostel, using Internet that is way too slow for the price I paid to use it.
I find myself feeling more and more English -- I think to myself "what's wrong with this queue" or "how rude, they didn't say sorry when we bumped into each other." I am constantly comparing things to how the English do things. And then I remember I'm American. I see other Americans on holiday here, looking very touristy, talking loudly in their various regional twangs and I think, "wow, I hope I'm not like that." Obviously I am. I am a tourist, and to some extent we are all the same, but I've learned there are some things you can do in a city to ease the foreignness of being a foreigner:
1.) Don't talk so loudly -- people on the Metro or just generally out about town talk in quiet hushed tones. They blend in to the rhythms and the music of the city, the don't stand out. Americans, and our accents, do. I feel obnoxious when I catch myself talking loudly, but I realize it is just out of habit. Since coming to England and the rest of Europe, I am much more aware of myself in relations to others, especially when I am talking.
2.) Take the path less travelled. The touristy areas of a city eminate from the must-see cliche tourist sights. But if you just keep walking a little further you will find that the prices for meals and the general character of the streets you are on changes immensely. My favourite moments are the times when I realize I am the only tourist in a restaurant, a shop, or a street.
3.) Try to learn the culture. Listen to the locals, see how they order, how they act, how they interact with each other as they go about their daily lives. Learn a few key words in each language (cheers, thank you, please, sorry, etc.) and the residents and shopkeepers of a city will appreciate your effort and think, "bless, at least he's trying. Poor, silly American."
When I take a moment to reflect on all that I've seen, it almost doesn't seem real. But here I am, in Europe, and at the moment I am in the capital of the European Union. I've learned to be a very independent traveller -- along with my travelling buddy Tim, we make a pretty good team. We try to wait as long as possible before we admit defeat and pull out our map to figure out where we are. We try to walk around as much as possible and see Europe "through the back door" as Tim's idol Rick Steves would put it.
Tim and I have logged so many hours playing the waiting game (for the Metro, the train, etc.) that we don't really mind waiting any more. I can remember when I was a kid I used to hate standing in queues, or waiting around for something to happen. Now I don't mind so much. And if I ever have a gripe with how something is done or the way something is (the muddy walkways surrounding the Eiffel Tower, for example) I try to think, oh well, at least I am Europe. I shouldn't worry.
It's a bit surreal being so far from home on Christmas eve, and missing out on traditions I have taken part in every year since I can remember, but it's not so bad. In a way, it's kind of fun to see what the holidays are like when you remove your family traditions from them. For example, I don't think my family would have ever gone to a bar in Brussels and enjoyed some fine Belgian beer on Christmas Eve. But don't get me wrong, I do miss home. I am very much looking forward to using my calling card tomorrow afternoon to say hello to my family and wish them a merry Christmas.
I've got to run now. My Internet time is almost up. I hope anyone reading this will forgive any typos in this blog entry. The hostel's computers don't have spell check or word processing. Oh, well. Such is life.