Finding the unexpected in travels across Europe as a young American
2018-01-15 16:35:00 -

Michaela Althouse


It begins with the simple things like a small, bad cup of coffee. I suppose I should have anticipated a less-than-superb java scene from a country historically known for their tea but, as I wake up every day forced to brew myself instant, my heart longs for my homeland of the US and our traditional drip coffee. (Which, by the way, is not the espresso and water served here and wrongly named an Americano.)


Before arriving in Dublin almost four months ago, I had never left the United States. I was prepared for the clichéd ‘culture shock’ and the knowledge that the atmosphere would be different. Even with that in mind, though, I found that hopping around Europe comes with a lot of surprises and that the world is much bigger than it seems.


Besides my poor endeavours with coffee, I was struck by the amount of walking in Dublin. I am no stranger to trekking around, but at the end of my first week the backs of my heels resembled a turnip and I had to sleep with my feet propped on a spare pillow. Other than the uneven pavement and the awkward drainage dips, though, I like walking everywhere. With the added bonus of not having to pay for public transport, I feel much more in touch with the culture than trying to get to know the city through foggy bus windows.


Since my native language is English, I have had little trouble communicating in my travels. Instead, I was struck by the number of languages Europeans seem to know. In Denmark, the residents speak Danish, English and whatever language they chose to study in school. Many signs in Belgium are listed in German, English, French and Dutch. My basic abilities in German from high school were more or less a joke, and mostly I just remember how to ask my teacher if I could use the bathroom.


I have never felt friendlier than I did in Budapest, Hungary. My initial instinct is to greet people with a smile or ask how they are, but I was mostly met with stone faces and silence. A convenience store cashier gave me a look of unspeakable disdain after I made the crucial error of attempting to pay with a debit card in an unmarked cash line, and it only got worse when I explained it was my last night and I had used all my forints. But after decades of political strife, it makes sense that Hungarians are wary of strangers.


Culture is a fascinating concept to try to unfurl, and part of the reason I loved being in these countries was that I could get a context for why different societies develop the way they do. The Danes speak so many languages because, as the only country to speak Danish, they would be unable to communicate with the rest of the world without it. Hungarians suffered under more than one oppressive regime and have seemingly developed a stigma of self-preservation. 


Beyond that, my adventures gave me perspective on my place in the world – I lived up to the dumb American stereotype more than once – and that the ability to celebrate our differences is the only way to move forward. We have to accept our disparities instead of trying to change them, even if you really, really, really just wish Chipotle would spread to all corners of the globe.

Michaela Althouse is a student of English and journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, USA and was an intern with Metro Éireann.


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