It was a traditional Fondue Party in the Swiss Alps. Even though it was the middle of July, the weather outside was cold and crisp. A colossal white tent was erected to protect those enjoying the festivities from the chill. From a mile away, you could hear a dull hum emitting from the tent; but if you were to stand within fifty feet of the structure, the roar of laughter and the raucous timbre of conversation would drown out your thoughts. Inside, over 300 people, the majority of them high school students, sat at long, rectangular tables, dipping pieces of bread into Caquelon pots in the traditional Swiss manner. A teenage girl, sitting at a particularly rambunctious table occupied by 17 other teenagers, stuck her Fondue fork, loaded with a piece of bread, into one of the pots of liquefied cheese. After swirling her fork around a couple of times, she withdrew it, only to find that the bread had disappeared in the cheese, never to be found again. Hoping no one would notice, she quickly grabbed a new piece of bread, secured it onto her fork, and thrust it into the pot. However, her mishap had not gone unobserved. A teenage boy across from her had seen the fork surface without bread, and promptly shouted, “Emily dropped her bread! Emily dropped her bread!” Blushing heavily, the girl tried to quiet the boisterous boy, but belatedly; the news had spread to the entire table, and the girl knew her fate. Sighing, she stood up and proceeded to work her way around the entire table, pecking each seated boy on the cheek as she came to them. After all, it was Swiss tradition.
The teenage girl was me. It was the summer of my sophomore year, and I was touring Europe with the Oregon Ambassadors of Music, an elite group of high school musicians nominated from all over Oregon to share the gift of music. My adventure began when I received a letter in the mail saying that my music director had nominated me to be an Ambassador. I read the letter and the trip’s description over and over, and with each read, my desire to go on the trip grew exponentially. My parents both agreed that the trip was a must, not only because I’d get to see Europe and experience different cultures, but I’d get a chance to share my own.
After 8 months of anticipation, the day to fly to Europe finally came. For two and a half weeks, we worked our way through seven European countries. From England to little Liechtenstein, we performed everything from American Folks songs to African tribal hymns for thousands of people. Not only did we sing selections from a variety of cultures, but we performed for cultures much different than our own. It didn’t matter that, for most of them, we weren’t singing in their native language; the gift of music is universal.
Before going on the trip, my sense of “culture” was a tunnel, focused on Salem, Oregon. I was painfully ignorant and indifferent to the world around me. I’d watch the news and read headlines about terrible things happening in other parts of the world, and find it hard to connect with those suffering because they seemed so far away and so different from me. I’d hear about wars around the world and think, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it”, and not really give it a second thought. I had never even traveled outside of the Northwest. How in the world could I help these people?
Europe changed me. With each passing day of the trip, my tunnel grew progressively wider, and I began to see and appreciate a variety of cultures. It was slow going at first, and I could feel my old self resisting. The moment I stepped off the plane in London, I had the wild idea that everyone we met in Europe would think so highly of us because we were Americans. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was wrong. It’s wasn’t that they didn’t like Americans; they loved their own countries. All of the people that I met in Europe, from the taxi drivers in London to the little old yodelers in Switzerland, were immensely proud of their culture, and were eager to share it with me. I tried new foods like veal and gelato. I learned a traditional waltz with professional Swiss dancers. I was persuaded by a little Italian girl to feed pigeons with her in Venice, and in return, I taught her the hokey-pokey. I sang in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and took a walking tour of the city, learning about its history. I walked past Dachau in Germany and could almost feel its malevolent history in the air. I took a train in Zermatt to see the Matterhorn, and hiked through the Alps with a real Saint Bernard. Even the waiter in a Parisian restaurant encouraged me and was patient with me as I tried to order my meal using my French.
Webster’s dictionary defines culture as, “the characteristic features of everyday existence.”By the end of the trip, I realized that people do these things every day, and had been doing so for quite some time, though I’d been oblivious to it all. From Europe, Salem seemed so far away, not the other way around, as it had been before my experience. I returned a changed person, with a greater respect for the variety of cultures that exist in the world, for they allow not only for uniqueness, but for endless opportunities to interact and share that uniqueness with others. Since the trip, I’ve had a thirst for other cultures and hope to have many opportunities in the future to embrace other cultures while also sharing my own.
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