The in-flight movies had ended and the television screens were showing a map of the Atlantic Ocean and small airplane that was supposed to represent the jet I was sitting in. Trying to tell myself that small decal was me and below me was an ocean that I had only traced on a globe was near to impossible. It wasn’t that I was not a seasoned traveler.
At the age of seven I had left my California home and flown to Chicago. At eleven I had gone to Nova Scotia and at thirteen I had traveled to Vancouver, but I had never crossed an ocean. The thought of arriving in five European cities over the span of three weeks made my stomach do cartwheels.
I had spent many sleepless nights dreaming of what it would be like to walk down those twisted streets. Sitting on that plane and watching that decal, moving slower than a snail across the sidewalk, left me feeling more elated than a child on Christmas morning. Little did I know that after fifteen hours of traveling, the wait was not even close to over.
I had been invited on this trip by my eighth grade English teacher along with forty-nine other students. Being in that large of a group led to lines every five steps and that meant that I was left to frantically look around me for a window to get my first glimpse of Italy. After another hour of standing in line with a group of Russian school children to get through customs, I saw it.
Across the crowded hallway was a window, a glorious Italian window. As I drank in the sight of Italy with my eyes, I was suddenly hit with a revelation. Europe, this place I had dreamt of since I was old enough to read, looked just like California.
If it wasn’t for the signs that read ‘uscita’ instead of ‘exit’, I could have convinced myself I was in LAX. Bitterly disappointed that there wasn’t some delicious smelling pizzeria, huge men singing ‘Bella Notte’, and a Colosseum in the middle of the runway, I proceeded to baggage claim with the rest of my group. The trip into the city wasn’t much better.
It looked like a freeway, just a plain ordinary freeway. No one was driving chariots and there weren’t any gypsy caravans cruising down the highway next to our huge tour bus. I felt betrayed.
I had been told to not expect it to be just like America. I was warned that the word ‘weird’ was not allowed, but ‘different’ was to be used in its place. What I saw out of that bus window wasn’t ‘different’ and it most certainly was not ‘weird’.
I was looking at apartment buildings with graffiti all over them, parks with people talking on cell phones instead of the people they were walking with, and McDonalds wrappers littering the streets. I felt right at home. This was an outrage! I hadn’t shelled out four thousand dollars to travel fifteen hours to look at something I could have seen right outside my own door! And then it hit me like a ton of bricks in the face. This is what all those people were talking about. Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, John Lennon, and even Walt Disney had something to say on the topic; it’s a small world.
Stereotypes have come to rule our minds and Californians going to Rome have come to expect gladiators and huge roman ruins around every corner and Europeans coming to California expect movie stars and ordinary people to be living next door to each other and shopping in the same market. We expect these huge, glaring differences between our cultures, when in reality our differences are subtle. The currency in my pocket had changed, the language of the locals had changed, but a smile was still a smile.I spent my remaining days admiring and hunting for those small and subtle changes in cultures from city to city. The way the architecture changed from Italy to Switzerland or how soft the crust of a baguette in Paris was compared to a baguette in Rome.
I loved to notice the difference between how a Parisian sat on the underground as compared to a Londoner. Learning to reject stereotypes and learn to admire the small shifts in cultures was the greatest experience I had abroad and the greatest souvenir I brought home.
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