The summer after my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to visit an alien planet—otherwise known as Europe. Through an organization known as People to People, this unique opportunity provided me with many new career ideas (London nanny, international business executive, and Belgian confectioner), eye-opening cultural interactions, and run-ins with British security guards. Needless to say, it was the time of my life.
Among the typical sight-seeing, I was able to participate in activities like dining with King Henry VIII, receive lessons on how to make Belgian chocolate and Dutch cheese, “punt” along a small river in Oxford, train to wage war as a knight at Warwick castle after hours, and (my personal favorite) get an insider’s perspective of British government from an actual member of parliament. As enthralling as these activities were, it was interacting with the people of different countries and cultures that awed me the most.
My first interaction with a Brit was our group’s first stop in Windsor. I thought I wouldn’t have any trouble with English, as it is my first and only language. But all I could distinguish through this shopkeeper’s strong Cockney accent was “America” and “tourist group”. These were the main things I heard from most people from England, as our group wore matching shirts and lanyards with nametags that said our names and “CALIFORNIA” in bold print. We were very conspicuous, and people took this to mean they could talk about us rudely and loudly, albeit in their fancy accents, while we rode the London Underground (or the “tube” for those of us who tried to fit in) along with morning commuters. Though train-hopping in London was quite possibly the most dangerous challenge for our group of forty, it was at these times that it was easiest to people watch, and imagine what it would be like to live in London. Those train rides would leave me with an unfading, exotic feeling as we left the beautiful country of England and ventured on to Holland.
We took a bike ride through a rural area in Holland, passing a group of Dutch teenagers who cheerfully screamed out American curse words and flipped us off, laughing and grinning, like we were best friends. The Dutch always had friendly demeanors, no matter what words they uttered, friendly or foul. I remember an encounter with a saleswoman in a high end shoe shop, who held an entire one-sided conversation in Dutch with a friend and I as we were purchasing some boots, before noticing the blank looks on our faces and saying in a perfect English accent, “You haven’t understood a word I’ve just said, have you?”
In France, all I remember saying was “merci” and “excusez-moi”. The French didn’t bother being discreet as they pointed and talked about the sea of maroon tourists, their mouths working in unfamiliar movements, and expelling a plentiful variety of phlegm-y sounds. My favorite sight in France was a group of people doing thai-chi in a well-known park in Paris. It seemed so regular, so normal, while the rest of us were in probably the strangest place we’d ever visited. It was a familiarity in a sea of the unfamiliar.
I believe that we should all familiarize ourselves with the unfamiliar. We should push our limits, and venture out of our comfort zones. We should observe the way other people in other parts of the world live. It can only lead to understanding about others and, consequently, ourselves.
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