Learning Adaptation, European Style - My Family Travels

In America, we are lucky enough to have more opportunities and more freedom than many around the world. However, this often leads us to have a near blinding air of superiority and lack of understanding of the world around us. We can comfortably travel around most of America and proudly say we are American, be involved in the norm of culture, speak English, and act without reserve or caution. Unfortunately, what many Americans figure out while traveling in a foreign country is that they will come across obstacles and solutions in places where they do not expect it. 

Before last May, I thought that Europe was some far-away place nearly impossible to visit. Even as I boarded our Boeing 747, I could hardly believe I was really going. The moment I passed customs and stepped foot outside of Charles de Gaulle, I knew something was different. Fortunately I had been studying French, and I figured assimilating wouldn’t be very hard. What I didn’t account for was the simple differences in everyday life. For example, when I tried to casually cross a seemingly empty street, our tour director scolded me, as pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way over vehicles. This shock was followed by the realization that even money matters are handled differently in Europe. In America, many people shell out a twenty-dollar bill for something that cost less than ten-dollars. When I tried this tactic with the first cashier I encountered, I was met with an annoyed look and asked if I could produce exact change. This quickly taught me, that just as comfortable as I feel traveling in the states because it is familiar, is as uncomfortable as I felt in France, with unsaid unusual customs. Even when I spoke French to the people I dealt with, they unfailingly replied in English, which repudiated my basic French skills. I started to wonder if my French would ever be of any use. However, if I persisted, my inquiries were eventually returned in French.

Nevertheless, sometimes in life we must throw out our preconceived notions of what will work and synthesize old practices to new ones that will meet our needs. I learned this lesson after entering Spain. Not only did I not know fluent Spanish, but also, my broken Spanish was returned only with a blank stare. Helplessness, frustration, and awkwardness engulfed me. I didn’t realize how vital communication was in day-to-day life until I completely lost it. On our last day in Madrid, two friends and I were in a gift shop, looking for a full-sized Spanish flag. We hadn’t been able to find one in other shops, but this particular store was displaying one in the window.  We quickly understood that it was more likely hidden on a shelf somewhere, than the multitude of postcards, ubiquitous in all the shops. I thought to myself, “I wish I knew the Spanish word for flag not just the French one.” I heard the man behind the register say a simple “Au Revoir” to the couple in front of me. My face immediately lit up as I excitedly asked him “Vous Parlez Français?” My friends were amazed as I miraculously took our hopeless situation and turned it into a success.

After returning from Europe, I was glad to be back in my comfort zone, and I also appreciated the simple unsaid customs much more. It quickly became discernible that just because our conventional methods may work in the United States, sometimes we just need to step aside and look for the solution in the less obvious places.

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