Fitting in Abroad With A New Travel Philosophy
To blend in or not to blend in, that is the question
I am American. I will always be proud of that. However, while studying abroad in Europe I have caught myself multiple times being ashamed of my nationality or instead of saying “I am from America”, I say “I am Californian”. This is not a lie, but the feeling of guilt is still there in not owning my nationality. The bottom line is, I want to blend in abroad.
This instinct is not something I have completely figured out and corrected, but I can only imagine that it stems from my fear of being judged as an “Ugly American” by the Europeans that I desperately want to fit in with and impress. I want them to recognize me as an outlier to the stereotype.
Nevertheless, I, as so many Americans abroad do, often make silly little mistakes that immediately signal myself as a Yankee. Two years ago, Trent wanted terribly to expertly slide right into French society and, full of naivety, completely believed he could be successful. What an idiot. The truth is even if you can look the part by straying away from Levi’s and Nikes, there are still numerous methods for the French to find us out. In France, they have secret code words like “Rouen” and “froid”, which I am pretty sure scientists have proven to be impossible for an American to pronounce correctly (you don’t need to google that, just trust my scientific knowledge). And do not get me started on La Bise. No American can properly do La Bise upon first traveling to France, and if they did, they were most likely immediately awarded French citizenship and the Légion d’Honneur medal. Basically in short, I did not blend in as perfectly as I had hoped and ate quite a bit of humble pie.
Last summer studying abroad in Italy, still keenly aware of my failure in France, I barely tried to blend. I was going to be an American college student studying Italy’s participation in World War II. Despite the convenient idiom, I was not going to do as the Romans do. This was mostly because I knew next to nothing of Italian, but also due to some external circumstances I was unable to stop before they occurred that revolved around my traveling mates dumping their french fries onto their pizzas and eating them together. That actually happened. In a restaurant. In Rome. Now, I am no expert on Italian cuisine, but I can say, with much certainty, that the toppings for a classic Neapolitan pizza does not, indeed, include french fries. And really as for the language, the only words I needed to know were “fragola”, to order strawberry gelato, and “scusi” or as I Anglocized to “scusi scusi pushy pushy”, because Rome is packed with crowds of locals and tourists that do not believe in waiting or going around. I do not mean for this to make Italy sound impossible for Americans to assimilate into, but just to show my divergence from total devotion of blending in to not trying. Ultimately, this led to a less stressful traveling experience, but a large part of me felt like I had missed the point of traveling in the first place.
This time around, I am studying abroad in Germany. Like with French, I took a year of German at college. With the memories of not quite being as fluent in French as I thought I might be still fresh in my mind, I do not expect to simply blend in. The language is not as easy for me to pick up. As college students traveling abroad we are all going to make mistakes, which usually end up being the best stories anyways. As I look back on my past travels to influence my current and future ones, I have decided to land somewhere in the middle of my French and Italian experiences. I cannot expect to be perfect, but should not go in the complete opposite direction either. Similar with so many other aspects of life, the key is balance and managing expectations.
With keeping in mind finding a healthy balance and managing my personal expectation in my studying abroad, I have tried to create a rough philosophy of travel that does not stray too far one way or the other. There are the classic, and often cliche, aspects like always keeping an open mind and not refusing to try new things. There is the one that is tough for me to implement, being a fairly self-conscious person, to be completely fine with making mistakes and embarrassing myself. I will try to balance my expectations of learning the language and blending into the culture. We should accept that many parts of traveling are out of our control. The train departments could be on strike. The Trevi Fountain could be empty and being repaired. Obstacles like these should not get in the way of traveling experience. Which brings me to my last philosophy of travel which I am adopting from a friend of mine. Instead of setting outlandish expectations that could easily fail and ruin our time abroad, we should instead just embrace the entropy.