Monday, January 30, 2012

An American in Europe.

Being in another country when I have heretofore only been in my own country is humbling. Being in eleven other countries in a very short time is very humbling. France, Italy, Monaco, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Czech Republic.

When I first got to Europe, and was bicycling my way from country to country, I felt embarrassed, and sad, and pompous every time I pronounced, "I'm sorry. I only speak English." This was never more true than when we found ourselves in a little village in Slovenia (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen--it was their houses, rooftops, flowers) at a bike shop, and the cashier spoke perfect English. I had never heard of his village, and had barely heard of his country, and he knew the words that are my words, my country's words. We asked him how he knew it so well. They study it, in school. I studied Spanish in school when I was in high school. I don't speak Spanish the way that man spoke English. I barely speak Spanish. Maybe 100 words, with improper conjugation and sentence structures. I can however pronounce the alphabet accurately, except for that rolled r. It gets me every time. It was amazing for me to think of this difference, and again, I was humbled.

In each country we visited we tried to learn key phrases. The words that are the most helpful have proven to be "thank you," "pardon," and "excuse me," as well of course, as "hello." Those first three were particularly important when we were biking everywhere, because we were always getting in people's way. They frowned at us much less when we tried to be polite, and they had the opportunity to get out of our way when we had the knowledge to let them know we were there, in a language that they could understand. There are a few more important phrases, like "How much does this cost?" and, "Where is the toilet?" which reminds me that while I learned some German, by attending classes twice a week, I still never learned how to ask people how much things cost (or how they were, for that matter). Thankfully I could pretty much figure out prices, and numbers were one of the first things I did learn.

There were also some funny moments caused by language mishaps. My two favorite occurred in France. The first was in Nice, the day we arrived. I got to hear Spencer, who speaks some Spanish, say to someone, "Bonjour, amigo!" with all of the sincerity and earnestness imaginable. The second was in Paris, also spoken by Spencer. It was 2 in the morning, and we were trying to find a public transport way back to our rented studio. The man behind the desk asked us, in perfect English, "Where are you trying to go?" Spencer then asked him, in perfect Deutsch, "Sprechen Sie Englisch?" The exchange was repeated three times, before Spencer realized the man was speaking English, and that, "Parlez-vouz Anglais?" would have been the more appropriate question had he not been.

The whole five month experience taught me how someone can get by in a completely foreign land. In any foreign land, you learn enough to survive at the grocery store and on public transportation. You remember that you are smart, though those simple things suddenly take work for you, and courage. In a European foreign land, you learn to look for the WC sign when you need a toilet. You resign yourself to the fact that there are no drinking fountains anywhere. You try to remember to bring your water bottle. If you forget, you are thirsty. You see beautiful things everywhere, and you try to remember them. You associate primarily with people who speak your language, who are from your homeland (or in my case, one country North of my homeland). You are not completely happy about this, but it is necessary for the time being. You try new foods, new things, new etc., and even when you like them, you still want your peanut butter (or whatever is your equivalent-missing home thing). You are grateful for skype, gmail, and facebook. You never know what time it is, and always want the people you love to be awake.

If you are an American in Europe, you smile every time you see McDonalds or coca-cola products (which you do everywhere, in almost every country), not because you like either thing (because you don't, at all), but because they remind you of home. This fades after you go to McDonalds for the first time (to use the internet and restroom), and order a pistachio McFlurry that tastes like nothing. You are even more disappointed because McDonalds in Italy don't allow you to use their internet without having an Italian phone number, and a worker chides you for having your feet on the seat. You are grateful that some things are consistent in every country, including your own. The prime example you can think of, is that everywhere you have been, you see little girls skipping/dancing alongside their mothers in an effort to keep up. Mostly, you think of home, while living and loving somewhere new.


Lauren Kay said...

I loved this post so much. It made me miss Europe, but I like living through your beautiful descriptions. And I loved the Bonjour Amigo. Awesome.

Lia said...

That happened to me too! I took both French and Spanish in high school, and when I was in France I found myself speaking in a mix of both!

Elisse Newey said...

Too true. The McDonalds thing is definitely true. Eric and I almost cried when we saw one during a particularly stressful (and starving) moment in Morocco. Turned out to be the best McDonalds meal ever!

Rachel Hunt said...

I love all three of you. And Europe. And America.

Elisse, I can imagine. We had days like that too, though I was sometimes disappointed with the golden arches. Another day in another country, I was so, so happy to have chicken nuggets, and in still another country I ate a little hamburger. It was not good, but tasted like childhood, to the point that I could not help but like it.