Traveling abroad not only increased my knowledge of foreign culture, it heightened my awareness of my own culture.
Americans value personal space. Personal space is certainly a cultural phenomenon. The European personal space “bubble” seems small relative to the American expectation. As we traveled on the train, it was not uncommon for strangers to sit directly across or immediately next to one another. This was true even when there were seats available in empty rows. This happened in restaurants as well. While at McDonalds (Please don’t judge; I was homesick!), a woman and her child sat down at the table with our group.
The American value of personal space is also reflected in our love for all things large: streets, homes, cars. In Europe, families live in spaces small compared to American single family homes. While in Amsterdam, a cruise of the canal included an information guide. The guide noted that the condos were only 6 meters wide; although several stories, it was rare that a single family would own more than one floor of the condo. The cars were also much smaller than American vehicles. They seemed tiny compared to my Texas expectations.
Living close together may increase a sense of community and togetherness. It also reduces the self-centered demand for excess which may harm the environment (large cars).
Americans may have a tendency to take for granted their personal and societal freedoms. While in Europe, the effect of WWII on the continent became piercingly clear. The pain, regret, and guilt over the holocaust have shaped European culture. Although Americans, as a nation, have done things for which we are not proud, we do not have this type of pressure to “not repeat the horrors of the past.” Europeans are quick to curb free speech because they value human dignity more than the free flow of ideas. This is the reverse of the American perspective. Europeans also submit, as individual nations, to the sovereignty of the European Union. Submitting the United States Constitution to outside scrutiny is beyond the comprehension of many Americans (including myself). However, because the nations of Europe, in their close proximity, must work together to “maintain the peace,” many Europeans do not question the EU’s ability to review national law.
Many Americans (including me) take for granted small comforts we enjoy on a daily basis. These include: ice in our drinks, free bathrooms, water fountains, and coca-cola for less than $3.50. However, we don’t realize what we are missing in the way of fabulous cheeses, fantastic beers, and chocolate that will change your life.
Americans may forget that before we are Americans – we are humans, all members of the same global society. It was striking to me that for all our differences, we are all very similar. Mothers in Europe comfort their children just like American mothers. We both love getting together to celebrate over good food and drink. We all love dogs. We all want happiness, peace, and personal achievement. We are all members of the same species, we all deserve respect and dignity. I believe that this trip changed the way I see myself and others because Europeans are not so different than my family or friends; not so different from myself.