3 September 2019
At the end of my four-week course I took in Berlin this summer, my teacher posed this question for me to reflect on: if I could bring anything back with me from my trip to Germany, what would that be? The first few answers were easy: I would want my new friends with me and to have cheap German beer, of course. Above all, the memories were more important than the things I grew to love.
But then I thought, why should I bring anything back with me? If I keep the things that made my trip special, then what makes the places I visit so special?
Traveling in Europe has so many advantages, including seeing astonishing historical sites, consuming unforgettable food and drink and, of course, basking in a social atmosphere incomparable to what we have in the U.S. One disadvantage though is the constant nagging in the back of your head that tells you not to be a tourist – ‘Try not to stand out as an American, blend in with the locals.’ That was something that bugged me at first.
That is what makes studying abroad so special. You get to live your life as an American tourist and witness all the fascinating pieces that make up another culture and its history, including its most famous monuments.
But the moment you sign up for a class or get a new job in this new place, you sign away your tourist label and exchange it for whatever is between tourist and local. In my case, it was the label of student. Then you can make friends with other classmates, teachers and form connections with the people you live with.
When you spend extended time in a place with a routine, like going to class or to work at 8 a.m., you learn so much more about what makes a place so special, such as how people interact in public transportation or how your local bakers relax on their downtime at work.
If a local from Berlin were to read this, I imagine they would not think anything of what I find fascinating. Going out with their friends to a park to drink beer is a top-notch social activity in Berlin and it’s nothing out of the ordinary. That is unfortunately something that is not so common in Colorado Springs. While I wish it would exist, that would just mean that it would be ordinary.
I will always encourage anyone to travel if they have the means to do so. But it is also important to keep in mind that each place, country, city or neighborhood has its own unique way of living that we will always crave when we no longer have it. The solution is not to take that piece of the culture with you, but instead to leave it where you experienced it.
That is not to say you should not mix the best parts of cultures. Maybe it is the traveler’s place only to experience; to take what the locals give; to cherish what the traveler knows as fascinating and what locals know as ordinary. Otherwise, everything would fall right into the ordinary.