When I got to Europe, my overly romanticized notion of what I was getting into had me sipping wine in Paris, experiencing the nightlife in Amsterdam, visiting the Peace Palace in the Hague, and eating waffles and chocolate in Belgium. Now that I’ve been here for nearly two months, those ideas are still there. But overshadowing them are my actual experiences, and those are some I never would have had if Europe was still an image in my mind, instead of a place I got to live.
Landing in Amsterdam back in September, I felt like a distinguished traveller. Most people only get to visit Europe for a brief stretch of time, but I got to stay for three whole months. I was ready to conquer the continent and leave as an enlightened person.
My dream of a life -changing trip started to falter once the reality of jet lag set it. This wasn’t new. This was such a normal experience that I almost felt like it was cheating me out of experiencing all of the non-American things around me. I just wanted it to be over so I could move on and do the things I couldn’t do anywhere else.
The first week at Kasteel Well felt like a year. The collective excitement from our group experiencing the town of Well, where the castle is located, was palpable. We couldn’t stop making inhuman squeaks every time we did something new. The magic of Europe was finally happening, and we felt like we were the only people really experiencing it. I felt unique and, above all, like I was getting something no American could ever get back home.
Every weekend was a new city. First Nijmegen, then Amsterdam, Maastricht, Brugge, Paris, and the Hague. I just wanted to see everything each place had to offer, to soak in the non-Americanness of everything. But, like the jet lag those first couple of days, something always felt like it was bringing me back to things I already knew. Yes, the landmarks were new, but the people around them still felt familiar. People stared off into the distance on public transport to avoid awkward eye contact. College kids heading off to a party in a group were always the rowdiest people around. Some shop attendants were helpful while others clearly didn’t want to deal with people that day and hurried you towards a purchase so they could be left in peace.
I didn’t want any of this familiarity. I wanted Europe to be what I had envisioned in my head: An alien land where people nothing like me existed. But everywhere I went, people kept acting like people I already knew. I felt like they were getting in the way of my perfect semester.
It has been a gradual learning process for me. My childish frustration hasn’t left by any means. I still want that perfect semester away from home where I can become a better, more cultured person. But I have, completely by accident, learned a lot.
Meeting all of these people who seem so familiar may not have been what I expected when I got here, but as a stranger abroad, I got to experience an entirely new way of life. The best way I can describe the feeling is to compare it to visiting a new friend’s house as a child. You go in excited to play with the new toys, run around the new space, and experience someone else’s life for a little while. But after some time, the house becomes familiar. It never quite matches up with the expectations held before entering their house for the first time, but that’s okay. It’s still someone else’s house, and becoming included as part of it is more fun than the pretend world it used to be.
Smythe is a junior journalism major & one of the Beacon travel columnists.