OPINION | Wandering reflections from three months of traveling Europe
From the vibrant characters of Amsterdam’s Red Light District to the massive crowds of Easter Mass at the Vatican, I saw quite a lot during my time studying abroad in Europe.
Last spring, Lee's UK Semester Abroad program led me to ten countries—four with my group and six during independent travel. But upon coming home to the States, I can’t help but think about how this trip has changed my perception of culture. Not a day goes by in which I am not reminded of something from my adventures abroad. The result is a patchwork of stories and developing reflections which I attempt to share in this editorial.
It was my last day in Amsterdam.
I woke up at 5 a.m. for a two-hour journey involving three different buses to eventually end up in the quaint countryside of South Holland. My destination was an attraction called Keukenhof. Just imagine massive Dutch windmills and iconic tulip gardens, but with the novelty and ridiculous pricing of an amusement park. My flight to Switzerland left later that afternoon—hence the early morning journey to give me enough time to get back to the airport.
The bus made its final stop just a couple miles from the park’s entrance. This was as close as I could get that early in the morning, and I had planned to walk the rest of the way.
As I thanked the driver and stood up to leave, I noticed the only remaining passenger, who had been sitting in the very back of the bus. She picked up her bag, tucked a few stray hairs into her hijab, and stepped out into the brisk morning air. The bus pulled away with a loud roar, and the two of us began walking in the same direction. I looked over with a polite smile, and the woman greeted me in Dutch.
Perhaps it is here I should note that I cannot speak a word of Dutch, and I quickly realized that my newfound friend spoke very little English. We exchanged a few simple phrases, pointing in the direction of the park’s entrance and using a lot of gestures to communicate.
I slowly learned that this woman was a Syrian refugee who had made her way to Amsterdam only a few months ago. Every day she made the early morning journey by bus to work as a gardener in the tulip fields.
We continued chatting as we walked. She told me more about her job and about her boss, who she described as much nicer than previous employers. She told me about the apartment near the city center that she now calls home. She joked with me about my shoes, pointing to the worn leather in contrast to her surprisingly pristine black work boots.
Here we were: some scrawny white American kid and a middle-aged Muslim refugee walking together through the quiet Dutch countryside, simply discussing life. As the sun’s warm rays began to peak over the horizon, we arrived at the park and watched as the gates opened for the morning.
The two of us parted ways. I never even learned this woman's name, yet for the rest of my life, I will cherish the brief moments of fellowship that we shared.
I have countless stories like this—musicians, baristas, taxi drivers and other random strangers who showed me immeasurable hospitality throughout my journey.
These include people like Augur, an eccentric retired law professor who sat next to me while I visited a church in Cambridge. We began talking after the service, and I later joined him for dinner and hours of engaging conversation.
I’m also reminded of John, whom I met in the common area of a hostel in Galway. He was completely baffled, poking fun at all the rule variations and shady alliances we Americans made in our never-ending game of Monopoly.
Perhaps most memorably, I think of Heba - a grey-haired Icelandic woman who hosted my Airbnb in Reykjavík. As we stood side by side in her modest kitchen and cooked our dinner for the evening, we talked about our families, our cultures, our travels and our aspirations.
To be fair, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I certainly got my fair share of dirty looks when my “American-isms” emerged—talking too loudly, being on the wrong side of a walkway or that one time I looked like a total idiot while trying to pay for lunch with currency from the wrong country.
But aside from the occasional cultural faux pas, it still amazes me at how welcome I felt pretty much anywhere I went. Even as an outsider, with my strange accent and frequent use of the word “y’all,” I still felt affirmed by the locals. I never felt ostracized, and no one ever told me to go back to the United States. I experienced no prejudice based upon my appearance, my religion or my accent. There were no protests upon my arrival in any country, nor were there rallies of angry citizens calling for the construction of a wall to keep me out.
Truly, it was a stark contrast to the common rhetoric of contemporary America.
To be clear, my intent is not to stir up a polarizing political debate. Likewise, I'm well aware that tourism and immigration policy are distinctly different.
However, cross-cultural experience is tremendously relevant when discussing the way we interact with outsiders. My hope is that these stories may invoke a nonpartisan desire to show love and hospitality to those who are unlike us.
Just like the refugee who walked with me on that early morning, perhaps we all can find ways to reach out to others by simply listening with a smile.