June 2016. Paris, France. The city of light, love, and compassion. Said to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Known for its compelling 1000 foot tower that twinkles in the night sky, the Eiffel tower. The city is notorious for its rich history, beautiful architecture, and romance stories. We then saw men walking around in camouflage combat uniforms, black berets, and black boots. They were holding machine guns pointed down, but ready to fire if needed. Sirens were blaring, pounding on our eardrums. One, two, three, four, white and blue police cars rushed past. Following was a “SAMU” (Urgent medical aid service). On the other side of the Seine River, smoke was rising from the crowds and people started to run. My family and I were ignorant, we had no knowledge about what was going on. We thought it was a terrorist attack because the day before a French police chief was killed in a stabbing which was later claimed by Isis. In a panic, we asked the closest English speaking person nearby what is happening. A man, with a rich British accent, informed us that it was a labor protest against the newly enforced laws. But then in the distance, and behind the smoke, we heard shouting and ranting. People were holding up illegible signs written in French. Although I could not understand what they were saying, I could feel the anger and rage booming from their voices. Rocks were soaring in the air, shards of glass flew from windows, blood was dripping down faces, police cars caught on fire, and tear gas was thrown left and right. Oblivious to the world, at a safe distance, I realized these are real people protesting to their government being passionate about something that affected their daily lives. There is a world outside of the united states and they have problems too.Flying into France, I never expected to experience this. Life isn’t always as simple or clear as social media can portray cities to be. Or maybe this was because the United States was more focused on local current events rather than other parts of the world unless something was going on directly relevant to our interests. Just like any other modern city, there are pitfalls such as traffic, pick-pocketers, litter, high prices, etc. I felt naive going into the country thinking it was an amusement park. Going forward, it opened minded and made me be aware of the countries I travel to. We seem to think the other side has greener grass when in reality, we all are continually devising and revising laws to meet challenges from various groups within. Just like France, there are complicated issues we face today in the United States too. This made me stop for a second and be more aware of the culture I surround myself with when I travel abroad.
For instance, over the summer I returned to Europe, this time we went to Switzerland. Switzerland’s views were breathtaking. The rich green mountains seemed never-ending and rose above us like giants while lakes surrounded us left and right and were filled with a deep turquoise color. The Swiss are social and earth conscious. The nation invests in sanitation efforts to the lower production of waste, so you’ll find that it is a clean city and it is rare to find trash lying on the ground. They also take care of their citizens by providing social programs and assistance for those who need it, homelessness was not a visible issue there. They value relationships and socialization time, they spend time floating down rivers, drinking with their buddies, and in the winter, skiing in the Alp mountains. In the summer evenings, shops and restaurants closed early, leaving time for them to rest and spend time with their families. Within a couple hours of arriving in Switzerland, it was hard to adjust, it was almost a culture shock.
Americans and my cousins especially are much louder than most Europeans. We were often shushed by the nearby dinner table and given funny looks when we laughed. Tipping your server was not expected, but as a part of American proper etiquette (and to make up for being loud), we always did. We tended to take up more room when we sat or walked. Before I didn’t understand when foreigners would talk about how big things are in America until I stepped outside of the United States. We strive to achieve the “American dream” because bigger is better to Americans. Our streets are wider, cars are bulkier, houses are five to ten times the size, and portion sizes are larger. In Switzerland, they build up rather than out to utilize as much space as they can. It seems to be more ingrained in Europe that you take up only as much room as you need, being mindful that others might need the extra space more than you do. The U.S., on the other hand, tends to be more concerned with individual freedom, including the right to focus on one’s own convenience rather than that of others.
What you run in to on social media and TV emphasizes the macro levels of countries like the beauty and history. While the micro aspects like culture and etiquette differences are hardly publicized. When arriving in these countries, I didn’t know what to expect. Growing up in a small town, I was not exposed to diverse situations and people. The things you see on any social platform or read in books is not the same as experiencing it firsthand. My experiences in each have allowed me to view the world in different perspectives, making me open-minded to diversity. Learning about the similarities and differences between my own and other cultures intrigues me and has created my passion to travel the world. Travel makes me see our country through a new lens, for better or for worse.