Reflective Essay: Embracing Cultures, Observing Identities, and Learning About the Self

Written by Alissa Brower

A learning experience about history, society, culture, and my own self. This would be the way I describe my trip to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, otherwise known as the Great Cities Tour. The time I spent in Eastern and Central Europe was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. It was journey I wish I was still taking and one that I will never forget.

My journey started out in an unusual way. When I visited the Center for Global Education website in search of study abroad opportunities, I had my heart set on going to London. All my life I wanted to visit the country where the Brower family history began, where I could visit the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, and where I could be in a foreign place and still speak the native tongue fluently. However, this dream came to a halt as I found that the only trips going to London over winter break were for theater and public relations. Down, but not quite out yet, I found a study tour that offered GOVT credit (considering that is my major), the Great Cities Tour. I figured, hey, at least I will still be in Europe. Little did I know how much I would appreciate this decision once January came around.

The first time the realization hit me that I was going to several countries where I knew hardly any of the languages spoken was when I was sitting in my hotel room the night before our flight to Prague. How could I not have been preparing the weeks leading up to this moment? What was I going to do in these cities I had only studied briefly in American schools? This was the moment when my nerves set it. I had no idea what to expect. Alas, my nerves did finally settle when I was forced into immersion of an entirely new culture.

Although filled with both excitement and anxiety as we reached our first destination in Prague, I tried to keep a calm and quiet demeanor while walking the streets of this new city. The one thing I did not want to do was make it known that I was a foreigner and thus more likely to get lost in Old Town Square and more vulnerable to local pickpockets. Unfortunately, some fellow Americans did not feel they had to do the same. Of what I have read about cities frequented by tourists, the tourists who natives enjoy least are the American tourists. Because I had never been across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans before this trip, I never knew what this “American tourist” stereotype was like. Within hours of being in Prague, I knew exactly what it was. It did not take me very long to grow tired of Americans constantly being loud in public places and expecting everyone they encounter to speak English. However, I think it is this unnecessary arrogance that allowed me to observe the identities of these cities that are different from American culture because I avoided being confined to this American stereotype as best I could.

Each of the cities we visited had its own unique social identity. Perhaps I was oblivious in the past, but I never noticed a collective attitude in the cities I have visited like I did in Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Prague, my favorite city of the tour, has a very distinct character. As the national capital, the city has seen so much in terms of occupation, resilience, and revolution. However, without studying its history, no one would know that just by looking around Old Town Square. As an introduction to the city, I watched the film Oratorio for Prague. With the impression the film gave me, I went into Prague thinking it would be full of national pride and respect for all who protested for its freedom. However, when we went on our first walking tour of the city, I realized that my impression was skewed. Yes, Jan Hus’ monument stood tall on the cobblestone, but the people walking on that same cobblestone were more interested in the shops and restaurants surrounding the area rather than the its historical significance. I suppose I should not be too surprised. Americans do the same thing in Washington, D.C. Like Prague, it is a city enriched with a history that is often ignored.

Vienna also had its own type of personality. Matching its currency’s high price in comparison to the US dollar, the city has its own air of subtle arrogance. Unlike Prague, Vienna’s city streets lack graffiti covered walls and dirty streets. The Viennese appear to be trying to prove they can stand on their own and be a contender with other major cities in the world. The first time I noticed this was on our bus tour through the city. Our tour guide, Claudia, would point out locations I felt were pointless for a tour that was supposed to present Vienna’s past, present, and future. Instead, she indicated where the Hilton Plaza Hotel was and all the grass in the city, since Vienna is fifty percent green. It seemed as though she had to mention these advancements to prove how great Vienna was. Personally, I think the history of the development of the city is far more impressive than an American hotel. But, maybe that is just me.

I still feel like I need to go back to Budapest in order to get a more accurate understanding of it. Although the city is now known as Budapest, Buda and Pest are still very much separated. The physical separation obviously cannot be helped due to the massive body of water flowing between the two locations, but the atmosphere of each is very different. Buda seemed to be the more commemorative, historically reflective place, whereas Pest has the touristy city setting. I am unsure as to what kind of character this city has. It seems to just be there, existing as it does. However, like I said, I do not think I spent enough time at the right time in Budapest to judge it accurately.

There are so many things I learned from this amazing trip. For one, I found out that I could survive in a foreign country quite easily as long as I made an attempt to embrace the culture I was in rather than stick with the customs I was used to. Also, I learned that books and films cannot give you an accurate description of a certain place. In order to truly understand an area, you must experience its society, view its foundations, and interact with the citizens who lead their daily lives there. Experiencing Prague, Vienna, and Budapest did not make me like or dislike my culture more or less. However, I believe this trip has made me realize how different millions upon millions of people live their lives and how important it is to keep an open mind when entering these different cultures in order to truly appreciate them.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.