Archive for the ‘Reflective Essay’ Category

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Eleanor Striplin

 This trip challenged me to think critically in a way I had never been challenged previously. The differences in culture and attitudes in Central Europe challenged me to view my own attitudes in a new light. I picked apart why I felt a certain way about certain topics. Was it because I had never been challenged to change? Or that I no one had ever asked me certain questions that made me want to understand my personal cultural attitude. This could never have been done if I had not studied abroad and traveled through Central Europe this winter.

My attitude on nudity and beauty was challenged by the European attitudes on those topics. I could not help but notice all the nudity everywhere in public, especially in Vienna. It intrigues me so much because it is so different from America. In Vienna, nudity is plastered up on the side of the street. That would be considered quite disreputable in America. I remember so clearly asking Mills why Europeans were so distasteful by plastering nudity everywhere, with an attitude of course. His answer initiated my voyage into challenging my own personal views, attitudes, and prejudices. Mills pointed out to me that not all nudity is considered sexual, especially in Europe. That simple statement confronted my previously untouched attitudes on nudity. The European attitude on sexuality and nudity is much different than it is in America. The Europeans are much more relaxed entirely. Europeans see nudity as natural, normal, and beautiful. The human body is in no way scandalous or strange. One of the core cultural differences in attitudes is that Europeans do not put a hierarchy on body parts. Each body part is equal to the other ones. In America, nudity equals sexuality, and sexuality automatically is considered distasteful.

 I came to the conclusion that the European attitude is much healthier than the American attitude. Certain cultural attitudes affect the media, governmental laws, and the personal lifestyles of the citizens. European’s attitude on nudity and sexuality is much healthier because they treat the body with respect but do not give it more power that in deserves. It is beautiful, but it is just a body. I think our media needs its cultural attitude on nudity and sexuality challenged because sex is all over the media, but it is considered this secret scandalous object instead of something very normal and natural among humans.

Reflective Essay

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

            I never would have imagined that I could be a part of something like this trip to Central Europe. Other parts of the word are exciting to think about, but I never really considered the possibility of learning about them on sight. The feel of those cities is in and of itself something awe inspiring for me. Of course as a foreigner I’m going to have plenty of things to love and hate about any place I visit, but with regards to this trip, it is not so important that I did not love everything I encountered. Something of importance that I brought home from this trip was knowledge, but I was also fortunate enough to bring home the ability and desire to seek out and acquire knowledge just because I can. New environments are incredible stimulus for idle disinterest and I do not think I would have taken the time to learn as much European history were the circumstances different. I learned a lot about European history, certainly a great deal more than I knew before the trip, but I also learned a lot about people and culture. Europe is steeped in culture and interesting history and the people who live there are just as proud of their history as some Americans. The best part about being in Europe is that there is so much to learn. Even though people aren’t so big on them now, monarchies did a lot for arts and religion, for culture in general. If it weren’t for monarchies, no one would have had to invent new ways to spend ridiculous amounts of money and there wouldn’t be elaborate gardens and castles to tour, and there wouldn’t be so many statues and monuments to appreciate and poke fun of. Honestly though, its enlightening and humbling to have witnessed some of Europe’s treasures first hand. It reminded me that the culture that I grew up in, the world that I know, they’re not the end all and be all of existence. America is not necessarily the greatest country on earth, the world is worth exploring, and lots of things are much better in person than they can ever be on line or through digital cable. And people, I said I learned about people. I learned what it is like to be a foreigner and have a new respect for people who come to America and have to find their way around. I learned that it is just little things that make cultures and nations different. Not everyone is so sensitive and defensive about personal boundaries and no one in Europe cares if I stare too long or stand too close. In the states I sometimes have to mind how long I look at people and in what way and it is never really ok to be almost too close to someone without reason, but in Europe there were a number of times that I felt that everyone was too close and that some people didn’t look away soon enough. I had an old lady stare my down in a tram and I lost. I was uncomfortable in the moment, but when I think back on it I have to laugh because it is usually me who is staring and making someone uncomfortable. Even better, that little old lady didn’t even pretend to look away when I met her eyes. In America, you’re a loony tune if you stare to long, but in Budapest you’re just minding your business. As for national identity in public, I think people area construction of national identity. There are all the nuances of what culture says is and isn’t and that tell what people have been through. People in any nation are products of history and circumstance and little things, like an old lady taking the freedom to stare as long as she pleases at a stranger on the train, say “I’m here and I’ve earned it,” or “They forgot to leave, pay mind you don’t,” and even “Well, welcome to a new view of world.”

            Also, I’m pretty sure Burger King and McDonalds are much tastier in Europe than here in the states. I’ve never had such fresh tomato slices on a burger.

Reflective Essay

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

            Studying abroad was the best decision I ever made. This trip was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States. Not only did I meet wonderful people on the tour group, but the interaction with people in other countries was amazing. It is astounding how westernized the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary are becoming. However, they still manage to hang onto their culture and differences still remain between the United States and Europe.            One of the main differences I noticed throughout Europe was the drinking culture. The United States deals with alcohol laws, religion, and cultural norms that are in many ways against alcohol consumption. In Europe I never had to show any identification to consume an alcoholic beverage whereas in the United States sometimes we have to show two forms of identification. The laws in the United States tried to ban alcohol consumption before and then set the drinking limit to twenty-one. When laws are set to ban something like alcohol some people are for the banning and some are not. The people who are for banning a substance such as alcohol begin stigmatizing those who do consume the substance. Stigmas toward people who consume alcohol have lasted for decades and continue in the United States.Religion has also played a role in the stigmas towards drinking in America. The religion I grew up with associates any consumption of alcohol a sin. I am unsure about other religions, but I do know my religion and several other Christian denominations forbid alcohol. The cost for alcohol especially beer is less expensive than soda or bottled water, whereas in the United States a bar tab at the end of the night could easily reach $100 of United States currency.Being in Europe for two weeks allowed me to observe the drinking culture as lenient. It is acceptable to have drinks at lunch without people associating you with a stigma as they would in America. Even though the United States has many laws and conservative issues about alcohol consumption an astounding 7.9 million people suffer from substance abuse whereas Europe with few laws and a relaxed drinking culture has only 1.7 million people suffering from substance abuse. Substance abuse is in the DSM IV as a psychiatric disorder. America is quick to throw around diagnosis out of the DSM IV. The past few decades the United States has tried to fix everyone’s problems and issues with pills or a quick stay in a psychiatric hospital.There is obviously something wrong the United States’ drinking culture if many more people are “diagnosed” with substance abuse. While in Europe I felt like I could have an alcoholic drink for lunch, dinner, and a night cocktail without any stigma being attached to me. Maybe because drinking at those different times was acceptable I did not feel like I had to binge drink during the nights. In America it is only semi-acceptable for people to drink at night on the weekends instead of throughout the day. Waiting for the weekend nights to roll around for acceptable drinking by society may only trigger binge drinking and alcohol problems in America. Thinking about the European people as a whole they are very relaxed and liberal. Maybe if Americans especially in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area drank throughout the day and paced themselves they would not be as anxious and hopefully be more relaxed.

Reflective Essay

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

As an “Army Brat” I have traveled all over the world, I was born in Germany and had the privilege of graduating high school in Seoul, South Korea. I knew graduating high school in a foreign country was important and I tried to take advantage of experiencing Korean culture as well as traveling to other Asian countries nearby. I took my memories and experiences with me when beginning at George Mason. I always knew I wanted to travel to Europe and experience the culture where I was born. Truth be told, I actually wanted to go on the Greece and Turkey tour but it was a little too expensive so that is how I ended up on the Great Cities Tour!

On the first actual day in Prague when we set out on our walking tour I was floored when we arrived at Old Town Square. I had never seen anything like this before, and just standing in the middle of the square next to the Hus statue seemed surreal. I felt like you could really experience the history that had taken place there. When we visited Prague Castle and the St.Vitus Cathedral I began to realize the differences between the United States and Europe. There was so much history in these places and thinking back to the US I couldn’t seem to think of anything that was comparable to the size and beauty of Prague Castle and the ornate details in St. Vitus Cathedral. The fact that services are still held in the Cathedral amazes me, I just think how unbelievable it is that people can worship in the same place that Kings and Queens have centuries before. All of the cities we visited the architecture was ornate and detailed and the inside designs were even more spectacular. There were statues everywhere in Austria and Hero’s Square in Budapest was simple but powerful. The history was rich and still alive and it seemed to me that the people from these countries had an appreciation for it. I felt like there was an appreciation for life in general and all of the things with it. There was an emphasis on music and theatre in every city, especially Vienna. The cultures in these countries are so much more relaxed than in the United States. Everything seems to happen at a slower pace, there aren’t as many cars and not as much hustle and bustle as in our major cities, even with a McDonalds or Burger King on every corner!

I also had the chance to visit the Terezín transition camp while in Prague. The information we got through videos and walking around the museums was somewhat repetitive and actually a little boring. When we finally arrived at the actual camp I was in shock. It looked so grim and the weather was very cold with snow and ice all over the ground, I felt like this was very ironic considering I was at a concentration camp. Walking through the camp and the different cells, being told how many people were held in each room and how many people eventually died was unbelievable. After we left I had this eerie feeling for the rest of the day. You are taught about the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jewish people but I never thought I would ever have the chance to visit the grounds in which these actions where taken out. The feelings I had and the things that I saw will be with me forever. I can truly say that visiting Terezín was just one of the many life changing experiences I had while in Europe.

Before we left to visit Terezín, Mills told Maggie and me to pay attention to how the tour guide explained what happened and the role of the Czech people. After the tour, thinking back, there was no mention in any of the videos, museums, or through our tour guides any mention of the Czech people’s role in the Holocaust. Throughout visiting Austria and Budapest this idea of countries constructing their identities and how they focus on what they want to, rather than the truth began to become clear. Mills and his “alternative lectures” really helped to get a feel for what had really happened and what the true meaning of statues really was. Looking back on this trip I never analyzed history and tours the way I do now. I feel like you almost have to do your own research before or after going on a tour anywhere to make sure you are actually receiving factual information. The countries we visited are not the only ones guilty of constructing identities which are favorable to their societies. The United Stats has also constructed it’s identity to be the defenders of freedom and so on and so fourth. This brings me to the next issue that became apparent to me while visiting Europe.

Living in Korea, I knew the perception of Americans abroad isn’t great, as a matter of fact you don’t even need to live or travel abroad to know that. It just becomes more visible when you are actually in a foreign country and you as a person scream “American”. The service at restaurants, shopkeepers and even people on the street have a demeanor towards Americans, we automatically have a negative connotation with us because of our national identity. Generally, there is a negative attitude towards Americans; however, it is a case by case basis. I came across really nice people in all the countries we visited, who were nice and weren’t automatic to judge me based on where I am from.

All things considered my trip to Europe was eye opening and life changing. As I said earlier from now on I will always take a historical tour with a grain of salt but that isn’t all that I have learned. As cheesy as it sounds, life is short, but I think the Europeans have it figured out, they enjoy life and its entirety at a slower pace, something that I think I will incorporate in my daily life now. Cultures are different everywhere but the beauty is experiencing different aspects of culture, this trip wasn’t enough for me and I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to travel back to Europe and experience even more.

Reflective Essay

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

This trip came as a fortuitous surprise to me. Let me explain that. I originally had not planned on going. At the time Dr. Kelly handed out the paper promoting the study trip, I thought about it but cast it aside. That could sound really bad, but being an Islamic studies minor you receive similar promotions for study trips to the Near East more often than not. I was lucky enough to have a roommate who decided early on he was going. Every once in a while I thought about the trip but did nothing about it besides put it out of mind. Around the time I was picking where I would like to be stationed, I was convinced a trip to Europe would do me well and that this could be my last opportunity to do so. Dr. Kelly and I had a conference shortly there after about my History 300 seminar paper and we got to talking about said study tour. Dr. Kelly put me in contact with Lamyaa at the Study Abroad office and from there in early November (so really last minute) things started falling into place. Also, after consulting my loved ones I decided I would go.

Originally, I requested that this would be my first three graduate level credits. I did not (and still don’t) really need the credits for my undergraduate degree, but that did not pan out with the dean’s office or whomever makes such decisions. Since then I have wanted to audit the course, but never tried to actually pursue that option.

As for the actual trip, the build up to it was unique. There are very few events I think I have ever looked forward to something more before than this trip. What a heck of a way to finish out my time at Mason! Truly this time around I learned more about the areas we visited than the first time I had gone to Prague. If only more people at our school and in our country had the opportunity to do something like this or took advantage of programs like these, and leave the bubble many of us have built up around ourselves here in the states – they would see new things and meet new people.

Now I will actually get down to brass tacks. For many of us, this was not our first time overseas. Heck, even just watching an hour’s worth of CNN or reading an article online from the BBC, most folks will realize that we as Americans are not particularly liked abroad. My sister who has lived in Korea for a year, France for a year, and England for 3 cautions me when I go abroad. She tells me to claim I’m a Canadian. But to say these colors don’t run or some sort of pro-American slogan is short sided. When I go abroad, I try to stay away from loud, obnoxious, boisterous, and most of all rude American tourists. They don’t mean to be like that, they just come off that way. So on the occasions I went out with a large group of us, I would sometimes segregate myself from the group but more often I did it because something cool was going on elsewhere. In the case of the first night we were in Budapest, I did so partially because we were the loud and rude drunk American tourists, but I also liked the music the duo was playing downstairs. On a side note, I knew we were in that group because the sat us upstairs away from everyone and in the corner of the room where we couldn’t cause trouble. Europe was much more than some nasty attitudes towards American tourists though. When I came over I knew there would come a point where I or the group I was with would receive poor service. I wasn’t worried about that. People are prejudice for a reason or they are like that for a no good reason, but either way there is a reason.

Outside from that, there is a lot I have taken away from this study tour. I have thought about writing my History 499 paper on the use of terror, the secret police and their adjustment back to normal life after 1989. In the cellar of Museum of Terror they played a video of a group of elderly women sitting around and talking about their experience as political prisoners. Then the door opens and in walks the woman who abused and tortured them. How do these people adjust to normal life after doing such horrible things to other human beings? Just last week I watched Kolya and in it there is a member of the secret police who interrogates Mr. Louka, then at the end of the movie is there in the Square jingling his keys in protest but is aware Mr. Louka is looking at him. How do people like that who work for tyrannical regimes manage to adjust after all the things they have done?

What I appreciated was the alternative histories we were given to supplement (really to actually tell the whole story) what we were taught by the tour guide. Take for instance the monument to Jan Hus. Without any prior knowledge of the area or of the history and just listened to a tour guide, who would have thought the statue was positioned so Hus would be gazing past the statue of the Virgin Mother that was standing there? Or take for another example the Lueger statue in Vienna. What Austrian tour guide would want to point out a statue erected of an anti-Semite in the middle of Vienna? Sure he did great things while administering to the city as mayor, but the man was anti-Semitic. What about the Square of Hungarian Heroes? The first president of Hungary basically came over the US and ran up a tab, thought it was fine and that somehow we would either cover it or his government would have the funds to repay his debt. The history we heard from the tour guide when we were there at Hosok Ter (bear in mind she spoke a mile a minute), she did not mention that at all. But who could blame her? She did not mention that this Square was in many respects the Square of a Millennium’s worth of Hungarian domination over the ethnic minorities of Hungary, either. This all comes full circle though. What we forget to do is read between the lines: who were these people, did they represent everyone, what did they believe in and what they thought was wrong, and many other questions. This idea of reading between the lines goes a long way. When I’m writing my final paper for History 499, it is questions like these I’ll need to pay attention to – what is really going on here and is everything the way it seems?

Since we have returned, my friends have asked me how the study tour was. You can try to explain it and tell them every detail, but what’s the point? I’ve been telling them, mostly the underclassmen, to take advantage of what Mason has to offer. No other trip will be like it. Generally, if you travel alone or with friends and family, you won’t have a university professor there explaining that, “yes that monument looks like that, but really it is showing this.” Also since returning, my excuse for being late to nearly everything has been that I’m running on European time.

Reflective Essay

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Kelly Estes

February 14, 2008

Reflective Essay


            Throughout my four years at this University, this has been by far the most memorable and educational class that I have ever taken.  Before leaving, my mind was racing with thoughts of what this experience would be like, because I did not know what to expect.  So in order to prepare for the class, I began to research some of the cities that we would be staying because I knew little about European history.  However upon my arrival to each of the cities, I learned right from the start that each city had different histories, cultures, and ways of living.

            Prague was by far my favorite city. Above all, I especially fell in love with the look and feel of the Old Town Square and the variety of architecture that is all brought together into one place. It amazed me how the people of Prague still used these buildings today; like the churches, theaters, apartments, and restaurants, despite the constant tourism, and while still being able to keep the original structure and atmosphere of the square. It seemed to me that when stepping foot in the Old Town Square, was like stepping foot in the past. Maybe it seemed so special and unique to me because there is nothing in comparison to this in the U.S.  True, there are historical parts incorporated into U.S. cities, but it just looks so completely different. Even Washington D.C. does not seem special to me. I do not know if it is because I grew up around confederate battlefields and over the summer I used to work near the capital, but the look and feel of Prague is so different from what I am used to.

            To me, it proved that the people keep their history alive and it is still a part of everyday life.  For example, on one end of the square is the old Astronomical Clock; then on the other end is the oldest house dating back to 800 years old. Located right in the middle of the square is the Jan Hus statue and memorial. Not only is this statue memorializing Prague’s history but during times of political unrest, people would hold silent protests at the foot of the statue.  Now, the Old Town Square is not as popular, used by the local people, as much because of Venceslas Square is more modernized and commercialized. But I loved Prague and would definitely go back in the springtime if I ever get another chance!

            Vienna was an interesting experience. Upon arrival, I was not sure I would enjoy it as much as Prague, but by the time we had to leave, I loved it. I was especially grateful that we were able to experience the orchestra performance. I have never been to a performance like that and it made it even more special that we were able to watch it in Vienna. It made me appreciate the music more because we had been learning about Mozart on some of the tours.

            Another thing that stuck out in my mind about Vienna was the Hofburg’s palaces. It was a surreal experience touring the summer palace.  It is unreal to believe that people lived in buildings like this; it seemed like something straight out of fairy tale. It was fascinating hearing the stories about the servant’s secret passageways behind the walls, the ballroom that is still being used today for New Years banquets and conferences, and the hand painted portraits like the one that later had Mozart painted in it.

            Budapest was my least favorite out of all the cities, but that was mainly because of the weather and construction. I felt that I really did not get a chance to see the “real” Budapest or learn as much as I could have because of these deterrents. However, Budapest’s history is an interesting one. It is hard to believe some of the hard times this country had to go through, and that only recently they have been able to be free.  One thing that I thought was interesting was the way the people choose to remember their history.  When on the guided tour of Hero’s Square we were given a different story of its significance or existence than the explanation given by our professor. 

            All in all, I had an amazing experience on this trip. I learned a lot and given the chance I would go back in a heartbeat, except I think I would visit when the weather is warmer! Not only did I learn about this history of these places, I began to better appreciate different cultures and how differently people live around the world.

Reflective essay – Laura Quindlen

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

            America is a very young country.  This is an obvious fact to anyone, especially to someone like who has been immersed in the study of civilizations for many years.  But it is easy to dismiss this fact or even become slightly blinded to it when living, working and studying in the United States.  Walking through the streets of a city older than the oldest permanent settlement in North America, however, makes it impossible to deny that the United States is still an adolescent. Before this trip I had studied Europe in a textbook and walked the streets of Washington DC and Philadelphia.  European history, while fascinating and important, was not alive to me the way American history was. This trip changed that. Looking at gravestones from the 13th century and walking through churches from the 14th century made European history real and concrete for the first time, and made me painfully aware of how small our own history is in comparison.

            While visiting these countries I had to remind myself that what was strange and uncomfortable to me was normal and comforting to those around me, from the big things like language to the more inconsequential items, like ordering food. All three of these countries seemed to move at a slower pace than what I see in the US.  Americans always seem to be on the move and in a hurry, and are always searching for convenience.  In these countries people seemed to be fine with a slightly slower pace.  While many people I encountered were less polite and congenial than the average America, in general the atmosphere seemed to be more relaxed.  There were not rules for everything; dogs were off leashes, smoking was permitted nearly every building I entered, and payment for goods or services was often an unorganized free-for-all, with hastily handwritten bills and consumers crowded around a check-out counter.  Part of this apparent lack of over-regulation annoyed and frustrated me.  But I also saw it as refreshing.  Both the Czechs and the Hungarians dealt with oppressive communism for decades – picking up after their dog, perhaps, is not such a big deal.

            Prague was the most overwhelming city for me for several reasons. Since it was the first city on the tour it was also my first experience in Europe and I felt such a sense of awe and need to see and do as much as possible. The city had such a medieval feel, with the small winding cobblestone streets and small stores with hand painted signs. It stood in sharp contrast to Vienna, which was so much more Parisian and cosmopolitan. Vienna was the city in which I enjoyed myself the most. Because of the more modern feel of the city I felt more comfortable and felt that I fit in more. Budapest, unfortunately, I did not feel like I experienced enough. This was probably due to the fact that it was the last city on the tour and I was becoming exhausted, combined with the unpleasant weather I was more reluctant to explore the city in the way I had Prague. Budapest also seems to still be recovering from its years in the Cold War. It had a very different feel than the other two cities, almost like the experience of communism was still hanging over their heads, with even things like the metro system having a retro-1950’s feel from the communist era.

            The most incredible experience on this trip, for me, was visiting the Nazi prison camp of Terezin. It was probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life, and its nearly impossible to describe the feeling of standing in the freezing rooms that the guide informed us held up to 60 Jewish prisoners. The guide was incredibly detailed in her descriptions and the “small fortress,” along with the museum that accompanied it in town, did not skimp on detailing the horror and terror that occurred there. One part of the museum was dedicated solely to the children of the camp, with the names of thousands of children and the dates of birth painted on all the walls, much like the synagogue in the city of Prague. It was piece of history that I had yet to experience first hand and it was overwhelming. I was very glad to visit this camp in the winter because it made the experiences of the prisoners even harder to imagine. I was layered in sweaters, a coat, a scarf and a hat and gloves and I was numb and freezing. It was nearly impossible to imagine what the prisoners went through in the winter in only the barest of clothes. This trip, along with the other tours and experiences in Prague, cemented the idea that the Czechs are very aware and proud of their history. They have dealt with a lot in this century alone, and have not always had the support of the western powers. They seem to be a very proud people who are weary of sacrificing their history to western tourists who are now visiting Prague because it is the trendy, hot city in Europe at the moment.

            When dealing with history and public space, I saw both similarities and differences between these cities and the United States. The Ring in Vienna reminded me of the National Mall, with various statues and memorials scattered throughout one part of a city. It seemed as if nearly every twelve feet I was looking at another memorial to another famous Austrian.  Both the Czech Republic and Hungary also have had to deal with the issue of sites of memory to people and times best left to history: cold war dictators, communist propaganda and other relics of oppression.  Both Prague and Budapest have found different ways to cope with these unpleasant memories.  Prague seemed to be more open regarding its years behind the iron curtain.  The people were talked about with a little more jest and reticule, and the museum of communism was fascinating for both the items it displayed as well as the humorous slant it took on the years of communism.  Budapest, on the other hand, seemed to take the issue a bit more seriously, I would assume due to the fact that it suffered greatly during its years under communism.  The terror museum was fascinating and horrifying, with its painfully terrible images of murder and torture and its uncomfortable walk through a cold war era prison. It was a much more somber and sobering experience than the communism museum in Prague. Both of these museums are a way to keep the public aware of the hardships and oppressions both countries have faced and remember an era of history.  But both cities treat and choose to remember the subject much differently. Before this trip I had little concept about communism in this part of Europe, and was especially ignorant on the details of each country. This stark difference between the museums was very jarring and intriguing to me.

            This trip was an eye opening experience, and an incredible educational opportunity. Often times I forget the facts I learn in the classroom, no matter how well I did in the class or how much I enjoyed the subject. Learning about these countries through this tour, however, was a unique and unforgettable way to learn about central Europe. It will be hard to forget the images I saw, museums I visited, memorials I stood in front of and people I met. I knew that I would be exposed to a different history and culture, and that these things would be jarring and surprising to me. I did not quite grasp just how surprising the differences were until I experienced them.

Reflective Essay – Allison Bauman

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

It is terribly easy for a traveler to go half-way around the world yet never leave her comfort zone.  With increasing globalization, it is easy to find McDonalds or Starbucks anywhere one travels.  It is also easy to cling to what is familiar and although one is in Prague or Vienna or Budapest never really experience the city.  Instead of trying Hungarian cuisine, one dines at Burger King.  It is easy to walk into Starbucks because of its familiarity instead of going across the street to the famous Sacher Café and taking part in a Viennese custom.  It is easy to go shopping in H&M in Prague even though you know you can find the same merchandise at Fair Oaks Mall.  Anyone can buy a plane ticket to an exotic location around the world, but it takes a dedicated and open-minded traveler to really gain from that experience. 

My goal when I set out on this study tour to Prague, Vienna and Budapest was not to merely have the satisfaction of being in these places but to truly experience life in these cities.  From the moment I walked into Dulles Airport on January 5, I was to shed my notions of American culture in order to open my mind to entirely new customs and ways of life.  I feel as though I have successfully accomplished this goal.  Not once did I set foot into a restaurant or store I knew that I could go to in the United States.  Nor did I expect that all individuals with whom I interacted should speak with me in my native tongue.  I tried many new things such as Czech beer (which I liked) and Hungarian Goulash and pasta with ewe’s cheese (which I did not).  I conducted transactions in German while in Vienna and did my best to learn greetings and the words for “please” and “thank you” in Czech and Hungarian.  I strove to get off the beaten path of tourists and to experience these three cities in the way that locals experience them every day.  I bought food at the markets and had conversations with locals about their cities. 

            Since Americans are stereotyped (and I think correctly) as loud and rude, I learned that the highest compliment paid to an American abroad is to be mistaken for a local.  I am proud to say that this occurred several times on this past trip.  It demonstrated to me that I was able to shed my American customs in favor of experiencing these new locales as a resident. 

This goal also allowed me to really expand my global perspective.  It becomes clear immediately that despite whatever nationality we ascribe to, or what languages we speak, we are all humans and must meet the basic needs of food, water, shelter and establishing connections with each other.  However, the culture and customs we develop allow us to meet these needs in different ways.  Learning about and gaining a deeper understanding of these differences in people and culture and customs is what I recognize to be the purpose of studying abroad. 

            I was severely disappointed to witness my peers take the easy route in their travels, opting for comfort over a unique experience, in effect, McDonalds over goulash.   I realized from an economic standpoint how great it is to have American corporations such as McDonalds worldwide.  However, the thought leaves me with bittersweet sentiments as an individual with a love for travel.  The economic expansion of American business and globalization are the same giants that will minimize cultural differences, the very purpose behind my love.  I wonder if the demand for global business will drive local stores and restaurants out, in effect creating a global culture that eliminates the distinctiveness of the culture in the cities we visited. 

            I feel as though I have gained a lot in personal experience on this study abroad trip.  I have established why I love to travel as well as set personal guidelines for future trips abroad.  The world is changing quickly, which is why, I discovered, that I do not mind diving into a unique cultural experience while it lasts.  After all, you don’t know until you try. 

Reflections of an American’s European Vacation

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

I chose to go on the Central Europe trip for a few reasons. I needed credit for study abroad for my major, it was financially reasonable, and all the countries we would visit had seen or been involved in great conflict in the last 100 years. My interests usually lie in current conflicts, but seeing societies that have emerged from conflicts is an important part of my major area of study. I learned more about these societies in the few days we spent in each than I could have in a semester studying them. That said, this trip was not at all what I expected, both in good and bad ways.

I have traveled to Europe many times in the past, but this trip was vastly different for me than any other. I have always traveled (in small numbers or solo) to visit friends living in that country or at least with someone who spoke the native language. Traveling with a large group of Americans was a new and different experience for me that highlighted many of the stereotypes you often hear about Americans abroad. For instance, when in large groups, we are loud!

Europe works much differently than the Capitalist, money-making society that we as Americans are so used to. In the States we can get most anything we want or need at any time; most can be found with one trip to the local Wal-Mart, even at 3:00 in the morning. The inability to find open stores at times when I needed to was often annoying. But then I think of the 30-35 hour work weeks and numerous weeks of vacation that many of my European friends and their families enjoy each year and can understand (and even be jealous). I think that I could sacrifice shopping on Sundays or late in the evening if it meant that I could reap the benefits. (But I still think 7:00pm is too early to close the super-market. I would settle for 8:00).In America we are over-stressed and over-worked; we are constantly in a hurry. We seem to have higher rates for heart disease and other stress-related illnesses. I think we could take a lesson from Europe; work less, live life, slow down, and get over the obsession with instant gratification.

In most of the places we visited in Europe, whether it be restaurants, stores, or bars, the employees generally spoke at least a little English. I think about how as Americans we are used to everyone around us speaking the same language and then traveled to Europe and expected the same thing from them. As Americans, we often get upset when people do not speak our language; but many of us didn’t try to speak the language, eat the food, or understand the customs in the areas we were visiting. I think about the times I have witnessed similar situations here in the states and feel sorry for any time I may have done this myself.

At home in DC, I would get annoyed waiting for someone to figure out how to work the metro’s ticket machines, but no one in Prague seemed to be bothered when a group of us blocked 2 of the 3 machines to try to buy tram tickets. I visited a store in Prague and the store owner did not speak English nor was his cash register one that displayed the price towards the customer. He became visibly annoyed with me for not understanding and I was more than embarrassed (I looked to another customer who told me the price in English). As I now look over the pictures of myself at the Statue Graveyard, I posed comically in front of statues that represented, a very dark time for Hungary. I wonder if we as Americans would take kindly to visitors to our country acting in such ways to statues of our past (no matter what they represented). I began to rethink the jokes I made about “Nazis and commies” because in the places we visited, they mean something much different than at home. These are just a few of the interactions and experiences I had that helped me to think about re-examining my views and actions toward what is “different”.

I am more of a loner, or at least stick to a smaller group of friends. This trip enabled me to branch out and meet and spend time with many people that I would not have had the chance to had we not all gone on this adventure together. The large group, however, accentuated the attributes of Americans viewed by many as obnoxious; but it was eye-opening.

Europe is not America… I began to think of the differences between the two and embrace them as unique in a good way and not different in a bad way. I don’t like the impression that many have of “my people” (Americans) and hope to act in a way overseas that represents my country in a positive light. This experience forced me to examine my behavior more closely and, for the first time, care about what others were thinking about me- perhaps because at home I am just another local; overseas, I am an American and represent it, like it or not.

A Reflection by Ashley Smiley

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Actually reflecting back on my experiences of the trip is proving to be quite difficult as I still have a hard time believing it really happened. Seeing Europe has been something that I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I’ve got a restless spirit and I’ve always felt like there was something more out there for me to experience. For some reason I expected that when I stepped off the plane in Prague my whole being would change. I would immediately be hit by different faces, speaking different languages and behaving in totally different manners and I would become the new cultured and worldly Ashley. Not so much.

I didn’t know much about Czech history coming into the trip. I’d heard about how attractive and fashionable the Czechs were and I encountered that. What I wasn’t expecting was for tourism to have such an overwhelming presence in the city. I felt a strong tension between the Czechs simply making a living by capitalizing on their history and having to deal with obnoxious tourists wandering about aimlessly through their streets getting in the way of their daily lives. It was difficult for me to decide whether I wanted to remain an outsider looking in or try to immerse myself in every aspect of the culture. It seems the former proved to be my choice. That was one of my regrets about the trip. I don’t know that I made enough of an effort to immerse myself in the different cultures. One thing that I will never fail to be amused and astonished by is how trusting the Czechs were with their dogs. An American dog would never stop at a crosswalk ten feet ahead of its owner without a leash on. Perhaps the orderly mentality of the Czechs is deep-rooted in their animals as well.

My pathetic knowledge of the German language did nothing to prepare me for Vienna. I had two opinions of Austria coming into this trip. My own opinion was influenced by both, the idyllic film The Sound of Music and the unsettling writings of Austrian feminist Elfriede Jelinek. There was also the opinion of a German friend that told me that Vienna would be the epitome of the beautiful and historic European city that I had always imagined and that I would have a wonderful time. Driving into Austria, the bus was enveloped by a big foggy cloud of rain and gloom and I was worried that it would be Jelinek’s Austria that I was encountering. It only took a few more miles to realize that my German friend was right. I fell in love with Vienna. Describing my feelings toward the city is difficult, but I guess I could say that it makes sense. The city made sense. Turning every corner I found myself thinking, “Of course! Why wouldn’t there be a deer in that there hair shop window?” or “Why shouldn’t a major urban city be covered in fifty percent green spaces and be environmentally conscious?” Maybe my excitement with Vienna had something to do with the unhealthy amount of café lattes that I consumed during my stay. I felt there was an interesting relationship between creativity and maturity in Vienna. It seemed as though the people of Vienna wanted to share their story and not just sell it to outsiders. I feel that Vienna pushed me in many ways. I like to consider myself fairly open when it comes to new things, except in terms of food, yet there was just something about the city that took me out of my comfort zone. While eating Vietnamese food may be no big deal to some, I would call it a major step towards self progression. Vienna also helped to really put the German language into perspective for me. There are plenty of people out there speaking that funny language that I call myself learning. I suppose that is another regret that I have about this trip. I didn’t make nearly enough of an effort to educate myself about the social customs, languages in particular, of the cities we were visiting.

I had high hopes for Budapest. I’ve always been secretly obsessed with gypsies and I suppose I was expecting that kind of magical energy from the city. Needless to say, I didn’t see a single gypsy, at least none that I was aware of. I found that I enjoyed Budapest the most at night. The city had a certain moodiness that makes for a bit of a downer during the daytime, but works at night. I felt like the Hungarians could care one way or the other if we were visiting their city. It seemed like everyone was caught up in their own lives and didn’t seem to notice our infiltration, and not in a Washington, DC stuck up their own asses kind of way. It seemed as if the people of Budapest had no idea what to do with themselves and were just as lost as I was. I think the one thing that the Hungarians got right, besides organizing a house of terror and making a delicious pizza, was Statue Park. As miserable as I was during that rainy trip, it left one of the strongest impressions on me. I’d never seen any of those statues before, but for Hungarians those images and what they stood for must be burned into their brains. I have a hard time believing that the United States government would memorialize their demons in the way that Statue Park does. I guess this is why the city of Budapest was my biggest regret of the trip. Budapest didn’t let me down, I let myself down in not taking advantage of what was being offered. I was too busy dwelling on how amazing Vienna was that I didn’t even give Budapest the time of day.

I was wrong in thinking that two weeks on a foreign continent would automatically turn me into a better individual. I realize that I was supposed to take a bit of the structured and trusting Czech mentality, a bit of the Austrian maturity, and a bit of the Hungarian courage with me. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to change completely during the course of this trip, but when the time comes I know that I have a few very special souvenirs to help me along the way.