Coming Home: Expect the Unexpected

Adjusting back to Californian time has been difficult to say the least. I go to work in the evening feeling as though I have stayed up all night, finally sleeping in the early afternoon European time.

My internal clock is flopped, nine hours ahead of the world I’ve come back to. Over three and a half weeks I traveled to six countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The adventures I had in Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria have turned into bitter sweet memories upon returning to the States. Truly exceptional and precious memories were made and I can’t help but to start planning my next trip abroad.

Being abroad has taught me what it’s like to be a foreigner in an unknown place. Though by going to relatively similar places, I was what I would call a privileged traveler in that many people in the larger cities I went to spoke English. Restaurant and bar menus usually had an English translation and people in the cities usually knew what language I spoke by whatever clue made me stand out as an American.

During my first time in Europe, I was surprised by a lot of things strayed from my expectations, beyond the typical fears of not knowing the language or standing out as a traveler.

Cigarette smoking

It seems as though everyone smokes cigarettes. There are no designated smoking areas. People smoke in restaurants and bars without ventilation. A lot of times it felt like I was walking into a cloud of smoke and upon leaving the bar my hair and clothes smelled like an ashtray.

I saw many younger people smoking and mothers carrying babies and pushing strollers, too. The only place I noticed that people didn’t smoke were the public transportation options such as trains and “U-Bahns.”

It took other people pointing out my reactions to me for me to notice. My perception of the overbearing prevalence of the smoke, a lot of times, kept me from going to certain places or enjoying my time. This was not just culture shock to me but also showed my resistance to alter my behaviors or ideals to conform to the host culture that I was visiting.

Limited water

Coming from America where water is served as if there is an endless supply on earth was quite the shock when arriving in Europe. In some countries water is more expensive than alcohol, which I was warned about, though I didn’t completely understand the reality of it.

Ordering water in restaurants and bars usually resulted in servers looking surprised, annoyed, and angry. The portion sizes of water were minimal with no free refills. I began to savor my water and appreciate it so much more. I felt so dehydrated throughout my travels and have never seen a group of twenty-something year olds from America be so happy about drinking water.

The food

I was excited at the beginning of the trip that the hotels and hostels provided breakfasts every morning. However, I was surprised to see relatively similar types of food throughout all six countries I visited. Cold cut meats, cheese and bread were the main staples.

Being on a budget, I would make sandwiches for lunch and dinner from the breakfasts and after a week or so I was well over eating sandwiches for nearly every meal, every day. Going out to eat consisted of a lot of meat, cheese, and bread as well, oh and lots of beer. Lots of carbs. Too many carbs.

Salads and fresh foods were nearly impossible to find. And vegetarian dishes started to become a bit of a joke, because that’s just not something that is common in many of the places we went to. Upon returning home, fresh fruits, vegetables, and water are so much more appreciated than ever before.

The uncultured American

Another traveler told me about the stereotype of the uncultured American. Throughout my travels I began to understand what he meant. I learned the hard way. I never really understood the stereotype of the loud American until I rode public transport and sat in a European restaurant.

At least in the countries I visited, people are extremely quiet and get angry when other people are loud. I received my share of dirty looks and what sounded like mean foreign language expressions muttered my way in response to what is normal behavior in America. Though it took a conscious effort, after enough of these I started to conform more and enjoy being quiet out of respect for the host culture.

As I mentioned in my last post, the benefit of speaking several languages is huge while traveling. It allows for better and more positive experiences because you are able to effectively communicate with more people and enhance your overall experience. I am lacking in this and I wish that I knew more in other languages so that I would have been able to talk to more people while I was abroad.

Over the last few weeks, I have made friends and connections not only people with from the host countries I visited but with people from all over the world and with the students in my study abroad program. In addition to Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria I’ve connected and had amazing experiences with people from Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Albania.

I have noticed so many ways each person is unique, yet I also noticed how we are all so very much the same. It took people in my group and other travelers to show me how I am lacking as a traveler and visitor to a new culture. But I am excited to have more learning experiences like these in the future. To prevent being another typical rude, loud, and stupid American, I cannot stress enough how important it is to learn about a country’s culture and its language before visiting.

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Carmel McAndrews blogs from Central Europe in the summer of 2015. The Communications major chose a faculty-led program in her field for her international experience.

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