Visiting the United Kingdom (And Germany)

So… Hey, there. Long time no see. Guess I should give you a quick update on things. It’s already April…Whew! Christmas came and went. The new year rolled in. I made and kept no resolutions.

February was cold. I was unhappy. My writing motivation was at an all-time low, but I expected that. I never write well in the winter. I hate winter. I hate the cold, and I resent certain aspects of the holiday season. I tend to believe that there’s a little S.A.D there too. Lack of sun makes Heather an unhappy person.

However, this March was different from all the others. For the first time in my life, I boarded a plane and, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I boarded several more. I not only left my home state all on my own, but I crossed the Atlantic Ocean and left the COUNTRY by myself.

I won’t say it wasn’t trying at times. I grew up as a shy, dependent kid. I couldn’t even manage to take a $1 bill to the McDonald’s counter to ask for an ice cream cone without someone to hold my hand. So needless to say, there were a few moments of complete bewilderment and panic, but I am an adult, so I managed to pull through.

But while I did make the trip to London on my own, I did not spend my trip alone. My younger brother is attending a University in Dundee, Scotland. So, he was there to pick me up at the airport and show me around. I spent a day in London, spent the night in a hostel, and then left first thing in the morning for Cologne, Germany. After a short stay in Germany, we flew back to the UK, landing in Edinburgh and then taking a train back to Dundee.

Now, I had no real expectations as to what these new places would be like. I simply knew they spoke English in the UK, and German in Germany, and the weather was likely to be gloomy more often than not.   I knew I would be terrified of the plane ride and that currency exchange would probably screw me up.

But I learned a lot on this trip, both about myself and my nation. First of all, I would just like to say that I believe Americans should travel. Do you ever think about how isolated we are as a nation? I’m not talking business or politics or the upper class…I’m talking about us regular people. We have little to no interaction with outside culture unless we live in large cities: New York, L.A., etc. I mean, yeah, sure…we have “Little Mexico” or the “Asian District” here in Oklahoma, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.

In high school, we had a World History class, but because of the quality of the instructor, I learned NO World History. What I learned about the world came from television, movies, and books. And look at how skewed that picture is likely to be: Hollywood makes the majority of the world’s really successful films, and  Hollywood TENDS to base their films on home. Sure, I saw Braveheart and Rob Roy before going to Scotland, I’d seen all the Harry Potter films before going to England, but it’s a thin slice of reality.

Americans should travel. Yes, I support travel to Mexico and Canada, as well. But there’s so much more to the world than our little North American continent, and I think we should all make an attempt to see it. I realize that costs are much higher for us to travel than say…for the Europeans to get back and forth between all the various European countries.

But I learned a few things on my little journey:

  • Germans speak English.

I thought it a cocky assumption to make, but I was shocked to discover it’s pretty accurate. I didn’t meet one single German who couldn’t speak fluent English. And they were all more than willing to converse with me in English rather than trying to find out if I knew any German at all (which I didn’t.)

  • Women in their 20′s-30′s do not wear glasses.

Now, you’ll think this one odd, but bear with me. I do wear glasses. Mostly because I’m cheap and can’t afford to buy contacts when they cost me over $200 for a few month supply. At first, I didn’t notice that these young women only wore contacts. My attention simply wasn’t drawn to it. But after visiting Germany and then returning to the UK, I was fully aware of this oddity and on the look-out. I only saw older women or very young girls wearing glasses. I felt like I must stick out to everyone (though I didn’t concern myself with it.) And the lack of glasses leads to my next point:

  • When going “out” for an evening, whether to eat, to a pub, to a club, whatever…women only wear mini-skirts.

And no, no crass jokes here please – obviously they wear tops and boots/heels as well. But jeans or “trousers” of any variety are pretty much non-existent during the evenings. Being American, and a bit tom-boyish (though this one is probably more relevant than the American part in this case), I naturally brought along jeans and wore them when we went out. Just like with the glasses, I was the ONLY female I saw ANYWHERE that was wearing jeans. Now, I believe it can be very stylish and classy to wear jeans with the right attire – granted, I was still much too casual to qualify, but still – I mean, Hollywood starlets do it ALL the time and still manage to look sexy.

I simply felt out of place. I fit in more with the boys, as they were all wearing glasses and jeans.

  • America truly is the “melting pot” and Germany was surprisingly homogeneous.

When I realized that I hadn’t seen a Mexican, an Asian, an Indian (whether Native American or actual Indian from India), or a single black person in a couple of days, I became totally shocked. I hadn’t been actively searching for them prior to that realization, but by God if I didn’t start looking after that. Germany is full of white people… Sure, it’s a European country and we tend to associate European with white, but I am so used to that racial diversity that I was floored by the lack of it.

This may sound odd to those of you who haven’t experienced this (and maybe even to some of you who have) but I felt strangely uncomfortable to find myself in a white-homogeneous society. I craved that visual diversity, I longed for it and I searched for it. Maybe the reason for that is because I associate it with home. I’m not even from a big city where American diversity is at it’s best, but even here in Oklahoma, I can’t go a single day without encountering someone with different skin tone, facial structure/features, language, etc. Yes, the Germans have their own language and yes, I heard it everywhere, but if they were to keep their mouths shut the whole time, I wouldn’t be able to tell them from the average white American that I see everyday.

This was perhaps one of the strongest and most unexpected cultural shocks on my trip. Some people are devastated when they can’t speak the language of the country they’re in, or when they experience traditions so vastly different from their own that they aren’t sure how to react, some people are disturbed by what they perceive to be strange behaviors and strange foods…But I was most hit by the lack of differences. I do realize that people experience this very same thing constantly in other countries, such as China, Japan, etc. But these are countries that I’ve always known to be fairly homogeneous, so that doesn’t surprise me – and often in these cases the travelers are not Asian, so they ARE the “sore thumb” so to speak. In Germany, I was, by all appearance’s sake, exactly like everyone else. I just guess I didn’t know how homogenous Germany really was, or maybe any other European countries for that matter.

Do Chinese-Americans go back to China and feel wildly out of place or shocked by the fact that everyone is Chinese? Do Korean-Americans walk around Seoul wondering why there aren’t more Middle Easterners there?

It may just be me…or it may be my American mind-set. I just found myself startled by it all.

I have so much more to say about how important I feel it is for Americans to EXPERIENCE the rest of the world, but I’ll have to save that for later posts.

 

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