Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.