Semester In Europe Teaches Student To Open Her Eyes To All Everyday Experiences

by Madison Kolke
Event and Promotions Coordinator

Rochester College’s 2016 GEO group leaves on Wednesday, Jan. 27, for Vienna. Here, Madison Kolke reflects on her European experience.

Often times we find ourselves believing that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and while I understand that I am one of these believers, I was privileged last year to test this theory.

Going over to Europe, I was convinced that America was a cultureless mass, and that we used the word freedom as a bumper sticker in a vain effort to make people think that we are the best country in the world. While I still feel that much of that is true, Europe also opened my eyes to a new view of my homeland.

Exploring Vienna

 It came to me as we walked around the city of Vienna, Austria. We captured millions of pictures of old buildings, ornate streets, fountains and it suddenly struck me as odd. I thought,

“I wonder if the people who have lived here their entire lives have ever noticed the true beauty of this place, or if they just walk around this square to get their coffee every morning.”Did these buildings really matter to them? Was it silly of us to take a picture out in front of an ornate McDonalds? I do not think we have ever thought about it. I’m sure a quick answer could be that we take pictures of these places we have never been because they are so beautiful. But to someone who lives in that place their whole lives, they might just think that they are the regular sights they’ve seen on their way from point A to point B.

But why is it that we cannot find beauty in the simple structure of a street? Why is it that when we go somewhere new, all of a sudden those everyday occurrences suddenly seem so much more than what they were before?

Of course the McDonalds here in America does not have quite the same effect in regards to Europe’s ornate construction, but why do we see their construction as better and more alive? They each have a unique beauty that is specifically their own and nobody ever stops to appreciate the one they have right around the corner.

This fast food restaurant is a strange example, but imagine lying on a grassy hill in Bruges, overlooking a river. The lawn is speckled with trees and benches and one hears only faint noises of the train station in the distance. Now imagine seeing seven strange foreign kids lying on the grass next to the road as you are heading into the city.

Learning to Appreciate the Small Things

To us, that day was perfect weather, and we were enjoying the last few relaxing moments in such a peaceful area right before embarking on a long train journey, but to the people walking past, we looked like crazy foreigners who had no idea what they were doing and how to fit into normal society. So I continued to travel with this thought in mind: that we never truly appreciate what is right around us all the time.

When you take a trip to somewhere new, the only thought in our mind is to take in everything as best as we can. We have to remember the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes or we will have wasted our time. Why should we not have the same thought process when we are traipsing about in our everyday ordinary lives? Why do our everyday lives have to be ordinary?

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I would travel back to Europe in a heartbeat. I met so many great people and made a lot of friends and connections that I will always be thankful for. I was able to help children learn English while they, in turn, taught me small German phrases and then continued to make fun of me for it when I messed up.

 I miss sitting in our own little living space just a step outside of the Deutschmeister hotel, and boiling obscene amounts of pasta on the electric stove in our kitchen. I miss seeing 5-year-old children running home by themselves after school, and not worrying about if they would make it there on their own. I even miss being badgered on the streets by ticket vendors.

These are the little tiny details that, without time and reflection, I might never have thought on again. Those are also the moments that seem the most important now.

 One of our collective proudest experiences is when we each finally had what we called “our moment” when we jumped onto an Ubahn just as the doors were closing. A lot more often than not we take the little things for granted.

We only think about ice-skating in front of the Rauthaus, and completely ignore the memories of spending most of that time lying on the ice, covering our bodies fully in bruises. We skim over the details about trying out every single Kasekriner stand in order to find the perfect cheese filled bratwurst. We even forget about that time in the deli aisle when we thought we had ordered ostrich, and thankfully ended up with ham.

These moments seem insignificant to anyone else, as they should, but we all have these miniscule moments that mean so much more than we give them credit for. Because of those things I know that I can be running a couple minutes late to a train and I can still make it if I run fast enough. I know that you shouldn’t try to teach people how to ice-skate when you haven’t done so since you took a class six years ago. I know that I will no longer have to waste money on poorly prepared street food. And now I know that when a package says “Österreich” it isn’t claiming to be made of Ostrich but rather it is telling us that it is made in Austria.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Living in Europe also helped me break down some of the stereotypes that American’s think about Europeans.

1. The French are not rude, rather they are sarcastic and playful.

People are offended too easily in America. Everyone thinks someone else is out to get them, and that they are trying to pry us away from our pride and dignity. French people are not trying to completely isolate you. They just think it is funny when you cannot pronounce things on their menu, and they also think it is cute when you try.

2. Italians do not only care about football and fashion.

 In fact, I think their biggest concern with fashion is not wearing those Italia zip up hoodies. Milan during fashion week is just a bunch of normal citizens desperately trying to break through the craze of fashion-starved Americans. And as for football, in Florence we sat in our tiny bed and breakfast and watched a game with the owners and their family friend. There might be some truth behind that rumor, but I can assure you the Americans were the ones who got way out of hand with their cheering.

 3. Austrians lack a sense of humor.

Well this is certainly not true. There was a time in fact where an Austrian man decided to play a practical joke on me in the Ubahn station by running directly up to me and screaming “NEIN!” in my face before running off laughing. He is very lucky he moved quickly because my first response was not to laugh but rather to swing a fist directly into his face.

 4. Croatia is not full of loud, rude people.

Having many meals shared with some fellow Croatians, it was easy to see that, yes, they were in fact a very boisterous group, but never once did I even sense a hint of rudeness from them. They were always very willing to let you sit and stay for awhile as long as you had a mind to sit and talk.

5. And finally, Europe is not a scary place.

People fear what they do not know but understand this: America is much more frightening than Europe.

 In Europe, children walk home alone and make it there. In Germany on nice days, parents will leave their newborn babies outside in their stroller while they go into a restaurant and eat. In Europe when anything remotely danger worthy happens, every cop from every side of the country is within a two-mile radius canvasing the area, and life goes on as normal because they are around to protect and serve.

 I am not bringing this up as a way to bash America, or make it seem like such an unsafe place, because there are things that go wrong in Europe too. Every once in a while an unsuspecting tourist will have their money stolen, or a riot will break out in the streets.

 It is not a perfect place just as America is not a perfect place. But within each country or within each set of states, there is something beautiful to be found.

An Eye-Opening Experience

That is what I learned on my final walk through the city. Buildings in our hometown may not stimulate our senses like they do when we travel. The people we pass on the streets as we walk around our neighborhood might not spark an interest in where they come from and where they are going, but we should stop and notice.

We should take time to notice how the leaves fall off of trees, and how the sun shines ever so slightly brighter on certain glass windows, because all of these inconsequential things, every single one should be appreciated. Life is short and we are not going to catch everything in our small stretch here on earth. Because of this we should try to miss as little as possible while we can still journey through our time here.

 This does not apply to just traveling outside of your community. Appreciate what you have right next-door. Someday all of it could be gone and we should recognize that before it’s too late to do anything about it.

That all being said, go to Europe if you have the chance, but appreciate what you already have before the chance is taken from you. You will never regret the moments you chose to live to the fullest. As Zachary Scott once said:

“As you grow older, you’ll find the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.”

I believe that with my whole heart. Do not miss out on life. Now go out and live.