While studying abroad in France, I’ve had the chance to travel to a few other countries in Europe and get a feel for different cultures. Although a weekend isn’t nearly enough time to understand another culture, I can share a glimpse of what I’ve observed.
- Ventimiglia, Italy: This is the first town over the border from Nice. In Ventimiglia, the culture is not entirely Italian. People speak Italian, French, and English here, although most of the people I encountered were surprised to see a group of Americans. The police presence is heavy on the trains around this region due to the high number of refugees trying to cross the border from Italy into France.
- Milan, Italy: Milan is not like Ventimiglia. Milan is a big, grey city that looks like many other large cities in the US and Europe. It is home to many large corporations, chain hotels, and stores like Zara, H&M, and Mango scattered throughout the city. You can also find elaborate architecture, a well-designed public transportation system, and a lot of friendly people. However, many people do not speak English, which made it difficult to ask for directions or clarification when needed. I tried to communicate in French with people who didn’t speak English, but that didn’t work.
Side note: My phone didn’t have service in Italy and I got lost a few times, so I asked a lot of people for help. About half of the people I spoke to knew English fluently, and the ones who spoke fluently were either around my age, or not from Italy.
- Berlin, Germany: Berlin is blend of cultures, but it also has so much history of its own. There are plenty of opportunities to learn about Berlin’s history through its various museums, galleries, and memorials. I also met many groups of people who were traveling through Germany from various countries, and had a lot of interesting conversations with them. A weekend was definitely not enough time to really get to know Berlin.
- Prague, Czech Republic: I felt bad speaking English in Prague. In Italy and Germany, I could at least greet people and say thank you and goodbye in the native language of those countries. However, I couldn’t remember (or pronounce) even the basic Czech greetings. One afternoon, we ate in a local restaurant where the menu was only in Czech and the waitress translated the whole thing for us. There was one item on the menu that she translated as a salad, so I ordered it. It turned out to be a bowl of cut up cucumbers in dressing. “Cucumber salad,” the waitress said when she served it. Despite the language barrier, there was usually at least one waiter or waitress in each restaurant who knew enough English to help us out. I wish I could have thanked them in Czech.
Out of the countries I’ve visited, I found Czech people to be the most friendly, aside from Italians. We met a girl on the train into Prague and chatted with her for about an hour about her life and her university in the Czech Republic, and we told her about our schools and our home lives. Once we got off the train, she showed us where to buy subway tickets and waited with us while we bought them, then we all went together to the subway. Meeting her was a nice welcome to the Czech Republic.
- Dublin, Ireland: When I think back to Ireland, the first thing that comes to mind is the groups of people gathered around old wooden tables in pubs watching sports and shouting when their team scored. There was a lot of camaraderie in Dublin, and most people were friendly and welcoming. Life in Dublin seems to be centered, in part, around pubs and the social environment that comes with having a shared meal or watching a game together.
- Monte Carlo, Monaco: On a map, Monaco appears to be part of France, although it is its own country. Before visiting Monaco, I expected it to feel just like France. Instead, it felt like the Upper East Side of Manhattan wedged onto a French Riviera hillside. Monaco is a playground for the rich, and a place for the rest of us to visit and gawk at the gold-embellished casinos, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and designer boutiques. It’s a beautiful place to visit, although I couldn’t begin to imagine what it’s like to live there.
Some of my favorite places have been the small Italian villages I’ve visited on day trips. One medieval hilltop town, called Bussana Vecchia, had been abandoned after an earthquake in 1887. A group of artists began restoring the town in the 1960s, and now has about 70 residents– mainly artists from Italy, Belgium, France, and other countries. I also had the chance to visit Dolceaqua, where I stood facing an old stone bridge that Monet painted in 1884. What I love most about these small towns is the friendly people, the communities of artists living there, and the indescribable charm of the small cobblestone streets and the old town squares with colorful churches and chipping paint.
Prior to visiting these cities and towns, I had a few ideas of what I thought each place would be like. Nothing was exactly like I imagined it, which made visiting these places even more fun.