During fall break, I had the amazing privilege of visiting Paris and the Netherlands. An overnight coach ride and a ferry took me from London to the heart of Paris, where I visited the Musee d’Orsay immediately after my arrival. The museum contains some of the most notable works of Impressionism, among other pieces. It was amazing to experience the magnificent paintings that I learned about in my Modern Art course in real life! I saw Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette and Millet’s The Gleaners, among other pieces. Afterwards, I made sure to remain in the spirit of Paris and had a crepe and some coffee while I waited for my friend Andrea, who herself was coming from Rome, to pick me up from the museum. Andrea is studying abroad in Paris this semester and guided me through the city for the rest of my tenure. We headed straight to her homestay for a nap first, though. (We fell asleep watching a Spanish movie. So multicultural! :) ) In the evening, we went out to discover the city and ate… Italian food! The next day consisted of a trip to the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral, where I saw the cathedral’s famous rose window. After taking shameless touristy photos, we headed off to the Louvre Museum!
It was simply incredible. The Louvre itself is a piece of art and the works contained inside are some of the most valuable in the western canon. I saw Jacques Louis David’s most notable works (including the imposing, magnificent Coronation of Napoleon), quintessential Manets, and of course the Mona Lisa. By the end of my visit to the Louvre, my friend Corinne, who is studying in Seville this semester, joined us and we headed out to see the Eiffel Tower. The evening ended blissfully as the three of us had cheese and drinks under the luminous glow of the monument, with people of all walks of life surrounding us.
The next morning I took a coach to Amsterdam and arrived at a bustling city around 7. After running into quite some trouble in Amsterdam, I took a shuttle to my hostel in the city of Noordwijk, on the western coast of the Netherlands. There, I unpacked my bags and headed out to the beach, where I watched the stars with a friend. (We saw two shooting stars!) The next day, I went back into Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House and then strolled through the Red Light District while it was still daylight and PG-13. I headed back to hostel in the evening and enjoyed the Halloween party.
On my last day in Amsterdam, I took time to discover the haunting yet fascinating Van Gogh Museum, afterwards strolling through the beautiful Vondelpark. I worked my way back to downtown through the quirky Waterlooplein flea market, where I purchased souvenirs for my friends. Early Sunday morning, I headed back to London. I spent the following weekend in the wonderful city of Edinburgh and even took a tour of the Scottish highlands!
Although it’s a platitude at this point, it’s entirely true that traveling broadens one’s mind and introduces novel ideas to people. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned on my travels:
1) OK, let me backtrack a little and elaborate on my last statement. I’ve recognized that one does not become smarter simply by merit of traveling! I’ve run into a multitude of people who, despite their vast travels, exhibited very little knowledge of disparate cultures and geographies. One Australian boy, who had been throughout Europe and the U.S. asked me where I am originally from. Upon hearing my answer, he responded: “So you’re from Afghanistan- obviously there’s ISIS in Afghanistan.” *Sigh*
Another girl told me of her travels to India. When I asked her how the experience was, she complained: “well the toilet was a hole in the ground.” You went to the other end of the world to discover that people have disparate lavatory facilities than the ones you’re used to? I don’t mean to be excessively critical. Everyone I met during my travels was very nice and even helpful. That being said, I realized that if you don’t take it upon yourself to be inquisitive and critical of the region, languages, and cultures you observe, traveling alone will not be an enlightening experience.
2) Tourists are profoundly changing the landscape of famous cities. In Paris, for example I went to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, only to arrive at its location and find the painting surrounded by a swarm of tourists. Don’t get me wrong- art is mean to be enjoyed. The more that people have access to art, music, and literature, the better. But I was disappointed to find people scowling at me because I didn’t want to snap a picture of the painting—or better yet, take a selfie with it. I simply wanted to stand in front of the painting and take in its beauty but the cloud of eager tourists made me quite apprehensive and I left.
Amsterdam, too, is a city altered by tourists. Many Dutch people seem to take pride in their pragmatic approach to the pressing issues of marijuana use and prostitution. But to the vast majority of tourists, such liberalism is so novel, that they can’t help but exploit the city’s tolerance. Perhaps it was because of the sheer volume of people relative to the small city center, but the tourists gave the city a rather riotous, arguably hedonistic, vibe.
3) The American identity is so strange. Being Afghan-American is a rather weird experience by itself. But being Afghan-American in Europe- amidst a capitalist world order, in the context of the “decline of the west,” and in the middle of an unprecedented amount of world crises and scientific and technological achievements- is even weirder. And I don’t know if I can explain it any more elaborately. It’s just weird. A boy in my university once joked about the stereotypical “dumb American.” In my mind, I was thinking: “Well you can’t listen to Jay-Z on your iPhone while you’re wearing a ‘Breaking Bad’ t-shirt and call Americans stupid.” Simultaneously, I am incredibly critical of many aspects of Americanism—not least being our government’s crummy foreign policy.
I thinking “Breaking Bad” is an excellent microcosm of the complexities of the American identity. As a brilliant T.V. show, it is a prime example of American ingenuity. However the premise of the show rests on a man who has to resort to methamphetamine production to pay for his cancer treatment because our healthcare system is so decrepit, we cannot secure the health and wellbeing of a man who contributes so significantly to society.
Lest I veer in more tangents, I will conclude my reflection here. I don’t think I’m anywhere near figuring out what it means to be American, but this is one of the many things I’ll continue to think about in the short amount of time I have here.
There are a ton of other intriguing lessons and observations I’ve picked up from my tenure here in London and in my cursory travels throughout Europe. If you’d like to discuss the study abroad experience with me, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, I am planning my weekend to Prague! I will keep you updated on my holiday destination.