What it’s like to be an American in Europe

When I meet people during my travels, one of the questions that always comes up is, “Where are you from?” When I tell them that I’m American, I get a number of different responses – some positive and some, well, not so positive. Here are a few situations I have found myself in:

“What are you doing here in Poland?”

It seems that no matter where I go, even if it’s just the grocery store, someone will eventually asked me where I’m from. In Poland, I recently started responding to this question with, “Jestem Amerykanka.” (Polish for “I’m American.”) This is my simple way of trying to communicate the point that I’m from America, but I’m trying my best to be mindful and respectful of your culture and language. I’m not simply a tourist, but an American who is making your country my temporary home. At first, I didn’t want to be open about my nationality, but living in Poland for several months has taught me that the people here in Poland respect and admire Americans. In fact, some of my Polish students have relatives in America. There’s even a Polish community in Chicago. When I told one of my student’s mother over a month ago that I was spending the holidays in Europe, she responded that it was a dream of hers to spend the holidays in America – mostly because she had a sister in Wisconsin. The more I realize that it is a Polish dream to move to America someday, the more comfortable I am about being American in Poland. Now that I’m more comfortable about my nationality, I don’t mind telling people that the reason why I’m in Poland is because I’m an English language teacher who wants to experience a new culture.

“Did you vote for President Obama?”

You’d be surprised how many times people have asked me that. Most of the time, the person who asks the question clearly does not like Obama so when I honestly answer, “Yes, I did,” they inadvertently start blaming me for Obama’s actions. Every time this comes up, I get super uncomfortable. I try to explain that I am politically independent (neither Democrat and Republican). Every time I vote, I try to figure out who is the lesser of two evils, which is a very pessimistic approach, I know. I like to have an open mind about both sides. When I explain that to the person who sparked a political conversation, I sometimes regain some respect. Or they see they see that I’m someone who isn’t up-to-date with politics, which also isn’t a complete lie.

“You should say you’re from Canada instead. Minnesota is close to Canada.”

I received this response once. It was while I was visiting Venice, Italy. I met a young man from Belgium who openly disliked America and was not afraid to tell me, but he but he was curious enough to ask what state I was from. When I told him Minnesota and explained that it bordered Canada, he immediately told me that I should start telling people that I’m from Canada. He claimed that Europeans would like me more if I was Canadian. It didn’t help that I was already self-conscious about being American. The very next day, a couple from England asked me if I was Canadian. I couldn’t help but respond with, “What makes you think I’m Canadian?” They told me that my accent sounds like it could be Canadian. (Maybe it’s because Minnesota is close enough!) Ignoring the Belgium man’s advice, I told them that I’m American. It turned out they were more interested placing locations with accents instead of favoring Canada over America.

“You’re American. You definitely have the accent.” 

Most of the time, people can tell that I’m American before I even tell them. It’s because of my accent. When I was a young child, I was fascinated by other people’s accent. I’m still fascinated by it. I love hearing the difference in pronunciations. As a child, I wished that I had an accent too. Somehow, I grew up thinking that I didn’t have an accent. I thought that it was too normal and bland. Now that I’m in Europe, I find that I’m now the person with the unique accent – unique enough where I can’t hide the fact that I’m American. In Bielsko-Biala, Poland, there was an expat meeting held for people who live in Bielsko who are not from Poland. I enjoy those meetings because I get to talk to people from France, Egypt, the U.K., and America. During one of the meetings, a fellow American after observing me for a couple of minutes told me, “Judging by your accent, you’re from the American Mid-West.” At first I was blown away, but then I realized that so was he. Then he decided to guess my state and decided upon Indiana. He was wrong, but I did tell him that my dad’s side of the family was from Indiana. (And added that the Colts are my favorite football team.) This made me start asking myself if I really do have a hybrid Minnesotan and Indianan accent since they are the home states of my parents. I still don’t know.

“You can have guns in America.”

Towards the beginning of the school year, one of my fifth grade boys asked me where I’m from. After I told him, he immediately said, “You’re from the best country.” I’m not going to lie, I smiled a little at this response – until I asked him why he thinks America is the best. “You can have guns in America!” Right now the fifth grade boys at Oxford Centre has an obsession with guns. When I ask them to write sentences using the vocab words from the list provided, a handful of boys tried to incorporate guns, even if it made no sense with the target words. Whenever I update myself about what’s happening in America, the more I’m convinced that gun obsession among school boys must be taken seriously. The teachers talked and debated among themselves about how to properly react to the obsessive talk about guns and shooting people about the 5th grade boys. As the American teacher in the school, I’ve been asked to share my point of view and where America stands. People from other countries are aware of the shootings taking place in America. I decided to personally not allow talk of guns in class even though the director of the school basically told the teachers, “They are just boys. It’s natural for them to talk about guns. They might become soldiers someday.” While there is truth in that statement, I still decided to not allow gun talk in class and other Polish teachers felt that same way.

“You’re smart for an American. You surprise me.”

This was said by a Polish young man who was at least two years younger than me and still in college. We were sitting next to each other on a bus from Zakopane to Krakow. This young man sat next to me because the bus was full and the only available seat left was next to me. When I opened my mouth and spoke English, he recognized that I’m American. He then spent an hour ranting about how he’s amazed that Americans have some of the laziest and most athletic people in the world, the skinniest and the fattest people, and the dumbest and most intelligent people. He asked me what I knew about European history. Thanks to my intensive history course called Western Heritage, I managed to prove to him that I knew quite a bit of European history. “You’re smart for an American,” he then told me. “You surprise me.” This statement took me aback. Despite the fact that he previously mentioned that Americans had some of the smartest and dumbest people, this comment about being smart for an American told me that he secretly harbored thoughts that Americans were generally dumb. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the two-hour conversation we had, I couldn’t help walking away with the words, “You’re smart for an American,” stuck in my head. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.

What it’s like to meet another American in Europe

If I’m to be honest, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions towards meeting another American in Europe. On one hand, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone. We are both on this journey together. We both know what it’s like to be an American in Europe. Sometimes we swap stories and reassure each other that we’re not alone when someone (consciously or unconsciously) discriminates us as Americans. Then there are times when I meet the American tourist who acts superior and has no cultural awareness. During my travels, I have heard other Americans vent about language barriers or why they don’t like this country or that. Talking to a former English teacher in Poland, she was glad when her contract in Poland was up. When I heard her complain about various things in Poland, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I want to make the best of the time I have left. I’m half way through the school year, and so far, life has been getting better for me instead of worse. I decided to see the beauty of Polish culture (as well as the other countries and cultures I encounter during my travels) and yet maintain a healthy American pride.

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New Berlin – Historic and Hip

I arrived in Berlin on the 27th of December by the night bus. I figured taking the bus would save me money, but I ended up getting less than 3 hours of sleep and I had to sit next to a middle aged man who reeked of cigarette smoke. I got the most sleep that night when the police stopped the bus at the border to inspect our passports and ID and kicked my seat mate out because of suspicious ID. But at least I made it to Berlin safely!

I absolutely love Berlin! It’s a beautiful mixture of historic and hip. There are people who like to call this city New Berlin and say that Berlin is still becoming Berlin. The people are both hip and optimistic – I just love it!

At the flee market I visited on Sunday, I met an artist who created a poster of a woman wearing a classy red dress with sunglasses. The image of the woman as well as the words “Vintage City” drew my attention. I talked to the artist for the while and asked him if he really believed the Berlin was a vintage city. “Of course,” he agreed, and then proceeded to tell me about how a lot of the people are hipster and love shopping at thrift stores and going to antique stores. A lot of people want to wear the big framed glasses and men (gay or straight) will wear brightly colored skinny jeans. Yes, I am aware that people in North America do that too, but it is very common in Berlin. About half of the items sold in the market where secondhand and vintage. My Indonesian friend I met in the hostel spent a lot of time looking at vintage cameras that were refurbished. I’ll admit that it would be pretty cool to take Polaroids again, but I’d rather save my euros for future trips in Europe.

What I really enjoyed in Berlin was walking around the city and observing how much history and culture changed in this city. It’s hard to believe that present-day Berlin is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in Europe when only 25 years prior it had a very dark past. I took two walking tours in Berlin and learned about the history of Germany and how it has changed in just the last one hundred years. The two tour guides I had were working on their History PhD and one was working on a book about Berlin from 1910 to 2010. There is a lot I could say about Berlin’s history, but there are some sites that speak for themselves and demonstrate how far Germany has come.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was completed back in 2005. From the picture, it only looks like a collection of concert blocks of different sizes. What it is hard to see from the picture is that the ground is uneven. When you walk through the concert blocks, you get sick, dizzy, and disoriented because of the uneven blocks and ground. This is exactly what the architect wants the visitor to feel. This is supposed to make you feel a fraction of what the Jews felt as they were captured and placed into concentration camps.

This is a memorial to political leaders who opposed Hitler. As you might guess, they were killed for speaking up against Hitler. This put fear in everyone else, forcing them into silence as the horrible events unfolded.

This is the site of where Hitler’s bunk was found. It was in this location where Hitler committed suicide with his wife of one day. The bunker is not made into a memorial because the official stand that the government made was to not memorialize Hitler’s life. However, we cannot erase the memory. We must remember the dark past, but we should not honor his life.

This is the infamous Berlin wall. For some reason, I imagined it a lot bigger and thicker when I learned about it in my history classes. Despite the size, what the wall represented was the real threat. In summary, it separated Eastern Germany from Western Germany. No one can reach the other side of the wall without being shot by the guards, though there are some successful stories of people who did reach the other side. The barrier that the wall created not only separated Germany but a historical view of how we viewed Western civilization from the rest of the world. Westerners were supposedly “smarter, more intelligent, and more advanced” while the East wasn’t. Finally in 1989, the wall came tumbling down!

In front of this university, books were burned during WWII. What is sad is that there are books that are completely eliminated and with it, knowledge that we can never get back. In front of this building was an underground memorial, which was simply a room of empty bookshelves to memorialize knowledge and information that we can never hope to retrieve. I tried to take a picture of it, but it was too dark and cold. The frost on the window made it hard for me to get a good picture of it, which made me sad as a book lover.

Overall, I absolutely loved Berlin and I would definitely go back when given the chance. I didn’t give myself enough time in the city and there was so much history to explore. I did go to a history museum that displayed Germany’s history from the end the Roman Empire to present-day Germany. I spent four hours and it amazed me how much Germany has changed and it amazed me how much this city has progressed. As I mentioned before, Berlin is now considered a very liberal city, which explains why hipsters love Berlin. Personally, there is nothing wrong with Berlin being liberal. If anything, having a very oppressive past to people of difference races, sexes, religions, it is refreshing to see Berlin a city that firmly believes in equality for everyone. I think this is why I love Berlin so much. It gives hopes to others that someday other places in our world will learn to one day accept others who are different.

Christmas in Vienna

This was my first Christmas away from friends and family. I decided to spend it in the charming city of Vienna, Austria. I stayed at a hostel called Believe-It-Or-Not that was ran by a young hostess named Lily from South Africa who was warm and welcoming. This was the first hostel I’ve ever stayed in that felt homey instead of like a college dorm. The hostel can only hold 12 people total and only has two large bedrooms. It may sound like it is a bit of tight squeeze, but actually brought everyone who stayed in the hostel together. Never before had I experience such unity with other people in the hostel.

Our Hostel Christmas family was represented by guests from Brazil, England, Australia, Canada (Quebec), India, Thailand, Argentina, and America. We all came into the hostel as lone travelers (except for the couple from Quebec) who needed a place to stay for the holidays. Most of us chose Vienna for a similar reason – it is notorious for their Christmas markets, which I made sure to visit on my first night.

There were several different Christmas markets located all over Vienna, but the one I spent the most time in was the one in front of the parliament building. It had the most lights, decorations, and a small children’s Christmas training circling the markets. There were many different crafty items for sale. I was tempted to buy an owl purse I found as well as a tiny wooden stump with cute, tiny drawers, but I passed both up and bought a tea-light candle holder with a village winter scene etched in the ceramic. To be quite frank, the real attraction for me in the Christmas markets were all the food, drinks, and sweets they sold. There was a stand that sold the biggest baked potato I’d ever seen. My mouth watered at the sight; I purchased one and gobbled it up. I didn’t stop there. Another specialty in the market that I saw everyone buy was deep-fried flat-bread with garlic. It sounds weird, but it was very good. I also purchased as Nutella crepe, which made me beyond stuffed. I finally had to walk off all the food and explore the city.

Vienna has beautiful architecture and is filled with so much history. On my first day, I visited the St. Stephan Cathedral. I went on a tour of the catacombs underneath the city that were filled with graves, bones, and urns. The important church officials were kept in a room of crypts, which included a bishop from Vienna who died about eleven years ago. Then there were the rooms where the corpse of the commoners were tossed in a giant pile, and there was another where the bones were piled up like logs. It was fascinating, but creepy to see that these bones were real and several hundred years old.

On a more positive note, I did get to climb to the top of one of the towers of the cathedral and see a breathtaking view of Vienna. The climb, however, was a workout. I was out of breath after climbing all 343 steps, but the view was worth it. I was just on time to see Vienna at sunset.

On December 24 and 25, several places in Vienna were closed. On Christmas Eve, there were a few museums that were kept open. One of the places was the House of Music. My fellow travelers from Brazil and Argentina also went to the museum. We learned about the science of sound as well as the history of various composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and other great musicians of history. It was fascinating. Another place that was neat was Mozart’s house. It was not a spectacular building, but we were in awe that we were standing in the same rooms that he used to dwell in and compose some of his great masterpieces. And then the cathedral nearby was the same cathedral he and his wife married in.

When it was night on Christmas Eve, about seven of us from the hostel found an Indian restaurant that was still open for the holidays. We were very glad to find a place to eat, but we were mostly happy to find a place to have a nice Christmas dinner. We spent the next couple of hours chatting and spending time with each other, reminding us that we are not alone for the holidays.

Christmas day was a relaxing day with a morning filled with chatting and card games. In the afternoon, a group of us went to see the palace, Belvedere Castle, took pictures of it as well as explore the museum inside (since it was one of the few museums open on Christmas day).

I left Vienna the next evening on the 26th. During the last few hours of my time in Vienna, it started to snow. My Brazilian friend, who had never seen snow in his life, quickly put on his coat and dashed outside. I followed him and watched him look up at the sky in awe. Seconds later he opened his mouth and tried to catch a few snowflakes. For the next several minutes, he kept on saying, “It’s snowing! It’s actually snowing!”

The snow picked up as I made my way to the bus that would take me to Berlin. All this time I kept on thinking how my new Brazilian friend would love these huge fluffy flakes and I was sad I would not be there to see all the stages of his snowy delight. However, the next day he sent me pictures on Facebook playing in the snow the next day, making his first snow ball and then eating it. He said it tasted so good.