The majority of my fellow classmates’ posts have been deeply intellectual thoughts about individual site visits; however, my post is going to be a little bit different. While I’ve only been on this trip for three weeks now, I’ve recently come to realize just how thankful I am that I’m on this program in particular. This morning I had an extremely disappointing conversation with a friend of mine, who is in Berlin for his study abroad adventure. He arrived yesterday morning in the city and has already seen Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall Memorial—extremely important landmarks that I hope to see when I visit as well. Unfortunately the conditions of his trip are less than perfect—he’s with about 50 other people riding those double-decker buses and staying in hotels. Now, on the surface, this doesn’t seem bad at all. In a hotel, you don’t have to worry about taking a two-minute shower in fear of running out of hot water, no awkward chitchat when you first meet your host family, and there’s room service. Plus those tacky double-decker buses give you a great view of the city. My first study abroad followed about the same conditions—there was a group of 30 of us jumping from hotel to hotel throughout Europe. However, once I began to have this experience of being submerged into the Belgian people and cut that cross-cultural boundary, large groups gallivanting around Europe will never compare.
At a reception at SHAPE, I met an Italian officer who echoed these sentiments. He told a group of us that in order to truly experience a city, you had to get to know its people. He told us not to rent a room in a hotel, but stay in a house with Italian neighbors—ask them about their city, their traditions, their language, and their culture. He spoke about his station in Afghanistan where, even though he didn’t speak the language, he was able to understand the people, simply by living as they did. While it all seems incredibly cliché, the longer I live with my host family, the more it seems to be coming alive.
Last night, for example, we went to their house in the country for a barbecue. First, I didn’t even know what Belgian country looked like (for the record, it looks like a storybook). Second, we sat for what seemed like hours as our wonderful and patient host family gave us French lessons. In a translation guide or on the Internet, I never would’ve been able to hear the slight difference in sounds necessary to pronounce words correctly. But they continued to re-pronounce “tu,” until I stopped saying it the Spanish way and began to pronounce it the French way. When I learned how to say “I want a raspberry tart” in French and said it correctly (almost), we all exploded with joy. That’s only something you can experience with the local people.
Besides having history, politics, and now French lessons with my host family every night, the small nature of the program allows for once in a lifetime opportunities that I know I couldn’t find elsewhere. Now, I’m a huge nerd when it comes to international politics. So when I had the opportunity to meet General Breedlove, I almost cried of excitement (no joke, it was a lot of emotion). I met the Supreme Allied Commander Europe–he may well be the most important man I will ever meet in my life and he let me ask all my burning questions—even better, he answered them honestly. I’m still in shock. These opportunities simply can’t be found in larger programs. I was able (and will continue to be able throughout the next seven weeks) to talk to people who hold my dream job, hold powerful positions, and make decisions that affect the world. What other nineteen year old can say they’ve done that?
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe touristy trips are fun and are a good first chance to experience the stereotypical culture of a region. But how much can you learn if you’re just taking tacky tourist pictures? While I’m not advocating that this program is perfect, but this type of program, our small group setting integrating ourselves not only with the local people, but also with the incredible decision-making bodies hosted in Brussels, can only be described as my ideal. So I’m writing this blog post not necessarily to advocate for this type of trip (its definitely not for everyone), but as a friendly reminder to all of us (especially me) that even though we may have 300 pages of reading, have to wear uncomfortable business clothes, and have to take two-minute showers, this experience is worth every “sacrifice” to say we’ve truly experienced parts of Europe.