Day 14: What Did You Learn from Traveling Abroad?

Why is this question so deep? I learned a ton that cannot be encapsulated in one little blog post. So how about we do like most people when confronted with deep or challenging thought-bearing questions – we avert them with humor! Deal? Deal! ūüėČ

So, what did I learn while traveling abroad? Here are a few:

1) Riding bikes isn’t so fun when you have to go at top speeds and there is “rush hour cycle traffic.” And yes, I’m looking at you Amsterdam. When I visited Amsterdam last year, I was really excited about getting to rent a bike for the week and travel like the locals do. That excitement lasted for all of about 17 pushes of the pedal. It’s one thing to ride a bike for leisure (fun!), it’s another altogether when you are caught in front of the masses on their way home from work (opposite of fun!). ¬†Who knew the Tour de France went through Amsterdam? Everyday? No? Me neither. However, outside of rush hour it was such a great way to see the city. ¬†And when you leave the bars/clubs at 5 am, hop on your bike, and get to catch the sunrise glistening over the canals all over the serenely quiet city, you’re so wrapped up in that amazing moment you forget where you are anyway! Tour de who? Let’s ride our bikes some more (slowly though)!

2) If you go see an American comedy in a foreign country, hold your laughs for about 1.9 seconds. No, really. ¬†It makes it seem less awkward when you’re laughing ahead of everyone else because they have to read the subtitles. Case in point, I went to see Borat in France (talk about an intercultural experience) and that movie had me dying laughing. At first I thought, how prude are these French! Is Borat really this out of line (yes) or do they not understand the humor? Until this one scene when I laughed out loud (again) and then, approximately 1.9 seconds later the entire theater started laughing. Aaahhhh – there we go. And then it started happening pretty regularly. ¬†Great, I’m not completely and utterly out of my mind. Lesson learned.

3) Despite their abundance and prevalence in gift shops around the world, magnets and ink pens are the worst souvenirs ever and I’d like to slap the idiot/genius who keeps making money off them. My favorite type of souvenir is one that I can either wear or use over and over again. For example, my pashmina from Italy (which I’ve had for over 5 years!) is an amazing conversation starter. “I love your pashmina, where’d you get it?” And they’re probably expecting me to say “You know that little cart right at 41st and Broadway??” but no, when I say Milan it turns into an opportunity for me to relive Italy and talk them into going. I have earrings from Dominica, a bracelet from Puerto Rico, house shoe clogs from Amsterdam, and probably a lot more but you get the point. These are also the kinds of gifts I get for people in my family. My Mom only wears T-shirts to workout in and my Dad wears them to play basketball so I will not be patronizing your 2 for $20 T-shirt deal Mr. Tourist Hunter. People will appreciate the unique gifts – trust me!

So those are three out of plenty of things I’ve learned while traveling abroad. One of the best parts of traveling is the learning that goes on. ¬†I didn’t want to get deep here but you learn so much about yourself, about people, about the world – stuff you won’t find in any textbook (even a textbook about intercultural experiences). So that’s what I’ve learned. ¬†What about you? What are some of the things you’ve learned while traveling abroad?

International Travel as a Window to the Diaspora

We all know the benefits of traveling: exposure, vacation, yadda¬†yadda¬†yadda… but what about the inherent history lesson that sometimes plays out before you? When I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago I was reminded of a little known (at least to me) piece of history – that Suriname is a Dutch colony.¬† Now, I’m sure I learned that in high school at some point, but reading a textbook and looking at a map showing arrows connecting all of the colonial empires just didn’t last long in the “long-term memory” of my brain.

Former Dutch Colonies

Most of the Black people I met¬†in Amsterdam were Surinamese, which really caught me off guard because that is not a country you hear about often. (By the way, Suriname is a very small country on the NE coast of South America.)¬† The 2nd largest group of black¬†people that¬†I ran into were¬†Moroccans.¬† And the¬†varying levels or racism¬†that exist among these groups¬†is another story for another day.¬† Being in Amsterdam at that moment and learning about some of the modern-day effects¬†of colonialism has a much more lasting effect than anything I could read in a textbook.¬† Meeting a young Surinamese man who rarely goes back home and who would be punished for using his local Surinamese language in Suriname instead of Dutch, learning about how the Dutch mine Suriname for promising football (soccer) stars, witnessing the tension between Surinamese-born blacks and other Dutch blacks – all things I could easily wrap my head around now that I’m seeing a history book come to life.

When I was in Milan, I met a lot of Senegalese black people who were actually from Paris and all spoke French.¬† And the effects of the colonialism were all the same.¬† The black country was made to believe they were inferior, stripped of their native tongues, convinced that their schooling had to come from the colonizing country, and brainwashed to believe that their native traditions and native customs weren’t important.¬† The younger generations especially were very disconnected from their home country – sound familiar?

I’m by no means a history professor or an expert on colonialism – I just think its amazing that colonialism is still alive and well today in so many forms (both subtle and overt).¬† I’m only sharing what I’ve learned through my international travels and reflecting on one of the many little thought-about benefits of jet-setting around the world.¬† More than anything it makes¬†me think about¬†my own country and how the effects of colonialism are still manifesting themselves on a daily basis through our media, our education systems, language, and so much more.¬† I also think it’s quite interesting that many of us living in places like Harlem, not realizing that NY itself was a Dutch colony.¬† Not until you visit Haarlem in Holland will many of us make that connection.¬† So travel, if not for the beaches, the statues, and the museums, for the history and to learn a little more about yourself and the place where you live.

And just a sidenote: My favorite part of all this is meeting Black people who are fluent in 3 or more languages – English, their native language, and their colonizer’s language –¬†while I’m still struggling with my 2nd! Just lets me know I have to do better.

What other ways does living history manifest itself in International Travel?

That’s What He Said…

“For every traveler who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.”

-Aldous Huxley (writer, author of Brave New World)

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I came across this¬†quote while looking through Moleskine travel notebooks (my favorite!) at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.¬† Usually, when I see a quote I like I just remember some key words and the author and then look it up online when I get home.¬† But this one rang so true that I just had to write it down right then and there.¬† The line for the Van Gogh Museum was about an hour and a half long (yes I measured the length of the line in hours) and on top of that¬†it was raining – no bueno! Fortunately, I was being my usual observant self and while walking to the museum spotted a sign for “Museum Tickets” at the Diamant Museum (less than a block away!).¬† Now, I almost walked by it because I assumed it was only for the Diamant Museum, but I thought “What the heck” the worst they could do is say no right? So long story short – I was able to purchase tickets for both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum there and¬†bypass that loooong line and walk straight to the door.¬† Talk about a triumphant feeling! It was the kind of feeling where you want to let everyone at the end of the line in on your little secret.¬† This quote made me think of this because no other guidebooks would have told you that – they probably wouldn’t have even known about it.

Writing your own guidebook, both figuratively and literally, is about more than just keeping track of little secrets like skipping the lines at the Van Gogh Museum.¬† It’s about experiencing a country through your own eyes and not through the eyes of Rick Steves¬†or Anthony Bourdain. You don’t have the same interests, personality, or hobbies as the people who write those guidebooks so why would you prioritize your trip according to what they deem as “must-sees.” Writing your own guidebook means recording the smells that intoxicate you, keeping track of the special hints that people give you, and looking at your destination through a set of fresh new eyes, as if you were the first person to ever visit. Your opinions, views, and experiences are just as important and valid (if not moreso, especially to your close friends and relatives) as any other guidebook author’s – you’re just not getting paid for them.¬† Well, not yet anyway. ūüėČ

That’s What He Said…

“My experience in Amsterdam is that cyclists ride where the hell they like and aim in a state of rage at all pedestrians while ringing their bell loudly, the concept of avoiding people being foreign to them.”

-Terry Pratchett 

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There is no in between when it comes to bicycle culture – you either hate it or you love it. I’ll be in Amsterdam by the end of the week and can’t remember the last time I rode a bike. But I imagine I’ll make up for lost time while I’m there ūüôā I linked to this site¬†about Amsterdam Bicyles in the previous post, but I¬†ran across this¬†quote and just had to share it again, this times with pics. Click more, to see the rest of the pictures. ¬† Continue reading

Move Ash cloud! Get out the way!

One of Amsterdam's Many Canals

Besides the fact that some previously unknown (to me) volcano has erupted and brought European air traffic to a halt, I am beyond words excited about next week’s visit to Amsterdam.¬† Air traffic has resumed (I think) and as long as that giant ash cloud moves out of the way, I’m Holland-bound! It’s hard to believe that this will be my first return to Europe since studying abroad (but it’s also hard to believe that it’s been almost 4 years since I was there – old much?). Amsterdam was one of the only places that I didn’t get to visit while I was living in Italy.¬† I went to Paris, London, Barcelona, Switzerland, and all of Italy – but I didn’t make it to Amsterdam. One of my friends is in grad school there and I have had supreme travel envy at all of the pics that she puts up, but now I get to take some pics of my own.

I know what all of you are already thinking, but there are way more than “coffeeshops” in Amsterdam! The awesome canals, the quirky museums (and Anne Frank’s house!), the (in)famous Red Light District, the bicycling culture, and so much more that I’ll be able to talk about like a pro when I come back. And while I’m there, the country will be celebrating Queen’s Day – which is apparently a 24 hour party to celebrate the¬†Queen Mother’s birthday¬†in the streets¬†– and¬†the canals! Remember that first picture of the peaceful canal above, check out how it transforms into a Dutch Bourbon Street a la Mardi Gras on Queen’s Day! Looks like I need to pack some orange :).

Queen's Day in the Canals of Amsterdam

Fun Sites to Check out about Amsterdam:

  • Amsterdam Bicycles¬†82 pictures of people riding bicycles in 73 minutes – chronicling Amsterdam’s bike culture.¬† He’s even got pictures of women in tight dresses and heels, people talking on cell phones, men in suits with briefcases, and some¬†even texting on their bikes – very funny!
  • Queen’s Day¬†Just a little information about Queen’s Day – April 30 – in Amsterdam.
  • I Amsterdam¬†The Official Amsterdam Tourist Board’s visitors site – I have been on this site all day trying to prioritize the “must-sees” next week.