I can’t remember when exactly Europe started to “wow” me with its very presence. As an American, I don’t often appreciate the aesthetics in our big cities. Certainly, San Francisco is a superb mix of nature and urban, water and land, old and new, but the old only goes back 100 years, if that. Boston, with Beacon Hill and cobblestone streets, is probably the best local example of incorporating history into urban development.
In Europe, this transition seems so smooth. I can be standing on the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and walk to the Musee d’Orsay without encountering many structures built after 1900. On the other hand, there’s still a Starbucks around every corner and Japanese tourists holding their selfie sticks. This is in sharp contrast to Korea, where to call the apartment buildings ugly would be an understatement. Japan might seem to the casual observer as a country that highlights its history, but with some noticeable exceptions – castles, the palace, a few shrines – the cities are largely devoid of structures over twenty years old.
I always felt myself more drawn to Asia. Most American high school students are just waiting for the day they can have the time and money to go on a crazy European adventure, but most would probably be disappointed to learn just how little their cash goes in Paris or London. The same is true for Tokyo and Singapore, but most of Asia remains a beacon for travelers looking to stretch their wealth for weeks or months.
I didn’t know this at the time, instead focusing on Japan as a land of sushi, samurai, and Nintendo. Despite the fact these illusions were shattered after spending a few days in the country, I grew attached to life in Asia, and relished the possibility of finding more places to explore. Japan taught me to feel safe in public. To respect the order and harmony of daily life. I won’t go as far to say I learned a lot from Zen during my time there, but it did open the door to studying Buddhism in Thailand and New Zealand.
I won’t go so far as to apply the cliche label of exoticism on any Asian country, but there is something about the degree to which the cultures are different from my own. The writing was unrecognizable, the food relegated to restaurants in the US… even the way people walked and interacted in public provided a learning experience. To that end, I tend to choose to spend time in Asia simply because it stretches me in all directions. In France, though the language may be foreign, the food richer and creamier, and the people finely dressed just walking down the street, there’s just more to which I can relate: Roman characters and familiar words; cheese that may be different but is still, inevitably, cheese (cheese is decidedly NOT cheese in Asia); brand names follow me everywhere.
In Europe, with some exceptions, if I don’t open my mouth, I’m invisible. I was mistaken for French and German a number of times these last few weeks, compared to the zero times I was able to fit in in Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. I’m sure I still have a tourist swagger that would be tough to lose after only a few days or a week in a new place that set me apart in the Czech Republic and Germany, but for the most part, I was accepted by being white and not carrying any luggage. That may sound unremarkable to most, but trust me: I would have done anything to have not been a source of amusement or ogled in Asia, even for a day.
To tip the scales, so to speak, I satisfied myself by speaking a few key Korean and Japanese phrases (excuse me, good morning, excuse me for going first, etc) when there were groups of tourists around. “Everyone in Cesky Krumlov speaks Korean… didn’t you know that??”
In the end, I can see why so many opt for a transatlantic flight in lieu of a transpacific. There’s so much beauty on this side of the world and so much to explore. Before I left the Czech Republic, a Couchsurfer showed me some of the metal he had unearthed outside of Velesin, including an American penny from 1944. Think about that: an American soldier during WWII dropped that coin while fighting Nazis, seventy years ago. And though Japan’s history definitely criss-crosses with America’s at several points, I seem to get more out of the discovery in Europe than I would in Asia.
So where does that leave me?
Wanting more, as always. Eastern Europe has always been on my list, as has Greece and Istanbul. Africa has yet to be explored. As time goes on, I’m sure I’ll find more ways to make excursions over here. For now, I’m content with a month in the UK, Paris, Prague, and Munich.