A Venetian Victory
In every direction I see masses of bodies moving about and large suitcases with foreign markings rolling around carousels; it must be a display for a multinational store promoting used travel baggage. This illustration is quite obviously an airport, but in this instance one significant detail is the lack of English being spoken or used in any form. Instead, German dialects are pervasive among the many people and advertisements. Fitting, since this particular airport is located in Munich, one of Germany's largest cities. Leaving North America for the first time is clearly, having profound effects on my point of view.
I was in Germany for only one day while my tour bus was making its way steadfastly to Italy. The bus passengers consisted of my high school band members; it was spring break and we had crossed the pond to perform at various churches and parks across Europe. New experiences materialized quite literally around every comer for me and my friends: gondola taxi services, open-air markets, and street vendors with every possible European trinket available for sale. I was a shy traveler but incredibly determined to not identify with the groups I had come to know as American tourists. The American tourist stereotype, in my mind, meant to be grossly large, ignorant of other cultures, and above all, to possess a rotund superiority complex over other peoples. After all, look at America! It is truly the land of success and every nation should follow suit because everything we do is perfect and righteous and necessary for the advancement of the world! This idea is exactly what I was intent on destroying during my week of European immersion.
Unfortunately, as we entered the Italian city ofFlorence, I was thrown into the stereotypical position that Americans assume when they enter large, historical cities. I was enveloped into an amoeba of sightseers gawking at a large golden door or an overtly gigantic basilica-admittedly Brunelleschi's finest creation, to be sure. This amoeba followed me around the city for nearly two hours, each individual within it straining to hear the guide sputter facts in their direction. Every now and then someone would muster up the nerve to whisper a complaint to a partner. "Why doesn't he speak better English?" or "can you understand anything he's saying?" were two phrases I remember without particular fondness.
This was not the trip I had been looking forward to for several months. This was a mockery, a true testament to the minute cultural threshold some Americans maintain. It was unfortunate to affirm that some traveling Americans rapidly and happily lock themselves into stereotypes: t-shirts and shorts, camera flaunted in hand, and unnecessary quantities of food. I must admit that I contributed to the last stereotype after several hours of sightseeing and stomach grumbling.
Where was the immersion? There was simply no attempt to reach out to the Italian culture. In a global give-and-take relationship, some Americans, including myself at times, have an impeccable ability to take all they can, leaving visited lands feeling nothing but abused.
Arriving at our hotel to get some rest with my band-mates, I vowed that we would emancipate ourselves from the blatant tourism that was thrust upon us by the organizing officials and band directors. We came to Europe to learn not just about the architecture and history, but about the people with whom we directly and indirectly interacted. We roused ourselves early the next morning and boarded a small tourism boat that was
destined for Venice, the City of Water. Hopping off the boat we, again, amassed as a large cloud that slowly gravitated toward a central speaker. But I had a different plan in mind. My friends and I were not going to take part in the tourist activities planned for that day. Like condensing rain, we built up courage and dropped away gracefully from our cloud of tourism to be immediately engrossed by Italians. As we proceeded through the endless alleyways, I could tell this was the start of something beautiful.
We broke as many stereotypes as we could, attempting to speak with the people as often as possible. Having taken a few years of French, I used the language as my main means of communication. A surprising amount of people were able to glean messages from my broken, If-learned tongue, and we managed to have a few laughs with locals. One such instance was with a man of about twenty years with whom we shared an affection for aviator sunglasses. We managed to connect not solely with language, but through other similarities like clothing, accessories, and sports. A simple observation or shared feature, followed by a smile demonstrating our commonalities, was the only means of communication necessary to develop our bonds.
After numerous hours of wandering the side streets and unable to pinpoint our location on any maps, we stumbled upon a small pizzeria. We feasted on various types of fresh Italian pies and attempted weak conversation with our waiter. He surprised us with his comprehension of foreign languages, speaking in no less than six different tongues. My ability to speak in broken French phrases was no longer deemed impressive. Even though this waiter was completely fluent in English, we were persistent in our efforts to speak other languages with him. This was the culture, he experience, the entire idea I had been waiting for throughout the whole trip. Just because we were American did not mean we had to do things the American way. Through our snippets of banter with this man, we were disproving the stereotypes affiliated with American tourists worldwide.
With satisfyingly full stomachs, we walked around the city like local inhabitants. We became lost in a matter of minutes due to so many alleys and so few accurate maps. After about an hour of aimless meandering we came across a body of water. This sight of endless blue, which one of my friends so markedly claimed was the ocean, was evidence that we had indeed travelled across the entire island of Venice. High-fives were exchanged, and photos were taken to document the momentous occasion. However, this achievement came with a bit of an ugly tinge: we had to be back at the central plaza in thirty minutes.
We hustled our way through the walkways, over the bridges, and past the people, all the while breaking out in a nervous sweat, fearing that our tour group would leave us stranded. Just as the bell tower of St. Mark's Campanile was signaling our group's time of departure, we stumble into the open plaza. Fortunately, we found our amoeba of picture takers and t-shirts and quickly assimilated back into it before boats were boarded.
A relaxing feeling sunk into our fluttery stomachs once we knew we were safe and part of the tour group again. We watched as the bell tower vanished from view, along with the rest of Venice, but knew we had left a lasting impression. We had submersed ourselves headfirst into a foreign culture and learned much from our experiences throughout the floating city. The events that took place during that day were the results of straying from stereotypical norms and attempting to truly connect with people in another culture.
Our nine-day excursion through Europe ended. It was insignificant with respect to time, but not meaning. Back in a foreign airport full of unfamiliar people and objects, I already began to reminisce while waiting for a flight toward home. Soon my plane took off, disconnecting from the ground, the country that I had been a part of for a brief moment. I watched as the Italian cars and buildings became smaller and smaller until they were indistinguishable. Unable to make out the thousands of objects passing below, my eyes drooped, and my head filled with thoughts pertaining to how the deviation from the typical tourist role would leave a lasting impression on me.