Monday, February 19

Paris, and some musings

I went to Paris today on the train. I have been to Paris twice before, when I was 16, my very first trip abroad, and when I was 24. Rather than prattle on about how amazing it is to pull into such an historic, beautiful, and unique city, I wish to address another question: Why am I, Abigail, so enamored with Europe? After all, America is the best place on Earth, right?

There are so many things that happen here to me that have never happened in America, or at least I have never noticed them. Being in a foreign place lets one see one's home more clearly. For instance, I have grown up extraordinarily strong-willed, feeling able to conquer just about anything. This means I have few areas of dependency.

Today on the train, I met a young woman, age 27, from Pakistan. She is studying for a business degree at a university in Den Haag (The Hague). We got to talking and she was very curious about the differences between Holland and America. She started asking some nosy questions, which I preferred to avoid, one of which was: What is the family structure like in America? To which I replied, well, a lot of people get divorced, our divorce rate is very high. She asked why. (Like I have any idea...) I suggested that perhaps many people get married too young.

Well, we figured out that she was married and I am clearly not. Later on she (demanded?) asked, persistently, did I have a boyfriend. I said, no, not at the moment. She was puzzled at this answer so I tried to explain: I have had boyfriends in the past but not one right now. More puzzlement. She wanted to know why I did not have a boyfriend, this thought was very troubling to her. I ran out of patience and returned to my iPod and book before I said something rude.

But here is the conclusion to me: I, if not all Americans, are different in our individuality and independence. This really may be only me, and not all Americans at all, but as I wander through Europe I represent America to the people I meet, for better or for worse.

As I was thinking about this exchange later, I wondered if it was something in our national development that has something to do with all of this. Feminism, a word that does not scare me and I hope does not scare my readers, has had a broad and significant effect on Americans, men and women. I wonder what impact it has had abroad? I think women in America are less willing to settle and become part of a husband's family and life than we used to be and less than perhaps some foreigners.

But on to another point, what I love about being in Europe. It is not that it is better or worse than America, it is that it is different. It points out to me the things I appreciate about home and the things I don't. The foreignness itself is hard to get used to but I am learning not to dislike the customs simply because they are foreign and unusual.

There is so much history here, buildings and towns and family lineage are all so ancient. One of my frequent complaints is that many stores, like grocery, are closed by 6pm on weeknights and almost all weekend. This is very inconvenient. But is it something that I could adjust to? Certainly. What do I trade for this? New Jersey strip malls and 24-hour 7-11's? Anyone been to Phoenix? Suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see. This I would be pleased to go without.

But even for those disbelievers out there, who see America as an infallible place, what good is such a notion without testing it? Everyone who travels takes different paths, and forms various opinions about the places they go and how such places compare with their home. But isn't the point to make such comparisons? To have such an opportunity to see for oneself??

Here, in the remainder of this post, is something I wrote over a week ago but never posted as it seemed too personal. I wrote it on the bus, heading from Bilthoven into Utrecht, the night it happened to snow about 2 inches. Like Seattle, the snow did not last long:

Happiness. What is it? Where does it come from? I have been so happy the last few days. I am so happy right now, brimming over with joy. Is it the sense of adventure? It must be more than just that. Perhaps having a destination helps. Or is it the other people encountered? Those who are on their own adventures yet cross and share mine for a while.

A strange place, flat and foreign, and strange weather. Snow today. I am left with a feeling of warmth and containment. What an odd feeling for an adventure! Containment! Maybe it has something to do with the world being so big, with so many places to explore, yet also being so small, where familiarities--people, things, activities--can still be found. Even when so different from home, life can be warm and familiar. Perhaps when things are foreign I cling to the first familiar things that I find--objects, foods, and people from places close to home. But I don't feel like I want to settle into a rhythm--I am so eager to continue to explore even more than I have so far.

I must not be so rigid. I must take this openness of mind and heart with me into the future and wherever I go, particularly I must take it back home. Our bodies are made or have evolved to be strong, to recover, to take what we give them. As long as my body is strong I will take it many many places. I thought I would be homesick! But I never want the adventure to end.

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