A European Sort of Foreigness

By: leelefever on November 12, 2006 - 3:47am

One of my friends recently sent an instant message that said “France seems boring compared to the other places you’ve been on the trip J”. He was only kidding and it was a compliment in some ways, but I know what he is talking about.  I wasn’t too excited about Europe.  I had been twice before and it seemed a little boring and easy compared to Mongolia or China for instance.

Fortunately the reality has been much different.  I have enjoyed and been captivated by Europe more than I ever expected.  Despite being very much on the beaten track, I’ve found it to have an authenticity that I didn’t find as much in Asia, or at least it is more cleverly disguised. 

One of the major factors in the difference between Europe and Asia is the degree to which travelers live in the world of the locals.  I have found that the more I can experience the world of the local, the more interesting a place seems.  I’m not talking about hanging out in a Vietnamese pool hall or a Chinese cockfight – I mean the everyday reality of grocery stores and coffee shops.

For example, in Asia, being a white foreigner is an inescapable part of the experience. Because of the way we look, we are treated a different way.  Our world is governed by what the country has learned about dealing with tourists.  From their perspective, we only want to eat certain food, stay in certain hotels, use certain toilets and see the important temples.  This forces travelers into a bubble in places like China where the experience is well planned and every need is accommodated for.  For travelers like us, this is disappointing because if you don’t work to get out of the bubble, you’ll never see the real world.  Vietnam without a little struggle for the foreigner is not the real world Vietnam.

This is also true from an economic perspective.  The average Thai person cannot afford to experience the world of the western traveler inside Thailand.  This enables Thai tourism to focus on the western experience instead of trying to accommodate both Thai and western tastes.  Few westerners visit Thailand and stay in places that are frequented by Thai locals.  So, the experience is a westernized bubble version of the real world Thailand. Wonderful still, just not the real world.

Turning to Europe, the situation is very different for us.  Coming from very similar backgrounds and socio economic classes, we blend in with the European travelers – we stay in the same hotels, eat the same food and use the same toilets as everyone else.  The locals usually have no idea where we are from or what expectations we may have for service or facilities. We often get questions as if we *are* locals. This makes Europe more foreign than Asia in many ways.

When we visited the very familiar-seeming Germany, we found that many of the basic everyday facilities were more foreign than we encountered in Asia.  Remote controls, window blinds, showers, heaters, elevators, door handles were different in a uniquely German way.  Further, while the people often speak English, few public facilities cater to English speakers. Germany never had to create an environment for tourists from another hemisphere – they never built the bubble to make travelers feel safe. 

Without the bubble, the experience is more real.  We experience Germany, an economically similar country to the US, in the same way that the French, Japanese, Chinese or Brazilian travelers do.  The Germany we experience is the real Germany and it seems to be a uniquely foreign experience that we didn’t find as much in Asia where every country has learned how to cater to the westerners.

In short, Europe has been surprising because the reality of the traveler’s experience is so much more closely matched to the reality of the local world.

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