As expected, I have learned quite a few things while studying abroad. First, the United Kingdom is not European. I decided to come here because I wanted to be in “Europe” but didn’t want to learn a new language. While I have seen a fair bit of Europe on weekends and during my six-week spring break, I do not live the European life when I am in Cambridge.
Cambridge is like Yale imported into a nicer town with a different teaching system and a lot more drinking. Above all, aside from the amazing Royal Mail, the pace here is similar to life in the States.
On the other hand, Europe, as Henry James wrote, “is the great American sedative.” This is why Europe is my favorite continent in the Northern Hemisphere. As fond as I am of my two continents of residence, in terms of preserving its history, vibrancy of culture and this formerly enigmatic term “quality of life,” Asia and North America can’t compare.
Asia, in its rush to be prosperous, has lost its personality. Capitals of real, unique culture have become capitals to pop and corporate culture. I feel, somehow, that Europe has been more stubborn; I guess less growth means a better vacation for me. Today’s North America feels thousands of years behind the others in culture and history.
And in terms of quality of life, I’m talking about Europe’s “sedative” quality, its slower pace. The Asian cities I’ve seen move at the speed of light; American ones may be slower but not on account of any attempt to enjoy the afternoon or weather. More than anything, the reason why I am glad I went abroad is the feeling that I have gained back all the time I felt I lost during my rushed existence at Yale.
Europe has taught me that a true vacation requires an escape from the mind. I tend to get worked up about things. It’s a side effect of my attempt to “suck the marrow out of life.” Usually, when I go on “break,” I use the time to sort out the drama, draw some conclusions and make a plan for my return to reality.
What I discovered last week in Italy is another method of attack: surrounding oneself in beauty and wonder in an atmosphere so relaxed that those kinds of thoughts are impossible, giving way to moments gazing in comfortable silence, appreciating the gifts of friendship, love and life.
Subconsciously, I’ve worried in the past that such escapism or hedonism would leave me with the same problems, unsolved upon my return. But oftentimes those problems are created by my own overreaction. The challenge, I think, is to recreate that European sense of peace on a weekend at Yale, for I’ve realized that I belong in the States.
I once told a friend that what I like best about American culture is the very portability that bothers so many people. I find the plethora of McDonald’s, Starbucks, pop music and Hollywood movies comforting. (But I must say the McDonald’s right in front of the Pantheon was a bit disturbing.) I can afford to leave my country for six months at a time, knowing that pieces of it will be around wherever I go.
But I’ve realized the intangibles of American culture cannot be exported. Other places have McDonald’s, but they lack the family restaurant down the street that used to give you free lollipops when you were five. I miss American friendliness, the smiles to strangers while walking down the street, the lady who stopped her car to help me start the lawnmower when I was 10.
Americans believe without question they can do whatever or be whoever they want, that opportunity has no bounds, that we can create our own answers to even age-old questions.
I think it comes down to acceptance: We accept each other’s presence and existence because that is what our country is about, in spite of whatever flaws it has. Maybe I’m being naive, but even if so, my observations are truer in the United States than anywhere else I’ve been.
I’ll be home by the Fourth.
Jennifer B. Wang is a junior in Berkeley College. This is her last regular column of the semester.