Friday, September 14, 2007

Dr. Pepper and Oreos

I received my BA in Political Science from Miami University. No, not Miami, Florida. Oxford, Ohio. Miami was a university before Florida was a state!

I chose Miami for its excellent study abroad program - one of the top five in the country. It's funny how it all came about. During my senior year of high school, a Miami recruiter came to visit the school, and I went to hear what he had to say just to get out of Physics class. Then, I took a college visitation day to go down to Oxford just to get a day off school. My tour guide that day - I think her name was Leann - couldn't stop talking about how she was going to study abroad at Miami's campus in Luxembourg the next semester. I wanted to do that, wanted to see the world, as I had been rather desperate to get away throughout my high school years. I knew there was something outside the cornfields of Ohio and I needed to know what it was.

We went to school in a 13th century castle. Seriously. Among other medieval aristocrats, Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold spent some time there, and they've named a few of the classrooms after him, thinking it cute to call him by his English, French, and - if memory serves me correctly - German names.

I was only supposed to go for one semester during my junior year. I chose to go the first semester for the simple reason that I wouldn't be turning 21 until January, so I had a whole extra semester of being able to buy beer. Ok, so that was just a minor reason! Really I wanted to go as soon as possible.

December came too quickly that year, and I just couldn't go back to Oxford and small town college life when I had the World around me, when I was learning much more than I ever could in a classroom in a secluded part of Ohio, America. I stayed a second semester.

One of the things I noticed was the progression of adjustment one makes when going abroad for an extended period of time. I flew into Dublin before the start of the school year because it just so happened that U2 was playing in Dublin the week before I was to arrive in Luxembourg. Now, you have to understand how much I love U2 to understand how incredible it was that this worked out. (Another incredible thing that happened regarding U2 was when they came to Philly for the Vertigo tour. Allow me to digress for a minute. See you have to understand the two things I love more than anything are U2 and Cincinnati Reds baseball. And well, it just so happened that the weekend U2 came to Philly was the same weekend - the ONLY weekend - the Reds were in town to play the Phillies that season. All of Philly's sports facilities are located in one complex. The concert was in the arena next to the baseball stadium. So as I walked through the parking lot, I heard U2 coming from cars and saw Reds baseball caps all over, my own heaven. I went to see the Reds play the next day.)

Wandering the streets of Dublin these days wouldn't be much different than wandering the streets of an American city to me, but back then, it felt like a foreign world. The differences stood out like a red dot on a black and white page. I had been to another country only one other time in my life - Sydney, Australia to play in an international softball tournament - but I had been 17 years old and leashed by chaperons. There I was in Dublin, alone and free to do whatever pleased me, but I felt like I didn't know what was going on around me. U2 was my crutch, something familiar in this foreign land (strange how they were home), and were those two shows incredible!

I grew frustrated by the end of the week. Boy was I pissed when I couldn't figure out how to call home to say I had arrived. Now that I think about it, I can't figure out why I couldn't figure it out. But hey, I was 20 years old and knew nothing about anything. (I am now 30 years old and know nothing about anything.) Now, I don't want to make myself sound stupid - I managed just fine, but it just seemed like everything was so tough. A lot of it had to do with my lack of city experience.

I did manage to get myself to Luxembourg. I bought a Ryan Air ticket into Brussels and planned on taking a train to Luxembourg. Well, it's funny, but "Brussels" meant Charleroi, which is 30 or 40 miles south of Brussels and off the main train route from Brussels to Luxembourg. There was no direct train to Luxembourg, and I knew absolutely nothing about Belgium. I knew nothing about how to read train schedules, either, for that matter. Fortunately, a nice Belgian guy slightly older than me could tell I didn't know where the heck I was and directed me to Namur, where I would be able to change trains and head on down to Luxembourg.

I guess the first stage of adjustment is just figuring out how to get around, learning how to communicate with others when you don't have a firm grasp of their language (or sometimes, even when you do - I can tell you that I had the toughest time understanding what the heck Dubliners were saying to me), and learning how to do as the Romans do.

Next comes being overwhelmed with the differences. I think I experienced this stage for about three or four weeks. It came with a bout of home sickness. After that, I noticed the similarities. Then, I settled in and began to feel like I lived there rather than like I was just visiting. By the time the second semester rolled around, life in Europe was normal to me, and when I had to go home, life in America seemed foreign.

Still, there's a part of home that is always with you and that you'll never get rid of. There are some things that are difficult to find in foreign lands, even in this age of globalization. I do not drink Dr. Pepper or eat Oreo Cookies. Yet on the few occasions I did come across them in Luxembourg, I bought them and enjoyed them. These common processed and probably cancer-causing products were a taste of home.

I traveled much of Western Europe that year and went back to Ireland a few more times. Fell in love with the place, so much so that in 2000, I went there to live for awhile.

Now I am going to the Balkans, a new place, a new culture, a new way of life. I am a seasoned traveler and citydweller at this point in my life, so I imagine I won't have too many problems getting around in Bulgaria. Still, I know I will have to go through the progression of adjustment. I'll have to figure out the train system, bus system, figure out the language, adapt to cultural differences. I'll notice things that seem foreign to me, then I'll notice things that are similar, and then, hopefully, I'll begin to feel like I live there.

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