I am a flag-waver. I carry a 4-by-6-foot American flag whenever I’m abroad, whenever I’m representing this nation. That faded flag has gone from the wall of my rowhome in Philadelphia to a migrant workers’ station in Mexico, to a slave castle in Ghana and to the Great Wall of China.
Recently, it took another trip, accompanying me on my first jaunt to Western Europe, the grand kingdom of international excursions.
What a mistake.
Almost 13 million Americans traipsed throughout that continent in 2006, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. That’s perhaps almost half of total foreign travel among Americans. The trend goes beyond tourists.
Most of the 190,000 American college students who studied abroad in 2005 went to Western Europe: France, the United Kingdom and Italy being the big three, according to the Institute for International Education.
Temple is no exception.
With all the programs that this school’s robust study abroad department supports, Temple Rome has always been the busiest. It served more than 650 study abroad students during the 2005-2006 school year. That’s well more than double the amount of students who participated in the next most popular program, according to Michael Dever, the business manager of Temple’s International Programs.
While Dever said study abroad destinations are already in the process of rapidly diversifying, Western Europe is still overwhelmingly the most popular. He cited programs that are both affiliated and unaffiliated to Temple.
All that said, forgive me for saying that the whole continent is an overblown, dusty museum. If you’re young and looking for that remarkable experience of traveling abroad, think beyond Europe.
Firstly, nothing is going to change. You will always be able to buy a $10 croissant in view of the Eiffel Tower, and the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster will be “Big Ben” for a long time to come. So go in 10 years, or even 20, when you have more money, more time and, I’d say, more interest.
Conversely, time isn’t a luxury in other places where preservation isn’t being executed as responsibly.
Brazilians are burning away the Amazon rainforest, the historic hutongs of Beijing are being modernized for the 2008 Olympics and the African bush elephant, despite conservation efforts in South Africa, continues to be over-hunted elsewhere. These are sights that need to be seen and won’t necessarily be there in a few years, forget a decade.
Moreover, who hasn’t heard someone complain
about how expensive Europe is? That’s because it is. The Euro is awfully strong and, no, Florence Tourism Board, I will not pay a dollar to go to the bathroom. Still, I can admit that Italy and I just don’t get along. After my luggage was lost once, I was granted the privilege of wearing an Italian man’s tightly-wound designer underwear for a week, a deal brokered
by an opera-singing friend of mine in what may have been the metrosexual answer to walking in someone else’s shoes.
Yet, it isn’t just Italy. I know Germany awfully well, too, having spent at least an hour waiting for a seat in a bar at the Frankfurt Airport at 7 a.m. Typical.
ll for a seat in which I endured caustic laughter when I took offense to criticism of U.S. opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, as I tried to remind those who were taunting me that modern environmentalism began in the United States.
Oh, yes, the condescension. You’ve heard about that, too. Like the sneering French woman, a seatmate of mine on a Eurostar train, who apparently didn’t approve of my having stitched an American flag onto my old travel sack. I heard her sharing with another woman that I was “ridicule.”
Too many of our fellow countrymen will never have the opportunity to go abroad, so if you can, you ought to do it. There is a giant world waiting to be seen. With pride and humility, choose a destination, if only for a few days, if only once. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn. Just save Notre Dame and the Sistine Chapel for when you can afford it and will better appreciate it. They’re not going anywhere.
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.