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Jean-Baptiste_Marie_Pierre_-The Rape of Europe
"The differences seem overwhelmingly superficial …"

Wherever I go, I find essentially the same old thing: people going about living their lives according to remarkably similar patterns. Different places offer different challenges for their inhabitants, but local adaptations aside, humans seem remarkably consistent in their manner of living. Some favor rice for breakfast, while others swear by strudel, while still others insist upon ham and eggs, each difference more superficial than substantial, for each rises hungry and proceeds to satisfy that hunger by relatively convenient means, largely relying upon local availability to determine preference. Some think ham and eggs unconscionable. Waffle House patrons would pass on the opportunity to choose any weird breakfast choices. (Cough, cough)

These superficialities attract much attention, though.
We're interested in our differences, however superficial, and perhaps too easily classify each other based upon how weird their preferences seem to us. We construct often elaborate explanations to justify this difference-making, firmly believing that these fairy tales explain deeper distinctions, that some must be crazy and others, evil. We believe in the defining nature of nationalities, for instance, though nation of origin determines little beyond perspective. Those who grow up disadvantaged have just as many stories about those who grow up advantaged as the advantaged have about them, each too easily mistaking their information as their counterpart's definition, when we overall seem more alike than different.

I carry a storybook impression of Europe as a place filled with thatched cottages and waterfall grottoes, crowned heads and rustic peasants. Europeans seem more sophisticated, more worldly than my much more familiar Americans. They know which wine to order, how to properly dress, and which freaking piece of table service to use. Americans want fries with everything, compete even when it threatens their own survival, and feel comfortable breakfasting in a Waffle House. By these measures, I've always felt more European than American, though my family tree was first transplanted from Europe in the early sixteen hundreds, and my more recent forebears were not displaced royalty but religious fanatics. Perhaps I feel more a citizen of the world than my nationality and its many myths can properly explain. I think our differences more superficial than substantial, which seems radically contrary to a deeply ingrained exceptionalism Americans are "supposed" to feel.

Visiting Europe reveals much about Europe and much more about myself. I relearn just how shy I become when confronting even superficial differences, like language. I beat any violet in the shrinking competition, and hush my often rather rash mouth in favor of a humbling wonder. I rely upon unrequested acts of extended kindness to accomplish almost everything there, and passively accept most everything I encounter. I do not find crowned heads and thatched-roof cottages, or even humble peasants. I encounter people like me, trying to thrive in spite of sometimes hostile local conditions. I experience a reassuring common humanity, even when observing hoards of tourists behaving like tourists always behave, more locust swarm than honored guest.

Enter any major city in Europe and find a portion of that city tricked out to appear indistinguishable from shopping districts in any major city anywhere in the world. The world brands will have set up shop, in case the visitor discovers that he cannot possibly survive another day without McDonald's in his life. The locals rarely enter this district, since it offers only severely modified authenticity at a premium price. They have their own places offering familiar alternatives which might appear intimidating to any visitor. In practice, Europe offers endless opportunities to enter those local places to learn just how superficial our prominent differences remain. I just want a cup of my familiar decaf in the morning. I usually have to settle for a Nescafe®, which I've learned to appreciate as a noble attempt to create a credible substitute for a beverage almost nobody there cares a lick about. Europeans seem to love their caffeine even more than Americans love their's. I'm an odd duck where ever I roam.

I'm learning that Europe sounds exactly like You'reUp, a term which in baseball means that it's your turn to try to hit the ball, and which I'm learning to interpret as 'It's my turn to learn more unsettling things about myself.' Travel broadens by beating the narrow fairy stories out of the traveler. The prides and the prejudices just cannot withstand the flood of contradictory information. The electrical plugs notwithstanding, the differences amount to almost nothing when gauged at human rather than mythical scale. My travel brings me ever closer to a sometimes disquieting home, the one I carry around with me where ever I go because where ever I go, I seem to find that I was already there, carrying out my patterns of living in spite of sometimes daunting local conditions. The differences seem overwhelmingly superficial after only a brief exposure to a so-called new place. NuthingSpecial about this experience, just the way it's always been.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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