Tasting Someone Else's World MAG

By Erica S., Groton, MA

     Discovering a new culture is like finding a secretdoor. Once you step inside, you never know what you'll find. The problem is thatwe often don't put enough effort into finding the key. I have found that manydon't share my desire to find what the world has to offer. My friends are contentwith summer vacations in the mountains of New Hampshire or day trips to theMassachusetts shore. These places are beautiful, but there's so much more.

I itch to hear different accents and see thousand-year-old villages whenI travel. Anyone who has not experienced the rush of being in a place where yourlanguage is not spoken and you don't recognize one piece of food cannot fathomthe adventure. Some are satisfied with The Discovery Channel or NationalGeographic and don't realize how much they are missing. The smell of Italianvineyards and the sound of heels on a Swiss cobblestone street are not thingsthat can be packaged in books and sent overseas.

My first overseas tripto Portugal at age eleven was the beginning of what I believe will be a lifelongobsession. I've spent two summers at an international boarding school known asTASIS. It has campuses throughout Europe where teenagers from all ends of theearth break language barriers and form friendships.

In my time at TASIS,only friendly conflicts occurred. It was often humorous to overhear students fromSpain and Italy quarrel over the proper way to wear your shirt collar, orAmericans disagree with Saudi Arabians about music. These trivial disputes werenot a clash of cultures, but merely edification in disguise. The only event thattested our mutual respect was the 2002 World Cup. Everyone gathered to watch theGerman and Brazilian soccer teams. One cannot measure the obsession for soccerburied within the European soul, and on this day the tension was tense as theBrazilians' glare met the Germans'. Even after 15 years of Super Bowl parties,I'd never seen competition quite like it.

My new international friendsopened my eyes to a world that always seemed intangible. I learned about thedating rules of Kuwait and the wildlife of Nigeria. When I offered informationabout the U.S., I was often surprised at how much they already knew. The majorityspoke English fluently, often with little accent, because they had been takingEnglish since elementary school.

Never before had I been aware of howmuch teens from other countries are interested in America. They talked abouttheir dreams of visiting New York and their preconceptions of our country. Theyall imagine huge buildings, huge cars and huge people. It became clear to me thatAmerica's reputation as a country obsessed with fast food has also gained us thereputation as a fat country. Many were shocked to hear that I go months withoutfast food - after all, it's supposed to be part of my culture, right?Many were equally shocked when they heard my German friend pronounce her W's likeW's and not V's. After we cleared up many stereotypes, we could enjoy eachother's company.

My fondest memories of TASIS aren't of the Englishcountryside, the Scottish coast or the Swiss chocolate factories. They are of myfirst time hearing German rap, eating dinner with teens from every continent, andwatching Turkish belly dancing. At home, I attempted to share my excitement withmy friends, but they'll never be able to understand the ways in which I have beenchanged. They think I'm crazy for spending summer vacation at "some schoolin another country." To them, traveling is looking at monuments andhistorical sights. They don't seem to understand that it's that but so much more.Why I would want to travel, and how I find excitement in having a conversationwith a person from a different country, are mysteries to them. They tell me aboutthe parties I missed and all the trips to the beach, which don't bother me. Ithink about what they missed and feel sorry for them.

My friends willnever realize the bubble they live in until they step outside their cocoon. I ambaffled by their ability to be content looking at a photo of an amazing site suchas the Cathedral of Milan or the cliffs of the Medi-terranean. After all, acamera cannot capture the 360-degree view and the essence of the souls of theseplaces that will take your breath away.

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