Lessons Learned Travelling Europe

Almost a year ago, my wife and I decided to move from Toronto to Amsterdam. Why? I can’t really remember anymore, but when people ask me I tell them we moved because we wanted to see more of the world and have an adventure.

Well, we certainly have seen more of the world and we certainly have had an adventure.

The past nine months have been incredible. And while I still do miss my old job at Teehan+Lax and my friends in Toronto, the personal and professional growth I’ve undergone since leaving Canada has just been tremendous. I believe there really is no substitute for a broader perspective, which is why I’m glad we made the decision to move.

There are some lessons that I’ve learned while travelling, and I want to share them here. These aren’t meant to be truths in anything but the personal sense – they are all anecdotal and the consequence of my own experiences. Your proverbial millage may vary.

Before we get into that, I think it’s important to put what I’m about to say in context. This is not only for your benefit as a reader, but also because my mom has been asking me for a while for a list of everywhere I’ve visited and I might as well kill two birds with one stone.

So here we go.

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve visited the following cities, in chronological order.

  • Utrecht
  • Orlando
  • London
  • Maastricht
  • Liège
  • Paris
  • Berlin
  • San Francisco
  • New York
  • Basel
  • Innsbruk
  • Krakow
  • Warsaw
  • Copenhagen
  • Logroño
  • Milan
  • Moscow
  • Minsk

omg phew

It’s been an exhausting year, but a rewarding one. I feel grateful to have had the opportunities to travel to these cities – mostly to give presentations to other software developers – and I’m sincerely thankful to all the event organizers who have invited me to their homes. It’s been a fulfilling experience.

I’ve met a lot of people and made many friends along the way. Sometimes, I’ve visited a city where I had a lot of expectations (like Paris) and sometimes I’ve visited a city where I had no notion of what to expect (like Warsaw). In any case, what I’ve realized are the following.

# The World is Really Big

This is kind of obvious, but the world is really, really big. Like, really big.

My home province of New Brunswick is one of the smaller provinces in Canada (provinces come in basically two sizes: really big and relatively small). While it’s land mass makes it about double the geographic size of The Netherlands, it’s population of only 700 000 people pales in comparison to the 16 million people living in the low lands.

I’ve travelled what my childhood self would have considered very far and wide, but when I look at where I’ve visited on a globe, I can feel discouraged. I’ve been within throwing distance of the Northern parts of Africa for nine months and haven’t even set foot on the continent (I plan to one day). And while I’ve flown to Eastern Europe, you can keep going East for a long time.

One day, I’m going understand the different cultures of Asia first-hand. I look forward to witnessing sand dunes wax and wane in the deserts of Africa. I can’t wait to look into the Australian Outback until it starts to look back at me.

But more than anything, I’ve realized, I want to see more of my own country. I’ve been to only half of my country’s ten provinces and have been to none of its three territories. Most of my life has been spent on the Atlantic Coast, but I’ve never even been to neighbouring sandy Prince Edward Island or rocky Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve yet to see the living skies in Saskatchewan or experience the breathtaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

Next Summer, my wife and I are planning an epic trip through the West Coast of Canada to help remedy this. No one can see everything, of course, but before I set out to visit more of the world, I feel like I need to connect to my own country, first.

# Most People are Really Nice

Let’s take a look at an example. The Dutch have a reputation for being rude. After living here for a while, I can see where that reputation might come from: Dutch conversations are direct and to the point. But rude? No. I’ve only had a few experiences where a Dutch person was rude to me, and most were bus drivers. (I think that says more about bus drivers than Dutch people.)

The fact of the matter is that Dutch people, when spoken to politely, will respond politely.

That’s actually true of most people from any country.

I’ve never gotten into a situation that I couldn’t get out of because I was lost in an unfamiliar city, or I didn’t speak the native language. Every time I’ve needed help from a stranger I’ve been able to get it.

There are assholes in the world, and sure, different cultures have different definitions of the line between personal and public space, between what is curt and what is rude, and between what is normal and what is foreign. But with the not-entirely-unexpected exception of Parisian restaurant workers, every stranger I’ve interacted with has been – at worst – indifferent and – at best – hospitable.

# People Are Not Their Government

It’s a common pastime in Canada to make fun of Americans (I’m sure it’s a reciprocal relationship). When I was growing up, the Canadian parody news show This Hour has 22 Minutes had a great segment called “Talking to Americans”. In it, the host would expose Americans’ ignorance of Canada (and sometimes the rest of the world).

Growing up, it was easy and natural to group all Americans together and to prejudge them based on their nationality. People are cognitive misers and will base their opinion of people on mental schemas if they can. Not knowing many Americans myself, my prejudices were based on of the actions of the American government – only really recently have I discovered just how messed up that was.

I mean, let’s think about it. The Canadian government has done some questionable things in Afghanistan, but I haven’t supported those things. The Canadian government is stopping climatologists from publishing any evidence of the warming of Earth by threatening to withhold federal grant money, but I think that’s pretty stupid. The Canadian government has been (probably willfully) ignorant of the abduction and likely murder of hundreds of aboriginal women, but I would really like to know where they’ve disappeared to and would like to stop that from happening in the future.

I am not my government.

No one is.

Not Americans, and not anybody else.

I’ve met Russians who think that what their government is doing in Ukraine is despicable, Australians who think Tony Abbot is a damn fool, Brits who are oblivious to the ridiculous threat of UKIP, Spaniards who are in favour Catalan independence – the list just goes on and on and on.

No one is their government and prejudging anyone based on their nationality is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

# Every Culture Has Prejudices

Speaking of prejudices … Americans – probably based on their history with slavery – have a reputation of being racist (my favourite invocation of this reputation is The Limited episode of Archer). But judging someone based on their nationality is not fair, as I discussed above.

There is an idea in North America that only in North America do we have things like racial prejudices – that in Europe and the rest of the world, nobody subscribes to these outdated opinions.

That, I’ve discovered, is bullshit.

I’ve heard enough Dutch people discussing the “problems with Moroccans” to know that prejudging people based on their nation of origin or their skin colour is not something confined to the former Confederacy.

In most places I’ve visited for any time at all, I’ve eventually had a conversation with a local who exhibits some form of prejudice, usually based on skin colour.

Europe is not a magical place where everyone uses the metric system and no one judges anyone based on their ethnicity.

North America is not an exceptional place where people will still make judgements about you based on your skin colour.

People – everywhere – have prejudices. It is not a trait that is unique to any one region. It is a trait common to every culture and (probably) every person. It is as Avenue Q told us.

# Conclusion

So yeah. The world is really big, most people are nice, people are not their government, and every culture has prejudices.

Sure, different cultures are distinct from one another, but they also have a lot in common. We are all more alike than I had realized, which is awesome, since it gives us a common ground we can start building relationships from.

I am inspired by the different cultures I’ve visited – by how different they are from anything I’ve seen before, but also by how much we are all the same. Let’s celebrate what makes us individuals – without focusing on “us vs them” – to find common ground. To paraphrase war veteran and entrepreneur Malcolm Reynolds, “we’re all just folk.”


Posted on November 16, 2014