A Recap of my 2012 European Vacation

All this thinking about World War II over the last few days of the trip naturally brought to my mind how for the entirety of this trip we were positioned in areas that would have been clearly behind enemy lines.  Germany, of course, is now clearly remembered as the primary villain of this war.  Munich, of course, was the heart of it all.  Hitler’s first gatherings, first speeches, and primary residence for most of his life were all in Munich.

Italy was also considered one of the axis powers in World War II.  Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini formed an alliance and fought side by side until September 1943, when Italy kind of just gave up.  Their ”pact” was actually announced at the Brenner Pass at the Italy/Austria border, the very pass we rode the train through last Friday.  After Italy’s capitulation, the nation remained a war zone, with the northern part of the country being occupied by the Germans.  This area of occupation receded over time from South to North, meaning that Florence and areas further north were occupied longer than Naples and Southern Italy.

Austria was not officially an enemy, but they seemed quite willing to cooperate with Hitler, potentially out of fear.  When German expansion is discussed, the term used for their entrance into Poland (which started the war), and later France, etc. is “invasion”.  This implies an attack, and some kind of a resistance, albeit in the case of France, Belgium, etc. an insignificant one.  For Austria, the term used is “annexed”.  Germany annexed Austria.  There also seems to be no documentation of an armed conflict.   This suggests to me that Austria went without a fight at all.  While nowhere in Europe would be a travel destination during World War II, these three countries were clearly enemy nations.

Furthermore, before the World Wars the borders of many of these nations were not even the same as they are today.  And, it was not long before that when Italy and Germany were not even unified Nations yet.  They still had independent city-states and regions.  That’s why many Italian Americans still think of themselves as Venetian, Roman, Tuscan, etc.  However, today we seem to think of national borders as being mostly constant, not really any threat of changing.  This is especially true of Americans.  It feels as if the wars of the 21st Century are not even fought over territory or borders they way they were in the past.  Sure, there are disputes over Taiwan, and the Sea of Japan (East Sea from the Korean perspective), but they have yet to erupt into any kind of armed conflict.  Our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq last decade were not to annex their country or parts of them.  They are fought over influence.  This trend started with the cold war.  Poland was never part of Russia, but part of the USSR, which Russia dominated.  So, it appears to many that the movement of National borders is a thing of the past, and never needs to really be thought about.

This trip helped reinforce my views that that we should not take our National borders for granted.  This is not only due to the WWII stuff, but also the historical image of the Italian peninsula prior to Italian unification in 1871, the Napoleonic wars, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The world is a fluid place and nothing lasts forever.  The U.S does not seem to be the kind of place in danger, or on the verge of a major change, but it can’t be ruled out.  We’ve already had a civil war over cultural and economic differences, many of which are still in place today, just in a slightly different form.  We’ve also had recent open talks of secessions recently, most notably in Texas, but also in Vermont and California, which are likely from a completely different ideology.

Of course, the Americans that are most likely to share my view that we should not take our borders for granted are those paranoid about the “reconquesta”.  This theory states that, through immigration, Mexico is attempting to take back the region lost in the Mexican American war in the 1840s.  This region includes California and most of the Southwest.  This group of people tends to be ardent supporters of border security and even support further restrictions on legal immigration.

I do not share this view.  I have always viewed the people coming here to be looking for a better life.  People who came here from Mexico most likely came here for something Mexico could not provide for them.  Why would they desire to turn the area they have come to back into a part of Mexico?  Seems to me that would make their dangerous illegal border crossing into a futile measure.  From a sociological point of view, I have a much greater concern for the possibility that the different regions of the U.S., with different cultures, values, and politics, cannot remain as a part of one Nation with increasingly insufficient Federalization.

I do, however, understand what is at the heart of the objectives and fears of the minutemen crowd; preserving our culture, heritage, and way of life.  It is human nature to avoid/resist change when what you currently have is functional, enjoyable, and desirable.  Those wishing to stem the tide of immigration, both legal and illegal, genuinely love America the way it is (or was).  They fear this influx of people will fundamentally change this.

In Europe everything is closer together.  So from an American perspective, I find it fascinating that all of the places I visited over the past two weeks have maintained their separate regional identities as well as they have.  On one side of the Brenner Pass, they spoke Italian, the other German.  Restaurants still open (or reopen) later in Italy than Austria and Germany.  Italians still have different food and drink options at most of their restaurants.  On our arrival in Innsbruck we got a tall (0.5L) beer, something rarely found in Italy.  I joked that the wine portion of our trip is over, and the beer portion had begun.  The rest of our trip confirmed this statement.

Anyone that has traveled around the United States knows there is a certain level of homogeneity throughout the nation.  One of the most major differences I have noticed is the complete change in building design when crossing the border from West Texas into New Mexico on a storm chase.  Regionally, there are differences across the nation in food, lifestyle, and cultural/religious values.  But there are some things that are similar throughout the country.  You can’t find a place in the U.S. where nobody eats cheeseburgers, nobody drinks coffee, and nobody follows football- except maybe a hippie commune.  That’s probably why I am so astounded by Europe.

America is one of three or four countries in the world where we have the option of completely ignoring the rest of the world.  There are almost no activities, aside from riding a functional rail system that we NEED to travel elsewhere for.  That is possibly why we come off as smug to the rest of the world.

I know I am supposed to come back from this type of trip with a new more “worldly” attitude.  At least that is what a standardized life script indicates.  But I am still just as understanding of what romantic “worldly” liberals refer to as a “typical American attitude” as I was before the trip.  Traveling to another country, especially one that does not speak your native language involves going outside our comfort zone.  Americans have an option of not doing this.  Many of us refuse to go outside our comfort zones in other areas of our lives, like talking to new people, going to a new kind of restaurant, changing careers, etc.  Who are we to criticize others for not going out of their comfort zone and traveling internationally?

Speaking of going outside your comfort zone, I definitely believe our first destination, Rome, was furthest outside our comfort zone of all.  The city’s layout is the most confusing and the most unlike ours.  As the trip progressed, it feels like each subsequent destination brought us “closer to home”.  Munich is by far the city I could feel most at home at- of the ones we visited.

Still, America is my home, and I am glad we live here.  I really enjoyed visiting all of the areas of Europe on this trip, but there are a number of things I like better in the USA.  On top of my list is the address system in Chicago and many other US cities.  We have a lot more streets like Western Avenue, which maintain the same coordinate for it’s entire duration, and the same name.  If I am given an address on Western Avenue, I automatically know the East-West coordinate of the location.  In Europe, and especially in Rome, street names change more frequently, sometimes every block.  That’s a lot more road names to remember.  Also, the numbering of our addresses tells you the other coordinate.  If someone tells me to meet them at 4006 N. Western, I know the establishment is just north of Irving Park Road, and on the west side of the street it is on.  European streets often have both even and odd numbers on the same side of the road with no numerical distinctions of blocks.

I also like the supermarkets being open later.  Most shops in Italy, Austria, and Germany close at 6 PM.  If we wanted to save money by not going out to eat, we had to decide this ahead of time.  I really enjoy being able to come home from work and decide on the spot whether or not to eat out.

I have always said it is great to respect and participate in other cultures, but that you should still live in your own.  I am American and I love American culture, but that did not stop me from enjoying all of the activities I did over the past few weeks.  I tried to order strange local food to get the full experience while here.  Italian food is not that different here.  Some items are more common, seafood, salami, and the sauce tends to be made differently.  Austrian and German food can be found in the US, but less frequently.  We’re kind of more into their beer, as a country.  But I did eat a lot of their local food and enjoyed it.  I love encased meats!

Also, everyone that we came across and dealt with was very friendly, especially the proprietors of Hotel Perseo in Florence, the Poggerino winery in Chianti, and everyone at the Laimer Hof in Munich, this includes the other guests who engaged me in conversation Tuesday night.  This makes me happier that we chose the places we chose.  Even the (likely) drugged up woman in Austria was friendly to me.  I just kind of feel bad for not learning the language.  After all, we did go to their county- not the other way around.  I’m grateful to all that accommodate us by knowing English.  In North America- heck, in all of the Americas, you can get by in over 80% of all places by knowing two languages- English and Spanish.  If you know four, English, Spanish, Portuguese and French, you can get by in over 99% of all places.  So, we generally learn fewer languages than our European counterparts.

I also wonder why they accommodate us like that, and whether or not they resent it in some way.  There has to be some kind of economic factor.  I mean, I know of other places where they are less accommodating.  And, it is not like I feel like everybody needs to accommodate me, like some kind of self-absorbed asshole, but if someone out there does accommodate us and is friendly, well, why not give them business and tourism money?  But, I bet some of the mare worried that we are trying to Americanize the world.  The band Rammstein’s not as famous (as Du Hast) follow up “Amerika” is about exactly this.

I really have no desire to Americanize Europe, or anywhere else for that matter.  There are some places in trouble that would benefit from American ideas, but I am under no delusion that our way is the only way to do things.  In fact, our differing geographies (US more spread out) and histories (Europe being older and more culturally different) dictate that we must be different.  On that note, those that want to Europeanize America are just as misguided.  Sure, I would love to be able to drink a beer on the street without worrying about open container laws, and I would love to have the train system Europe has.  But, maybe not at the expense of European tax rates and gas prices.

We travel to various destinations for various reasons, sometimes for work, sometimes to visit people.  Sometimes, we travel to visit a specific destination.  When we visit to go to a specific place, we visit them because in some way they are different from where we usually are, our homes.  Suburbanites come into the city; Chicagoans go to the Dells, heck, even a Pennsylvanian taking their family to Disney World all share something in common.  In all of these cases, something is different about where they are going.  That is why I look on with wonder as I see the Medieval looking town of Radda, where I can literally imagine knights riding up and down the rolling hills.  Or in Rome, at Circus Maximus, I imagine chariot racers jockeying for position.  History, culture, heck, even the future comes to life in special places at special times when we take a break from our day-to-day lives that so often consume us to the point where we don’t even realize how much time has gone by (The theme of the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime).

On my travels I saw various places that took me back to various times in history.  I also saw places that put me on a train of thought that lead me to wonder things about myself and the culture we all live in.  Are we really selfish?  Do we really need to crowd retail malls on Sunday, and what happened to spending that time with our families?  Is this why our families seem so dysfunctional these days?  Are some places destined to be wealthier than others?  Is it natural for mountainous places to be outdoorsier and health conscious?  Can we really be no more than a couple of bad elections from millions suffering they way they did?  Why do the European exit signs make it look like you are trying to make an escape, from like a mugging or something?

Really, the list could go on for pages.  And the list is different for everyone.  What matters more than the answers or even the questions is that we keep asking them-even if it is only to ourselves.  And that we keep visiting new places, whether they are geographical, sociological, or situational, and coming up with new questions based on new experience.  Of them includes international travel, and I am privileged to have traveled to a wide variety of new places in the spring of 2012.

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