Because I’m currently on my way to France, I’m going to begin with a bit of wisdom from French novelist Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
One of the greatest things about studying abroad in Europe is it allows people the opportunity to travel to a variety of different countries for relatively cheap. Many of my classmates and I were already planning weekend trips before we even arrived in London for the semester, trying to squeeze in as many trips as possible. It makes sense. Most of us don’t know when, if ever, we will have an opportunity like this again.
I’ve taken a few weekend trips so far, and I’ve discovered that there is some truth to what Mr. Proust had to say. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of seeking new landscapes but traveling about Europe should be about more than just seeing the sites. One of the most important and also the most difficult things is to balance your inner tourist with the desire for a real cultural experience.
Take Scotland — for my first weekend trip I didn’t venture outside the U.K., but Scotland was still so different from being in London. We spent two days in Glasgow and about a day in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a much more popular tourist destination and with good reason. You’ve got beautiful castles, highlands and a royal mile full of great pubs and shops. But of the two cities I actually preferred Glasgow.
A friend of mine and I went to see our classmate in an Irish dance competition. Sure, we saw the sites: We walked through the University of Glasgow, marveling at the cozy yet scholarly feel of the place, and we went to the Kelvingrove Museum where we saw Salvador Dali’s famous painting “Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” But my favorite experiences were those that really gave us a flavor of the city… And yes, most of them involved food.
We spent two hours eating possibly the world’s best burger at a place called Bread Meats Bread (see photo) and the next day had a full Scottish breakfast. We caught a one-woman show at an old church that was converted into a pub, complete with a free pint and pie with each ticket. We wandered through the botanical gardens guided by a nice Scottish man who could not have been more excited to show us around.
We stayed at an Airbnb about 20 minutes outside of the city and though it was slightly inconvenient, I’m so glad we did. We got to see the countryside and chat with locals. We walked a mile into the town for dinner and when it started to rain, a cab driver offered to drive us home even though my friend and I had no cash to pay him. Scottish people are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It didn’t seem to matter that it rained nearly the entire trip. We had a great time and left feeling like we really had a sense of what it was like to live in Glasgow. My friend and I agreed we’d happily move there after graduation.
The following weekend, I went to Amsterdam and I saw the sites… I mean really so many sites: the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rembrandt Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Windmill. It was a great experience and Amsterdam is a wonderful city, outwardly far more beautiful than Glasgow. But looking back, I couldn’t tell you much about the people or the culture. I ate some wonderful Poffertjes (small dutch puffed pancakes) and fries from a cone but we were so busy trying to see everything that any really dining experience or chance of chatting with the locals fell by the wayside.
There is something to be said for taking it slow. Each city is different, and maybe it’s true that in Glasgow there is simply less to see. Still, most of those museums and tourist attractions aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Hopefully, I’ll get to come back to Europe one day but even if I don’t, I would rather leave with a truer sense of the cities and their culture and be able to tell long and detailed stories about a few memorable experiences than rattle off a list of all the attractions I witnessed running around for a weekend.
So as I seek new lands in France this weekend, here’s to hoping I take a cue from Proust and have eyes for a little more than just The Louvre.