Living in Europe during my early twenties was a pivotal experience, a life-changing period, developmentally, of setting out to see “the world” for myself. It was also a time of self-testing. The experience continues to shape my vacation travel, in that I have long tried to save enough money to visit some European country every year or two.
You don’t need to tell me that there are other lovely parts of the world, some in the U.S. and Canada. So why do I return to Europe so regularly?
Perhaps part of what I am looking for is a renewal of that sense of discovery, history and “difference, but with shared roots” that I first experienced there. European culture (and, unlike the Brits, I include Britain under that rubric) seemed both similar and linked to my life as a young American. Yet it was also different both historically and in the present. Europeans provided a mirror that reflected my own cultural identity: With Europe as a basis of comparison, I saw how American my assumptions, attitudes, habits and hopes seem to be. I still see evidence of cultural distinctions, though I think there are more commonalities between Europeans and me today.
There is religious dimension as well, almost embarrassing to unravel in public. In Europe I “found for myself” all those centuries of the church’s existence between Jesus’ life in Palestine and the Reformation. Raised as a Southern Baptist, I had experienced a gaping hole there, a hidden millennium or so. But in Europe as I visited cathedral after cathedral, I saw for myself that the Catholic Church had filled this time period. The Romanesque and Gothic architecture was brand new to me, nothing like most Baptist churches in Arizona, which were little “L-shaped boxes.” I discovered European art, too, in the way that only seeing it for oneself makes real. Pictures in books simply cannot convey the magnitude, placement, or context of the real artwork. In terms of subject matter, much of the art I looked at in museums, not just churches, concerned religion—Catholicism, to be precise.
None of this was lost on me a few years later when, living in Georgia, I asked to study what Catholics believe at St. Mary’s parish, a path that eventually led to baptism.
It is difficult to recall accurately my own ignorance as a young person. But it is easy to remember and feel again that deep sense of jubilation at all I was learning. Even the air seemed fuller, not so thin. Things were finally making some sense.
There’s more. Such historical revelations also informed my limited understanding of the Jews. Since childhood, I had heard about the children of Abraham, the Israelites, and the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. We routinely read the biblical accounts of these people at church. I knew their names, who was married to whom and the outlines of a few family trees. I loved David more than any other figure in the Bible. From history classes I knew about the founding of Israel as a modern postwar nation. But what happened between the apostle Paul (a Jew who converted) and the founding of Israel? I’m almost embarrassed to report: I was blank. Yes, I knew the rudiments of World War II and the Holocaust, but it was never clear to me why it was the Jews Hitler picked on, not some other group, or why anyone fell for that idea.
Few people from New York City could have such an impoverished understanding, if only because the presence of Jews is so vibrant and vital. And today people are more heterogeneous, mobile and sophisticated. Yet such naiveté is not an exaggeration. Growing up in Phoenix, I had known only two or three Jews, though I attended a high school with thousands of students. And I couldn’t understand who the Jews were and are. Fortunately, times have changed.
Reflecting on all this, I see that young people from uneducated families need multiple hooks on which to hang their own experience and beside it what they read and see and learn in school and throughout the culture. Only slowly can they begin to piece together the world they live in or glimpse the world before they were born.
In June, I flew to Geneva airport, spent a few glorious days in Chamonix, then took a bus directly to the pristine, lakeside town of Annecy in France’s Haute Savoy region. I have been to Europe many times now. I have even been to Annecy before and know how to make my way to the other side of the lake. But nothing quells the excitement of arriving in Europe, where my own “awakening” began.
Have you had travel experiences that changed your life? I’d love to hear a short take on one, and think other readers would too.
Karen Sue Smith