Why Europe?

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?

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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

 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
Once, on a lark and in the dead of winter, my husband and I boarded a plane in sunny, warm, Florida and flew directly to Rekjavik, Iceland for a 5 day weekend.  We didn't see any other Americans on the plane.  When we arrived at Rekjavik in the pitch-black dawn, everyone quickly dissipated and we were alone walking down a long airport corrider.  "This must be what it's like to die", I said to my husband, "absolutely not knowing just what it is that you're walking into". 

Iceland was a thrilling experience for us.  So different, so beautiful.  The best 5 day weekend getaway of our lives. 
John Donaghy
7 years 4 months ago
In my mid-twenties (in 1973) I took a summer off from grad school to visit Europe. A friend suggested biking -  a real blessing, since I was able to see life at the villag level, mostly in France and Italy (with a bit a of Greece thrown in).

I had thought of it at first as an adventure - but looking back it really was pilgrimage - Chartres, Mont-Saint Michel, Assisi, Rome and two weeks with Lanzo del Vasto's Communauté de l'Arche in southern France. The trip helped me grow in faith and also become a little more relaxed.

Other travels have had major impacts on my life, especially one Central America study tour in 1985 that brought me to El Salvador. I've been there almost every year since - and am now serving as a volunteer with the church in southwest Honduras.

I long to get back to Europe one day, but it will always be a type of pilgrimage.
Kay Satterfield
7 years 4 months ago
Having lived as an expat in Germany for almost half of my adult life, I also have a real appreciation for Europe.  I also have a similar experience having been raised a Southern Baptist in Georgia and having an awakening in college during RCIA classes in learning the story of St. Francis. It was a realization that there were so many examples of real Christian faith so long ago. It is just lost to some Christian denominations.  In Baveria there are field crosses and chapels in farmer's fields and on top of mountains in the alps that have been there for hundreds of years.  All over Europe you can walk up the way of the Cross usually on a mountainside.  In Baveria they still have vacation on special Catholic feast days and still celebrate them with parades and church and Bier tents in some villages. Christianity is not dead there as some think.  Though still unfinished the church that most inspired me is in Barcelona, the Temple de la Sagrada Famila, the church of the Holy Family.  Gaudi loved nature and incorporated the themes of nature into his unique architecture.  It's fascinating. Monserrat is a Benedictine Abbey in the mountains nearby.  St. Ignatius made his first stop there after his conversion.  It is somewhat mystical when the fog is lifting around the most unusually shaped rocks around the Abbey.  It's like something out of a Tolkien book.  So much to see and experience there.  Our family really loves Europe and misses it! 

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