Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 13, 2007

"Vive la Différence"

It's not every day I pass trucks from Turkey, Poland, Greece, Lithuania, Sweden, France, Spain or Great Britain on the highway or hear a chorus of voices speaking different languages - some I can't even identify.

But on our recent family trip to Germany, Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic, we were amazed by the variety of countries and languages represented by trucks we passed, people we heard on the streets and even labels on food items.

In the United States, we often find instructions in Spanish and occasionally French, but that's about it. So I was startled during our first morning at our friend's home near Berlin when I picked up the orange juice container and began reading it, much as I sometimes do with cereal boxes at home. The ingredients were listed in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Danish, Swedish, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Greek, Romanian, Arabic and Lithuanian. Since I've always been fascinated with languages, for the rest of the trip, I made a point of checking out other food items. One pizza box gave preparation instructions in 12 languages!

Europeans have traditionally been internationally minded - because of their close proximity to other countries and their intermingled economies. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the subsequent destruction of the Iron Curtain which separated the Eastern European nations from those in the West, and the establishment of the European Union in 1992 have all worked together to mix their economies, cultures and politics even more.

Yet another force is at work that may slowly eliminate their diversity. More and more countries are requiring the teaching of English in their school systems. Germany now begins the study of English in kindergarten. Some high school students are very fluent in our language, but even those we encountered who said they could not speak English knew enough to communicate sufficiently for buying and selling.

When Art and I first traveled to Germany in the spring of 1989, we wouldn't have been able to travel to the Eastern portion of the country without special permission obtained in advance of our trip. Passports had to be produced at every border and we had to change money every time we entered a new country. This time, we needed our passports only to enter and leave the Czech Republic. We could put our debit cards into any ATM machines to get Euros, which served us in every country except the Czech Republic, where the local currency is the Koruna. But that, too, will change in a few years when it becomes a fully participating member of the EU.

While travel in Europe continues to get easier, it's also a bit disconcerting to see some of the changes. For one, Europeans seem to be "hungry" for U.S. fast-food franchises. When we crossed the border from Germany to the Czech Republic, the first sign we saw was "McDonald's, Non-Stop" - the local way of indicating it was open 24/7. Burger King also has a huge presence as do Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. But we stuck with local cuisine and with local people as much as possible.

Despite the forces working to remold Europe, each land retains its own unique flavor. As Rick Steves, travel writer and owner of Europe Through the Back Door travel company, said in his guide book to the Czech Republic:

"Globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Regrettably, there are forces in our society that want you dumbed down for their convenience. Don't let it happen. Thoughtful travel engages you with the world - more important than ever these days. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Rather than fear diversity on this planet, travelers celebrate it. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character. The world is a cultural yarn shop, and Back Door travelers are weaving the ultimate tapestry."

I agree with him. Vive la différence!

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