This summer I was lucky enough to travel extensively in Europe in addition to my research at CERN. My internship did not start until mid-June, so I was able to travel for a large chunk of time starting in late May. I was also able to augment my study with weekend trips across western Europe.
I started my study abroad experience in London. I can speak a meager amount of Spanish which helps me with reading a decent amount of French, but I had thought that an English speaking country would be a nice place to start my experience. This ended up backfiring to a certain extent because, while everyone at the museums and sights spoke English, the people in the hostel with me were largely from France, Germany, Italy, or elsewhere and spoke mostly in languages that I did not understand. This was not a problem, though, as I spent the majority of my time walking around the city and experiencing London.
By far the most interesting and fun thing that I did in London was go to Shakespeare's Globe. A Comedy of Errors, a hilarious play centered on two sets of twins and mistaken identity, was absolutely hysterical, and the experience was only improved by the venue: a thatch-roofed replica of the Globe located right on the Thames. If anyone else spends some time in London and wants to see some Shakespeare, the cheapest Globe tickets are the best. The goundlings pay five pounds and stand on the floor in the center of the Globe for the entirety of the play. I was lucky enough to show up early, and I ended up in the center, close enough to prop my elbows on the stage.
London, I felt, was not entirely different than the United States, but there were distinctions. The age of the country was one thing. I visited Westminster Abbey and saw the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor who died in the year 1066. Newton was one of the newer additions to the Abbey in 1727. I found it interesting that when visiting sights in London, or all of Europe for that matter, the relative youth of our country becomes remarkably apparent. Additionally, the city seems to be built in one large pile of buildings, tube tunnels, bridges and people. Tiny alleys and winding streets are lined with tall, skinny buildings, built at any angle that allows them to fit into the jumble. Within walking distance of each other are modern buildings and those with smokestacks reminiscent of Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes. The age as well as size of the United States, especially in a sprawling city like Dallas, prevents us from needing to build in such a way, but it is certainly interesting to see. I also kept doing double takes when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a twelve year old driving a car (I know the steering wheels are on the other side, but for some reason, it always caught me off guard for a split second).
From London, I flew to Amsterdam where a stayed for a short two days. The Van Gogh museum was very nice, and I happened to be there when they had The Starry Night on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With this piece in hand, the museum had set up an entire temporary exhibit on night works which I found to be very interesting. Amsterdam seemed to be two cities simultaneously. The north part of the city, which houses the infamous red light district and some of the other more notorious aspects of Amsterdam, was truly intriguing just to watch. Whether it was a businessman openly haggling with a prostitute, an off duty police officer taking a break in a coffee shop, or the thousands of bicycles outside of centraal station this was one of the most culturally different places from the United States that I visited during the entire summer. The south part of the city, on the other hand, is much less touristy and better highlights the beauty of the city. The canals, I'm told, are rivaled only by those in Venice, and the buildings all give off a quaint, homey feel. The parks are pristine; the weather is great; and the people are laid back and friendly.
From Amsterdam, I went to Paris. My favorite part of Paris was, hands down, the food. The Louvre: big, Notre Dame: nice, The Eiffel Tower: tall, but the food: tasty beyond words. I only had one bad meal in Paris, and by bad I mean it was more on the culinary level of a hot pocket, which in nearly any other case, is rather good. Paris taught me the difference between eating and dining. Besides treating my taste buds I enjoyed Paris because it is a great city to see while just strolling around. I spent a day walking along the Seine, browsing paintings being sold by street vendors and watching the Paris day unfold before me. Did I mention the food?
Rome was next on my whirlwind tour of Europe, and I think the experienced can be summarized by saying that one would be hard-pressed to find a type-A Italian. The Paris metro and the London underground, there were electronic signs that would count down the minutes until the train arrived. The last minute counted down the seconds, and if the train was late, it would count up the seconds that the train was late. The trains in London or Paris were never more than 10 seconds late. Rome was another story. The same signs existed, but would sporadically change from five minutes, to three, to one, stay at one for four, then go back to five. The managers the Roman subway system could save a lot of money by just posting non-electric signs saying, "Just wait, it'll get here". This was not, however, a bad experience. The trains just getting there when they got there actually did a lot to lower my stress level. I wasn't worried about missing trains or checking in to my hostel late because in Rome, late and deadline are very relative terms. I was content to just go with the flow and get there when I got there.
The Vatican museum with the Sistine chapel was my favorite museum of the trip. It was laid out in a linear fashion with a set path to take. This made it much more manageable while still being one of the largest museums in the world. The audio guide was also very extensive and instructive.
After Rome, my internship started, but I was still able to travel on the weekends. I investigated interesting ways to exit cable cars 450 feet over small lakes in Interlaken, Switzerland (by bungee proved best). I went hiking in Lauterbrunnen, a small town nestled in a valley between two Lord-of-the-Rings-esque cliffs boasting thousand foot waterfalls. I swam in the pristine glacial river that runs through Bern and visited Einstein's house shortly after. I visited the botanical gardens and eyed a $24,000.00 watch in Zurich, and I ate Weiner Schnitzel in Heidelberg, Germany.
I visited a lot of places and saw a lot of interesting things, but the things that I most enjoy taking away from my experiences abroad, separate from my research experience, are the differences between the United States and countries abroad. I learned so many things from the different cultures that I visited this summer. American portion sizes are ridiculous; there's full and then there's American full. 24/7 megastores that sell everything for cheap are not omnipresent in all countries. Moderate Americans are a bit conservative by European standards, and American beer, for the most part, is not any good at all. For all its differences, I also figured out that I greatly appreciate living in the United States. It was a fun, enriching summer, but its good to be home.