infinity plus one

LONDON – For three months, I haven’t left the UK. Rooted in my desire to make London my home, I’ve explored the twisty streets and bustling markets of my chosen city during the weekends instead of jet-setting off to new adventures.

Up until last weekend, where I decided to join my friends on a trip to Munich, Germany – a delightful city that I’ve fallen in love with each of the three times I’ve been there.

But this time was different.

At first I thought it was the language barrier – feeling like the stereotypical American as I stuttered through broken phrases and apologetic looks. But I’ve been here before and I have never felt as I did this weekend.

Luckily I had an airplane and two busses in transit from Munich back to London to think it over. After hours of drifting from thought to sleep to thought again, I still couldn’t put my finger on it.

I swiped through my iPhone’s collection of the past weekend’s memories. Traipsing through the Englischer Gartens, drinking litres of bier, eating something called “The Butcher’s Platter”, getting hopelessly and hilariously lost… There was nothing that plainly told me why my time in Munich was a bit hazier than my other visits.

Then I glanced out of my bus window and saw my city. I saw the Eye and the Shard and the Tower of London and I realized – it wasn’t that Munich was lackluster; it was that London is now my home.

Before when I’d visited Munich, it was part of a country-hopping extravaganza where Europe was a thing to be tromped through, places were to be seen briefly then passed on for the next shiny statue and glimmering river. There was never a place for me to call home across the pond and so each different country was treated as a wondrous spectacle, a passing holiday, a shooting star about to disappear.

I had never fully realized that deep knowledge wholly trumps superficial frolicking.

Having now lived and worked and studied deeply immersed in London culture, I have learned something that this weekend in Germany helped me realize – true culture can only be understood and appreciated by living for a substantial amount of time in one place.

It sounds like common sense, but I, as well as many other study abroaders, had fallen into the all-too-easy trap of thinking that we know it all.

When I studied abroad in Florence last summer, I was gone every weekend, each time coming back and telling my friends of what exactly the French do when they dine or precisely how you have to hail a cab in Romania or the authentic pronunciation of köszönöm in Hungary.

In short, I had become a pretentious prick, falling prey to pride instead of accepting that knowing how to pronounce köszönöm does not make me an expert of Hungarian language.

So armed with my new revelation, how does one move forward? How does one humbly encounter different cultures in a short span of time? Can real culture even be experienced on a weekend holiday?

At a work party last Tuesday, I met a woman who had traveled from Austria to live and work in London 12 years ago. She has since spent her weekends traversing Europe and drawing inspiration from its different sects, cultures, areas. She told me that she views her travels in terms of infinity – for everything that she can know, there is an infinite amount that she cannot.

It is with this in mind that I go forward.

Even with 21 years under my belt as an American, there is still an infinite amount of knowledge that I cannot and will not know about American culture. What are three months in London? Three days in Munich? The most I can do is to accept my ignorance and recognize the truth of infinity.

Life, studying abroad has shown me, should be about turning a No into a Yes and a Yes into a question mark.

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2 thoughts on “infinity plus one

  1. LU@wanderlustnation says:

    After living for a year in Palma I can’t agree with you more. Too many people travel to Europe (or anywhere for that matter) but never really see it. Living somewhere new can be hard, but you will carry London with you now wherever you go. You have made it a part of you. (Isn’t it the greatest?!) I’m curious to know how you see your next trip now, given what you know now. (Thanks for sharing something I’ve found hard to say in such an eloquent way)

    • maryzakheim says:

      Thanks for this reply! My next trip was to Rome and this realisation gave me the humility to admire, appreciate and honour everything that I was seeing and experiencing rather than to hungrily snap pictures and learn pronunciations for the wrong reasons. Weekend holidays are not meant to turn one into an expert, a lesson that I needed to learn to be able to truly sit back into comfort (and helpful discomfort) and see the places that I visited for what they were.

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