While we were on vacation in Lisbon, a friend-of-a-friend put us in contact with a British girl who he had studied with. We messaged her just to ask for restaurant and sight-seeing reccommendations, and she ended up inviting us to her birthday dinner! We ate at a little hole-in-the-wall, family-style restaurant somewhere around the windy, hilly roads of a quiet neighborhood, and it was arguably the best night of my vacation. The girl, whose name is Gigi, is studying abroad through Erasmus, a European-Union exchange program that basically allows you to study anywhere in the EU and to meet other Europeans from the same program through meetings and parties. Gigi is awesome and really friendly, and we found ourselves in the middle of a group of 25-ish students from all over, several of which (like us) she had just met. I met students from Italy, the UK, Poland, Turkey, France, Portugal, Brazil, and Germany. We all sat around a giant table while Gigi and the couple that own the restaurant ran around bringing us wine and big plates of food to share (food, drink, and dessert all for 6.50 euro?! Vive le Portugal!!). It was such a warm, intimate environment and allowed us to have great conversation.
Most of the students were really excited to meet some Americans and pick their brains. We compared politics, school, religion, etc. They were fascinated by the things happening in the US today and wanted to know where we stood. I was asked several times what I thought about the current situation of my country. I found that saying something like “I like Obama and I think we’re at a turning point" was usually a satisfying answer. It was also really funny to me when one girl from Great Britian said that she was surprised that she liked us, seeing as the only Americans she had ever met were obnoxious, inconsiderate, and culturally unaware. I think it really is a shame that so many Americans don’t get the opportunity to travel, or learn foreign languages, or study other parts of the world. Having an open mind and being able to understand differences is so important, especially for us as Americans, who are brought up to think that we’re the best of the best. I am so fortunate to have found a program that is so comprehensive and intercultural. I am an American, living in a French city where 25% of the population is immigrants or of North African/Middle Eastern descent. But beyond that, my classes are focused around discovering these cultures and their languages, making educated comparisons, and bridging the three together for my international relations studies. I’m just getting so much out of this semester and I can really see how it’s going to help me in my future career.
Now back to the dinner. Being surrounded by so many nationalities was truly an amazing and humbling experience. Seeing the United States through the eyes of European youth really made me take a step back and think. Being able to navigate this international experience and make a good impression also made me feel good about my studies and my future. We all came from different places, grew up differently, study different things, yet we were all eager to learn things about each other and, thanks to the pervasiveness of English, to communicate and get along. Honestly, I think a lot of diplomatic relations would be more productive if meetings were held at a Portugese family-style restaurant.