Sunday, June 8, 2008

I'm Gonna Party Like It's... Belgium?

So, on good days, I get to have a chat online with my friend Goofball. She's a total delight, and I think we've learned a great deal from each other over the past several months. It's a deep hope that I get to meet her some day soon!

Yesterday we were discussing summer plans, and she said, "Well, you know, Belgium is the Festival Country."

No, I didn't know. What did she mean?

Well, she proceeded to reel off a huge list of festivals that take place almost nonstop, both in her home town of Leuven, and in various other cities through Belgium. I wish I could remember them all, but they have everything from traditional street fairs, to music festivals that put Bonnaroo to shame, to specific festivals that celebrate specific things.

Who knew?

Well, I'm sure Belgians know, and probably most citizens of Northern Europe, or maybe it's just me that didn't know.

This is the thing that I love about visiting new places - especially in person, but vicariously, as well, if "in person" is impractical.

Another experience I remember from years ago was taking part in a U.S./Soviet Peace Walk in 1988. 450 U.S. peace activists walked across stretches of the U.S. with 250 Soviet citizens from every walk of life. We walked anywhere from 7 - 15 miles/day, and stopped at festivals, towns, etc., to promote cross-cultural understanding. The itinerary had us walking from D.C. to Philly via Baltimore, bussing to Pittsburgh, walking through Pittsburgh, bussing to Rockford, IL, walking from Rockford to Des Moines, Iowa, where the founders of the Peace Walk movement lived, flying to L.A., and walking and bussing up the California coast to finally walk across the Golden Gate Bridge in SF as our finale.

We started from the Capitol Building, as I recall, or maybe from the Mall, and we had great festivals in D.C., Baltimore, and especially Philly. We got to lie on the beach in Santa Monica, go to Disneyland, have brunch in Monterey and be part of a fabulous music fest in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh.

So what was, hands down, the best part of the trip?

Iowa. Iowa. Iowa.

Iowa was experiencing the drought from Hell that summer. It was so bad that we passed horses that had dropped dead from heat as we walked past field after field.

Despite this, at every single place we stopped the locals welcomed us with open arms. We'd arrive to a one-stoplight town and the streets would be lined with cheering people, everyone had taken the day off from work, tables were groaning with home-baked goods and pitchers of lemonade, people hosted us in their homes every night.

Many of the Soviets were high ranking in their various fields. We had Communist Party officials, rock stars, opera singers, surgeons, cosmonauts, Olympic champions, etc.

This was a sophisticated crowd.

Despite this, we all loved Iowa best.

Who knew?

So, what cross-cultural, or similar type of experience, has surprised you in your travels or adventures? Where have you been totally taken aback? Where have your stereotypes been shattered?

Please share.

34 comments:

Sarah said...

One of the greatest travel experiences of my life was when I spent five weeks living in Ireland for my geology field camp (I was a geology major in college and most geo majors are required to attend a field camp). We lived in a very small village in western Ireland and walked to the pubs in town every evening after our field work and homework were done. The people of this tiny agricultural community welcomed us with open arms. They would ask us "how the stones were" that day. We got to know many of the locals. I still think fondly of the hours I spent with those wonderful, friendly people.

anno said...

Our school. Definitely. I'm still reeling from the kindness, curiosity, and tolerance I've found here, where I had expected narrow-mindedness and suspicion. It's been eye-opening.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Oooohhhh, that sounds so lovely Sarah. I have relatives there and last visited when I was 2. I'd love to go back.

Yes, Anno, that was my experience as well. It's a great place for breaking down stereotypes.

Amy Addison said...

The first time I traveled to Europe as an adult, we went to my visit my husband's family in Slovenia. I was blown away by how friendly the people were. I came of age in the eighties and I remember all the "bad Soviet" stereotypes I learned growing up, and Slovenia is a part of the former Yugoslavia (aka The Eastern Bloc)...but they were just people. And they were funny. Even if I didn't get all the jokes because they were told in Slovene. Hubby translated as best he could and I inferred the rest.

Lilacspecs said...

This one would take me a month to write about. I don't think I've yet to have any stereotypes completely broken down, but then, I'm not a strong believer in believing stereotypes. I guess I've sort of become less intimidated by the French. I always thought they were very hostile towards Americans, but so far that hasn't been true.

And Jen, if you come visit Goofball, you HAVE to come visit me in Gent too! Really, that would be so great. And oh, yeah, CB and I are going to the Lokerenfeest (not sure on spelling)in August to see Alanis Morisette and ask Goofball about the Gentsefeesten next month.

April said...

That walk sounds like an amazing experience. And your love of Iowa speaks of the love of humanity, in the best form!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Amy, I certainly had the same experience when I taught in Krasnodar, Russia. The people were SO friendly and reached out everywhere.

Lilac, I try not to have stereotypes, but I find I do. Even trying not to, I still do. So stupid, but I think it's human nature on some level. I see one of my "purposes" in life as breaking down my own stereotypes. That might sound weird, but I think it's a perpetual journey.

April, it was truly an amazing experience. Some day I'll have to write about it. There were some real problems, too, in terms of many of the spoiled Soviet participants not realizing they were actually going to have to walk and share tents and live in tents (even though that's what they'd been told), and then a bunch of the men refused to wear sunscreen and ended up with sunpoisoning and then we had some U.S. activists who were a little overly zealous, etc., etc., but in general, it was just an amazing time!

Maryann said...

I've driven through Iowa, but never stopped to look around. I must do that next time:)

Carol said...

Hey, Goofball's one of my favorites too! What a blast it'd be to visit her -- then you guys could send me a postcard!

Carol

jerseygirl89 said...

I love Iowa too. Hubby worked at a Shakespeare festival in Iowa City one summer and I fell in love with the place. Which completely surprised me.

And actually I had a similar experience with Belgium - we flew there because it was cheap and fell in love with the country.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Absolutely, Maryann - it's just a lovely place!

We would certainly do so, Carol! Actually, Goofball lives just 2.5 hours from my German daughter, so I'm really hoping something will work out one of these days!

Jerseygirl - how interesting that you've had two of the same surprises!

Flower Child said...

Iowa just has the nicest people. I've been a zillion places and I can't say that I've ever had a stereotype or a stereotype turned on its head. The thing that surprises me most is when people are soooo nice. I just find that amazing. Must be the Northeasterner in me. :)

TeacherPatti said...

I saw the real Field of Dreams in Iowa, way back in law school when I dated someone from Iowa (the less said about him, the better). It was way cool!

TeacherPatti said...

Oh wait! I just thought of a good stereotype-buster. Way back in the 90s, when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, I went to NYC to interview with a public interest firm. I had never, ever been there (or anywhere...still haven't!) and I was kind of scared because I'd heard that people were rude. People were SO nice! I was so happy because I was by myself, didn't know a soul, and I only had really good experiences. Everyone looked kinda rich, but I didn't let that intimidate me the way it usually does...I guess that helped?

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Flower Child, well, it seems that everyone who stops in Iowa seems to love it. Maybe it's the U.S.'s best kept secret?

Patti - absolutely! I'm from NYC. I know the stereotypes there and most New Yorkers are incredibly nice, AND they want to give you advice, be in your business, etc. But in a nice way. ;-)

Núria said...

Wow Jen, how interesting!!! I would love to participate in one of these things before I die! Good for the Iowa people!!! How nice of them :D.

I felt very well treated in Cuba when I was there in 93 (I think). People were so sweet and kind :D. Also biking through Holland I met beautiful people, but I guess that due to the climate, they are not as open as Cubans.

Mae Travels said...

I think the most important thing is not to view the people who work in tourist areas as typical of a country or locale. Most egregious: the Parisians who work in tourist places like the Eiffel Tower or the nearest shops and restaurants are SO different from normal French people. Using the French language or any native language also creates a completely different experience. Every good experience -- mine and other peoples' -- seems to involve meeting people for MUTUAL purposes!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Nuria, I have many Cuban friends and I would second that! My neighborhood growing up had many Cubans and we loved hanging out in their kitchens with the family and just talking and laughing and eating good food and being brought in like family. I also found very friendly folks biking through the Netherlands, too, though.

Mae - SUCH an important point! I couldn't agree with you more. My first "language" after English was French, and I spent bits and pieces of time in France in my 20s. I met so many lovely Parisians, but as you said, it was our mutual interests that drew us together - primarily writing and Jazz, but also my meeting them with their language and being fascinated by French culture undoubtedly helped. I really strongly believe that learning SOME language before you go somewhere is enormously helpful. The one language I've had incredible difficulties with is Armenian, though. When we had our Armenian exchange student, she tried to teach me some basic phrases and I had the worst time. It was terribly embarrassing.

d i a n a m u s e said...

Such a fine post. Maybe (just maybe) I should reconsider my own narrow belief that there is no other NYC burrough besides Manhattan.

Proud Italian Cook said...

Who would have thought, little old Iowa! Wow, I'm impressed! I have a new found respect for that state now. I use to drive to Des Moine and always think how boring the drive and area was, I guess I was so wrong!!

Jami said...

Mexico. Growing up in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas in the 50s and 60s, although prejudice was NOT practiced in our home, about the only experience I had had with Mexico was the border towns - and that really wasn't a great impression. Later, when I had to travel extensively in Mexico for business, it was entirely different from the impressions I had formed when growing up. It's a fabulously rich country filled with varied and interesting cultures and enormously friendly people.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Diana - I used to feel that way in NYC, too. But yes... explore! ;-)

Proud Italian Cook - It's interesting how perceptions can change over time or new experiences.

Jami - I love when perceptions change (obviously). I'm really dying to travel through Mexico, but I think I'm going to have to wait until a bit later in life, just because we have to get through some other places, phases first in terms of momdom.

Goofball said...

I am a delight...whoooo you give me wings. That's so sweet!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Well you are!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I was really fortunate to grow up in the DC area, meaning I was exposed to all walks of life, foreign languages spoken all around me and any cuisine I would want to try. This is one of the reasons sometimes I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb - I just don't have many stereotypes to inflict on other people. So I am happy about this. I want to keep this alive in me and someday pass it along to my children, so I keep learning as much as I can about the world, keeping myself educated in this way.

Also the time I spent in Norway and on the Navajo reservation - living a very different life than what I am used to in both cases, really served to increase my passion for other cultures.

Blogging has been an amazing tool for this as well. I learn more every day about different cultures than I ever thought possible, while at the same time "meeting" and creating bonds of friendship with people all over the world.

How cool is that??!! I love it!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I'm right with you on all of that, Jenn, which is why I'm always surprised to find something where I think, "Hmmm... I thought that..."

I love being surprised, and I love learning about new cultures. I grew up in a very, very diverse neighborhood in NYC, and feel a little discombobulated in my suburban town where things are less interesting in terms of cultures mixing and blending more easily.

cathouse teri said...

What a nice plug for Iowa! Yay for Iowa!

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Do you have Iowa ties, Teri?

glamah16 said...

Funny,I'm in the midst of writing about my cross cultural experinence in very rural Sweden.Cant get my pics up yet, but stay tuned.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I'm looking forward to that, Glamah. Especially because I have a Swedish "daughter", albeit from Stockholm.

Sandy C. said...

Iowa? Wow! Who would have thought :) I've only been to the east and west coast. I would love to see Iowa and explore on a trip like yours! And yes, perhaps Belgium too :)

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Sandy, it's really interesting, but in between the coasts is really nothing like the coasts. Come visit us - we'll show you the Midwest! ;-)

Goofball said...

you must be busy ...usually you have your food posts alraedy up when I have lunch. I think you usually do that on purpose ;)

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Yes, Goofball... just to get you hungry! Actually, my What's Cooking Wednesday post is going to BE about my lunch today, so I have to prepare it and eat it before I'll be posting.