Probably the most common place to study abroad for American students is Europe. For this reason, I grew up thinking that I would never study abroad in Europe. Yet here I am, sitting in my apartment in Brussels, Belgium (the unofficial capital of Europe), writing an article in defense of doing the "European Thing."
Originally, I wanted to go to Istanbul. I loved the idea of living in Turkey and I craved the food. It was close enough to the Middle East to be dangerous and close enough to Europe to enable travel into the eastern countries. But mostly I loved the program I had found that happened to be in Turkey.
Then Turkey shot down a Russian plane, sending my already nervous mother into a plea for me to go with my second choice, Brussels.
At first I was disappointed. But I love where I am and I know that this is the right place for me. Plus, if I had signed up for Istanbul, I would not be going.
A lot of the perks I'll talk about in this article may not exclusive to European countries and may not be inclusive of all of Europe. This article is based on my experience so far in a Schengen country (one of 26 European countries with little to no border control on their shared borders) and my limited knowledge of traveling to other parts of the world.
Being in Europe means that my country is small and close to so many other countries. Belgium shares borders with the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France. We have planned excursions to all these countries except the Netherlands but you would be mistaken if you thought I wouldn't make my way to Amsterdam at some point in these next four months.
Travel is relatively cheap for students here and we have weekends and a fall break. Already people are planning on visiting Munich (for Oktober Fest, of course), Paris, Ireland, Hungary, and who knows where else. Easy travel is a definite perk of doing the European Thing.
Because all the countries are so close together and mingle so easily, no one in Europe speaks only one language. At least not in the cities. English is widespread but so is French, German, Spanish, etc. If you can speak enough of a European language, even if it is not the official language of that country, you can probably find someone to talk to. Just tonight I was conversing with a man in English mostly but a lot of our conversation was also in French, Spanish, and ASL.
Most Europeans do not hate Americans. Or at least not as much as people of some other countries. We never colonized them or enslaved them and it's been a while since war has spoiled their relations. If a European, or at least a Belgian, figures that you're an American, they will be happy to help you out as long as you are patient with their English.
Most of the dangers students face in Europe are the same as the ones they face back home. They may be enhanced but that is mostly due to the fact that most people study abroad in bigger cities than they live in at home. Maybe my perspective is a bit skewed since I attend school in a town nicknames Murderburg, Belgium's pick pocketer's are less aggressive than elsewhere in Europe, and Brussels' security has strengthened since the terrorist attack in March. But it is true that Europe is one of the safest places to visit.
People don't really have guns in Europe. I'm not saying we should take away all American guns (put your glocs down guys). But while abroad, even in Europe, if you make it too obvious that you are American, you are more likely to be targeted for petty crimes. Petty crimes without guns are lot less scary than petty crimes with guns.
The food in Europe is like American food, except better. The EU holds much higher standards for their meat and vegetables than the US FDA. Even if you aren't eating organic food, the food you do eat in Europe will be a lot closer to natural and will be a lot cleaner for your body.
While in Europe, you will obviously have to try the local delicacies like haggis, various sausages, escargots, and mayonnaise on fries (the last one is very Belgian), overall, you don't have to be too adventurous at most of your meals. This is good news to those who find comfort in familiar food, cannot handle certain levels of spiciness, or have weak stomachs. Traveling anywhere can do a number on your stomach but maintaining a semi-regular diet can help monitor that problem.
You don't stick out as much in Europe as you would in other parts of the world. Whether you are white, black, or somewhere in between, there is a significant enough population of people who look like you in any European city. So as long as you don't wear flip flops or open your mouth, no one will know you're American.
It's okay to dance like a white person in Europe. Yes, some Belgians can salsa like no one's business (and some are pretty good at teaching helpless people like me how to) and yes there are very talented dancers here. But, as far as I can tell, it is more than acceptable to dance sporadically in circles with no continuity of movements attempt to synchronize with another person. And no one here will ever know how bad I am at shagging!
European countries are fairly progressive when it comes to women's rights. They are more or less on par with the United States and are often further along the road to equality than home. Belgium is about to have it's first Queen and Angela Merkel is well respected as a head of state. Why is this important to students? Female students in Europe need to worry if their clothes are weather appropriate, not if they will make them targets of crimes. Any woman can tell you that no part of the world is equally safe for women, but Europe is closer than other continents.
The history is another incentive to do the European Thing. Of course there is a rich history everywhere. But those histories are not as heavily taught in our schools. Unfortunately, the site of Argentina's independence or the graveyard of Nigerian soldiers will not mean as much contextually as the trip to Waterloo we have planned. It's simply cooler to experience places you already know a little something about.
"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list" -Susan Sontag. This article is not meant to discourage the exploration of other parts of the world but to suggest that, when the trip lasts four months, it's okay to choose somewhere a little more comfortable no matter cliche it may be.