At the start of this past summer, I, like most other college students I know, found myself in a state of utter burnout. I had been devoting every ounce of my energy to my studies, working, fighting for a turbulent relationship, applying to internship opportunities, and trying to find even a moment of free time for myself—an often-futile task. I had been willingly pledging myself to helping others with errands, babysitting, and offering physical and emotional support whenever I could, and as much as I was happy to do it, it left me with nothing for myself, until I one day, feeling both defeated and exhausted, knew I needed to be the one to make a change.
My mother is from Germany, so I had spent much of my childhood summers running across the fields adjacent the Rhine River, playing for hours on end with my brother as my grandma and mom watched over us. That feeling of spending time in a different place with different values, customs, and culture resonated with me, even at a young age, and made me always have a longing to get away from the familiar. Upon finding that I needed a break from my day-to-day, I worked and worked to save up as much money as I could to spend an indefinite amount of time abroad in Europe.
After a four-month work binge, I had saved about $2000, booked a one-way ticket to my first destination—Copenhagen, Denmark—and decided to plan the trip as I went along for the rest of the way. Although an undoubtedly risky decision, I could take my schooling with me online and I had several family friends living in various countries with whom I could stay, so my biggest concern became learning how to get from Point A to Point B wherever I ended up.
Two months later, I had explored the hip, yet history-laden, streets of Christianshavn and the anarchist republic of Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen; I had marveled at the picturesque castles of Sweden, and danced down the street to the tune of ABBA's Arrival album; I had learned how to country-hop by train, how to survive on fifteen euros for a week when my debit card was stolen and no ATM would accept my credit card, and where to find food when restaurants and supermarkets were closed on Sundays in Germany; I had hiked up one of the tallest mountains in the South of France to a town established at the turn of the century, swam in ice-cold rivers that flowed through steep gorges, and fell in love with La Socca, a thin, airy bread made of chickpea flour, water, and olive oil that is an essential (and indescribably delicious) part of Niçoise cuisine.
The places I visited themselves were beautiful beyond compare, but it was the people that allowed me to live a thousand lives in a limited number of days that were the most bewitching of all. I dined on roasted vegetables with Danish hippies on a patch of grass beneath the shade of one of the commune's lush oak trees, discussing the beauty of nature and man's over-complication of life; I was spontaneously educated by a retired German art dealer after staring at a painting I couldn't quite understand for the better part of an hour; I partied poolside with the crew members of a mega yacht docked in Antibes, listening to stories travels to exotic islands around the world with neurotic celebrities and impossibly wealthy public figures; I laughed with an English-Ukrainian physics teacher beneath a statue we did not know was famous until a group of tourists started taking what we thought were pictures of us; and I watched from a cozy window seat as hundreds of mothers and fathers took their children to school each morning on foot or by bike, relishing in that quality time.
"This. This is what life is about," I thought, almost daily.
I returned home completely out of money and exhausted, but what I took away from that trip was worth more than any amount of money could ever buy. After visiting countless churches and cathedrals with needle-like spires, intricate stained-glass windows, and almost unbelievable murals, I began to wonder how many souls had passed through those doors, had lit a candle for a loved one, or had prayed for a miracle on those pews. Walking down cobblestone alleyways and up steep, cliff-side steps I dreamt of the journeys of billions before me, just trying to survive and thrive in their own times. What had it taken back then to be great? Did they know something we don't? I imagined the simple, handheld tools and countless hours spent toward constructing the elaborate roofs that sloped almost poetically. How is it that modern structures crumble more in one decade now than others have in one century? Where did such skill, craftsmanship, and, most importantly, patience go?
Despite several places back home in America having these ornate features too (for example, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City), what is it about Europe that keeps even the families who have lived on the same streets or in the same houses for hundreds of years always in awe of these commonplace things? I noticed most locals never lost that glimmer in their eyes of love for their home, their history, and their future…so why do we? Has The American Dream really become just about materialism and having everything the way we feel it should be or want it to be? Why can't we accept and love things for how they are? When did enough become never enough?
Another aspect of European culture that struck me as beautiful and missing across the pond, is the recognition that prioritizing working over everything, although it may provide a living, is not living. In Copenhagen, fifty percent of the city's working population bicycles to work, rain, snow, sleet, or shine, every day so that both taking in nature and one's own health can be among the morning's first priorities.
Most Danish employers allow their employees to adjust their work schedules to better accommodate their families' needs; both the father and mother are granted one year of ma/paternity leave if the couple has a child on the way; and during the summer, on days where the sun is shining and a slight breeze billows over the harbor, you'd be hard-pressed to find people indoors, even after a long day's work. Similarly, in Germany, government and regional holidays or days of observation mean both working adults and school-age children are given the day off to spend time with their families; as aforementioned, most shops and restaurants must be closed on Sundays for the same reason; and every employer is required to give each of their employees a minimum of four weeks paid leave.
So why do all of these statistics matter? Simply because a level work-life balance enables people to live, to enjoy their lives on their own or with those they care about, while also not having to sacrifice basic human necessities. Some rightfully argue that Europe isn't all joy and butterflies, and that's true. I acknowledge that each individual country, people, and culture have a plethora of issues, but who or what doesn't? Another argument is that what "they" have could never work here in America because of scale or deep-rooted value/cultural differences or practices, but has anyone really tried some of these centuries-old practices here for a long enough period to see what the result(s) could be? When did the importance of the pursuit of things overtake the pursuit of happiness?
Creating excuses is a mechanism that helps downplay one's fear, and most often of the unknown. I left America to escape my excusing others' inexcusable actions and feeling like I had been pouring from an empty cup for too long in a place I felt stuck in. This trip was me looking myself in the eyes and declaring, "No more, you deserve to be happy too!" It was not until I took myself by the hand and lifted myself out of my rut that I was able to finally fully embrace that truth. No one thing, feeling, or person is going to swoop in and save the day unless we can acknowledge that everything we have needed to walk forward has been here with us all along. Of course, however, it was the kindness, simplicity, outlooks, and laughs of each person that I met along the way that made the fear of taking those first steps, and the subsequent joy found, all the more worth it—fueling my growth, shifting my perspective, and encouragingly nudging me farther down my life's path, ever-toward the things that set my soul on fire. Find what ignites you, and do not be afraid of it. Run toward it.