Through Other Eyes

The first time I went to Europe, so full of romantic illusions and so desperately naive that it’s painful to think back upon that time, many things took me by surprise. First, it wasn’t Disneyland.

"Jan at fifteen"  by Connemoira

“Jan at fifteen” by Connemoira

Second, the war which seemed so long ago to me, still hung over the continent as if it had happened the day before I arrived.  I will never forget seeing WWII, not from across an ocean, but through the eyes of people who’d lived through it and for whom it remained a constant shadow.

However, what gave me the most pause were the lowered expectations of the young people I met. In America, everyone wants to be a movie star or athlete. In America, it’s drummed into our heads that not only could everyone go to college but everyone should want to go to college, as well as buy a house, a car, twelve television sets and membership at the local golf course. To do otherwise was – for my generation – lazy, degenerate behavior, ultimately resulting in a life spent on the street with a bottle of gin hidden in a paper bag.

Thus, running into young villagers perfectly happy to remain at home, with a life no better than their parents, caused me to rethink American values.

I lived in a village unchanged for hundreds of years and populated by people of Slavic descent who’d migrated there for political reasons. As in many small villages in Europe, during the day there were practically no young people on the streets, only old women tending small children. The parents of the children and young people old enough to work, commuted to one of the larger cities nearby.villagepeg

I met Inga and Hans only because they were both on vacation; he was on leave from the army and she was taking a short breather before training to become a shop clerk. They lived with their folks and had no immediate plans to move out. Nor was college or a car a remote possibility.

From the Graduation Present: It depressed me to see young people my age without the hunger to change the world or to rise up the ladder to what we in American defined as success; more money, more power; greater knowledge than our parents. But, on the other hand, they were happy, content, and secure, on a path that wouldn’t lead to an uncomfortable place. I envied them in a way. If I told my parents: “I just want to live with you the rest of my life, work in the local store, maybe travel a bit,” they’d blow a gasket.

I regret to say that after I returned stateside, I got a letter from Inga and Hans asking if they could stay with me when they came to the United States. My life was then in such flux that I never responded.

6 thoughts on “Through Other Eyes

  1. Illuminating contrast between the high expectations of Americans chasing that dream and the modest aspirations of young Europeans. And your excerpt from The Graduation Present was so apt.

  2. I think that is one of the great things about travelling when you are young (and still forming your own beliefs): rethinking our North American values. It can be a real eye opener to see how other cultures live much (much!) more modestly than we do and are often more (rather than less) happy/content. I’m curious: did that realization in Europe continue to influence you as you got older?

  3. I taught my children that being content with your life was more important than going to college and making a lot of money, etc. I probably would have even if I hadn’t gone to Europe – the experience solidified that belief. Thanks for the comment and for reading! Jan

  4. Many of my Latino and New Zealand friends were like that and in some ways I envied them, but somehow I was driven – until I hit middle age. Since then I have been writing and doing things I always wanted to do. But I was disciplined with my writing too – you have to be. Recently I asked myself the question “what do I really want to do, accomplish see in the coming yrs?” The answer is still in the works.

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