There are other ways to live: things I’ve never fully considered
Growing up in the United States imbued me with a perspective that was invisible to me, though ever-present, until I began living abroad. People live without looking to the United States for any sort of guidance, and without adhering at all to the template of ideology that subtly connects everyone in the U.S.. I don’t mean to say we all have the same political, religious or cultural beliefs. Obviously that is far from the truth (farther from the truth, even, that that statement would be if applied to another country. We are regionally and individually distinct beyond the parameters for difference of any other country in the world, I think). I mean the much more subtle connections, our thought processes, our collective narrative and collective imagination and collective memory, much of which is the result of shared experience, in one way or another, be it historical or contemporary; simply the fact of how and what we learned in public schools, the way our nation experienced the decades, our specific concept of what things like ‘entrepreneurship’ mean, or even our special brand of the college application process. All of these things are part of the weave of our American context, no matter our vast individuality.
But I knew this already. What I didn’t know, or anticipate, was what a surprise it would be to find that other people in other countries live outside of that weave, without our particular brand of fabric. They go about their lives in a context outside of that completely, and without making reference to the ‘American way,’ so to speak, at all.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Of course they do! Other people are of their own country! If I sound like an American elitist in any way, please understand that is hardly where I’m coming from. Believe me, I’m incredibly surprised at myself that this is a ‘epiphany’ to me at all; like I said, this expectation that all other cultures would somewhat face towards the U.S. was invisible to me before I came abroad, and until I was faced with the blaring ridiculousness of that supposition.
For the enormous exporter of culture that it is, the U.S. does not touch the deeply seated perspective of Spaniards, or the specific context of the Danes. I’m not talking necessarily about what
other nations’ people think, but more how
they think it, if that makes sense.
My recent trip to Copenhagen showed me a city teeming with young people who simply had a different vibe about them than any I had ever met before. My friend Annabelle and I stayed with a Dane, named Rasmus, who she knew from high school. Rasmus lived with three other 22-year-old boys, so we ended up meeting a sizable group of Danish university students in the four days we were there. I wish I could provide concrete examples of what I’ve tried to convey in this post, but they simply don’t exist. I just saw in them a way of thinking that was very, though subtly, different from my own, but one that they, as Danes, all seemed to share.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way they see university itself. For them, it is free. In fact, the government pays them a monthly stipend—enough to rent a shared apartment—for as long as they choose to go to school. Nearly all of them plan on getting graduate degrees. This, to them, is just common sense
, and therein lays the difference.
Perhaps it is the fact that all of them use bicycles for transportation, and even the ones who drive cars because they live very far from school, see their car-dependence as something to work toward losing. Bikes, and the incredible abundance of bike lanes, are within their concept of just plain common sense as well. The fact that the bike lanes mean less parking space for cars doesn’t ruffle feathers. “Well, yeah. Naturally.” Was the response I got when asked if car drivers were in favor of the bike lanes. It is just a different mental tuning, it seems.
Neither of these examples fully expresses what I mean by the first half of this post. It is more of a wordless sense
that I get more than anything else, with the addition of my own surprise at the fact that this is a ‘epiphany’ for me. But there just aren’t words. I can only hope everyone has a chance to be similarly surprised, and shaken awake from, their own subconscious cultural assumptions.
[The photo is mine, taken of my friend Annabelle, and one of the Danish guys we stayed with while there, in a park in Copenhagen on May Day.]