Each summer, droves of American college students traverse the Atlantic in the time-honored tradition of visiting the Old Continent. I made the pilgrimage to Europe this June, and though I visited seven countries, the culture I came to know best was that of American backpackers, a nomadic society that knows no borders. Members of this clan of 20-year-olds are easily identifiable: They bear permanent grooves on their shoulders from 40-pound backpacks and in their hands they clutch Eurail passes -- tickets that grant unlimited access to European railroads and guarantee three weeks of perpetual motion sickness. During my 24-day odyssey, I was alternately seduced and repulsed by this culture, even as I struggled to accept the fact that I was part operating under its influence. If these people had a constitution, it would surely read, "We, the backpacking college kids of the United States of America, proclaim it our duty to search out the cheapest Irish pubs in Europe for the pursuit of random hook-ups and the ultimate inebriation of all." This is a group that encourages cultural exchange -- say, with the finely sculpted Spanish beauty gyrating next to you in the Barcelona discotheque. The backpackers are simple folk, albeit superhumanly talented when it comes to sniffing out the location of an Internet cafe. After all, the majesty of Europe pales in comparison to up-to-the-minute details on events back home. To be fair, backpackers are often led astray by the very mechanism meant to steer them on their voyage: the hip Let's Go, the most exasperating -- yet most coveted -- English-language volume on European travel. Let's Go is stocked with all sorts of helpful information pertinent to a young American's travels, like how to avoid land mines in Sarajevo. The book's sage advice on acquiring the Euro-chic look is to buy a fake mobile phone "from a wandering cigarette-lighter salesman." Not only is there no way I'd even buy a fake Eiffel Tower keychain from a Paris street vendor, but what makes them think I want to be Euro-chic anyway? Though it details countries as obscure as Lichtenstein -- which I always thought was a beer brand -- Let's Go makes some major oversights. It says little about the American backpacker culture, for instance, of which a major rite of passage is the overnight train trip. Why wasn't I warned that I would be shoehorned into a bunk below a guy who snored like a kid in Accounting 101? The unwashed laundry this man was toting around Europe with him emitted a stench that, if harnessed for military use, could revolutionize chemical warfare. Some backpackers actually survive the tortuous ride. But crippled by a flimsy vocabulary composed of two phrases retained from high school Spanish -- and bowled over by the task of absorbing all of Western civilization's culture in three weeks -- their touring is often haphazard and unfulfilling. They meander in a dazed stupor through Paris' Louvre and the famed National Gallery in London wondering: If the English painters came from England, did the Flemish painters come from Flemland? Luckily, there is an oasis of hope in that alien European expanse, and it is Amsterdam, the mecca and ultimate destination of the American backpacker -- the town where Heineken is plentiful and marijuana grows on trees. Legally. In Amsterdam, the final stop on my Eurail safari, I reflected, in the name of American backpackers everywhere, on our collective mission in Europe. I asked myself: Why the hell are we here? For survival skills. We're learning to make it in the modern-day global jungle. We're learning how to say, Pepto-Bismol, please in 12 languages and how to type e-mails on those misconfigured European keyboards. Even as our parents rant from across the ocean about the debt we're racking up, we persevere, determined to acquire some sort of useful knowledge -- or at least photos of ourselves in Internet cafes. What did I gain in Europe? The confidence that I can survive in any big city in the world. And respect for other cultures, even for my tenacious, if sometimes laughable, fellow travelers. After all, that fake mobile phone I finally bought classifies me as one of their kind.Comments powered by Disqus
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