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Contributor Rick Schneider Stretches Outside His Comfort Zone to Bring Home New Realities

Delphi, Vatican City, the Roman Colosseum—all wonderful. But in the end it was one shopkeeper that made for a "growing-up moment."

If you would have told me three years ago that I would study abroad in Europe for a month, I probably would have laughed and then got right back to playing a game of Madden.

You see, I lived in my own little world and was comfortable with that. (Plus, I wasn’t too fond of the idea of flying for eight hours.)  I would wake up, go to class, do my homework, check my email, check Facebook, maybe play a few games on the PS3, hang out with friends and family, watch "The Tonight Show," go to bed and do it all over again the next day.  I never had any doubts about where my next meal was coming from, and events in countries 3,000 miles away didn’t have any impact on me. 

However, last year something changed. I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly what changed, but something definitely did.  Suddenly I began to wonder what it would be like to study abroad, experience unfamiliar cultures and see new sights.  I imagined myself as a world traveler with hundreds of photos and incredible stories to share when I got back. And, I really liked the idea of talking to someone and being able to say, “Well, when I was in Europe …” or “the _____ in Europe is outstanding!"

I began to flip through the Elmhurst College course catalog and discovered a course titled Greek and Roman Sports and Games, a study of ancient and modern-day Olympics.  The course was offered with trips to Greece, Italy and Switzerland.  In a way the course description reaffirmed my interest in the study-abroad program, as it seemed this course was designed specifically for me. I love sports, and if I had to pick any place in Europe to go, Greece, Italy and Switzerland were at the top of my list.       

I have been blessed with many opportunities throughout my life, and despite my hesitations, I began to realize that studying abroad was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. It was time to break out of my comfort zone and experience a world outside of my own.

And so, after months of filling out paperwork, filing for a passport and countless other preparations, it was finally time to leave. At 6 p.m. on Jan. 2, I boarded a plane headed to Europe for the first time in my life. 

Now, I could go through basically every moment of my trip, and with more than 2,000 photos, I would say I documented everything pretty well.  I can talk about how the ancient Olympics started as a form of worship for the Gods, or how Phidippides ran from Marathon to Athens (26 miles) to notify the Athenians of their victory over the Persians, thus becoming the first to run the Marathon.

But there is a deeper experience I would like to share. In particular, one occurrence that really sticks out to me. 

In preparing to leave, I thought it would be important to learn a few phrases in the language of the three countries I would be traveling to. I learned how to say hello in Greek ‘γειά σου’ pronounced yia sas, along with a few other terms.

As I would be in Greece first, I was excited to test my Greek but nervous at the same time. What if I said it wrong? So during my first couple of days in Greece I instead stuck to smiling and lots of pointing. 

On about the sixth day, as we were souvenir shopping in Nafplion, I built up the courage and decided that it was finally time to use a few of my phrases in a conversation. We entered a store, and the owner greeted us with a friendly “γειά σου,” so in return I responded, in my American accent, “γειά σου.” I thought to myself yes! I did it! It may not have been perfect, but it sounded pretty good to me. 

The only problem was, I didn’t know what to say next. The owner, mislead by my superb hello, continued to speak to me in Greek. And since I had no idea what she said, I resorted back to my smile system.  However, she repeated herself and again awaited my reply. 

Sheepishly, I looked at her and said, “I speak English.”  She smiled and said “Oh, can I help you find anything?” in perfect English. 

I thought to myself, how spoiled am I as an American that this shopkeeper 3,000 miles away learned how to speak English just so that she could communicate with tourists like me? 

It was at this point that the cultural difference really hit me. As a human, she has the same basic needs as me. She needs food, a home and clothing.  However, in order to make a living, she learned to speak English.  How many shopkeepers in America know how to speak Greek or any other language for that matter?  If someone can’t communicate what they want in English, the reaction is usually, “why don’t they learn how to speak English?” It is sad and extremely hypocritical, but that is how it is.

The remainder of my trip was incredible. The sites were unbelievable. I performed ancient Olympic challenges at Olympia, visited the Oracle in Delphi, walked where the gladiators walked in the Colosseum, threw a penny in the Trevi Fountain, went to Vatican City, saw the Pope and skied in the Italian Alps. But always in the back of my mind was that first encounter with the shopkeeper.

As I continued to meet locals along the way, I kept up with my phrases, although minimal, in an effort to show my interest in communicating in their language. Perhaps my struggle to say “"Ευχαριστώ” (thank you) helped break some stereotypes about Americans.  If not, it was at least good for a laugh. 

Studying abroad really opened my eyes. In a sense, it was kind of my growing-up moment. I have always known that I have been blessed throughout my life, but I have come to realize that I am extremely privileged to live the life that I do. 

For a few short weeks I broke away from my own little world and ventured into an unfamiliar one. I am back in my “comfort zone,” but I will never forget that there is another whole world outside of my own. 

Tina Tuszynski May 03, 2011 at 04:52 PM
Great story and learning experience. Very perceptive and keen insight about our sometimes egocentric attitudes regarding the rest of the world.
Rick Schneider May 04, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Thanks Tina! It was definately an eye opening experience.
Sarah Marchmont May 13, 2011 at 05:42 AM
I totally agree, Rick--isn't it amazing how a trip abroad can widen your world? I had a similar eye-opening experience when I spent three months in South Africa last year. It flipped my world upside down--it was an incredible time and a highlight of my life thus far, for sure. Thanks for sharing.
Rick Schneider May 13, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Hey Sarah! Thanks for the comment. What did you study in South Africa? That sounds like an incredible experience! I bet South Africa is just a little different then Europe.

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