It is a dream for many people to change the world. Our dream was a bit more humble: We let the world change us. Four weeks have passed since I have returned, for Steffen it is already two months and both of us have made our way back into everyday-life. Especially for me, it was and still is quite hard to settle down again and find some new daily routine. Fortunately, our experiences around the world linger on and surprisingly often, they give us a new perspective on Europe.
There are so many little things we learnt to appreciate anew. Some people say the greatest invention of all times is the wheel, but that’s probably only because you can use it to build a washing machine. It is so great to get really clean clothes, and also to be able to wear different clothes every day! Here you can rely on public transport, you receive change in coins, electricity is available all day and we still get a happiness hormone boost each time we realize that once again the shower is hot. Usually you do not need relationships to get a job but you can rely on your own skills. What distinguishes Europeans from all other nations is how carefully they treat each other. Everywhere else, people are often loud (sometimes Chinese can be quiet if you tell them that it is the convention). They almost never have a bad conscience whether they may disturb others. It is not that they do not help or are rude, they are just a bit mindless ….
Moreover, we are impressed by the cultural richness of our Old Continent. Here, history is present everywhere, even the smallest towns have stories and places whose tradition goes back for centuries, sometimes for millenniums. Also for the small things we have invented sophisticated techniques: in our cuisine, in mechanics or in sports. And it is the amazing readiness to participate and do some volunteering – in schools, clubs or churches – that makes our countries worth living. Nothing compares to that, even China only comes close.
However, we also noted a lot of shortcomings of Europe. The first point is time. Much more often people feel under pressure and act as if they were on the run. Elsewhere people have time for some gestures of friendliness. In a shop, they are not surprised if you greet before you buy, people look into the vendor’s eyes while saying “thank you”, and if you ask for the way, they have one minute for a friendly conversation. And they feel insulted if you – very European – start walking while they are still talking. Europeans always feel that they must seize their time, in other places they are also able to enjoy the moment. One may say that this is the price of prosperity and we will come back to that later. But in general we think that often “being in a hurry” has become an attitude and is not justified by the time pressure, or that one minute of friendly conversation will not prevent you from finishing your work at the end of the day. But maybe it will make your day.
It is a pity that our countries make it so hard to immigrants to feel at home. “You can become American, but as a European you must be born” one Chinese student once told us and we are afraid he was right. In Germany (and other European countries) people ask themselves what a German should be like. No one would think like this in Argentina or elsewhere. They look around and what they see, well, that must be typical Argentine. Our favourite definition of “home” is the following: “Home is the place where you do not have to explain yourself”. Admittedly, things are much easier for European immigrants within Europe, but for all others, feeling home must be pretty difficult. If you have – for instance – a slight Arabic accent even after decades of living here, people will not consider you to be German. Yet the majority of the well meaning people will rather try to make Germany a good host nation to their guests – instead of changing the definition of guest and host. Our nations are not xenophobic in general, but we are not open to let “others” be part of Germany or France. Neither in Malaysia nor in the US they would suggest to “go home” if for example you have slit eyes or darker skin. Not because it would be offensive, but because it is paradox. People are at home there.
And of course, another characteristic of Europe is that it is very rich, or to put it the other way round: why are other nations so poor? Since I came home, so many people have asked this question, and I would like to share some inappropriate thoughts on it. Our opinion about that topic has changed in a way we would never have expected. First of all, for us poverty is more a social phenomenon than an economic one. Lots of people, especially in the underdeveloped rural area, would never call themselves poor because no one in their neighborhood is considerably richer. They rather see what they have instead of what they don’t, and we see no reason to change their view. Elsewhere we have learnt that poverty has reasons. Surely, European trade policy and agricultural subsidies play role. But probably even more important are two other factors. The most important one definitely is corruption. “Corrupt countries you cannot help, not corrupt countries you need not help.” That may be a bit extreme, but it is not so far from the truth. Corruption prevents people from developing entrepreneurship – why should you change anything and work hard if you are stripped off all the benefits? As a second reason, we think that often people lack the necessary attitude to change things. Especially in Africa, the most common phrase was that “one does not have to worry since there is no problem”. But if there never is any problem, then never a solution is required! Sometimes people just prefer being lazy over working (see above), sometime they try to cheat on foreigners or to get rich from development aid. It is not that every poor country is poor because people are idle, but in most of the cases the majority of the problems are home-grown.
We have criticized so much up to this point that you might get the impression we had become evil-minded and cynic. This is by no means the case. We have become much more fond with both the countries we visited and the ones we are living in. We definitely appreciate Germany and France but we are also happy if we meet a tourist or an exchange student from one of the places we have visited. We have talked a lot about problems so far but what we really learnt is that you can love a country despite all its negative aspects. We are more open to new episodes now, more self-confident, hopefully more patient, more tolerant towards distinct opinions, more critical about the media and more proud on our experiences. We learnt that the world is much safer than you think because you can avoid most dangers by obeying the simple rules of thumb – in fact the most dangerous thing in most towns is the traffic ….
We also have found a new way to travel. It is important to know what you can and what you want to visit but yet to stay as flexible as possible. You do not need to solve each problem before you face it but can rely on your capability to learn during the travel. We know we were lucky to be able to finance the whole trip. We had luck with our jobs and our background (actually the biggest luxury we had was not money but having time and being independent). So many people will never have the chance do something similar. Nevertheless, lots of people can but do not dare to try. Some say it’s too expensive, but if you save for some years and do not spend much money on shoes, rent or fashion, you can explore the world for some months. Some say it is insecure but often it is just different and uncomfortable. Some say they do not have the time because they have to study fast and get a job quickly. On the other hand you live for 80 years and will work most of them. Why shouldn’t you invest some months for yourself and your own development?