A richly multicultural afternoon from Amsterdam to Prague
Waiting at the Amsterdam airport en route to Prague, I was learning some basic Czech, when I spotted a couple waiting with us. Hoping they’d be Czech, so I could verify my pronunciation with them, I asked, “Do you speak English?”
They responded, “No. Spanish.” Busting out my high-school Spanish, I asked, “¿De dónde eres?” We had a 20-minuto conversación en español, where I learned they were from Argentina, and enjoyed traveling, having been to 16 countries. They shared with us their meticulously-planned itinerary to Prague, which was but one stop on their two month journey through Europe.
I then proceeded to teach them a few Dutch phrases, which I had learned a day earlier from the friendly waitstaff at a Dutch restaurant called The Pantry, like: “De ovenschotel is overheerlijk.” / “The oven dish (casserole) is very delicious.” (My Dutch is very basic. I accidentally called my wife a sausage, and the waitress thought this was funny, so she shared it with the whole kitchen, which made everyone laugh. “Zij is een vrouw” sounds very much like “Zij is een worst” when spoken with a newbie tongue.)
This was such a crazy moment. I was teaching them Dutch in Spanish!
On the plane, we sat next to a young Japanese man who had just graduated from a Finnish university. We commiserated in our misery over not being able to go inside the Anne Frank House, because it was overbooked. He proceeded to educate me on the similarities between German and Japanese culture, and how this was linked to their alliance in World War II. Growing up religiously devout to Shintoism, he felt guilty about Japan’s role in World War II, so he decided to really study the war, traveling all over the world (including to Berlin, Germany) to understand the cultures involved in the war. He then told me how Hitler, while living in Austria, was brainwashed by the local media to dislike the Jews. The media blamed Jewish-Austrian immigrants for “taking everyone’s jobs”.
On a lighter note, I shared my limited Japanese phrases, like: “Gochiso sama deshita!” / “It is like a feast!” He told me, next time we visit Japan, we have to go to Kyoto, which was the original capital of Japan, so it captures the true cultural essence of Japan much better than Tokyo.
On the bus from Prague’s airport to our hotel, a woman helped us with directions. We learned she was actually Swedish, and immigrated to the Czech Republic four years ago. It was difficult, because the Czech language is so different. But she’s learned how to avoid the tourist traps, so she recommended a cheap authentic restaurant and a nearby city we should visit. In this city, there are buildings made from human bones...
When you’re traveling, you often take these experiences for granted. But taking a moment to reflect, it was a truly epic few hours. The world is truly a very interconnected, international, and intercultural place. It’s a small world. And I’ve come to see traveling itself in a new light…
Before, I viewed traveling as primarily composed of eating and sight-seeing, and learning about culture by interacting primarily through fairly standard transactional interactions (getting a Mifi router delivered to your hotel, downloading the TripAdvisor offline maps, making reservations for eclectic shows and restaurants, going to the most popular museums, savoring the local food, talking to the chef at a restaurant, watching a documentary about some aspect of a country). This limited view was actually a step above my previous concept of traveling: laying on a tropical beach.
But now I see there’s usually a deep and coherent story that ties a country together, much like how an individual human being is defined by the story of his past. You can gain better access to the essence of this story, by interacting directly with the people who understand it, and asking them questions. They will tell you what truly matters, distilled from the overwhelming details.
Without knowing the story, your travel experiences feel random and unrelated. But with the story, you come to understand why Amsterdam’s new generation of youth rebelled against the failure of a previous generation to stand up for the Jews, and how that sentiment has paved the way for their acceptance of the gay community. You understand why the Anne Frank House is located in the same city as the COC Nederland, a Dutch organization for LGBT men and women.
Without the story, Amsterdam is merely a red-light district, which surrounds a cathedral. So random. So quirky. But with the story, you understand that the sailors who came to Amsterdam wanted to visit brothels after extended periods out on the open seas, and the cathedral was where they would go to ask for forgiveness — and it all makes sense.
A couple nights ago, when we walked through the extremely crowded red-light district at 11:30pm, I saw a prostitute clinging to the arm of a potential customer. “You see, I’m Chinese!” she said in an accent that was clearly not Chinese. She looked Hispanic or some version of European, definitely not Chinese. I stopped in my tracks and watched with bemusement. She caught me watching, and asked with a big smile, “What?!”
I responded, “I’m Chinese.” She started laughing her ass off. The customer looked very confused.
So, a story is what ties disparate experiences — elements of food, architecture, and culture — into a coherent and understandable whole. Human interaction is what brings that story to life. If you combine stories and interactions with the normal routine of sampling culture, travel becomes a cohesive and irresistible cocktail of human connection. It becomes story-making.
Every travel experience is uniquely bestowed with hidden opportunities to learn something — and more importantly, to feel something. To make your own stories.
Many travelers know this already. But on some level, I’m literally a Chinese tourist with a selfie stick. So to me, this is quite the revelation.