I walked down the cobblestone streets of Paris and stopped. To my left was a row of antique buildings. Every building held its own share of history and was now filled with chic boutiques blooming with French fashion and bookstores containing the works of authors that used to find their muse in the exact surroundings I was currently experiencing. To my right was the Musée d’Orsay with only the Seine river separating me from its’ hundreds of years of art and sculptures held inside. A quick stroll down the street would land me at the famous Notre Dame and deliciously unmatched gelato. For the month of January, twenty-four other students, two professors, and I experienced sights like these in each of the cities we visited.
Led by Professors Kelli Larson and Cecilia Farr, we were lucky enough to experience various more-than-just-picturesque cities in order to learn about the Grand Tour. The course, titled “Americans Abroad: The Grand Tour,” took us on a detailed exploration of 5 cities: Paris, Nice, Venice, Rome, Siena, and Florence. Each day, in every city visited, we were able to see and experience first-hand some of the exact same places as various nineteenth-century Americans did. Typically, they did so to polish themselves artistically or socially, but they also did so to complete their education or to find inspiration. Our texts for the course consisted of works by Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and included various excerpts from other exceptionally talented authors who completed the Grand Tour.
The texts were all unique with their own plot and purpose, but comparatively they all revolved around a common theme: the cultural differences between the Old World and New World. In some way, the protagonists in each of the texts encountered foreign customs and cultures and had a difficult time adjusting.
A lack of typical American customs—like hasty meals or differences in social expectations—is unsettling to them at first. Eventually, though, after experiencing various trials and tribulations mixed with benevolent encounters, their cultural ignorance begins to fade and they soon attach a sense of value and appreciation to this differing culture. In a different scenario, like in Henry James’ Daisy Miller, the exposure to European culture only reinforces the protagonists’ sense of superiority in their familiar American customs.
After retracing some of the same steps these nineteenth-century Americans did, I can say that experiencing a culture different to my own only broadened my perspective and understanding for other cultures and their customs. It is easy to find one’s own ways of life or customs to be superior to others when you have never experienced or attempted to understand the logic or history behind them. As a Minnesota native, I definitely missed the constant smiles and “hello’s” from a random passersby, but I also came to prefer their slower, relaxed pace of life. There is no correct right way to live. Traveling, though, allows for reflection; to appreciate your own culture but also to take a step back and realize where other cultures might be getting at something deeper than you ever fathomed.
Shayla Curtis is a sophomore Accounting & Finance major with a minor in English Literature. After college, she hopes to work as a financial analyst or in another position related to her major. With a passion for animals and kids, she hopes to volunteer on the side and perhaps start her own nonprofit.