Friday, April 18, 2003

American college students, and why I love them

Regular readers of this blog will know that I travel a lot. I have been to many parts of the world, and I have done a fair bit of travel in Europe, and quite a bit in Asia, North America, and Africa. (I have not been to Latin America, much as I would like to go there). In I this, I am typical of my countrymen. Where I am not typical is that my travel has tended to consist of a lot of trips of a week to a month, whereas the Australian tradition is to go to university, work for a year or two to make some money, take six months or a year to see the world, and then to return to Australia for adult life, I suppose.

I have never done this. Part of the reason for this was that I was lucky, and I won a scholarship to go and study at Cambridge when I was 22. This way I was able to base myself in England and go on trips from there. Then later on I found myself in my present quandry: a victim of the financial job crash, which gave me the opportunity to base myself over here again for at least a bit. For some reason I have never got married and I don't have many of the things that tie many people down. I never got out of the habit of living like a graduate student, even when I was an investment banker, and my lifestyle is cheap. So I continue to pop off to interesting places fairly regularly.

When you do travel a lot, you meet certain types of other young traveller. (These are obviously generalisations, and there are exceptions to every rule). For one thing, it doesn't matter where you go in the world, you will meet Australians. Australians like to seek out exceptionally obscure and exotic corners of the world, and when they have arrived there they drink a lot of beer. Australians are great in moderation, but they tend to be a little loud when you have a large number of them together. They sometimes have a tendency to slightly more concerned with getting to obscure destinations than what they are going to do when they get there. They are loud and opinionated, and sometimes believe that they know more about the place they are visiting than they actually do. You also meet lots of English travellers. The English have a word for this: a "gap year". This is a year taken out of life between school and university, or betwen university and a job, or even at some other time, when people go travelling. You very frequently find English people taking their gap years in Asia and Australia. They are often younger than Australian travellers, and tend to travel in smaller groups. One subcategory of travellers consists of people who are astonishingly cheap. Once in a while you meet someone who is travelling around Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand for six months on $5 a day. These people are nearly always English, and also seem to have the ability to seek out and find places of extraordinary beauty. The trick is to follow these people and see the same sights they do, and also to insist on finding out how much they paid and paying the same amount yourself. One also encounters German and Scandinavian backpackers throughout the world. These people are These guys have to learn how to relax, but somehow they never do. About a decade ago, it looked like that one was also going to start seeing Japanese people in large numbers on the backpacker circuit. This has happened a bit, but the consequences of the Japanese economic crash have come through, and you don't see them nearly as much as looked likely. This is a shame, because Japanese people are often rather uninhibited (in a fun way) after a couple of beers. Plus it seems that it is only the more eccentric Japanese who leave the country for prolongued periods. And eccentric Japanese people can be really eccentric.

In any event, this is all a digression. One sees relatively few Americans on the hard core backpacker circuit. Americans tend to be more upmarket travellers. The only Americans you tend to see travelling on a low budget are college students, usually over summer, and usually in Europe. You find them in great numbers in France and Italy in July, travelling around on Eurail passes, and seeing the sights. Over the years I have met a lot of these people, and my experience is that they are amongst the nicest people you could possibly meet. Often you find that they are outside the US for the first time in their lives. Often you find that they do not know very much about the rest of the world, because the American media (and I think the American school system) are very insular about the rest of the world. (Older Americans, who are more likely to be found in five star hotels than backpacker hostels, are often very well informed). But always they are curious and willing to talk about it. And they are eager to hear what I think of their country, and what I think about Europe, and..... They have a friendliness and warmth about them. They lack the hard edge of travellers from some other countries. If I am looking for somewhere cheap to stay, and I walk past the door of a hostel and I hear a lot of American accents coming out of it, I tend to go in. This has led to many pleasant evenings.

In any event, two weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Rue Mouffetard in the Latin quarter of Paris, having a three course meal from the prix fixe menu and drinking a little red wine. Two young women of about 20 years of age came into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to mine, and started talking to one another with obvious American accents. Somewhat apologetically, as I did not want to interrupt a conversation if they didn't want to be interrupted, I said hello. There were American college students doing a term in London on an exchange program with a British university, and they had got the train over to Paris, which they had never visited before. One of them was from Ohio, and was a student at Ohio State. The other was from New York, and was studying at a college in New Haven, CT. (That's all I got out of her. I don't think it was the president's alma mater - she sounded more like the "small liberal arts college" type, and my knowledge of other colleges in New Haven isn't that great). The girl from New York was the daughter of someone who works for Merill Lynch as some sort of equity analyst. I then asked "What sector?" but she didn't know. None the less, of the two of them, she was the more knowledgeable of the two. The other had a certain midwestern charm. She was quite impressed that I had personally visited Columbus, Ohio. (I friend of mine used to teach at Ohio State, and I visited him there). I told them about my various American travels. I asked them what they had done in Paris. It was the usual set of things that people do on a first trip to Paris (The Louvre, and Musee D'Orsay, a walk up the Champs Elysee, Notre Dame, all that kind of thing). The conversation proceeded a bit further, and for some reason I was asked to explain the game of cricket. I did this with reasonable skill, I think. (With Americans, this isn't too hard, as you can use baseball as a reference point. Explaining cricket to Europeans is often harder). I mentioned I had enjoyed the modern art at the Pompidou Centre. The New York girl them mentioned that she didn't like the the Tate Modern in London. I expressed my admiration for the architecture, but mentioned that I think the collection was uninteresting. She agreed. I expressed the opinion that both the collection and the architecture were good at the Pompidou centre, but that New Yorkers are spoiled because their Museum of Modern Art is the best collection in the world (by far). We were getting towards the end of the meal, and I offered to buy the two young women a drink in a nearby bar. They thanked me, but declined, as they were going to go to the top of the Eiffel tower at night. We got up and walked out of the restaurant. I made a joke about the Boston Red Sox that they thought was funny. I asked if they were going to the metro station. They said they had to go back to where they were staying before the Eiffel tower.

In all, very pleasant. I am not sure whether they were trying to give me the slip at the end. After all, I was a thirty something man talking to two younger women. They may have thought I had ulterior motives. (And I am not entirely without ulterior motives, let's face it. I respond to pleasant young women in the same way lots of men do. However, I am completely non-dangerous and I hope to be non-threatening). But I rather don't think so. I rather think they were just going to the Eiffel tower, and they enjoyed the conversation with me as much as I did.

Still though, it's sad. I am getting a little older. Possibly this will make it harder for me to have conversations with American college students in European cities in the future. This would be kind of sad.

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