Living on a continent with 50 nation states and territories creates enough politics, enough sport and enough by way of current affairs to keep most Europeans entertained from dawn till dusk.
No surprise, then, that many Europeans develop a certain geographical myopia. Look beyond the capital cities and — particularly as you move away from Europe’s Atlantic littoral — the gap between Europe and the New World becomes a veritable chasm.
The United States in the European imagination
North America is the terrain of movies. The real America, the communities beyond the cinema screen and the newsreels, hardly feature in the imagination of many Europeans and, insofar as they do, they seem rather scary places — we remember Columbine and Sandy Hook. The U.S. is a far-off land and one that many of us who live in Europe feel uneasy about.
In most European countries, Guantanamo certainly gets more publicity than the entire state of California. Many Europeans would just not know who Harry Reid or Joe Biden are. But we all know who Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning are, and chances are that Europeans you’ll run into on your travels will regard both men with a certain awe for their courage and determination. That’s not to say we totally endorse what they have done, but their audacity in confronting totalitarian tendencies commands respect.
Travel with an open mind
The beauty of travel is that, for those who dare, it is a chance to meet people who think differently. Very differently. It turns one’s mindset inside out and gives it a thorough shakedown. Travel is a chance to confront the demons that frame our everyday life. We meet people whose take on the world is diametrically opposed to our own.
Only a small percentage of the residents of central and eastern Europe have ever crossed the Atlantic to visit the US. Those that have are invariably surprised to discover that the US is full of interesting landscapes populated in the main by mellow and interesting people.
Disconnect from everyday life
The trick of course is to leave your prejudices at home, but it takes something more. Discovery is about stepping out of your lifeworld and escaping from the frame of reference that shapes your thinking back home — escaping even from the web, social media and your regular news channels.
The choice that confronts travellers is stark. The connectivity and immersion in the web that gives texture to your everyday life might be the biggest barrier to appreciating the communities you visit. At one level, travel has never been easier. But real travel has never been harder.