Last summer, Jeroen Dewulf, professor of Dutch Studies at the University of California in Berkeley, accompanied a group of students on a five week tour through the Low Countries. One student, Anna Carey, wrote about what she saw in places like Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Lille. You can read her impressions below.
I had heard bits and pieces about the Low Countries - the red light district in Amsterdam, the state of the Euro on CNN, a few lines from the ‘In Flanders Fields’ poem, a Van Eyck on a slide in an art history class. But the Low Countries isn't any of these.
It's the overwhelming bliss sitting in Vondelpark on a Sunday night among scores of young people picnicking and chatting about their week. It is the sense of empowerment in the Binnenhof at The Hague imagining important politicians sitting and debating exactly where you sit. It is the lump in your throat that forms standing amidst thousands of gravestones in Ypres. It is the intense glow reflecting off a sumptuous red robe in a Van Eyck painting that he painted not far from where you stand. Someone can tell you what you might see in the Low Countries (or anywhere you may travel), but they cannot capture the feelings you'll experience actually being here.
After spending five weeks in the Low Countries, I feel as though a whole new region of the world has opened up to me. Both inside and outside the classroom, I have learned the historical and cultural stories that have shaped this part of Europe, and most importantly, I have learned why these stories are important for a broader understanding of world history, politics, culture, and art. It is difficult to express how grateful I am to have travelled here, especially to places that I may not have chosen to visit on my own.
Outside of the diorama
Yet, as the door to the Low Countries opens, it still feels like there is something in my way. My mom used to take me and my brother to the American Museum of Natural History in New York on rainy days. I would stand, face pressed to the glass of a diorama, wishing I could break in and play with the gorillas or talk to Native Americans sitting in front of their tipis. I may not have realized that the gorillas were stuffed or the Native Americans were made of wax, but the idea that I was on the outside of the diorama unable to enter made me sad and frustrated. In the Low Countries, I often felt that same remoteness, like I was standing with my face pressed to glass unable to penetrate these places.
What was blocking me? It wasn't glass, but instead, as I have realized, it was language. The Low Countries are unique in that almost everywhere we travelled, people spoke at least some English, and more typically, they spoke near-perfect English. Even so, I have come to realize that if you can't speak someone's native tongue, the official language of their home, it is nearly impossible to connect on the level I would have wanted. Language, as we have learned, is so embedded in these places that in order to truly comprehend what it is like to live in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague, Veere, Brussels, Tournai, Mons, Binche, Luxembourg, Ypres, Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, Rekkem, Lille, Louvain, you need to speak their language.
No time do I feel more alive, more myself than when I am travelling. Spending time in an area of the world full of people who actually do speak my primary language, I have learned that accessing a deeper level of immersion - how I would always dream to travel - requires language learning. When I go back to the United States, I will make a much greater effort to pick up new languages, especially French and Dutch. My next big trip will be to China in the spring. Now more than ever, I am motivated to work towards my mastery of Mandarin, so when I travel, I can reach an even more profound level of immersion and understanding of China.