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A flamenco dancer on stage with musicians
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NEXT Awardee Explores the Cultures of Europe

Every moment leading up to my adventure filled my stomach with butterflies: the night before my trip, the ride to the airport, the flight to my first destination, my first step off the plane, and my first interaction with someone. For the first few days, it felt like I was in a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was actually in Europe—my first time leaving the country and, not to mention, all by myself. I traveled across western Europe, visiting places I never thought I’d get the opportunity to visit and doing activities I never thought I’d be able to do. Those four weeks of my life traveling were an unforgettable experience and I owe it all to the Newman Exploration Travel Award.

During my adventure abroad, I visited a plethora of art and history museums, national monuments, and world heritage sites, learning something about the history of each of the eight cities and the six countries I visited. I learned of events—such as the terrible earthquake of 1775 that destroyed Lisbon, a once very wealthy city—that told me what the city used to be like and how it became what it is.

Tiled walls on an apartment building
One example of the stunning tiles, or azulejos, that cover the facades of buildings in Lisbon. After the earthquake in 1755, the city had to be quickly rebuilt and tiles were an inexpensive way to do so.

A platter of ham
Platter of three different types of Spanish dry-cured ham: jamón ibérico, jamón serrano, and jamón deroc. Throughout Spain, these serrano hams can be seen hanging from the ceiling, a practice that dates back more than 2,000 years.

I learned things that aren’t taught in a classroom, like the unspoken first-come, first-get-on-the-bus rule explained to me by an elderly lady in Lisbon, after I tried to let her get on the bus before me. I ate traditional foods in each city I visited and tried to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible. In Athens, I ate dolmades, moussaka, and fava and learned a few Greek words to get by. 

I saw an incredible flamenco show in Madrid and spoke Spanish using a Spanish accent rather than the South American accent I use in class. In Paris, I saw the ever-so-popular Cancan dance in a theater built in 1889. Immersion in different cultures allowed me to see the world from an alternative perspective, and to recognize and respect ways of being that are not necessarily my own.

A flamenco dancer on stage with musicians
A traditional tablao flamenco show in Madrid, Spain, consisting of multiple female dancers, one male dancer, two singers, and two guitar players.

I’ve always considered myself an extrovert. However, ever since the pandemic started, I have noticed that I have had a harder time meeting new people. I felt more anxious in situations where I’m surrounded by strangers and had trouble starting conversations. Although time alone was nice on my trip, I realized how much you need social interactions in your everyday life. Shortly after starting my trip, I became aware that I needed to make friends. A group of girls was talking and laughing on the patio at the hostel I was staying at. At first, I was very intimidated to talk to them, but after getting to know them, they told me that they had felt the same way. This is just one of many interactions I had with people, but this one experience made me realize just how similar everyone is. Staying in hostels allowed me to share experiences with new people and make lifelong friends from all over the world. Since returning from my trip, I’ve already noticed that (after I recovered from jet lag) I’ve regained my extroversion and have been much more outgoing.

A person standing in front of ruins
The author on top of the Acropolis standing in front of the Parthenon in Athens.

During my trip, I was constantly challenged, not simply to adjust to and explore new environments, but also to interact with different people and embrace adventures as they come. I’ve always been a very organized and list-oriented person. In preparation for this trip, I bought all my flights and train tickets, reserved my hostels as well as a few activities I wanted to do in each destination, and made a small list of things that might be fun to do in each city. This was partially due to my extreme excitement but also because I have a minor case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, just a few days into my trip, I missed my first train. During my trip, I missed a total of two planes and a train and had my phone stolen. At first, I thought I must just be irresponsible. But after the first few mishaps, and reassurances from my aunt, I realized that this wasn’t the case. This trip forced me to be more accepting of things going wrong. When challenges arose, I started to be less stressed, which has been positively affecting me as this semester started. It also made me realize that it’s okay to have a plan, but it’s unrealistic to believe that everything will go as expected. 

This opportunity to travel helped me foster human connections by learning about culture, food, geography, music, and how people live their day-to-day lives in different regions of the world. My aunt has always been my biggest influence and, before this trip, she explained how travel has made her realize that everyone is so much more similar than we think. I believe that my travel experience has made me realize that we are put on the planet to connect with one another.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Dres.