Where an American who stumbles on some impediment on a sidewalk might almost instinctively seek to sue for damages, a European would be more inclined to feel that he himself was at fault because he hadn’t been looking where he was going. Where an American might expect efficient service at a restaurant or counter, a European is more mellow and patient by nature. “There are two speeds in this country, Yank,” my Irish brother-in-law reminds me, "slow and stopped.”
Where Americans are more likely to obliterate in the name of progress all traces of a historic site, the English are inclined to memorialize even fictional ones: “The Tabard Inn,” a historic plaque reads on a wall in the London Borough of Southwark, “Site from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set off in April 1386.” The reference, of course, is to the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, characters who never, in fact, existed.
We come also, along the way, to let go of our stereotypes and assumptions about the people themselves in our travels. Having heard that Germans are blunt and rather cold emotionally, I am pleased to find them tactful, warm, and eager to please. They also have a keen sense of irony. “It’s modern—only one hundred years old,” says a waitress in Bacharach of a tapestry lining a wall of the restaurant where we stop for lunch. We had heard that nearly 60% of Belgians identify as Catholic, but found that a mere 10% attend church regularly. Farther west, our Irish friends and family have always known how to party enthusiastically, but their celebrations seem more subdued in the face of economic austerity and the closing of many rural pubs throughout the country in recent years. Yet the Irish have become much more “European” of late and, owing to cheap regional airfares, are more likely to holiday in Prague, Budapest, or Vienna, than in Ireland.
The more we travel, then, the more we tend to see people in a true, authentic light as we forego our assumptions about them. Like Pico Iyer, I too have come to travel in search of ambiguity, dissolving my presumptions about a place and its people. And in doing so, I come to know them—and myself—much more clearly than I had before.