DECATUR — Americans tend to approach new people the same sort of way. We hold out a hand to shake and smile.
When a European reacts coldly, an American might think that person is rude. The thing is, they might think we are.
“I don’t think people hate Americans,” said Sarah Rector, who just came back from a three-month study abroad program based at Maastricht University in Maastricht, the Netherlands. “Sometimes people said, ‘Oh, you’re American, let me buy you a drink!’ and sometimes it would be, ‘Americans!’ and they’d shove the passport back.”
Rector will be a junior at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in the fall. Those three months opened her eyes to several new ideas, she said.
“I realized just how small my world is,” she said.
People in Europe, very generally speaking, take longer to get to know someone new. They tend to stick to their local community for shopping and socializing, instead of going to chain stores and restaurants, and their social circle is often people they’ve known and lived near their whole lives.
Another realization she had is that, to the United States, World War II is history and the fight did not leave marks on American soil for the most part. In Europe, the scars from bombs and battles are still visible. In the major cities, Rector saw a lot of buildings where the line between old bricks and new is obvious. She visited a Jewish cemetery, crowded with multiple graves.
“The graves are all on top of each other and the stones are all shoved together,” she said. “That was intense. Seeing all that and how they still remember that was something I wasn’t expecting.”
One of her friends visited the site of a concentration camp and cried the whole time, Rector said, which convinced her to avoid those.
But she walked through the Secret Annex where Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazi persecution until they were captured, and which is now a carefully preserved museum.
“The posters she hung on the walls are still there,” Rector said.
It wasn’t all sobering. She visited England, Ireland and Scotland, too, places she wanted very much to see. Paris was also high on her list.
“It kind of ended up being a disappointment,” she said. “It’s kind of a dirty city. But the Eiffel Tower was really fun and the Louvre, but it was really crowded. Everyone dreams of going to Paris, but it was like,” she laughed and shrugged. “I actually liked Prague a lot better.”
She also wanted to see Italy but didn’t have time.
Of course, part of the experience of studying abroad is actual studying. She took classes at Maastricht University that will count toward her general education requirements for graduation from Baylor and classes were taught in English. Her boyfriend, Matthew Wiesehan, a fellow student, and a favorite professor, Tom Hanks (yes, that’s his real name and no, not the actor), who is also her Sunday school teacher at Lakeshore Baptist Church in Waco were also on the trip.
Her parents were very glad to welcome her safely home, said her father, Ron Rector, but they weren’t as uneasy to see her go as they might have been had they not had a son in the military. Scott Rector has been in Afghanistan.
“Having had our oldest son serve in Afghanistan and being shot at and going through hellacious firefights, having our daughter in strange lands wasn’t so intimidating,” he said. “Another comforting fact was that her boyfriend was going to be there. I guess that was comforting,” he added with a laugh.
More than 20 other students were in her group, too, and she had a prepaid Dutch cellphone and Skype and email to keep in touch with home. Her own cellphone service was spotty and would have cost considerably more than the Dutch phone she got through the university, she said.
“We’re not surprised at all that she came away with the richness of these many places she got to see and experience,” Ron Rector said. “I told her, I’m sorry I can’t offer you the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre when you come home, but I can give you Daddy’s love.”