Why backpacking across Europe changed my life


A.J. Newth is a British-American dual citizen and grew up traveling to the United Kingdom. Photo contributed by A.J. Newth.

A.J. Newth, Contributing Writer

If you’ve ever taken a language class in high school or college, you probably spent a significant amount of time studying culture. In Spanish class, you might learn about Día de los Muertos and the famous Running of the Bulls. In French class, you might learn about Claude Monet’s artwork and classic French music.

However, until you really encounter foreign culture firsthand, you will likely never grasp the importance of travel and how it can change the way you view the world.

This summer, I spent two months backpacking Europe and I experienced the culture of 14 different countries from the streets of Barcelona, Spain, to the museums of Vienna, Austria, and everything in between. The journey opened my eyes to a European lifestyle rich with food, music, art and love for life that altered my perspective of the world for the better. 

As a British-American dual citizen, I was born into a travel-centric lifestyle, flying to the United Kingdom to visit family since I was three years old. I flew to London by myself for the first time when I was eight and I have been chasing the independence of travel ever since. 

What I noticed during my travels is that America lacks an authentic atmosphere. I feel that the United States is consumed by materialism and extremely driven by money, whereas European countries appreciate human connection and conversation instead. The way of life in European countries is so different from anything in the U.S., not just because of the sights and sounds, but because of the experiences that I have never discovered in my American home life.

In the United States, cultural aspects that we come to know as our own are often borrowed from other countries. According to Insider, hot dogs were invented in Germany and Austria, apple pie stems from Dutch cultures, and even the National Anthem is sung to the tune of a British drinking song. Instead of living in borrowed culture, European countries are genuine in the way they appreciate their own cultures but also acknowledge and respect the cultures of others. That’s what makes Europe so original. 

The locals appreciate music, language, food, art and conversation in a way many Americans could never imagine. Text messages are replaced with genuine discussions between strangers. Headphones are replaced with live music on every corner. Instead of taking pictures, you’ll find people enjoying the sights, or sharing a meal without a phone in sight. 

I understand Connecticut is not Paris, but I find technology consumes the American way of life. The authenticity in the way Europeans go through their day-to-day life is what seems so inconceivable.

For example, when walking through the streets of Florence, I stumbled across a street performer who brought in a large crowd. He was playing his guitar and singing in broken English for people from all different countries. 

To my surprise, these strangers, who were barely united by their limited knowledge of the English language, began to gather and put their arms around one another. Together the crowd swayed and sang the lyrics of the song loud enough to shake the cobblestone streets. 

A.J. Newth spent her summer of 2022 traveling Europe, understanding its wealth of culture and personality. Photo contributed by A.J. Newth.

This was unlike any American music experience solely because language is never a barrier in stadiums in the U.S., but in Florence, strangers were able to share the moment using music to connect to each other because language is not an option. The power that music has to replace language is nearly incomprehensible until you experience it. 

The lack of cultural appreciation I have seen within the United States does not allow for this sense of connection. In a time where the U.S. is so divided due to countless political differences, unity seems more like a distant dream than a reality. 

Europeans see differences as a way to embrace one another and form meaningful connections, a very different approach from the xenophobia displayed in America. The negative stereotypes of refugees and immigrants that are deeply rooted in American history are the reason the U.S. is far from becoming the diverse and accepting Europe that I experienced.

Music is not the only thing that is perceived differently in Europe. The practice of sharing a meal and appreciating food as well as where it comes from is an important part of European culture. After enjoying the local cuisine of 14 different countries, there was one country that I think seemed to value food in a distinctly special way.

The best meal I encountered was on Paros Island, Greece. On my first night there, I found a family-owned restaurant that had been operating on the island for over 40 years. Not only was the food local and fresh, but it genuinely made me feel good. 

In Greece, food means so much more than filling your stomach. Where American people worship the corporate ladder and wealth, the Greeks feel richer through human connection and good conversation, shared through a fresh meal. 

The Greek people live in a carefree environment. Life is slow and that’s what makes it beautiful. Instead of the American hustle and bustle, the Greeks take each day one at a time. They put so much passion into their way of life and I’m convinced that just by enjoying a meal, you can improve the quality of your own.

Culture is not just something we can understand through a class or a textbook. The European way of life is meant to be experienced through all the senses. It’s in the music on the streets of Italy and the cooking on the Greek Islands. It’s in every conversation with a stranger or through a foreign shared experience.

The world is so big and there are so many incredible places to see, so I encourage you to travel. This trip helped shape me into who I am, so if you’re looking for a life changing experience, you better start packing.