Grace Lower | Nov 22, 2016
Like many Midwesterners, I’ve learned that it’s not polite to bring up politics when you’re first getting to know someone. But when I was traveling, it seemed like all bets were off. I found that many of my international friends were happy to share their opinions on their region’s political issues and were eager to hear mine, too.
While our conversations always remained respectful, they gave me a more nuanced understanding of the country I was visiting. And although every nation has its own set of challenges, what I learned while I was abroad offered a new perspective on some of the issues back home in the U.S.
When I traveled to Spain during my junior year of college, I prepared myself for fantastic language immersion, rich Andalusian culture, and bottomless tapas. What I didn’t expect was for Spanish politics to occupy so many of my conversations with local friends and teachers. During my time abroad, I listened to stories about Francisco Franco’s authoritarian regime, Spain’s path to democracy, and the frustration that many Spaniards have toward their current government.
Although I only spent a semester in Spain, my interest in their political process has stayed with me long after my return. The past few weeks have been particularly eventful for Spain, and I couldn’t help but follow along from across the pond.
After 10 months of political gridlock and two controversial elections, Spain has finally reinstated a fully functioning government. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is now beginning his second term—but with a fractured parliament and a frustrated public, he has his work cut out for him. In an unusual move for the hardline politician, Rajoy has emphasized his willingness to compromise with other political parties to get Spain back on its feet.
As I look back on my conversations with my Spanish friends, and as I read about Spain’s current parliamentary struggles, I can’t help but consider the complicated political climate in the United States. It seems that no matter where you are in the world, democracy—while a noble form of government—isn’t always simple. When a country is home to so many contrasting ideologies, collaboration may be the best way forward.
When I visited the United Kingdom several years back, I had the chance to visit the Palace of Westminster—often called “the heart of British politics.” I remember marveling over how regal and polished everything seemed (though I may have just been dazzled by the gothic architecture and by my proximity to William and Kate).
If you’ve been following the news, you know that the United Kingdom has faced new challenges over the past few months. This summer’s “Brexit” decision came as a surprise to British citizens and the global community alike. What followed was a major transition for the country. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, the British government scrambled to regain its footing, and the U.K. must now forge the path toward a new identity outside of the European Union.
The Brits are famous for coining the term “keep calm and carry on,” and that motto has been especially fitting amid so many changes. Here in the U.S., we have a long road ahead of us after this year’s election; but we can take a lesson from our British neighbors and carry on.
And then there’s Germany, where many of my family members still reside. I’ve had the chance to visit Germany several times over the past few years, and between my cultural heritage and my love for sauerkraut, I’m always eager to return. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to admire the clean efficiency that comes with German culture. From robust recycling systems to low-cost higher education, there are incredible programs in place that make Germany a remarkable place to live and visit.
While in Germany, I also had the chance to talk to my family about the challenges facing the country. Perhaps the most notable was the Syrian refugee crisis—an issue that has created a moral dilemma for German citizens and lawmakers alike. What’s more, Germany remains a key leader within the European Union, and it must collaborate closely with neighboring countries to maintain economic stability in the Eurozone. And with the country’s recent commitment to invest in clean energy sources, German policy-makers and experts are working tirelessly to reduce the inefficiencies that come with solar and wind power.
Germany’s people and politicians have difficult decisions to make—balancing economic, environmental, and humanitarian issues alike. And while the details vary, my conversations with my German relatives mirrored many of the discussions I was having with my American friends and family. It’s no secret that countries throughout the world are grappling with tough realities. But by learning from one another, we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and develop innovative solutions for the future.
Of course, my limited travel experience gives a very incomplete picture of international politics. But what I learned while I was abroad gave me a new perspective on what it means to be an American—and more broadly, what it means to be an engaged member of our society. While it’s easy to feel exhausted by current events in the United States, there’s some comfort in knowing that we’re not the only country wrestling with difficult decisions.
My time abroad also helped me acknowledge that while policies are a crucial part of a nation’s identity, there’s so much more to America than politics alone. We have a richly diverse nation and a cultural optimism that keeps us moving forward. We value creativity and innovation (and we’re the birthplace of the light bulb, the Cookie Dough Blizzard, and the iPhone because of it). And although the United States certainly has flaws, my travels always remind me that there’s no place like home.
Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.