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Western Europe

The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Disability

“My first year in Berlin I had crutches, and I was grateful to people on the street, on the bus, or on the subway who offered their seats for me. For most part, everyone I bumped into demonstrated a level of social consciousness that you don't always find in the U.S.”Samson Lim, Fulbright recipient 

“Italy has laws granting rights to people with disabilities, but the culture hasn’t caught up with them. Cars often used the sidewalk as another lane. Bus drivers didn’t always want her to get on their bus, or they forgot to tell her when her stop came up. Merchants sometimes didn’t want her in their stores.” — Jameyanne Fuller, Fulbright recipient

Depending on the host city, students with disabilities that impede mobility may find that European accessibility standards are different than what they are used to at home. Older neighborhoods may be difficult to traverse due to uneven cobblestone roads, narrow staircases, and smaller indoor rooms (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c; Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). While central districts of most cosmopolitan cities have been modernized to the extent possible, historic architecture--particularly preserved heritage architecture--is unlikely to meet the same accessibility standards as newer buildings (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). Students who utilize wheelchairs should consider taking foldable power wheelchairs, for which they should check the wheel durability and ground clearance level. They should also research whether the manufacturer has a location for repairs in the host country (MIUSA, n.d.-d).

Legally, most Western European countries have protections in place for individuals with disabilities. These often include protections against discrimination (Study in UK, n.d.), programmatic services, and accommodations (Study in Germany, n.d.). However, enforcement of these laws and guidelines may vary between countries. Diversity Abroad’s climate notes for Greece indicate that the applicable laws are not evenly enforced (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c), while their notes for Ireland specifically note proper enforcement (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d).

Scandinavian countries may be particularly helpful in accommodating students with disabilities. Denmark’s “Accessibility for All” program classifies hotels and attractions into various accessibility groups for the benefit of visitors and citizens, and the country is largely wheelchair-accessible (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a).

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Gender

“Whether I received free food or unwelcome ‘hellos,’ I was brutally aware of my gender everywhere I traveled, even sometimes in my host city of Glasgow. However, I think this strengthened my identity to a certain extent. Glasgow as a city flourished on flexible identities, with many of my friends not conforming to a strict feminine appearance. With this flexibility and the occurrences while traveling, I am more in sync with my female identity now, and I hope to be more aware of this when traveling elsewhere in the future.” — Sophia Moak, IFSA-Butler student

“The major problem that I had [in Germany] was catcalling. As a woman, I was enraged that I couldn't walk down the street without sexual comments from disgusting middle-aged men. It didn't matter how I dressed, I noticed, whether in sweatpants or a dress, I experienced this consistently. I never felt threatened, just objectified and angry.” — CGIS Alumnx

Views on gender roles vary across Western Europe. Sweden has implemented many progressive policies to support gender equality and has consistently ranked top ten in the Global Gender Gap report for years (World Economic Forum 2020). Germany recently ranked 14th in the same scale (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c). However, traditional gender roles still prevail in some countries, such as Greece, where women are less likely to work outside the home despite having legal equality with men (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). Male students traveling abroad may find that some countries have different standards of or expectations for masculinity than they are used to at home: in London, while pressure towards masculine behavior still exists in some quarters, masculinity is less associated with, in the words of an IFSA-Butler student, “having no feelings.” Self-expression through colorful clothing may also be more acceptable under different culturally “masculine” constraints (DeAngelo, n.d.).

Female students traveling to many countries in Europe experience an increase in catcalling, both in frequency and intensity. Students in Spain report discomfiting experiences with men shouting at them from across the street (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e), while men in France may interpret “prolonged eye contact” or smiling as an “invitation to make advances” (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). CGIS students in Italy also reported unwanted touching and grabbing from men. Even trips to perceived-progressive environments, such as smaller cities in Germany, were reported by female CGIS alumni to expose them to verbal harassment by men. Women are often advised by program staff and study abroad resource pages to ignore these advances (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b; Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d), which may leave them feeling unheard or unsupported. A student writing on the IFSA-Butler blogs instead advocated for students gauging their own safety and then responding to the men only if they felt comfortable doing so (Schulman, n.d.).

Due to this aggressive catcalling, female students may feel less comfortable than they initially expected in Western Europe. Similar to the United States, many countries in Europe--including gender-progressive countries--do experience underreporting of sexual assault (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). While most harassment remains verbal, students should still take consistent precautions when traveling alone. This may include avoiding headphone use at night, providing emergency contacts, and informing friends where they are going (Schulman, n.d.).

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Heritage Seekers

“For nearly every city I visited, I made it my mission to do something that would connect me to the Jewish community of that city...I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, did a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Rome and went to the oldest synagogue in Barcelona. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to visit these communities.” — Alana Rettig, Emory student

Heritage seekers intending to study abroad in Western Europe come from a broad array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds and may connect to a variety of communities abroad--dominant and marginalized (Comp 2008). In the current political climate, Europeans themselves wrestle with the concept of what it means to “be European”--recognizing growing (or long-standing) ethnic minority groups in their countries, as well as influxes of immigration and refugees. The United Kingdom, for example, contains sizable minorities of Asian British and Black British citizens (Comp 2008).

Cultural contact and cross-influencing is not, however, a new phenomenon in Europe. Spain hosts both Islamic and Hispanophone heritage sites due to its history of both conflict and coexistence between these groups. This may attract both Latin American and Muslim heritage-seeking students (Diversity Abroad, n.d.). Paris has been long considered a destination of interest for African American students due to the city’s history of welcoming Black soldiers and cultural icons after World War I, which produced an appreciation for Black cultural arts in France as well as creating a home for figures such as Josephine Baker and James Baldwin (Francis 2016). However, the history of European colonialism has also resulted in the frequent and long-standing theft of art and artifacts from marginalized cultures, and students from related backgrounds may experience frustration viewing these artifacts in European museums when they would not be able to do so in the artifacts’ countries of origin (Chick and Brown 2016).

Generally, students hoping to connect to a Western European heritage may find that locals perceive them as solely “American” rather than placing weight on their ancestral connections to Europe. The American practice of referring to oneself as “Irish” or “German” even after many generations living in the United States may not be understood or respected abroad (the University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d.).  

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LGBTQ+

“Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain since 2005, which is a whole TEN YEARS before the United States legalized same-sex marriage. It is odd to me that the country known as ‘Land of the Free’ is so behind many other countries in the world….I still felt more comfortable walking hand in hand with my girlfriend down the streets of Barcelona than I ever have been in California.” Lauren Anderson, IES Abroad Student

“I’ve spent time learning about the Islamophobic attitudes of the Netherlands that silence queer Muslims, and the pressure to conform to the Western version of being gay and define it as the only correct version of being gay. I know I cannot possibly change entire systems that function on heteronormativity and oppression, but I now am equipt to do small things.”Emily Radford, IES Abroad Student

Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals vary throughout Western Europe. Depending on the destination, some students may find their host city more welcoming than the United States: Sweden has codified more civil rights for LGBTQ+ people than the United States (Shalosky, n.d.), and the country has actively adapted a new gender-neutral pronoun in order to promote acceptance for nonbinary people within the language (Deutsche Welle 2015). The Netherlands legalized gay marriage in 2001--the first country in the world to do so (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-f). Spain was the third in 2005 (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-g). Denmark is “known as one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world,” embracing same-sex marriage and incorporating LGBTQ+ people in their anti-discrimination laws (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a). The Christopher Street Day pride festivities in Berlin are famous around the world (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c).

However, attitudes often vary between urban and rural environments, even intolerant countries (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a, Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). Perception of LGBTQ+ individuals in other Western European countries is mixed: while both Ireland and Greece have made progress towards civil and legal rights for gay and transgender people, a significant percentage of the populations of these countries--particularly the religious populations--may retain homophobic attitudes according to Diversity Abroad (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d, Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e). 

Non-binary, genderqueer, and non-gender-conforming students traveling to countries like Italy and France should consider how they want to navigate their gendered languages. While “they” has been popularized in the U.S. as a gender-neutral pronoun, many romance languages do not have a standardized form of address. Students with these identities are recommended to research their specific country and see if there is a term of address that works best for them.

LGBTQ+ students may be surprised to find that the conceptualization of gender and sexual identity may vary from country to country. Diversity Abroad’s climate notes imply that in Ireland, female homosexuality may be accepted to a greater extent than male homosexuality (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e), while in Greece students may find that the reverse is true (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). Students may also find that the local LGBTQ+ community views themselves differently than the community does in the United States, or uses different “signals'' to convey identity. A student blogging for IES described their efforts to convey their non-binary identity in Spain within the context of Spanish fashion, ultimately shaving the side of their head and opting for different clothing than in the United States (Colvin 2018). Students can explore LGBTQ+ media and websites from their chosen destination to better understand the culture and common forms of expression abroad (Gooverseas).

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Mental Health

“In England, most classes are assessed by a single exam. That kind of high-intensity situation can be very stressful for a neurotypical person; for those with anxiety like me, it can be terrifying…. I never want students with mental health issues to believe there are things they can’t do.  So it is very important that these students know the best ways to manage the difficulties that study abroad might present for them.” — Carly Roe, IFSA-Butler Student

Students studying in Western Europe--particularly in the European Union--may find that the local approach to mental health broadly matches what they might expect in the United States (when accounting for cultural variation between member countries). Nearly every country within the EU has some form of overarching mental health strategy at the national level, though only two-thirds are currently in line with the WHO’s recommended level and approach (World Health Organization 2013). While on average, governments spent $22 USD on mental health per person in 2016, this number varies considerably by country: Newly Independent States (NIS) spent under $1, while countries that joined the EU prior to 2004 spent nearly $200 (World Health Organization 2018). A three-year study of thirty countries in Europe found that 38% of the population suffered from a “brain disorder” such as depression, anxiety, insomnia or dementia” (Kelland 2011).

Complicating mental health statistics in Europe are issues of self-disclosure and access to treatment. Some figures estimate the “highest” numbers of mental health disorders in Europe are in Finland, the Netherlands, France, and Ireland--however, this more likely points to accessibility in health services and reporting compared to other nations (OECD 2018). Attitudes towards disclosure can vary between demographics: the 2014 European Health Interview Survey found a substantial gender gap in self-reported depression, with women on the higher end of the scale (OECD 2018). In countries such as Greece, depression, and suicide still carry a stigma of “weakness,” particularly among men (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a).

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Religion & Spirituality

“People [in the UK] believe that Muslims are all Southeast Asian or Arab, and that Black Muslims do not exist. I’m Somali, and people also believe that Somalis simply are not Black….My hijab slipped at work, revealing my beautiful cornrows – courtesy of my mom – which led to my colleagues making remarks like, ‘I thought you had straight hair,’ ‘I thought you were South Asian,’ and ‘You don’t look Black.’” — Rachel Godfrey, IFSA-Butler Student

“I am a Roman Catholic and being in Italy, I felt that my religion was heavily catered to since that is the main religion of this country. I had a positive experience and our group went to many different churches and learned about a lot of the great art that was orchestrated by the church. However, I did see frustration with some of my classmates who follow different religions and were still expected to go and be attentive during church tours.” — CGIS Alumnx

Students may find the ambivalence towards religion in Western Europe surprising or confusing. Many countries--such as France and Spain--have cultural celebrations and institutional structures deeply embedded in Catholic theology and imagery. However, in both of these countries, religiosity is waning and most citizens consider themselves secular (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b, Diversity Abroad, n.d.-f). In Greece, the majority of citizens are nominally Greek Orthodox, and the government’s recognition of the religion as “prevailing” in the country eliminates the possibility of true separation of church and state. However, as in France and Spain, the overall religiosity of Greek citizens has diminished over time (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). Despite these societal trends, motivating study abroad participants have still reported success in finding faith communities in nominally “secular” countries (Deming, n.d.).

Some Western European countries are politically or culturally committed to a secular public space. In Denmark, open discussion of religion is unusual outside of places of worship (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a), while France, with a philosophy called a “radical brand of secularism” by some (Power 2015), has instituted many policies that have tested protections of religious expression--such as banning the wearing of burqas by religious Muslim women. Other Western European countries, such as Austria and Belgium, followed suit (BBC News 2018). A CGIS student on a political program in Belgium noted that the EU institutions in Brussels prohibit staff from wearing the hijab.

The same student found Belgium an unfriendly environment for Muslims due to street harassment. Many countries, such as Greece and Hungary, have seen a rise in antisemitic and anti-Islamic acts and sentiment--the latter of which is in part intensified by the influx of Muslim migrants and refugees (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d, Diversity Abroad, n.d.-e). 

Another CGIS student noted that a heavy drinking culture in countries like Scotland may make Muslim students or other religiously-observant non-drinkers feel isolated--a fear echoed by a Christian student studying in London through IFSA-Butler (Hamilton, n.d.).

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Students of Color

“The first time I traveled outside of London during my spring break is when I saw the other side of Europe. It’s the first time I experienced a white person touching my hair without consent and endless staring. I was fresh off of a coach bus headed to Dublin city and while my friend and I crossed the street an Irish man came up to me and didn’t say anything before just reaching to touch my hair….In America, staring is rude and it’s been ingrained in us to react negatively or to get offended when someone stares at you. I never stopped to think that I might be the first Black woman (and one with a fro) that these people have seen in person.” — CGIS Alumnx

Students of color studying in Western Europe may discover that unique cultural contexts influence the racial climate in their host country. Some countries, such as Denmark, are historically ethnically homogenous and therefore struggle with productive conversations around race and racism (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-b). The term “hygge-racism” was coined to discuss ways in which the Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (roughly, “coziness”) can be used to dismiss racism: to keep the context “fun and conflict-free,” serious discussions of race are dismissed or satirized (Nielsen-Bobbit 2020), and Danes may contribute to an atmosphere of “colorblind racism” (Associated Press 2020). European definitions of race may differ from American definitions: the “Black” identity in Europe is more likely to be “reserved for those of dark color” rather than a description of African ancestry (Blakely 2008). In some countries, racist sentiment may be tied more firmly with perceptions of national origin than in the United States: Roma people in the Czech Republic experience discrimination based on their perceived status as “foreign” (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-a), and a survey of French citizens in 2017 indicated that 53% believed the number of immigrants in their country was too high (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-c).

Many students of color report that even well-meaning Western European discussion on race can be blunt and come across as deeply insensitive compared to their experiences in the United States. Raphaella, a traveler interviewed by Sojourners, found herself confronted by “annoyingly oblivious” conversations on race in Belgium (White 2019). A CGIS student described a professor in Spain who had both idly compared white and black skin and made fun of East Asian customs. Some of this attitude may stem from the local perception that racism does not exist in these countries: most French citizens espouse a colorblind ideology despite incidents of racism in everyday life, and the country refuses to collect demographic data on race (Lynn 2015). 

CGIS students of color have reported experiencing microaggressions in Western Europe, including extra train security screenings in the Netherlands, being served late in Spanish restaurants, and strangers frequently touching their hair in Ireland. On some occasions, more pointed discrimination was observed: being refused service at a U.K. restaurant or disrespectful treatment on the street. Female students of color have experienced racialized catcalling, such as East Asian students hearing “Konichiwa” shouted at them by men in the Netherlands, or Black students in Germany noticing more intensive sexual harassment than that experienced by their peers.

Students of color have also reported very positive experiences in Western Europe: a CGIS student described his experience in Germany as transformational, without overt manifestations of racism or harassment, and students of color described by Diversity Abroad largely felt comfortable in the country (Diversity Abroad, n.d.-d). Communities of color have long and storied histories in Europe that students may be eager to connect with: many Black students choose Paris as their study abroad destination due to the historic “love affair” between the city and the African American community (Lynn 2015).

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