Category Archives: Western Europe

Where Are You From?

Two days into 2017 and I found myself on a long journey to the United Kingdom. After spending the holidays at home with my family in Mexico, I packed my suitcase and drove north for four hours, just me and my mom. We crossed the border and arrived in Tucson, Arizona – spending a brief night in a place that I had also once called home. Ever since my parents relocated to Mexico, I rarely have the opportunity to visit. Perhaps it was just the nostalgia, but it felt right to be in the place where it all started before flying to my college home again.

The next morning, I took in the lingering smell of the desert rain and kissed my anxious mother goodbye. Seven hours later, I found myself lugging my heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs to a mostly empty college apartment in Philadelphia. After two years studying at the University of Pennsylvania, it also felt like home to walk around my college campus and have late night conversations over noodles at the local Ramen Bar. Less than 24 hours later, I packed up my second suitcase and stumbled back down the stairs before heading back to the airport for another day of traveling.

By the time I arrived in London, I had passed through 3 different countries over 3 days of travel. Disoriented and exhausted, it was difficult to find the charm in London when I first arrived. My heater didn’t work, my phone service went out, and there was no logic in the placement of crosswalks. During orientation, I sat in the back with one of my best friends from Penn and we rolled our eyes at every cheesy presentation while introducing ourselves to an overwhelming group of new people.

What school do you go to? What are you studying? Where are you from?

 

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First day out in the city in typical London weather!

 

Though the entire situation surrounding “Abroad Orientation” called for small talk and awkward introductions, my inconsistent response to every “Where are you from?” question made me uneasy. As I stumbled to simplify my complicated background and the different layers that compose my identity, I realized that home could take on different meanings. To other American students, I was mostly from Arizona, the place where I grew up. In awkward and somewhat incoherent sentences, I would also mention Philadelphia before quickly moving on. On the other hand, to my British classmates, I was clearly American. Yet, I would often find myself clarifying that I was Mexican too.

 

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Strolls right at dusk down on Oxford Street.

 

It has been a month since I first arrived in London and as the days pass, introductions and “where are you from?” questions have become less frequent. Still, these past few weeks have encouraged me to look back and pinpoint the places that I call home and people that have inadvertently impacted and influenced who I am. At a time when the value of diversity has been questioned and undermined, I find myself embracing my background and the framework that it has provided as I find my place in this expansive and multifaceted city. Sure there is no place like home and there is no place like London but I have a feeling that the two aren’t altogether mutually exclusive.

 

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A rare day of sunshine near Tower Bridge.

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by | February 17, 2017 · 4:21 pm

Studying Abroad as a First-Generation College Student at an Elite Establishment

I refuse to let the pressure get to me. Walking around the hallways of this elite French school, I refuse to be intimidated. I refuse to let everyone’s ease and comfort, (their only worries the readings they didn’t complete last night or the impending presentation they haven’t started), make me feel like I’m a burden. I refuse to feel that I deserve this less, or even, that I deserve this more, which is a thought that bubbles up to the surface when I am overly-confident, partially bitter at how little everyone else has had to do to succeed as I scaled my very anxieties to get here. I refuse to bow.

 

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I’m at the Louvre so I’m smiling but deep inside I’m panicking: Will my scholarship come in time? Will I pass my classes? Will they be challenging enough to be interesting? Are there professors I’ll meet on Monday familiar with students like me in the classroom? Whatever Tammie, smile, we’re getting crepes later.

 

I have a few friends who go to my host school (or are alumni). A good friend of mine, who for the sake of this blog we can call “Nick,” attended this school and graduated, with high honors of course, and told me everything I’d need to know before attending. I know it’s wrong to come to a new place with worries and assumptions but, I’m human, and I cannot keep myself calm in almost any situation so why should this be different? Before I came here Nick told me that this school was built as a place where the French elite could educate their children; politicians and diplomats sent their kids here to follow in their footsteps, and it’s become world-renowned as a place to get your foot in the door to a successful life as a part of high-brow academic society. Many of the previous French presidents have attended this school. Almost all of the people who go here are part of the wealthy elite in whatever nation they come from; all of their family is usually college-educated. Well, crap.

 

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Pictured in the Jardin des Tuileries, one of the largest and historically most important parks in Paris. Nick took me on a bike tour, and we stopped for a moment to admire how many things there were to do right in front of us.

 

Knowing that I have quite the snappy attitude towards those who think they’re better than anyone else because of their academic or economic privilege, I prepared myself for the worst. I pictured myself living in an academic battlefield, constantly having to prove that the self-sufficient girl from New York (the Bronx, to be specific) was good enough, smart enough, and could handle what this school brought for me. Every time I thought about it, I got sick. What if I couldn’t afford to take all the same fancy trips everyone had planned? How would they feel about me going to a state school, one of the most affordable educations in the nation, coming from a CUNY rather than Columbia University, or NYU?

Fast forward some months, and voila! Here I am. Refusing. Refusing to let my own mental insecurities about my abilities affect how I present myself and how I perform at this elite institution that I absolutely deserve to attend. Refusing to disappoint my parents, who I don’t see as inferior for not having attended college, but as visionaries and angels, who sacrificed everything they’ve ever had to make my life better and more privileged than theirs ever will be. I refuse to view myself in competition with others with whom I might not relate; but rather I will let myself get to know others, and see the similarities we share in the world of academia, global travel, and professional experience.

 

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My fears were quickly relieved when I made great new friends who taught me that it’s dangerous to over-think and stereotype institutions, no matter how right I think I am. It’s important to focus on making good friendships and fostering connections, and the rest comes easy. And by the way, no one cares about your circumstances!! This is something our brains will tell us to worry about, but it’s your heart that counts, every single time.

 

To be honest, I think all first-generation college students share some of the same trials and tribulations. There is a girl here with me from my school who has become one of my closest friends in the time we’ve been here together. Let’s call her… Amara. Along with her, I’ve made good friends with an Afro-Brazilian woman (let’s call her Dascha) studying abroad in Paris, and she has struggled just like me to make it to this great university. They both understand, as fellow first-generation college students and low-income women of color, how nerve-wracking it is to be here among all of this wealth, prestige, and honor. We’ve had days, hours, and moments, when we’ve needed to confide in each other about comments made in our classes, observations we’ve seen among social groups, and implications of this institute which were shocking to us. (For example, everyone here can afford textbooks. At our home university, many professors omit them, or give much more time for students to purchase them, because working class colleges contain multitudes of people who can’t afford hundreds of dollars at once for reading material.) I am extremely grateful to you, Amara, for being a friend I confide in about these issues, who understands my anxieties, and gives me hope that we can for sure fulfill this experience without losing our self-esteem, or feeling any type of inadequate.

 

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They don’t have to understand the struggle, it’s okay. If they’re good friends, they’ll care enough to hear you out: your fears, concerns, and everything that comes with it. As long as they’re open to understanding the world, they’re alright with me. Never be ashamed of where you come from.

 

For all the first-gen students who are reading this, feeling some type of way, looking for inspiration or courage to study abroad or head off to college: look inside yourself. It will be difficult to get rid of the assumptions that society has put on us, and we will always feel slightly resentful at how much harder we’ve had to work to get here but please understand that it’s worth it. You deserve the opportunities you’ve fought for, and there’s no sense in worrying so much that you lose the ability to soak in all of the wonderful experiences, moments, and friends you will make here. Refuse to let yourself be a statistic, but make yourself a living example. Refuse to feel self-conscious, but let your different background propel you. Refuse to let the pressure get to you, use it to succeed.

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Meet Gilman Scholar Elizabeth

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

Relating to the Globalized World

My name is Tammie, and since as far back as I can remember, I’ve been an adventurous spirit. In every aspect, I enjoy the new, the foreign, and the unrelatable. I’m always down to try something novel, whether it’s food, places, or ideas. I enjoy people, because they allow me to experience things I might not always have access to like different cultures, ways of thinking, and lifestyles. This year I decided to study abroad so that I could experience an intense immersion into a different culture as an adult with responsibilities, expanding my horizon and my worldview.

I was accepted into a world renowned school for the social sciences, SciencesPo, located in seven cities across France, locations as diverse as the program content and its academic community. Before leaving the U.S., I don’t think I had a very good perception of France or its people. To be honest with you all, I admit that I had extremely limited knowledge of France and weighed heavily the opinion of others regarding French culture and attitude. 

 

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When I got to France, my fears melted into the void like a popsicle in the summer sun. I felt enchanted driving through the Northern French countryside, mesmerized at the number of vineyards and villages whose charming and old-fashioned aesthetic transported me into what felt like a romance novel. The city of Reims in particular dazzled me with its French classic architecture and symmetrical set-up.

 

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The basilique (church)

 

Any fear, any assumption, and any bias I may have had completed rescinded, and I fell in love with France. There has been really no culture shock, because I’ve lived in Europe before and sort of understand the dynamic of life on this continent, even within the different European nations. I believe coming to France with a biased perspective helped to ease my culture shock (usually the opposite happens), because I was so pleasantly surprised with what I’ve gotten to know, and how I’ve been received in this small, fairytale town. The grand cathedral in the center of town, visible from all around the city center and even beyond, is a source of comfort in my new home, and I am happy that my homesickness is minimal.

 

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Me and my friend’s mom in front of the cathedral

 

So far, I’ve been here (in Reims) for 22 days. Twenty-two days of gorging on French food, 22 days of struggling to speak French with my American accent, and 22 days of discussing my role as an American in global politics. 22 days of learning new things, 22 days of missing New York, and 22 days of self-improvement. In this era of new presidential leadership, we (as Americans) are trying to make sense of political change. I came here looking to get politically involved, understand more about my role in global politics, and expand my education to be a better advocate for the underrepresented and oppressed. Since I’ve been here, I’ve noticed many stark cultural differences between France and New York. I feel uncomfortable comparing my experiences here to that of the entire U.S. because many of these differences apply only to New York City as I know it and many regions of the U.S. are so starkly different from the Northeast. Some of the biggest differences I’ve seen are an emphasis on politeness in the French language (even if you don’t want to be!), a difference in embracing the “melting pot” culture (the French can’t stand to be separated by race or religion; even if this isn’t apparent – the oppressed groups will tell you that the French can be very racist, even if it isn’t bluntly so), and finally, a globalized understanding of the world and its politics.

The last point I mentioned is the difference that I came to embrace, something that can be argued for really most European countries, but particularly France because of its history. The French are incredibly aware of their imperialist history, and my school in particular celebrates the scholarly pursuit of understanding many global cultures and nations as they play a role in international politics. Although it has always been my dream to work in international politics, it wasn’t until leaving the U.S. for my education 22 days ago that I realized that this was feasible, though a long way away. The U.S. tends to be selfish in its political studies; though we embrace world studies and different cultures, the focus on American culture particularly is important and our geography allows us to be relatively ignorant to what’s happening in other countries, continents, and cultures. France is a hotbed of ideology from all around the world, with African, Middle Eastern, European, American (North and Latin) people milling around, interacting in the French sphere. The French just seem to pay attention to what’s going on, while Americans seem to have to go out of their way to be involved in global politics. In my opinion, this difference in the French attitude regarding global politics is critical to both my studies, and my experience here; globalization has never seemed more vital to my personal and professional life as it is here. This semester in France, I hope to delve into the French language and political culture, soaking up knowledge about global politics that will allow me to become a better advocate when I return to the States, and as I continue my education.

 

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Me with lights in Reims.

 

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A Semester of Wonder

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

-Mary Anne Radmacher

It has been a week since I returned to the States and felt my feet settle on solid ground. It has been a week of me readjusting to America and my home university. During this week I’ve felt a flurry of emotions- sadness from missing the friends I made abroad, eagerness to see my old friends again, thankfulness for the experience I was able to have- which all mix together to a strange mix-mosh of feelings inside of me. I didn’t know how to react to being back in the States. After my semester in Belgium, I made a short trip to Vietnam to see family I haven’t seen in 12 years, and then flew back home where I had 4 days to adjust and move back to my college campus. When I returned home, it felt like everything stayed constant, but changed at the same time. I was struggling with how to adjust back to my old life in America and then I realized I’m not the same person I was when I left for Belgium. I’m coming back to the States more assured of who I am, more aware of the world, and eager to experience more of it. I’m eager to implement and utilize everything I’ve learned and move forward as a more aware citizen.

America is in a time of immense change and I’m at a place where I am trying to figure out what I can do to enact positive change in a country that desperately needs it. I felt so far removed from American politics when I was abroad, even if it was a hot topic of discussion. I guess this is a part of the culture shock of being back in America. While in Belgium, as political events unraveled I was able to keep a certain distance from it all. But here, I returned just as the inauguration was happening. I returned as America was on the precipice of making history and I’m trying to figure out how to help fight against repeating some not so nice parts of that American history.

As America is on the forefront of the fight for human rights, I’m also struggling on how to slide back into my old life. I feel myself missing and yearning for my life in Leuven. I miss the little quirks of Belgian life, and more than anything I miss the friends I made abroad. My hall-mates and I still talk on a daily basis, all of us finding it hard to get used to life without each other. But this leads to promises of future meet-ups, which I’m excited to see follow through! But this doesn’t mean I’m not excited to be back in America and on my home campus. It’s nice to be back and be surrounded by what I’m familiar with. It’s nice to go back to all my favorite coffee shops and go the library that was my dorm away from dorm.

 

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A friend from my college visited me in Leuven and we took a trip to Bruges to visit the Christmas Markets!

 

The first thing I felt when I returned to America was a mix of familiarity and newness. Everything felt the same, the ground was still the same solid concrete I was used to, my small college felt comfortable, and I reunited with my friends in a seamless fashion which felt like I never left. But something was different. The concrete was different than the brick road I grew accustomed to, it feels weird to not walk 30 minutes to get to class, and I miss the mix of languages that occurred over dinner in Belgium. It was definitely reverse culture shock and after a week of being home, I feel myself getting over that shock. I’m enjoying being back home and also having the time to reflect on the amazing three months I had in Belgium.

Before studying abroad, I definitely was a lot more wary of traveling and going to new places. But now I can’t imagine being stagnant for too long. I’m now yearning to see more of the world, even if it is just going to a different state in the U.S. I’m determined to see and experience more, which means I’ll be able to visit some of my American hall-mates! I feel significantly more comfortable and confident being in unknown places and adjusting to the unfamiliar. Being in Leuven gave me the chance to fully embrace life and get everything I can out of it. I credit this to my hall-mates. Living with a hall of international students has taught me so much. I’ve been able to learn about different cultures, but more importantly I’ve been able to experience how each of them see the world. A friend wrote me a letter and a line of it said, “Nhi, the world is a beautiful place, take a chance to see it.” That’s something I will remember for the rest of my days and I really credit my hall-mates for my newly found desire to take the world on.

 

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Last picture of the hall! (Had to edit the boys in since they never wanted to take a picture with us!)

 

Studying abroad also made me become strong in my beliefs, while simultaneously making me more open to exchange and conversations between differing ideals. I’ve learned to learn from the differences between people and how engaging in thoughtful conversations can really make me develop and strengthen my own thoughts and ideas. I thought I had a strong handle on these types of conversations, but I definitely learned and grew so much as I was abroad.

The past three months were the most transformative of my life and are memories that will never fade from my memory. I’ve made unbreakable friendships, created unforgettable moments, and have grown tremendously as a person. I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity to study abroad, especially to Gilman for helping fund my experience. I will take what I experienced and learned, and use it as I continue with my educational pursuits and as I grow and live.

Leuven gave me a taste of the world and for that I will always be grateful and have a special place in my heart for the small Belgian town that welcomed me and gave me so much more than what I bargained for.

 

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Ostende, a Belgiun coastal city.

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Where is Your Home?

I’m home and it honestly doesn’t feel real. And it’s not just me that feels this way. I remember last week my roommates and the other friends I had made in my study abroad program were agreeing with me when I said that it just doesn’t seem right that we are leaving Florence so soon. That’s one change from the beginning of when I got there; the friends that I made. When I first got to Italy, I didn’t know anybody. I had to try to make new friends with people from different schools and people from difficult backgrounds. And now, we have been talking everyday about how much we want to go back. When I look back on my past blog posts, I see how excited I was to venture out into this new world and find different challenges to take on. Now looking back on the past three months, I see that I really went through a lot. Like a whole lot more than I thought I would ever go through. I went into studying abroad looking forward to meeting new people, trying new food, visiting new countries, and of course getting better in Italian. But I didn’t expect to go to countries like Austria, or I didn’t expect getting stuck in the city of Frankfort in Germany. I didn’t expect to leave my passport in Florence and realize that’s probably not the best idea if I am trying to travel to other countries.

When I think of what skills and qualities I have developed over these past three months, the one thing I am thankful for is how much experience I gained in traveling. I truly feel confident in any surrounding I could put myself in. I am also thankful that I have grown a greater sense of responsibility. During the semester, I had a random allergic reaction to something, and I broke out in hives all over my body. It was a very difficult and very uncomfortable time for me, especially because I had a flight to Amsterdam coming up. But I had to find the right medicine and the right treatment to get me through that time and through that experience in Amsterdam.

I have also gained a better insight of the term “hidden racism” through people choosing not to sit next to me on a bus or always being asked to see my passport while I’m sitting down at an airport and being asked, “Why do you have so much luggage?” It was things like this that showed me that the worlds of Italy and the United States aren’t so different. I learned throughout my time in Florence that our people, our cultures, our worlds really aren’t that far apart. The main things that really separate the States from that part of the world is how well we speak our English, what/how we eat, and how interested and involved we are in sports. In my eyes, these are the things that really differ the United States from people and cultures in Europe. At the same time, here in America we try to copy the European lifestyle. We try European food, we try to dress like Europeans. But it also goes the other way around. In Italy, they try to mimic the American lifestyle with how they dress, how they talk, and how they express themselves. These are all things that I miss already.

Regarding reverse culture shock, I am in the stage when I am gradually starting to readjust, but things are still not exactly the same. Florence truly feels like a dream. That’s what I keep telling my friends here when they ask “How was abroad?” “How was it?” “What was the craziest thing you did?” It’s crazy because a majority of people will never really understand or know the answer to these questions, they won’t ever experience the things I saw and went through. It makes me truly grateful for the opportunity to study abroad.

These past few days, I have been a little sad because I don’t really know if I will ever be back in Florence. I don’t know if I will ever be able to discover new experiences there, and do things that I wasn’t able to do within the three months there. One thing that I have realized from the beginning of my journey was how foolish I was to think I would be able to experience a big part of Italy in the three months that I was there. I could honestly compare my time there to the journey I had at the Palace of Versailles in France. I was at the Palace for about 5-6 hours, and I don’t even think I saw 10% of it. That’s how this experience has been for me. I was there for 3 months, but I only scratched the surface. There were trips I didn’t take, people I didn’t talk to, food I didn’t try, and mistakes I didn’t make but probably could have. Three months is nowhere near enough time to really immerse yourself in a brand new culture like that. But one thing that makes me happy is that I will be able to take these experiences and incorporate them into my life here in the U.S., here at Fairfield University. I can show people that studying abroad is truly worth it and you’ll discover things about yourself that you would have never thought possible. The challenges ahead of me- such as trying to finish my last spring semester as an undergrad with a 4.0 GPA, graduating, getting a job, and preparing a path for my future career- don’t seem as difficult as they did before I went to Italy. I know that these things, as tough as they will be, are things that I can handle. These are challenges that I may (ok, definitely will) mess up along the way, but I will be able to bounce back and be alright. My experiences in Italy and the other countries I visited will never leave my mind. Florence was very good to me and I am truly thankful for everything that city gave to me. I will never take it for granted.

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Filed under Christopher in Italy, Western Europe

Community Service in Florence

When I thought about studying abroad in Florence, I knew I wanted to do some form of community service. Something to help students, maybe help them learn English, or something that involved helping the homeless. I started e-mailing and looking for opportunities to help the community out.

I eventually signed myself up for a project that partnered with Oxfam International. Oxfam is an organization whose mission is to end the injustices of poverty. Their goal is to simply engage in the discussion of poverty and find different ways to fix it by bringing people together. And so I thought this was the perfect thing to be a part of and I felt that it would be a good way to leave Florence having an impact on people, even if it is just a little. I was looking forward to an interesting, fun, and unforgettable experience.

Those things were certainly true, but not ever in the way that I could have imagined. On the way to the meeting point, I thought that I was about to meet a lot of other volunteers, Italian and American, and I would make some new friends. When I got there, I was the only one volunteering. Also, the guide that I had only spoke Italian with a little bit of English. Luckily I have been taking an advanced Italian class so I was able to catch onto what she was trying to tell me. Instead of volunteering in the sense of serving food or distributing clothes, etc. to the homeless, my assignment ended up being a fundraiser. I had to try and get people to notice me, and then try to convince them to donate money so that Oxfam could send potable water to families in Sudan. Oh. And did I mention, I was only able to say this and convince people in Italian? Yes, very unexpected and not as easy as I thought it was going to be. I needed a catchphrase to get people to notice me, but then I also needed to be able to hold a conversation long enough to even convince them to donate money. I was pulling words from all over different parts of my brain.

At first this was very difficult because for one, I was really caught off guard with what I had to do and I couldn’t prepare for it beforehand. But also, I was nervous. I was nervous because I knew my Italian wasn’t the best that it could be, and I did not want to look stupid trying to convince people with broken Italian. I was nervous because I didn’t want to mess up the efforts of Oxfam with me not bringing in money because of my inability to convince people to donate. I was nervous because I did not want to get judged by people. As I tried to convince people to donate, some did and some didn’t. One person that did asked, in Italian, if I was from Sudan and if that’s the reason why I was trying to get people to donate. At first, I did not know how to answer. I didn’t know if the reason he donated was because he thought I really needed it for my family or something, or if he genuinely wanted to help Oxfam. This made me hesitant to try to convince people and I started to act quiet. But then after a while, I thought about it and decided that even if they thought it was for me, as long as it was helping somebody, it was okay. This gave me the confidence to keep trying and keep getting people to donate.

I ended up raising about 45 euros. I’m not really sure if that was a lot but I thought it was okay considering how I was thrown into the fire like that. On the bus home, I thought about my experience and I caught myself smiling. Smiling because I realized it was kind of fun doing that. Being by myself, and not doing the conventional community service that most people would probably do. This was something entirely different than what I expected and I took the challenge head on. What was also interesting about this project was that it was not directly involved with the poverty in Florence or the people of Florence at all. It was for a completely different country, a completely different culture. I was wondering why that was, considering the homeless people in Florence: Who is helping them and what foundation is working for them? But at the same time, it shows that Florence doesn’t just care for Florence. It cares for other people as well, people that they will probably never meet or see. I saw Italians in a new light through this experience. I felt happy to be a part of it. It made me feel that even when I leave in the next 2 weeks, Florence will always care about me.

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Filed under Christopher in Italy, Western Europe