“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Holding Sweet Pea and Monkey’s passports, I find it both interesting and exciting that at an age where they could barely talk or walk, my kids have already traveled more than I had when I was 18.
From almost as far back as I can remember, I dreamed of going to far-flung places. After reading about a girl who lived in California and exchanging numerous letters with my aunt Carolee, who also lived there, my 5th-grade self placed a mason jar on my bedside table to collect change that I was saving for my fare to LA. In 6th grade, I discovered Edith Piaf and spent hours listening to her records and reading and memorizing the words to her songs with the hopes of becoming a bit more glamorous. In 7th grade, I went to the library and checked out German language learning tapes (cassette tapes - remember those?) and books. I decorated a folder for all my notes, and practiced writing words that contained umlauts and the eszett (ß), smug that I even knew they existed. In high school, I joined the Spanish Club and French Club, and was president of AFS. I befriended every exchange student that walked through the doors of our small-town high school, wishing that some of their cosmopolitan ways would rub off on me. Since my family didn’t have much money, I could never participate in any of the Spanish or French club trips abroad, nor could I be an exchange student myself. Instead, I begged and convinced my parents to host an exchange student I’d befriended and who’d found herself in a terrible host family situation. Rather than going back home to Germany, she came and stayed with us. I was thrilled to learn about Birkenstocks, Nutella, and German pop music.
My senior year of high school, my French and Spanish teachers pulled me aside and strongly urged me to spend the following year as an exchange student. They could help me get financial assistance to do so, they thought. At that same time, I had received a full scholarship to start a degree in orchestral performance. With my family being of little means, I was too scared to risk a free education. I stayed in the US and started college.
Finally, when I was 19, my time came. The exchange student we’d hosted invited me to visit her and her family in Germany, for an entire month. My mom and I went to the courthouse to get my birth certificate, and then the post office to apply for my very first passport. Six weeks later, Mom and Dad drove me to O’Hare, and I boarded a plane. When it took off, I was scared and cried. I'd never been on a plane before. I hugged my stuffed dog, Mutsy, for comfort. German businessmen stared at the young and clueless American girl crying and holding a stuffed animal - but she didn’t care. She was doing what she needed to do to get herself to Germany.
That trip of course changed my life. A few years later, a trip to Italy changed it even more. Both times, I felt scared out of my mind before getting on the plane. Not so much because I was scared of flying, but because I knew my mind was about to be blown, and that I wouldn’t be the same when I came back. Yes, there was the newfound affinity for scarves, the peppering of my everyday conversation with the new Italian and German words I’d learned. And the people around me politely put up with my educating them upon my return. However, the travel consistently awakened something more profound than fashion ideas.
Travel challenges you, and challenges you deeply. Stripped of the command of a language, and your country- and culture-based persona, you are forced to connect with people on a much more basic human level (as a result, many of the friends I’ve made abroad are some of my closest). When you’re in a foreign country, everything you do - all day long - is somewhat of an obstacle and most definitely a learning experience. Turn on the TV, and you watch content that has absolutely no context or relevance to you at that moment - but it does to the people around you. Go and get a drink, or go to the post office, and you quickly learn what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of physical proximity to others. In Italy, there’s hardly any such thing as a line and people you barely know greet you with kisses. In Germany, standing any closer than 4 feet to someone in a well-defined queue at the post office will grant you a silent stare of disapproval.
For eight years I ran a successful performing arts festival in Italy for University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (or CCM, as we call it). During those eight years, I got to witness the students going through the same transformation I did when I was 19. Sometimes it brought tears to my eyes, just to see the wonder on their faces, as they walked through the streets with their heads back, taking it all in. The first company meeting, when all of us were in the theatre together, was both exciting and overwhelming. The subsequent weeks always went more quickly than we could have imagined, and exhausted and satisfied, I would always cry when everyone left.
I believe that travel is fundamental for any culture or individual to flourish. It should be a requirement for any student to graduate college - or better yet, high school - to travel abroad. And not just the city-a-day trips - a trip where you go and stay a while, and learn about the people around you. It’s way harder to make blanket statements about people, or to dismiss an entire culture, when you’re looking them in the eye.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
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