I know by the traffic jam I was trapped in this morning that the Ivy League college and the state university that bracket my town are both holding graduation ceremonies today. Between them, they will send thousands of young people out into the world, or, at least, out into the next step in life. My undergraduate psychology students have been busy preparing graduate school and job applications for months. Some look forward to a little time off this summer but the burden of student loans and the pressure to put that expensive diploma to good use loom large. Those who aren’t immediately furthering their education are fretting about finding decently paying jobs and getting on the career track. Those who are aiming for Masters degrees want to get to it and get it done.
“Wait!” I want to say to all of you. “Your education is incomplete! Until you see a part of the world that is markedly different from your own, your opinions about our world, your assumptions about how other people think, and your beliefs about how you handle the unfamiliar are all hypothetical! If you want to know what you’re made of, if you want to become more educated about life, get yourself a passport and go!”
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, part of becoming an educated person was going on a grand tour to at least Western Europe, maybe to more exotic realms. It was mainly British young men of the upper classes who got to go. But they did have the right idea. Sort of. Traveling, as some did, with a tutor, a half dozen servants, and 60 suitcases isn’t exactly fraternizing with the common folk. But at least some of the leaders of the time got the sense that not all the people of the world are the same.
Travel is within the reach of most young people now. You really don’t need to win a lottery to go. Start a savings account, take a short term second job, sell off the text books you know you’ll never look at again, ask relatives for money instead of presents for the next year. If you work at it, you should have enough by next summer for a few of weeks or more of travel. I know more than a few kids who’ve managed a month in Europe for the cost of the flight plus $500!
The big ticket item is the airfare. After that, you can live pretty cheap if you are willing to sacrifice comfort for experience. By staying in youth hostels and campgrounds, buying your food at a market instead of a restaurant, traveling by bus and train, and by refraining from using shopping as a major source of entertainment, you can have a wonderful trip without spending a ton of money.
More to the point, by staying in youth hostels and campgrounds, by buying food at the markets, and by traveling on public transport, you have the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people. My favorite memories include staying up until way past midnight talking politics and rock music with people from a dozen other countries in a hostel in Iceland; singing Broadway songs at the top of our lungs one night with French students I had met at a café in Paris, threading a line dance with Israelis I’d met through a beer hall in Bern; and being invited to a dinner of homemade sausages at a home that seemed to cling to the side of an Alpine mountain.
In cities, most people seemed to prefer to speak English with me. In little villages and towns, people tolerated my high school French and college German and seemed to appreciate my efforts. For my part, I greatly appreciated their willingness to reach across the language divide. We managed to have spirited debates on everything from the merits of capitalism vs. socialism to whether the Beatles really changed everything; often breaking into laughter when volume or pantomime substituted for vocabulary.
Most important was that I found I could survive on my own. It is certainly daunting to arrive in a new city, not knowing where you will sleep that night, where you will find something to eat, how you are going to get around, or who you are going to meet. I learned early to always spend some time at the train station. Soon I would spot others who were also looking around in confusion or who were clearly bluffing a confidence they didn’t quite feel. Traveling alone doesn’t mean staying lonely for long if you are willing to say hello to a fellow traveler. Sometimes encounters lasted only the time it took to figure out the map. Sometimes they turned into travel buddies and lasted for a few days if we found we liked the same things or wanted to see the same sights. Very few were unpleasant. A couple of scary exchanges in which I stood up for myself became evidence for me that I can usually manage what comes my way. All joined the kaleidoscope of experiences that made me grow. I came home more confident in my ability to take care of myself, less shy about meeting people, more tolerant of other peoples’ opinions, and with more understanding of my place in the world.
That was in the late 70’s. Is my experience still relevant? One of the blessings of having children is that you are kept in the loop. My kids and their friends are now exploring the world. My oldest has already made multiple trips to the UK. My youngest made her first trip to Germany a year ago as a high school exchange student. This summer, she returns to visit her German family and to explore more of Europe. Their friends have spent time in Costa Rica, South Africa, and Egypt. Much has changed. Some of the campgrounds I remember fondly have become the sites for huge hotels. Cities have grown. People, including me, are a bit more cautious. (I’m glad my kids have always chosen to go with a friend or two.) But the growth and change that come from following the spirit of adventure and throwing oneself on ones own resources is still the same. Both of my girls have the satisfaction of having set travel goals and saved up enough money to make them reality. Both have wonderful stories to tell about late night conversations in hostels and train rides with strangers who became friends by the time they arrived at the next city. Both have had the chance to see great art and cathedrals as well as small villages. Both have learned how to make money last far longer than it should so that they could extend their stays. Have we worried about them? Of course we have! But they’ve been kind to their old folks and checked in regularly with emails and weekly phone calls. We’ve been kind to them by keeping our worries pretty much to ourselves. It’s been a good system.
An added bonus these days is that the Internet allows our girls to sustain friendships made on the road. It’s a treat to meet these young people and play host when they come to the States to do their own traveling. With their help, and their laughter, I’ve resurrected that high school French and college German. We’ve learned more about our own part of the US by seeing it through their eyes. We’ve even visited local attractions we never got around to seeing until a visitor expressed interest and excitement. Sometimes they all even let my husband and me in on those late night talks. Mark Twain was right. It’s hard to be neutral about news stories that happen in places that are familiar to people you care about. When we connect personally with people from other cultures, they stop being “other” and become fellow travelers in life.