I’ve been exchanging emails with someone lately, and our conversations have revolved around our experiences in traveling around Europe. It’s interesting how every traveler has their own story to tell: the treks up mountains, where the paths are paved with either grass or ice; the happy accidents of getting on the wrong bus or hopping onto the wrong train; the greetings in a foreign language gone wrong, or the guesses of meaning gone right (my Japan trips are usually filled with impromptu sign language exchanges that sometimes verge on the borders of interpretative dance).
The stories are many, but they are shared in their spirit, joyful in their essence.
And their essence? That travelling teaches you that nothing is ever permanent: not that sea or that lake or that train – or the traveler.
That there is no such thing as a permanent self, no static self that must be accepted because it is unchanging. That there is no reason to say, “This is who I am – accept me,” because every step across boundaries of culture and nation also means stepping into stories that can change one’s inner worlds. That there is no reason to claim that , “Nothing can change me,” because every new experience outside your comfort zone, outside the usual borders of the everyday, can change you.
While some children had new toys, gadgets, or cars, my sister and I traveled every year with our parents. Every year, we had new things to see, new voices to hear, new languages to explore, new countries to sink our dreams into. We ate new food and felt our tastebuds widen in appreciation and astonishment. We walked through art galleries and felt our senses drink in color, and brushstrokes, and landscapes, and hidden tales. We spent hours at museums and drew stories from history.
In Rome, we entered church after church, until we smelled of tallow and burning candles. In Prague, we spent hours on the Charles Bridge looking out at a river blossoming with the city lights. In Boston, we played in the snow. And at Disneyworld, we hugged Mickey Mouse.
But in Rome, we felt our faith deepen. In Prague, I felt my fingers itch to write down fairy tales. In Boston, my sister learned to love winter. Different countries meant different stories, different photos to capture the moment, different tales to tell and re-tell later.
My sister eventually served as a flight attendant for a few years. I do my own traveling during conferences, and through field work, as part of my job. Traveling, a staple of our childhoods, found its way to our adult lives. The need to see new things and experience new places, so deeply ingrained by our parents, has become as constant a desire as food and water.
The gift of travel is perhaps the bedrock upon which my love for field work sits. I love listening to stories, and seeing the larger stories that can tie all the threads of humanity together. I love writing these stories down – albeit in a tone far more formal, replete with citations that likewise tie the stories to the rest of the stories on earth.
The gift of travel also leaves me wondering ever so many things, above and beyond the storyteller’s “What if?”
Why do so many people insist that they, and people around them, will never change? Why do they never leave their comfort zones? Why must there be a comfort zone at all?
And why, for the love of all things holy, do we excuse bad behavior with, “He’s always been like that – let’s just be patient” or “That’s just the way he is” or “It’s just a joke”?
Travel changes the way you see the world. It allows you to see how your brand of humor isn’t acceptable, how your sense of self is overblown, how you are just a speck of humanity in a sea of millions.
Perhaps travel is a good remedy, as well, for people who labor under the notion that their leaders can be crass and crude.