“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.”
~ Mark Twain
When my mother was 17, she was an exchange student with a (still existing) program called AFS, and was sent to live with a Swiss family named von Waldkirch for two months. Prior to this journey, I think the farthest place my mom had traveled was Lake Mohonk in upstate New York, a relatively short distance from her home in Hastings, New York.
Those two months in Europe would prove transformative, not just for my mom, but for my father, brother, sister and I as well. My mother’s Swiss family became her—and when the rest of us came along, our—extended family; they inexplicably adopted all of us.
They happened to be the founders of the shoe company Bally of Switzerland, and as such, were not only wealthy, but exquisitely educated. It was not their wealth or education, however, that made the biggest impression on us. It was their inclusion of my mother and our family in their charmed life, based on those mere two months my mother lived with them when she was just a kid. We stayed in their Alpine home, shared meals with them of spaetzle and white asparagus, and learned the finer points of hiking up to remote huts where incongruously elegant food was presented on rough hewn picnic tables.
Without the influence of the von Waldkirchs, we might simply have been another middle class American family living in our suburban Massachusettes bubble, with no idea that life existed beyond our station wagon, Cape Cod, the Red Sox and the Revolutionary war.
There is no doubt that when my father had the opportunity to move us all to England for his work, that he and my mother were seriously gung-ho, believing, based on their trips to Europe, that it could only be a good thing.
That it turned out to be an incredibly painful thing for me was something no one could have predicted.
I found myself , the only American child in a rural, close knit village, in consistently awful situations. At my two room school which housed four grades, 10 kids to a grade, I was like a kitty in a dog run; I clearly didn’t belong. My uniform was too new—everyone else was wearing hand me downs, something which in America would have inspired ridicule, but which there marked me as an outsider.
I didn’t know the hymns we sang throughout the day, I was unfamiliar with embroidery, which all the girls had learned, and my penmanship was considered illegible, because I had been taught to write so differently.
I didn’t know the games they played on the cricket pitch at recess, I didn’t know what a “conker” was (a chestnut used by English boys like American boys use snowballs—though I did discover that one fairly quickly after having been beaned by a dozen of them), nor was I familiar with “bubble and squeak,” pork pies, “twitchels,” or Lord Cromwell, an important historic figure and the only famous person to have ever lived in the village.
For an adult, these things may have been manageable, but for me—a kid who never fit in very well anyway, they were torture.
But a funny thing happened, despite how miserable I’d been, when we moved back to Boston. I could feel, even though I was still little, that having lived abroad awakened me.
Of course, this made me an outsider back home too, but more importantly, it made me a girl who knew there was a big wide world out there and that when the sun went down in my neighborhood, it was rising in somebody else’s.
The love that my Swiss family showed my American family, and the difficulty of living in a far away place where I was not welcome both helped make me a more compassionate person. I have come to believe that travel is critical to cultivate world peace—or at least world tolerance. It is impossible to go somewhere, talk to the people, eat the food, and sleep under their stars and then go home and forget they were real.
When we do forget that those unknown faces over invisible borders are really the same faces that gaze back at us in the mirror every morning as we brush our teeth, we begin to think in terms of “us” and “them.” And those are the most ugly thoughts of all.
If you can, fly, do it. Perhaps if enough people spread their wings, we can erase the word “them” and replace it with the word “one”.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman