“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson
1999: We’re on the brink of a new decade, a new century, a new millennium (well, all right, so people quibble about when those last two technically start). Will a now computer-dependent world melt down when the clock strikes midnight?
On the other hand, who cares about that? My parents and I are going to Germany.
We’re going for three weeks — for the first two we’ll be part of a short-term missions team to a church in Dortmund, Germany, in the heart of the Ruhr River Valley; in the third we’ll tour around on our own, stuffing as much into those seven days as we possibly can. We’re going in October, and I will have just turned 12; my mom will celebrate her 50th birthday there. This is the first time I will have traveled outside the United States.
In preparation we learn about German history and modern German culture, and our German language program teaches us such helpful phrases as “Would you like to buy a refrigerator?” We learn what not to do to stand out as Americans or offend our host countrymen and women: Don’t wear white socks or white sneakers. Bring flowers when you visit someone’s house for the first time. Never, ever, ever be late.
You can learn all you want to about a country, but until you go there, you can’t really know it, as such. And no amount of preparation can prepare you for the thousand-and-one small but significant differences that meet you.
I wish I could remember this first grand trip of mine better than I do, but it’s been almost 20 years now, and the details begin to soften with time and distance. Yet some things remain so clear: the scent of diesel fumes on the air; the strange way a McDonald’s soft drink cup felt because it was actually full of soda and not ice; being asked “Would you like your water with a little bit of bubbles or lots of bubbles?”; getting used to the large square bed pillows, the duvets, the missing top sheets; milk and juice that came in shelf-stable boxes; Kinder eggs and the fine art of unwrapping them; window blinds that rolled down and made the room pitch dark even at midday; light switches of a different shape; doors that shut differently; breaded mystery meats under brown mystery sauces in the university cafeteria, followed by jiggly mystery puddings for dessert. My first, jaw-dropping visit to a cathedral. Midweek outdoor markets selling pointy cabbages. Freshly-made stroopwafels on a visit to Haarlem, Holland. Castles on seemingly every hill. Vineyards for miles. Magazines and billboard adverts with unabashedly racy images. Cigarette vending machines and smokers everywhere all the time, even indoors. The waitress at the streetside cafe in Eisenach who spoke Russian and not English because we were in former East Germany and the Berlin Wall had fallen only 10 years before. Broetchen — perfect little crusty white rolls — for breakfast with Nutella and jam or cheese and salami; broetchen for snacks; sandwiches for snacks; Pizza Hut pizza that comes topped with broccoli.
At the end of our first week we took a day trip to Holland. I remember being stopped at a rest area and seeing the golden-leaved trees by the road and thinking “Two more weeks here.” I was so homesick — I can’t even describe how much I longed to be back among familiar things, familiar sights, sounds and smells, familiar faces (never mind that my parents and two men from our church were right there next to me). Yet, once we returned home, I felt a difference; I felt as though everybody else had changed somehow and I had to become reacquainted with my friends all over again. And perhaps they had changed. We were in the age of change, after all, on the brink of being teenagers with all the fabulous awkwardness and discovery that entails. Or perhaps, through experiencing a part of the world I had never before known, I was the one who had changed.
My parents gave me a purple plastic film camera before we left on our trip. I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever and I excitedly snapped away side by side with my dad (who was shooting slide film on his Nikon SLR; these were the days before digital cameras were ubiquitous. Heck, they might’ve been the days before digital cameras altogether). Most of the photos, when I got them back from the Walmart processing lab, were absolutely horrible (to my grown-up eyes, at least) in quality, but I thought they were amazing nonetheless. I proceeded to scrapbook them with great ferver, making bad pictures even more atrocious through awkward crops with the fancy-edged scissor set I was so proud of. Oh well — such is the enthusiasm of youth. The above picture, snapped from the gardens in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, was my best shot. I even entered it in some kind of photo contest — the ones where they send you a letter saying “Congratulations, we’ve consented to publish your photo — now buy the book we’ve put it in.” But the thrill of seeing my photo published was undeniable. Who knows — maybe that’s what set me on my journey as a photographer.
It’s trite to call travel a life-changing experience, but in this case it was true. My life has never been the same since those three weeks in a foreign land. Six months after we returned home I found myself longing to go back … and we did, and did, and did, and did.
I learned that just because we do things a certain way in America doesn’t make that way correct, per se. I now prefer sparkling water (with lots of bubbles) to still, don’t drink my beverages iced if I can avoid it, think duvets are amazing and never use a top sheet.
Yet what I learned goes deeper than those things. I learned (though I didn’t realize it at the time) to see the world with different eyes, to be more humble in how I approached things, to consider and respect other people’s points of view regardless of whether I agreed or not. And that is just a very small (though very significant) part of the value of traveling.