I am still processing all the details of my experiences during our recent road trip, still going through the words that I want to share here with you. I felt quite different coming back from that journey, before I set off on another.
The Carnival Cruise along the Mediterranean with my son was incredible. I mean, it was pretty amazing. There were so many moments of pause, where I couldn’t believe I was there, with him. I would look at him and say, “Can you believe it? We are in Naples…eating pizza…like, from Naples!” or “Dude. We are swimming. In the Mediterranean Sea!”
Eating Napolitan pizza in Napoli.
Swimming in the Mediterranean in Sicily.
But beyond the beautiful sites and moments of fun, there were lessons to be learned. Important lessons that I have learned, but that now my son has learned too.
During our visit we traveled with a group of UK media. I didn’t really talk to any one of them, except for maybe one person…that I introduced myself to…and insisted on greeting every time I saw. But other than that, there was really no grand effort to cross over to the “British side”…or vice versa. My son found this incredibly odd, and to an extent somewhat rude. I, however, was excited for the teaching opportunity.
“It’s different,” I explained. Culturally, I mean. For Americans it is so easy to come up to someone and start a conversation. It is so effortless almost, to extend a friendly hand that doesn’t really signify anything meaningful in the long-term, and spend time conversing about things that really have no substance or depth. We can do it, this small talk superficial type of engagement, because culturally it is how we thrive. But for others, that initial barrier is so much harder to break through and it may seem awkward and cold, but it’s important to understand and respect and appreciate.
The truth is, and I explained this to my son, I didn’t have the energy to engage at that level. I didn’t have the stamina to hang out at the bar and share a few drinks, to break down that wall and give what it takes to get through. So, I didn’t. And I left the experience without knowing one single person from that side of the pond even though I had just spent an entire 10 days on a ship with them. In a way it makes me sad that I missed on an opportunity to engage with people from somewhere else and take away some new experiences and knowledge, but in another, I fell into my American comfort zone of small talk and superficial encounters because I was jet lagged and tired and often just wanted to sleep.
But my son took what I told him to heart, and he set off on a mission to embrace as many European teens as he could while on the ship. He invested his time and attention to building new friendships, and by the time we left the ship his phone was full of new contacts and Facebook IDs. And I felt really proud.
During this trip, I didn’t just teach my son to say thank you in a different language, but to also listen. Listen to what people said, try to understand why they said it, allow the words to challenge the ideals he has formed up to that moment. And he did. He listened, and sometimes he laughed, but most of the time he thought. “It’s a good thing we’re not nationalists,” he whispered as he overheard another table talk smack about Americans during a dinner. And we laughed. And again I felt proud, because he had embraced the change that the experience was causing. He opened up himself to the differences around him, and gracefully tolerated the premise that in this situation his nationality didn’t rule the conversation or general opinion. That’s a huge lesson for a child to learn. Not very many adults can do that. But it is a necessary one if we want our children to grow up to be global citizens of the world and influencers for positive change and conversation.
How open are you for change when traveling?
It wasn’t that our surroundings were anti-American, not at all. We met a lot of wonderful, beautiful, friendly people everywhere we went. It was that being American wasn’t as big of a deal there as it is here. It was humbling and real, and I loved it.
And so we’re back, different from how we left. My son’s eyes wider than they were before we set off, his mind better able to process the fact that every story is different depending on who is telling it.
An American travel writer told me that the kind of traveling that Americans love the most is one where they get to do the little exotic stuff for a bit, but have the ability to come right back to their comfort zone right after. I would like to think that the new generation of American travelers is a bit more courageous than that, a bit more willing to take the leap into the unknown, a bit more willing to not be the one who knows everything, but rather the one who has to learn everything. Because that is the kind of travel experience that really helps to change you, to cause effect in your mind and soul, to help you see the world outside of yourself and your everyday life. It is the kind of travel experience that goes beyond the limitations of black and white, that tests what we consider to be the truth and puts to question what we have accepted as facts.
There is a form of travel that is as superficial as the small talk that we often prefer over the more in-depth conversations that really require us to listen and focus, and there are times when, like me, that’s as much as you want to do when on vacation. But I encourage you to every once in a while embrace a journey that requires you to put more of yourself out there, setting in motion a series of events that will forever change what you know because that’s when travel is really exciting and really worth it.
I probably will never have a chance to encounter the UK group again, but my hope is that if I do, I am a bit less tired and a lot more willing to invest in the time to get to know them and absorb the lessons that I am sure they have to offer.
In the meantime, I am grateful that my son stepped up to the plate and took advantage of the opportunity.
How open to change will you be on your next trip?