Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Why We Must Travel

Our 15-year-old daughter Josephine left us early yesterday morning, flying to New York. From the airport she was going to take a shuttle, all on her own, to Grand Central Station where she was to be met by her friend Emma (I know, they sound like they could be characters in a Victorian novel). They'll spend a night in the Big Apple, then head for New Hampshire where they'll live for the next couple weeks in a cabin on a lake with a big family of Lebanese decent. Not bad, eh?

Earlier this summer, she travelled with her friend Marco to stay with friends in Vienna, including the responsibility of a transfer in Frankfurt. Last year she went with a group from her school to experience the UK from the perspective of youth hostels. The year before she travelled with another school group to the renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. In 5th grade, she went with yet another school group to Washington DC (a trip on which I got to serve as a chaperone). Before that there were overnight camps and family trips. Before that there were sleep overs.

In other words, consciously or not, we've been gradually helping her prepare for being out there in that big wide world on her own, giving her the opportunity to practice everything she'll need to know through these experiences, starting with her first overnights with her grandparents and leading up to yesterday. They are unsteady steps along a path to the inevitable: the day she will leave us, of course, but also for that time in the not-to-distant future when she will be responsible for making her own way out there among all the rest of you. To that end, she also just got her first "real" job working shifts at a new Italian bakery opening on the retail level of our apartment building.

The little girl's growing up, but that's not enough: she must also grow "out."

I love to listen to her regale us about the things she feels she's learned about the world after she's been out there in it, some of which is a nostalgia-inducing rehash of what all of us thought as high school freshmen, some insights are as fresh as she is, and some are true eyebrow raisers. She's especially adept and interested in figuring the people out, fleshing out her descriptions of them with the pre-judgments of simile and metaphor, creating like Shakespeare did, human beings from them in both her prose and poetry: "She's sort of an English hipster version of Coriolanus with a little bit of our DC bus driver mixed in -- it's so aggravating when she brags about how great she is, but then she goes out there and proves it."

Prejudice, pre-judgment of others based upon superficialities, gets a bad rap, you know, because of the bigots. I imagine a time when the world was smaller, when our tribal lives didn't put us so much out there in the world among strangers, when we grew up, not thinking in terms of "those people," and instead we thought in terms of "that guy." He's the one who is lazy. She's the one who is good with money. My uncle is as fast as a horse and dumb as a brick. The individual was our touchstone, each one an eccentric collection of traits and personality unique under the sun, yet still a part of the collective "us." But we've evolved to see ourselves as living in larger and larger groups, until now, through the genius of mass media we can all know a little something about everybody else in the whole world. What we know now, however, isn't about the individuals, but rather our prejudices about what we perceive their types to be.

In the world of the tribe our pre-judgment that Bob is lazy contains valuable, if incomplete truth, especially, for instance, when deciding who to ask for help digging the new garden. In the world viewed through the television screen or filtered through the opinions of a radio host, our prejudice that "they" are lazy contains no truth whatsoever. Those who think they know about the other people in this world because they've watched TV or have an internet connection or found it in a text book or heard it from world traveling aunt cannot claim to possess knowledge: just the thinnest facade of knowledge.

The Germans, when my wife and I lived over there, were huge fans of the actor David Hasselhoff of Knight Rider and Baywatch fame. Personally, I always found him to be a pedestrian actor and his programs to be glitzy, vapid entertainments. He was so popular in Germany, however, that people found it hard to believe that he was a sort of ordinary star back home. When I asked my untravelled friends what it was they saw in him, they invariably answered, "Because he's a typical American." I would ask, "Am I also a typical American?" they would answer, "A little, but you're different." My German friends who had travelled chuckled with me at my jokes about Hasselhoff.

When we get outside our bubble, we put our prejudices to a test, which is ultimately the educational purpose of travel. And if we do more than just view the world through the windows of tour buses or pre-packaged tours lead by a "experts" from home -- if we get off those buses and step out from behind our cameras and engage personally, tribally, with the people we find there -- it's only then that we begin to approach truth.

It's not easy releasing your baby into the world, especially when it involves things like transfers in Frankfurt and hiring shuttles at JFK, but we've made ourselves do it because we know she'll return a changed person. When Josephine returns from her travels, we've come to expect that she'll look older, taller, wiser than when she left. That's because she is.

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1 comment:

kcunning said...

I traveled quite a bit when I was your daughter's age, and it gave me a taste for flying. Travelling is an adventure for me. Everyone else in my family, who didn't travel when young, see it as confusing, annoying, and frightening.

Go you!

PS: On first read, I thought you were sending your fifteen MONTH old daughter on a plan. "Holy crap, is that a thing?! Booking a ticket for the petulant four-year-old TODAY!"

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