I’ve been home nearly four months now, and I’m still not sure anything is different. During my first week back from Europe, I admitted that I didn’t think I’d changed in a significant way to a Kent State professor emeritus. “Just wait,” he told me.
“When you’ve lived somewhere else for a long time,” he said, “especially in a different culture for a long time, you’ll start to notice that you’ve been enriched. It happens when you’re there long enough to have a routine. When you wake up and eat breakfast and get the mail every day, and you start to learn your neighbor’s habits, the place and the culture become a part of you.”
Maybe it’s a part of me. I’m not sure. A wide breadth of new knowledge is a part of me, that’s certain. I know that Stonehenge is not more than 20 or 30 yards from a major southern England highway. Scotland is dotted with castles and almost as many monuments to Sir Walter Scott. One must purchase a bus ticket from a convenience store before boarding above-ground transport in Rome, and the penalty for failure to do so is 50 euros. I can tell the difference between a northern Englishman and a southern one by his accent. Parisians and the French are not necessarily the same thing. I know that I can walk 43 miles in a single day and that climbing even a small mountain is not easy.
These are things that must be experienced to be understood, and I saw dozens of places that made my conceptions of them clearer. It was like when I went to Boston for the first time. It came after years of learning about the American Revolution. But when you go to Boston, you see the Old North Church and the square where the first shots were fired in the Massacre, and you walk the Liberty Trail and drink Sam Adams a mile from the brewery, and you realize that people died because they wanted to make a free country. I couldn’t understand it until I was where they were. It was the same feeling when I saw one of the original copies of the Magna Carta in the Salisbury Cathedral, the tower on the hill inYorkthat William the Conqueror built, and the anti-aircraft bunker stuck into the mountain where French soldiers defended Grenoble from Nazi war planes.
I learned from places, and I learned from people.
There were strangers who taught me small things, like the barkeeper who pointed me toward mon hôtel in a suburb ofParis when I was utterly lost. He taught me where my hotel was with a flawless diagram, but he also taught me that the French are horribly mislabeled in this country. He wasn’t the only kind Parisian I met. I learned from family, as well. My grandmother’s cousin, Maria Theresa, and her husband, Antonio, helped me to learn more Italian than I could have in eight Elementary Italian 101 courses. I started studying the language from a 6-euro phrasebook in my Roman bed and breakfast until I built up the courage to make a phone call. Maria Theresa answered the phone, and I asked if I could come over. She said, “This afternoon,” but I didn’t understand, and she laughed and hung up. Her answering the phone was enough for me, so I took the light rail out to her suburb and found her apartment. We talked for three or four hours at their kitchen table, and they fed me everything in their fridge. They spoke no English except a phrase from Antonio, who knew how to say, “Obama, he OK.”
So I learned who my Italian family was. I learned basic Italian very quickly in order to communicate. I learned that they would vote Democrat if they could, that they’re faithful Catholics, and that they want that German pope out of their city. Knowing these things is invaluable to me.
But most of all, I learned from my friends.
I learned that I could count on my Korean roommate to leave a light on for me when I came home late (all the time) if he went to bed early (more often than not). My Finnish friends are good-humored and use vulgar language. The German girls I befriended (and even my very good Austrian friend) are not proud to be German — not when they know what their grandparents did, or allowed to be. My Hungarian friends gave me a place to stay when it wasn’t convenient for them when I didn’t have a bed. They’re ferociously proud of their country, and they hate the United Nations. As does my friend from South Africa, who also despises America’s excess, its cultural imperialism, and its multinational corporations. My French friend is a pilot who lives in Nice and has been on six continents. And my American friends, from Chicago and Norfolk,Va., were my sounding boards for all the new ideas I picked up every day.
As a journalist and a writer, meeting these people and seeing these places was inspirational. There are fantastic stories to tell, and they’re real. I heard stories about people who don’t work or form long relationships because they’re obsessed with the thrill of traveling. They go from place to place and continent to continent, stopping to earn some money and leaving when it’s convenient to go. They’re obsessed with the stories. I can understand that. But I’m too practical to commit to abandoning all my commitments.
I do need to go back, though. Or at least to go again, to somewhere else. I’ve been invited to South Africa this winter (their summer) to drive the coast from Durbanto Cape Town. I think I’ll do it.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned that umbrellas everything I’ve learned, it’s that I need to keep learning. And when you’re seeing new places and meeting new people, you’re constantly learning from them, especially when it’s for a long time or when it’s not a vacation.
I have memories, and I have more knowledge. But have I grown in a way that people can notice?
My cousin from Madrid and his partner, Javier, told me that when I visited Granada, I needed to see the Plaza St. Nicolás. So when I went, I did. I sat on a broad ledge in the shadow of an ancient church looking out over a valley of southernSpain, over a white city and a Moorish palace, off to the distant Sierra Nevada. Beyond the mountains, the Strait of Gibraltar was somewhere out there, and Africa not more than five days walk and a quick ferry ride away. The sky was a magnificent blue. To my right, musicians played a guitar and sang, and I put two euros on the guitar when they were done. The moment was sublime, and I can’t describe the feeling.
It was four months ago, and I don’t know if I’m different because I was there. I still remember it vividly, though, and I want to see more. I want to go back and climb those mountains to Africa.
By: Ben Wolford