It was a very early morning in the forests of Bavaria and The Songwriter and I were in a bus packed full of locals on our way to the village of Hohenschwangau. (Okay Americans, try to say that word three times before you’ve had your coffee.) The bus was packed full - The Songwriter stood in the aisle by the door, I was seated next to a young woman at the rear - and the riders were obviously locals for they greeted each other by names and nods with nary a word of English spoken.
About twenty minutes into our trip the bus shuddered to a stop in a curve and a young man clambered on. As there were no more seats to be had, he stood beside The Songwriter and grinned a greeting at his fellow passengers. A trickle of amusement began to run through the crowd as, one by one, people began to notice this hapless new rider had omitted a certain vital sartorial requirement. His trousers were unzipped. Titters and giggles turned to roars and peals. The lady next to me poked me in the ribs and whispered something indecipherable to my ears, but I laughed heartily anyway. Glancing up, I saw The Songwriter being clapped on the back by an elderly gentleman who was red in the face with laughter. The young man, his own face scarlet as he found himself the cynosure of so many eyes, joined in the merriment with everyone else. I met The Songwriter’s gaze and we grinned. Once again, we were grateful not to have taken a tour bus. It was a delight to be mistaken for a local in a place so far from home.
For this, our very first foray into Europe, The Songwriter and I, youngsters both, had made no plans. We booked a hotel in London for a week and we had a Eurorail pass for the month after that, but basically we were footloose and, for the most part, fancy free. There were a few wrinkles in the smoothness of our journey, such as arriving in Paris just at the start of Fashion Week when hotel rooms were as scarce as our high-school French. Or the morning in Amsterdam when I attempted to explain to our cab driver that, no, I wasn’t having a psychotic break, I’d just been stung by a wasp. Our days were spent mingling with the locals. We at neighbourhood cafes, ordering what the regulars ordered because we couldn’t read the menus. We employed mispronounced words and elaborate hand gestures when we “asked” for directions and were met with happy grins and buckets of help. One old lady even watched us leave and clapped her hands loudly when we started to make a wrong turn. Thanks to her, we made it to the Van Gogh museum safely.
This is how we’ve traveled through the years, immersing ourselves in the local culture as much as we can. (Our only experience with a “tour” was excruciating, you can read about it HERE.) We tend to eschew hotel dinners for out of the way places. We stay off tour buses, rent cars and strike out on our own. When The Songwriter broke his ankle on the Isle of Mull we saw an entirely different face of Scotland than the one featured on the travel posters and were so grateful we did. The kind attention gifted to us by the Scots will never be forgotten. (You can read about that adventure, HERE.)
I have never considered our method of travel to be anything remotely like a political act, but after listening to travel writer Rick Steves this past weekend, I realized that it has been just that. By staying off the tour buses and cruises, by mingling with the locals wherever we are, by remaining open to, and interested in, the people we meet along the way, the scope of my world has enlarged, my curiosity has deepened along with my understanding, and my fear has diminished. By being a traveler instead of a tourist I’ve learned that people rarely resemble anything shown on the news. They are generally kind, usually thoughtful, always interesting. They love their children. They are proud of their culture. They long for peace and beauty.
Travel has not only changed the way I view other countries, it has changed the way I view my own. It has underlined my natural reluctance to believe everything I’m told, made me search out answers for myself, and erased any intellectual laziness I might have. It has influenced the way that I vote. I’ve learned that as much as I love and appreciate America, it is imperative to remember that we here in the States do not have a monopoly on patriotism. As Steves puts it, “ I think Americans need to realize that the world’s not a pyramid with us on top and everybody else trying figure out how to get there. Until well into my adulthood that’s how I saw the world. And then I traveled and I found smart people who had nowhere near the opportunity, or freedom, or affluence that I had who wouldn’t trade passports. It blew me away. I couldn’t understand it. And then I realized they don’t have the American dream. They’ve got the Sri Lankan dream, or the Bulgarian dream, or the Latvian dream, or the Norweigan dream. That’s not anti-American, that’s celebrating the diversity on this planet. It’s just a beautiful thing when you travel to realize you don’t have to fear that diversity”.
As I prepare for another journey soon, I think I’ll read this book.
You can hear the interview with Rick Steves that I listened to HERE