To Eric, my first editor
In third grade, a girl from my school died in a car accident.
I vividly remember hopping on the yellow bus with a few dozen other kids to go to her service without knowing what to expect. We probably were just vaguely excited about skipping class.
After seeing the face of a sleeping doll with pigtails in her open casket, the mood was decidedly different. On the way back, we were quiet and silent—profoundly changed by the funerary field trip.
Traveling to the other side of the city or the world on a sad or happy occasion can be a transformational experience: the physical commuting triggers an inner journey that continues unfolding for the rest of our lives.
In “The Philosophy of Travel, ” George Santayana wrote,” “Locomotion—the privilege of animals—is perhaps the key to intelligence.” Seeing the world with an open heart and mind, as kids usually do, is critical to transcend propaganda.
Visit the locations of our history books to learn what they don’t teach you in school. Being in “the room where it happened,” whether Charleston‘s Old Slave Mart Museum or Lisbon‘s Monument of the Discoveries, shatters stereotypes.
Like going to Mexico City and realizing its world-class museums and cosmopolitan rooftop bars have nothing to do with the dodgy picture delivered by American media, or traveling to Bourdeaux and finding the friendliest locals appreciative of your efforts to communicate in broken French.
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate,” wrote Pico Iyer in “Why We Travel.”
After visiting the Faroe Islands, online trolls scolded me. “Congratulations on supporting animal cruelty,” they said, referring to the ancient practice of whaling. But going beyond bloody YouTube videos and into the heart of the foggy Northern European archipelago was illuminating. It taught me their hunting is non-commercial, humane and environmentally sustainable.
Touring Seville‘s Bullring Real Maestranza Museum was uneasy until we discovered the chapel where matadors pray before facing the magnificent beast with reverence. Learning more about the solemn ritual shifted my perception. And, though I probably still wouldn’t attend a bullfight, I found myself capable of respecting a different cultural practice.
“The world never quits growing on us. It’s just as vast as ever, and it reinvents itself every day,” Bill Bryson aptly wrote in “The Best American Travel 2000.” And, though rewarding, the experience can be an unsettling one.
The images of the falling Wall from my teenage years colored my first visit to Berlin in 2007. I was delighted with a sense of optimism and possibility, different from my post-social media/COVID trip to the German city (photo featured), shaped by the historical and geographical proximity to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
The French election of a lifetime, between President Emmanuel Macron and rightwing hardliner Marine Le Pen, was also momentous. Fresh off the Trump years, an American in Paris was an ominous walking-and-talking warning. So much was a stake for France, the European Union and the world. We dodged a bullet, for now.
The most important lessons? Progress is not a straight line. And, as John Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charlie: In Search of America,” “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
At a trying time for millions of Americans’ rights, including women and LGBTQ+ families, celebrating the old USA’s birthday in Provincetown, the birthplace of American freedom, still committed to liberty after more than four centuries, was reaffirming.
I wish cultural warriors had a peak at so much love between people from all walks of life. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain in “The Innocents Abroad.”
Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic and, as Maya Angelou said, “travel cannot prevent bigotry.” But even the legendary poet and civil-rights activist believed there could be hope. “[…] by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends,” she concluded.