I have been thinking a lot (big surprise, huh?) about how we might occupy our time during the “shoulder seasons.” That is, the few weeks in spring and fall when the only access to the cabin is a hike through the woods (okay, I must admit I have not walked in yet…baby steps I say).
I was wandering through the garage (which I think might be some kind of time capsule) the other day and found more evidence of my youth (duffle bag, backpack, and Let’s Go travel guide). These items were my travel companions as I explored Europe during college. I love to travel and I’m so grateful for the opportunity I had to discover and explore Europe for two consecutive summers. The first year I traveled with a group of German exchange students (I was the only participant from the English Department and did not know the language) and the second time I went with a friend splitting our time between guided motor coach and B & B do-it-yourself tours. I enjoyed the freedom of the first trip a lot more and believe I captured the true essence of German culture.
This trip completely changed my life in a very positive way, because I stretched beyond my comfort zone of my west Texas college dorm. It was the late 1980’s and we traveled from a conservative bible belt culture to a very uninhibited and progressive student culture (a completely different universe geographically and socially). I remember being completely fascinated meeting new people and submersing myself in their world. My first day in Oldenburg I found myself seated around a bonfire, drinking dark beer, and eating bratwurst (pre-vegetarian days) cooked over an open flame. I wondered to myself how my new friends got any studying done with all of these distractions (yes, I was/am a bit uptight…working on that). The biggest distraction in my life at that time was watching Dallas on Friday night (ho hum, I know…boring).
Most of my German student counterparts were a few years my senior, so I’m sure the age difference played a role in my infatuation. They all seemed so mature (if you count drinking and smoking as grown up activities) in comparison. I knew right away that hanging with the twenty somethings might be a learning experience on an entirely different level.
I had the great pleasure of staying with a student (and her beau Henning) and her parents (who did not speak English at all) on a farm outside Oldenburg. I bunked with Anke and Henning in her parent’s old farmhouse which proved similar to living in rural Alaska. They lived a very simple life with an emphasis on good friends and good times (something I really admire in people). We lived very different lives and my American ritual of long hot showers became a distant memory very quickly. My newly adopted ritual included waking up twenty minutes early, running down the dark hallway freezing, and pushing the button on the five gallon water heater. I’d promptly return to my room and snuggle under the covers until the water was nice and hot. I learned very quickly how to conserve water by turning it off in between rinses (hey, sounds like the cabin) and move my hands very fast to lather another body part. I think the violent shivering and chattering of my teeth generated enough body heat to get me through the shower and comfortably back to my room.
My new friends were gracious hosts and always had freshly brewed coffee (a.k.a. motor oil) and fresh bread from the local bakery. I learned to drink coffee, at least temporarily, just to stay warm and get the blood pumping. I fondly remember riding a bike into town, every couple of days, to visit the bakeries and cheese shops (Costco-style shopping was not a part of this culture).
One of the most exhilarating day trips was taking a ride on the autobahn. Yes, traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph was fun, but the real excitement was the boys in leather. Somehow I ended up in a car (a Mercedes no less) with two guys in leather pants. (What is it about guys in leather pants? Okay, I’m having a Rod Stewart moment…) Imagine all the elements of the perfect “bad boy” crush: an older guy (yes, he did have his girlfriend with him, but I can always dream, right?) in leather pants (okay, I think I’ve made that point), long hair, smoking cigarettes, driving a fast car, in a foreign country, heavy accent…need I say more? It was such a fun day that I don’t even recall our destination (talk about distractions).
After we fulfilled our academic commitment a girlfriend and I purchased a student rail card and took off to visit several neighboring countries. Our friends pre-arranged sleeping accommodations for us on the floors (yes, it was definitely the floor if your mind has gotten off track) of friends and family. My travel buddy, Amanda, and I would spend the day roaming through festivals, making new friends in the beer gardens (such a cool concept), listening to live music, climbing hundreds of stairs in famous cathedrals and castles, and learning what old really means (old is such a relative term when you consider how young America is). We went clubbing (remember I’m a pop diva from way back) until the sun came up then visited a local fish market in Hamburg (note to self: stinky fish, pounding head, and churning stomach do not mix well), discovered a different kind of pharmacy (window shopping only, my friend) in Amsterdam, enjoyed a guided tour by punk rockers (it was the eighties you know) in Munich, and learned to eat French fries (pommes frits) with mayo at the local McDonald’s (we could not resist the temptation). In Europe I attended my first professional ballet, my first wine tasting at a local winery, and discovered that cold tomato soup (gazpacho) is delicious.
My most impressionable moment was the day I took a walk on the dark side in East Berlin. I felt completely vulnerable walking down the streets lined with armed guards. I wanted to cry and run back to the gate as soon as I was given clearance, but I instinctively knew this was an experience I needed to absorb, so I gathered the courage to continue the journey. It felt so eerie to have people staring at you as though you were a circus act or under a microscope. As I entered the checkpoint to leave I felt great sadness for the people I left behind and deeply wished I could take them home with me. I also realized at that very moment how proud and grateful I am being American. You don’t know freedom until you have something to compare it to and East Berlin was the perfect contrast.
I sit here today and treasure my memories of these journeys and contemplate their significance. What I love most about that time in my life is the way traveling made me feel about myself. I was more relaxed and enjoyed the simple things in life, I felt so alive in my own skin, I had the courage to try new things and reach beyond my comfort zone, and my eyes were wide open to new perspectives and different ways of living. My dream now is to rediscover this amazing experience and share it with my own family (do you think a pair of leather pants is in my husband’s future?).
Has your life been positively affected by traveling or experiencing another culture? What did you learn about yourself by traveling outside your comfort zone?