For our last Wicked Wednesday of the month, in a year when nobody is safely leaving the country (or even our own homes), let’s reminisce about the first time we traveled internationally. Where did you go, and under what auspices? What was the best thing you ate? Who did you meet? Have you used any of that experience in a novel or short story? Edith/Maddie will give away a copy of Murder on Cape Cod, because protagonist Mac Almeida was a world traveler before she settled back in her Cape Cod home town.
Julie: In between my junior and senior year of high school I was an AFS student in Tournai, Belgium. I had taken French in school, so I thought I was prepared. LOL. I was there for ten weeks. What a wonderful, wonderful experience. My host family, the Provis family, were lovely. I did have to go camping and got sick (not so great), but other than that, it was life changing. I promised my grandmother (who wrote to me every week) that I would eat everything that I was offered, which I did, though the kidneys were a moment. I made apple pie and chocolate chip cookies for my going away party, both of which were a big hit. I’m so glad that I took that opportunity for an adventure.
Edith/Maddie: Julie, somehow I never knew you were an AFS student! I was too, in southern Brazil for the entire year of 1970. (I’d been to Mexico with my class in sixth grade for a week, but we drove down there in buses from my LA suburb. The Brazil experience was much bigger.) I was barely seventeen when I left, and my exchange student year changed my life. First time on a plane. First time in a hotel. First time learning a language by immersion. First time realizing how ego-centric the US is – in Brazil, the newspaper carries world news on the front page. First beer, first hard liquor, first cigarette. And hearing about a tenuous democracy from a high school friend who was a journalist and spoke of the kinds of news he wasn’t allowed to write about. I ended up with a lust for world travel, a much broader perspective on life, and fluency in Portuguese that’s still nearly native.
Barb: My first real international trip was in the fall of 1970 when I was a Rotary Exchange student in Bogota, Colombia. The nine months I spent there had a profound effect on me. First and foremost, living abroad confirmed my identity as a American and my belief in our democracy.
When I left the US that fall, things had been in constant turmoil for years. From the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to the Chicago Democratic convention to the ever-increasing protests against the Vietnam War. In May, National Guard soldiers had killed four student demonstrators at Kent State. It had never occurred to me that my government would kill people just like me. (Insert your own observations about my teenage naivety and privilege here.) The situation in my country felt very shaky to me.
But then in April, 1971, in Colombia there was a student strike and other indications of insurrection. The government declared “estato de sitio,” a state of siege. There were tanks and soldiers in the streets, but more profoundly, rights Americans think of as fundamental were suspended: Freedom of speech, meaning what it actually means, that if you made disparaging remarks about the government, even in private, you could be arrested by that government. And freedom of assembly, meaning not more than four people could gather in one place, which practically meant that my large Colombian host family had to break up into groups to wander through the farmers market and kids waiting for the school bus, when there was school, couldn’t hang out together. These suspensions were accepted by most citizens. And all this happened during one of the most stable periods of governance Colombia has ever had. The difference between a twenty-year-old pseudo-democracy and what was then our nearly two hundred year-old democracy felt vast.
The whole experience taught me how strong and ingrained US democracy was. How, though we disagreed on so much, we depended on laws, traditions, and shared beliefs I regarded as unshakeable to keep it going. Which is why, when, three years later the President resigned, I never doubted for a moment the Vice President would take over and run the country until the next election. And there would be a next election. That belief in the unshakeability of our democracy has carried me from that day to this, through the Clinton impeachment, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and crises that would cause weaker democracies to topple. Needless to say I have thought of this often in the last days and months. I have held on to the optimism about our democracy that I learned in Colombia, but I have never questioned it more.
Jessie: Barb, that is such an engaging story! I knew you had been in Colombia but I had no idea that the trip had included so much unrest! I am always surprised at how American I feel whenever I travel abroad too!
Since we are talking about first international travel, I would admit mine was not all that glamorous. I was about a year old and lived with my family in Detroit. All the rest of the relations were in Maine and my parents wanted to go back for a visit so we took the route up into Canada and then down back into Maine. I was being potty-trained at the time and the gas shortage was on. Most of the filling stations were closed and so there were no available bathrooms. From what I understand from my mother, it was a difficult trip. I had decided that diapers were not for me any longer and refused absolutely to use the odd outhouse that was presented. I am still not a fan of primative plumbing!
Liz: Jessie, LOL! I dislike outhouses too…So aside from a trip to Canada on a snowmobile and the odd weekend in Montreal, my first international trip was London. I loved it so much – I immediately felt at home. On my first trip there, I visited the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and I did a Jack the Ripper tour – which was so cool. I also ate Indian food on Brick Lane, visited some outdoor markets, and went to the famous store Fortnum and Mason, where I got rose and lavender ice cream–so yummy!
Sherry: Liz, I loved London too when we went. My first trip was to Tijuana, Mexico in third grade when we were visiting friends in California. I bought a marionette that I had for many years. In fifth grade another cross country trip included the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. My dad and I went up in the Skylon tower and actress June Lockhart was there.
Readers: Share your first international trip! If you haven’t had one, what country do you long to visit?