International travel it is at the same time enlightening and overwhelming–Maybe the overwhelming part is due to traveling with a small child–but even without children, international travel tends to be a relatively fast-paced confrontation with the unfamiliar. As a result I always experience, post-travel, a bit of down time–a few moments for the contemplation and processing of what I have seen.
We logged about 10,750 kilometers (about 6683 miles) on the road this summer. We flew to the USA, and drove from Germany to France to Spain and then to Ibiza. We utilized planes, cabs, our own car, a rental car, a ferry and we overnighted in 11 different places. Part of me feels out of breath and proud that we made it so far and saw so much. And part of me has started getting used to it. It takes some time to find a rhythm when you are on the road but once you find the beat of the trip you’re on, it feels like you could go on indefinitely.
When I zoom way out and look at the six or seven weeks we were away, what sticks out most is the fact that everywhere we went there were people. All over the world, at any given moment there are young people and old people. There are people who have babies and people who are babies. There are single people and married people, rich and poor people. People who like to be nude at the beach and people are covered from head to toe. There are people who have lost someone, people searching for something, successful people, smart people, dumb people, happy people and sad people. There are people who are afraid or brave. There are people who are outgoing and those who aren’t. At the end of the day, people are just people and on any given day each person is somewhere on life’s journey. We have this need to categorize people but that is because we forget that every day of our lives is different than the one before. Today we are the “young parents” but tomorrow we’ll be the “wrinkly retirees” in someone’s snapshot from their trip.
With a closer look I saw that in various ways, no matter where we are from, we are all trying to communicate and connect. You recognize it in the tiny moments. In the repair man at the house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the lady we coincidentally saw on the ferry both ways. She could only speak Spanish, yet we recognized each other and were able to marvel together at the coincidence of meeting again. I saw it in the Italian couple we sat next to at the beach, who seemed to be struggling about whether they could leave their things unattended. After offering to watch their spot we ended up chatting and were delighted when we ran into each other again later that week. It was the couple who warned us about the jellyfish one day in particular. I saw it in the brothers who entertained me while they practiced their gymnastics on the ferry and then came to ask me (in English) if I would take their family’s photograph. These are the moments during travel that I always remember but they are the very moments that I never have pictures of. The delight that comes from connecting with strangers cannot be matched and it seems to be a human thing and not just a personality thing.
All of this becomes especially obvious when you have a little kid. People want to interact with little kids no matter where they come from. Put a one year old in the mix and you’ll get to see the most beautiful part of humanity. The part that smiles, the part whose eyes twinkle. And you’ll get to see the tiniest humans being the wisest. No matter what words she heard, Little Mouse understood what people were telling her. People spoke to her in French and Spanish and Catalan, in Korean and Japanese. It didn’t matter, a smile is a smile and it was stunning.
In Ibiza specifically there were so many different cultures represented that I hardly knew what country we were visiting. And surprisingly this actually made people more polite. People needed to communicate whether in line for the bathroom or at the bar, and because of the necessity, people just tried. And because you can’t tell by looking which language a person speaks, people seemed to reach out in the most polite way possible. I loved this.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you actually need to be able to speak the same language to get what you want. We had those situations too but those stories are for another post.
Our travels wrapped up with a most enlightening cab ride to the airport in Barcelona. Our cab driver was Pakistani, and to our great luck, he spoke wonderful English and loved to talk. We asked him where he was from and how long he had lived in Barcelona. “5 years,” he said. Then we asked whether he spoke Spanish. “Of course,” he said “and Catalan too.” He went on to say, “It’s a very human reality: if you are interested in something, then it’s easy to learn it.” Speaking Spanish and Catalan allow him to make a good living in Barcelona and he went on to tell us that aside from those two, his own language and English, he also speaks Romanian, French, and Italian. It’s worth it to him and therefore easy because it allows him to work anywhere. He said that as a foreigner it gives him tons of opportunity. Then he said something I will never forget:
Speaking other languages is homeopathic–If you learn it, it helps you, if you don’t use it, having learned it doesn’t hurt you.
We were inspired, and certainly have a lot of languages to learn in order to catch up with him.