19 February 2011

Innocence Abroad

During the spring break of my senior year, my Ma told me that I shouldn't make too many summer plans since I'd likely have to work to make my book and spending money for college in the fall. I resigned myself to another summer of detassling. A month later, she handed me a plane ticket to Frankfurt, West Germany - I had been given the trip as a gift, she told me, and I wasn't to ask too many questions about its provenance. (I still don't know who paid for it. When I got home I was asked to write a nice thank you note and she'd see it delivered.)

Needless to say, I was over the moon. West Germany, for six weeks!? I couldn't even imagine it.

The world was much, much bigger in 1987 than it is now. International calls were expensive, rare, and of poor quality. You saved them for Christmas, and you learned to pause after you spoke so the party on the other line could hear and respond: there was a three or four second delay, and if you weren't careful you would end up speaking over each other, which I learned the hard way on the annual call to my brother Ray when he was stationed overseas in the Army. There was no Skype or internet, of course - if you wanted to communicate with someone in a foreign country, you sat down and wrote a letter, long hand, on onion skin paper, and put it into an airmail envelope, and mailed it with a stamp. If you were lucky, it would arrive in two weeks.

Come to think of it, that's how you communicated with people in other parts of the U.S., too - domestic calls were expensive, and people still wrote letters to communicate. I couldn't call my eldest sister who was away for college in Texas - I would get in trouble if I did when the phone bill came. If I wanted to tell her something, I had to get a pencil and paper and sit down and write it out. Same with my brothers in the seminary in Wisconsin, or even with grandma and grampa.

All flights were expensive - very expensive - but international travel in particular was well out of our reach. Going to another country was so rare that I remember a trip to Canada when I was in fourth grade - we'd driven to see my brother Chris in Detroit, and we drove across the river on the Ambassador Bridge and back through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. I was thrilled. It was rare enough that us three little kids got our picture taken under a sign with a Canadian flag that read: "Tunnel to USA" as proof.

Travel to Europe was Halley's Comet rare - my dad had taken a trip to the UK for work eight years prior, and when he came home we all sat in the living room as he told stories about the long flight, seeing churches and castles older than our entire nation's history, walking Hadrian's Wall. I was completely mesmerized. Even as an 8 year old, I couldn't quite fathom being able to touch something made by Roman hands. Fort Ouiatenon was the oldest European history (and thus what I counted as "mine" at the time) that I had been exposed to, and that I felt almost viscerally, but this! He had a stopover in Shannon, Ireland, on the way home and bought me a set of three porcelain leprechauns with "Made in Ireland" stamped on the bottom. I treasured them as exotic and kept them on my table by my bed.

And now I was going to West Germany? I couldn't believe it! I was to stay with the family of a girl who had stayed with us the summer before, in Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, a lovely old city in the north. It could have been the German answer to Akron and I wouldn't have cared, but it wasn't. It had a charming pedestrian zone in its center, a great old castle, and we rode bicycles everywhere (and I mean everywhere - to school, to the grocery store, even to church, all of us, the whole family, on bikes, to church in our church clothes! I was - well, not shocked, but definitely surprised and charmed).

No internet, no skype, no Google, no Wikipedia - just as you couldn't call someone around the world, you couldn't, from your bedroom or home, look at pictures of Oldenburg, Niedersachsen, West Germany. You could look in an encyclopedia, or in your library's travel section about Germany, but that was it. When I say that it was terra incognita, that was truer then than is possible for any part of earth can be anymore. Try it - Google East Timor or Majuro or Malawi and you'll get pictures, phone numbers, maps, and dining recommendations in under a second. I may have been 18, but I was not much different than the Americans that Mark Twain had lampooned a century before.

What opportunities are there for that kind of exploration now? I'm not sure they exist. When you don't speak the language and are standing outside the closed station in Donauwoerth, Bavaria, having got off the last train of the evening, and you don't know where the youth hostel is and there's no one around, well, you need to be a little resourceful. No cell phone. No internet. You learn to work it out, that it will work out, that even when it doesn't work out it will still work out, if in no other way than in the great stories you get along the way.
At different points in my life, people have told me that they thought I was intrepid - like when I passed up a promotion to teach English in Japan, knowing nothing at all about the country; or even when I went to Lisbon by myself, on a whim, for a long weekend. I'm not sure that's true, but if that is a part of my character, I have to give credit to the generosity of an unknown benefactor, to trusting parents, and to a great host family. Credit, and thanks.

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