Zum ersten Mal

By the time I’m scheduled to write my next post, I’ll be in Europe. I’ve gotten a fellowship to do a special course of study in Germany, but I’m taking a week and a half to visit friends in England and Ireland along the way. This wouldn’t be such a huge deal except I’ve never been overseas. I’ve only ever been to Canada twice, and that was eight years ago.

For a long time, I’ve been somewhat bitter about this. I was a Spanish major in college, and had opportunities to study in Spain, but was repeatedly talked out of it by my mom, who said I’m a lonely person who needs people; without my friends, what if I just retreated into myself and never came out? I thought that I was a strong enough person to speak back to my mother, but I wasn’t. It made me worried. What if I did just retreat into myself?

Well, having retreated into myself plenty in the intervening years, I’ve learned that I do get sick of being alone and go to pretty extreme measures not to be, if necessary. But by then I’d entered a lifestyle of cyclic poverty and constant work in my doctoral program. We’re not funded appropriately (or at least my entering class wasn’t—new students get benefits, and older students weren’t thought of), so I’ve been teaching between 6 and 10 classes a year to be able to afford my apartment and conference travel, all while trying to study and write a dissertation. A few thousand bucks and a month off of work were things out of my most insane fantasies.

Meanwhile, I developed a bad attitude about the sort of people who talk about traveling all the time. If you read personals ads, you quickly learn that men in NYC define themselves primarily through how often they have “traveled.” Going places is all the personality they have. Thinking art and food is better somewhere else is all the taste they have. Listening to people speak foreign language in the streets is all the intelligence they have. You can buy all this, if you have time and money.

It also gives you the right to think some lower-middle-class girl from Kansas must be ignorant and tasteless because she’s only studied theĀ languages and cuisines you’ve encountered in their native habitat. I’m in the midst of some drama trying to get my passport, and let me tell you, if I hear the sentence, “You don’t have a passport?!” one more time, I’ll punch someone in the nuts. I live and teach in New York. I am not ignorant of the existence of the world.

So I’ve still got this chip on my shoulder, class-wise, about traveling.

Some of my friends, including some from Europe, have a romantic vision of how I’ll be changed by going there, how it will make me see things differently and recalibrate my life. I am not sure this will happen, exactly, in that I think they mean something about my political perspective, but if I get any more leftist I’ll come around the other side. If it happened that in my travels, I discovered a magical place where I am universally regarded as sexy and cool, I don’t think I’d come back at all. I’d just stay there and be worshiped as a god. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting.

I’m looking forward to my trip because I will be doing an interesting program of study with some people I think I will enjoy, and I get to see my friends abroad. I look forward to taking my German out for a spin, though everyone tells me I won’t get to use it much, and walking around some old streets I’ve read about. I don’t expect to come home and write a personals ad that starts: WELL-TRAVELED, WORLDLY ISO SAME.

14 responses to “Zum ersten Mal”

  1. Rachel says:

    Congrats on the fellowship–that’s a great accomplishment.

    Travel is an adventure. Just open yourself up to the experience and take it all in. New Yorkers are the worst when it comes to geographic one-upsmanship; ironically, they’re also the most insular and city-proud. It’s one of the many things that make them so insufferable and so wonderful. (Upon returning from Paris, raving about the food, I once had a New York friend tell me that while Paris is only OK, the French food was really better in his neighborhood.) Bottom line: your trip is yours alone–no one can take it away from you, or tell you what it ought to be/do.

    Be sure to tell us about it when you get back.

  2. A White Bear says:

    I agree that New Yorkers are terribly provincial, but I did laugh at the Paris comment. I tend to find that New Yorkers have been all over the world, but know almost nothing about the rest of the US. Even if they’ve been somewhere on business or for a conference, their response tends to be that most US cities are just Applebee’s and WalMart, and a few super-pretentious restaurants with bad food. It’s difficult for them to understand that, in most US cities, the best food is the local cuisine, and you have to find out where to go. Here, finding a great meal is easy–everything is reviewed, reputations are common knowledge, and menus tell you a lot about the chef. But what would a New Yorker know about a Lowcountry bucket?

  3. How exciting! What will you be studying? I have always felt pretty jealous of the widely-travelled/wished I could work more of it into my life. The thing is, times I have travelled where “travelling” was the primary purpose of the trip, have been nowhere near as much fun/fulfilling as the few times I have travelled in service of some activity like studying or working. Being at loose ends seeing new places can be a lot of fun but pales in comparison to occupying those new places while you do your work.

  4. Oh, the way people talk about travel. It’s turned into a trendy accessory. I think I feel just the same about this as you do, though for different reasons. (I’ve had every opportunity to travel the last few years–I have a lot of time off and am not broke–but unfortunately have this whole thing about planes.) I know my attitude about it involves grapes with some degree of sourness, but I do think it’s given me a bit of perspective on what travel means to people, and it gets under my skin.

    One thing I will say is travel means a lot more if you’re not on a plane every weekend. When I go to Austin now, it’s a big deal, and I’m not sure I’d trade that in for getting to go more often. But also just…I think if you go and eat at a few restaurants and see a few sights, there’s an important and scornful distinction I’d like to make between traveler and tourist. It’s like the old Onion headline about “Woman who has seen 1 square mile of Cancun Loves Mexico” or something like that. People go, not speaking the language, not knowing a soul, and consider themselves enriched by the experience. Well, ok. Maybe.

    On a completely different note relating to the second to last paragraph, my friend Rachel used to joke in high school about starting a travel agency that sends people where they will be considered most desirable!

  5. LP says:

    It’s obviously not okay to deem all non-travelers as ignorant and tasteless, but I have to say, as someone who has traveled a great deal, that going to different countries – or different parts of your own country – is incredibly enriching, edifying and satisfying. When I travel, I inevitably feel I’m not only learning about the place I go, but about myself as well, as corny as that sounds. I am a terrible penny pincher, and it’s the one thing I would gladly spend money to do, ahead of collecting art or buying really nice clothes or eating out at great restaurants. That said, I don’t generally go around talking about it, and I don’t think I put anything about it in the one personal ad I ever ran.

    However, I would probably have been one of those people who responded, “YOU don’t have a PASSPORT?” in conversation with you. I do fall into the (unfair) expectation that smart, rounded, thoughtful people have traveled, and I admit that I was surprised that you haven’t. I would like to think I don’t judge people who simply choose not to travel, but I probably do, at least a little bit. I can’t defend it, but there you go. On the other hand, I recognize that having been taken abroad by my parents at an early age, it was much easier for me to travel as an adult than someone who’d never been abroad as a kid.

    Blah blah blah, etc. Short answer: Have a great trip! And I’m with Rachel: please tell us about it when you’re back.

  6. LP says:

    I sound like a travel snob. I hate it when I sound like a snob.

  7. ScottyGee says:

    As someone who didn’t leave the US till I was 35, I have to say that I’m incredibly grateful to my partner for essentially forcing me to get on an airplane and leave the country with her. I love being places where English isn’t the dominant language (including plenty of places within the US) — it’s pretty great to assume that everyone around you is having a really profound conversation.

    Travel does bring out snobbery in a lot of people, but so does pretty much everything that’s worth thinking about or discussing or experiencing: visual art, film, music, books, poetry, language, politics, and (dare it say it?) blogs.

    I really hope that you have a great trip. Where in Germany will you be staying?

  8. Dave says:

    What is a Lowcountry bucket?

  9. LP says:

    Catch O’ The Day
    Our Lowcountry Bucket filled with She-Crab Soup, Shrimp Bisque, Blue Crab Salsa, Clam Dip Kit, Blue Cheese Straws and Crab House Nuts.
    OUR PRICE: $50.95

  10. A White Bear says:

    I don’t want to say exactly what or where I’m studying, as it’s a very small program in a very remote town, so it’s highly Googlable, and I’m on their website. But I will say that I hope not everyone there speaks English, as I am told they will!

    It’s true that travel may be like all those other things, Scott. I hadn’t thought about it that way. And just in the same way, 90% of personals ads say how important education and books are to the person posting, but usually in a way that brings out my own eye-rolling. I have just as little attraction to people who say they “love books” as people who say they “love traveling.”

  11. A White Bear says:

    I can’t seem to find an online example of the bucket I’m thinking of, but around Charleston/Savannah, you can get a bucket that’s been steamed with corn, crab, rice, okra, etc. in it. When you take off the lid, the smell of all those things together is damn near overpowering. I’m a vegetarian and don’t partake, but that’s one of the few fleshly jealousies I’ve had in my life.

  12. Dave says:

    9, 11: See, the internet can’t replace travel.

  13. jeremy says:

    This is fascinating. And, I would’ve been punched in the nuts for sure because, like LP, I would’ve also been one of those annoying jerks asking, incredulously, about your passportlessness…

    I think it’s interesting, too, how much we romanticize travelers and traveling, an issue that I’d never really thought about. There’s this inherent elitism in the whole endeavor to define oneself as a “traveler” while, of course, managing to avoid the less-romantic identity of “tourist.”

    I think traveling is also a bit like getting tattoos (not that I have any of those)–once you have one country under your belt, you’ll want more. With each successive trip, it becomes easier and easier to take the next. I wonder if that’s what’ll happen to you, too, AWB?

  14. (and because travel means what it means to people, I am feeling compelled to mention that I’ve been to Russia and a bunch of Western Europe and I daresay more of the U.S. than most people I meet and am not, I swear, provincial. But my passport expired at least five years ago. Oh and I’ve been to the Carribean, by the way, but this occupies its own place in the semiotics of travel, I think, and is not considered enriching.)