Born and raised in Germany, I came to the United States as a college student, thinking that my “American experience” would consist of a few edifying semesters deep in Edgar Allen Poe country (Virginia). Who can predict the outcome of any journey? That’s one of the wonders of travel. And so fifty-some years later, I am still in the U.S., though now my home is across the continent from where I spent my university days, in the Pacific Northwest.
In spite of the pleasure I’ve derived in making my life on these shores, something deep within my European roots never stopped tugging at my heart; consequently, I’ve spent a good part of my adult life shuttling between the world of my youth and my adopted home. Having logged so many miles across the ocean, I’ve come to reflect on the whole business of travel: Why do we do it? And how does it change us?
What I’ve concluded suggests that we travel in part for practical reasons: It helps us get things done; it connects us with people we love; it breaks up the tedium of everyday life; it surprises us.
Travel delights our senses and stimulates our minds. It hones our rough edges, helping us see, for example, what a tiny place we occupy in this great universe. But like other aspects of life, travel can have its dark side: It can rattle us, create or heighten our anxieties and confound us. But these are also reasons we should travel. Whatever difficulties we experience on our journeys serve to sharpen our wits, broaden our humility, maybe even expand our humanity.
In short, travel instructs.
Even though my travels have always (so far) ended in the warm embrace of home, I’ve lately found myself wondering: Do journeys ever really end?
Maybe physically, but don’t they then linger in our memories, incubating, until one day we see with greater clarity? Sometimes we may not even be aware of how we’ve grown, how out prejudice and bigotry have lessened, how our narrow-mindedness has had the equivalent of a stent thrust into a calcified artery. It may not come suddenly, but I believe growth will come, in time expanding our hearts and lifting our spirits.
A case in point: In the mid 1970s, I spent several years living in the vicinity of Bedouins. Each time I stepped away from their world and back into my own, I was struck by our remarkable commonality––even with those who at first seemed utterly different. As my exposure to my Bedouin neighbors grew, I came to revel in their hospitality, generosity, and capacity for friendship. I came to realize that we’re all on a common journey; we’re all in the process of becoming. We all belong to the family of man. We’re all brothers and sisters.
Maybe in the end Marcel Proust was right when he said, “The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”