The value and delight of experiencing foreign cultures hit home hardest when returning once from Santiago, Chile, to Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
The Santiago airport seemed a place of smiling families and happy reunions. Chicago's was a hive of hurried and harried businessmen looking like they'd abandoned all hope at the portal of Midwest Hell.
The contrasts were startling: Fit versus fat. Kissing versus grumbling. Laughter versus gloom. Flowers versus laptops. Happiness versus haste.
Welcome home? Yikes.
On an Antarctic research vessel, it was the American scientists wistfully comparing their alcohol-free, 24-hour, the-clock-is-ticking research regimen with their brief visits to French vessels where science rested at a civilized hour, the tables had white linen, and any digestible dinner had to have wine.
In New Zealand it was the ticket agents who let me change itineraries on a whim and pop onto a flight at the last minute if a seat was empty, instead of grumpily informing me of The Rules. In Mexico, it was having our van fixed in a small town while the mechanic insisted we be serenaded, at no cost, by a mariachi band. In Dubai, it was being invited to the home of an Arab family, complete strangers, after simply stopping to take a picture of their dressed-up kids on an Islamic religious holiday.
Like many of you, I think the USA is the greatest country in the world because of its idealism, its power, its wealth, its cutting-edge ideas, its cultural influence, and its hope. But our Type-A nation is also fiercely competitive, contentious, violent, regulated, rushed, arrogant, isolated, pressured, private and paranoid at least compared to Costa Rica, say, or Australia.
Like most people, I travel to see stuff and eat well. I see no embarrassment in gaping like a tourist, rushing hither and yon, or sticking out like a sore thumb. Let's face it, we Americans walk different, talk different and joke different, and can pick out our own kind at a hundred yards. Viva la difference.
But I also travel to relax. One path to chill is by changing the routine: basking on a beach, skiing a slope or running a river.
Another is to enjoy, and learn from, cultures less frenetic than my own. Traveling has taught me that the American way is not the only way. If happiness can be measured by grins, it seems to have no correlation to national income. If contentment is revealed by friendliness, it seems to have no connection to Superpower status. If community can be ranked by sidewalk cafes, piazzas, markets, churches and promenades, the USA is a basket case.
Tahiti's slower pace seduced visitors from Fletcher Christian to Gaugin. The British succumbed to India and the Middle East. Today's Shangri-las include Nepal and Phuket.
Like many Americans, I secretly think we can save the world. But I also think we need the world to save us, by slowing us down, tempering our enthusiasms and teaching us perspective. Visiting an Umbrian vineyard with 2,500-year-old wine cellars started by the Etruscans tends to give one the longer view. Listening as a high-schooler to a Hungarian describe the heartbreak of his nation's 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union transformed the political noise back home into meaningful debate. Riding with German wranglers on a Chilean trail reputedly used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into a South American clone of Yosemite Valley reminded me how intertwined we've all become. Strolling to the bakery on a Canadian island that has dispensed with electricity suggests that stress is a choice, not a necessity.
Isn't France a more interesting place to visit precisely because it didn't back our adventure in Iraq? Only history will determine who was right and who was wrong in the United Nations debate, but one couldn't pass through Italy's Milan this spring and see the thousands of rainbow-colored "Pace" signs ("peace") hanging from windows without being forced to think. Issues look different from different places. This isn't threatening, it's intriguing, and as rewarding to the traveler as a grand cathedral or famed statue.
That visit to Milan was part of a quintessential American tour my wife and I took this spring, a Rick Steves trip through Italy. In some ways it was stereotypically too fast, too easy and too programmed. We spotted Edmonds' famous travel guru himself in Florence, hurrying down a street with a cluster of aides, jotting notes and looking all too much like well you and me. Purposeful. Focused. Hurried. American.
And yet in freeing us of the usual logistical preoccupations of travel thumbing through guidebooks to figure out where to stay, where to eat, what to see Rick also gave us the time to feel some of the seductive rhythm of Italy. Guides made us see their cities through Italian eyes. Our bus became our communal piazza. We walked so much we became afficionados of plopping down, Italian style, to catch our breath. We learned to exult not just at a monument, but in the sweet life. And we brought home lifestyle lessons as precious as souvenirs.
If the rich are different from you and me, so are foreigners.
They know how to live.
And if you go, eyes open, they'll teach you.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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