Thursday, October 16, 2008

Away We Go

I used to be more bothered than I am now about how The World views our country. I still think it's important, but if there's one thing I've discovered (obviously, if you've been reading long) it's that no place is perfect, and it's almost impossible to translate the subtleties of one culture to another. I can talk about the crazy Italian government all I want, but why should anyone care what I think? I'm never really going to understand it. I'm not Italian.

So when I read articles like this, written by a British CNN journalist, I just roll my eyes and try to remember that they are writing about our country because it's still, against all odds, powerful and influential. I loved that Barack Obama spoke to cheering masses in Berlin, but I could also see the point made by McCain supporters who reminded us that most of the crowd didn't qualify to vote in our election.

But the following paragraph, reacting to the notion that Sarah Palin seems disinterested in the world outside the USA, stuck with me. The writer, Robin Oakley, posits that Europeans "...are not much impressed by explanations that her parents did not have the money to send her on a fact-finding tour of the world as a student. Anybody with the money to own an SUV, hunt moose and drive a snowmobile has the money to travel."

Europeans tend to have a hard time grasping the physical scale of the United States and how far everything is from everything else here, especially if you live in Alaska. Most of them can't drive two hours without crossing an international border. But I think this journalist is absolutely correct anyway.

S/he may or may not understand that SUVs and moose tags and guns and snowmobiles are justifiable expenses when you have to stock up on game to feed the family and when your driveway is a snowdrift eight months of the year, and that hunting in many of these places isn't primarily sport for the wealthy. But people spend money and time one what they value, and Sarah Palin shouldn't be using money as an excuse for staying home. If she really wanted to travel, she could have. (Russia is JUST SO CLOSE, remember? And, if I am reading the map correctly, Canada is right next door.) But she chose not to, possibly for good and justifiable reasons, but likely not financial ones.

So can we, as Americans, give the financial excuse a rest in this case? Yes, right now, we should all be staying home and putting our cash under our mattresses. But before our economy went in the toilet, and after it comes out, shouldn't seeing the world be valued just as highly as owning a Bitchin' Camaro or having our teeth professionally whitened? And I'm not just talking about Ms. Palin - I'm talking about all of us. When did travel become something Americans save for retirement? Probably about the same time people started thinking that going to Hawaii was visiting a foreign country.

This article by Patrick Smith also spoke to me today, particularly this portion:
"I am of the mind that every American student, in exchange for financial aid, ought to be conscripted into a semester (or more) of overseas service. And why not a tax credit for certain international travel, similar to that provided with the purchase of a hybrid car."

Let's all write to our congresspeople about that one. Then, when it passes, let's all meet in Bali for my blog readers' convention and send the receipts to our accountants. Who's with me?


annonamoose said...

I am all for domestic service, and all for international experience, but the last people I would want as representatives of our country abroad are people who don't want to be there.
A wonderful friend of mine threw in the towel pretty early in her Peace corps experience after she was mugged (on the street in broad daylight) and her glasses taken with everything else, the second time. I am not sure you could generate enough safe opportunities to make this practical.
I think the most you can reasonabley do is to forgive some debt for service abroad.

Katie said...

I'm in! This post is so well articulated. Funny that Palin's comment about, essentially, not being a 'trustafarian' with the means to travel KILLED you too. It just really bothered me because I did it on my own, I'm from a grossly small town, and while yes, my parents encouraged me, they NEVER handed me plane tickets or wads of cash. I think Americans might be particularly motivated by the example of Australians and Kiwis...particularly the former, who are from a CONTINENTAL country as well, and for whom most other countries are at least a 6 hour flight away (except New Zealand). Let's go!

Maria said...

I, like Katie, did it myself from a small town the first time (junior year of high school). I have friends that traveled on a shoestring budget during college. $10/night hostels suck, but the opportunity is amazing. If she had wanted to, she would have.

Anonymous New York said...

You make some really interesting points. I've been abroad in high school and college on a shoestring budget that I paid for myself, but when it came to a semester away, I chickened out. I regret it now, but it was 10 years ago. I also went back for my honeymoon and would love to live there for 6 months if I had the chance. My youngest sister did 6 months abroad and had a great time. My middle sister nearly has panic attacks if she has to take a new public transportation route by herself.

I guess what I'm saying is that traveling abroad at a in your late teens/early 20s is not for everyone. When you get older, a lot of other responsibilities get in the way. It's not a black and white issue.

About Palin going to Russia and Canada, the parts that are close to Alaska probably aren't that much different than Alaska, except that in Russia they probably won't speak a lick of English. The industrialized cities in Russia are all in the west.

I'm going on too long, but my only other comment is that the true crime in America, in my own opinion, and I'm equally guilty, is that we don't know enough about our own country.

Whew. I'm WORDY today. Great post. Gave me a lot to think about. :-)

Tom said...

Well, we Americans are seen as overly arrogant and not concerned with the rest of the world, and that certainly is true. Having said that, I'm not sure how much travelling in Europe and staying in hostels would prepare someone to be the 2nd in command. It wouldn't hurt, of course, but hangin' out eating croissants when you're 20 doesn't seem to matter a great deal when you're contemplating tarrifs against steel imports from China.

Then again, either would moose-hunting.

Whatever. Elections are ridiculous anyway. (Elections, not electing, of course.)

The dude probably wrote that while munching on a Big Mac. Ha!

Blythe said...

I'm not so concerned about Ms. Palin's experience here (well, I'm concerned, but let's leave that topic for another day, or another blog). But the "traveling is expensive" excuse that we hear from Americans far and wide bugs me.

I agree that forced service abroad is probably not the answer to our American xenophobia. But travel, especially as a young person, can be life-changing and doesn't cost any more than what can be earned at a summer job or, for many people, what is spent on a year's worth of their kid's designer coffee allowance. And, honestly, I don't care who pays for it. Whether it's Tommy Hilfiger's daughter shopping the boutiques of Paris (did you see her reality show a few years back, by the way? eek) or some small-town teenager hauling a backpack across Thailand, being plunged into a situation where you don't understand the people around you, don't recognize half the food, and can't figure out how to use the telephone, is character-building. And the next time someone talks about Damn Foreigners, or someone who doesn't speak English needs help at a gas station, the empathy that comes from travel will come in handy. Now, how to promote travel as a better graduation gift than a new car or a new gun(!) or a new pair of designer shoes? I'm not sure.

But if it happens, at least I might get fewer of those maddening e-mail forwards about how the French are Letting the Terrorists Win, and I'm definitely in favor of anything that accomplishes that.

Nicole said...

I'm definitely of two minds about this. On one hand, I do think it's eminently possible for most young Americans to travel, even without parental/trustafarian money. I split the cost of my first trip abroad with my parents and grandparents when I was 17, but after that, I self-funded everything with a combination of scholarships, competitions, and foreign work experience. I went abroad seven times in five years (including two study terms abroad) but the key was that it was hugely important for me to do so. It was my priority.

On the other hand, I used to get a little irritated with Europeans who dismissed "Americans without passports" as uniformly ignorant about the world. It's one thing for someone like George W. Bush, who had all the money and leisure time anyone could possibly need and chose not to travel because he is just profoundly uncurious (one of my major objections to the man). It's quite another if you are working two jobs trying to support a family and don't get vacation time at either one. I really think that most Europeans just don't get that the average American has 10 days of vacation--if they're lucky--and that they are generally discouraged from taking it all at one go. Also the concept of paying tens of thousands of dollars a year (or taking out loans to do so) for college is largely unknown there. Put the two together, and there can be a lot of obstacles between an American and a trip overseas.

I do think there should be a way to make meaningful travel more accessible to more people. Having guaranteed decent vacation would be where I would start. I know that the 10 days the DH and I have are more or less used up just with family obligations, since his family is several states away and mine live a few hours away. And there is no point in going anywhere overseas from Montana if you can't spend at least two weeks, IMO.

God, I miss my five weeks of holiday in Prague!!!

Blythe said...

Nicole, those are great points. I remember people saying to me, back when I was a youngster and before I had a Real Job, "Travel while you can!" with a note of desperation in their voices. Now I know why.