One of my favorite stories about travel comes from a woman who used to babysit for one of Maya’s friends and sometimes for us, too. She is Irish, the oldest of 10 siblings, and one summer she arranged for two of her younger sisters to come over from Ireland and spend the summer here in New York. They saw all the city sights, went to Six Flags Amusement Park, out to the Long Island beaches, etc. After all of that, when they called their mother and she asked about their visit, the very first thing they said was, “Mum, in the McDonald’s here the red sauce is FREE!!” (red sauce = ketchup)
I love that, because often it’s not the big things that stick with us when we travel, but the little things. Or maybe not the little things, but the not so obvious things.
I’ve been mulling over our recent trip to Germany, trying to decide what to write about and on what to focus. “Academically” speaking I suppose I should talk about Berlin, and all the historical places we visited like Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate; I could relate telling my kids about studying in Berlin before the Wall fell and what it was like then compared to what it is like now.
Those things have value and seeing ‘history’ in person is one of the reasons we travel.
But it’s not the main reason.
The main reason is something not so cut and dried. It is a matter of perspective and of realizing that day to day, things are different in other places. (They pay for ketchup at McDonalds!) In recent years it has been a matter of realizing that, much as we love living in the U.S., it is far from perfect and in some aspects has become less free than some of the places we’ve visited. It is one thing to talk about this but another to experience first hand how restricted some of our freedoms have become, almost always in the name of safety. This reminds me of one of the stories I told my kids regarding 1986 Berlin. On a visit to East Berlin, our group was allowed to go into the Brandenburg Gate. There we were told how the West was a corruptive influence and that the Wall was built in order to keep that influence out of the much purer & safer GDR. At this point, one brave soul in our group raised his hand and asked “If that is the case, why do all the guns point in?”
The things that caught our attention are thankfully not quite so dramatic (at least not yet), but no less eye-opening.
First and foremost among them was a trip to downtown Kassel, the town in which our friends Tina, Jens & their son Linus (11) live. We were in the downtown plaza, enjoying some Easter weekend festivities, and Linus had gone into a small shop to buy something he wanted. He went by himself as the rest of us chatted outside. When he came out, three jaws (those belonging to me and my kids) hit the ground. He had purchased a pocket knife for whittling. It was clearly packaged for kids, but was not plastic as I first wondered. (I cannot believe that I wondered that, but that is how trained I have become – “kids can’t buy KNIVES that really work, can they?!”)
Why is this such a big deal? Why can’t a kid buy a pocket knife if he/she wants one? When did we decide that instead of teaching kids how to use knives safely we’d instead keep them away from them for as long as possible? Of course, the answer probably lies in the first lawsuit that some overzealous person brought after a child injured themselves (or someone else) with a pocket knife, but that’s a topic for another post altogether.
Realizations like this invigorate my kids when we travel. Despite the fact that homeschooling is illegal in Germany (a fact we all lament and puzzle over, given the abundance of freedom given kids in most other areas), my children love being there because they feel at home among people who think like we do; who believe that children are quite capable of using knives, climbing rocks, playing unsupervised, etc without doing themselves or others serious injury.
History, geography, culture; all of it is great to experience first hand. But nothing compares to the “little” things – like pocket knives or red sauce – the memories of which we will carry with us always.