“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
Firsts often have the effect of awakening our senses and expanding our thinking. This was especially true for me the first time I traveled outside the three-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I was a college student and, after taking some art history courses, made Europe my goal. I wanted to see the world-famous art works I had learned about. The only problem was that I had no savings and a low-paying job.
I came up with a savings plan. I skimped on lunches, made my own clothes, and basically had no social life for close to a year. Every pinched penny went into my Europe fund until I had enough money to book a trip.
That summer, I, a trans-Atlantic travel virgin, boarded my flight with a great deal of satisfaction. I had earned the right to travel the hard way: self-sacrifice. It also took no small mount of courage to convince my parents that I could do it, spread my wings without their hovering and survive in foreign places.
There were many "firsts" on that trip — the first time I was on an airplane and a funicular train, the first time I had oxtail soup or used a bidet and the first time I went up mountains, or even saw them in person.
I learned the importance of speaking at least some of the language of each country I visited. For example, I tried to tell an Italian boy that he was handsome by comparing him to an American actor. The problem was that the actor's last name was similar to an insult in Italian! We worked it out with a lot of hand gestures, meager bits of both languages and laughs. In France, despite auditing a French class at my university before I left, I forgot the French word for "exit" and had a hard time finding my way out of the Metro! Be assured that I will never forget the word sortie.
In France, I also learned the more of the local language you can speak the better. I was very proud of myself when I walked up to a gendarme and asked, "Ou se trouve le Louvre?" His answer was incomprehensible but I was saved when he switched to English. That was another thing I learned: we Americans are way behind in the language department. Most Europeans can converse in multiple languages and I admire that.
I had a hard time figuring out European boys. On the one hand, they made a shy girl feel appreciated because the ones I met were open about their admiration. On the other hand, it was hard to be sure you weren't just the next American girl in a long line they professed to adore.
It was local boys, however, who showed me that you have to get away from the tourist haunts to get the authentic feel of a place and that the most memorable moments of a trip are unscripted and spontaneous.
In the Netherlands, I was shocked to realize that my "Americanness" seemed obvious to a boy I passed on the street. Was it the way I walked… my light-colored clothes… my shoes? It bothered me slightly that I didn't fit in.
That trip also made me conscious of contrasting views of beauty and morality. Nudity was considered art in most museums but the Vatican Museum put plaster fig leaves on classical statues. If the intention was to shield the viewer from noticing the male appendage, it didn't work. The irony was that the cover-ups riveted one's attention on the body part.
The things I wrote about back then were often descriptions full of wonder. I marveled that I was able to walk through the same streets or go into the same places as renowned people hundreds of years before me had done. I was also astounded that the Renaissance had produced such a wealth of paintings and sculptures that the Uffizi Gallery had the overflow pieces stacked against walls in the hallways! It was like I was walking in somebody's multi-million-dollar attic.
Some of the lessons I learned on that first trip are things I try to remember when I travel today; bone up on the language and culture of a place before you visit, be open to adventure while you are there, walk and talk with the locals and appreciate the differences you encounter.
That first time was a 'leaving the security of the nest' journey.