Last week while perusing CNN.com, my eyes caught the title Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad. The opening paragraph states that only 30% on Americans have a passport, a statistic that startled me. The article makes several wide sweeping assumptions about Americans and our to-travel-or-not-to-travel culture. Not all of those assumptions are entirely correct, I think that the American travel culture is much more complicated than the four bullet points laid out by the author. He does, however, provide a few valid insights into why Americans stay near the amber waves of grain.
When I was ten years old, I took ten days off from my fifth grade classroom and embarked on a trip to London with my dad. It was very important to my parents that myself and two siblings grow up with an attitude that is very welcoming to international travel. My dad took each of us to London around our tenth birthday. Not only was this a memorable trip to celebrate finally reaching the years of double digits, but moreso, it was to teach us to not be afraid of travel. As part of the trip, before the end of the week, I was solely responsible for the plans of that day. My dad asked me to pick out what sites I wanted to see, what restaurants we would go to and also what Underground stops we would need to use. I had complete control of that day and even if I were to chose the wrong Underground stop, my dad wouldn’t say anything. For him, it was all about learning how to navigate another city.
After high school I accompanied my dad on a ten day mission trip he was leading to Warsaw, Poland. This was my first venture to a country that didn’t speak English and I learned how to cope with a new level of travel difficulties. I was the youngest member of the team, by at least fifteen years. The day before our flight back to the United States, my dad had a serious issue with his contacts. By the time we arrived at the Amsterdam airport for our connection, he could barely open his eyes. He then entrusted me, his eighteen year old daughter, with the responsibility of finding a pharmacy and directing our twenty member team to our new gate.
In the Spring of 2009, I left to study in Germany. This was my first big trip without my parents. Three girls from my university were going with me so I wasn’t entirely alone. It wasn’t until several months into my time there that I began my solo traveling. My dad encouraged me to skip class (coming from a professor?) and said that the real advantage of being in Germany was to travel to the surrounding countries. I took several solo trips: Bern (Switzerland), Berlin & Hildesheim (Germany) and then to Prague, London and Paris (I traveled alone but met friends in each of these cities). I know that my dad was worried about me, but his constant encouragement was, “This is why I took you to London, so you would do something like this.”
In my Senior year of college, like most soon-to-be graduates, I was struggling with what I wanted to do with the next few years of my life. I wasn’t quite ready to go to graduate school and working in retail lost its appeal long ago. Traveling abroad seemed like the only logical option. My whole life has been centered around being encouraged to leave home, see the world, and experience new cultures, so this type of transition seemed very natural to me.
One thing that I think the article does well, is emphasize that the United States is a country focused on working. Our students incur thousands of dollars worth of student loans simply to get an education worthy enough to land them a job that will pay well enough to pay back the loans that got them there in the first place. We become grown-ups at age 22 and then enter into the lives that we will lead for the next six decades: work, marriage, mortgages, and children. When I tell my international friends that more than a dozen of my college peers have gotten married, they can’t believe it. For most European and Latin American cultures that I have encountered, marriage isn’t even a possibility until one nears the end of their 20s.
And our employees receive minimal vacation time, hindering their freedom to take a couple of weeks for an extended trip. When you are given a meager two weeks for vacation per year, a trip to Europe is out of the question. Who wants to spend 2-3 of their precious vacation days stuck in airports?
Though I knew this before, reading the above article made me even more grateful for the opportunities my parents have given me. My love for travel and language and new cultures can only be attributed to their constant encouragement from the time I was a little girl. Even though my passion takes me thousands of miles away from my home, they have always been encouraging and never once hesitated in their support. Perhaps most importantly, they have graciously given me the freedom to leave my American life and build one in another country. I consider it a great gift that I am not carrying the burden of student loans nor the pressure to find a job. That is one of the sweetest gifts they could have ever given me.
When I read that only 30% of my fellow Americans hold a passport, I am reminded that what comes natural to me, doesn’t necessarily come natural to everyone else. It makes me thankful that I am able to experience something like this and shows me that it really is my parents who made all this possible.