I was in Manhattan Beach over Thanksgiving, sitting in the sun and chatting with a pleasant, blond woman at Coffee Bean. I detected an accent, but being the polite traveler that I am, waited a full 20 minutes before asking where she’s originally from (I figured she gets that question a lot). We had been discussing languages and travel, and so it was the inevitable next question.
“The Middle East.” She replies vaguely.
“Any particular country?” I ask.
“Oh!” I say, “I was near Syria, and almost crossed the border from Eastern Turkey. I was in Mardin.”
“Oh, Mardin! Yes. Mardin - sometimes we used to go over the border to Turkey to shop.”
“What city are you from?” I ask. It turns out she is from Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, and perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world. I tell her I almost went there.
She says, “I tell some Americans I’m from the Middle East and they say, “Where’s that?”
I am embarrassed for my fellow Americans, and a little shocked. “They really say that?” I ask.
I describe my travels through Turkey and the Balkans and when I’m done, she asks me, “And why do you do that?”
The question catches me off guard – I’m used to getting something like “Oh, I’d like to go there!” or, “I was in Italy last year.”
I don’t think anyone has ever actually asked me, “Why do you do that?”
I give her sort of a global answer about America’s size and influence, and if I really want to know what’s going on outside of America, I have to physically go there.
She looks at me and frowns slightly. “Most Americans want to see other US states. They’re not really interested in the rest of the world,” she says.
Now don’t get me started…but, well, she’s right. However, you can find this in Switzerland, too. A woman I met in Zürich said, “You’ve seen more of Europe than I have.” I met plenty of Bulgarians who had never been to Turkey (and vice versa) although they are neighbors (and have plenty of opinions about each other). And as for me, I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Disneyworld. Most foreign tourists have seen more of the USA than I have.
However, Europeans do know where the Middle East is. And most of the rest of the world knows a) our state capitals b) our language and c) that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governator.
I try again to answer her question. “I enjoy meeting people from different cultures, learning a little of their history, their language.” She still seems mystified.
And so am I: I mean, why do I travel? Really?
Why do I take a bus to some random country and stand out in the freezing cold at the border while my luggage is being searched? Why do I haggle a fee with a psychotic chain-smoking taxi driver to take us over the border from Albania into Montenegro? Why do I buy a second-hand coat in Sarajevo and give my North Face jacket to a Roma woman sitting on the street who wants money instead? Why do I meet a friend of a friend of a friend and travel to Crete and eat freshly cooked snails? And why do I try to hitchhike in Croatia with two Australians one of whom is so bizarre (endearingly so, but drivers don’t know that) no one will ever pick us up…(that’s another story)?
I could give many answers. But let me put it this way: In all the above scenarios, did something bad happen to me? No. I made lifelong friends and lifelong stories. Adventures that will stay with me until I’m too senile to remember, and then I’ll have this blog to remind me. Strike one against American xenophobia. Against human xenophobia, for that matter.
But, if she asked me again, I would say this:
“If I had not traveled to the region near the border between Turkey and Syria, I would never be having this conversation with you. I would not understand anything about where you are from; I could not visualize the dry, arid landscape. I would have no idea what it was like for you to leave that part of the world and acculturate yourself to Los Angeles, California. I would have had a blank look on my face when you said, ‘I’m from Syria.’ I would have had to be one of those Americans who say, ‘The Middle East? Where’s that??’”