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Life lessons


Life Lessons
Arthur Frommer

To a hundred countries and over millions of miles, I’ve traveled for some 40 years, and now I am a changed person because of it. On every trip to everywhere, just being in unfamiliar surroundings, among new and different people, alters one’s consciousness and creates new beliefs. We Are All Alike I am in the dark, dirty hut of a Masai family in eastern Africa. Through an interpreter, the woman of the house tells me that she hopes to learn to read. And why? So that she can study a handbook on raising children. I am sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat in the apartment of a young Japanese couple. Their daughter, they tell me, is complaining about the harshness of her first-grade teacher. I am aboard a houseboat on the Nile. The owner is talking with enthusiasm about a recent film. Travel has taught me that despite differences in dress and language and condition, all the world’s people are essentially alike. We have the same urges and concerns; we yearn for the same things. And those who patronize others or regard them as funny or backward are foolish indeed; they have not learned the lessons of travel. We All Think Ourselves Virtuous At the bar of an Amsterdam cafe I am talking with a Dutch friend. Last night, he tells me, a nationwide telethon — a lengthy TV program — raised the equivalent of 80 million dollars for cancer research. “Only in Holland,” he says, “would there be such an outpouring.” We all consider ourselves the best; we all believe in the superiority of our own country and culture. How many times have you heard politicians proclaim this or that nation to be the finest on earth? Travel rids you of that smug chauvinism; it exposes you to the finest in every land and makes you distinctly uneasy when you later return home and hear people proclaiming their own nation to be better than others. We Are Responsible for One Another It is the early 1980s. Dancing down a broad boulevard in Zagreb (萨格勒布) is a succession of laughing, gaily clad groups gathered there for a festival of Yugoslavia’s national folk dances. From the curb, I watch Muslims and Christians, Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbs celebrating in complete harmony. Now, years later, and because of travel, I remember them as distinct human presences, not as abstractions — mere concepts; I get almost physically ill when I read of the violence among them. Travel makes it impossible to ignore the sufferings of others simply because they are far away; it erases distance and transforms you into a more sensitive citizen of the world, the only kind of person who can contribute to peace.

There Is No Single Solution for Human Problems I am walking the streets of Hong Kong, past signs for herbal medicines and acupuncturists, and all around are millions of people perfectly content with these approaches to personal health so different from our own. I am lying in a copper bathtub filled with naturally carbonated water in a bathing establishment in the Belgian city of Spa. And although my mind tells me that, scientifically speaking, water cures are rubbish, I feel something happening to my body and suspect that the 300 million Europeans who embrace such remedies may not be as wrong-headed as our own medical establishment would have us believe. I go to countries like Holland, where people by law may not be fired from their jobs, and to my astonishment meet wealthy conservatives who staunchly defend this prohibition. Travel reveals a whole range of unusual practices that may succeed in differing contexts; it suggests newer approaches for your own society and keeps you receptive to novel proposals and experiments in every field. Travel Keeps Us Young I sit on that airplane, eating awful food, breathing stale air, feeling jet-lagged and achy, and tell myself that travel is deeply fatiguing and unnatural. And yet when I emerge in an unfamiliar airport and city, I feel challenged and alive. There is still language to attempt, a new history to absorb, another culture to encounter. And though some of it may dismay rather than enchant, it is never uninteresting; your mind is constantly awhirl with ideas and impressions. And even when you believe you have exhausted the store of new destinations and cultures, you discover that you can enjoy them on a deeper level. I’m currently studying Italian so that 1 can better enjoy a country I’ve visited a hundred times. Travel Teaches Us Humility, the Best Human Trait In the course of a long trip, I arrive at last at an English-speaking country say, Australia — and grab for a local newspaper. Wonder of wonders, there’s not a single story in it about my own U.S. of A. Shocking and impudent, these “foreigners” dare to prefer their own concerns and matters closer to hand. We learn, through travel, that the world does not revolve around us alone, that we no longer rule the Earth, that not everyone worships our lifestyle or envies us. That kind of discovery makes us different from those puffed-up, closed-minded boosters and braggarts who sometimes dominate our public discourse. You become a quieter American and, in my opinion, smarter and more productive one. Travel, for many, is merely a form of recreation. But travel is now becoming recognized as education. Certainly, it has a compelling effect, often greater than that of any other activity, even extensive reading. It has changed my life, and I believe that you, too, may want to reflect on how it has altered your own consciousness. Ours is the first generation in human history to travel to other continents as easily as we once took a trolley to the next town. Dare we hope that access to a larger world will result in more understanding, in human beings more tolerant and peaceful? (982 words)


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