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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Traveling And Living Abroad

Howie, into the Sahara Desert… with loafers

I don't recall there being any blondes in the part of Brooklyn where I grew up. When I got to college, one of my first girlfriends was blonde-- when her head wasn't shaved. She was from an aristocratic Alabama plantation family… but she had broken free-- got a job as a model, enrolled in a state university and dropped a lot of acid. I never have been able too figure out what she saw in me, but I'll never forget her. My first trip "abroad" was with her. We decided to hitchhike to the North Pole. We got as far as Montreal, which we both loved. The next summer I hitchhiked down to Mexico City; loved that too. And I've been traveling abroad ever since. After college I went to Europe for the summer... and stayed almost 7 years, 7 years that including a road trip by VW van to India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Since returning, I've managed to spend at least a few weeks outside of the U.S. every year, these days a month in the summer and a month in the winter. This blog is meant to reflect on it. Some of my favorite recent trips have entailed renting houses in Tuscany, Marrakech, Phuket, Yucatán, Bali and Rome. Sometimes I still wander around and don't get all sedentary in one spot, like on recent trips through the Himalayas, one through Mali, and one through Cappadocia.

So, when I read Nick Kristof's Times column Sunday, Go West, Young People! And East!, I could easily relate. But not agree, not entirely. Of course, I agree with him when he explains how traveling as a student "changed me by opening my eyes to human needs and to human universals." Same with me. His travels led him to the career he has now as a NY Times globe-trotting columnist. Mine led to me becoming president of a large international record company.
Gap years are becoming a bit more common in the United States and are promoted by organizations like Global Citizen Year. Colleges tend to love it when students defer admission to take a gap year because those students arrive with more maturity and less propensity to spend freshman year in an alcoholic haze.

Here’s a suggestion: How about if colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?

There’s a misconception that gap years or study-abroad opportunities are feasible only for the affluent. There are lots of free options (and some paid ones) at, which lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. It’s also often possible to make money teaching English on the side.

So go west, young men and women! And go east! Y al norte y al sur!
Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I've loved going west to Polonnaruwa and east to Aix-en-Provence and al norte to Reykjavík y al sur to Tierra del Fuego! So what's the beef? A parenthetical: "(A shout-out goes to Goucher College in Baltimore, which requires students to study abroad. Others should try that.)" My problem: "requires." Encourages, motivates, incentivizes… that's all awesome. Requires? Nooooo. One thing that I did learn while traveling and living abroad is that it isn't suited to everyone. My sister came to visit me in Amsterdam, where I lived for nearly 4 years, and stayed one day before boarding a plane back to Brooklyn. Two friends took my advice and flew first class to Bangkok, checked into a suite at the legendary Oriental-- the best hotel in town-- and called me up to scream that they didn't appreciate my practical joke, then turned around and flew home immediately-- not even one night in Bangkok!

Kristoff advocates for all young Americans to learn Spanish and offers a joke about people who refuse to learn any languages.
If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and a person who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is a person called who speaks no foreign language at all?

Answer: An American.

One of the aims of higher education is to broaden perspectives, and what better way than by a home stay in a really different country, like Bangladesh or Senegal? Time abroad also leaves one more aware of the complex prism of suspicion through which the United States is often viewed. If more Americans had overseas experience, our foreign policy might be wiser.
There's another perspective. When I traveled across Asia on the "Hippie Trail" and later worked in an international youth center in Amsterdam, people spoke all languages. Everyone seemed comfortable except Americans. Eventually I figured out that some Americans-- and basically only Americans-- have some kind of innate paranoia that if someone is speaking another language, it means they are plotting against them in some way. Force them to live abroad? I don't like that whole "force" thing if it can be avoided. Universities encouraging students to study abroad or, much better, take a year off to live abroad, that I totally concur with. It won't be a miracle cure for provincialism and small-minded bigotry, but it will definitely help move the ball down the field.

Howie, crossing the Golden Horn

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It is great to hear that universities are encouraging students to take a gap year. On one hand, I think it would be a beneficial thing for all the students, as they will have to face real life. Maybe giving them semester credits for the gap year would actually make them learn a new language and experience the European culture in all its meanings. I see it as a good idea.