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June 7, 2016

The Joys and Travails of Travel!

"I joined the Navy to see the world, and what did I see, water, water, water"

By Gene Hemrick

Why is distant travel so important to our well-being? Wherein is its virtue leading to goodness? The following lesson by a rabbi gives us one answer. Looking at his students, the rabbi asks what criterion should be used to determine when night has ended.

"When there is enough light to tell a goat from a sheep," answers one student.

Another student answers, "When you can distinguish an apple tree from a fig tree."

"This might be true", says the rabbi, "but truer is a new day arrives when you can look at a human face, and see a brother or sister. If you are unable to see a brother or sister in every human face, you are still in the darkness of night."

One of the virtues of travel is to experience firsthand those who are distant from us as brothers and sisters. Pope John Paul II says that once we realize we are brother and sisters in the world, we possess the virtue of solidarity: humanity united to humanity as one! As we will now see, travel accomplishes this and much more.

His sermons were long and bombastic, but oh how the people enjoyed them because they were like a beautiful travelogue. Our pastor of St. Petronille Parish in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Monsignor Eugene Luke loved to visit the Holy Land and the shrines of saints. He would then build a homily around their significance for the Sunday gospel. Thanks to his colorful imagery, the same gospel stories we usually heard repeatedly beamed with newness and vitality.

Later I had a history teacher who traveled to Europe during his summer vacation. When he applied his travels to history it added the perfect backdrop for understanding it. In addition to the above fruits of travel, what else makes it so valuable? I have read great classical works and known highly intelligent people, and yet, the best lessons I have ever experienced was not from them but from travel. St. Augustine captures this wise principle in stating: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." Travel contains a myriad of valuable principles that not only apply to a traveler but to all us.

Our first principle can be found in the maxim of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

Most of us enjoy comfort zones that make us hesitant to adventure into the unknown. Travel is the direct antithesis of hesitancy in encouraging us to take that first step of leaving our comfort zones and entering into another world. This is easier said than done because it can sometimes be frightening.

I will never forget enjoying a wonderful time in Italy with my Italian-speaking mother and then taking her to Germany. She was in her element in Italy, speaking the language and being at one with the culture. Even though my German friends tried to make her feel at home, she became so frustrated in not being able to communicate in German she asked me to take her home. She personified one of the major reasons some people don't like to travel far: they don't speak the language and they feel uncomfortable with unfamiliar cultures. Entering a foreign culture requires leaving the comfort of our customary support systems and taking a risk. In a maxim by Robert Stevenson Lewis, he helps us to ponder the good that outweighs the risks of travel. "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." To paraphrase Lewis, travel's rewards outweigh its perils by putting us in motion, and once in motion, we have the potential for expanding our horizons.

International travel is much different than traveling to and from work; it requires a quantum leap! I believe most of us would rather stay put than take a quantum leap into an unfamiliar culture. However, it is also true that when we take the leap, more often than not, it vitalizes us. Roman philosopher Seneca captures this principle in stating "Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind."

When I took my dad to Ireland to visit his mother's farm, I learned the truth of Seneca's observation. Dad was a Chicago fireman who spent most of his life extinguishing fires. On his days off he worked a second job. All he knew was work. One day I suggested we go to Ireland and off we went.

When we landed in Shannon, Ireland, it was like going back fifty years in time. Its way of life was laidback, and his mother's farm was just as it was when she lived in it with its outdoor toilet, thatched roof and dirt floor. A peat-burning fireplace stood at one end of a long living room that was dingy and devoid of decorations.

As I walked around the farmhouse, I thought to myself: "I think dad would have preferred a comfortable vacation along the ocean or fishing in Wisconsin rather than this." I was dead wrong! He loved our quaint Bread and Breakfast quarters; the Irish car with its right-handed steering wheel; the narrow hedgerow roads, and the warm Irish spirit we drank in. When we returned home, I saw a much different dad; he was filled with new zest. By nature he was quiet, but thanks to that trip he was much more talkative and engaging.

Experiencing his mother's farm and imbibing in its Irish spirit had truly invigorated him. Seneca was ever so right: "Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind."

The Moorish proverb: "He who does not travel does not know the value of men" gives us another one of travel's benefits.

When a young university student and I cycled through southern Germany, we often stayed with people who were very concerned about the Church's future, nuclear war and preparing our youth to be the next generation of leaders. There were nights we discussed these topics at length. Interestingly, they were the same topics being discussed at the Bishops' Conference where I was working. Listening to Germans, Spaniards, Austrians and Italians with whom we conversed taught me no matter what country people are from, their concerns are our concerns. They are neighbors to be valued.

As stated earlier, Pope John Paul II taught the world is one big family. When we learn we aren't alone in desiring to make it a better place, it exudes a sense of solidarity he lauded. In the words of American writer Henry Miller: "One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." The insights I experienced from my German travels broadened my understanding of Europeans. Mark Twain once remarked, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness." When our sense of solidarity is raised to new levels, so too, is diminished our tendency toward narrow mindedness.

Writer James Michener gives us a good principle to follow when traveling, "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home."

"You aren't an ugly America!" was the first remark uttered by a German friend as I arrived on bicycle at his home in Freiburg. He was referring to Americans who visit Germany and are forever criticizing its bathrooms, hotels, food and strict customs. I must admit, I found this to be somewhat common while traveling through Europe, especially when our dollar was strong.

Good manners are essential to mature traveling. The word for respect in German is Ehrfurcht meaning awe and reverential space. To be a statesman-like traveler is to be in search of awe, not flaws; to avoid arrogance and practice respect. If this were accomplished ever so little more, relationships between countries would improve dramatically. Whether tourists know it or not, they are ambassadors. To fulfill this role, Clifton Fadman counsels, "When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable."

"I have found out there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." This sage insight of Mark Twain points us to hidden behaviors both our friends and ourselves never thought existed.

During my younger years, college students and I would train for our bike trips through the U.S. and Europe. When we trained, we were in our own element; we knew the territory and its support systems. Once we were in foreign territory minus those support systems, our amicability often came under fire and sometimes disintegrated.

On my first trip through Germany and Austria with a student at Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, Illinois, we ended up in Vienna. Upon arriving there, we looked for a place to eat. To our surprise, it was more difficult to find than we thought. As we continued our search, suddenly my partner turned on me and cried out: "I am tired, I am tired, I am very tired." Why did he turn on me? It was because I was always pushing us to move on. We would sail through small, quaint German towns and pretend we were in the Grand Prix. This was fun until we cycled up the Alps and I yelled at him to move it when he had stopped. He yelled back, "My cycling shoes are broke!" When we reached the top of the mountain he snapped a picture of us together. I still have it. It portrays him smiling with me looking angry. Our falling out was my fault; I had pushed him too far! It taught me that travel not only brings out unknown behaviors in your traveling companion, but also in yourself.

Traveling teaches us to never take for granted that what we do and like, so too, do others want to do and like. When this principle is fractured, the closest friends can soon end up enemies. I have witnessed the results of breaking this principle often in families visiting Washington, D.C. They will be walking along seemingly content, and suddenly a revolt breaks out within the ranks. The wife and children may not want to go where the husband desires to go, or the husband blows up at the children or wife for not appreciating the sights he desires to see. And what is the lesson in this? To travel well together, it pays to consult on expectations before setting out. The virtue of counsel must be exercised! Add to this you don't need to be traveling to a foreign country, it also applies to traveling to your favorite restaurant that may not be the favorite of your companion.

Tim Cahill wrote: "A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles." No doubt, all of us have met people for the first time in our travels that befriended us. Afterward we may have kept contact with them or even invited them to stay with us. All of sudden we have cherished friends we would not have enjoyed had we not taken that first step of which Lao Tzu speaks.

Over the years a number of friends I made in Europe visited with me in the U.S. I will never forget my Austrian friends handing me a book containing all the Bildungschules in Austria. [Bildungschules are magnificent castle-like estates for students desirous of furthering their education] "Next time in Austria, forget your biking and just enjoy our hospitality. All of these Bildungschules are waiting for you" they exhorted me.

It is true, travel can delight us with beautiful scenery and exciting exotic places, but this can't compare to creating a beautiful friendship that never existed before.

When enjoyed and done properly, travel becomes a great part of the good life in blessing us with beauty, new interests, vigor and especially new friendships.