The Eastlit editorial June 2014 is penned by Nichole Reber.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
Books about globetrotting adventures ignited my teenage daydreams to one day travel the world. Of the few travelers I’d met, they possessed this unnameable quality. It was a thing to covet. A calmness, as if the foreign things they’d seen and smelled, touched and done answered their existential questions. But there was something else.
Surely if I traveled, I thought, I would tell everyone my adventure stories. But these people didn’t. Instead, asking for one more story, felt like I was prying. Why?
“We just had the worst time, the worst. The food was bad. The rooms were small….” I hear a retiree complaining into her cell phone as she walks into a store selling handmade jewelry. She’s lambasting her latest cruise experience, complaints coming one after the other, like the strands of beads hanging on the walls. It makes me cringe.
Perhaps it sounds too much like “there are starving children in Africa, so eat all your dinner,” but how many people fantasize about going on a cruise, about traveling at all? I think of people whose can’t get beyond the conference room and hotel on business trips. Then I think about a recent conversation with a former lover whose family treated him to cruises and trans-Atlantic flights his entire life.
We were sitting in a club his father owned, too early for the crowds who would soon come and fill the space with dancing. The Florida sunset’s waning rays barely reached our stools at the varnished oak bar as we discussed our recent respective travels.
“I wasn’t impressed,” he said about his trip to Egypt.
“Wasn’t impressed?” My brows furrowed. “It’s not a country’s job to impress visitors, Nicolas.”
By that point I’d come home elated four times from trips abroad, most recently to India. There children defecate in the streets. Store clerks turn on floor fans against the sweltering tropical heat for good customer service. Frogs hopping around my bathroom sent me into paroxysms of giggles. The scents of spices and incense, animals and dirt filled me an excitement as magical as falling in love. I was once again impressed–enthralled, really, but how could I share that story when our ideas of travel were different as the northern and southern hemispheres? And so, to avoid trumping the conversation, I kept my tale short.
An avid traveler I know, Doug Mack, shined new light on how to toe the gossamer line between impressing friends with travel tales and boring them. Still in awe over the experiences of his eight-country tour– pissy museum guards in Spain, getting lost sans GPS in Italy, getting stalked by men in Mozart costumes in Vienna– Mack answered his friends’ questions until their eyes glazed over. Still, he had more to say. So he sat down and wrote Europe on Five Wrong Turns, which later became a National Geographic Traveler book of the month. On a US tour to promote his book his audience wanted more. More stories, more details, more funny accidents. Finally, Mack tired of hearing himself speak.
So, he picked another country. And started another book.
Stamps from China, Hong Kong, India, and Peru fill the passport that recently brought me home after four years abroad. Back in the States, three things happened…repeatedly.
1) As soon as someone finds out you’ve lived around the world, it’s all they want to hear about it, to the point of obliterating the rest of my identity. In job interviews, at social events, in my neighborhood. It became easy to understand why Mack became tired of hearing his own stories.
2) “Didn’t you just love the country of _____? My daughter went there for two weeks and just adored it,” strangers ask. Their tone indicates an expectation that you’ll echo their enthusiasm. While I can’t say any culture has left me unimpressed, living among multiple cultures forces the knowledge that it’s not possible to love every culture– it’s not even possible to like some. To live abroad is to experience a country; to visit it is to know it by tourbus. Yet share those realities and strangers see me as I once saw the whiney cruise woman or Nicolas.
So I try not to offend and just keep the stories to myself.
3) On the other hand, some people can’t imagine life beyond their own yard. “Why would you live in such dirty countries?” they ask, judging my personal travel taste.
Travel books by Doug Mack or Paul Theroux or Herodotus don’t tell readers how to navigate the political terrain of travel story telling. While there is the risk of boring them as Mack notes, how could we travelers know that our stories would piss people off or disgust them, or that we’d be judged? Once I learned to toe my own gossamer line and form my own Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, when I discovered the truth beyond Huxley’s statement, I understood why those travelers met during my youth were reticent. And so now, when asked about my life abroad, I just smile and say, “Well, that’s a story for a different day.”