Monday, June 16, 2014

Traveling in Search of Ambiguity

            Speaking of traveling abroad, the writer Pico Iyer notes, “When we see people from our own community, we’re particularly sensitive to all the things that are wrong with them. When we see people from another community we’re alive to what’s refreshing about them.” “I travel in search of ambiguity,” he continues. “To me," he says, "the beauty of travel comes in dissolving one’s judgments.” Iyer speaks then of the assumptions one typically makes about people in a foreign culture, saying, “ . . . the beauty of going to [such a place] is quickly to have to throw out all those notions, and to see a reality that’s much more human and complex and to some extent unfathomable.”

            Having just returned from a five-week trip to Europe, I can attest to Iyer’s idea of travel in search of ambiguity. It operates, this search, as do most of our assumptions, at an unconscious level. It is not so much that we go abroad with a mindful attempt to compare ourselves and our culture to others,’ yet inevitably that is what occurs when we find ourselves at once amid another way of life. From language to custom to food to architectural style, all is foreign, unfamiliar, somewhat exotic, curious in its newness, utterly different. How quickly we come to realize, as heads turn at the sound of our voices, our accents, that it is we who are different, we who are the novelty amid all that is so familiar to our hosts, yet so strange to us.

            Our own ears perk up at the sound of American accents when we encounter fellow travelers from the States abroad. But then we meet the Floridian in Amsterdam who discloses that he is a firearms instructor for the NRA and proceeds to proclaim the virtues of owning semi-automatic weapons when the conversation turns to the  killing of children in Newtown. And the mid-westerner on a Dublin bus who, yearning aloud for a taste of corned beef and cabbage in Ireland only to be told that corned beef is an American substitute for boiling bacon, is dismayed that the Irish don’t eat corned beef with their cabbage. We come quickly at such moments to recognize in these fellow-Americans the folly of their assumptions. Perhaps in perceiving their shortcomings, we come in turn to recognize our own.

          Where an American who stumbles on some impediment on a sidewalk might almost instinctively seek to sue for damages, a European would be more inclined to feel that he himself was at fault because he hadn’t been looking where he was going. Where an American might expect efficient service at a restaurant or counter, a European is more mellow and patient by nature. “There are two speeds in this country, Yank,” my Irish brother-in-law reminds me, "slow and stopped.” 
Where Americans are more likely to obliterate in the name of progress all traces of a historic site, the English are inclined to memorialize even fictional ones: “The Tabard Inn,” a historic plaque reads on a wall in the London Borough of Southwark, “Site from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set off in April 1386.” The reference, of course, is to the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, characters who never, in fact, existed.

          A foreign culture—that place that does things so differently—is “refreshing” in contrast to our own, as Pico Iyer observes, so challenging to the ethnocentric assumption that ours is the way to do things. And so we find it surprising that accident rates are lower on Germany’s Autobahn, most of which has no speed limit, than on U.S. highways. Or that spacious, cobble-stoned town squares in so many European communities, like the Grand Place in Brussels, can serve as popular public gathering places to savor a meal at an outdoor cafĂ©, to saunter arm-in-arm with a lover, or merely to observe the passing crowds—rather than the paved parking lots they would likely be in America. And our assumption that pedestrians should take precedence over bicyclists is turned on its head in Amsterdam, where the bike lanes are wider than the sidewalks; the bikers don’t wear helmets because they are capable, cautious riders; and parking lots are filled with hundreds of bikes rather than cars.    

           We come also, along the way, to let go of our stereotypes and assumptions about the people themselves in our travels. Having heard that Germans are blunt and rather cold emotionally, I am pleased to find them tactful, warm, and eager to please. They also have a keen sense of irony. “It’s modern—only one hundred years old,” says a waitress in Bacharach of a tapestry lining a wall of the restaurant where we stop for lunch. We had heard that nearly 60% of Belgians identify as Catholic, but found that a mere 10% attend church regularly. Farther west, our Irish friends and family have always known how to party enthusiastically, but their celebrations seem more subdued in the face of economic austerity and the closing of many rural pubs throughout the country in recent years. Yet the Irish have become much more “European” of late and, owing to cheap regional airfares, are more likely to holiday in Prague, Budapest, or Vienna, than in Ireland. 

The more we travel, then, the more we tend to see people in a true, authentic light as we forego our assumptions about them. Like Pico Iyer, I too have come to travel in search of ambiguity, dissolving my presumptions about a place and its people. And in doing so, I come to know them—and myself—much more clearly than I had before.