BACK TO THE FUTURE
It has been quite a journey thus far… and it’s a good time to write and reflect upon the year ahead, the year past, and the company as a whole.
I’m on a train bound for the Netherlands, to stay with a great friend of mine… the very friend who gave me the final push on forming my travel company: GBC Tours. And it grows harder and harder to leave a town and mountain oasis that has become my second home. It’s rather funny, actually that people might assume that travel and moving is so easy for me, when a massive part of my inner being craves genuine community, stability, and structure. For all of the times I have traveled, I have developed a bit of a dread of departure, no matter the destination, out of some sadness that it might be my last time to have set foot there… that I won’t be back.
It makes me sad and makes me laugh at the same time.
Yet it says so very much about how much I absorb a place. That’s how deep it gets into my system… how much I enjoy it… people, customs, mannerisms, food, history. To fall in love with a culture, and view life through its perspective – not by imposing your own comforts and preferences upon your foreign location – is what travel is truly all about to me.
That’s my drug. It really is…
CAUSE AND EFFECT
David, why can’t you be a “normal” American?
When I was a flight attendant, I went to Europe on weekends for like two years… I don’t see what the big fuss is like you’re all different or something…
You’re not patriotic if you want to live in another country…
Three of my all-time favorite comments…
In the first year of my concerted effort to gain a permanent foothold in Europe, I did my share of venting regarding a lot of frustration I had with the two extreme ideological camps that dominate the US political scene, “news” in America, corporate greed and control of our political process, our weakened manufacturing base, an education system that isn’t getting the job done, and our penchant for lawsuits and pharmaceuticals, but it wasn’t out of arrogance or to step on the toes of great citizens still living and making the best of our United States… It was a giant bit of vindication for me. I felt like I had given America my heart and soul – in the Marine Corps and in the teaching profession – only to walk away dejected, mislead, and feeling betrayed. I do not state that lightly, and yet I hold no party or person to blame for my feelings.
And before you think this writing is a furtherance of any beef I may still have, let me explain to you quickly that it’s not. I finally get it. Every place has its deep sources of pride, and how could one expect anything different from the biggest, flashiest, loudest, strongest, and most isolated major power on the planet?
I’ll always be an American. No matter how much my head loves Europe, well and much of my heart, America is my blood. From the church pew to the baseball field… from Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson… from Scott Joplin to Rodgers & Hammerstein… all of Texan dad and all of Louisiana mom… From joining the Marine Corps to wanting to leave the Marine Corps… Patriotism in obedience and patriotism in protest... Yep, I’m American. 100%.
My passport is valid. For if I really dwell upon it, I hold myself to a fierce loyalty, belief in, and supreme pride in the great American Founding Fathers. Not cheaply, not to fit in, nor because some campy holiday commercial is playing.
A lot of America has very little true understanding of those thinkers and ultimate, ultra “Europeans.” And that they were - make no mistake about it.
And we Americans are too...
Those of us that are white-skinned, cookie cutter, Mom and Pop loving, Thanksgiving turkey, and Sunday church types. We have developed and formed our own spin on our European-originated languages... modified customs and holiday traditions... and created our own and our own games of sport. But this is a great deal more of window dressing. Don't even kid yourself for a moment.
After all, there’s a reason that when any high school or university student takes a “Western Civ.” class that it begins with the Greeks, then turns to the Romans, followed by the English – with further understanding of other European powers, namely the French, who contributed to the formation of our union, our laws, and our way of life.
I don’t think people may have quite connected the dots that I keep coming back to Germany… not Belgium or France – the countries in which I spent the majority of my childhood and whose language I still speak far better than German.
But it dawned on me, as I began writing this piece, that in all of my travels and moving around, there was one culture and one nation that has seemed to suit me best: the one most identical to the ideals I came to embrace and value as an American.
Germany reminds me of one of my favorite films: Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. It’s all 80’s! The kids are smart and clean cut, there is no edgy tinge of violence or destructive behavior, and people are happy, if even through a bit of mischievous fun. And just to ram that point home, I invariably hear 80s music still playing on the radio stations, in hotel lobbies, and in the homes of friends.
Germans wear blue jeans and baseball caps like Americans. They embrace corporate culture, hard work, education, sports, religion, and holidays with the best of them. And one could make the case that this is true of most every culture, but the emphasis on education, fitting in, doing the right thing, and being a productive member of society is every bit old school, “All-American” as any Leave it to Beaver episode out there… only they advertise sex services on television after 10pm. They aren't so hyper-Puritan as the "good" Americans still aspire to be, no matter their own secret dirty secrets.
Germany is even more true to those roots than much of American culture, which continues to struggle through a bit of an identity crisis as hip-hop, baggy pants, and urban slang and attitudes take a greater and greater foothold in much of mainstream American culture. And that too is starting to spreading here…
Fast food chains are mainstays of the younger set, and pants are inching down off the waistline for many kids. Their televisions are packed with American shows and films, too. For culture – that great American melting pot of it - continues to pour back into so many countries that filled our borders and identity with their former citizens.
Technology too has taken a giant foothold here, and Facebook and smart phones (known as “Handys” – which Germans think is an American term) are all the rage.
But there remains a difference.
Culture and history run much deeper here. Customs and traditions have been around much longer. Kids may dress in the style of the latest hip-hop video, but they wouldn’t imagine not doing well in school and getting a proper job.
Just tonight, when I stopped to get the fastest, cheapest meal still available in Western countries – in this case, Burger King – three very American looking teenage boys stood in line to get food beside me. They had arrived earlier than I did but when the next register opened up, I was closer. They politely attempted to wait for me to go first, but I insisted that they go ahead – as they were there first. One had a nose ring. Another had hoops in his ears. Pants were sagging and hair was long. I could hear the Fox News puppet in my head, which comes from a right wing father who despised earrings, long hair, and anything else "un-Christian" in form of dress barking away. Yes, I have my own prejudices to constantly deal with, too... But travel keeps me from getting stupid.
And doesn't the Bible have a lot more to say about not judging people, anyway?!
You can be sure the Germans did it too... Better than anyone else on the planet. We all know how that ended.
And just to emphasize what I already love about German culture, when the guys got up from the table from eating, they put their trash away and pushed in their chairs before walking out of the joint.
THIRD CULTURE KID
But these international rompings around can still can be rather unsettling… I am the first one to ask myself, David, who are you?
A lot of it didn’t make sense when I first returned to the United States for over two decades of permanent residency. To add to the illusion of being a normal American kid, we did spend every summer in Louisiana. And we attended school, played sports and neighborhood games, and interacted with a ton of other Americans. Brussels had, and likely still has, the biggest US population abroad. With NATO and the European Union headquartered in Brussels, most every major US company has a branch or headquarters in Brussels.
And we had our provincial American rivalries and spats… the West Coast kids, the New Yorkers, the Southerners, etc. We were proud American kids from a neighborhood back “home.”
The italics are no laughing matter.
For when we did finally make it home, especially for those of us who lived a significant chunk of their formative years abroad, we apparently weren’t from there after all. We were different. And to this day, ask anyone who is from one culturally unique region, who lives in another. As the manager of a Paris bar in St. Germain told me:
Yes, when I go back to Serbia, they say I am from Paris. And when I come back to Paris to live, they say I am Serbian...
That completely encapsulates the definition of the Third Culture Kid: from one culture, raised in another, and therefore wholly part of neither, but rather a third culture - which is a hybrid experience.
NEW ORLEANS... MY FIRST AMERICAN HOME
This is the world of those who like to hold onto both - and even more. Never fully at home, and yet often more at home in a place than people who haven't the first clue about what makes it truly special, unique, stimulating, etc., because they've been entrenched there all of their lives.
At no point in my life was that proven more true than when I was living back in New Orleans. In my first years of college, I was at the University of New Orleans. It was by-and-large a commuter school. It was full of locals. I made my friends, but that was a long and arduous process - yes, even for Dave.
I barely learned anything about New Orleans during that time, however. They had their little patterns... their "duck paths to the pond." It was routine and comfortability.
When I switched to Tulane, my knowledge of New Orleans grew significantly. Here were people from all parts of the USA who CAME there to experience the university and city (a prime mover for Tulane enrollment numbers - and a draw for some of my very favorite Americans, for sure).
That knowledge exploded for me, however, when I took my job at the House of Blues... for the staff was packed with people from Boston, California, the Midwest, etc... all who were drawn to New Orleans - its food, its music, its art, its culture... I learned and did it all then, with a giant boost from my many wonderful brothers and sisters of a darker color. We went to their bars, learned their language, and enjoyed the hilarity and interplay of cultures that appreciate - and don't denigrate - one another.
One of my all-time favorite moments was getting pulled onstage by Rebirth Brass Band, while dancing with this awesome chick. We had truly embraced the city and fallen in love with it... From drinks on Frenchman with Mayor Marc Morial - BEFORE the Portlandia/tourism invasion, to hanging out with George Porter in Keb' Mo's apartment, to taking friends on a crew boat ride at 2:00am at a launch at the Alabo Street Wharf where I worked between semesters...
I even had a gun in my chest for fifteen minutes at the Lakefront on a beautiful night, hanging out in my sports car with a beautiful girl.
My New Orleans ticket has been punched, alright. That dirty, beautiful old woman is my first American mom, no matter how much Texan dad never cared for her... And for the record, the acceptable pronunciations of that city is as follows:
New Orlee-ahns (the most correct, as it mimicks the French emphasis on the "e" and the "a" in the word)
New Orlins (probably the most used by the non-yats)
New-Ahlins (ask any person from Chalmette, Metairie, or Kenner for proof... or just watch one of those ridiculous Ronnie Lamarque Ford commercials he runs during Saints games)
Just don't EVER say NEW ORLEENS OR N'AWLINS... Please.
HOW TO TRAVEL
I am endeavoring to continue to build upon my knowledge of Europe in similar fashion. My time in a completely new city (driving through does not count) rammed home the beauty of what I do...
To arrive in a city as a complete tourist is quite bewildering... Where to eat? What is interesting? What makes it tick? WHO CAN I TRUST WITH GIVING ME SUCH INFORMATION? This, after all, is the most important question for the committed traveler who knows too well of all of the tourist trap type garbage that pervades any city or location of human interest.
Any true New Orleanian can go into a major downtown hotel and see the bombardment of advertisements for tours, restaurants, plantations, etc. And we tend to scoff at a good bit of that... Ghost tours, food tours at marginal restaurants, plantation homes, swamp tours, etc. It's not really accurate at all...
My inner Midwestern tourist voice always kicks in when I think of some quintessential American tour bus moment:
Aw gee, Hun! Let's try the PEE CAN pie and go to Pat O'Brien's for a Hurricane!
That stuff drives me batty... though everyone has to do it once!
But THAT is what I am very much endeavoring to master... restaurants, sights, hidden gems, language, and feeling of a place. For that is where the true experience lies.
And one more element, which is nothing to try and "master" but to simply appreciate when you find the good ones: people. I know and love Europe, because I know and love some wonderful people here... To take clients into homes or meet up with friends in their home cities to stomp around together and let them interact... that, to me, is the ultimate travel experience.
I have had incredible experiences with people all over this continent, but it becomes the most meaningful when it goes beyond "American hanging out with Germans" and a feeling of true family and familiarity exists. I cannot begin to recount the many incredible stories, humor, and connection. And much of them are not the stuff of sharing, not out of prudishness but because they are not part of any ticket-punching or checklist to cross off...
No. This isn't a job to me. This is a way of life - living, learning, growing, and enjoying it to the fullest. Sometimes it is still scary as hell to be off, wandering around, or at someone else's good graces... the other day was every bit of that. I sat in my room feeling like a little kid, and I only didn't get melancholy, because I was laughing at myself. I'm still human, after all. I still crave community, belonging, and comfort.
But when clients and friends arrive, my entire being springs into action... and it reminds me, in all of my show-n-telling, why I ever embraced such a lifestyle and such subjects as I have...