Bullet train reflected in a building, Nagoya, Japan
I first traveled abroad when I was in eighth grade. That was to Bermuda, to do research at the Bermuda Biological Station with twenty-seven classmates, all of whom had to submit to a written and oral interview before being accepted into the program. We stayed there for about a week (and yes, that meant we got to miss a week’s worth of school): doing research, exploring the island, and having fun. I can’t say that the experience changed my life in any significant way. I had a crush on one of the girls who went, met one of my other female friends for the first time on the trip (on whom I would develop a crush in high school), and was made fun of for wearing my socks higher than ankle-length.
My first meaningful trip overseas, the first trip that gave me the travel bug, was to France, which occurred when I was a junior in high school. That was a ten-day trip with about fifteen classmates (and their respective French counterparts), with three of those days spent in Paris. The other six days were spent with our host families in the south of France. The reason I got to go on this trip was because 1.) I happened to be taking French in high school when the teachers there decided to start an exchange program with students from France, and 2.) I had hosted a French girl the year before (my sister was in college, so we had a room for a female–plus, I was a young teenage boy!). Unfortunately, my French skills at the time were shit, and they’re worse, now (though I’ve kept all of my notebooks and taped exercises, so some day, I hope to not only relearn what little fluency I had, but to surpass it). Thank goodness my host family spoke good English, especially since their Provencal accent made their French sound Italian!
The year after I went, the teachers decided to change the rules so that girls could only host girls and boys could only host boys, but the year I went, and the year I hosted a student, you could choose your preference. So, I ended up staying at a girl’s house. Those of you who have seen French movies, or have fantasies about staying at a French girl’s house, here’s the reality; she had a much older married brother (whom we visited), two younger brothers living at home, and a younger sister (who stayed with one of her uncles while I was there). I stayed in the bedroom that belonged to the older of the two brothers still living at home (who was either slightly older or slightly younger than my host). That was it. No late-night trysts, no menage-a-trois, no running away and getting secretly married, nothing. Well, there was that one time I accidentally saw….but it’s France. They have topless beaches there.
In Europe, the two most beautiful things to take pictures of are fountains and cathedrals, so my photos of that trip tend to have many fountains and cathedrals in them. And I just discovered that both the girl who stayed at my house and the girl at whose house I stayed are on Facebook (they were different, because the girl who came over here was one of triplets, so the mother could only host one of her children’s hosts). I’m sure they can speak English even better now than when I knew them, in addition to ten other languages, but I’d like to get my French up to snuff before I attempt to contact either of them. I’m sure they would remember me, but I don’t know if they’d “friend” me. We’ll see.
A freshman year marching band trip in college followed the trip to France. I like to call that trip the whirlwind tour. We visited many countries in a short span of time, spending the most time in France (several days), a night in Switzerland, and a night in Germany (before we flew back home). We also traveled to Monaco (where our main performance was, to celebrate the 700th Anniversary of the Grimaldi Dynasty) and Italy (where we gave a parade in Genoa). Squished in between performance times (which included a parade in Cannes) were a day in Paris (where I got to go inside Notre Dame Cathedral–something I had missed doing the last time I was there, due to our two-hour flight delay and crammed itinerary), some free time in the south of France (mainly Grasse), an hour or two sightseeing in Monaco, two hours in Milan, two hours in Lucerne (Switzerland), and the aforementioned night in Germany, which I spent sleeping. Oh, and even though I found out from my previous experience in France that all French food is delicious–except for pizza (sour dough and skimpy toppings)–one of my dinners in France consisted of…pizza.
My last two jaunts abroad were my most memorable, involved my longest stays outside the U.S., and had (and still have) the greatest impact on me, my writing, and my view of the world. The first of these trips occurred when I studied abroad in London, which is coming up on its tenth anniversary. Four years after my first trip to Europe (and two years after the band trip), I went back, now a junior in college. And while I did visit France again, the country I chose to study abroad in was England. It made sense, being that I was an English major and wouldn’t have to take a language class to study there (unlike in France, and at the time, I was petrified of having to speak in a foreign language). I spent three months there, housed with other JMUers (we had our own place–not a biological station, a host family’s home, or a hotel). The second trip occurred when I went to work and live in Japan for three years, which I briefly mentioned in my very first blog entry on this site.
Funny how my two most memorable trips overseas would have been my last as a student and my first as an adult. When I came back from London, I had to readjust to college life in the U.S. When I came back from Japan, I had to readjust to life in the U.S. One difference is while I more or less operated in a bubble in London (though I got to do all of the touristy things that tourists do in London, including seeing the changing of the guard), I got to experience more of the local culture while in Japan, and since some of its traditions and culture clash with some of America’s traditions and culture, I sometimes had to ask very serious questions about myself in order to decide whether or not I believed in doing something a certain way because I was American, or because I believed it to be correct. Of course, most of the cultural differences did not involved such soul-searching, because both Japanese and American takes on it were equally valid. In other cases, the Japanese example was clearly superior (for example, they have a multitude of festivals in summertime that put our Fourth of July celebrations to shame, and we could learn much from their service-oriented society).
In both of those trips, I also felt that I grew as a person. My friends commented on that fact after the London trip; I noticed it in the middle of my Japanese trip. Sometime during that latter trip, I passed into adulthood. It may be partly responsible for why my late twenties were so much better than my early twenties, even if one includes my semester abroad (I turned 21 the day after I returned from the London trip).
So, what do all of these trips have in common? Besides increasing my awareness of the world around me, and the people in it, I also wrote diary entries about each trip. For Bermuda, we had to keep a daily diary. For the others, I wanted to keep a diary. So, as responsible as these trips are for making me grow as a person, they are particularly responsible for my growth as a writer, particularly the London trip.
Those accounts, which I read through recently (before I started this blog), are unique for several reasons, not the least of which is seeing how I viewed myself and others back then, and how certain aspects of my character are highlighted, not always to my benefit. From a writing standpoint, I wrote an entry for every day that I was there, often writing out notes in shorthand on our calendar of events (which listed times for classes and outings) on what had happened on that day, since I didn’t have enough time while there to keep up with my diary entries. I ended up writing the majority of the entries during the summer, while my mom yelled at me about getting a summer job.
The London entries are flawed grammatically and stylistically (as most diary entries are) and suffer from some factual inaccuracies in my attempts to include everything of note (including things that happened to other people, based upon their memories), but I am still convinced that greatness is contained in there, hidden among the rubble. Also, the fact that I committed most of my summer to completing those entries (not including my written opinion of everyone who went on the trip, finished on December 31st of that year, the day before the new millenium) helped with my work ethic, particularly since there were days when I was so sick of writing that I wanted to stop, but didn’t. Oh sure, I might have had a day where little writing got done, or days when I wrote nothing, but eventually, I sat back down and continued writing about my experiences, based on my notes, my photos (I went through 24 rolls of 24 exposure film), and my memories.
In a way, my London entries are the most complete of all of my diary entries. Not surprisingly, they also include the most extemporaneous material. When I was writing my entries while in Japan, I learned my lesson from London and only wrote an entry when something happened. Of course, there was no way I could have documented every day of a three-year trip, even if I had tried. That’s what makes my London entries unique, and if my Japanese entries are more polished and more succint in revealing my experiences in a foreign land than their brethren, my London entries lay claim to being my first masterpiece, as they contain the first stirrings of the great author that I hope to become.