While my grandfather was lying on his deathbed many years ago, I asked him if he had any regrets in life. He said: “I regret not traveling more.”
This was from a man who had been around the world and back, thrice over. He had touched every continent and sailed every sea. Up to the year of his death, even while impeded by an endless battle with cancer, he regularly found it in himself to get on a plane and go somewhere far away.
Long years before my grandfather perished, while on a road trip with my family, I complained to my father (his son) about how I had never been abroad.
He replied, “Why do you need to travel abroad? The whole world is right here. Look out the window…”
He pointed to a grassy hill. “That’s England.”
Then he pointed to a field of grain. “That’s Poland.”
Then to a reservoir: “And the fjords of Norway.”
Since that conversation, I have had the good fortune of opportunity to see distant lands, and I have taken those opportunities. Sure, I’ve been to Transnistria, I bought a shirt in Kosovo, I’ve crashed a car in Poland, I’ve marked territory in the Blue Mountains of Australia. Even close to home, I’ve been slowly checking off each of the 58 California counties, and only have three counties remaining (curse you, Plumas County!). Yes, I’ve had a grand old time by way of the road and rail, but there is one thing I’ve learned from it all:
Seeing the world is okay.
When I first stepped off the plane into St. Petersburg (Russia), I was struck with how different everything was. The suburbs were full of towering gray, concrete monolithic structures – relics of the Soviet Era. The food relied heavily on potato and herring. The April air was crisp, and ice still floated in the Neva River. It was the first moment I stepped foot outside of North America, and I hugged a tree. No visit to a country is complete without hugging a local tree.
When I stepped off the train in Poznań (Poland), I noticed the monolithic suburb apartments were painted lovely colors of the rainbow. Also, July is dreadfully rainy, and Okocim Lager tastes pretty similar to Żywiec Lager.
Trains in Germany run on time, trains in Romania are often late, Albanians like Americans more than Serbs do, and Peruvian tourists don’t care much for Dallas.
Italy has cathedrals. Spain has cathedrals. France has cathedrals. Australia has cathedrals. Las Vegas has cathedrals. Kosovo has mosques. Los Angles has mosques. Italian cuisine combines grain with sauces. Czech cuisine combines meat with sauces. Swedish cuisine combines fish with sauces. Sauces. Meats. People. Buildings. Food. Language.
When it comes down to it, everything in the world exists on a continuum. Sure, the Alps are taller than the Carpathians. The Carpathians are taller than the Great Dividing Range. But they’re all varying degrees of the same thing: a mountain range. A city is a city. There are variations: big, medium, small. Smelly, clean. A place of worship is a place of worship. Sometimes you hear Latin. Sometimes Arabic. Sometimes Hebrew. A “zh” sound is the same sound whether it be in the word “garage” or the word “żubrówka.”
People like to find things unique in each place or culture, and surely they exist. But I can’t help feeling that we’re all just rippled reflections of the same image. There is no true ethnic superlative that we can find meaningful. Asian parents aren’t necessarily the harshest. Indian food isn’t necessarily the spiciest. Alabamans aren’t necessarily the most chivalrous. Hawaii is greener than Nevada, but Nevada still has some green.
Go to a desert park in the American Southwest. There will be a roadside exhibit in tribute to the great ecological diversity of that desert. Go to another desert park. They will boast of their 152 different species of plant. Go to a third. They will brag about their growing bighorn sheep population.
There are bighorn sheep in the Sonoran Desert. There are bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert. There are bighorn sheep in Mesa Verde. There are bighorn sheep in Zion. Who doesn’t have bighorn sheep? I’ve been to all these places that boast of bighorn sheep, and how many have I actually seen? Zero. And even if I had, does it really count if it was 500 yards away and facing the other direction, partially obscured by a tree? Is there any real difference between a Yellow-Bellied Pacific Warbler and a South American Jungle Warbler?
There is only so much you can take in with your five senses. If you look at a mountain, your eyes see the white of snow on the gray of earth, with the blue of sky. Perhaps the green of trees as well. White, gray, blue, green. That’s what you see when you look at a mountain: white, gray, blue, green. All mountains are just various percentages of white, gray, blue, and green. Close your eyes and take a sniff. Is it fresh? How fresh is it? Slightly less fresh or slightly more fresh than the wilderness you smelled last year?
So why do I travel if it’s just okay? Do I seek solace in the idea that all our world’s nations can one day hold hands and sing to the realization that we are all mostly similar human beings sharing a common land? Perhaps. Do I seek the great respect that society inexplicably gives to those who go between as many imaginary lines as possible (that is to say: Travel Cred bragging rights)? It’s likely. Maybe it’s the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps it’s the desire to taste a morsel of history.
I suppose we can also talk about the appreciation of subtlety. In the effort to find things unique from place to place, one may develop a discriminating palate, allowing for the appreciation of things that aren’t readily apparent. The Cascades’ forests have reddish volcanic dirt. The Sierras’ have a brown, stony dirt. Yes, perhaps we can apply our discerning tastes to every day life in order to make our existences ever so slightly more enriching.
But alas, as I gaze out into the Tuscan hills, they might as well be the oaken hills of California. And my precious hills of California could very well be the Texas Hill Country, or maybe even the Dinaric Alps.
I suppose if anywhere could be my home, then perhaps my home could be anywhere.