Could Travelling Abroad Make a Better World?

A Commentary on the benefits of traveling

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Being in Europe was wonderful, not only because of its beauty, welcoming people, and its rich history, but because for one entire month my wife and I had a reprieve from hearing about American politics. Our Canadian news media reports constantly on American politics as well as our own. Now that we are back in Canada, we are once again barraged by the political troubles, attacks on allies, outrageous tweets and bizarre behavior of the current resident of the White House. Before leaving for Europe, Trump after the G7 meeting attacked our Prime Minister and country, and even after a month away, he continues to attack Canada. At first, I will admit, I watched the news because I was curious as to what inappropriate tweet Trump would send out that day or to see what unpresidental behavior he exhibited. Now, like most Canadians I’ve talked to, I’m just tired of hearing about Trump and American politics.

Because of Trump, Canadians are more and more developing a revulsion for Americans. Most people I’ve talked to since returning from Europe are expressing resentment towards Americans. I must admit, I was one of them. I, like most Canadians, was beginning to believe that American’s were a racist, self-centred, hostile people. Perhaps such American stereotypes (according to Wikipedia) as lack of intelligence, lack of cultural awareness, being racist and arrogant are true.

The Star, a newspaper from Toronto, reported in June,

“A deep national revulsion [in Canada] toward President Donald Trump has sent Canadians’ opinions of the United States plummeting to a level of antipathy never before seen in 35 years…A major Pew Research survey…found that just 43 per cent of Canadians hold a favourable view of the U.S…

That is a steep decline since…the final year of Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency, when Pew found 65 per cent of Canadians favourably disposed to the U.S. And it is lower than even the low point of the unpopular presidency of Republican George W. Bush, when 55 per cent of Canadians were favourable.”

It appears Canadians are developing a distaste for Americans. I was one of them until my European trip. Why would going to Europe change that, you ask? While we were in Ireland, we met some wonderful Americans.

Giant’s Causeway, N. Ireland

While in Ireland, besides spending time with our daughter, we took an eleven-day tour of the country. On that tour with us were three American couples. One couple was from Philadelphia, one from New Jersey and another couple from North Carolina. The first words out of the wonderful man from Philadelphia was, “we are not discussing American politics.” That won us over. During the entire 11 days, little to no discussion was had about Trump and his politics. My wife and I were especially drawn to the couple from Philadelphia as they were so sweet and personable, and the fact that they were both almost 80 “blew our minds.” They did not look or act that age. The other two couples were equally as friendly and in fact, the lady from New Jersey purposely kept her eye out for gluten free food once she discovered I was celiac. Her husband even bought me an Irish whiskey taste experience. Our time with our six American friends was wonderful, and it confirmed for me that not all Americans are racist, self-absorbed or hostile.

We often ran into Americans travelling in Ireland. One evening while staying in an Irish town, we met a couple from the U.S. in a whiskey bar. I don’t recall which state they were from. They were very friendly and we ended up talking to them for a long time. Once again, Trump did not enter the conversation. It was almost as if Americans were too embarrassed to talk about their president.

On another occasion, while exiting the place where we had dinner, a couple asked us if the food in the establishment was good. During our discussion, like we do whenever we travel abroad, we asked them where they were from. They told us they were from New York. Like all the other Americans we encountered, we found them pleasant and easy to talk to.

While taking a bus tour out of Dublin, I sat beside a fellow from Florida. We struck up a conversation and he told me he was visiting Ireland because his ancestors were from there.  As the day progressed, he ended up having lunch with us. The only thing political that he mentioned was that their country’s health care system was a mess. I couldn’t refute what he had said since the U. S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t offer universal health care to its citizens.

Now I had to wonder why the Americans we met were so friendly and happy.  None that we met seemed racist or hostile, or self-absorbed or arrogant for that matter. I pondered this for a while and the only logical conclusion I can entertain is that the Americans we were encountering in Europe are travellers who have experienced other cultures and hence are not as racist or self-absorbed or arrogant since they have seen how other people in other parts of the world live. I’ve always believed that people who travel and experience other cultures are much more open minded and tolerant. People who only know their own “little world” and who have never experienced another culture are narrow minded, intolerant and tend to stereotype races in my experience.  I’ve met some here in Canada.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Ironically, while my wife, daughter and I were in Edinburgh, Scotland, while having a cappuccino in a coffee shop waiting for my daughter and wife to return, I met two lovely American ladies. In conversation, I learned they were mother and daughter from South Carolina—assuming my memory is correct. The mother of the pair was a travel agent who was with a group in Europe. We both discussed how much we loved Ireland and Scotland. Although we didn’t talk politics, I did mention that I believed the world would be a better place if more people travelled and experienced other cultures. She immediately got excited and said, “that is how I feel.” She agreed too many people in the U.S. are naïve about other cultures.

The article titled, Off The Grid: Why Americans Don’t Travel Abroad, supports my thinking. This article says, there is a popular belief in the United States that Americans are the second most well-traveled people after Finns. However, the article disproves that belief as it says,

“…only 36 percent of Americans hold a valid passport, according to the State Department, compared to 60 percent of passport-holding Canadians and 75 percent for Brits and Aussies. That means almost 70 percent of us [Americans] are unqualified for international travel. And in actuality, only one in five Americans travels abroad with regularity, according to a recent survey.”

It all makes sense to me now. The Americans we met are worldly and consequently tolerant and non-racist, unlike those who have never left their country. Of the three couples we toured with, all have travelled abroad—obviously, they were in Ireland with us—and all of them had been to Canada. One of the couples even lived and worked in Canada for six years.

Ideas for Leaders, is a website that analyzes research says, travelling abroad builds trust and tolerance. It goes on to say,

“The idea that travel can be important for personal development and ‘growth’ is well established. Spending time overseas can ‘broaden the mind’ — not only by increasing knowledge but also by reducing xenophobia [racism]. The maximum benefits, however, might depend on breadth as well as depth of experience. Recent empirical research finds a causal link between the ability to trust and accept others and exposure to a diverse range of ‘out groups’.”

Perhaps the typical American stereotypes like lacking cultural awareness, being racist [xenophobic] and having arrogance exist because they are true. The statistic that only 36% of Americans have passports could explain this. Those 36% likely are the friendly, open-minded Americans we encountered. The other 64% are the xenophobic, self-absorbed, hostile Americans because of their ignorance of other cultures. Now, I am not naïve enough to believe that every single person in the 64% are this way, but I would be willing to bet that the majority are.

Maybe, just maybe, the U.S. would be a better place and would not have elected a president who exhibits xenophobic tendencies, is self-absorbed, and hostile—certainly is towards America’s allies—had more Americans held passports and travelled aboard, experiencing new cultures and learning that there is so much more to the world than just America.

I will say that my numerous encounters with Americans in Europe has confirmed for me that not all Americans are stereotypical. Thank God for that.

It is the Irish Way

Trinity College Library

Now that I am back home and recovered from the jet lag, I am finally able to write another blog post. If you’ve read my previous blog, you know that I’ve been gone for the last month visiting Ireland. My wife and I went to Ireland to visit our daughter who is presently living in Dublin attending Trinity College. I will forever be grateful that we had the opportunity to spend quality time with our daughter and still experience Ireland. Let me share some of our Irish experiences.

Rebekah Crane, author of the book The Upside of Falling Down, wrote, “If you’re going to be lost, there’s no friendlier place to get lost in than Ireland.” She is right. Ireland is a fantastic country. I’ve never felt more welcome in a country than I have in Ireland. The Irish people are wonderful.

C.E. Murphy, an American writer of fantasy novels and short stories, wrote in her book, Urban Shaman,

“In Ireland, you go to someone’s house, and she asks you if you want a cup of tea. You say no, thank you, you’re really just fine. She asks if you’re sure. You say of course you’re sure, really, you don’t need a thing. Except they pronounce it ting. You don’t need a ting. Well, she says then, I was going to get myself some anyway, so it would be no trouble. Ah, you say, well, if you were going to get yourself some, I wouldn’t mind a spot of tea, at that, so long as it’s no trouble and I can give you a hand in the kitchen. Then you go through the whole thing all over again until you both end up in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting.

In America, someone asks you if you want a cup of tea, you say no, and then you don’t get any damned tea.  I liked the Irish way better.”

Even though her book is fiction, she captures the Irish way precisely. While walking back to our daughter’s flat (apartment) one day, we stopped for a break and sat down on the steps in front of someone’s flat. Moments later, after sitting down, the door to the flat swings open and a man with his bicycle comes out. He looked down on us and we, being Canadians, immediately apologized for being in his way. His response was so Irish. He said, “No, you’re grand. I’d invite you in for tea but there is somewhere I have to be. So sorry.” The thing is, he was totally sincere.

The Irish are genuinely kind and welcoming people. We stayed a few nights in the dorm room at Trinity College, the college our daughter is attending. The day we arrived, there was a concert occurring at the college so several entrances were blocked. We walked around, for what seemed like hours, attempting to find the location where we were to register. By this point we were exhausted. We finally found the registry office and registered, only to find out we had to walk to the other end of the campus to the dormitory. Standing outside, looking lost, a young Irish lad comes out, looks at us and asks, “What’s up?” We told him our story and his response, “I’ll drive you.” That is what he did. We were grateful for his Irish kindness.

Irish bog area

While chatting with the owner of a whiskey bar in one of the Irish towns we were in, we got talking about how readily available gluten free (gf) food is in Ireland. When I told her I was celiac, she said she was also and preceded to tell me that Ireland has one of the highest rates of celiac disease in the world.  She then grabs some gf crackers from a box and hands them to me. She said they are a good gf snack. That was such an Irish thing to do.

Now it just so happens that I celebrated a birthday while on an 11-day tour of Ireland. Our tour guide, Henry, surprised me with a birthday cake (not gf unfortunately), but it’s the thought that counts. All of us on the tour decided to meet after dinner and have a piece of cake. The hotel staff we were staying at graciously agreed to store the cake and have plates and cutlery ready when we requested it. Not only did the staff provide those items, they also served us tea at no cost. Once again, only in Ireland.

Vagabond tour bus

Lastly, I want to share with you our tour with Henry. Henry was a guide with Vagabond Adventure Tours of Ireland, a company that does small group guided adventure tours ranging in length from 7 to 12 days as well as private tailor-made tours. To say the tour was grand—the Irish use this word a lot—is an understatement. Henry went out of his way to please our group of eight. He knew when to be at an Irish tourist destination before the big bus tours arrived and took us on narrow roads to places the big buses were unable to go. He stopped at a bog to explain how the Irish, still to this day, harvest peat for fuel. He took us to lesser known ancient stone circles and other ancient sites that other tourists would not see on a big bus tour. He was an exceptional guide as he was knowledgeable, funny and always willing to please.

Irish Countryside

Travis Fimmel, an Australian actor and former model, once said about the Irish landscape, “The landscape in Ireland is just – I’ve never been in such a beautiful place with the lakes and ocean and everything.” He is right. Ireland is a breathtakingly beautiful country full of history dating back 5000 years. Many of the ancient sites we saw were older than the Egyptian pyramids.

Irish West Coast view

One of the Irish blessings is, “May the Irish hills caress you, may her lakes and rivers bless you, may the luck of the Irish enfold you, may the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.”  The Irish hills really do touch you and her lakes and rivers are enchanting. I totally understand the blessing now.

An unknown author penned “Leprechauns, castles, good luck and laughter. Lullabies, dreams and love ever after. Poems and songs with pipes and drums. A thousand welcomes when anyone comes… That’s the Irish for you!” I am taken with Ireland. I miss her already.  No wonder my daughter chose Ireland as the place to get her Masters. I get it now.