When traveling, are you an ambassador or do you just travel through? More importantly, have I been an ambassador or have I just traveled through the many glorious villages, towns, and countries I have been blessed to visit? I started to wonder about this as my niece, Charlotte, prepared for her long-anticipated semester abroad in Granada, Spain.
I got to thinking about what has made for all my fantastically memorable travels over the years. In sum, I think it’s because I travelled — unwittingly at first, but later as I got the knack, more consciously — or perhaps I should say more conscientiously — as an ambassador rather than as just a traveler passing through. While true ambassadors have many formal duties, we traveling ambassadors du jour have a somewhat simpler task, and that is to accept graciously the gifts that come our way as we travel through parts unknown. This means having the power of discernment, the ability to perceive as special gifts the experiences that masquerade as everyday fare.
I realized what made my own travels great had a lot less to do with me and what I did, than what others did, expressed, or offered me and how I received these delectable offerings. In short, what attitude did I bring to this ‘moveable feast,’ to borrow Hemingway’s phrase?
For instance, I think of the gift (a double edged sword, perhaps) given to me the very first day I landed in Paris with 16 year old school chums bound for a summer with French families. Much of our group had collapsed to rest at our youth hotel after the overnight flight, but Polly Stowe and I were too excited with our arrival in Paris, so we set off to walk the environs of the fourth arrondisement –back then a sleepy quarter with an open air market.
Somehow, we wound up in avid conversation with a Tunisian lettuce vendor — our French fractured, his fluent, languid, and flirty. We — reluctantly — turned down an invitation to “boire un coup,” or have a drink, since we were due back at the youth hotel for dinner with the group. By the time we got back, the orientation talk was well underway and was, at that very moment, cautioning us to be wary of North African men flirting with young American women as they could be purveyors of Paris’s white slave trade.
Polly and I exchanged wide-eyed looks. Who knew that contemplating the chance to “boire un coup” could have actually meant our “coup de grâce” at the hands of a slave trader!
How then was this brush with disaster a gift, you ask? Oh, my gosh. Incalculable! Polly Stowe was a tall, lithe, long haired beauty, yet the Tunisian lettuce vendor had improbably flirted with me!
Do you think I cared that he was perhaps the 4th arrondisement’s ringleader of the white slave trade? Not on your life! I was thrilled that the white slave trade had targeted me, not Polly. More accurately, I had been flirted with by a Parisian! My time in Paris was as yet too brief for me to know that a bona fide Parisian would have considered a North African Arab as little better than a pied noir — or beneath contempt. As far as I was concerned, I had been flirted with by someone in Paris which made him a Parisian, and which made me a goddess of newly minted proportions!
Then there was the summer I spent in Jordan. I was showered with gifts as the Jordanians are an exceedingly generous people — so much so that I quickly learned not to express too much admiration for anything in a Jordanian’s home, because they would insist you take it as a gift. The Jordanians I met lived simple lives — we would call them poor, although the generosity of their spirit gave them the graciousness of old-moneyed millionaires. So the many gifts I am referring to here were the gifts of friendship manifested in so many smiles, so many opportunities not usually made available to any women, least of all a Western woman , so many gifts of goodwill from the heart.
There were breakfasts taken seated in the tents of the moktars, or village elders, whose own wives would never have breached the tent flap to enter in. Yet there I sat, eating breakfast with them from communal plates delivered by their wives, using our fingers as utensils. There were mansafs or ceremonial dinners that again, no women were permitted to attend. Yet there I stood, helping myself to handfuls of succulent lamb drenched in yoghurt, laced with pine nuts. There were wild, galloping rides on Arabian horses with bit-less bridles in pink sandstone Petra, camel races in Amman, and shopping expeditions with locals. All these experiential gifts were conveyed to me by generous Jordanians for no other reason than they liked my ambassadorial attitude.
Traveling as an ambassador is simple, really, if one affects the proper attitude. An ambassadorial attitude is one of curiosity, good manners, a sense of humor, and an openness to new experiences.
I found a ready smile to be a more marketable currency than any dinar, franc, drachma or deutschmark in my travels, and the exchange rate on a smile and twinkling eye never weakened, no matter the fluctuations of world currency markets.
A firm handshake and a consciousness of local customs transformed good manners into great ones, and often replaced tortured foreign phrases that were not getting their meaning across into eloquent understandings brokered by body language alone.
And while my ear for languages stood me in good stead in Romance language countries, I was sorely stumped by Serbo-Croatian, got by gamely with a bit of Greek, and gave classical Arabic my very best shot. The point is, no matter how hard the language, you must try. This is indeed an area where “A for effort” is the name of the game. It matters little how well you acquit yourself in a foreign language, but there is absolutely no excuse in my Baedeker book of Travel Do’s and Don’ts, for not learning a few simple words in the language of your host country without fail. “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are the bare minimum, and learning to say, “That is so beautiful,” will open many hearts and doors to you as you travel the world.
That said, you must also be prepared for your linguistic efforts to go occasionally awry … like the time I thought I was telling a liquored-up, very large Russian a firm “good night!” when I later learned I was actually telling him “good evening,” which likely accounted for the foot he had planted in my bedroom door. Then there was the time I nearly precipitated an international incident ordering a peach in a Serbian deli, not realizing as I cast about unsuccessfully for the Serb word for ‘peach,’ and hence just saying ‘peach,’ that this was a slang term for a part of the female anatomy, quite vulgar in derivation, and definitely not the type of thing to order in a deli, jam-packed with Yugoslavs seeking lunch.
Suffice to say that when, as ambassador du jour, you deliver a monumental faux pas, the diplomatic thing to do is to wallow in contrition, apologize profusely, and never return to the scene of your ambassadorial boo boo again. It’s about all you can do. Well, that and learn the Serbo-Croatian word for “peach,” or order an orange instead.
One last tip for memorable travel. Try everything and anything as long as it’s not too dangerous. Looking back, though, I realize that this caution is one I sometimes ignored. I personally, however, draw the line at bungee jumping. Others think bungee jumping is a lark. So, as you can see, there’s wiggle room on what is and is not ‘too’ dangerous. Me, I’d rather swim in croc infested waters than throw myself into a ravine attached to a glorified rubber band!
The “try everything and anything” dictate is especially true for local food. The delicacies you will discover are a pleasure to the palate. The best food I had in the Dominican Republic was bought for me by a local from tiny street stands, and to this day, I have no idea what I was eating. Timid travelers tend to avoid such experiences for fear of stomach woes, but their experience is the lesser for it.
Once I set off for a dinner with Arab pals in Paris to a favorite haunt of theirs known for grilled meats, and I happily left it to my Lebanese friends to order. The mixed grill was delicious, but nothing was as superb as a grilled delicacy, small and round, totally tender and mildly sweet. After scarfing several down, I finally asked what the delicacy was and was surprised to find that I had fallen for grilled lamb testicles. Delicious!
I do draw the line at horsemeat, although candor compels me to admit that this line got drawn some time after I had ‘seconds’ of what I thought was roast beef at a French friend’s Sunday dinner table. That realization went down hard as I am a great fan of horses on the living hoof.
So when packing your passport for travel abroad, tuck in a few additional items to ensure a memorable, indeed ambassadorial-quality, sojourn: a ready smile, a twinkling eye, a firm handshake, a trove of linguistically-correct local phrases, and an appetite — indeed a craving — for adventure!
Your weltanschauung, or to put it auf Englisch fur die dummkopfen amongst my less traveled readers — your world view — will be the richer for it. More importantly, the lives you touch will have precious memories of the joy you bestow as a veritable ambassador — a bearer of good will, traveling through. Happy travels!