Travel is vital to education. Without traveling, you cannot really know the place you live because you have nothing against which to compare.
I had my first experience abroad in 1995, when, the summer before my senior year of college, I spent five weeks studying in London. Even though the Internet was not as widely used almost 20 years ago as now, a Google search using the keywords “London heatwave 1995” pulls up a New York Times article at the top of the list, the title of which is “The Biggest Heat Wave In Years Stuns Irish,” although it discusses the unusually hot weather across the entire UK. The article explains that “railway tracks have buckled. Scottish roads are melting. One sunbather's skirt caught fire.”
I can attest to the heat in the UK that summer because air conditioning is generally not common across England, nor are water fountains. I learned to sleep under only a sheet and grew accustomed to buying bottled water at every turn. I must say, on the other hand, that lukewarm lager is an aberration, although that is apparently how the Brits prefer it.
Six years later, I got the chance to tour Italy. The Italians are certainly much more advanced than we Americans when it comes to public spaces. Every piazza is simply artwork, full of sculptures and fountains. However, when it comes to budget accommodations, they don’t seem as accustomed to the space that we enjoy in America. For example, twin beds dominated hotels, and bathrooms were, well, surprising.
In Venice, I had a twin bed. It was quite comfortable after a day of touring, but I was surprised to walk into my bathroom and find a toilet, a lavatory, a shower head on the wall, and a drain in the floor. A pull-down plastic cover protected the toilet paper from getting soaked while the occupant opted to shower. In other words, the whole bathroom at once became the shower. I didn’t think a tub or shower stall was much to ask for, and the absence of either one made me appreciate them all the more.
Two days later, my hotel in Florence afforded what I thought was a king-sized bed. I looked forward to sprawling beneath cool, crisp, cotton sheets and spreading myself across the length of it. When I pulled back those sheets, I discovered that what looked like a king-sized bed was really two smaller beds pushed together. There was no way to sleep in the middle without falling into what seemed like a gaping hole.
Later, I ended up with another single bed in Rome, so I thought there were to be no surprises. I did, however, learn the next morning, while trying to dry my hair, that even major cities in Rome do not afford the same sort of power grids we have in America, even in smaller towns or rural areas. Every couple of minutes, my hair dryer kept throwing the breaker, and I’d have to walk across the room and turn it back on.
Now don’t think I’m complaining. As Twain also said in Innocents Abroad: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”
The experiences I had were nothing that could be obtained from reading a book or watching a video. In England, I became a “regular” at a neighborhood British pub, saw live British theatre that rivals New York’s Broadway, and walked across Abbey Road, to name only a few. In Italy, I rode in one of Venice’s famous gondolas, sat at the Uffizi Museum on a bench in front of Michelangelo’s breathtaking David, wandered old Roman ruins, visited the shells of stores in Pompeii, and ate lamb chops at a restaurant overlooking the checkerboard Umbrian countryside.
The images and other sensory experiences embedded in those memories still inform and transform me as I continue to travel and add to them. For me, travel is a restlessness with the known, a spicy love affair with the world. I plan to stay restless.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and serves on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She loves being a downtown Corinth resident.)