Between mid-September and mid-October, I was privileged (no other word will
suffice here) to spend a month abroad. When friends ask me about it, I reply
that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By that, I mean the first
experiencing of something that extraordinary can never be repeated. It was
four weeks of seeing and doing and experiencing things almost all of which
were brand new to me. To return from something like that having learned
nothing is to have been dead before departure.
There was a special irony about the trip. Through 35 years on college and
university campuses, I worked with international students from more than 80
countries — relationships that often took on the quality of family. When our
first child was born, my first wife and I were the resident directors of an
activities building at Syracuse University in which most of the
international student groups held their social gatherings. So it was hardly
coincidental that the first three friends to hold our newborn son were
natives of India, Nicaragua and Ghana.
During some of my years at Allegheny, I was adviser to as many as 82
international students from 35 different countries. So, we used to tease
that, when I retired, I could travel around the world and never stay in a
hotel. But — for all the weak reasons that cause us to abandon worthwhile
intentions along one or another of life’s roadsides — I never made it. And
when my second wife was stricken with dementia, entailing eight years of
care-giving before she died in early 2009, even the idea of going grew
somehow remote.
But that failed to take into account that kid who was first cuddled by arms
native to three continents, none of them his own — close encounters that
apparently infected him with a travel bug from which he never recovered. It
even influenced his marriage. He chose a certifiable saint, a girl adopted
as a child by an Hispanic mother and American father, was raised in Mexico
and Peru, and who speaks better Spanish than I speak English. (If you must
know, she speaks better English, too.) And between them, she and my son are
now approaching conversancy in French and Italian.
So when my son called last winter and said, “Hey, Dad, I think you should go
to Europe with us next fall,” I couldn’t think of a single reason not to. My
brother, who is much better-traveled than I, got wind of it and allowed as
how he’d like to be included. So the deal was struck and the planning began.
They kept asking me if I’d like to go here, or see that, or do this other.
My response was uniform: “You guys have way more experience at this than I
do. Every one of these places will be new to me. So go ahead and plan, and
I’ll follow.
Actually, I did add one item to the itinerary, and it was admittedly
significant. I’d always been fascinated by what is usually termed the
Atlantic Crossing. So when a Wesbury friend handed me a brochure from Cunard
Lines, and I discovered that “Queen Mary 2” was sailing from New York to
Southampton, England, at just the time we were looking to get over there, I
again couldn’t find a single reason not to book passage. My brother horned
in on that, too — although that did have the virtue of making it cheaper for
me. You know, double occupancy and all that. Besides, we have an elegant
division of responsibility that we’ve followed since we both lost our wives
and began, on occasion, to travel together: He pays for the rooms and I pay
for the meals. (Take my word for it: When you’re on the road, beds cost more
than board — and Europe is no exception.)
It was (I speak plainly) an incredible experience, from which I returned
home top-heavy with stunning memories, not to mention about 2,000
photographs with which to refresh them. More to the point, I learned a great
deal more than I anticipated. It’s commonly asserted that travel is
broadening; and while that’s often applied to how much weight was gained,
the adage has substantial meaning. I know, because I returned home with
vastly more than I left, none of it in girth. (Indeed, I state smugly that I
returned home weighing precisely what I did when I left.)
But I also returned home deeply impressed by how incredibly far ahead of us
Great Britain and Western Europe are on transportation, and how much we are
losing because of it. My next column will explore the ways that is so.

Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College
and a longtime environmentalist.

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