Whenever I tell people I'm going to go backpack Europe for the next several months, a common question is, "why?" To which I readily respond, "why not?!" They usually follow it up with a slight chuckle and then comment, "I wish I could do/had done that." Tonight I've found myself asking that same question. Why do I want to travel? What has possessed me to sell all the possessions that have helped me identify who I am in order to live out of a backpack on the other side of the world? The answer I've discovered is two-fold. Both of which sound quite cliché, but I'm going to say them anyway.
The first reason is quite simple. In 20 years, I don't want to be one of those people that sits there and says, "Man, I wish I had done that." Regret looks so ugly strewn across even the most beautiful face. I want to be one of those rare beings that enthusiastically leaps at the opportunity to share my stories, advice, and favorite places to eat. As much as I want to soak up every word these people say to me, it's quite impossible to do without a recorder. Even if I had one, I can't possibly go to all the places they've all told me in a single trip; even if it does last more than six months. But these are the people I enjoy talking to the most. Most of these people, especially the ones who traveled less often, or didn't travel lavishly, get a certain twinkle in their eye when they share their stories. Almost as if they were talking about their first love. Most everyone seems to have a person that can give them that eye twinkle, few have a life that gives it to them. I want to be one of those people. I want to be so in love with my own life that people feel inspired and infected by my enthusiasm for it. For me, loving life means regular adventures.
The second half of why I want to travel is experience. Experience, being an ongoing and very much individual process, is an arbitrary term; so allow me to explain what I mean. This is complete speculation on my part, seeing as how I have never been outside the United States and my entire knowledge of the "outside world" has come from my "higher education," the news, the internet, and hear-say. I believe, however, that Americans are some of the most privileged, yet least culturally aware people on earth. According to the state department, only about 36% of Americans even own a valid passport. I, for one, have had a passport for several years, yet it has gone unused. I wonder how many of the other 36% are in the same boat as myself...
Most of this seems to be because of convenience. The United States is huge. It takes up most of the inhabitable portion of North America. Our only shared borders are with Canada and Mexico. The most prevalent foreign culture in the United States is the Hispanic culture, and no other foreign culture comes close to that percentage. We share so much with them that Spanish is taught as a second language in probably every high school in the United States. If there is a high school or college in the US that doesn't teach Spanish as a second language, I would be genuinely surprised. Also, to put the vast size of the United States into perspective, just pull up a world map (here you go, you lazy bastards). I won't lie, as a child I thought the United States was blown up on world maps because we were the best and most important. While I'd still give our great nation a high-five or some kind of secret handshake for being awesome, we're actually just that big. The puppy dog head (Sweden, Finland, and Norway) could literally fit inside Alaska with room to spare. In the same mileage it would take to drive across Texas from wingtip to wingtip, you could drive across several countries in Europe, depending on what route you took. Having said that, Americans usually have to drive hundreds if not thousands of miles to cross an international border and experience an all new culture. Europeans, on the other hand.. Well, you can walk across Andorra in less time than it takes the sun to set on their beautiful mountains.
As exhausting/exciting as it sounds to take a road trip through the entire continental United States - and even most of Canada - you would be hard pressed to find a culture too different from your own. In fact, if you're ever forced to play a game of charades because of a language barrier with more than five people present, you probably took a wrong turn and wound up in Mexico. Even though America is filled with sub-cultures, basically everyone (with the exceptions of immigrants and expats) whether democrat, republican, Christian or atheist, everyone you run into in the United States is an American. We all share a common patriotism, language, and cultural history. This isn't so in Europe. Each country has a very unique history, patriotism, and language. Some countries even have several languages. Switzerland has four official languages! The argument could be made that Europeans are all still very European, and they are, but I still believe that with all the border hopping, the charades played to decipher languages (and learning several different languages), and even going from the old architecture of Budapest to the modern buildings in Copenhagen, there is a better understanding of the differences between people in the world. Also, I would like to point out that the European Union actually goes out of it's way to ensure that dying cultures stay alive in their respective areas.
The point here with the experience, I suppose, is that I want to experience the cultures. I want to know what differentiates the Austrians from the Swiss aside from a simple border and language. I don't want to just read about this stuff anymore. I want to go there, see it all for myself, and know it well enough to write about it. I want to be drenched, miserable, and lost. I want to be completely enamored by a picturesque scene. I want to drop a coin in the hat of a street performer and watch them come alive. I want to have the experiences and memories that will give me that twinkle in my eye when I think back on them. I don't just want to be a citizen of the United States. I want to be a citizen of Europe too. And Asia, and Africa, and South America, and Australia. I want to be a citizen of the world.