for release March 1, 2002
by Melodie Davis
What Can You Learn Over There?
My oldest daughter is studying in Belgium this semester. I was amused when someone asked her before leaving, "What do they teach in those schools over there that you can't learn over here?"
Fair question. Why indeed travel 4,000 miles-especially in these times of heightened risk? Why should she spend $600 on an airplane ticket (although her actual schooling expenses will be a little less than for a semester here in the U.S.)? Why put yourself through missing family, friends, and boyfriends?
The answer to the question lies in the unexpected things that no one thinks to explain to you in books, or all the things you can never learn in books. For instance, things like "Waking up the middle of the night under your gabled window with a draft coming across your bed in a cobble-stoned, 900-year-old city and feeling like you've been plopped down in the middle of an Emily Brontë novel."
This was Michelle's description of her first night in Belgium, and I thought, "That is why it is important to experience other cultures and places!" That and a lot of other intangibles.
One of my most spine-tingling moments when I spent my junior year in Spain came when I was rushing across an ancient plaza at dusk and heard the chimes from the old Gothic cathedral peal out. The sound was as timeless as the bricks in the street there. Or maybe it was the day, in that same square, where suddenly my friends and I were surrounded by angry demonstrators and the dictator's police surging into the street, and I was told in no uncertain terms to put my camera away or the police would confiscate it. (This was in 1973 during Franco's reign in Spain.)
It was learning that people in other countries had different lunch times (about 2 p.m. in Spain and Italy); dinner times (around 9 p.m.) and that they didn't really eat much for breakfast besides coffee and bread. It was learning about tiny gas water heaters in showers where the hot water only lasted three minutes, toilets with pull chains and boxes on the wall for flushing. It was learning that the place to buy stamps was in tobacco shops, that most homemakers shopped daily for groceries for their main meals, and that women commonly walked arm in arm as a gesture of friendship.
One of Michelle's friends spent the fall semester in Russia, and told how one day she went to the post office to mail some letters. They were a little on the heavy side, but she didn't really care how much it would cost to mail them.
Well, the matronly female postal clerk there had other ideas: the letters weighed too much, period. It would be far too expensive to mail them.
Katie was a little impatient, but explained in her best Russian, that it was okay, she wanted to mail them anyway, regardless of expense. The elderly Russian lady looked at her as if she were a pathetic child whom she would soon teach that too much was too much. Slowly the woman shuffled to the back of the room to weigh the letters, came back with a triumphant smirk on her face and told Katie the price: 140 rubles. This translated to about 4 dollars for each letter. It wasn't a big deal to Katie, even though she was a student on a limited budget. But to the woman, the price was roughly the equivalent of three months worth of an average teacher's salary!
What did this interchange teach Katie? It was a reminder of the fatalism so omnipresent in Russia; a first-hand experience with the grinding wheels of bureaucracy; and finally, a reminder that to most of the world, even a "poor" American student was very rich.
These are the things you can't teach in textbooks or newspaper articles: you absorb a whole different reality by experiencing them in person, even though I know it is beyond the realm of the possible for many average North Americans. And it's important to be a sensitive traveler, so that incidents with reluctant postal clerks don't end up looking like one more example of the "rich, ugly American."
And finally, you learn that even though you have fierce love and pride in your own country even with all its flaws, that most of the people you meet in their countries have that same love and pride in their country even with its defects.
All of these are, to me, lessons worth learning "over there" that you can't really learn here.
For a free copy of a book I wrote out of my experiences as student in Spain, ask for the book, Departure. Send to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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