It’s been brought to my attention that before my thirtieth birthday, I’ve traveled fairly extensively. I’d also like to think, especially in recent years, that I’ve tried to be responsible and humane about doing it. Travel can be destructive and self-insulating, escapist and indulgent too.
I rarely stay in hotels or book organized tours, preferring to pursue non-traditional and creative mechanisms for cultural engagement. I’m not so much interested in seeing impressive and/or exotic sites, but experiencing new ways of living in the world and meeting people who are living in conscious and creative ways.
Nevertheless, whether I’m couchsurfing, or wwoofing, or exchanging a house, or staying in refuges for pilgrims, there is generally a transactional quality to any travel experience, even when no cash is exchanged.
I’ve been to perfectly lovely dinners in “native” homes, but usually can’t shake the looming fear that a bill will arrive after dessert, the distance between guest and host being so vast, and unequal, and defined.
(I do recognize there is an economic argument to make here for a different kind of “responsible” travel, wherein I should contribute US dollars to foreign economies through established tourism industries, supporting jobs, and infrastructure, etc. I am not, however, an economist, and my personal definitions for responsibility and health have more to do with humanity than economics.)
This trip, though, and this past week in particular has been somewhat of a departure from this model, if not in practice, then experience. I’ve found myself in situations that are unlike anything I might experience at home, but only because I am in someone else’s home and no my own. These are not events I could pay to attend and probably wouldn’t feel compelled to if I could — the price of admission being relational more than monetary, my status as alien virtually irrelevant with no filter or expurgation to make the scene more palatable and less true.
Yesterday, for instance, I went to lunch at my friend’s mother’s house. It wasn’t a holiday, she wasn’t planning to fix a Burgundian specialty that they never eat except with guests. It had not been arranged to show off or to an American, but to introduce a friend to family.
It’s true we spoke English, where French might have normally been the default, but then this wasn’t a UN summit either, where individuals represent entire cultures and speak about things they do not really know.
It was lunch with mom, which might as well have been lunch with my mom, except there was a cheese course and a hundred thousand quirks and ticks that revealed bits and pieces about France and America and me and my friend.
Maybe this is what a UN summit should look like. My Mid-East peace solution: world leaders have lunch with each other’s mothers.