When I was growing up, in the late 1950s and early sixties, it was very important to me that I know exactly where I was living, to know what was my place in the world. I would inscribe not only my name on my school books, but my ‘full’ address. as 10904-98th Street, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, North America. Earth, the Milky Way…
My world was the length of the streets that I could walk. If I walked several blocks, I would be at my school. If I walked several more blocks, I would be on Edmonton’s main drag, where The Roxy Theatre (why are all little cinemas with big dreams called The Roxy?) had Saturday afternoon matinees. For $0.25 my sister and I could spend several hours watching cartoons, episodic westerns, and a main sci fi feature that inevitably featured some mutation of Godzilla, followed by an hour of competitive games – with prizes!
My grandparents lived several blocks to the west of us, and if my mum, sister and I took a bus for about a half an hour, we would be at an outdoor public swimming pool, where we could take swimming lessons, and watch each other’s lips turn blue.
These were the parameters of my world. My sense of self was very much tied to where I lived, and to where I could walk or be driven to. Nothing else had much relevance. Nothing else felt like it really mattered, or made much difference to my world. I was here. Here I was.
My sense of geography was so skewed that I once naively believed that a soppy Irish song’s lyrics were, “If you ever go across the street to Ireland. ” I literally had no sense of how big my own province was, let alone a concept of the expanse of Canadian lands. And I most certainly could not conceive of going across a sea.
We had a globe in the house, but I had little use for the countries on the lower half – I had no emotional investment in what went on below the equator, even if the nuns at school did collect our pennies for the orphan babies of China. The 185 miles between Calgary and Edmonton spooked me, because those two cities looked so close together on the map, but I had heard they did things very differently there.
When my grandmother came to Canada from Great Britain in 1900, she came by boat, as did most of the early settlers to our country. My paternal grandmother walked from South Dakota to St Albert, Alberta, as part of a covered wagon convoy. Travel might have been necessary, but it was rarely convenient.
It’s probably hard to imagine how incomprehensible long distance travel was for many people, in those days. Our access to the world has changed significantly in the last several decades, through improvements to the methods of travel, and through the technology by which we come to know other countries. Now we can see the attractions of ‘faraway places with strange sounding names,’ in living colour, and visit nearly anywhere in the world on a whim.
Back in the day, the average person was physically and emotionally isolated, based on where they lived. There were clear differences in attitude and behaviour between rural and urban groups. And yet, no matter where a child was, they believed that they were at the centre of the universe, and that the beliefs with which they were surrounded, were the only true beliefs. Even today, there are many people who never veer from that belief. This is who I am, because this is where I live.
By the time I was ten years old, I had taken the four day train trip back and forth to the very much more cosmopolitan Montreal several times, but I had never met anyone who had been on a commercial airplane.
It would be another several years before I myself would finally set foot on a plane, travelled abroad, and crossed a sea. Air travel was considered something that only the wealthy could enjoy, a major financial indulgence that also required a special travelling wardrobe.
I was lucky enough to tag along with my grandmother on one of her trips ‘over ‘ome’ to England, when I was just 19 years old.
Perhaps there are people who feel relaxed and at ease on a plane. I am not one of them. The idea of floating above the clouds, no matter how comfortable the ride, puts me in a dead panic. We flew British Airways, of course, and the stewardesses were wonderful to my gram, treating her like a queen. I was in awe of their cool uniforms, and their Beatle-ish accents.
Arriving at Heathrow, I entered another world, that couldn’t have been more different than the Montreal we’d left behind, only eight hours before. For the first time in my life, I was rootless. I was no longer bound to the earth on which I’d been born or raised. It was an epiphany.
Better writers than I have spoken of the merits of travel, and of how important it is to experience people and worlds that differ from what we have always known. I have always believed the same. No matter how much one travels within one’s own country or continent, there is something magical about walking the streets of other countries, far from our own, populated by people who are like us, but not like us at all.
Did you know that you have an accent? Probably not. But people in England think that Canadians and Americans have very pronounced accents. It’s all about perspective.
If a traveler is open to the experience, something magical snips the mental umbilical cord that tethers us to a local groupthink or speak. And you are never the same again.
I felt a sense of wonder, while walking the streets of London, or pacing the wilds of Epping Forest. For the first time in my life, I was completely outside of the physical parameters I believed defined my life and my thoughts. Leaving the corporeal confines of my reality allowed my mind to look outside of the restrictions that had been imposed upon my thinking.
Today, travel is rather taken for granted. My kids and grandkids think nothing of jetting away on vacations. The only thing that stops them from roving globally is financial shortfalls.
But ironically, this new freedom to travel as we will is not necessarily accompanied by a concurrent openness of mind. It is possible to take one’s prejudices and beliefs to anywhere in the globe, packed in the overhead compartment, to be pulled out at inopportune moments.
Perhaps this relative ease of travel makes it harder to step outside of ourselves, and to feel that sense of wonder. That would be a pity, for it is in those magical moments, when we are truly off balance, and our minds adrift with what might be, that we realize both how alike and how different we are from one another, no matter where we find ourselves.