Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where you are, but with who?

Tell me choose one major difference between my two trips. Go ahead. I dare you.

My answer? The people.

Now, what I don't mean is the people that I went with, or that the people I got to know on one trip were of some higher caliber than the other. For both of my trips, I traveled with a group of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn't, and became friends with all of them. There is definitely a bond that comes with going to a foreign country together.

When I was in France, I didn't make a single friend who wasn't American, because the
trip was structured around simply seeing the country. Yet some of the best memories I have from that trip are of talking to members of the French choirs who hosted us, speaking bad French to enthusiastic strangers. Having conversations. Playing with French children and getting to know their names and faces.

I saw some of the most incredible sights I've ever seen in my life in France, and had some of the most unforgettable experiences. Not only to see the grand cathedrals of Europe, but to sing in them? Talk about something being beyond words. Or rather, don't. Because it's beyond words.

But the sights that I saw were just that: sights. I went there, I saw it, and I genuinely enjoyed it. I took photos, I look at them, and I want to go back.

When I was in Ukraine, though, I wasn't in Ukraine to see Ukraine or tour Kyiv. I was there to be with Ukrainians. To get to know them, to speak English with them, and to love on them. And I did. I left a little piece of my heart back there in Ukraine, because there were people to hold onto it for me.

You can travel to a city and google important sites to see. You can even get a tour guide, if you like. But there is no better way to see a place than to go with someone who lives there and loves it and simply say, "Show me your Kyiv. Take me to the places off the maps. Take me to your favorite spot, and it will matter to me because it matters to you, and you have come to matter to me."

Or say something like that, but in less vaguely grand terms so that you don't freak them out.

It's one thing to look across a river and see a skyline. It's entirely another to have your friend pull you aside, point to a building, and say, "That's where I live." I know because I've experienced both. I've already forgotten what most of the landmarks I picked out from the map in Paris look like, but I think I will always remember that building next to the smokestack across the Dnipro River, because it means something to me. It's connected to a person.

When I look at photos of my trip to Ukraine, I want to go back not because of the places, but because of the people who make those places meaningful for me.

So what does all of this mean? Well, mostly it means that I get to be full of wonderful memories. But it also means that for those going abroad, if at all possible, you should get out of your comfort zone and not just hang out with the people you went with. You should occasionally sit and talk when given a chance to go and see. And you should embrace the chance to get to know a country from the inside of its people's hearts, rather than from the outside of its buildings.

Maybe if you're lucky, they'll wave you off at the end.

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