Twenty six years ago this week I received plane tickets for my trip to Belgium where I was going to spend the summer as a foreign exchange student. This was back in the days when you went to a travel agent for plane tickets which were printed on long index cards with magnetic stripes on the back. I was all of fifteen years old, finishing my sophomore year in high school.
I was accepted into a French language immersion program. The first two weeks I spent in Brussels or Bruxelles as it is called in the Francophone world, attending classes. After that, I went to stay with my host family who just happened to also live in Brussels.
Today I am crying with the rest of the world in mourning those affected by the terrorist attacks in Brussels earlier today. I try not to look at the news images, showing the rubble at the airport and at the Metro stop. I prefer to remember both though the lens of my fifteen-year old self, the long, endless corridors of the airport, the narrow streets surrounding the Metro station, the lens that took these pictures. I also see the smiling faces of my host mother and sister, who was less than a year younger than me. They had a dog as many Belgians do, a white poodle who threw up quite often.
I haven’t kept in touch with them in many years. I hope they are okay.
I can’t help but wonder, If my kids were in high school, would I let them spend the summer in Brussels like I did?
It’s hard to think of a city more international than Brussels. It contains NATO headquarters, is the de facto capital of the European Union and truly is a melting pot. Is it safe enough for teenage travel?
The world in the spring of 2016 is both safer and more dangerous than it was in the summer of 1990. The technology of today has created a safety net that allows us to get in touch with loved ones within seconds. I know my mother would have appreciated a quick FaceTime session or text upon landing instead of waiting a couple of days until I could use the phone in the youth hostel where I was staying. Still, there are more threats in the world today as wars are increasingly fought over ideologies, not borders.
But to answer the question, would I send my kids over to cities like Brussels or Paris?
Absolutely. Without question.
Our children need to move about the world in order to succeed in the 21st century and that means travel abroad. The goal of this whole parenting thing is independence so learning how to navigate airports and train stations and figuring out where to get the best rate on currency exchange certainly helps teens lurch forward toward a world without mom and dad.
Plus, teens learn so much from world travel. How else can they see and appreciate art and wonders built centuries before our country was founded? How else can they learn that a foreign language is a living, breathing medium, not just filler for a 40-minute block each school day? That there are places in the world where beer is something you can sip and enjoy, in my case it was Lindeman’s Kriek Lambic, instead of using it as a vehicle to feel out of control.
Besides, where else could I see “Back To The Future III” with both French and Flemish subtitles?
But travel is more than means to the goal of graduating confident, independent children from our care. We can’t live in fear, immobilized by the thought of what could happen. When we do that, we give more power to hate and we can’t let hate win.
That doesn’t mean I won’t worry. Believe me, I have elevated worrying about my children to an art form worthy of inclusion in the Art Institute. But I can’t let my anxiety squash their curiosity, their desire to see their world and move freely within it.
Something horrible is always going to happen in the world. I was over there maybe a month and a half when August 2, 1990 happened. That was the day Iraq invaded Kuwait kickstarting the events leading to the first Gulf War. It probably wasn’t the best time to be an American student in the melting pot that is Brussels but we weren’t afraid. Our chaperones simply told us to be mindful of our surroundings but honestly that is good advice for every traveler, young or old, American or Arab.
On the day the formal part of the French language program ended and our host families picked us up, the instructors and chaperones put together a small reception. For our part, we were to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in front of our host families. Even though we all knew the words, we practiced a few times. It seemed a bit trite to me and I thought, how silly. Still, I dressed in the only dress I packed and gathered on the risers with the other students, now close friends, the kind of closeness that comes from sleeping six to a room for two weeks.
But when we started singing one by one, row by row we started hugging and swaying from left to right. We sang those verses with meaning and the emotion came through, from the tears among us students to the smiles of our host families. “Imagine” came to life in that youth hostel cafeteria.
At times like this we often think of the words Lennon penned but really it is our actions, actions like our desire to learn a new language and culture and the willingness of host families to take in strangers, foreigners into their homes to show us their world. That is how we work towards the peace and unity Lennon envisioned. Even today.
So I say, send them! Send those inquisitive minds forth into the world and let them learn. Let them meet other students as well as families from all over the world who also are curious about the America they left behind for a short while. Let them connect and know the world better, one culture at a time.
If you liked this post, you may also like this post, “My peaceful, happy playlist for bad news days“.
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