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Commentary: On the road again

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

My latest passport was issued October 28, 2019. When I renewed it I didn’t know that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to use it until almost 4 years later. It took me by shock when I opened the little blue book and the pages were blank. No visas from India, no stamples from the European Union, no stickers from the USDA certifying that my luggage carried no microbial pathogens back to the continent, no exit fee from Cayman. Nothing. A lot has changed over the last couple of years, but my love of travel is not one of them.

Anthony Bourdain once said that “Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown." I have always been adventurous, never giving much thought to what hazards are out there in the world. For some the unknown is scary, but I guess I have always believed in the kindness of strangers and the power of a smile. And I would say that for the most part, this belief and practice has served me well as my encounters with strangers have mostly been kind and honestly, outright generous.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience any anxiety before my first international trip since the pandemic. Actually, I was scared to death after having heard the horror stories of summer travel. But then, I took a word of advice from my very wise friend Susan Deneke; “There are bigger things in life to worry about than canceled flights and delayed trains.” All of which I experienced by the way.

I traveled to a conference in Austria, met with a colleague to discuss new study abroad opportunities for my students, saw my sister and German family after three long years, and watched my oldest settle into her new home away from home in Salzburg as she embarks on her second year of living and studying abroad. During this short trip I witnessed so many acts of kindness and compassion.

On The Sound of Music bus tour - which I highly recommend as it contains the perfect combination of history, song, and kitschiness - two of the travelers were refugees from the Ukraine. The bus driver, tour guide and many passengers on the tour quietly spoke to the couple offering only what I can imagine were words of empathy and kindness for the current plight of their country.

In the Munich airport, looking and probably smelling, like a wet cat I wanted something to eat before I boarded my flight home. I placed my order in German and the server responded in Italian. My Italian vocabulary is about 2 words, but I tried my best and ordered a lovely salami sandwich with arugula, boiled egg and cheese and a glass of red wine. He responded, “hai gli occhi belli ma stanchi” which I think means you have beautiful, but tired eyes. I don’t know if this is exactly what he said, but this is the gist of it. I said grazie, smiled and he poured the remainder of the bottle of red wine into my glass. Needless to say, I tipped him well.

On board an overbooked flight to Chicago I witnessed a lovely gay couple befriend an older Polish woman who was travelling to see her children in the US. Communicating with smiles and limited English the three of them spent the flight showing each other photos of their vacations to Greece and grandchildren. All three responded with “Nice! Nice!” to each photo. As we deplaned after nine long hours, I saw them helping each other navigate their way through customs.

This brings me back to my main point. Just be nice. The world isn’t about just you or me and our wants and desires. There are bigger things that are happening. War in the Ukraine, women revolting against oppression in Iran, gay and trans kids trying to find their way in the world, and those who have lost their lives and homes in Puerto Rico and Florida. Just be nice. As the Dalai Lama Tweeted this on Oct. 3, 2022, “How we live from day to day affects our future. Warm-heartedness is the key factor. I think about it always because it’s warm-heartedness that brings us peace of mind.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.