My friend and I climbing the Great Wall at the section known as Mutianyu.
by Kerry Nappi
High: Travel Companions
Alex and I at the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders), built in the 7th century B.C. but burnt to the ground in 356 B.C. (on the very night Alexander the Great was born) by a man who wished to do something to make his name live on. It was rebuilt soon after that. Alexander wanted to rebuild it, but the Ephesians said it was wrong for one god to build a temple for another god, so the people themselves rebuilt it.
Not to be cliché, but it occurs to me that travel companions are a lot like life companions: They entirely change your experience. My spring of too-much-travel has finally come to an end, and though I am relieved and content to be home now, I can look back at the past 6 1/2 weeks and 18 flights and 10 cities with appreciation.
Not all travel or life companions are chosen ones, but both the carefully selected and the accidental partners have influences on everything we do and our perspective on the experiences. Case in point: I have traveled with my son, a friend, and my daughter recently. I have also been on those travels with other vacationers whose stories made the tour sites that much more memorable to me.
My son was on spring break, and for the first time, we traveled together as a pair. He was delightful ~ and has turned into an adult I couldn’t have anticipated even three years ago. Like me, he likes good food, long walking days, and the history of a region. Unlike me, he has a fabulous memory for dates and civilizations, and he didn’t mind repeating the information every time I asked. We toured parts of Turkey and Greece, a combination of our individual choices, and the trip worked for us both.
My friend was a teaching friend. We were childless and then mothers together; we only taught for four years together before I started moving around, yet we have reconnected for one day every year for twenty-four years. This was the first time she came to see me in an overseas posting, and so we saw as much of China as we could in 8 days. Suddenly I was seeing my life through her eyes, and I hope she saw a bit of mine through hers.
My friend and I at the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China
My daughter had her own spring break wishes ~ to relax from the harried pace of a 10th grader and see another country in our region. So, off we went to Malaysia, staying in Kuala Lumpur for 4 days. Not counting on the heat, we took it pretty slowly, but in that slowed-down time, we were able to see KL together and relax before the end of term speeds up to finish off in June. I have to leave her early this year, to take care of business in the U.S., so I treasured the time we had for just the two of us.
In our formal tours, we ran across some interesting other travelers. A Finnish expat family who lives in Moscow reflects our own family’s experiences even though we are different nationalities who have lived in different countries. As we climbed the Great Wall together, we discovered that they live in the same compound as some friends of ours, Americans, with whom we lived in Japan. Small world.
Also in Beijing, we toured the Forbidden City with a father-and-son Russian American family. The mom had died recently, of breast cancer at age 41, but they were in China to support the sister, competing for the American national acrobatic team in Worlds.
Alex and I in Ephesus at the Library of Celsus, built in A.D. 117
In Ephesus, walking among the 1st century Roman ruins, we chatted with a guide who was more than impressed with Alex’s knowledge of history. Days later, when a bomb went off in Istanbul where we were staying, her boss and she emailed to ask if we were okay and gave us their private numbers in case we needed anything.
These private connections among strangers always surprise me, but I suppose it’s where friendships start. A few German guys we met on the Amazon River last year are now people we keep in touch with through notes and pictures; who knows, maybe if we’re in Munich some day, or if they come to China, we will meet again. Until then, they are all travel and life companions who suggest that we are not alone in the journey if only we allow ourselves to be connected.
I really had to think twice before I took off for Turkey in March on a planned and paid-for trip. After all, the bombing in Ankara was just one month before, and anyone evil enough to set off bombs in the busy capital city of Ankara would not hesitate to do the same in the even busier city of Istanbul. And yet, it wasn’t that long ago that I might have chosen the safer European destinations for such a trip, and look what happened in Paris. It seemed there was no getting around the risks; even staying home and going to work has gotten people killed by terrorists.
I also knew that hindsight would tell different stories, depending on outcomes I couldn’t foresee. Would we be the idiots who went too close to a war zone and got what we deserved? Or would we cancel and think later, Geez, nothing would have happened to us and we lost our chance to see an amazing country, not to mention all the money we spent.
In the end, we were both lucky not to get hurt AND unlucky to have been close enough to TWO bombs in one week to really set fear into our hearts. In the first instance, we flew over Ankara hours after a bomb went off, killing 37. We weren’t going to Ankara and would not have affected us, but it was scary nonetheless. We felt such relief to not be heading there at the same time as we were pained for the people who died and all of their loved ones.
And then, we made it to our last day. I hate the separation that comes with no cell coverage, but I had to leave for the airport three hours before my son. Just as the taxi pulled up to the airport drop off, the driver told me what was on the radio news: Another bombing; this time in Istanbul. I had no way of reaching my son, and I knew that with his remaining hours, he might have chosen to go to Taksim Square, the only largely tourist area we hadn’t made it to. Making it worse, I couldn’t even reach him when I reached Germany for my layover. It wasn’t until I got back to China that I got his assurances that he was safe, made it to the airport on time for the heightened security, and that he would contact me from Germany.
That’s also when I got an abundance of other messages checking on our safety. The irony of the dangers we are all in hit me a few days later: A friend who texted me for both Turkey bombings, checking on my safety, was the recipient of her own frantic checks a week later…She lives in Brussels and used the train station that was bombed just 20 minutes before it was hit. How can it be that in our world, friends are checking on each other’s safety from bombs on a regular basis? It angers some people, but it bewilders and frightens me. I don’t know how it ends. I don’t know if it can end. And I don’t know if all of my loved ones will survive it. Many loved ones of other regular people have not, and how long can I be lucky enough not to be counted among them?
Glitter: Thin Mints (Duh)
I try to eat healthily, I really do. In most cases, I will choose to eat green things over fried things. Particularly since I reached the age of lower metabolism, I understand what’s at stake. And if you can’t tell by now, this is a Glitter with a big “but”! When my friend arrived in China with treats, some were expected: baking powder I haven’t been able to find, Nutella that’s too expensive here to splurge on. But when she pulled out those Girl Scout Thin Mints, boy, all bets for healthy eating were out! I ate that first sleeve before we got past her jet lag. And the second Glittery sleeve is in a drawer waiting for me to finish it off!
Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.
As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.
Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.
The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.