When I was a wee lad, my family didn't have a ton of money. My mom was a part time nurse and my father was an art teacher at a small private school. There were no fancy beach house visits, Aspen ski trips, Disney vacations, etc. We had fun outside playing, plenty to eat, and a wholesome environment that supported curiosity and education, but few of the bubble-gum-for-the-mind relaxation vacations a lot of the people I knew in middle and high school were taking. My father was instead building the groundwork for a cultural exploration that would lend my brothers and myself the underpinnings for an inclusive worldview, even if I didn't fully realize it at the time.
The school he worked for allowed him to set up a student exchange with a school in Brescia, Italy. American students would get what was often their first exposure to a foreign culture, and stay with Italian high school students in their homes for three weeks while going to classes in an Italian school that focused on learning languages; a few months later, the Italian students that had hosted my father's American exchange students would in turn come stay in the US with their American counterparts.
I remembered when I was 11 or 12 years old noticing how happy the Italian students were here, how they were so excited about everything they were experiencing in suburban Maryland–they loved McDonalds, our crappy pizza, Timberland boots, Levis jeans, outlets malls, strip malls, billboards…the detritus and consumerist silliness that makes Anne Arundel County, MD (and thousands of places like it) the typically bland middle-America place that it is. How could they enjoy such a boring place so much, I asked my dad–is it that they wish they were Americans like me?
"Actually son, they think it's pretty damn cool to be Italian."
It's hard to explain what a mind-altering moment that was for a pre-teen; it's something that you simply wouldn't realize from growing up in American culture watching American TV and being immersed in American jingoistic consumerist culture–people from across the planet might think that where they live is pretty darn cool too! It shattered my sheltered worldview (in a good way) and permanently burst the isolation-bubble that seems to envelop so many of us American folk, grounded here in a big wealthy country with gigantic oceans on either side. There were other cultures out there, cultures that had things different from us, things we didn't have, places that were older, places that influenced who we are as a people–whether we realize it or not–with fascinating people in them who were quite proud of their culture and ready to share.
There was a whole world out there beyond the end of my nose, and I was lucky to get to experience pieces of it because of the groundwork my father had laid in an educational environment.
Over the years I got to go to Italy a few times with my father and experience first hand what being in a place that melds the ancient and the modern so efficiently is like. It confirmed what that 12 year old boy suspected: while the US has quite a few things going for it, Europe does as well, and there are few things more intriguing in life than taking them in and grasping the glorious differences.
Over the 27 years that Dad ran the Italian Exchange, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Italian, that, when coupled with his artist and art-historian's insight, made for an unbeatable ability to show folks the "real" Italy. He learned the best places to visit, to eat, to drink, and to take in off-the-beaten path sites and sights that aren't mere tourist-traps. When he retired from teaching a couple years back, we decided it was time to share with the world what he'd learned; I honestly feel bad for people who've gone to Italy without him, as I can't help but harbor the suspicion that they missed out on something (probably many things) he could have shared with them.
I guess that means I'm on a mission–I want to share with as many people I can the experience I got to have, to get them to see how lucky I was to grow up with a parental figure who immerse me in that larger would, and to give them a chance as an adult to feel the wonder that 12 year old boy felt when he took that first step into a larger, more understanding world.