Whenever I think of travelling to new places, I rarely think of staying in the United States, other than where I used to live. Growing up in northern California spoiled me. What more could I want to see? I had scenery (the ocean, Lake Tahoe, Death Valley), culture (San Francisco), escapes vapid (Disneyland) and deep (Death Valley, Lake Tahoe, the ocean), real hippies (Humboldt and Mendocino Counties), fake or recovering hippies (Marin), a strong conservative presence (anything east of the big cities), the uber rich (cities), the uber poor (cities), and anything and everything in between. It’s fashionable to pick on California, and it may or may not deserve all the ridicule, but if you had to pick one state to see as much of America as possible, and to witness first-hand our myriad contradictions as a country—look no further than the notorious San Quentin prison, housed in the middle of the most valuable real estate (Marin County again) this side of Manhattan—then California is your state.
And in fact, since moving to Seattle we take our one big vacation every year to Lake Tahoe. There is no place like Tahoe—unless you’re talking about Lake Geneva, maybe—but this year, planning for a long-saved-for trip, even I had to admit it was time for something new. So when my daughter told us she wanted to go to New York and not Ireland or Iceland or Norway or France or Italy, I wasn’t happy. New York? Come on. Crowds and humidity and overpriced restaurants and intellectual snobs mingling with hordes of guilt-inducing homeless people? (How dare those homeless people make us feel guilty.) With the exception of the humidity, we can get all that in Seattle, thank you. She could go to New York when she was out of the house, or if her mom wanted to go with her they could do that and I’ll go to Europe.
Besides, enough with the kid making the choices. After giving her too much say in where she went to middle school and high school, and what she could wear, and what she could eat, and what she could say to us, after all that freedom here was our chance to tell her, “Sorry, we’ve been saving for this forever, and we’re going to Italy and Spain.” It would feel so, so, so, so good. My wife and I had talked in advance, and we were all in. Together. An unbeatable team. Free-range parenting would reign no more.
on the plane to
Madrid Rome New York this past April, I reminded my wife
of that brief moment we were united against teenager tyranny. She just gave me that look. You know what I mean.
Everyone anywhere who has ever had a spouse or life partner knows that look. When that look comes at 35,000 feet after a two-hour airport delay, you
realise that if you were to go on with whatever point you were making, no
matter its importance or validity, no jury in the world would convict your
partner for killing you.
The trip, naturally, was incredible—I was wrong about New York. But I don’t want to discuss how wrong I was or the specifics about the city. What surprised me was my initial opposition to it. Yes, all the things I thought were true turned out to be almost totally unfounded, but it was that I had asked my daughter a question that always nagged me when asked of me: “Why do you want to go to New York?” Did it matter why? It didn’t matter to her why I wanted to go to Europe.
In my defence, I did not ask the question in the way it irks me: “Why would you want to go to New York?” It’s the presence of “would” and the emphasis on “want” that make it different. I have received the “Why would you want to go” somewhere too often—but never in regards to California, arguably the most reviled state in the country, or to anywhere else in the US. It is only when I say, for instance, “I want to go to Ireland.”
Even though Americans are notorious for not leaving their country to travel, the question surprises me almost more than it irritates me. It is true that, as a percentage, more Americans have passports than ever before (it’s around 41 percent as of 2017, though 2018 was the first time in 31 years there were fewer passports issued than in the previous year). But it’s also true that we remain resistant to foreign travel in comparison to other western countries. Exact figures are hard to find, so I’ll use England, possibly the most similar democracy to the US today, and there the number of passports as a percentage of citizens is, as of 2011, 76 percent.
As a destination Europe has always been expensive, but now, with the weak dollar as opposed to the Euro, it’s even more so. More worrisome is that in general people are afraid to take time away from work. We don’t get a lot of vacation time to begin with, and that which we do get we often do not use. The US Travel Association estimated that in 2017, for example, 52 percent of Americans did not use all their vacation days. (That number was down from 54 percent in 2016.) The cost of travel in general is high, of course, and that is an unfortunate obstacle. But of the main “barriers to traveling” listed in the Travel Association’s report, cost ranked below fear of job loss and a heavy workload, among others, and just slightly below a pet.
But not all Americans do staycations; many do go away. And it’s unlikely the places they go are cheap, per se. On the west coast, for example, Hawaii remains a prime destination. And whatever you think about Hawaii, its affordability isn’t one of them. Same for New York, or Disneyland, or San Francisco, or Chicago, or Washington, D.C., or other vacation hot spots. Travelling is expensive no matter where you go, and while there are ways to make it less stressful to your budget, the bottom line is you will be spending money in ways you normally would not if you were home.
Barriers do exist and are valid, but people could just as well go to Europe or another foreign destination as easily as anywhere else. That they don’t speaks to a culture of American exceptionalism that has existed for a long time and which again appears on the ascendency. The simplistic “people hate America because they’re jealous” washes away when you visit other countries and talk to their citizens. Yes, some are jealous, but most offer legitimate critiques, and usually not in a spirit of meanness or pettiness. It is often said that people don’t hate Americans, they hate our policies, they hate our collective arrogance, and this has been my experience in my limited trips away from the US.
Whatever you may think of our policies, though, it’s useless to deny our arrogance. It’s explicit, it’s implicit. Related to travel, why go to inferior countries when you can see more of this great country? There are plenty of reasons to see America as opposed to a foreign place, but to say “it’s greater than anywhere else” is chimerical. Even if it was true, even if everywhere in America was better than anywhere else, that is not a good enough reason. Would you not go see a movie if it wasn’t the best ever? Of course not. I won’t judge someone for wanting to go New York rather than Paris, but if the reason is because “New York is better because the US is better,” then I am not having it.
When it comes to too many things too many Americans seem to believe that if something is not “the best” then it’s not worth their time. And Americans have been bamboozled forever into believing their country is the best in the world. No argument can convince them otherwise, so there’s no need for me or anyone else to present the ample evidence to the contrary at our disposal. Worse, given the cruel nature how humans think, it is likely the evidence would only convince them their beliefs are more true. It’s a hopeless situation.
Which brings me back to the benefits of travelling to foreign destinations. If we are to escape this self-congratulating echo chamber we’ve imprisoned ourselves in, we have to learn about the rest of the world. Books are a great start, but ideally we have to see first-hand how people live in Ireland and Japan and Thailand and India and Brazil. I’ve long been a proponent of some sort of subsidised gap year for high school graduates. It’s much more than exposure to another culture, or opening minds, which are real if unquantifiable benefits. For the utilitarians out there, there are practical reasons too. Give these young people money to travel, to see what works in other countries, to see what doesn’t work, and take those lessons and bring them back to the United States.
What I want is a fantasy, of course. Subsidised anything—other than corn and wheat and soy, naturally—is laughable in the United States. If we can’t give all our citizens basic healthcare, then taxation-based travel has no chance of becoming a reality. We insist that things can’t work or won’t work or don’t work, and maybe they won’t. But we also insist on not trying, so how can we say with conviction something won’t work if we never try?
Still, the idea that more Americans are getting passports (last year’s decrease notwithstanding) is encouraging. So too are the feelings of my teenage daughter and her peers. If we could get them off their phones my optimism would be greater, but the one thing I truly admire about her generation is their genuine openness to other ways of living. It’s not a stretch to say that if they don’t care about gender or sexuality or someone’s identity, then they will not care where someone is from. And maybe, just maybe, they will be more inclined to accept them and their homeland as equals; they will understand it’s not necessary to say “America is the best country in the world.”
For now we inhabit a “Why would you want to go there?” world. I get beyond the personal and ask the askers if they could go anywhere in the world, why they would stay here, and their answer, almost always, is “Because this is the best place in the world.” How they can know this if they’ve never gone anywhere else seems a self-evident paradox. Self-evident too is the idea that America isn’t the greatest place in the world, but we remain awash in this falsehood, spinning toward some unknown destination—a fate not as terrifying as it is sad.