This story reprinted with permission from
“Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World“
There are 32 pairs of teenage eyes on me, and I’m beginning to sweat. It’s “Career Day” here at Denver, Colorado’s Kennedy High School, and I’m speaking about my job as a journalist.
So far, my speech hasn’t gone too well. The young man in the back corner is asleep, and a girl in the front row is playing games on her cell phone. Most of the others have a glazed look in their eyes.
Desperate, I plunge on with my lecture, talking of assignments in Thailand, interviews in England and stories in Singapore.
But I may as well be speaking of the moon. For most of these students, the rest of the world is a far-off place. They have little exposure to it, and frankly, they’re not all that interested.
And who can blame them? I once felt just like they do.
After all, when you grow up in the middle of a big, powerful country, where exposure to other lands and ways of life are somewhat limited, it can lead you to believe that the rest of the world is just like the one in which you grew up. So what reason is there to explore new places? I had little interest in other countries and cultures.
Then I met Melanie.
We all have people who come into our lives who influence or change us somehow. For me, one of those people was a 20-year-old girl from a farm town in Iowa.
I was attending college in Indiana that year, and I met Melanie on the school’s softball team. In truth, we really didn’t play much, but sat out game after game with injuries. While our team sailed on to victories (without us, no doubt), Melanie and I sat on the bench and talked. We eventually became roommates.
Melanie was different from anyone I had ever known. She made me laugh with her witty sense of humor, but most of all, she was a storyteller. Her tales were different though, for she had actually been outside of the country. Melanie had spent a summer working with her church in Europe, and it was an experience she talked about daily.
Night after night, she weaved stories of places I had never imagined. She talked of dreamy Austrian villages and narrow, ancient streets. She told of tall, handsome Dutch boys and the thrill of cruising down the German autobahns.
At first, I feigned disinterest, but eventually, I began to listen, picturing this world that she painted with words. Eventually, like Chinese water torture, Melanie wore me down.
“Okay!” I said one evening after a long story again regaling the thrills of travel. “I give up! I want to see this for myself. Let’s go!”
And so we did.
Culture shock set in as soon as we stepped foot in Amsterdam on that week-long trip during semester break. Surrounded by the staccato sounds of Dutch, I felt like a fish out of water. I wanted to rush back into the plane and head for the familiarity of home.
But I was stuck here, so I followed Melanie through the streets of Rotterdam, where we went next. She laughed and talked with everyone she met, not afraid of the new things she saw. Slowly, I began to view this new world through her eyes. My discomfort turned to curiosity and then interest.
We spent New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam, and I watched in awe as the local residents poured into the streets that night, lighting monstrous fireworks, drinking warm drinks and greeting each other (and me!) with two-cheeked kisses.
Right then, even though I couldn’t understand a word being spoken around me, I smiled with glee. Mars had turned into heaven on earth.
From there, Melanie and I rented a little Peugeot and headed out through Europe. We fumbled our way through the countryside, getting lost, but always stopping to ask cute boys for directions. We ran into difficulties with the new languages and cultures, of course, but Melanie just laughed and considered it an adventure.
We drove through Holland and Germany, but it was Austria that broke down any resistance I had to accepting new cultures. The beauty of the Alps surrounding Salzburg took my breath away, and in the cozy cafés that are such an integral part of Austrian culture, I discovered a never-before-seen side of myself. I learned the quiet joy of sitting all afternoon around a tiny table, drinking dark coffee with whipped cream and discussing questions of life with new friends.
Perhaps that is why we are drawn to travel, for in leaving our homes and venturing into other parts of life, it reveals a side that we would never discover otherwise. In learning about others, we learn most about ourselves.
Vienna was the last straw for me. Wandering with Melanie and my new Austrian friends at midnight down the cobblestone streets of this former imperial city, I could barely contain my delight. Something, I knew, had awakened deep inside of me.
Nine months after that first trek to Europe, I packed up my college boxes and moved to Austria, where I attended university before eventually returning home to the States. My life had turned down a whole new path.
Sadly, that path didn’t include Melanie. She graduated and became a teacher. True to her love of adventure, she chose to work in a whole new city and culture — San Antonio, Texas.
My fascination with exploring other cultures and destinations never left me either. I went on to become a journalist, and then an editor with an international travel magazine.
For almost a decade, Melanie and I lost touch. Then one day, a colleague asked me the question: “Why did you choose this career path?”
In my mind, I immediately saw an image of Melanie, chatting over dinner at the college cafeteria, telling me stories of worlds I had never known. It was time to track down my long-lost friend.
That evening, I looked up Melanie’s parents on the Internet. They were still living on their farm in Iowa. My former roomie had gone on to become a principal, turning entire schools around with her passion for success and achievement. I grinned as I dialed her number. With some friends, lost years just slip away and you’re right back to your same relationship. That was how it was with Melanie. Within minutes, she had me laughing as we talked. Life was going well and my friend was very successful. “But I really miss having the chance to travel,” she admitted.
So we remedied that. Each year, we meet up somewhere in the world and spend a week exploring. Last year, it was the Scottish Isles; this year, it will be Ireland. Who knows where we’ll end up after that?
Melanie is the reason I am standing in front of this classroom today. So I stop my speech, take a deep breath and try another angle. Forget stories of journalism; there are better tales to tell.
So I begin to talk of Dutch celebrations, of dreamy Austrian villages and the thrill of cruising down the German autobahn. And in the back corner, I see something stir. The boy in the back has woken up, and I can’t help but grin.
After all, all it takes is one person to open your eyes to the world.
Listen to a radio interview with Janna and Melanie on Iowa Public Radio.
Author: Janna Graber is the managing editor of GoWorldTravel.com. She is the author of three travel anthologies: A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel, Adventures of a Lifetime and Chance Encounters: Travel Tales from Around the World.