I was travelling on my own in Prague. I gave the taxi driver a sheet of paper with the name and address of my hotel, which had so many accent marks it looked like a grammar teacher had been doodling on it. The driver took me on a wild and unnecessarily long ride through bumpy, cobbled streets, and screeched to a halt in front of a street sign that I couldn’t read.
Then he waved his hand vaguely in random directions, muttered something in grumpy Czech, and pointed to a ridiculously high fee on the meter. I handed him cash. He managed to convey that I had not given him the correct bills, that I was short by 500 koruna. Embarrassed by my obvious lack of familiarity with the currency and feeling like one of ‘those’ tourists, I apologized (as we Canadians do) and fished out another twenty-something-Canadian-bucks-worth of Czech money.
The cab sped off like a getaway car. As I replayed the payment scene in my head, it took me about 30 seconds to realize that I had given him the correct amount the first time. I’d been scammed.
But my annoyance would have to wait. I had bigger problems.
There I was, standing on a baffling street corner on a hilltop in Prague with a large suitcase and a puzzled expression on my face. I turned around in a circle, like a nightmare version of that scene from The Sound of Music.
There was no hotel. I started down one street, my suitcase wheels making “You’re kiiiillling meeee” sounds every bumpy step of the way. No hotel. Again in the other direction. No hotel. It was hot. I had less money than I thought, thanks to the Taxi Shakedown. The streets were deserted, except for a stray cat. The hills were not alive.
In the distance I spotted a Currency Exchange. I was hopeful there might be someone there who spoke English. I was wrong. But the woman there smiled and looked helpful. So I got out my hotel address and pointed to it and shrugged my shoulders in what I hoped was a universal gesture for “Where the hell am I?”
She nodded and smiled and waved her hands vaguely in random directions, and said something in earnest Czech. Embarrassed by my inability to say even ‘Thank you’ in Czech and feeling like one of “those” tourists, I opted for waving a cheery goodbye and tried to look confident as I headed out the door. I went back to the street corner where the taxi driver had let me out. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
I decided to go further down Incomprehensible Street than I had gone before. My overworked suitcase gamely went along for another possibly pointless trek along the cobbles. And then, there, at the end of the street, my hotel appeared as if by magic. It was a happy end to a stressful day, which later I capped off with a lovely cold Pilsner and a deep sigh of relief.
This could just be another amusing travel story, but I tell it now because for me it has a deeper meaning.
I am lucky. English is my native tongue, and it is spoken, or eagerly sought to be spoken, in many places around the world. This makes for a big comfort zone for us English speakers. It’s possible to, say, fly to Paris, stay in a nice hotel, and never have to speak a word of French. Or to go to a chain luxury resort in Mexico, and not really have any idea what country you are in, except for knowing that it’s hot. Almost any travel is great fun–but not all travel makes us feel like a fish out of water.
On that day, in Prague, I was pretty far out of my comfort zone. A gasping goldfish.
I was all alone in a place where I couldn’t even read the alphabet. No one spoke English. I couldn’t communicate except for gestures. I was dependent on the kindness of strangers–and I’d already been scammed once within the first hour of being there. I will never forget that feeling of vulnerability. And that’s why I think comfort zones are there to be not just pushed up against, but smashed.
Steve and I have stood, ravenously hungry, in front of restaurants on the other side of the world with bewildering menus in alphabets that looked like squiggles, uncertain about going in because we had no idea what to order–until hunger made the decision for us and we had no choice. It is often done with more than a bit of trepidation, I assure you. We’ve eaten eel skewers at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (which was, frankly, better than jellied eels in London), chicken feet in Toronto, and guinea pig in Cusco, and random ‘point and smile’ menu choices in dozens of other places. Guesses don’t always work out – once, also at Tsukiji, Steve bought what he thought was regular tuna sashimi, but turned out to be egg sacs – ‘mentaiko’, apparently, instead of sashimi. Bit of a surprise, that.
We’ve ‘overpaid’ 😉 taxi drivers and shopkeepers. We’ve gone to a traditional Korean spa, where bathers (separated by gender) are naked. We’ve been the only white people on a subway, the subject of curious onlookers. These have all been quite humbling experiences. Because you get to a point in your life, and you feel like you know stuff. And it’s important to discover that you don’t know Šhèëēπ.
(Just in case you think we are Next Gen ‘No Reservations’ wannabees, we’ve also gone on a luxury cruise around the coast of Spain, which is absolutely one of my favourite vacations ever, and I confess to a deep and abiding love for all-inclusive beach vacations. I like my comfort zones a lot too.)
But still, that feeling of being vulnerable, slightly terrified, lost, unable to count on anyone knowing my language, of having to rely on my wits, of not understanding the currency, the customs and the language, of never having tried the food before, of being a minority, is perhaps strangely, what I cherish the most about travel. It is more priceless to me than any five-star resort vacation. Because it gives me a deeper understanding of the world and of what it’s like to feel like an outsider.
And that’s why I have so much empathy for the refugees and immigrants who come to our country seeking a better life. Imagine how completely and utterly outside their comfort zone they are!
Vulnerable, perhaps more than slightly terrified, maybe unable to read the street signs, dependent on the kindness of strangers and hoping that’s what they get, being a visible minority, stared at on the subway, unfamiliar with the food, the currency, the customs and the language.
And not just for a short stay, dipping their toes out of their comfort zones for a couple of weeks like me before going home to a nice soft bed–no, this is permanent for them. Because even going through all of that is better than what they had before.
In these days of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, I think it’s important for all of us to consider immigration from that perspective. If we never leave our own comfort zones, how can we possibly understand what it’s like for other people to leave theirs?
I know you might say that not everyone can afford to jet off to Asia to have the experience of standing in front of a menu they can’t read to develop that perspective.
But we can all be tourists in our own backyard and learn about other cultures that way.
- Go for dim sum in Chinatown instead of bacon and eggs for Sunday brunch.
- Take in a street festival celebrating another culture’s national holiday, and try some samples of their special occasion foods.
- Volunteer with a refugee outreach organization and listen to their stories. Their poignant, sad, happy, romantic, harrowing, uplifting, terrifying, inspiring stories.
Because if we can’t at least be brave enough to do that much, I don’t think we have the right to criticize people who have dared to do so much more.
“It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
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