You know, like “The innocents abroad” by Mark Twain, but in reverse. One of the greatest things about travel with kids is exposing them to different cultures where people may think a bit differently, and it doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. That has being my goal: To get our children out of American bubble now and again.
Many years ago, I was a kid living in “Belarus” bubble in a far flung corner of Eastern Europe. I couldn’t wait to get out of it! Through combination of good grades and sheer luck I was selected as one of 50 students in the former Soviet Union to visit USA as part of an exchange program. Before that trip I only went to Russia as well as few cities in Belarus.
Naturally, my mom was frantic about selecting gifts for my host family. Gifts are a huge part of my culture. If you don’t bring them, you may as well not show up. A problem: my family was broke. Sure, we bought a few trinkets here and there, but it didn’t seem like enough for such a big occasion.
So, my mom started looking around the house. Hey, there is a crystal vase! Let’s clean it up and repurpose it as a gift. Hmm, deer antlers… Why the heck not! Yes, I brought deer antlers (family heirloom) to America. My mom said that my host family will love them (they didn’t).
And so, off I went at only 16 years of age. None of us have ever flown on an airplane and didn’t know what to expect. So, my mom has packed me some sausage and a can of soup. That was before 9/11, and somehow all that cr#p made it through security, even the deer antlers. She also put a spoon in my carry-on (aka plastic bag), and it started making a racket in an overhead compartment of the airplane.
So, our group finally made it to Washington DC. The next day, we were touring the White House, after that FBI headquarters and so on. We were all given an allowance of $200 for 2 weeks. Our food was provided, so this was mostly for souvenirs and miscellaneous items. I have never had more that $5 in my possession before, so was very careful with my newly found treasure. In fact, I brought $190 back to Belarus. Years later, I learned about my Jewish heritage, and it finally made sense!
I couldn’t believe how big everything was: The malls, the roads, the food portions. It was overwhelming, to say the least. I remember how my friend and I needed to get someplace and ended up crossing the interstate on foot. Where I grew up, we walked everywhere, so we thought this was a totally acceptable way of doing things. You should have seen some of the looks on drivers’ faces.
After visiting DC, we went to Florida. First, we were to stay in a rural area with our hosts, and after that we would be off to Miami. Small town was boring as can be. I thought to myself, I would never want to live in a place like that (20 years later, this is where I live). They really did go out of their way to make us feel welcome. We went to Disney (which at the time, I absolutely loved) and Space Center where we had a special tour with access to the launch room.
The school that hosted us organized a gathering where they invited their best and brightest students. We were the stars of the party and people took turns asking us questions about Belarus. This is where I had one of the worst faux pas of my life, though it was totally unintentional. One of the students asked if Belarus has any black people living in it. My response: We don’t have any ne$%os in our country. Let me explain. I did not realize it was an offensive term, I really didn’t. I honestly thought it was the term for black people. Cheapblackdad, please, don’t leave my blog!
Later in the day, a black guy came up to me and out of the blue, told me that he was offered several full scholarships to top universities in the country. I congratulated him, though was a bit puzzled why he would volunteer such information to a total stranger. Eventually, they informed me of my slip-up.
Needless to say, I was very happy when we left for Miami. Now we are talking! They placed us in a beachfront motel. It was seedy and there were quite a few roaches, but we didn’t care. We were in freaking Miami! At some point, several guys struck up conversation with my roommate and I. Apparently, they wanted to pick us up in the evening and take us to a club. They said we were supposed to wear bathing suits and there would be foam coming down from a ceiling. Huh?
No, I didn’t go. Are you kidding me? I’ve shown a photo of what I looked like at 16:
I was the nerdiest nerd you would ever come across in your life. Of course, I didn’t think so at the time.
This trip truly changed me. In fact, it completely changed the trajectory of my life. That’s how I ended up meeting my husband, and that’s why I’m now blogging for you, fine people. But if you asked me if I would let my daughter do the same thing at 16 years of age, my response would be “No way!”
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.