Packing is the easiest assignment of the International Civic Leadership Europe experience.
It’s the unpacking that seems endless.
We travel with our assumptions tucked beside our business suits, expectations zippered into backpacks and ethnocentrism tucked in the pages of our passports.
We leave – despite heritage and personal history – as “Americans” and return with experiences that elicit identity examination.
We go deep, quick.
The trip brings the messiness of divorce into view. “Brexit,” as we learn at the European Parliament, is like a relative choosing to leave their family in the name of independence. Within a year, Britain will leave “the United States of Europe,” says Jan, a presenter with cheeky charisma.
And here we are, a classroom of folks who live in a country that also made a grand exit in the name of liberty. Hello, American Revolution. Hello, repeating history.
Later, in various places including The Hague and the United Nations, we learn of the international quest for harmony, the tender balance between national and local governance and the desire for solidarity for the “greater good.”
But who is included in the “greater good”?
After a session held near a chunk of the Berlin Wall, a group of Greenpeace activists advocate for global access to renewable solar energy. Turns out their organizer is Laura from Queens, NY, who leads with impeccable French, English, and a dedication to environmental justice.
In a country with a storied imperialist past, who is considered Belgian? I ask.
Complicated question, Laura says. There is talk of deporting any immigrants with “suspicious ties to Islam.” I listen quietly and nod. Who can judge or clutch pearls when xenophobia lives in the United States, too?
Who is considered “American”?
Ten days of travel does not bring us any closer to an answer. But we are closer to an interpersonal reality: Travel creates community, it binds strangers together for collective caretaking within a fast-paced, mobile study of global unity.
We begin as a crew of “Americans,” yes, but depart with an exchange of hugs, fist bumps, praise, and promises of continued relationships.
Still with plenty questions to unpack – how is travel a political and spiritual act? What is the emotional cost of fiscal foreign aid? How is consensus achieved on a global scale? – we take note of a deeper, individual query: How will we contribute to the global quest for peace, inclusion and humanity?
And, as the African adage teaches, if we travel together, might we witness long-term peace, together?
Photo credit: Morgan DeLong