About that Identity Crisis

I blogged yesterday about our unfortunate experiences entering Stratford Upon Avon. (My unstated conclusion was that the town is confident that William (Shakespeare) will continue to pull in the tourists, and additional efforts are unnecessary.)

That said, we did encounter a couple of wonderful, helpful people. When we got off the train in Stratford, we were on the opposite side of the tracks from the station, requiring us to negotiate one of those bridges that spans the tracks. Up a flight of stairs, across, and then down to the platform. I had the big suitcase, and a young man insisted on carrying it for me up, across and then down the steps, despite my protests that I could handle it. Bob’s experience was similar–a man traveling with his toddler daughter took both cases across the bridge for him.

In my case, the helpful young man was an Arab. Bob’s helper was black.

I don’t want to use this happenstance to draw any large social conclusions; I simply note it. But we have both remarked upon the changing composition of the English crowds we’ve encountered on this trip. Americans like to think our country is more diverse than other western industrialized nations, but if our observations are representative, multiculturalism is hardly confined to the U.S. As we looked out the windows at each of the 15 stops between London and Stratford, we were struck by the number of women wearing hijabs (even a few burkas), and others who clearly were not from stereotypical English backgrounds.

Those observations made me think about our dinner companions on the just-ended cruise. We ate with a couple from Switzerland whose son lives in Florida and whose daughter lives in Germany. The wife’s sister lives in Paris. The couple themselves have a flat in Nice, an apartment in Florida and their “ancestral” home in Switzerland. They are multi-lingual (I always feel like an ugly American around people who are fluent in three or four languages…). During our trip, we met a number of people with such multiple “homes” and what one might call “shared identities.”

Is there a point to these random observations? Probably not–unless we chalk up all these experiences to “the world is changing” and “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Stereotypes–racial, national, religious, what-have-you–have never been particularly reliable, but in the world we inhabit, they have gone from being marginally useful to downright misleading.

Sometimes, travel outside one’s safe, familiar world is a forcible reminder that identity is a social construct.


  1. Only small minds and people never leave their country or neighborhood. I think they are missing that “curiosity gene.”

    When you travel abroad, you join the human race that has experienced something that few can understand. Once you’ve lived abroad from your ‘home’ country, you become one of the 1% of people and it makes it difficult for others that haven’t traveled or lived abroad to understand or relate to you. It can be lonely.

  2. ALG; I am surprised by your superior reaction to Sheila’s travel blogs. She is sharing the good and the bad with us; I am not a world traveler but I understand and relate to her observations and reactions. As for travel “abroad”; I have only been to Montreal and Toronto, Canada, and Nogales, Mexico – not very far abroad but it was the apparent acceptance of the difference in people and cultures that struck me. Are you the one having difficulty relating to those of us who aren’t interested in traveling or living abroad? Those of us in the U.S. who have never left their country or neighborhood number in the millions; most because they cannot afford to travel anywhere or, like myself, have found incredible people and places traveling here at home. I am “enjoying” Sheila’s travelog reports but hope she finds friendler assistance when needed for the remainder of their trip.

  3. Difficult for those of us who aren’t an hour (or less) from a foreign country, or able to watch watch television in several languages to be multi-lingual. Save for British propaganda in the Great War, lots of us in southern and central Indiana would at least have more than a smattering of (Bavarian) German.

    Please don’t beat yourself up over not being even bi-lingual.

  4. Sorry JoAnn, I don’t think I’m ‘superior’ to others that don’t travel. I was thinking about my tea bagger sister that thinks that foreigners are scum and she is ‘superior’ to the ‘others’. She and her ilk have no desire to explore other cultures or sites. Anyway, I was thinking of people like her that lack that curiosity gene. Sorry for the confusion.

    What my husband and I have discovered is that when you mention to a new friend or couple that you’ve lived abroad, they back up a bit. They suddenly can’t relate to you or your experiences and ask some interesting questions that make me realize that they are intimidated when all we want to do is to share the experience but are in no way ‘bragging’ about it.

    Our take on living abroad? The human race wants to have a safe home, safe job, and a family to care for. We’re all the same no matter where we were born or live.

  5. When I traveled to the Holy Land and Istanbul a few years ago, I learned all sorts of cultural lessons never covered by the news.

    * I visited a Palestinian Christian church which had been attacked by the Israeli government and learned that both Arabs and Jews have fewer rights in their homeland than we visiting Americans had there. I’d thought the differences there were just between Muslims and Jews and felt guilty that we could go anywhere there but local residents didn’t enjoy similar freedoms.
    (Terrorism has many victims on all sides.)

    * It amazed me to meet and learn about the Muslim family which has held keys to the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre for 1400 years because the 3 Christian groups claiming ownership of the church couldn’t be trusted to permit continuing access to “other” Christians.

    * Turkish Muslim families welcomed us into their homes where the men helped with the children and the meals, and the women (as well as the men) were college educated and worked outside their homes in professional positions. The country is 95% Muslim, but most Muslim women wore make-up, had no head coverings, and were indistinguishable from Westerners on the streets of Istanbul.

    * Each year, our church joins with Muslim, Jewish, and Christians congregants to host an Iftar dinner to break the fast for Muslims during Ramadan. Dinner table assignment of guests assures that all three faith traditions are represented at each table. With each year’s dinner, I come closer to thinking that our faith traditions have more commonalities than differences. The dinner is always a wonderful experience to make new friends and broaden comprehension of other faith traditions as well as our own. Unfortunately, such bridge-building doesn’t make the headlines that strife and violence do.

    Old stereotypes die hard, but die they do with exposure outside one’s cultural and geographic backyard. Learning about erroneous stereotypes – far from being unsettling – is a delight. The media has a way of painting a darker picture of the world to the exclusion of those who illuminate it. Thank you Sheila for being one of the illuminators.

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