At the end of a long day last week, I realized that I was out of fruit. I like apples and bananas when traveling, because they’re healthy snacks that be easily stashed in a coat pocket on the way out the door. If you don’t know exactly when and where your next meal is coming from, it’s good to be prepared. And I was completely out. Also, I was hungry.
So I had started my long walk to the grocery store when I got an email from the International Hub, my contact office at the university here. Did I want to stop by and pick up paperwork for a student, or should they just send it down to be waiting at the security desk?
I’ve learned to take face-to-face meetings whenever possible, partly because the people who work in that office are just profoundly pleasant people, but also because personal meetings have ways of quickly raising and resolving issues that won’t necessarily come up over email. “By the way, did you hear about…. Oh, that reminds me…. Hey, I can do that; you don’t have to.” Some of the best planning and problem-solving I’ve done here has happened almost accidentally on a walk across campus or a drive downtown to do something else.
So I turned my back on the grocery store and headed back to campus to fetch the paperwork.
When I entered the International Hub, I found a couch full of food. “Do you want any apples and bananas?” my colleague asked me. She explained that the university had bought provisions for a couple of other international students who would need to isolate until their Covid tests came back negative, but now those students couldn’t come.
“Pack like a pilgrim,” I’ve told students. “Don’t just pack the bare minimum you’ll need to get by. Pack less than that.” Why would we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” if we already had a cupboard full of bread and could totally take care of ourselves? Leave enough emptiness to be filled by serendipity, grace, and the hospitality of strangers. Because those things happen.
In the Harry Potter books, the Mirror of Erised shows the viewer whatever they most desire. I’m not really sure what I most desire, which is why I’m so curious to look into that mirror—which is why that plot device is such a nifty invention from J.K. Rowling.
The Mirror of Noitartsurf doesn’t sound nearly as elegant, nor is it. Frustration is an inelegant experience: it makes us trip and stop; it makes small things big (elegance is the converse); it shuts things down. But it can also open our eyes to who we really are.
I have not had Wi-Fi for six days. That’s frustrating. Especially with an academic term starting next week, a new program to set up, and constant emails about travel changes, administrative matters, and—most ironic of all—how to fix the Wi-Fi. I’ve done all of this, and video chatted with my family overseas, on the strength of the meager UK phone plan I had arranged.
The natural response to this kind of frustration is to find somewhere to place the blame. Who dropped the ball? In this particular case, well, that’s me. Long story short, I didn’t think that I’d need the kind of internet account here that I do in fact need, so I said “no” when they asked—months ago.
Even if it were possible to point the finger at someone else, though, the more interesting question is what the frustration says about me. What is it in me that needs constant, convenient internet access?
In direct contrast to the Mirror of Erised, the Mirror of Noitartsurf shows me exactly what I don’t want—which is of course a mirror image of what I do want and who I really am.
I don’t often like who I see in this mirror.
Years and years ago, I was writing late at night in a coffee shop in Washington, DC, and I paused to study the other patrons in the dark reflection of the front window so that I could study them without staring at them directly, instantaneously pigeon-holing each one: “First date over there, no doubt,” I thought. “Both so awkwardly trying not to seem awkward.” Next table: “Stupid nerd.” Next table: “Superficial little socialite, probably texting her BFF about the new nail color she found, or whatever.” Next table: “Pretentious, bookish little—oh, wait: that’s me.”
Looking into my frustration over this issue, I haven’t altogether liked what I see. So I’ve sent the requisite emails to IT, but then I’ve gone for long walks and runs far from any digital screen. I’ve read real books. I’ve written without the distractions of email and social media.
I would like to be the kind of person who needs less internet. Here’s my chance.
I’ve been in Liverpool for a couple of days now, and only today do I feel that I’m 90% here. There’s jetlag. There’s culture shock (even for someone who’s lived in England before). There’s the figuring out of a new city and a new partner university. It all takes time. But I’m just now beginning to believe that it’s really 8:00pm, that no one is faking their accent, and that this funny-looking little piece of paper with a picture of the queen on it is in fact real money.
That not-quite-here sensation was reinforced, for me, by the fact that the campus where I’m living was literally locked down when I arrived—not because of Covid, I’m happy to say, but just because of the New Year’s holiday. No offices were open. No people around. No Wi-Fi in my flat, and no one to restore it.
The sensation was also reinforced by the number of my roots that had been pulled up. I’m a husband approximately 3800 miles from his wife; I’m a dad approximately 3800 miles from his son. And until today, I was a professor approximately 3800 miles from his students.
As a fairly strong introvert, I’m struck by how many points of my identity are relational. I wouldn’t be a professor without students, a father without a child, or a husband without a wife. I’m also a son and a brother. The only other way I would define my identity—the primary way—is as a Christian, and the good news in all of this is that as a Christian I am always exactly zero miles from God.
Today I stood in a car park (read: parking lot) in the middle of the housing complex where the students are staying, distributing Covid tests to the slow flow of students being shuttled from Manchester airport, and receiving completed tests from those students 15 minutes later for submission to the lab.
If the best arrivals happen slowly, the arrival of the Calvin group to Liverpool is downright awesome. Some came today; some will come tomorrow; some have been in Britain for the better part of a week.
With every student who entered the car park, though, I felt myself arriving more and more in Liverpool, because my role was being restored: I was more and more of a professor with each and every student who arrived.
But alas. Omicron rules dictate that those poor students must hunker down in their rooms until their tests comes back negative. “Don’t hole up in your room,” I told them during orientation; now that’s the law. “Don’t just eat American food,” I said; the university is literally delivering Dominos pizza and McDonalds to them in their isolation. “Don’t put an electronic screen between you and Britain.” Right now, that’s pretty much all they’ve got.
I’ve given them online readings, assignments for the semester, and so forth, to peruse so that they’ll be able to take up their roles as students just as I’m taking up mine as professor. But somehow, I doubt that’s very helpful.
They’re safe. They’re fed. But they’re somewhat trapped in a new environment without the means to acclimate to the new culture all around them. And some of them—delayed by airline cancelations and positive Covid tests—haven’t even begun this process of testing and isolation yet.
The best arrivals often happen slowly. But this is ridiculous. 🙂
Tomorrow afternoon I fly to Liverpool, a few short days ahead of the students who will join me for the Semester in Britain.
In an old Russian custom, a traveler who is about to move house or set out on a long journey will—just before departure—sit down for a moment of silent thought and prayer. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the impulsive rake Anatole Kuragin is about to hop in the sleigh to abduct and elope with Natasha Rostova, and he has just ordered the driver to whip the horses to death if he has to. The driver leaps toward the door. “Wait!” says Anatole. “We have to sit down first!” Which he does.
I’ve always admired that tradition in principle, although I’ve never achieved it in practice. I’m always too busy checking last minute details—which is of course, the kind of frenzied activity that the Russian habit is designed to counteract.
The last time I moved to England for a semester, just as I was hauling my suitcase toward the back door, I had the impulse to go over to the armchair in our living room, not to sit down (as I should have) but rather to pet the large black cat huddled on the back of it. Dear Miles was a gentle old soul who had been with my wife and me for sixteen years—before we had our son, before we had our jobs, before we had our PhDs. If you had asked me to define what made our house a home, Miles sould have topped the list as surely as he topped the armchair.
I was right to say goodbye to Miles: when I returned from England four months later, Miles was dead and buried in the backyard. Long trips from home can change you, for better and for worse, but the home to which you return will also have changed when you return to it. It is well worth a pause before departure.
(Our other cat, Natalie, would die about two months after my return. The current pets have been put on high alert.)
The one ritual I do have is a short prayer that I often say before long journeys, whether they be transatlantic flights, road trips, distance runs, or marathons:
Bless my leaving; Guide my going; Welcome me at last.
In less than a month, a small group of students will join me in Liverpool for Calvin University’s Semester in Britain: fifteen weeks of academic adventures in the land of castles, cathedrals, and Beatles.
The program is intentionally both academic and experiential, and my job as facilitator is to make sure that those two aspects work together: to see that students are experiencing what we’re studying (e.g., visiting sites related to the literature we’re reading) and studying what we’re experiencing (e.g., thinking and writing about our site visits and life in Britain). In short, our goal together is incarnational learning: studying this part of the world with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength—but also with all five of our senses, seeing and hearing and touching and tasting and smelling Britain.
As part of our orientation here in the United States, we spent a little bit of time thinking about different modes of travel. Not literal modes of transport—we’ll get good enough at planes and trains and coaches in due course!—but different roles people often assume when they journey from one place to another.
Here are a handful of options.
Five types of traveler
1. Crusaders travel to a particular place to assert their will on it. They’re fixers. A classic example is a knight who journeys to a foreign kingdom to slay a dragon, or to Jerusalem to take that city back from the Muslims. In the modern era, an ambassador or president might travel to a foreign country in order to achieve a political goal. Crusaders can also be servants: a wealthy American high school student might travel to an impoverished village in Mexico for a week to repair a school or feed hungry children. Crusaders are highly focused travelers, traveling to particular places abundantly equipped (with weapons, political leverage, or simply superior financial resources) to significantly change those places. Crusaders are committed to the places they visit insofar as they can make those places conform to their own ideals.
2. Explorers travel to learn. Their goal is not to dominate their destination (as a crusader would) but rather to understand it. Although their minds are active as they travel, their stance toward the new place tends to be open and passive. They are looking to receive the place and its features rather than to force the place to receive them. Explorers probably also have a less specific destination in mind than crusaders do: they’re open to discovery and following paths they had not anticipated. If a crusader is intent on resolving a known issue, an explorer is eager to identify new issues on the ground—not only answering the questions she came with but also uncovering new questions. At the very least, explorers have intellectual commitments to the places they visit: those places are important to them as potential sources of new learning and experience. Explorers tend to travel moderately equipped with some initial knowledge and with tools to measure and record their discoveries—less baggage than carried by a crusader, probably, but more than that carried by a nomad.
3. Nomads wander with no defining destination and no purpose beyond basic subsistence. They travel not to learn but simply to live. They’ll follow herds along migratory paths so that they can hunt and eat; they’ll pursue seasonal work in orchards or tourist spots (during summer), and in warehouses and delivery services (at Christmas time). They are in some ways the opposite of crusaders, not focused on a single destination but constantly moving from place to place, not mastering the places to which they travel but letting those different destinations shape their lives. Nomads tend to be self-sufficient, but they travel very light, carrying the bare minimum they need for survival, with little more than backpacks or camper vans containing all of their earthly possessions. Their connection to a given location tends to be thin and temporary: the more someone grows attached to a place, the less that person is a nomad.
4. Pilgrims travel to know the grace of God. They are spiritual seekers who combine different qualities of crusaders, explorers, and nomads. Classic pilgrims made long spiritual journeys to holy sites in order to achieve healing, forgiveness, or other forms of religious restoration. They were like the crusaders in having a specific destination and a particular purpose, but very unlike crusaders insofar as they travel to receive great solutions rather than to deliver them. Like explorers, pilgrims tend to travel with minds that are active but also open and receptive—and the same is true of their hearts and souls. Traditional pilgrims traveled even lighter than nomads, with less than they needed to get by, totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers for shelter and sustenance; dependent on God for guidance and traveling mercies. Pilgrims forego physical comforts for spiritual receptivity. Like explorers, they discover resources and wisdom along the way. Although the goal of a pilgrimage is usually to reach a particular destination, the journey to that place is often even more meaningful than the place itself. Every place on a pilgrimage is a potential site for divine revelation, if only through simple acts of humble hospitality.
5. Tourists travel to please themselves. They might look like explorers, with their cameras and cargo shorts, but they’re more like crusaders on a mission to cross things off their bucket lists. They pack heavy, as crusaders do, placing a premium on their own comfort, and they do not take well to changes in plans. Tourists tend to be the fastest travelers of those listed here, developing no real connection or commitment to the places they visit, sometimes staying only long enough to grab a selfie in a famous site. Their relationship to their destinations tends to be transactional: the place provides entertainment and bragging rights; the tourist provides money. Unlike explorers, they probably learn very little about their destinations; unlike nomads, they do not even depend on those places for subsistence. On the contrary, many tourist sites depend on the tourists for funding. In this respect, tourists might be called inadvertent crusaders, saving a place economically by spending money there. Whereas true crusaders are at least nominally committed to improving the places they visit, a tourist’s main mission is personal satisfaction.
How will we roll?
This is, of course, a reductive list. Many kinds of journey—e.g., traveling to visit family for the holidays, going to a friend’s wedding—don’t fit neatly into any of the five categories, and most people shift among these modes on any given trip. A tourist becomes an explorer any time she says, “Hey, what’s over there?” and sets off down a path she hadn’t prepared to travel. A nomad is a pilgrim insofar as he trusts in God to give him this day his daily bread. The “pilgrims” who traveled to North America were more like crusaders in their goal to turn the continent into a religious community that fit their theological and social agenda.
The important point for us is that, to some extent, we can choose how we travel. If we stop to think about our assumptions, expectations, and ambitions, we can make deliberate decisions—from how we pack to where we go and what we do there—that help us to travel more in one of these modes than another.
My personal hope is that the sixteen of us will travel more like explorers and pilgrims than like crusaders, nomads, or—worst of all—tourists.
Can you pack like a tourist and still travel like a pilgrim? Perhaps. Consider someone who makes the following choices, however:
He packs two full-size suitcases with clothing, sports gear, cookware, and a video game system so that he won’t need to buy, borrow, or share anything in Britain.
He spends most of his time in Liverpool with his earbuds filling his head with the music he brought with him, effectively filtering out the various voices and other sounds of the city.
He sees all of the impressive sites on weekend excursions, but usually with his iPhone literally between him and those sites so that he can post the pictures later. His most vivid memories of the experience are mostly limited to the images on his Instagram.
He eats most of his meals at McDonalds or Starbucks with his friends from home.
However noble this young man’s intentions, over the course of fourteen weeks, these small choices will add up to a totally different experience from that of a student in the same program who arrives with less money, less stuff, and therefore more openness to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that Britain has to offer. She’ll have to find some cheap essentials at a thrift store—which she’ll quickly learn is called a “charity shop” in Britain. Her journey there will help her to explore her surroundings, maybe compel her to ask for directions, and allow her to overhear new conversations in a variety of accents. She’ll end up sharing her cooking pot with her flatmate—and maybe some of the soup that one of them cooks in that pot. And so on.
This second traveler is much more likely to “get her Britain’s worth.” By arriving with less, she’ll leave with more.
So, among our first challenges—alongside all of the logistics of international travel in the Covid era—is this: pack like a pilgrim. Take less than the minimum. Leave room—in our hearts and souls and minds, but also in our suitcases—for the kinds of blessing that we can only receive as surprises from another culture.