How Travel Opened My Eyes to the World

May 24, 2020 Updated: May 24, 2020

At the bottom of my sock drawer, my passport lies hidden. It is worn and tattered, its pages covered in stamps and visas. The photo inside isn’t flattering, but my face is bright with hope, eager with excitement for another trip.

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The author with a glass of Franconian wine in Franconia, a wine-growing region of Bavaria. (Courtesy of Janna Graber)

In the corner of my closet, my suitcase gathers dust, waiting for the days when we can travel freely again. Like you, I am staying at home. Like many of you, I am struggling to make the best of it.

To be honest, this is the longest I’ve stayed in one place for years, and it’s given me time to reflect. It’s strange the way life can twist and turn. I never imagined how my life would end up, and that I’d one day have a job that centered around travel. 

That’s because while growing up, I never wanted to travel.   

Changing My World Outlook

“Why on earth would you want to learn another language? You’ll never use it.” Yes, I cringe when I think about those words I said to my sister when we were in high school.

When you grow up in the middle of a great big country, far from other borders, it’s easy to believe that the world is just like the one you grew up in. As a teenager from Colorado, I had no interest in other lands or cultures. 

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Then I went to university and met Melanie, my college roommate. She had just returned from a summer trip to Europe, and night after night, she regaled me with stories of places I had never imagined.

She talked of dreamy Austrian villages and narrow, ancient streets. She told of tall, handsome Dutch boys, and the thrill of cruising down the German autobahns.

At first, I feigned disinterest, but eventually, I began to listen, picturing these worlds that she painted with words.

Eventually, I wanted to see this new world for myself. We planned a 10-day trip to Europe over Christmas break. 

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The author in Nevis. (Courtesy of Janna Graber)

Culture Shock

Culture shock set in as soon as we stepped foot in Amsterdam on that trip during semester break. Surrounded by the staccato sounds of Dutch, I felt like a fish out of water. I wanted to rush back into the plane and head for the familiarity of home.

But I was stuck there, so I followed Melanie through the streets of Rotterdam, where we met her friends. She laughed and talked with everyone she met, not afraid of the new things she saw. Slowly, I began to view this new world through her eyes.

We spent New Year’s Eve in Rotterdam, and I watched in awe as the residents poured into the streets that night, lighting monstrous fireworks, drinking warm drinks, and greeting each other (and me!) with two-cheeked kisses.

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The Salzburg skyline. (Canadastock/Shutterstock)

Even though I could not understand a word being spoken around me, I was thrilled. There was a whole new world to discover, and I had just opened a window. 

From there, Melanie and I rented a little Peugeot and headed out through Europe. We fumbled our way through the countryside, getting lost, but always stopping to ask cute boys for directions. We ran into difficulties with new languages and cultures, of course, but Melanie just laughed and considered it an adventure.

We drove through Holland and Germany, but it was Austria that broke down any resistance I had to new cultures. 

The beauty of the Alps surrounding Salzburg took my breath away, and in the cozy cafés that are such an integral part of Austrian culture, I discovered a never-before-seen side of myself. I learned the quiet joy of sitting all afternoon around a tiny table, drinking dark coffee with whipped cream and discussing questions about life with new friends.

Perhaps that is why we are drawn to travel, for in leaving our homes and venturing into other parts of life, it reveals a side that we would never discover otherwise. In learning about others, we learn most about ourselves.

Finally: Vienna. Wandering with Melanie and my new Austrian friends at midnight down the cobblestone streets of this former imperial city, I could barely contain my delight. Something, I knew, had awakened deep inside of me.

Nine months after that first trek to Europe, I packed up my college boxes and moved to Austria, where I attended university before eventually returning home to the States. 

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Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna. (Ekaterina Kondratova/Shutterstock)

What Travel Taught Me

My life had turned down a whole new path. I chose to pursue a career as a journalist that would allow me to continue to travel.

Looking back now, I realize that each place I have visited has molded and shaped me in some way. After all, when you experience different things, you begin to see things differently.

I’ve had bucket-list adventures, from hiking through the Australian bush to dogsledding in the Arctic. But it has been the people I have met along the way who have changed me.

In Burma, in a home with dirt floors and two small rooms, a tight-knit family showed me that happiness doesn’t come from money, but from togetherness. 

Austria taught me to appreciate classical music, fine wine, and coffee with friends. In Sweden, I learned what it looks like when a culture puts community first, while Finland showed me that time in the forest can be healing.

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Dogsledding in Quebec. (Janna Graber)

My new friends in Quebec taught me to embrace winter, not fear it, and in the Outback, I learned to appreciate Mother Nature’s wild side. 

On California’s central coast, overlooking vineyard-covered hills, a winemaker told me that it wasn’t how you make wine, but why. And on the wide-open lands of Kansas, a rancher showed me how to see the unique beauty of the prairie. 

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Riding Clydesdales in Cambria, Calif. (Janna Graber)

Travel has enriched my life more than I could ever have imagined—and I will forever be grateful. And while I may not be able to venture far right now, I know the world is waiting. For now, I’ll stay home and appreciate what the world has taught me, and when we can travel again freely, I’ll be ready. 

Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 55 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.