The first time I went to Europe I was on a quest, of sorts. My mission: find french fries, and cute guys. Not necessarily in that order.
I was 18. It was 1972, and "doing Europe" was the thing to do.
Two friends and I backpacked the summer away: Zurich (I slept under the first duvet I'd ever seen. After days of travelling on the cheap I can still feel the luxury of it); Vienna (where we slept on a park bench in the rain); Florence (statue of David, say no more); Venice (my backpack was stolen from the train. I never found it); ending up in Munich where we had tickets for the Olympic Games.
We had a wonderful summer, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but I shudder to think how many historical sites we walked right past, noses in the air, sniffing for deep fryers.
Since that time I've been back more than once.
I lived for a school year in Scotland, where I took my first year of theology. I learned Hebrew, Greek, and also that a person truly can survive without central heating.
I worked for a summer on a kibbutz in Israel, picking fruit and trying out my newly-acquired (and aforementioned) Hebrew. Turned out I had learned the old-style "King James" form of the language, and could say things like "Behold O Daughter of Zion".
That doesn't go over very well in downtown Jerusalem.
More recently I scratched an item from my bucket list and attended the once-every-decade Passion Play at Oberammergau. I loved the walking tour of Berlin; seeing what's left of the wall, and Checkpoint Charlie; and it took my breath away to stand at the gates of Dachau.
Books and documentaries try their best, but you just have to be there.
The highlight of that trip, though, bar none, was experiencing it all with my 25-year-old nephew, who actually wanted to travel with me.
Finally, this past fall I travelled to Croatia to be part of the wedding of two of my friends. What will stay with me from that trip is the deep generosity and hospitality of the people who welcomed us to their homes and their country.
(That, and the plum trees growing in the back yard. I'd wager that I ate my weight in warm-from-the-trees plums in the few days I was there. )
Why go to Europe?
The world is a huge and wondrous place. It's also very small in some ways. Part of the wonder is simply that we get to be part of it all.
The gift of life itself; the privilege of calling this whole planet home – the things that link us to the past - all of that becomes far more clear the more of this world we see.
It was in Europe that I began to learn that neither I nor my own country is the centre of the universe; that I am part of a whole; that others have customs and history and points of view equal in import to my own.
I'm thankful for each opportunity to learn that.
I've long since given up looking for french fries and, alas, cute guys.
But more of Europe? Bring it on.