A World View

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Saint Augustine

Story Leonette Walker Slay

BIRMINGHAM — Many people have dreams with recurring themes — perhaps not being prepared for a test or work project, or dressing inappropriately for a big social event. My recurring nightmare? Losing my passport.

While I was growing up in West Point, my mother often said my middle name should have been “road” because I was always in it. She was so right. After leaving home in 1968 to attend Millsaps College and then the University of Texas, I returned to Mississippi only for short visits. Working in the Texas House of Representatives and having an Army career gave me temporary homes in five states and Germany. Volunteer mission work has allowed me to visit Chile multiple times since 2007.

Here are lessons learned from those 45-plus years away from Mississippi:

Not living close to childhood friends or family forces you to forge friendships and family-like bonds wherever you call home.

Coming back home for a visit becomes all the more special as you savor little things that “locals” may take for granted, like neighbors or siblings taking care of plants and pets in your absence. And, over time, understanding that the visits become bittersweet because being far away geographically limits your ability to really help aging parents or to watch your siblings’ children grow up.

Living outside the U.S. is a huge education. My country is not the center of everyone’s universe and does not dominate news or conversation (though Hollywood has no viable competition). Good ideas do not always flow from “us” to “them.” For example, back in the ’80s, when I lived in Germany, truck stops were routinely offering yogurts, fresh fruits, other healthy fare, an idea only recently embraced here. The inter-city bus system in Chile is terrific, with sleeper double-decker coaches, inexpensive tickets and punctual, safe service. If the U.S. had this level of mass transit, many of us would use our cars much less frequently.

Living in other places also showed me that the South has no monopoly on prejudicies. I grew up in the ’60s, with racial integration occurring in West Point city schools my senior year. The old order was beginning to crumble, as it should have. But every place has an “other” that is treated unfairly and disparaged. In my years in Germany, two of these groups were the Roma (gypsies) and Turkish guest workers (gastarbeiter). In Chile the Mapuches (indigenous to southern Chile) experience prejudice and suspicion from mainstream society. Growing up in Mississippi, where city leaders, the media and professionals were white (and mostly male) gave me an awareness of such unwritten rules in other societies.

Finally, I have learned that, often, the Southern sense of place, hospitality and pleasantries-before-business expectation can be found more often in far distant countries than in other parts of our own sprawling country.

So, the advice I would share with my younger self? Go! Be adventurous in as many places as you are able — but be sure and nurture the family and childhood relationships that helped make you the person you are.