Around the Next Bend…

People_FrankOwenStory Frank Owen

Writing from Northern Italy this time … foreign travel is a disease, and we’ve got it.  How did that happen to a Columbus boy, who thought he’d actually been somewhere when he went to Alabama? I just don’t know.

A few years back, when I was teaching engineering to German students in Munich in German, I had the thought that somehow the gears of the universe were out of whack to have placed me there in front of 40-odd students teaching them about angular momentum in their own foreign tongue. I thought, “What if I get discovered, that it’s found out that I’m really just a hick guy from a small town in northern Mississippi?  What’ll happen then?”

And now the folks at my current home, San Luis Obispo, California, have gone from asking me, “When did you get back?” to saying, “I didn’t know you were here,” to even now, “What are you doing here?” One secretary at the Munich University of Applied Sciences told me, after I’d left and kept coming back for visits, “You’re here more than our own professors are.”

One of the best compliments I ever had was from a friend in a beer garden in Munich, who told me, after I told him I had absolutely no German heritage but rather all English roots, “Well, I don’t know when or where it happened, but somewhere, somewhen (a nice German word), somebody in your family actually came from here. You just fit in too well for that not to be so.”

Life has indeed been a grand adventure. I had great parents, people of great curiosity. They gave me a good brain and a good body, too. I had great teachers in Columbus, truly inspirational people.

The key to really unlocking a foreign culture is the language. As I tell my students who are traveling to foreign lands: Learn the language. Until you do, you are no more than a tourist.

One thing I can say without hesitation is that in all the places I went in the U.S. and abroad, I never encountered anyone who had a better grammar background than I. It was fifth and sixth grades at Demonstration School that did that. How often have I mentally thanked Lorraine Sparks and Virginia Mae Ferrill. It helped me to understand the structure of other languages more easily and thus was the key to unlocking new worlds.

Being flexible, being open-minded, being adaptable, being curious … that has been the key to a life of traveling. And being lucky enough to meet my life’s love, my wife, Wendy Disch — another person who shared the same passion for foreign places and languages — was another asset. Wendy has an extraordinary ear for languages, whereas I plod along knowing the rules. But together, we get it. We hike a lot, and we hardly ever turn around. We always want to see what’s around the next bend … and, you know what? There’s always another bend.