How travel opens windows on the ways we live

Living in a 16 by 18 foot room is easier if you have the means to travel.

Susan Ager reminded me of that with a comment to a Facebook update I posted last week about connecting in Vienna with a friend from Boston.

Susan’s right, of course, and not just about the fun and freedom attached to hightailin’ it out of the country now and then.

It’s also about getting a glimpse of how differently people relate to their stuff, their space and the people around them.

One of my first eye-openers on this front came more than 30 years ago. We were living in Vienna, but my assignment focused on the Soviet bloc countries. On my first reporting trip to Prague in 1981, I paid a visit to Bohumir Janat, a fearless Charter 77 signer who had just translated the latest book of one of our college professors. In the course of the interview, I wandered into Bohumir’s kitchen and bumped into several of his neighbors.

It turns out they weren’t visiting. They were cooking dinner in the kitchen they shared with Bohumir and other neighbors in a building carved up – but never quite renovated — from its days of pre-war prosperity.

What struck me at the time was not that Bohumir and his neighbors were putting up with an inconvenient arrangement. They were making it work in ways that accommodated friendship, frugal living and focus on their work.

Ten years later, well after we had moved back to the U.S., Carol and I paid a visit to Kees and Anke Van Geest at their home in Vught, a Dutch community of about 25,000 people an hour south of Amsterdam. Their son, Godfried, had lived with us in Grosse Pointe as an exchange student and we were excited to experience his “other home.”

We discovered there the heart of a family cocoon: A small, uncluttered space with so many distinctive touches that we came away feeling linked to Godfried and his family in ways not possible before our visit.

Our education in the ways people live has gotten a big boost in recent years from It’s one of several organizations that enable people to connect with others around the globe and swap houses for a week or more. The swaps can be synchronous – we’re in their place while they’re in ours – or otherwise. We’ve done it various ways.

We’ve met some of our exchange partners only on Skype, making arrangements before they stayed in our house while we were away. Others have become good friends, the result of overlapping stays at our place or theirs.

Hedwig and Lorenz fall into that second category. This past Sunday evening, my last in Vienna before I returned  to Boston, they hosted me for dinner at their flat on Josefstäderstrassee. They also invited Hedwig’s cousin, Michaela, a physician who is active with VinziRast, an organization serving Vienna’s homeless community.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 1.04.59 PMVinziRast’s latest initiative: An experiment in community living that makes the mix of people we enjoy so much at Beacon Hill Friends House look tame by comparison. VinziRast has renovated a Vienna apartment building to create rooms for 27 residents, about half of them students at the University of Vienna and about half of them homeless people.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 1.09.12 PMThis community refers to itself as “Mittendrin.” That translates as “the middle,” which the organizers say reflects the idea of helping homeless residents move from the margins of day-to-day life in Vienna to the middle of it.

On the first floor of the building, the group has opened a restaurant with a tagline that appears online in English, perhaps because it requires no translation: “good food for good people.”

Michaela said the group doesn’t know yet whether this experimental community will work, but that it seemed to be worth a try. That’s how we’re feeling about our year (or more) in a room at BHFH. Who knows whether this sort of community living will be the best long-term option for us? But it sure seems to be worth a try.

What has travel taught you about the ways people live? Please comment below. 

3 thoughts on “How travel opens windows on the ways we live

  1. Gee, I think you need a car. or, just rent a car when you really prefer. Financially, you may be better off ( vs. parking fees , etc. ) I do not know another person in my life (just now ) that would even think of transporting themselves on a day to day basis …other than a car ! ha haa, you Two are so much fun, interesting and amazing so enjoy your blogs, `little Cousins`;hope to see you soon.

  2. Love the post about traveling teaching you about how other people live! I couldn’t agree more. Actually this topic just came up with a group of other farangs (foreigners) living here in Chiang Mai. We were discussing the difference in driving behaviors noticed around the world. There was shared observation that Thais seemed to observe no rules, and had an “anything goes” attitude. Witnessed accounts were shared including using the opposing lane when traffic is thick in your lane resulting in motorbikes going against the flow of traffic, using the sidewalks alongside pedestrians, small children standing on the seats of the motorcycles holding the shoulders of their parents, and not observing the traffic lights. A New Zealander, Lisa, made a comment that put a pause in the banter, “They work together and have a high level of collective thought and awareness of each other, that is why it works and they don’t have accidents.” Wow! Do westerners have a stronger individualistic mindset resulting in a need to follow established rules to compensate for their lack of observation/awareness of others? Something worth deeper questioning.

  3. How we live together on roads is a really interesting question, April. We observed the “anything goes” style of traffic management in India, and had not considered the possibility that Lisa raised re “collective thought and awareness of each other” compensating for what the Indians refer to as “lane discipline.” Maybe someone has addressed this in a dissertation in transportation management?

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