My mom said, “That’s wonderful. I’m going to call you back.” And then she hung up on me.
What she did for those fifteen minutes is anyone’s guess, but when she called me back, she congratulated me warmly and asked all sorts of questions about the new job. Both my mom and dad were nothing but supportive of my choice to move to a country where I knew no one and would be far out of their sphere of influence if something went wrong.
Only when I became a parent did I realize just what a gift my parents had given me, to cheer me on as I started off on my crazy international adventure. It was so selfless, to never once make me feel like I was worrying them. Of course, I was only there for about a month when my dad called to say, “Hey, funny coincidence, but I needed to use up some vacation days and the tickets to Munich are really cheap so I thought I’d stop by to see you,” like I lived in Boston or something.
So when my niece Shannon got the news last week that she’s been accepted to the Peace Corps in Namibia and will move there for two years after she graduates this spring, I felt as much sympathy for my brother and his wife as I did excitement for Shannon. They are thrilled for their middle child, but—not that they’ve said so to me—I’m sure they dread seeing her off. It is a major leap of faith and sign of confidence in their daughter to support her in her first big international adventure.
In the midst of absorbing this news about my niece, I was moving things around in our storage area and stubbed my toe on a big unmarked cardboard box. Turns out was full of various papers and photo albums of mine that my parents shipped me when they downsized from our ancestral 4 bdrm 2 bath Colonial castle. And tucked in there was a bundle of letters on thin blue airmail paper, written by me to them when I went on my first adventure, the act that eventually led to the Munich job: I studied abroad in Vienna in 1987.
I plopped onto the couch and started reading, and there is only one word for my reaction as I skimmed through each letter: gobsmacked. Evidently, at age twenty, I was fearless and never slept. In one letter alone I hitchhiked to Salzburg, auditioned for a Viennese radio show, and wrote a press release in German for some Austrian artist. In another, I mention getting separated from my tour group in pre-Velvet Revolution Prague on a school trip but not to worry because “Todd” and I just wandered some back alleys until we found the bus. In a third letter, I had sidled up to the American ambassador to Austria after a speech, name dropped our mutual alma mater, and got him to agree to help me find a summer job.
Who was that person and where has she gone?
I know the answer, of course. I grew out of her. I had a couple of failures, a couple of setbacks, a couple of painful losses that shook my conviction that everything would always turn out fine for me. I do my best to access her every now and again–every time I send out a new piece to an editor, for example–but it’s a shadow of the raw courage I exhibited during my Vienna year.
Which is why I’m so, so glad my niece is off on her adventure now. I hope she soaks it all up to create a reservoir of nerve that will last a lifetime. I know she will be grateful every day to the mom and dad who will start holding their collective breath in mid-July 2013 and not exhale until September 2015.
And after getting reacquainted through those letters with the bold brave gal I was, we have a new family battle cry: Namibia Safari 2014.
Here’s another piece of fortuitous timing: a formative memory of that Vienna experience appears in a new anthology out this month called “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Travel.” (To my daughters: actually, it is your mother’s book on travel.) NYMB is a new series created by Dahlynn and Ken McKowen, who spent 10 years developing titles for the “Chicken Soup” anthology juggernaut, and I was flattered when they wanted to run my piece. Check out the digital or print version and let me know what you think!
There’s only one song that name-checks Namibia that I’m aware of, but luckily it’s by Flight of the Conchords so we know it’s good…