The strong dollar makes overseas travel cheaper for Americans than it has been in over a decade. Americans don't go overseas as much as those in other well-off countries, but this is about more than tourism. It's a chance to learn and connect with the world, especially for young people, that we can't afford to miss.
By Vikram Rangala
Friday, March 27, 2015
75% of British citizens hold passports, but only one-third of Americans do. When the euro is strong, a lot more Europeans visit the US. But when the dollar is strong, it barely increases the number of Americans who take advantage of it to travel abroad.
Before we stereotype all Americans as inward-looking, we should remember that the US is huge and a travel destination for millions. For business travelers, in particular, domestic opportunities often take priority: "If you are a businessman in Oklahoma City, why worry about the exchange rate in Sweden (which has a population of about 10m) before making sure you have maxed out your business in Texas (which has a population of about 25m)?" (The Economist)
But for non-business travelers, there's more to the exchange rate than bond yields and cheap exports. It means life-changing experiences made affordable. The cost of missing them may be hard to see, but it is huge.
EXCHANGE RATES & EXCHANGE STUDENTS
Perhaps no one benefits more from travel abroad than students. But with student loans and rising tuition, many couldn't afford travel in recent years. Now, more of them can and it means the chance to be not just tourists, but travelers. Since it's Friday, let me tell you a story.
In 2005 the euro was cheap as well. That year I took a group of my students from the University of Florida to France for a course called A Writer's Tour of Paris for the Five Senses. To give them lots of sensory experiences, I included things like a visit to a perfumery and dinner at Dans le Noir, a restaurant that, as the name suggests, is pitch dark inside. The waiters are blind and the food and wine are a complete mystery until they reach your hands, nose, and taste buds.
We bicycled through the Normandy countryside to Claude Monet's gardens, to see and smell them before we looked at his paintings of them. I made them skip breakfast before shopping in the open market of the Rue Mouffetard, then took them past Hemingway's first apartment to a surprise picnic spot: an ancient Roman arena hidden in the heart of the city.
The meals were cheap and delicious. The euro-dollar exchange rate made possible both fun (Maison du Chocolat, s'il vous plait?) and moving experiences. Central Paris is so small that landmarks of the three major Western religions all sit within view of each other. Over three days, I took my students to the Notre Dame Cathedral; the Rue des Rosiers neighborhood, including a school from which Jewish students were pulled out of class one day and sent to death camps; and the Grand Mosque of Paris.
It being Paris, I combined the visits with the best falafel in Paris and some of the best ice cream anywhere, at Berthillon on the Ile St. Louis. At the mosque, one of the Imams gave us a tour. We paused at the small memorial to the first Imam, who served during World War 2. He told my students a story not many people know. I'm glad we heard it and I wish every Parisian, every European, every Muslim, and every person could hear it, because it's a story about all of us.
As Nazi soldiers came for the Jews of Paris, including the schoolchildren, the Imam quietly arranged for families to come, under the guise of doing other business, and be hidden in the apartments of Muslim families nearby and then spirited out of the city. For political reasons related to the war in North Africa, the Nazis didn't target France's Muslims. Hundreds of Jews escaped death because of the courageous action of the Imam and other fellow Parisians.
When I asked the Imam if his predecessor had protected Jews because they were fellow "people of the Book," as the Qur'an describes them, he said no, "it was because they were human and as a Muslim it was his duty to try and save them, tout simplement."
After the tour some of my female students visited the hammam, a spa favored both by grandmothers of North African descent and fashion models, inside which I'm told the mosaics are breathtaking and the loofah scrubs remove several layers of epidermis. I sat in the tea gardens drinking cup after cup of sweet mint tea at 2 euros each. It's hard to put a price on a day like that, but a cheap euro means Americans have the best chance in perhaps a generation to make such memories.
DE- AND RE-HUMANIZING OURSELVES
The senseless violence of the Germanwings co-pilot, coming after the Charlie Hebdo murders, reminds us that violence starts with a problem we can do something about: we don't know each other well enough. That co-pilot didn't know about the lives and stories of those 150 people he killed.
But then, neither did the first Imam of Paris know much about his Jewish neighbors. But he knew they were human. The Germanwings co-pilot lost sight of the passengers' humanity, along with his own.
If violence begins with dehumanization, then its cure lies in rehumanizing ourselves in each other's eyes. Travel makes that happen, sometimes when you aren't expecting it to.
One of my students saw the course as just a shopping trip for college credit. Other than snapping selfies, she was bored by the history, art, and even the people of France. She was a tourist and seemed almost proud of not caring.
Then, at the Museum of Jewish Art and History, on the Rue des Archives in the Marais, she emerged quietly and said to me, "I had no idea Jewish people had so much bad stuff happen to them." Put aside your desire to laugh and think about the value of such an insight for a sheltered rich kid. It's hard to put a price on that kind of change in a young person's world view.
She had become a traveler, and it was worth every discounted euro-penny.
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