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Friday, January 7, 2011

On the road

My first trip to Europe was my honeymoon in 1983. At that time there was very little English in evidence on the continent. 99% of street signs, restaurant menus, etc were in the local language only. Common items like telephones had unfamiliar push-buttons. Hotel rooms had no cable TV, so I packed a small shortwave receiver. Every border crossing required an inspection of passports and an exchange of currency. There was a frequent and somewhat exhilarating risk of misunderstanding or faux pas.

Experiences in Asia are likewise. On my first trip to Beijing in 1997, I had a profound sense of being somewhere very different. For example, I had to learn the Chinese characters for man and woman to avoid embarrassment (if not jail time!) from entering the wrong restroom. On my most recent trip to Beijing, however, I ate dinner one night in an Outback Steakhouse -- complete with Foster's beer, presenting two puzzles to my fellow travelers from Australia where Foster's is not a popular brand and the diet is quite multicultural.

Times have indeed changed, and it's not just because I've been to these destinations a number of times. I still enjoy overseas travel, but some of the charm and distinctiveness of these destinations has been lost in the inexorable evolution toward a homogeneous western culture. Although I'd like to see how successful I can be speaking French, German, Japanese, or Chinese, I find that the younger locals are even more eager to try their English skills on me. Signs in English are everywhere; it's no longer so important to know "north", "south", "east" and "west" in each local language. CNN is in practically every hotel room.

This is not all bad. The pleasures of Europe and Asia are more accessible to the first-time traveler, and in case of difficulty such as a health problem the increased familiarity of a "foreign" country can be very helpful even to a veteran traveler. Also, I must admit that after eating adventurously for two weeks, a Big Mac can be good for the soul.

I wonder what the situation will be 50 years from now.