What gets left behind

Footprints frozen in the dirt
Footprints frozen in the dirt – Utah

I recently met a guy, Jeff, at a client meeting. During a break, we talked about travel and this issue of returning home. Jeff noted that coming home from a recent trip was such a letdown until he remembered that the trip wasn’t about what he takes away from the experience, but what he leaves behind.

His comment reminded me of the impact we can have through travel.

It made me think about the quote commonly attributed to Chief Seattle: “Take only memories. Leave only footprints.” That works well when you’re talking about the environmental impact on a place. It’s a good reminder to pick up that Hostess Ding Dong wrapper you dropped by the trail or to not break off that live tree branch for a walking stick.

But when it comes to people, we always leave some of ourselves behind. Each encounter is an exchange, a sharing of a little bit of us with a little bit of them. We will always leave a part of us with those we meet. The question is what will that be?

I remember when I was in college studying in Germany. On a side trip to Prague, I was with a group of other American students. One night, four of us – all guys – were coming home from exploring the city’s evening attractions. We got on a streetcar filled with a dozen or so students from an all-girls school in Belgium. We began asking where they were from, why they were here, etc. In no time at all, one of my fellow Americans had invited the entire group to our hotel to meet with our other friends back there. The Belgium girls enthusiastically agreed, a cross-cultural exchange in ways both innocent and not.

The “not” stemmed from the fact that my friends had consumed a good deal of that fine Czech beer already, and I knew that more drinking awaited them at the hotel. I only hoped that there was safety in the herd, that the quantity of Belgium students would provide some protection to their virtue. But I need not have worried.

In a semi-inebriated state, one of my friends overheard the girls excitedly talking to themselves in French about their decision. Knowing enough of the language to recognize it, he shouted out across the entire streetcar, “Vive La France!”

A stunned silence filled the interior. Another friend whispered to the shouter, “They are from Belgium, you idiot.” Awkward conversation followed and by the time we reached the hotel, though some of the more adventurous Belgium students got off, most stayed on board to return to their own hotel.

It was just one comment, but one that left an impression with everyone there. My friend’s ignorance of nationalistic pride and identity came across not as clueless, but as insensitive. He may have forgotten the incident within an hour, but I suspect the students did not. I fear that that one comment stayed with them and informed their impression of Americans for some time.

On the flip side, some friends of ours from Germany were visiting the US and asked a person in passing if he knew the location of this certain historic site. He did, but he said it was tricky to find so he told my German friends to follow him as he drove a half hour out to the site. His leading them out there cost him an hour of his time but dramatically changed my friends’ perspective on Americans. Ten years after the event, they still remind me of how gracious we are as a nationality, all based on that one encounter.

So next time you meet someone on a trip, even for a short period of time, remember that an exchange takes place. Sometimes we shape people’s impressions of us as Americans. But sometimes we connect on a deeper spiritual level. In any case, the impression may be more lasting than you realize. Something always gets left behind.

What will that be?

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