My travels teach me so much about life. I’ve learned that while our differences are interesting, it’s what people everywhere have in common that best shows me how to live. At this time, when we are coping with the unknowns of COVID-19, I’ve thought about what I’ve learned from traveling that can help.
A crisis brings to the surface so many amazing stories. Here are some of the places I’ve visited where I’ve learned about people who exemplify resilience, selflessness, hope, and courage -- and a lesson I’ve learned from each one.
1. Each Day, Cultivate Hope
The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
When I went to Amsterdam, the one must-see place for me was the Anne Frank House. You can tour the attic where Anne and her family and friends lived in quarantine for years. Her thoughts, recorded in her red plaid diary, would later become known to the world. Anne had just turned 13 when she went into hiding, but her diary shows a depth of insight into life that goes beyond her years.
The attic is cramped. I climbed the narrow staircase, stood in her bedroom, and found it hard to imagine living there months on end. But Anne’s mind was not confined by this small space. She pondered the ins and outs of relationships, the pleasure of sunshine, laughter, courage, and faith. Her words can inspire us in a time of social distancing and isolation. Here are a few of my favorite quotations from this astute young lady:
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
“Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
2. We Are In This Together
Bastogne is a lovely Belgian town set in rolling farmland and stands of forest. The bucolic feel was suddenly shattered when it found itself caught in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Just a few months earlier, Bastogne was liberated by the Allies and the residents settled in for a time of calm as the war wound down.
Then, in mid-December, the Germans struck. Their goal was to take the port of Antwerp, and they bypassed Bastogne, forging ahead to create the “bulge.” Still, the Germans needed this town. Bastogne lies at the center of seven roads. These were crucial for moving troops and supplies. One by one, the roads fell to German control. By December 21, the American troops protecting Bastogne were hunkered down in the forest, completely surrounded by Germans.
The men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne division dug in and held off repeated attacks despite lack of winter clothes, food, ammunition, and medical supplies. Their stories are featured in the series Band of Brothers. They supported each other in dire circumstances. They refused to surrender, in part because they were in it together.
I walked through this forest and stood in the foxholes that still exist. My guide knew the names of some of the soldiers who’d occupied the different foxholes because they had returned to the area after the war and toured with him. So I knew where the troop lines were and how close those on each side were. In the snow, they would accidentally wander behind the other’s lines. I could picture more clearly what took place that terrible winter. And I had to wonder what enabled the men to hold on. One answer is that they truly were a band of brothers. They were stronger together.
In the spring of 1945, the entire 101st Airborne assembled in a field in Germany. General Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded them the Distinguished Unit Citation (now called the Presidential Unit Citation) for their heroic actions in the successful defense of Bastogne. For the first time, an entire division received this honor.
We are in it together, even when the threat is invisible. Supporting each other is how we can get through.
3. Be Creative And Contribute Your Art To The World
Flanders Fields In Belgium
World War I devastated peaceful Flanders Fields. In touring the town of Ypres and Passchendaele and the farmland where battles took place, I was especially moved by the field dressing station and cemetery. This simple, small area is where physician John McCrae worked. I saw the primitive stalls where he helped treat wounded and dying soldiers. Out of these experiences, he turned to writing. He is the author of “In Flanders Fields,” the poem that begins:
In Flanders Fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
McCrae didn’t survive the war, but his poem is still known and quoted today. Just think if he had not taken the effort to write this down and leave it for all of us.
4. Be Persistent And Keep The Goal In Sight
The Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, zigs and zags all over the city rather than being anything like a straight line. This surprised me when I visited Berlin. Today, markers in the sidewalk note the contours of the 96-mile-long wall.
For about 28 years, the wall divided East and West Berlin, until it fell in 1989, marking the end of East German oppression and making reunification of the city possible. Most of the wall was knocked down right away, but a section known as the Berlin Wall Memorial stands to honor all who lost their lives trying to escape from the East. I toured this memorial and learned about many who lost their lives seeking freedom.
People escaped in “any way you could think up,” according to our tour guide. They squeezed into car wheel wells and trunks and inside seats. They ran, they jumped from buildings adjacent to the walls. Their goal was freedom, and they were determined to reach it, even if they died trying.
If above-ground methods didn’t work, people dug tunnels. The most famous is Tunnel 57. The path of the tunnel is traced by above-ground markers in the grass. I walked the length of it and could see that the tunnel extended all the way from a building to underneath no-man’s land and the guard tower to West Berlin. How many times must the diggers have been scared and discouraged? On October 3, 1964, 57 East Germans escaped. The next day, the Stasi (secret police) found the tunnel -- one day late, fortunately.
So many pursued their goal of freedom. Some failed, but others kept trying. Brave people kept digging to reach the other side. And they did.
5. Do What You Can To Encourage Those On The Front Lines
The Battle Of Britain Memorial In London
The Battle of Britain Memorial is a sculpture that stands on the bank of the Thames across the water from the London Eye and near Whitehall and Parliament. The sculpture, done in bronze and granite, was dedicated by Prince Charles in 2005 and commemorates those who fought to keep London free from a German takeover in 1940. France had just fallen to Hitler, and Hitler expected Britain to follow suit. He knew that before invasion, he would need to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). Bombing of England began in June 1940 and lasted until October.
The men of the RAF, numbering about 3,000, are “the few” referred to by Winston Churchill in his well-known quotation engraved on the monument: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The men of the RAF served on the front lines, but the men and women of the city came together in remarkable teamwork to defend their home city. London benefited from the efforts of plane mechanics, factory workers, anti-aircraft gunners, and searchlight operators. More than a million men volunteered for the Home Guard. The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were radar operators. They all have their place in the Battle of Britain Memorial.
Today, our amazing medical providers are on the front lines. Honoring them can encourage these heroes and give them a boost. And all of us can also do our small part to stand behind those out in front.
6. Adapt To The Unplanned
Utah Beach In Normandy, France
Those in charge got so much wrong when it came to the airborne operations near this D-Day landing beach. Flight reconnaissance failed to detect flooded fields and meadows too deep for a parachutist to safely land. Bombing strategy didn’t disable German guns as planned. Planes carrying troops flew into bad weather in the night and dropped men way off course. Some planes crashed; men couldn’t locate their army groups or leaders, and vital equipment got lost during the drops.
I toured the Normandy villages and roads where these paratroopers landed in the dark and then scrambled to make sense of their mission. Hedgerows hampered visibility, enemy soldiers were scattered around the area, and gun placements stood ready to go into action at first light.
Despite the misinformation and challenges, the airborne troops adapted quickly on the ground. Nothing was to be gained by blaming others for their problems. Allies found other allies and formed new groups, took out gun nests, set up headquarters, and -- most importantly -- linked up with those who landed on the beach the next morning. Each man had to pivot, adjust, and move ahead without regard to whose fault it was that things didn’t turn out as planned. And with this attitude, these amazing troops accomplished what they set out to do on D-Day.
7. Look For Inspiring Reminders Of Resilience
The 9/11 Memorial And Museum In New York
This museum is built on the actual spot where the Twin Towers stood until that fateful day in 2001. It is a place of dignity, where respect is paid to those who lost their lives or aided others and survived.
While every exhibit in the museum is moving, what I remember as most hopeful is the Survivor Tree. One scraggly pear tree somehow stood, still alive, in the rubble of the towers. With its broken branches and roots, it was dug up and transplanted at the entrance of what is now the memorial and museum. It flourishes among the many other trees now planted in the plaza. After spending hours in the sobering 9/11 Memorial and Museum, I emerged into daylight and stood under this tree, which, as the museum says, is a “living reminder of resilience, survival, and rebirth.”
I’m hopeful that future travels will take me to places where I can learn more about our world and our humanity. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for all the signs of courage and life in my own neighborhood, focusing, as Anne Frank pointed out, on “the beauty that still remains.”
Want more food for thought? Here’s why now is the time to reconsider voluntourism, plus six podcasts to keep travel lovers company this spring.