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Americans cling to isolation despite advent of global economy

Between the Lines

OCEAN SPRINGS — Each time a defense appropriation’s bill passes Congress, I get press releases averaging eight to 10 pages long faxed from U.S. Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss) office that detail the billions in defense funding earmarked for Mississippi.

Wouldn’t it make pure economic sense to also invest in peace?

I find it interesting that as we have moved to a global economy, Americans have become more isolated from other countries and cultures than ever. We’ve become increasingly self-centered, fewer Americans than ever speak foreign languages, and we’re quite arrogant with our assumption that we are the most important country in the world.

More evidence of our isolation is the fact that nearly 500,000 foreign students study in the U.S., compared to only 115,000 U.S. students who study abroad. (For information on 5,000 overseas study programs, visit the Web site www.iiepassport.org).

Aside from visiting Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean countries, I’ve never been able to indulge in the foreign travel I crave. Instead, I’ve been able to have many fascinating, mind-broadening experiences by bringing the world to me through an organization called Servas (www.servas.org).

Servas is an international organization with a mission to promote peace and understanding between people of different countries, cultures and religions by hosting foreign travelers for two-night stays.

Servas, too, is seeing a decrease in the number of U.S. travelers who go abroad.

Since I became a host for Servas, I’ve had 50 or 60 visitors from foreign countries. It is fascinating to see my own culture from the eyes of a foreigner. Visitors are quite astounded at the Coast casinos, for example. Some visitors from Australia said they have only one casino in their entire country. And that casino is smaller than any of the casinos they saw in Biloxi.

Drive-through banks and fast-food restaurants are also a complete novelty. I had a U.N. soldier from Germany who came in with a drink from McDonald’s, and apologized for throwing the disposable cup in the trash. “I’m picking up bad habits being in the U.S.,” he said.

My first Servas visitor, a journalist from Britain, surprised me by attending a local revival. He was writing a series on evangelistic Christians in the U.S., and said they have no similar groups like that in England. He also opened the eyes of my children by walking from the train station downtown to our home a mile and a half away. My kids wondered how he arrived, and were astounded that he walked! Now the kids know that, in some countries, people do walk instead of using the car for even short trips.

Two of my most interesting visitors came earlier this year from Poland. Although their English skills were the worst of any visitors I’ve had, the information exchange made it well worth the effort. An artist and her husband, a retired factory engineer, talked about improvements in the economy after the fall of the Iron Curtain. A lovely country estate that had belonged to the woman’s family for generations that had been taken from them under communism has now been returned to the family.

Economic conditions are still tough, but improving dramatically.

Other visitors that stand out include a retired policeman from New Zealand and his wife, Bob and Evelyn Meikle. Bob told me that he felt sorry for American policemen because they have to wear firearms. In New Zealand, the policeman aren’t armed and police killings are extremely rare. Bob said that because police don’t wear firearms, they are more polite in dealing with the general public.

Then there was a memorable visitor from South Africa who regaled us with stories of snakes in Africa. There are numerous kinds of poisonous snakes including the black mamba, which is not only deadly poisonous but huge and aggressive, as well! She quite astounded participants in an Audubon field trip by picking up a snake to examine. Turns out that she kept snakes, including poisonous snakes, as a hobby.

She also told chilling stories about the huge problems with carjackings in Johannesburg. People are killed almost every day by criminals stealing their cars.

I also met a couple from Sweden who had been on an 18-month trip around the world with only one small backpack each. Talk about simplicity!

I’ve also been impressed with the dedication of my guests to traveling, living life and learning about different cultures, rather than just building up financial security and a retirement fund. A woman visitor who worked for the phone company in Australia said that her country requires companies give employees a six-month paid sabbatical after 10 years. She saved up vacation time for several years, and was able to be gone on a world tour for nearly a year. She planned this trip for years, and considered it a major highlight of her life.

Some recent European visitors impressed me that, even though they already knew several languages, they started out their tour of the Americas by spending three months learning Spanish in South America. These visitors had taken out a loan to finance their travels, much like we might take out a loan to buy a house.

Inspired by my Servas visitors, I now plan to take a year off before I’m 50 to travel, learn and enjoy living separate from the total, single-minded pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Of my visitors, every single one has invited me to visit their country and stay with them. And even if my travel dreams don’t come true, I’m greatly enriched by the friends I’ve made from around the world.

Becky Gillette is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal and serves as Mississippi coordinator for Servas. Her e-mail address is mullein@datasync.com.


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