I’ve set foot outside of the United States on exactly two different occasions in my life.
The first time barely even counts.
Technically speaking, I’ve been to Canada, but it was for a very brief stay and was done on a whim. My parents and I flew up to Seattle for a few days in 2003, centered around attending an NFL game. While we were there, we got the idea to take our rental car up north and cross the border. We didn’t have any particular destination or goal in mind, other than to simply be able to say that we’ve left the country.
None of us had passports, but after a short conversation with the border guard, we were allowed to proceed anyway. In hindsight, it seems pretty incredible that such a thing was permissible given that we were a full two years removed from 9/11 and considering the heightened level of national security that has arisen in its wake. I highly doubt we’d be able to pull such a spontaneous stunt again today.
At any rate, we wound up driving to Vancouver, but it was already evening by the time we had arrived. We found someplace to grab dinner before renting a room for the night at a random hotel, and drove back to Seattle the next morning. I’ve since come to understand that Vancouver is a beautiful city–one of Canada’s premier tourist destinations, really–and I rather regret not having the opportunity to stay there a bit longer and see some of what the city had to offer. But we had never been to Seattle either, and there’s only so much to be done and seen during a brief three day weekend trip.
The second time I left the country was a far different experience, though oddly enough, it also originated from rather spontaneous and unexpected circumstances.
I received a call from my close cousin Keith that actually began, “Hey, you wanna go to Istanbul?!” His question was immediately met with a moment of stunned silence on my end, followed by an, “Ummm…what?!”
Turned out that one of Keith’s friends had informed him of a great travel deal on Groupon for a week-long stay there, and Keith was immediately intrigued. Though he is a few years younger than me, Keith was already a rather accomplished world traveler by this point, and he was working toward a goal of visiting all seven continents by the age of 30. Istanbul was not exactly a place that ranked highly on his bucket list of destinations–I’m not sure it would’ve even made such a list, to be honest–but that no longer mattered. Keith is, after all, a Millenial in many senses of the word, particularly when it comes to the generation’s reputation for constantly craving new and abnormal experiences.
I required a bit more convincing. Sure, I’d had plenty of thoughts in the past about taking trips to places beyond American soil, but such thoughts usually involved places like Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe. Basically, foreign destinations that didn’t seem quite as, well, foreign. Istanbul felt like a highly exotic place that was sure to provide a jarring culture shock to someone whose longest previous trip was to the distant shores of…Florida. Was I really ready for something like that?
Thankfully, I didn’t immediately turn down the offer out of fear and uncertainty, but I did need some time to think about it. Even beyond the big question of whether I felt capable of such a journey, there were still more mundane questions to answer first. Could I get the time off work? Could I afford a trip like this–you know, financially? And just what is there to do or see in Istanbul, anyway?
Securing the necessary vacation time from work wasn’t much of an issue. I had plenty of paid time off built up, and we’d be taking the trip during what was a relatively slow time of year at the office. As long as I could provide enough advance notice, it would almost certainly be approved, and we weren’t exactly planning to shove off the next day.
The financial piece took a bit longer to consider, as I was working a job that only left a modest amount of “fun money” after all the standard bills were paid. But the offer did come at what was a surprisingly good time for me–I wasn’t recovering from any major expenses like car repairs, nor was I preparing for the next big ticket item like, say, a new TV or computer. From a purely financial standpoint, there is probably never a truly perfect time to take such a plunge, but this seemed like as good a time as any.
So I went ahead and did a little research on Istanbul to get some idea of how we might conceivably spend our time there. I knew that it was one of the oldest major cities in the world, which surely would’ve offered some entertainment from a historical perspective, but what I didn’t know was just how many such famed sites existed within this one city. Suddenly, this was beginning to sound very interesting.
That left just one final hurdle to clear, but it was a big one: was I actually brave enough to step that far out of my comfort zone and take such an exotic trip? After all, I’ve never truly attempted to learn a foreign language outside of three years of Spanish class in high school. I can be an exceedingly picky eater at times even when dealing with typical American fare, and hadn’t ventured much into foreign foods overall. Could I really survive a whole week eating, well, whatever Turkish cuisine is? And I would be heading into a predominantly Muslim city armed with only nominal knowledge of its culture and customs. Could I adjust to my environment well enough to avoid inadvertently offending the locals?
In the end, the whole thing felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I might later regret passing up, but I wasn’t quite ready to give the green light just yet. Rather than simply saying yes to the idea, I decided to propose a counteroffer instead…