I spotted my younger son at the end of the road, executing a trick on a borrowed skateboard. I knew that the board wasn't his because he hadn't packed one for this trip. It amused me to watch him talking with other skateboarders. We had been in this small fishing village in western Ireland for less than an hour, and Alex had already found the local skaters. I was amused, but not surprised.
Skateboarding is a lens through which Alex views the world. It's one that has served him well across continents and languages. I travel with my sons to expose them to cultures different from their own. But Alex keeps discovering the similarities. Almost everywhere we go, he finds a fellow skateboarder. It is as if the scenery changes, but the scene – the skateboarding scene – remains the same.
"Mom, would you believe that those guys have their moms drop them off in town so they can skate, just like you do for me back home," Alex remarked when he came back to our hotel.
Sports have united people for centuries, but skateboarding is more than a sport: It is also a culture. It has jargon, skills, and an attitude all its own. As we travel – and good-natured flight attendants find space in overhead compartments for his board – Alex plugs into this culture and enjoys the local variations.
The Internet helps, of course. Before we arrive at a destination, he has usually researched the availability of skateboard parks and shops.
That explains why, when we visited southern California, he asked to stay in Venice Beach rather than Los Angeles. Our hotel was directly across from the skateboard park. Alex spent every free moment at the park and met local skaters. The contrasts between this beach community and his New York sensibility evaporated as he and the Californians shared a common language based on the skills of skateboarding.
But just as frequently, his experiences are serendipitous. When we were at a public park in Rio de Janeiro, we enjoyed the ubiquity of soccer fields where we would have seen basketball courts back home. But we soon heard the familiar sound of wheels on a paved surface. Sure enough, across the way, we spotted skateboarders displaying their skills.
Alex headed off in the direction of a skater taking a break. Possessing scant knowledge of Portuguese, he used his high school Spanish to ask, "Puedo patinar?" ("May I skate?")
The kid handed him his board. Alex cruised around the park, landed a couple "kick flips," and headed back to where he started. He handed the board back to its owner.
"Obrigato," he said in Portuguese. ("Thank you.")
Alex may be learning different languages and discovering that adolescence has regional dialects, but he knows that skateboarding is universal. Wherever we go, he is right at home.