In the weeks prior to my son's departure for his college semester abroad, it's not the Eiffel Tower that keeps surfacing in my memory. Instead, it is the image of a roll of toilet paper outside a stall in Paris, inside the ultramodern Georges Pompidou Center for the Arts – toilet paper whose position requires my retracing my steps, retrieving the toilet paper, and reentering the stall.
As I describe this moment, this architectural metaphor, more than two decades later, my 21-year-old son smiles. Inside the world he knows, my little brush with the surreal is not a grand event. He's been weaned on "Monty Python" and "The Simpsons," "The Daily Show" and "MADtv." The experiences he feeds into his generation's wry view of the world are more expansive than mine ever were.
My son has already had at least a dozen friends fan out over the world and return to share their experiences of Japan, Somalia, the Netherlands, South Africa, New Zealand, India – with inside-out moments aplenty.
My son will be one of more than 200,000 American college students studying abroad this year. Paris, a name whose mere utterance evoked a thrill in my generation, now competes with venues that until recently were in the domain of the exotic. One almost needs to be an artist or a jazz musician, like my son, to opt for the established charms of Paris, rather than joining one's politically or ecologically driven contemporaries.
Where once this process of broadening oneself was accessible only to the wealthy, today, economic barriers are carefully addressed: Students are encouraged to share in the pursuit, with financial aid helping families below certain income levels. For a growing number of students, study abroad seems to have become a new rite of passage.
7What an amazing ebb and flow of youthful humanity, of cultures and values, is this business of a semester abroad.
I think back to the Pompidou Center, to my inside-out moment more than 20 years ago. And I think back even further, when I arrived in New York City, a 10-year-old in a family fleeing the Hungarian Revolution. And now here is my son, a first-generation American, returning to Europe for the sake of cultural and intellectual enrichment.
Here, too, are his friends, many of whose parents similarly sought America, leaving behind bruising economic or political realities. Here are their children, some of my son's best friends, returning temporarily within a single generation, to lands not too distant from their parents' roots: a friend whose mother is Japanese, is studying in Tokyo; a friend with an Indian father spending his orientation week in the Himalayas.
A third friend of my son, the grandson of Holocaust refugees, is traveling beyond his semester in Japan to Korea and China. Yet another friend, a fellow jazz musician, is following his inner drummer to the primal rhythms of New Zealand.
In as little as two consecutive generations, America has given shelter to immigrants and then released their children to the world. What is amazing is the speed of the turnaround. Whether these students are initially driven by an ethos of giving, or whether they're merely seeking to broaden themselves, their enriched perspective can't help but benefit all the countries of the world.
As for my son, the closest he will get geographically to completing the circle is a brief music-study trip from Paris to Prague in the Czech Republic. Unlike his friends who have visited their parents' birthplaces, he hasn't put Budapest, Hungary, on his agenda for the semester. That's perfectly fine with me, having fled from a revolution, having been born after a world war that my parents barely survived. Those experiences have instilled in me preconceptions I cannot shed.
Still, I do hope my son and his generation will be more broad-minded and embrace the world not as it was, but as it has the capacity to become.