Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tough call for parents to let teens travel on own in strange environment

Saturday, March 9, 2013
Writing about my first trip to Italy brought back memories of the dilemma Lucy and I faced when Sandy finished her Rotary Club exchange in Poland and asked us if she could remain in Europe for a good part of the summer to travel. Should we permit Sandy and her friend, Lindsay, proposed to explore Turkey and Greece, which would have meant transit through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, at the very least. Then they wanted to head west all the way to Spain and even take a jaunt across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco.

As a result of our reluctance to endorse such a trip, Sandy had to settle for much less, though she did have a memorable trip that took her to Hungary and then across Croatia and Slovenia to Italy. Then she went through France to Great Britain, where she stayed for a while with Lucy’s brother.

But even approving this scaled-down agenda caused us plenty of doubt and anxiety. Certainly she was mature and sensible for a 17-year-old, and she had gained experience during her year abroad. But she had been under the supervision of Rotary Club members in Poland, and she and Lindsay would be without anyone nearby to call for help if they encountered problems. Lucy had been to England before to visit her brother, but other than that, neither Lucy nor I had traveled in Europe at the time, so we had no concrete personal experiences on which to base our judgment of the girls’ planned adventures.

And so, we compromised, not wanting Sandy to miss an experience of a lifetime but also worrying about her well-being. She and Lindsay traveled by train to Hungary, and after exploring Budapest, they continued on to Italy, where they spent a couple of days while staying in a hostel for women. At that point, Lindsay left to visit France, Spain and Portugal, and Sandy met up with me for our Italy exploration.

After traveling with her for two weeks, I could see that she knew what she was doing, plus I could see with my own eyes that European travel is at least as safe as travel in the U.S. I fact, the only time I remember a male showing the slightest aggression was when I wandered away from Sandy a little while we were waiting outside a train station—and it turned out that the young man I found her talking to was actually from Poland, so he and Sandy had a polite 20-minute conversation. This also gave me the chance to see Sandy putting her new language skills to good use.

When I left Sandy in Milan, I felt reassured that she would be fine rejoining Lindsay in Paris and continuing to travel. Her summer travels, though not as extensive as she would have preferred, ended well, and Lucy and I feel good about our compromise.

It recently occurred to me to ask Sandy, now a mother of three, what she will do when one of her own teenage children asks to strike out on his or her own for a summer. Here is her response:

“I think I’d say yes! It depends on how they turn out at 17, though. If they were unstable somehow—substance problem, bad judgment, eating disorder—then no, I wouldn’t let them. But otherwise, I think it was an amazing experience, and while I’m sure we would be nervous, we’d let them go. High school is a special time of life, when you can start to be independent, but your mind is still so open to new experiences. I think it is the best time for studying abroad, really.

“On the danger factor, just think of the trouble teenage girls can and do get into at home. While traveling, you are so busy absorbing the new experiences of place, culture and language. That was the funny thing, I guess, about your prohibition on Southern Europe. I can tell you that if I wanted to get into trouble, there was plenty available in all the other parts of Europe where I went. Also, being with Rotary meant that I was pretty well taken care of, so using a reputable exchange organization that has good host family placements is also important. 

“I was also lucky in having great exchange student friends to travel with, especially Lindsay Gillette. Who wouldn’t want their daughter traveling around with an uber-responsible, kind and fun friend who was admitted already to Northwestern University for pre-engineering? In Venice, I left my backpack on one of the water taxis at some point—which had my passport in it. Oops! That could have been so terrible. But luckily, Lindsay was an excellent travel buddy; in addition to being a friend, she was responsible and resourceful. She had another water taxi call the dispatch center and they rescued my backpack for me. 

“Being a high school exchange student exposed me to the wide world and its possibilities. I think without it I wouldn’t have gotten into Georgetown, and I wouldn’t have some of the self-confidence that I have today. 

“Thank you for swallowing your fears and letting me go. That was a great gift. I just hope I can give the same kinds of gifts to my kids someday!”

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