My first adventure abroad was a summer in the lovely medieval town of Siena, Italy. I was 17 and had never left the East Coast of the U.S., but I made the transition quite easily: Italian food and culture are hardly unknown to New Yorkers, and a background in French and Spanish made the language barrier a non-issue.
But I know people whose first travels abroad were considerably more fraught. A friend committed to an entire summer in Israel at age 16, never having even been to overnight camp, and it was frankly a disaster. While the country enchanted her — and she has since returned on numerous occasions, strengthening her Jewish ties over the years — the length of the trip, and the vast differences between New England and Jerusalem, were overwhelming at the time.
One’s first experience in a foreign setting is both an opportunity and a potential disaster. For past generations, that first overseas voyage usually came during college. With perpetually falling airfares and a globalized world, today’s youngsters are likely to get their first taste of marmite, customs forms or clanking trolley cars as children, or as high-school students on educational tourism.
As savvy as they are, however, there are a few things to keep in mind for the first-time traveler — whether he or she is 5 or 50.
A shorter trip is always a safer bet. My friend’s Israel trip was scheduled for two months, but she ended up cutting it short: one month of new foods, new faces and foreign words was all she could take as a homebody teen. A week, however, might have been a terrific experience.
Before going abroad for an extended sojourn, a youngster should immerse him or herself as much as possible in the culture to establish a comfort level with the new surroundings. If falafel, hummus and Hebrew had been known quantities, my very secular friend might not have had such a difficult time. One reason why England (not to mention Canada) is so popular as a first destination is its cultural similarity to the U.S.: Nowhere else in Europe does a city feel so reassuringly familiar.
If the traveler is on the young side, there is no overestimating the comfort factor of trusted companions. Navigating a scary new metro system or an indecipherable Cyrillic menu turns into a fun adventure when shared with a partner in crime. Children who grow up touring the synagogues of Rome and ferrying around Crete with their parents are unlikely to be fazed by a summer abroad later on.
Language, for many, is a key factor. If your most exotic experience to date has been a week in California (which can feel like another country — but I digress), then it may be enough to deal with converting a strange set of coins and bills in your head without translating it all, too.
Consider London: it has a vibrant Jewish community, wonderful museums and lively neighborhoods for exploring. It’s also a big city with pockets of delightful tranquility. Strolling along the Thames, wandering through Shakespeare’s old lairs or pub-hopping near St. Paul’s, you feel part of a gentle, cobblestoned past, not overwhelmed by the big city.
Ireland, too, is a hit with first-timers. The culture is so friendly that it’s almost impossible to feel alienated; cities are relatively small, and towns are picturesque and convivial.
The food throughout Britain and Ireland is hearty, ample and tastier than in years past, and its very familiarity can help a young traveler assimilate. I am always amazed by how common it is to hear a young person reflect on a difficult trip abroad and complain specifically of hunger, longing for a home-cooked meal and the like. Arranging Shabbat dinner with a local community can be a wonderful way to connect with the local culture, eat well and ponder the links that transcend geography.
Within continental Europe, Italy is a fairly safe bet for multiple reasons. Most Italians speak some English, the food is familiar and delicious, and the culture, like Ireland’s, is outgoing and fun-loving. Italy is also a country where Jewishness is often greeted with warmth and interest — witness the spate of new Jewish museums sprouting up in cities like Bologna, and the revival of Jewish life in Calabria.
Which brings me to another important point: the attitude of locals toward foreigners. Some cultures are fairly difficult to penetrate — the Balkans and much of the Middle East come to mind — and while travel there may be deeply rewarding, it is probably best left to seasoned adventurers.
Ethnic differences in particular can be deeply uncomfortable. I vividly remember the anti-Semitic graffiti that greeted me on what felt like every corner on my first trip to Argentina and Uruguay, and the anxiety of a dark-skinned Latino friend on a visit to Russia. Minimizing, and preparing for, such differences goes a long way toward a successful visit.
It’s difficult to find a friendlier, more enjoyable country in the Americas than Brazil, for those who don’t mind braving the nasal murmurings of Portuguese. Brazil is different enough to be exotic, and yet it is a recognizably American culture, in the New World sense. The colonial cities of Recife and Salvador have colorful buildings and stunning beaches, and the region’s historic synagogues speak to a centuries-old Jewish immigrant tradition.
Sometimes simply feeling alone in a new country can be lonely and disorienting, so an ideal first visit might involve the structure of a program. A month of volunteer work, language classes or structured recreation can provide instant camaraderie in a foreign environment. Bonding over common interests, whether Torah or spaghetti or bicycling, is the way to forge human connections and make memories in a diverse world.