Society, Culture, and Environment (formerly Contemporary Studies)
It is funny how a small object can act as a catalyst for all sorts of ideas. This past weekend, in her efforts to unclutter our storage areas, my wife discovered an object that had a surprisingly strong effect on me when I spied it. It was my backpack.
It is only a few pounds of metal and fabric, in remarkably good shape for its long sojourn in the nether regions of our crawlspace. But it is s a kind of talisman, conjuring up memories of a wonderful time in my life when it served as my home away from home. In 1986, between my third and fourth years at Trent University, I travelled in Europe for four months with my best friend (who really went the whole hog and took a year off school for the same purpose). Over that summer I spent time in 13 countries from Finland to Malta, from France to Greece.
Memories came flooding back as I looked at the pack. I remembered sleeping in front of the train station in Nice with a dozen or so other backpackers. We were all of us careful to deposit our money under our heads, happy to trade peace of mind for comfort. You have not lived until you have been awakened at 6:00 by a burly gendarme kicking the soles of your feet with his boots! I also remembered our friend Teemu from Helsinki. We had met in a youth hostel in Switzerland and he had said “Come visit me if you are ever in Finland” and so we did. His hospitality and offbeat sense of humour enlivened our time in Suomi as my wife and her family call it. And I remember our visit to Berlin, which at that time was a divided city. The carnivalesque atmosphere of West Berlin – epitomized by the young performer who covered himself in talcum powder and posed as a statue, until a six year old girl approached him to see if he was real – was a delight. It contrasted sharply with the foreboding grayness of East Berlin, where we nervously entered through the Cold War’s Checkpoint Charlie (scene of spy exchanges) and where we ran off in fear after inadvertently kicking some kids’ soccer ball into a thorn bush and puncturing it! How were we to know that three short years later, the Wall – that symbol of mutual suspicion – would come tumbling down? It all seemed so permanent then.
Permanence and impermanence, fellowship on the road, freedom, vibrant cultures that tasted like exotic fruits to two children of the Canadian suburbs: what we received that summer of ’86 was a substantial education, as valuable as anything we can offer you at Laurier Brantford. That dusty blue pack symbolizes for me my own thoughts and aspirations on setting out on the road as well as the life experiences that we hungrily devoured during that magical time. Come to think of it, it is not a bad symbol for this other education, the one that involves course outlines and white boards and 5,000 word essays. Contemporary Studies may be the second best form of education available but, like the Eurail pass and Mountain Co-op pack, it offers the opportunity to gather insights gleaned from a variety of fields. It affords us the chance to explore the world from eclectic vantage points, from the history soaked ruins of the Parthenon to the awesome mountain vistas of Austria.
As many of you pack up and head home for the summer, I wish you happy travels, whether you are heading to Timbuktou or Timmins, whether you are allowing Euripedes to transport you to the Aegean or Achebe to take you to Nigeria.
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