If the travel bug were real, I’d be infested. And I’m sure I caught it the moment I stepped off the plane in Lyon, France where I would spend the past year studying international politics and French literature.
I joined the sizable cohort of international students at Université Jean Moulin in Lyon during the turbulent COVID pandemic, when the existence of such a program was under stress from a myriad of health and safety concerns. I think there’s interest in the idea that two very different viruses — COVID (real) and the travel bug (not real) — would exist in the same plane for me during that year.
The lens through which COVID asked that I perceived the world revealed so much about my global theme and challenge. In fact, it really redefined culture and politics by putting them into quotidian terms. For instance, the diversity of cultures within Europe, already a small sliver of global diversity, insists that culture isn’t an abstraction to be experienced for a few months by airplane, but instead a lens through which we define our own existence. At the risk of getting too metaphysical, I realized while abroad that a theme like culture and politics is more about how we name the world than it is about what that world superficially looks like.
The guiding principal for me right now is a ‘Yes – And’ : it’s the idea that two things can be true at once, and that there’s always a third truth next to them.
Naming the world for me began at the academic level. I sat among French students in classes on topics ranging from fundamental rights and liberties in European courts to medieval poetry in early France to the geomorphology of water-based landscapes in the time of climate change. Diversity is a word that comes up a lot when we talk about culture, and it certainly applies to academic culture as well as social culture. This diverse set of subjects affirms that the perspectives with which I approach my degrees are not mutually exclusive. I can look at the world from both a cultural and a political stance, from both a literary and a scientific stance, or from both a pragmatic and an abstract stance. Understanding academics in this way indicates that nothing exists in isolation, and that interdependence is the defining quality of global culture.
Naming the world continued and found its peak impact for me while travelling. This is where diversity in the classic sense returns, as I started to think of seemingly distinct countries like Finland, Tunisia, Malta, and so many others in terms of their interdependence. Oftentimes, though, I’ve been surprised by how pervasive that interdependence can be. In an example, a pastry vendor in Marrakech, Morocco, related to my travel friends and I that he used to work in the tourism industry, directing visitors to popular attractions around this part of north-western Africa. During COVID, when travel declined, that business practically dried up. In order to remain economically afloat, he pivoted to baking as a (hopefully) temporary position to support his family. It’s startling that we all experienced the COVID pandemic in very diverse ways, but more importantly that our personal privileges dictated how severely we were each impacted.
More profoundly, the way we each pivot during stressful moments is so indicative of how we have learned to name the world. It’s overly simplistic, but I like the sentiment that we are all just piles of organs trying to make correct decisions.
As I transition back into a more ‘stationary’ education here at UM, I continue to think about the uniqueness of those two viruses existing simultaneously. The globe is stocked with ‘Yes – And’s. I hope that I can let multiple truths exist together, and that I can let them guide my evolutive naming of the world.