What made you want to travel?
For me, it was learning about the Loch Ness Monster. In the middle of a childhood defined by fiction books, I distinctly remember sitting at a table in the back of my third-grade classroom, looking at the famous surgeon’s photo in a book, and realizing this was a place that really existed (even if maybe the monster did not).
Twelve years later on a cold and rainy February afternoon, I stood on the banks of Loch Ness itself, looking for the monster and drinking some tea. Life rewards us that way sometimes.
Monsters are part of so many cultural traditions, and it’s those very traditions and histories that compel me to see the world. Here in my little corner of western Pennsylvania, we know so little about the small communities in other parts of the world. Those strange traditions and stories that make us more like each other than unlike.
This time of year, I often think about Krampus, the now-famous traditional German monster—more of a creepy horned dude, really—who travels with Santa and punishes the bad kids. Most renditions of him have him carrying chains or whips (because apparently ye olde German children were really badly behaved).
I learned about Krampus and Knecht Ruprecht (a similar character from a different region) from my high school German teacher, who I will always think of by the nickname we gave her: Shüm.
Lord bless her—in her second year of teaching, she was brave enough to take me and a dozen other teenagers on our first international trip. Not for a week or two, but for a whole month. During that month between our junior and senior year, we gave her that nickname, we spoke the language she had labored to teach us for two or three years, and we came back forever changed.
Learning a language is one thing. But learning the culture is another.
My classmates and I still sing the German Christmas carols Shüm taught us seventeen years ago. We still bemoan the lack of proper Spaghettieis (a type of ice cream) in this country that we ate so much (too much) of that summer. We still gloat about the German Club floats we made each year for the Homecoming parade that featured different aspects of German culture (my favorite was the life-sized cuckoo clock we made my senior year).
And we still get excited when we encounter Krampus himself at a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) in central Pennsylvania.
Living in a small community, it’s too easy to think everyone outside the community is strange and different. But when we learn these apparently strange traditions, we realize that no matter where we’re from or what language we speak, we are all more alike than different. Here in western PA, Santa might bring both the presents and the coal, and he might be a jolly, fat fellow who wears red. In Germany, he’s a tall, thin saint (Sankt Nikolaus) whose devilish companion does the punishing.
But we both celebrate Christmas. And we both sing carols—many of which are the same songs, just in different words.
And it’s those very similarities that made me yearn as a child to go seeking the places where our differences lay.
I’m a better person because of Krampus, because of the Loch Ness Monster, because of Shüm. I’m a better person because traveling and learning about other cultures has made me that way.