Many travelers like to believe in the power of free agency and their own pro-active, dynamic nature having driven their own explorations. However much our life's direction is influenced simply by the "accident" of our birth, circumstances we are born into, the people and ideas we are exposed to in our tender formative years. If I had been born in some poor mountain village in China, the chances of me even leaving my village, my province, much less crossing an international border could be quite small... So I am quite grateful for the good fortune of becoming a traveler.
I was born in the US Army's 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, son of an American father and a Danish mother back in July of 1969, a week or two before man's travels horizons had further expanded with the first moon landing. My father was a US naval officer who had retired and moved to Frankfurt, enrolling in a master's program in economics course at the local university. At this time he made good use of the extensive US military base facilities, including the U.S. Army Dental Clinic where he recruited my mother, a Danish dental assistant half his age, to marry him. When I was four we moved to suburban Portland, Oregon area where my father was born way way back in 1912 and where I was fortunate to meet my grandparents during their last years. Danish had been been my first language but I then made transition to English. Growing up in a very homogenous suburban USA my playmates would give me funny looks hearing my mother speak to me in Danish so I tried to convince my mother not to speak that "weird" sounding language to me in public. From that inauspiciously humble, conformist start later on in life I would later have little shame at all in speaking foreign languages. However growing up with a Scandinavian name like "Per", pronounced "pear" I had some explaining to do as well as having to putting up with the occasional fruit-focused jokes.
I grew up the pretty normal all-American kid in the American suburbs although my mother every couple of years would take my older brother or myself on a summer trip to Europe to visit family in Denmark as well trips down to Germany, Spain and some occasional new country or two thrown in. I gradually fell in love with travel, especially by train whether it be seeing the landscapes and cityscapes rush by during the day or being lulled asleep at night by the clicketyclack sound and gentle, comforting sway of the trains passing over the rails. The feeling of being in motion. The excitement of finally arriving in new destinations.
My parents both spoke a few languages and it seemed pretty natural for me to do the same. By college I had taken six years of Spanish and a couple of years of German. My second year of college I opted to go on an exchange program in Germany as part of my major of International Relations with concentration on Soviet Union & Eastern Europe. This was 1988-1989, the Cold War still very cold and Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain still divisions, separating ideologies and people. In November 1988, I went with a group of 40 foreign students from the University of Freiburg on a weeklong heavily subsidized junket to West Berlin with presentations on German history and prospects of Reunification of Germany. A reunification that at the time was just a far off idealistic possibility. I made the trip over to East Berlin with a few friends, the East German border guards serious and unsmiling, checking our ears to see if they matched that of our passport. I had an extra point of concern, sweating, my heart racing, East Germany currency, that I had changed at seven times the official rate was concealed in my underwear. Luckily no searches of such an intimate variety. Later on in that year I found myself a brighteyed and curious... and a doubtless very naive, nineteen year old exploring more of Iron Curtained Eastern Europe; Poland, Czechslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia. A tantalizing taste of comparing book learning, headlines and TV news images with what I could see with my own eyes.
That year in Europe was a pivotal year in my travel journey. Such a hunger to travel with new territories to explore in all directions. During vacation periods I would buy month long train passes where I would save money on hotels by spending many night on the train, oftentimes waking up in the morning a bit bleary eyed but looking forward to the day's new exploration. Sometimes as many as four nights in a row on a train, sleeping at night, exploring cities during the day as I did traveling from Yugoslavia to southern Spain arriving in serious need of a shower. On weekends during the school year I would be hitchhiking to places mostly in the region with plenty of opportunities to practice my German with my "chauffeur". Free German language training practice and cultural interchange + free transportation, all in one.
One year in Europe and I realized I had only scratched the surface. Eventually after finishing up college in the US I was lucky to be involved with the fantastic student organization AIESEC that enabled me to return to Germany to work. And then eventually I moved on to work in Portugal, Italy and France picking up new jobs and languages along the way.