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Crossing Borders in My Grandparents’ Footsteps

Editor’s Note: Author of this guest post is Natalie Duggan, a public health writer, graphic designer, world traveler, and blogger based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her international travels have been greatly inspired by those of both sets of grandparents before her – who were all Friendship Force members! Read her story below!

Holding my grandparents’
photo album from their 1984
FF trip to the UK and Scotland.

As my Istanbul-bound plane taxied for takeoff, I looked down at the folded piece of paper in my hands. I’d spent the last five months planning a 15-day solo adventure across three continents and four countries. It was May 2018, and I was on my way to visit Turkey, Tunisia, Sicily, and Malta, essentially making a small circle in the Mediterranean Sea. As a former anthropology student, photography enthusiast and all-around extrovert, my main goal was to see how people lived their everyday lives. I wanted to go beyond the typical tourist experiences and get a real sense of local culture.

The handwritten itinerary
for my grandparents’
1985 trip across Europe.

Along the way, I looked forward to taking in the architecture, food, natural beauty, and the surprising amount of history connecting the four nations.

What I couldn’t plan for was the almost perfect synchronization that my travels had with my grandparents’ first solo international journey in May 1985—exactly 33 years ago. The paper in my hands was their handwritten itinerary.

Bob and Margie Highsmith on 1984 Friendship Force Exchange to Newcastle, UK with their hosts,
Beryl and Bernie, and their children.

My mother’s parents, my maternal grandparents, Bob and Margie Highsmith of Atlanta, Georgia, began traveling internationally thanks to Friendship Force International in 1984. At 64 and 67, neither of my grandparents had ever left the United States, but their FF trip changed everything for them. Their itinerary took them through Scotland and the United Kingdom where they met their Newcastle, UK hosts, Beryl and Bernie. The four of them became international pen-pals and lifelong friends. Beryl and Bernie eventually came to Atlanta and were hosted by my grandparents. Their experience with FF gave them the confidence and inspiration to continue traveling throughout their retirement years. One year after returning from their FF adventure, they planned another trip across Europe in 1985 for just the two of them. Their solo journey took place on same trip dates that I’d also unknowingly chosen for my recent adventure!

Bob and Kathleen Duggan visiting the Keukenhof Gardens
on a trip to the Netherlands in the 1980s.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have not one set of Friendship Force-participating grandparents, but two! My father’s parents, Bob and Kathleen Duggan of Atlanta, Georgia, participated on the first Friendship Force Exchange to Newcastle, UK in 1975. In total, they participated in four FF exchanges and five hostings, including a trip around the world across Russia & Siberia in July 1997. My grandfather was an avid linguist, speaking approximately 13 languages. Paired up with my grandmother, the two of them sought to bridge cultural divides through conversation, travel, and hosting international guests in their home.

When I think about what largely inspired my last trip, it was easily my two sets of traveling grandparents. Each of them embodied the Friendship Force mission of promoting understanding across the barriers that separate people. Thanks to their influence and their stories over the course of my life, I have understood the world to be a very large place. However, through cultural understanding, travel and diplomacy, they taught me that many corners of this large world are entirely within reach.

Natalie having tea with her
new Australian friend Alex,
whom she met in Valletta, Malta.

On my May 2018 adventure through Turkey, Tunisia, Sicily, and Malta, I wanted to honor the curious spirits of my grandparents. I entered these countries with no existing friendships, but left each one with special memories and lasting contacts. I stayed in Airbnbs, often in people’s houses. In Tunisia, my hosts invited me to Iftar dinner during Ramadan each night. In Sicily, my hosts were concerned about me carrying a suitcase down the five-story staircase. They tied a climbing rope around my bag and hoisted it over the railing, where it landed gently the open courtyard below. Through my travel experiences, I learned that diplomacy is as simple as a cup of tea, a French lesson, or a handshake. These simple gestures meant everything.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the people I met – the Ukrainian priest on his way to provide aid to children in Libya, the British ex-pat who rebuilt her life in Malta after a terrible divorce, the Tunisian brothers who operated the beautiful roadside fruit stand, the Australian couple who decided to spend five months exploring the continent of Europe, the Gambian refugee who resettled in Sicily, and the list goes on.

Visiting my Highsmith grandparents
in Atlanta during the early 1990’s.

Next month, in October 2018, I will be re-tracing part of my Highsmith grandparents’ European itinerary from 1985. I hope to re-create some of photos they took on their journey, visit some of the same places as they did, and see many new ones. Before my grandfather Bob Highsmith passed away in 2004, he wrote a journal full of advice for me in my later years, which he knew he might not get to see. One particular passage he wrote has always stood out to me:

 

Dream what you want to dream, go where you want to go, be what you want to be, because you only have one life and one chance to do what you want to do.

When my plane takes off in October, I will look forward to living out his words and honoring my grandparents’ legacy in an entirely new country.

Born and raised in Frederick, Maryland, Natalie Duggan has called Atlanta, Georgia home for the last seven years. An Emory University alumna with a dual degrees in Anthropology and Journalism, she is a public health writer and graphic designer by day and international trip planner/dreamer by night. On any given day, you can find Natalie spending time with friends in the city, cooking up a storm, or sitting on the porch with her cat, Finney. Her next trip is October 2018. You can follow NatGoesGlobal, her travel Instagram, at instagram.com/natgoesglobal and her blog at natgoesglobal.com. 

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