International travel before globalization

Vienna, Austria (photo: DY, 2014)

Vienna, Austria (photo: DY, 2015)

My visits with long-time friends Sharon and Don Driscoll inevitably include good conversations, and some of them revolve around our shared status as members of Generation Jones. During their recent trip to Boston, Sharon observed that Gen Jonesers were the last generational cohort to discover international travel before the current mega-era of globalization, and it struck me as a very apt point.

Generally speaking, those among our age group who have traveled abroad started doing so in the 1980s through early 1990s. Starting around the end of that stretch, the globalization of goods and cultural tastes significantly impacted the look and feel of major cities, soon to be fueled by the ubiquitous presence of the Internet.

I didn’t have this blog post in mind when I snapped the photo above over the summer, but it sure fits the bill. In July I was in Vienna, Austria, for a conference on law and mental health. While the city has retained much of its Old World ambience, a quick turn of a corner might reveal (drum roll) a Starbucks and a T Mobile store.

Given my usual international travel destinations, these changes are most apparent to me in Europe, where many American retailers and fast food vendors have staked their claims. For those of us with adventurous spirits that stretch only so far, it can be reassuring to find a known quality in an unfamiliar place.

But such discoveries are good only on occasion if we are to reap the benefits of travel. All things being equal, when traveling abroad, or even to a different part of one’s own country, ’tis better to try out new places unique to those locales than to be searching around for the same brand of mocha latte.

During my 1981 collegiate semester abroad in England, we weren’t surrounded by American fast food outlets and retail stores. Oh, I confess that I was thrilled to discover a McDonald’s during a brief visit to Paris, but the real benefits of those five months involved exposure to new places, ideas, and cultures, mixed in with the maturing experience of being much more on our own as we traipsed around the U.K. and the European Continent.

Return trips to England in the early 1990s brought more of the same. While I definitely noticed the presence of more American franchises in London, they didn’t dominate the city storefronts. (Yeah, I was kinda happy to see Pizza Hut there…)

Today, the great European cities I’ve visited in recent years — London, Cardiff, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Vienna — still retain much of their historic flavor, but a more homogeneous and familiar array of shops and retailers is definitely present in each of them.

I know that Burger King, KFC, and smartphone vendors are unlikely to disappear from the global cityscapes. If anything, we’re likely to see more of them. But it’s worth noting that these developments have changed the experience of international travel to make it feel less, well, international.

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