Letters to Our Younger Selves: Dear Pam

Pam Mandel
Dear Pam,

Here's the thing: You're going to drive a borrowed car into a ditch in a cornfield outside Altamira, Spain.

You are not going to get hurt, though you are going to feel like an idiot when you realize what you have done. You will have to go get help, which means you'll walk into a tiny country bar where there are two big farmers in blue overalls having an afternoon break. You are going to explain to them, in your halting Spanish, that you can't get your car out of a ditch in a nearby cornfield and ask them if they could come give you a hand. You just need a little . . . push.

And they're going to laugh, but it will be a very good-natured laugh, and they'll help you and send you on your way. You'll watch them in your rearview mirror as they wave and shake their heads and smile.

Why was your car in a ditch in a Spanish cornfield? Because you were looking for cave paintings and got lost. But never mind getting lost. You're going to do that a lot. And nothing bad is going to happen to you because you're surprisingly well prepared.

Hold on to that passion for art, and it will lead you to amazing places. Stay with the art history. Most of all, cultivate your gift for languages. All that curiosity and bookish creativity will turn into the most amazing adventures. You'll get plucked out of the language program in high school and sent on foreign exchange. Later, before you get stuck in the ditch, you'll see real cave paintings in France. And you know who will translate for that big Texan who doesn't understand the guide? You will.

It will take you many more years to get that sense of direction working properly, but you know what you'll have in your toolkit when you're lost? Languages not your own.

They will open the world for you in ways you can't even imagine now. You'll be able to argue politics -- the most complex and nuanced of topics -- in German and Hebrew. You'll fake your way across Portugal with a mash of Spanish and French. You'll travel alone with amazing confidence for someone so young, and you will have a great time.

There's also something else. You're going to know what it's like not to understand.

This knowledge is going to make you shockingly patient in situations where you have no common language.

When it takes you 20 minutes to figure out that the Warsaw deli is selling yogurt, not milk in those little glass bottles, everyone in the tiny shop -- including you -- will laugh and laugh when you finally complete the transaction, handing over a fistful of confusing zlotys.

You're going to laugh like crazy when a friend makes the sound of a chicken so you can have eggs for breakfast in Hanoi. Your language education isn't just going to teach you how to speak foreign languages; it's also going to teach you how to communicate when you don't have language on your side. And this skill will open the world to you as you travel through places like Karachi and Ushuaia and Bordeaux and Cairo and so many places you can't even imagine.

Language -- it's your gift. You'll make peace with math, and you'll never quite stop falling into holes (you might stop reading and walking at the same time; you're going to break something one day), but words will take you everywhere. Don't apologize for your love of books, and don't ever give up on language. Flirt with Chinese and Swedish and learn that hilariously regional German and go into the world. It's going to be amazing.

You go, girl.


In sharing this story, and others, we hope you are inspired to Raise Your Hand for girls' education, helping us spread the word on this crucial effort.

Pam Mandel has written for Conde Nast Traveler Online, Gadling, Afar, World Hum, WGBH (Boston's Public Radio Station), Lonely Planet, MSNBC, Thomas Cook, and other outlets. But she's a blogger first and has been writing about her travels at Nerd's Eye View since 1996. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

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