It’s a small world after all

    In the ’60s the world was growing smaller, but it was just beginning. Think back to transatlantic phone calls too expensive for most to afford, and postal service that we now call “snail mail.” The ocean posed a vast chasm between the continents.

    It’s one of those songs that you can’t get out of your head. It was 1964 when I went to the World’s Fair in New York, but I can still see the brightly colored bobbing heads of the mechanical dolls dressed in native costumes from countries all over the world singing, “It’s a Small World After All.” Taking in the exhibit, moving from country tableau to tableau, the repeating refrain glued those noble, but syrupy lyrics forever in my brain, “There is so much we share that it’s time we’re aware it’s a small world after all.”

    Truth is in the ’60s the world was growing smaller, but it was just beginning. Think back to transatlantic phone calls too expensive for most to afford, and postal service that we now call “snail mail.” The ocean posed a vast chasm between the continents.

    It was a time before sushi was ubiquitous in the U.S., a time before universities talked about shaping globally competent graduates, and a time when it was unusual for undergraduates and recent grads to study and work abroad.

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    Now, for middle-class youth, studying and living abroad is commonplace. For example, take my own daughter, Rebecca. In 2011, she graduated from college and three days later left for a full-time job in Stockholm, Sweden.

    Ironically, her trek was near the reverse of the one my mother Sally, my grandmother Rose and my Uncle Sam took at the turn of the 20th century.

    In 1922 Sally, Rose and Sam left Bialogrodek (the shtetl Bilogorutka), Russia, to come to Philadelphia, leaving behind most of their family that they were never to see again. They did correspond by letter, but imagine the weeks and months it must have taken for a response. And visualize the long journey by horse and buggy from Bialogrodek to Warsaw, Poland where they waited a year for tickets for their passage — and then from Warsaw to Antwerp Belgium, where the Red Star Line brought them in steerage to Ellis Island.

    Since the passengers were tightly packed in like pickles, my father teased that my mother came here on a “pickle boat.” Carrying out his analogy, it was a pretty salty boat, since steerage passengers dined exclusively on herring and potatoes — a little too much herring even for me, a real herring lover.

    To understand just how small the world has become, contrast my mother’s journey with Rebecca’s. In nine hours, Rebecca arrived in Stockholm. Sad to say, flying coach does have its similarities to steerage, such as the lack of comfort — my dad’s pickle joke still stands though you might now say “packed in like sardines” —and the quality of the food or lack of it.

    The real difference: No family left behind. Via Google Video Chat, equivalent to the Jetsons’ video phone, we talk to Rebecca weekly in real time; hang out with her, often while she is cooking or eating; and email/chat/text online more frequently than that. We’ve taken a virtual tour of her apartment, met some of her friends, and used Google’s satellite view to experience her neighborhood. Not quite the same as being there, but clearly the world is shrinking.

    And it isn’t just a matter of talking across the Atlantic to people I already know. Recently I befriended a curatorial assistant of the Red Star Line, the very ship line on which my mother travelled to America. Two years ago I saw a small notice for the museum, which will open in September 2013 in Antwerp, asking for stories of past passengers.

    I emailed my mother’s story and have since become friendly with the curatorial assistant who recently Skyped me from Belgium during her vacation and introduced me to her twin sons. She’s my source for the herring tidbit, the typical steerage passenger diet.

    Granted my daughter’s cultural experience, working with and meeting people from all over the world is preferred, but there is a certain beauty to the way the Internet can connect people across countries, cultures and time zones. “Though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide, it’s a small world after all,” and getting smaller all the time.

    Lisa Meritz is a freelance marketing communications manager/writer (at Meritz Marketing) who lives in Philadelphia. Her work has been published in Philadelphia Stories, Metropolis, the Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, and more.

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