I have a weird relationship with my birthday. It falls right at the end of the school year, so rather than celebrating me, it tends to call attention to goodbyes and elicits the quiet solitude that is somewhat central to my sense of self. This year, it fell a few days after our semester officially ended. Many of my friends had already skipped town (well, skipped country, actually), so I ran away to somewhere I could be anonymous. This time, it was Cyprus.
In one of the first published works in psychology, William James argued that individuals have as many selves as they have people with whom they interact. While it may seem like a bit of an overstatement, research suggests that, in fact, we all comprise multiple selves, being different people in different relationships or social contexts. Our preferences, characteristics, and judgments change, not because we’re trying to fit in, but because who we are subtly shifts along our activated identity. I, for example, have no problem criticizing the US government in the presence of American friends, but often feel uncomfortable or even defensive when the same phrases are uttered by a non-American conversation partner. It’s not that I have multiple personality disorder, it’s just that the concerns I have within the two identities (as a headstrong individual or identifiable American citizen) are not fully overlapping. Who I am in the moment determines how I feel.
Our individual identities can shift too. Traveling Angie, for example, is much more delightful than normal Angie. She’s more relaxed, less uptight, and finds humor in frustration. But of course she’s amazing. She lives an adventurous life, has no stress, and gets to be whoever she wants to be in a new environment. I wish I could always be her, but part of her character is defined by the fact that she doesn’t work or have responsibilities. I can’t take her home with me.
Unfortunately I can take normal Angie on holiday. And since I was crashing her birthday, she was determined to come along this time. As a result, I broke most of my travel rules in Cyprus, spending more than twice as much money as I usually do on a hotel, renting a car, and dragging my computer along. These decisions facilitated the solitude and contemplation I was seeking, but also ensured that I wouldn’t fully escape my extraordinary introversion or annoying compulsion to intellectualize experience. I spent a lot of quiet time alone, in my head.
But I spent my actual birthday driving around in the Troödos Mountains exploring small villages and Byzantine chapels. The scenery is breathtaking, and the act of driving allowed a different experience too. Around every bend in the road, the radio would jump. From British Forces radio to Lebanese channels, to Greek (and, I’m assuming to Turkish, although I still can’t really recognize the language), the act of driving highlighted the diverse forces shaping the identity of the island.
Cyprus sits in the Mediterranean at the meeting point of three continents. My initial impression of the south was that Greece and Lebanon had a baby which took landscape characteristics and cultural attributes from both of its geographic parents (of course the cultural influence also spread from Cyprus outward, but somehow the metaphor worked for me, having visited the continental parents first). Its location makes Cyprus home not just to remarkable scenery and culture, but to remarkable international conflict as well. Currently, the island is divided, with Turkish forces holding the north while the UN continues to monitor the startlingly quiet and calm buffer zone known as the green line.
As a psychologist with expertise in intergroup conflict, and an individual with Greek, Turkish, and both Greek and Turkish Cypriot friends, crossing the green line in Nicosia (the divided capital) wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was something I had to do. In some ways, my identity as a researcher and friend was implicated and I was drawn there in a way other visitors wouldn’t be.
The act of crossing is strange. One minute you’re on one side of the street in the Republic, the next, you’ve walked 20 yards into either occupied territory or a new country, depending on which side of the line your allegiance lies. The language changes, and the currency, but most notable are the flags which change from Greek blue and Cypriot orange to Turkish and Northern Cypriot red and white. Yet if I’m being completely honest, I just felt like I had crossed the street. The scenery was the same, the temperature was just as hot, and despite my desire to feel the change more deeply, I could only speculate on the complex emotions felt by residents of the north or south, or by Greek or Turkish citizens whose identity is involved in the conflict.
I tried my best to experience the combined grief and anger that the simple existence of a Turkish flag could arouse in my Greek friends. But the truth is, this wasn’t my conflict. I haven’t grown up immersed in its realistic and symbolic meaning – and because of that, aspects of my identity would never be threatened by the act of crossing. I could empathize with, but not fully experience the pain of the divide.
Traveling allows us to see both who we are and who we are not. It allows us to try on different identities in a more explicit fashion than we do in our daily lives, and in so doing, changes the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. Seeing our beliefs, reactions, and characteristics shift facilitates insight and understanding, even when the insight is that we can’t yet fully understand. Because of that, normal Angie gets to be shaped by travel, too. It’s something she does, so in some small ways, it makes her who she is. I think it makes her better.