By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Last month, Pam and Woody Johnson walked back into their home for the first time in a year. They took their belongings out of storage and got to work putting their house back together, trying to remember where pictures had been hung and where dishes had been stored.
“It felt surreal, I think,” said Pam. “It was our house, but it wasn’t our house. When we walked back in, everything was different.”
The Johnsons spent each of the last 12 months in a different country. They started in Scotland last summer before exploring Norway, Estonia, Romania, Montenegro, Spain, Morocco, Israel, Nepal, Thailand, Australia and Ecuador. Pam chronicled every stop and sent stories back home to be published in the News & Neighbor.
The Johnsons did their best to truly experience the diverse culture each country had to offer. That approach was rewarded as Pam and Woody were able to experience the universal things that tie us all together as well as the unique traits that make each culture special.
For example, moving from Scotland to Norway after their first month abroad was quite a culture shock.
“We went from Scotland where everyone is your best friend within five minutes to Norway where even the Norwegians say, ‘It’s hard to make friends here,’ ” Pam said. “Norwegians are very reserved.”
Sports proved to be an icebreaker in Norway, as it would be in other spots around the world. The Johnsons attended a soccer game there and got swept up in the sense of community that occurs at sporting events all around the globe.
Among the universal conversations occurring during the Johnson’s yearlong trip were discussions about the waning COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine.
“There was that common bond of COVID, because the whole world went through that same thing,” Pam said. “Not that we talked about it a lot, but we recognized it.”
The church the Johnsons attended in Norway was hosting Ukrainian refugees, and the conflict could be felt throughout the Johnsons’ journey, particularly during their time in Europe.
“The church we connected with (in Norway) was helping Ukrainian refugees,” Woody said. “They had some that came to the church, and they’d actually get up every Sunday and read scripture in Ukrainian.”
A swing through Estonia and Romania brought the Johnsons to the doorstep of the conflict. Not surprisingly, those countries were taking in a larger volume of Ukrainian refugees, and the citizens were largely sympathetic to the plight of the Ukrainians.
The Johnsons also came into contact with a lot of Russians whose lives were disrupted or distressed by the conflict. Woody recalls an Estonian woman who had attended school in Russia and still kept in touch with many of her former classmates.
“She was talking about how she was anti-Putin, but a lot of her friends back there were very supportive,” he said.
Farther away from the conflict, Pam and Woody encountered Russians, some moving out of the country and others already settled and worrying about loved ones back home.
“A lot of the Russians are escaping, and Montenegro is a hot spot,” Pam said. “We saw a lot of Russian license plates.”
In Israel, Pam and Woody met a Russian who was part of a music group. He told them his wife is still in Russia and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get her out.
In Morocco, soccer once again helped Pam and Woody connect with the people around them. The country was in the midst of an improbable run through the World Cup when the Johnsons visited, and although they aren’t soccer fans, they didn’t miss a chance to watch a game in a crowded cafe.
After each victory, the crowd would pour out into the streets to celebrate. The Johnsons were on a bus tour on the day of one of the matches when they realized the bus driver had missed one of the stops. They assumed he was trying to get home in time to watch the match and asked the tour director if that was the case.
“Everybody in Morocco is getting fired because they’re skipping work to watch the game,” the director replied sheepishly.
The Johnsons insisted that the bus driver pull over at the next cafe so they could all watch the game together.
When it came to attending church, similarities and differences could be found in every country. The Johnsons attended a Greek Orthodox church in Estonia, a Messianic Jewish assembly in Israel and a Catholic Church in Romania, among others. The language, music and traditions were different, but there was a tie that bound them all together.
“There are so many similarities because we’re worshiping the same God all around the world,” Pam said.
Since returning home, the Johnson say the similarities among all people have resonated more deeply than the differences between us.
“I think I’ve been reflecting on the friendships we’ve made and the people we got to know,” Woody said. “I think everywhere we went, we got to know somebody. They are people we’ll probably keep in touch with the rest of our lives.”
Pam and Woody have both traveled extensively in the past, but spending a whole month in 12 different countries helped crystalize the fact that people really are the same everywhere. Pam was reminded of that as she watched a mother with her children at a playground half a world away.
“We all have the same wants and loves and desires and frustrations,” she said. “I guess every time I go out and see that, I’m reminded that we’re all the same. Going around the world just reminded me of the similarities.”