I was sitting at a table with a Kiwi, a Finn, and three Minnesotans in a Slovenian hostel. We’d landed on the topic of music, category: general. Someone mentioned Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer that I should’ve probably known before that point. Someone else mentioned Wonderwall, the mid 90s Oasis masterpiece I know all too well. We then started talking about our own music talents, or lack thereof.
We went through the checklist of instruments every self-respecting sixth grader has probably picked up at least once before: the violin. The trumpet. The piano. Suddenly, a hazy memory began to come into focus for me. I could hear the tune of Hot Cross Buns emerging from the recesses of my brain—softly, at first, and then with all the power and passion of an elementary school band. One a penny, two a penny, hot…cross…buns…
I turned to one of the Minnesotan guys. “Did you play the recorder?” I asked urgently, suddenly desperate to know whether this was a nationwide exercise in torture we’d all been put through for reasons unknown.
“The recorder!” he exclaimed, his eyes widening as the distant memories came crashing back. “Yeah, we played the recorder! Twinkle, twinkle little star. Hot cross buns!”
But that wasn’t all. At the mention of Hot Cross Buns—oh, that sweet beloved medley!—the Kiwi joined in: “Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns! We played that too, back in primary.”
“We also had to play the recorder—it’s that plastic instrument you get in your first band class, right?” the Finn added. So that was the whole table. There you have it.
We paused, needing a moment to process what we had just discovered. The recorder was not just an instrument. It was a universal experience. Little could we have known, way back in the fourth grade, that this was the one thing all people shared: a frustrated band teacher trying to coach kids through the lilts of little woodwind instruments, a vague but interminable memory of Hot Cross Buns.
This post is a very serious, very genuine ode to that great unifier: the recorder. We may have bemoaned our lessons in her gentle melodies in our early days, but I’m here to tell you that none of us were alone in this. Further investigation has revealed that kids in Kenya, in the United Kingdom, in Japan, in the Netherlands, and beyond have been subject to the very same experience. It’s the one thing we all share, you know, besides all being human or whatever.
I remember my friends and I wondering as to why our school was teaching us what seemed to be a worthless instrument. What are they training us for? I would ask. But after this discovery, I’ve come to the realization: the recorder can bring us all together. When all is lost, when you’ve asked your new acquaintance where are you traveling to next? for the sixth time, when you’re feeling on the fringe of hostel conversations: you bring up the recorder.
That’s why I’m introducing what I like to call the recorder theory of travel. If we want to get symbolic with it, we can say that there will always be a recorder: there will always be some kind of commonality, some kind of shared experience that can bring people together regardless of vastly different upbringings and cultural contexts. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Finding ways to connect with folks from all walks of life. But if we want to go the literalist route, then we can just leave it at this: mentioning the recorder makes for a really, really good conversation starter when you’re abroad.
Lydia packed two pairs of shoes for her travels in Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. She is counting on her well-worn, well-loved sneakers to carry her through coastal markets along the Adriatic, majestic ruins of ancient cities, and Balkan national parks. She also packed a pair of festive sandals, intended for long walks on the beach and questionable hostel showers alike. She considers this an exercise in versatility. When she isn’t carefully curating the most austere of packing lists, Lydia enjoys crafting incredibly niche Spotify playlists and reminding people that she is from California.