We’re all guilty of measuring ourselves against others and fudging the yardstick in our favor. Over the years I talked to many people of my parent’s generation about their experiences traveling abroad, and it was often apparent that the base measure used to compare themselves to others was grossly skewed. Americans of the forties and fifties left their home country with an attitude that I’m sure was shared by Romans, Egyptians, the British and others who ventured abroad during the height of their empires; a sense of innate superiority and an inclination toward condescension and even pity. Even those Americans who lived in other cultures for extended lengths of time came home with stories accentuating the glaring differences between “us” and “them.”
I didn’t want to travel to Italy with that attitude, and it was one of the reasons why, at the age of 60, I opted for a backpack as opposed to wheeled luggage. It sounds superficial, I know, but as Katharine and I walked the streets of Rome and Florence and Lucca, the backpack gave us a sense of being true travelers as opposed to clattering, myopic visitors. The distinction is important. We were there to mingle, smell, taste, touch, and absorb Italy. We got lost often on our walks around these cities, and while we were always concerned with getting to our destination, it didn’t keep us from sitting on benches to inhale our surroundings or stopping for a gelato or glass of wine.
The museums, the art, the history; it was all wonderful and rewarding. I came away from it with a clearer vision of the thread that connects us today to more than two thousand years of Western history — our attitudes toward beauty; the folly of war; the repeated political mistakes; and the evolution of art, science and philosophy. My most memorable moments, however, were those spent at café tables on piazzas as the sun was setting, bruschetta and a glass of wine in front of me, Katharine sitting across from me, women in house dresses leaning on the sills of the open windows looking out on the square, people conversing in Italian or German or French at tables near us, the well-dressed Arab man toking on a hookah, motor scooters zipping by, the smells of oregano, cigarette smoke and sweat, and the ancient cobble stones beneath our feet.
Being half Italian, I went to Italy with some sense of wanting to connect with my roots. I’m not sure that I really accomplished that on a personal level. The reality is that Italy, and specifically Rome, is a part of every Westerner’s past, whether you’re German, Irish or Albanian. Italy belongs to everyone. Katharine and I walked (and walked and walked) through the same streets and alleyways that were trod by Augustus, Nero, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Dante. Our hotel in Florence was situated in a building that was over 500 years old. We stood where gladiators fought and died, where heretics were burned alive, where great works of art were created, where plague victims died by the thousands, where fundamental issues of law, freedom, and justice were debated. It was an amazing experience that reached back and forth through time.
Odd as it sounds, for me, going to Italy didn’t seem like traveling to a foreign country. I felt at home there. Comfortable, like visiting some place from my past, even thought I’d never been there before. I truly hope Katharine and I can go back one day.