Travel, it has been said, provides insights into places, people, and even more importantly, into the smallness of our individual places in the vast sweep of time and space. Having recently returned from a trip to Rome and Naples and a cruise to a number of Greek islands, I can testify to the accuracy of the observation.
Virtually every turn offered reminders of the greatness of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, each of which lasted about half a millennium and made monumental contributions to art, architecture, history, government, mathematics, science, and philosophy. Yet with every reminder of greatness came a companion reminder—that neither empire was able to survive decay from within and assault from without.
I could not help thinking too, again and again, of the debt contemporary people in America and other countries owe to the past, and of how foolish modern culture has been in fostering disrespect for our predecessors and unwillingness to profit from their hard-earned insights.
Not all my experiences and my thoughts about them were as ponderous as those, however. Here are a few examples of somewhat lighter yet no less meaningful moments:
In looking for the entrance to Vatican City, I asked a young man whether he spoke English, he replied that he did, and I proceeded to ask whether the direction we were heading was the right one. He answered in perfect English and I noted that fact. He said, “Well, I’m from New Jersey so perfect English is not surprising.” I couldn’t help saying, “That’s not necessarily so,” and we both had a good laugh.
As I looked up at the breathtaking ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and marveled how Michelangelo spent four years on his back accomplishing that masterpiece, my memory perversely recalled comedian Jackie Mason wondering why it took Michelangelo four years for one ceiling when Mason’s brother-in-law could paint two bathrooms over a single weekend, a bit of levity that in no way diminished my respect for the genuine artist.
The eggplant parmigiana was so good at Lino’s restaurant in Rome that I returned to enjoy it the next evening. Their secret, I realized, was to slice the eggplant much thinner than the quarter inch specified in American cookbooks. (Another reason for returning, no less important, was the friendliness of the wait-staff.)
The experience of traveling around Venice in water taxis was a treat, but a businessman from Padua standing next to me on one trip revealed that one person’s delight can be another’s nuisance. He explained that he had to park his car in an expensive lot on the outskirts of the city every day and travel by water to visit his customers.
Walking around St. Mark’s Square in Venice and visiting the cathedral was memorable, as was enjoying lunch at an outdoor table in a café on the Square and watching the flow of tourists while listening to a trio of musicians play internationally famous songs.
While boarding a flight from Rome to Frankfurt and taking my seat just behind the first class section, I noticed boarder after boarder staring in recognition at a young man one row ahead of me. Many were almost giddy and a few asked if they could take “selfies” with the young man. He graciously accepted their attentions and honored their requests. Obviously, he was a celebrity of some sort, a fact which left me feeling awkward. Was I the only person ignorant of his stature? Probably not, but it seemed so. In any case, I never found out who he was or the nature of his renown.
My fellow passengers on the cruise ship came from a wide variety of countries, but the largest numbers were from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Most people were very friendly, and they became more so on the “gala” nights that required dressing up for dinner. This phenomenon lends support to the argument that school uniforms are a civilizing force on students.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the cruise was the music—in the ship’s musical theater, both piano lounges, the blues lounge, and my favorite, the chamber music lounge featuring a piano quintet. I attended at least one of the quintet’s performances daily, and sometimes more often. One day I recognized the pianist, a young Asian woman, and thanked her for the pleasure she and the group provided, and asked where she was from. She answered “New Jersey.” I told her about my experience with the New Jerseyite at the Vatican and she laughed at my genial slur about the English spoken in New Jersey.
On another occasion, I met one of the violinists from the quintet and asked where she was from. She said, “Originally Memphis, but I travel quite a bit now.” I asked whether she traveled to Florida, she nodded, and I told her I live in Dunedin. “Oh, Dunedin,” she replied, “I love the shopping there.”
At one of the quintet’s performances toward the end of the cruise, I was sitting in the second row right behind two of the performers from the blues lounge. For the entire 45 minute performance, one of them, a talented singer named Olivia, never moved her head or shifted in her seat—her eyes remained fixed on the quintet throughout. When the performance was over, I tapped her on the shoulder and told her how impressed I was with how intently she watched her fellow musicians. She smiled and explained that, even though they weren’t acquainted prior to the cruise, the musicians on board supported one another and enjoyed attending one another’s performances. I thought to myself, what an example to others!
To be sure, travel provides insights into the world around us and into ourselves. But it also gives us a new appreciation of our own country. I believe that is what G. K. Chesterton had in mind when he wrote: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved