“Italy is incredible! I love Italy!” This pretty well sums up every conversation I’d ever had about Italy before going there this spring. Americans are inordinately fond of Italy. The food! The culture! The art! The fashion! The Renaissance! Tuscany! We both put it on a European pedestal and then boast about how we’re a quarter Italian.
I’m a bit contrarian so if everyone loves something, I’ll immediately find fault. So naturally in college I chose to study abroad in Cuba rather than Europe. Though I studied history, I focused on American and Latin American history and indeed only managed to take one European history class in my four years. Then I moved to Mexico, something that puzzled pretty much everyone I met on either side of the border.
I told myself I’d make it over to Europe once I was established and fabulously wealthy and tired of weathering travel in developing countries. It was partially a way to blunt the pain of prohibitive cost and partially a rejection of European cultural hegemony. I’m a native Californian – I reject East Coast cultural hegemony, much less people putting on airs from across the Atlantic.
This May, I went to visit friends who have been living in Pozzuoli, near Naples, Italy. I knew so little about the country, I couldn’t have pointed at Naples on a map (or Rome or Florence or this fabled Tuscany place). And I had no idea what I was expected to see.
Which is probably why I had such a great trip. I stayed with my friends, making day trips from there to downtown Naples, Pompei, Capri and Ischia and I joined them and their friends for a weekend in Umbria and spent four days traveling alone in Rome. I felt like this was a pretty packed itinerary until I ran into scores of Americans who asked me if I had “done” Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Milan, etc. as they had in their two week trip.
This got me reflecting on just what is the point of traveling internationally anyway. There’s a long and loaded history – after all, many of the sights now visited by middle-class midwesterners are the same ones on the “Grand Tour” that Europe’s elite would make back in the 1800s. I love that the wikipedia entry for Grand Tour has at the end “See: Gap Year, Hippie Trail,” and in a few clicks you reach “Banana Pancakes Trail” and “Gringo Trail.” And there are the pilgrims as well, many of who I saw in rapture at the Vatican. Not to mention the long legacy of expatriates and colonialists. I invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the phrase “going native” which we’ve inherited from our English ancestors.
In my own life, I have sought out what I’d call “transformative travel.” That is a euphemism. If there were a movie trailer for the trips I take, it would close with the voiceover saying: “But will you ever really be able to come back?” My very first trip out of the country at age 14 so affected me that it changed the itinerary of my life. After two years of preparation and fundraising, my Girl Scout troop went to the international Girl Scout center in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I was so frustrated not being able to talk to the girls from Mexico, Honduras and Ecuador that I vowed to learn Spanish. Ten years later, I was living in Mexico.
Observing other travelers and expatriates over the years, it seems like time spent in another country has one of two effects – it shakes you to your foundation and opens your mind or it confirms your every bias and entrenches you more deeply in your ways.
I recommend to every teenager and college student I ever meet that he or she study abroad. When I say that, I am not referring to spending three months partying in a new location. I am not referring to civilizing the natives or proselytizing. You do not go just so you can say you went, whipping through a check-list of “must-see” sites.
The point of going to another country is that it should humble you. You go to realize how little you know. When you don’t speak a word of the language and have no clue which train to catch and a stranger helps you, you will be reminded that contrary to the ideals of American individualism, in this life, we are inextricably connected to and reliant upon other human beings and that is not a bad thing. You will come back less sure of the facts you know and more sure of your heart.
Sure I had a great time, but was I affected by two weeks of touring Roman ruins, gazing upon art and eating and drinking in Italy? You bet! I was just as moved by the sights as any other traveler and every day brought surprises that challenged what I thought I knew.
I think one of the reasons Americans love Italy so much is because you can actually see how different it is from America. A Roman coliseum built in the early hundreds stands in sharp relief to a mini-mall built in the 1980s. The history of the country (going so far back before there even was such a thing as a country) is written on every surface and everything is just SO OLD compared to our baby country. I was actually overwhelmed by Italy’s treasures and the magnitude of its history.
This also makes it easy for us to romanticize Italy. Not knowing anything, I always vaguely felt like there weren’t any poor people in Europe – I mean, they’re socialists, right?! Obviously, this is absurd, but I never gave it much thought and when you meet Europeans traveling, they’re always the Europeans who can afford to travel, not to mention have a month of vacation every year (not fair!).
One of things that I didn’t expect is that Italy has a long, long history of poor people that is revealed constantly in the very architecture and food that we Americans now romanticize. “What charming terraced hillsides!” we exclaim. Imagine digging up rocks and building them into walls day after day, year after year. Do you think the people who built the coliseum received a living wage? “Mmmm…what delicious polenta and bread soup”… Direct descendants of the food that peasants made because they couldn’t afford meat. Did you know that the famous pizza of Naples was only available in Naples for hundreds of years? Italy only unified its former city states and distinct regions into a single country in the mid-1800s, less than 100 years ago. In fact, the first place outside of Naples that one could try Neapolitan pizza was America because times were so tough after unification that many southern Italians were forced to migrate. Many of the smallest details and asides seemed to reveal the most to me.
I felt everything when I was in Italy – the weight of history and its surprising gifts as simple as a beloved culinary dish, pride in the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of all of western civilization, sadness at the long legacy of cruelty, suffering and inequality across so many empires and kingdoms and countries, wonder at the advance of technology and society, and most of all gratitude for the kindness of strangers and for having the chance to travel across hemispheres to know an entirely new place and to find there new friends.