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Seduced By That Flighty Temptress, being The World

January 10, 2009

You know me – I’m the one at the party that starts every other sentence with the phrase, “This one time, when I was in [insert European city here]…” As pretentious as that sounds, it comes from a place, not of snobbery, but full-hearted, deep and lasting adoration for the art of travel.

I have been very fortunate in my life so far to have gotten to travel a fair bit, especially throughout Europe. I have been “on the continent” three times and each time I go, it is still like the first time, ripe with giddiness and delight. While overnight flights can easily be loathed for their discomfort and disorientation, there is a moment that makes it worth every sleepless minute and breath of stuffy air. Come the very early hours, as the plane is flying towards the morning, you see it. It starts out gently, the sky melting from pure darkness into a midnight blue – it’s such a gradual change that you can’t be sure if it’s a trick of the eye or purely wishful thinking. That dark, sensuous blue begins warming into lighter and lighter shades, and then you see them. Clouds.  An endless, vast field of white that makes me feel like I could run for hours in it and not get tired, or make cloud angels that could sprout real wings. Then the colors of the sky’s paint box begin their show. Ribbons of purple and pink, unraveling one at a time, until the sky is wrapped in majesty and it’s breaking your heart. There is nothing in the world like watching the sun rise from the vantage point of angels.

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(The sun rising on my way to France this past summer.)

Travel takes a person entirely out of their element and allows us to discover different versions of ourselves. As an obsessive planner and organization nerd, it’s good for me to get entirely and utterly lost. A gentle reminder that writing something down in a notebook doesn’t cement a plan and that the spontaneous moments, where you feel dizzy from walking in circles but can’t stop laughing, are usually more memorable than seeing that eighth art museum that this book said we just can’t miss. It reminds me of E.M. Forster’s classic book, A Room With a View, where the main character, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself in Santa Croce in Florence, without her Baedeker guidebook, and feeling utterly bewildered.

“The pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy…it gave her light and — which he held more precious — it gave her shadow. Soon he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things she will not tell us.”

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(Florence, the last time we saw each other.)

On a trip to Rome back in college, my friend and I were walking from the Vatican back across the city and through a series of mistaken turns that stretched the afternoon out farther and farther, found ourselves not only inexplicably lost but extremely hungry. Coming across this little basement trattoria that was just opening its doors for lunch, we headed in, only to find that not a blessed person in the place spoke English. As my Italian was limited to “Excuse me,” “thank you” and “red wine,” we shrugged our shoulders and figured “Why not?” In a city the size of Rome, it’s actually rare to come across real Italians who haven’t been contaminated by us and it ended up being a beautiful treat. The menu was daily, scrawled on a chalk board and neither of us recognized a word. We mimed that we were hungry and that they could bring us whatever they wanted. Every time they asked us a question, we just shrugged, laughed and nodded our heads “yes”. The end result was an incredible lunch of eggplant pasta, salad and red wine that stretched over a few hours. Once we were ready to leave, we kept trying to ask for our check and they kept bringing us wine lists. Finally, I got out my phrase book and looked up the word for “bill” and they finally understood, bowed and threw many “grazie mille”s after us as we left, like flower petals at a wedding. As we walked up the stairs and out onto the street, we looked back and it was like the little restaurant had disappeared. Perhaps it can only be found by lost Midwestern girls whose stomachs are rumbling and who hold the world record for having seen the most paintings of the Virgin Mary in one week.

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(That bread was delicious. And who doesn’t love a good lunch rounded off with a nice cappucino?)

It is good to be reminded that the world is big. Our society today seems to love words like “global economy,” “melting pot,” and “universal.” But in travel, you are reminded in a thousand ways that we are still so gloriously, deliciously different from each other. Like daisies in sidewalk cracks, these beautiful differences pop up in everything ordinary from what you eat for breakfast to how you greet a person walking down the street. While we may have different customs, it is still comforting to know that no matter how we say it, we still say hello to each other, and no matter what you cook, we all eat. It’s a contradiction of commonality and diversity, a reminder that the world being big doesn’t stop us all from being a part of it. No matter where we live, we find that we all share in the basic experiences of what it means to be human. To raise a family, to cook a meal, to celebrate a birthday, to laugh, to cry, to fall in love, to grow up and to stay young. It’s a myriad expressions of God’s creativity coming alive in each one of us in the simplicity of everyday life. There is something timelessly precious about tradition that has lasted the ages – the gentle, graceful traditions of love, family and friends. Frances Mayes, an American author who has written extensively about living all around the world, once wrote, “The ancient people are not like us.  I am so thankful for that.”

(My friends and I in Paris, nearly exactly 3 years ago.)

The addictions of some are manifested in closets crammed full of clothes, polishing expensive cars in the driveway and TVs the size of a billboard mounted to the living room wall. Mine comes alive in the photos of France and Italy and Greece covering my walls, in the unframed artwork from Venice and London propped up on bookshelves and more scarves from streetside vendors than any one person should ever need. I have a love affair with locking the door, turning the key and going. It’s an equally beautiful balance, the out of body-ness of travel and the deep breath of contentment in coming back home.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. James permalink
    January 11, 2009 5:08 pm

    The beauty of hearing you speak of travel is your appreciation of it, just as you appreciate everything else.

    I think any true traveler finds that the unplanned moments are the meaningful insights of the trip. I am a planner, to some extent, like you are. For example, I just found out that we got a cabin in the Adirondacks for next weekend, and I was so excited I drove out last night in a snow storm to purchase a topo map of that area. I ended up not being able to get back up my 9% grade hill to my apartment, and so I hung around downtown for 2 hours eating food and drinking coffee until they got my hill cleaned off. (an unplanned, meaningful event in itself)

    I can stare at maps for hours, planning different routes, calculating miles, researching areas. This is almost as enjoyable as the trip itself. I think the reason I get into it so much is because it gives you ownership in your trip. It creates a very personal experience.

    But as Steinbeck says, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” And so I know in spite of all of the planning, I will end up taking a trail I didn’t plan on taking, I may have to hitch a ride because I am miles away from where I am supposed to be, or I may get absolutely lost.

    But everytime, without fail, those moments are when I say, “I am so happy I decided to take this trip.” I think it is that personality trait, in myself, in you, and in other fellow lovers of travel, that drives us to do what we do.

    Those without that trait are the people that would have said, “Dammit, why don’t these people speak English!?” and then talk about how awful the trip was when they return.

    I apologize if my replys to your blog are like a blog of my own. =)

    Happy trails.

  2. Amanda permalink
    January 11, 2009 5:19 pm

    I cannot wait to visit Europe someday, a dream of mine I guess you could say! Sometimes I contemplate making a list of things I want to do in my life time and Europe is at the top, followed by Napa Valley & Sonoma County 🙂
    I love…”and no matter what you cook, we all eat. ”
    beautiful
    inspiring
    yet again.

    ~Amanda

  3. Caroline permalink*
    January 12, 2009 8:15 am

    I love reading your mini-blog atop my blog, James.

    We are kindred spirits, I say yet again, and in travel, it is no different. I really hope we get to take a trip together somewhere, someday. I am absolute crap with maps, but I will plan from guidebooks like no one’s business and can navigate subways like it was my job.

    I think it is coming upon time for me to read “Travels with Charley” again…

    “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”

    🙂

    Stay warm in your corner of the world, friend.
    Ingersoll someday soon.

  4. Caroline permalink*
    January 12, 2009 8:18 am

    Amanda,

    Europe is a must! Especially for a chef — you will eat your way through the cities with myriad sighs of contentment. And in my opinion, for food, there is no better place to start than Italy. 🙂

    Please do take the time to travel whenever you can — it’s so worth it. And it changes you.

    Thanks for being such a faithful and encouraging reader!

    Caroline

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