I am spending a month in Florence, Italy.
Depending upon the time of day, several different populations are visible in this urban area. During the day, tourists seem to be everywhere, gawking at the sights. In the early evening, when the heat of the day is past, the beautiful (aka the affluent) people become more visible, strolling, perhaps shopping as they are seen and being seen, enjoying a drink, and eventually dining. Hordes of college students begin to fill the streets near sunset, which is at about 9 pm. And amongst all of these itinerants are the people who actually make their home permanently in this city: the elderly, the children, and those who work.
I wonder to what extent persons from these various populations actually pay much attention to each other much less interact on more than the most casual basis. The tourists that I have observed generally seem intent on their sightseeing, often appear tired, and exhibit only cursory interest in the city bustling around them. The beautiful are mostly privileged tourists and appear more self-interested and self-absorbed than do ordinary tourists (of course, my observations and generalizations may also be in error). Students, I’m guessing, are busy with their studies during the day; their behavior and the tenor of the conversations I’ve overheard suggest that they just want to have a good time in the evenings.
And the people who live here? Except for their remarkable tolerance of the unending torrent of visitors, residents of Florence don’t seem all that much different than people most places.
It’s not so much the uniqueness of the people I see in Florence or what they are doing but observing them in a different context and culture that gives me a fresh perspective.
One aspect of perspective is scale.
For example, I think of myself as a whole (I hope that I am not schizoid!). However, I also know that may have 37 trillion cells in my body, each of which has some measure of independent existence. Scientists estimate that microbes that live in or upon my body but are not part of my body (think parasites, though I have a symbiotic relationship with many of these microbes and could not live without them) may out number my cells 10 to 1. On a microscopic scale, I am far from being a unitary whole.
Conversely, I disappear into physical insignificance when utilizing a galactic rather than microscopic scale. The ratio of my size to the known universe is far less than the ratio of the smallest microbe I host to six foot frame.
Yet another aspect of perspective is detail.
Florence’s different (to me!) architecture, strange traffic patterns, and enticing odors frame too many people for me to count, many of them speaking foreign languages that I rarely understand and sometimes cannot even recognize. My sensory capabilities – sight, olfactory, hearing, touch, and taste – are qualitatively and quantitatively the same here as elsewhere. Being in a new place is a powerful reminder that I routinely ignore most of my sense experiences, paying attention to only the select few that attract my interest or concern in a particular moment.
Being in a place that is foreign to me, I am less certain of which inputs are important to my safety (I well remember, while at the Naval Academy, burying a woman who had been struck and killed by a bus in Scotland when she looked left instead of right) while also trying experience what is most interesting or novel. Upon returning from extended travel, I find that I am more alert to my senses, noticing anew or for the first time things that I previously ignored.
A third aspect of perspective is the meaning or value that I give to experiences.
Humans are inveterate meaning makers. This is partially rooted in our evolutionary biology. We create narratives to describe, interpret, and explain our behaviors entailed in sustaining and perpetuating life. My narrative is a tapestry woven from my relationships and experiences as well as both my conscious and unconscious ideas and feelings.
Travel can expose a person to people who have constructed very different narratives about their lives. Stores sell different foods. Small shops still compete with large stores. Interior design and furnishings place greater value on style and less on functionality than is common in the US. Art and style are treasured more than efficiency. Dwellings are small. Community seems more important than does individuality: people have chosen to live in densely populated urban areas, depopulating rural areas. A life lived here tells a different story than a life lived in Raleigh or Boston.
Yet another aspect of perspective is the rhythm by which people live.
On the train trip from Rome to Florence, I was struck by how much parts of the landscape resembled the parts of California that frame the central valley. In late June, the land was already beginning to turn brown, obviously arid. The weather forecast for my month in Florence calls for a month of hot days with moderate humidity. Shops and restaurants outside the main tourist area still close in the late afternoon, the hottest part of the day. People work hard, yet find time to stop and chat with neighbors, passersby, and others. Locals eat their evening meal late, as the sun sets and sitting outdoors becomes more comfortable. Afternoon siestas are common.
Life here has a different rhythm from the super-air-conditioned US. I’ve not seen anyone don a sweater to stay warm when indoors; outdoors, they often walk slowly, travelling by foot instead of air conditioned vehicle. Alternatively, individuals who drive do so with aggressive abandon, especially when riding a scooter.
In sum, musing about my travels prompts me to think about the narrative I tell to give my life meaning, the scale I use to frame and to interpret that narrative, the details I include and those that I omit, and the rhythm with which I live and with which I tell my story.
These musings seem especially appropriate today, the Fourth of July, the celebration of US independence. Too often, patriotism connotes an attitude of superiority and disdain for others. I am American by birth and predilection. However, I also love other cultures and find it impossible to say that one country is inherently superior to all others. Travel is an opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, putting the good and the bad of my own in fresh perspective. The true measure of patriotism is one’s commitment to improving one’s own nation while concurrently affirming the dignity and self-determination of all.