It’s often said that we travel to see new places and meet new people. To expand our lives and our point of view. I think even more importantly, we travel to learn something about ourselves.
Over the 12 days of Christmas in 1997/98, I traveled to Spain and France. Naturally, I visited the Louvre. I saw the Mona Lisa. I felt nothing. Except, maybe, disappointment. I remember thinking, this is it? Here I was, in this infamous institution of art, staring at this iconic painting and all I could think was… well, ok, at least I’ve seen it. (Similarly, I felt the same when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome recently.) The dear friend with whom I was traveling seemed to understand. He asked me, “When was the last time you saw something that set your heart on fire? That gave you the experience you were hoping to have now?” Immediately I knew the answer. Venezuela.
In 1997, I spent several weeks backpacking through Venezuela with a guide. At one point, he announced we would trek to “the abbeys.” I expected some old cloister ruins. It was the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done. Up up up an extremely vertical hike and then across and over and across a seemingly endless plain. It was no less than an eight-hour trek, maybe longer. I grew increasingly weary of seeing his back in front of me. And then he said, “Drop your pack. We’re here.” Here?? Where?? I saw nothing, certainly no ruins. Yet relieved to release the burden from my back, I did. He beckoned me forward. Maybe only 12 or so steps. And there it was.
The abyss. I was standing over the Brazilian rainforest. I was at the center of the world. The earth was breathing up at me with a wind so strong, it pushed the hair off my face. I swear I could hear every living thing below that chirped and moved and slithered. It was amazing. More than amazing. I swear I felt the heartbeat of every living thing below me. The vibration of the earth. To this day, I have no words for it. But I can still feel it.
We were visiting the abyss, not the abbeys. I misunderstood his words, but the meaning, the metaphor… are the same. Here was a sacred place. The most sacred of places. The unknowable, the unfathomable, only reached through a long and strenuous journey.
I came to Italy for a 6-week holiday. I have studied the humanities my entire life. I was raised, even nursed, on classical art, literature, and music. Italy is the inspiration and birthplace of so much beauty created by man. It seemed obvious that I would go to Italy to see these things: to visit Florence, Sienna, maybe even Venice. But no. I wanted to spend time in the country, in the South, in Sicily. I couldn’t explain it rationally, but I knew, I just knew, this was were I needed to be.
Luckily, I made it to Sicily just as the mandatory quarantine began. Now, after 11 weeks, I am free to take my holiday, to travel the country. It occurs to me that this may be the time to visit Florence, to meet my new friends residing there. There will never be a time like this – to see the city without so many tourists. But as for the museums, the art… I am indifferent. What really draws me is the Tuscan countryside. The landscape of Umbria. Or the lemon groves around Sorrento.
For the moment, I remain in Sicily. I have a car. There are so many notable places of interests to visit. Towns I’ve been told I must see. I’ve seen some. I forced myself to visit Monreale, to see the cathedral, and I’m glad I did. A few days ago, I forced myself to visit Cefalu. As soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. Too many people, SO many people, almost no one wearing masks. Ok, this is going to sound crazy, but I actually burst into tears. It was too much. Yet, after all the effort of getting there and after all I had heard that this city must be seen… I sat by the sea and pondered, calming myself. I found a route above the city that would take me to the cathedral. I gathered myself up and went. Again, I’m glad I did. And after that, Castelbuono. Again, very much worth the visit. Especially since I was able to score locally-made caciocavello cheese with pistachios and various marzipan treats. And yes, a fresh cannolo.
Now I am back in the country, sitting in the sunshine and breeze at the centuries-old stone cottage where I am staying for a week. I am more than content.
I have seen many beautiful things in my life. And yes, it can be argued that these things have all enriched me, expanded my appreciation and understanding of humankind and history. But what really thrills me, what sustains me? The simple things.
Windows, portals, and doors. Old buildings with crumbling facades, some still functional, others waiting to be repurposed. Animals roaming freely. Wide open spaces filled with growing things: trees, flowers, grains, and vines. Green landscapes. Winding roads through valleys and mountains.
People. Simply being. Not crowds and certainly not tourists. People living, more so than doing. The opportunity for authentic exchange: smiles, nods, conversations. Even, slowly as the threat of coronavirus subsides, the traditional kiss on both cheeks and big hugs.
Finally, I have come to understand this about myself: the very thing I have long known but skirted around, refusing to completely embrace due to my upbringing and education. I can live without seeing anymore art – what the world calls classic and lives in museums or behind glass cases, roped off, at a distance. But I cannot live without beauty. The simple regenerative and everlasting beauty of life and living.
Will I visit more cities in Italy? Perhaps. But my life will not shrink if I don’t. Ah, but the country! Amidst the blooming colors and vibration of that which grows and lives, here is where I expand. Where I breathe comfortably and calmly. Whether traveling or residing, this is what I need. This is home.