Traveling Tuscany and roaming Rome has the ability to alter one’s DNA. Italy’s center is a cultural convergence, where electric cars cross cobblestone streets and Roman descendants dine with foreigners whose ancestors once lived under Roman Empirical rule. On a long walk through the city, one can almost see the evolution of civilization.
It is said your average adolescent develops his sense of society around age 15 – until then, they are self-centered and unaware of their role in the greater world. International travel provides opportunity for similar transformation. One gains cultural perspective – the joy of a four-hour dinner, immediate intimacy amongst strangers, the universality of humor, a smile’s seductiveness – and absorbs the commonalities among cultures. In the face of international interaction, mundane differences evaporate. It can be a lesson in humility.
What I’m driving at – and probably not very successfully – is awareness. Whether we go back two thousand years or trek along the more recently paved streets of an ancient city, people haven’t really changed. Journeying to foreign lands means sitting at dinner tables with folks who may not speak your language or preach to your God. They may eat things wholly repulsive to you and they may perform odd cultural rituals, which seem antithetical to your more ethnocentric interests. But, in the end, they are people of the planet and they succumb to the same influences of parents and peers and policies.
I have returned to the States now, fallen back upon my cozy pillow after a solitary dinner of Third World take-out. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gained a better sense of the benefits of embracing a stranger, of dropping my personal walls and being willing to appear fragile for the chance at cultural connection, of history’s place in foreign lands. I’ve learned how critical American diplomacy is, and how a simple smile can breach otherwise impenetrable walls.
I’ve often heard the phrase “find your place in the world.” After the past few weeks, it seems that may prove more difficult than I imagined. There are many places for me, lands inhabited by people who can teach me their ways, and who can endow me with the gift of greater empathy for my fellow man. As the autumn of my life approaches, I can stare at the changing leaves and know that each season offers a different beauty. Regardless of their colors or shapes, it is like that with mankind.