Travel (and how it’s not about places)

Recently I have been lucky enough (or “blessed” as my American friends tend to say) to travel a lot.

I was going through my photos from a recent trip to Italy tonight, trying to select the ones I’d like to print in a photo-book (yes, I do that, I know I’m old school).

It’s funny. We all take photos of interesting places and most of us, my self included, never manage to capture the essence of a place. I’m excluding professional photographers from this thought – obviously. My photos of the Colosseum, Trastevere and the Towers of Bologna are good reminders of the places but nothing special.

My special photos (and some of them I never took, I just collect them as mental images) are the ones of people I was with and what we did together.

My mother throwing a coin in Fontana di Trevi and laughing.

My sister listening patiently while I was going on about some tidbit of information on the Colosseum I picked up online somewhere.

The s.o. talking with his brother.

Our friends opening a gift.

Our friends sharing their favourite restaurant with us.

The lovely young lady who makes bags in a tiny workshop in the centro storico in Rome.

The patient teacher who explained the importance of food in Italy.

The aristocratic lady with the soft hands in the chocolate shop.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the history, the architecture, the art.

I held my breath standing under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I marvelled at the Pantheon. I cursed all the way up the almost 500 steps of the Asinelli Tower.

And yet, somehow, all of those moments were still about the people.

Those severely saying “Silenzio” to us noisy tourists in the Sistine Chapel. Those sitting quietly to pray in the Pantheon. Those (ahem) who asked me to show my commitment in climbing the tower.

Was it important that we had all of those interactions in Italy? Sure. Would the trip have been the same without the people? Assolutamente no – as the Italians would say.

Even when I travel alone (and that happens A LOT), the most fascinating thing about a new place is the history and culture of its people. How they shaped a place, how they make it work today, how they allow strangers into their environment. I only really understood that as humans we really shape the world around us (from the environment right down to the feel of a place) through travelling.

And then when I travel with others – or when I meet friends in a place – I am awestruck by how a spot, a building, a tradition, comes alive only when the people show an interest or share a story  about it.

After all, even the Archiginnasio of Bologna is just a collection of stones piled up interestingly, until you watch the students study, until you trace the names of past alumni, until the s.o. shows you his favourite seat in the Stabat Mater lecture hall.



P.S. At the top, one of my favourite photos. My sister and I sharing an umbrella while waiting for a bus in Rome. 

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