When I was in elementary school, I had a globe with raised mountains and sunken seas on the surface. The tactile senses elicited by slowly roaming my dirty little fingers over the nubs conveyed a palpable sense of something beyond me, beyond my little town, in the mysterious lands across the Atlantic ocean in which I’d swim every summer. That was my instant and distinct connection to the larger world. What was out there? The New Jersey shoreline was awash in jellyfish and horseshoe crabs remnants, but what washed ashore in India or New Zealand? My little Appalachia Mountains appeared as mere bumps, but the Andes, that great backbone of South America, or the Swiss Alps, or the monstrous Himalayas were like knuckled fists, a menacing presence taunting my young mind. “You’ll never be here. You’ll never be near me.” Like hot girls turning mean, those big hills teased me with their distance and overall foreignness, which, similarly to hot girls, made me want them even more.
Antarctica was too weird to even make sense. You couldn’t really see it as it was hiding above the globe stand and what was there to see? I mean, there were no cartoon penguins there, and that’s the only draw to that frozen land besides the wild-eyed scientists who find snow drifts neat and ice cores sexy.
Australia was lacking in labels as only about 10% of the land is livable, so there were only a few cities even marked. I thought it was just a country for cool animals. Essentially it is. Marsupials with pouches, giant crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, the most poisonous snakes, spiders and orcs in the world. The aboriginals became part of that world tens of thousands of years ago, adapted and thus seemed so strange to the pale English invaders. People and animals change. Imagine how a kangaroo and horse might look at each other and think the other is the strange one.
Russia was an epiphany. How could there be so much land? Why did they get to keep all of it? As a young kid, I thought biggest equals best, and that didn’t compute as we were taught to fear the evil empire of the Reds.
Asia also made no sense. The names were unknown and I couldn’t make up a vision of what it might be like there. All I could focus on was the massive heart of Asia in the raised and thus distorted land called Nepal. The Himalayas had white tops which meant very tall. Only a few peaks in the Rockies of North America had those white tops.
Europe held all the familiar names: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, I could imagine what they looked like. Basically, America with older buildings. They were all part of my elementary history books. South America, vast and long, held the enigmatic and formidable Amazon River. Kids love learning about the massive anaconda or the shocking hunger of piranhas. South America felt like a neighbor to me, the neighbor you never see, the neighbor whose lights aren’t on, so you stop asking questions about who lives there.
And finally, there is Africa, the land of extremes. Giant animals, expansive deserts, bewildering jungles, a history tied by shackles to the New World. All my young mind knew of that continent was the mighty pyramids, mummies and King Tut. Egypt was a consuming fascination since I saw Bert & Ernie walk through the Natural History Museum followed by a dancing mummy.
Maps were my connection to the world, and I was lucky to have that. As a kid without YouTube and before the Planet Earth series, I could only imagine visiting the places scattered around the globe. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done a bit of traveling and written about some of those experiences. Then, I saw the NY Times was looking for a travel writer to go to one city each week for a year. 52 places, 52 new experiences. Over 3,000 people applied. A young writer for New York Magazine got it. My hopes weren’t high to get the position, but the hope was still there. To be paid to travel and tell others about it is such a modern idea. The tripadvisor and yelp world looks to others who’ve passed that way before to enlighten the first timer. It’s a good system that has led me to many cool places of which I might not have known.
It’s easy to be critical of social media as a tool for inducing jealousy or a mechanism to promote the best photo of the best place with your best friends, but it also reminds us about what may still lie in our futures. The new travel writer for America’s most respected newspaper is one woman chosen from a motivated group of excited wannabe tourists. It’s fun to be a tourist, everything is new even as we bring all our old memories, issues and expectations. Travel gives us a chance to push out the old and invite the new. That remains my favorite part of being mobile in the world. What new will be found? What new is inside of me? What old will be left behind? What old will remain? Travel is searching, exploring, walking, listening, eating, sensing, active verbs in strange places. Travel and vacation are not always the same thing. Traveling requires effort; vacation requires time. Mixing the two is a recipe for a great trip.
The essay section wanted applicants to write a short description of: “The most interesting place you’ve ever been and why.” I’ve been many interesting places, but none more than Roma, Italia. Here is what I wrote:
The most interesting place I’ve ever been was Rome, Italy. There is no secret about why this place is infinitely interesting. The living history, the Egyptian obelisks, carved facades, murmuring fontanas, the Colosseo, the pizza, pasta, gelato and espresso, the youth among the ancient, wandering cats, beautiful women, whistling men, the grandiosity of Vatican City, and the simplicity of an evening café.
I’ve been to Rome three times, never stepping in the same street twice, though visiting several places multiple times. The shifting ambiance and shuffling crowd, stirring the city into a fluid radiance that has kept Rome dynamic for three millennia makes it truly an eternal city. It is a city to conjure history while soaking in the pleasant present.
Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure your Roman return. Place your hand in The Mouth of Truth and hope you’ve spoken verità. Amble among the Roman Forum and walk in the steps of Caesar. Drop below ground to gaze into the sunken glare of ancient skulls. I did all those things, looked for sights from Roman Holiday, visited the museums, climbed the Spanish Steps and then saw a jazz show after an eight-course meal and a bottle of cheap, delicious wine.
I experienced a vague shock when confronted with the underbelly of the Colosseum. Gladiators fought to the death in a stadium as big as any pro football arena. It felt so human to know that for centuries humans have cheered for destructive combat. However, I doubt the Romans cared about C.T.E.
On a private tour from an ambassador, we visited some back rooms and private galleries in Vatican City, but mostly I remember the guide’s awful breath, the colorful outfits of the Swiss Guard and the art. I loved seeing the old maps of the “world” before one side of the globe knew about the other. The Vatican frescoes showed varied human perspectives of agony, glory or the mystery of faith.
There is an impression in Roma of a gentle hand guiding you down tiny walking streets, with centuries-old bricks and the hush of a little back alley, before thrusting you into a wide, grand piazza. There will be a statue, a café, a painter, a moment of realization that this city is designed to explore by foot, experiencing the endless beauty, stepping on the stones of antiquity, finding your own Rome.
My family is Italian, and I felt a connection to the land in my grandmother’s home high in the Dolomites; or my grandfather, whose name I carry, in the southern hustle of Naples. Italy is a conglomeration of many diverse regions, but the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”, places this most interesting city at the heart of a magnificent country.