When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.
I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.
My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.
These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.
Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.
Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.
I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.
If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.
Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”
Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.
So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!