By June Sochen
Naples and Evanston, Ill.
I returned from a Mediterranean cruise; we made nine stops with five of them in Italy. Some of the spots were first-time experiences for me but some of the most notable — Venice, Florence and Barcelona — were cities I had been to before.
But this time, I thought about those places in a new light. I considered various themes and opinions I formed this time which offered a new perspective. This happened after returning home and having an opportunity to extract long term meaning from the multiple images of the trip. It requires some time after traveling to contemplate the significance of all the diverse sights.
But among the undeniable benefits of travel are (and it is a cliché that remains true) the opportunity to compare your country with those visited, to be exposed to new and different cultures, and to meet people you would never meet in your hometown. Similarly, visiting a city for a second or third time yields different, new and sometimes unexpected impressions.
While searching for a way to organize my thoughts, I came upon the metaphor of the camera, particularly the multiple lenses used by photographers. While many people today take pictures using their phone, the purists still use a camera. For them, the various lenses — long shot, mid-range, and close-up — offer a way to organize the many sights seen while traveling in a foreign country.
When you visit Venice and Florence, for example, you see remnants of a long gone culture, the once great Roman Empire. I had forgotten, for example, upon an earlier visit to Barcelona, how that city also shows remnants of the Roman occupation with a piece of the Roman wall still in place in the old part of the city.
Today, these sights are only reminders of past glory.
Sad to say, many of Europe’s “long shots” are nostalgic reminders of once great times that no longer apply to contemporary culture. But they remind the tourist of past cultures, past glories and past values. They also offer you an opportunity to read further, upon returning home, about ancient cultures. The often stark contrast between the distant past and today also gives you pause to consider the positive and negative changes in human society.
Closer in time, the midlevel shots, also offer tourists views of equally great times: the Middle Ages when great cathedrals, paintings, and sculpture were created. If you extend those middle shots to the 19th century, you have impressive evidence of the durability of the great civilizations.
Approaching the present offers a different view. The close-up shots of today’s European culture are more problematic. Tour guides avoid current discussions assiduously and focus upon the plentiful examples of past greatness. Only by asking (and most polite tourists do not ask) would the traveler learn about the economic problems, the high unemployment, and the low birthrate of most of Europe.
Inevitably, the thoughtful tourist asks herself: how does America compare to the great civilizations of Europe? The quick answer is that we are youngsters in comparison. We have no long shots to compare to those in Europe. At best, we have midlevel shots such as the Indo-American cultures that were already flourishing a hundred years before the Europeans came to these shores. If cultures and civilizations are measured only in length of time in existence, the United States is not a player in that game. But our story provides many proud achievements despite our youth. Indeed, it says a lot about human history that the young nation of the U.S. has the oldest continuous representative democracy.
However, rather than turn the travel experience into a simplistic “aren’t we wonderful” scenario, or “weren’t they once wonderful,” we can consider the virtues of the West, the shared virtues with both the West and the East, and the various pathways each culture has traveled. A mighty task.
One of the benefits of travel is to ignite your curiosity to travel more, to learn more about your own history and the history of others. In what ways are differences keyholes into understanding other cultures? In what ways are similarities insights into our own values?
Answering these questions, however tentatively, expands our understanding of the world in which we live, a world in which the past exists alongside the present.
Sochen is retired as a history professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University.