“Only two suitcases?” the young woman at the Venice airport asked me as we were checking-in for our early morning flight home. “It’s only the two of us,” I said pointing at my wife standing next to me. “Americans usually have more luggage,” the woman explained with a sly tone in her voice. “They want to be prepared when they travel to a wild place like Europe,” I responded in jest. Around us, the airport was waking up, counters, boutiques and duty free shops throwing swaths of sparkles and colorful lighting on the walls and the clean, shiny floors. People rushed in different directions, easy to recognize Americans among them. It was similar to any American airport, and yet unfamiliar, more subdued and fancier than at home. “Exactly,” the woman at the check-in said, and moved our suitcases to the conveyor belt.
I knew what she meant. Culturally and materially, life in Europe and the United States is similar enough. Perhaps it is fair to note that the European way of life had been the basis of the American way. An American in Europe has nothing to fear, and he doesn’t have to bring, like a snail, his home on his back. Many people speak his language and stores carry the same or similar products as they do in the States. You can buy hamburgers and Coke everywhere, and many brand names are the same. Yet, there is a gap.
The people in the streets are slender and nimble. They walk. They dress well. The old architecture is amazing and imbues the surroundings with an aura that enchants the eye and rewards the soul. You can’t help it but bow to the enduring power of history. We are who we are because of what we had been. There are piazzas everywhere, statues, fountains, bas-reliefs, stained glass windows and wrought iron benches and street lamps. The entrepreneurs of old wanted to pay a tribute to culture. They did. One can enjoy one’s time with a simple two-euro cappuccino and a croissant in numerous small restaurants. I even noticed a man reading a newspaper in a sidewalk café.
I grew up in Romania and came to the United States in my twenties. In my thirties, I lived for a number of years in Denmark and traveled through Europe extensively. Since then, I returned to the old continent on business and pleasure many times. So I expected this trip to be no different than one from Maryland, where I live, to Virginia or Pennsylvania, except, of course, the sleepless night on the plane. I was surprised. I don’t know if the gap with Europe is widening, but on this voyage I felt out of focus, sometimes by a lot.
I owe this feeling to the American obsession with commerce and efficiency, and, possibly, to the crass political climate at home. But maybe the explanation is simpler –after so many years, I’m getting used to my life in the States more and more. Or maybe it is just an illusion, the result of the type of trip that I took — a Mediterranean Cruise that started in Barcelona and ended in Venice ten nights later, with short stops in places with an amazing history, each requiring days if not weeks to reasonably explore, understand, and enjoy. In this fast moving film, further complicated by the general onslaught of tourists, the impressions mingled and overwhelmed.
As a consequence, more than ever before, I sought the company of other Americans, both on the cruise ship and on land. I would either approach them with a question, or make some loud remark in English, and soon enough one of them would notice me and invariably ask, “Where are you from?” “United States, Maryland,” I would say, and pause expectantly. The person talking to me would hesitate a second and follow up, “No, but really, where is your accent from?” Sometimes annoyed, I rationalized that small indiscretion by the fact that we were all away from home and their curiosity had no malice. “Oh, you mean where I was born? Bucharest, Romania, a long time ago.” My interlocutor would nod satisfied, and from that point on, continue to converse with me on equal footing.
And so it went. From Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, to the Papal Palace in Avignon, to the pristine streets of Monte Carlo, to Florence and the Uffizi Gallery, to the train ride from Civitavecchia to Rome and back, to a cappuccino in Piazza Navona, the Colosseum, to a walk in Sorrento, Dubrovnik and Koper, and finally to Venice, with Piazza San Marco, the Doge’s Palace and a strike of the vaporettos.
After the grueling eight-hour flight back from Venice to Washington DC, on the shuttle bus connecting the terminal to the main building, I bumped into a fellow traveller who seemed as tired as I was. We grumpily exchanged a few words and soon enough he asked me the question, “Visiting or going home?” “Going home.” “And where is home?” “Columbia, Maryland.” I paused expectantly. “I’m from Laurel,” he said and looked away. The bus shook. We had arrived.
“Ask me where I was born,” I wanted to yell. “What’s wrong with you?”
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