Pictured: A narrow street in Rome.

Traveling is a tremendous privilege

Of the many things that I experienced during my first trip to Italy last December, perhaps what I’ll remember most is a profound sense of my own insignificance – not as an individual, but as an American. Traveling is a tremendous privilege and although still a luxury, it’s accessible to members of my generation whose parents couldn’t have left their state, let alone the country. In the blue light of our computer screens, we tend to buy into the illusion that we understand the lives of those who go to sleep as we wake up because we see their burkas and bedlahs, the changing of the guard and afternoon siestas. But as I stood on the side of a crowded street in one of the most historic cities still standing today, I realized just how little I understood of the wider global community and my place in it.

Of the many things that I experienced during my first trip to Italy last December, perhaps what I’ll remember most is a profound sense of my own insignificance – not as an individual, but as an American. Click To Tweet
Pictured: The Colosseum

Rome presents a substantially different version of modernity than its counterparts in New York or California. My first impressions of the city came in overwhelming bursts of sensory input. Cars squeezed through pedestrians on tiny side streets while a band marched through a crowd congregated in one of many courtyards. In a city where every courtyard has a piece of art worth seeing, Rome was everything that I knew a city to be and utterly unfamiliar. As I walked miles over cobbled streets in shoes that I regretted, I was reminded that we are products of our physical homes and upbringings. If I was born in Italy or anywhere else, I would be a much different person and that recognition of cultural relativity shaped the rest of my trip.

It’s a very human tendency to believe that our experiences are universal. Click To Tweet
Pictured: The morning tourist crowd in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

As a tour guide led my group through the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, I was struck by the importance of meeting people where they are and decentralizing the US as the analytical axis around which our understanding of the world spins. Our tour guide, Franco, presented Rome as the greatest city in the world and why wouldn’t he? Although other members of my group were offended by Franco’s Rome-centric view of the world that posited conservative, Catholic truths as absolutes, I couldn’t help but think to myself that none of us were any different. We represent our cities proudly and without shame, insisting that our homes are the best in the world. We believe what we were taught in our families, communities and schools and we don’t apologize for the way we center our experiences in our understanding of the world. It’s a very human tendency to believe that our experiences are universal. I didn’t find Franco offensive so much as indicative of a human flaw that we should all confront.

A growing movement towards empathy, tolerance, and acceptance is sweeping through the world Click To Tweet
Pictured: Italian gay pride flag handing in a courtyard in Florence.

Every day, as I walked around Florence, I passed the sign pictured to the left. Without access to the internet, I couldn’t verify that it was the Italian gay pride flag and that ‘Pace’ is the Italian word for peace until I got home. That confirmation didn’t matter so much as the fact that as I stood in one of the most religious countries on the planet, a sign of tolerance and acceptance hung proudly in the streets. A growing movement towards empathy, tolerance, and acceptance is sweeping through the world, including the corners of the world that have been most resistant to change. That flag reminded me of the transnational nature of movements and the power of symbols as they reverberate across cultural and language arriers. Without speaking a word of Italian, these symbols made me feel like a part of the Italian and worldwide struggle for equal rights for all people.

The 21st century is a period of rapid transition, one in which existing networks become exponentially more complex each day.

Pictured: Me on the main shopping bridge of Florence.

If the question is why does travel matter for my generation more than any other, the answer is simple. The 21st century is a period of rapid transition, one in which existing networks become exponentially more complex each day. In this network society, individuals have the capacity to be actors on the world stage. They are no longer relegated to the role of subjects, manipulated at the will of their nation-states. We have a level of agency never experienced before in history and as such, as we are changed, the world is too. As we put ourselves in the daily lives of others, we see the value in their way of seeing the world, whether or not our worldview changes in response. We exchange ideas and, in that exchange, our capacity for compassion is heightened. Our generation is a generation in transition, rapidly moving from a power structure delineated by state boundaries to one loosely governed by them. Every time we fly or take a train crossing international lines, we contribute to that breakdown of territorial lines and begin embracing a new world, one in which borders don’t matter because people do.

Our generation is a generation in transition, rapidly moving from a power structure delineated by state boundaries to one loosely governed by them. Click To Tweet

I am still evolving as a global citizen. By the time I saw the twin beds in our first hotel, I knew that this trip would require a thorough readjustment of my notions of hospitality and personal space, among other things. It made me realize that our norms are just that – ours, and whether or not you leave another country with a renewed appreciation for your own culture or the desire to leap into another isn’t the goal of traveling. The goal is to see value in the lives and beliefs of others as you do your own. While abroad, I missed easily accessible public restrooms, the availability of tap water with ice, full sized beds, and the clear delineation of sidewalk from street. Nevertheless, as soon as I touched down in Atlanta, I had the overwhelming desire to leave again. Although I miss the gelato and sightseeing, until I travel again, I’m holding onto the most important thing I brought home from Italy – the sense that the world is a much larger and more beautiful place than I knew.


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