After consulting with a Ranger, my partner and I found a remote hike we could do safely on Mt. Rainier as a weekend day trip. We hoped the uncertain weather forecast would make it even less crowded, and although the clouds never lifted enough to reveal the top of the mountain itself, it was a truly memorable experience that will stay with me for a very long time. Then the beginning of the week brought me back to my studies and conversations with Roman friends and travelers I met over the years or that I was supposed to meet in Rome this year for a tour. Also, my time in the States is slowly coming to an end. As a result, thoughts and impressions on travel, nature and art have been swirling in my mind in search of a thread or a discernible pattern. Hopefully, writing them down helps me find that. As everything I share in this blog, my thoughts are intended as my half of an open conversation that you are ideally part of, whether you feel like sharing or not.
So many travel plans have been impacted by this pandemic, so much work is lost. Yet, what struck me and my local guide colleagues right from the start was that every cancellation we received was accompanied by an expression of such deep regret that it actually forced us to rethink our own sense of the importance of travel. I know it should be settled and obvious because I work in the travel industry, but, as so often happens, the absence or inaccessibility of something or being forced out of one’s routine, has the power to truly shake us and reconnect us with the deepest core of what inspires and motivates us.
The longing for Italy in foreign travelers moves me more these days than it ever has, I am paying more attention to it and understand that it is giving me the courage to wait this crisis out. When people here (but not just here of course) mention Italy, even their tone of voice changes and acquires an unmistakably dreamy quality (I can feel it in emails too!). I wanted to explore this more and asked my brother Giorgio, who left Italy 25 years ago, and a few colleagues to tell me what they love about Rome, and I will share that here. It is true that I am constantly searching for comfort and hope, but it is clear that travel produces a shared love of place that truly unites us and that is very uplifting in this particular moment.
It works both ways. The American natural landscape, for instance, has a very comparable, almost mirror-like appeal for the Italians, like the appeal that Italian culture seems to have for people I meet here. If I had to name the greatest, most life-altering travel experience for me, it has to be the Grand Canyon. It was years ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
I love how travel furnishes our minds with jewel-like memories that put us back in faraway places with unbelievable exactness, even years later. Our recollections often preserve the impression new experiences had on us and on our senses (that are so much sharper when we are away from home, I am convinced even my taste buds and my eyesight improve when I travel!) and keep them fresh and intact.
It was winter, a light snow had just stopped, and there were very few people. I experienced the inconceivable immensity of the Grand Canyon the way I assume everyone must, as a shock, a clear dividing point in my life, with a before and an after. I think of what I brought to that instant, my Italian life story, the ancient city where my journey had started, the landscape of my lovely country that humans have built and worked on for so long that it is impossible to think of one without the other. That was all gone. Here, the vastness, the rock and the sky were so pure, absolute, and elemental, that my consciousness and self-awareness simply dissolved, and I have never felt so free, light, and at the same time so connected with the world as I did then. The sense of humility, of being tiny in the presence of that immensity, was joyful, noble, and gave me a sense of ideal balance I have never quite felt again, but it is with me and its power is unchanged.
My hike on Mt. Rainier last weekend brought it all back, the happiness of being in American Nature. This time I got splendidly lost in the details: the clouds like wispy veils moving ever so slowly across the valleys, the bright colors of the wildflowers, the mist condensing in the grass and leaves like diamonds, a marmot munching on buttercups, the unique smell of moisture that revealed a waterfall before we even heard or saw it.
And the trees, I cannot get over the trees here. When they surround me and I look up into them, a corner of my mind always ends up evoking the high cathedral ceilings of Europe, great classical music and again and again, I feel lifted and comforted and at peace.
And so my rambling thoughts and memories come full circle and I am back, in my own story and sensitivity, but so much richer.
I think of the response to Rome and its art that I have witnessed in travelers in 25 years of guiding, and the consolations of Nature and Art, why they both matter and why we should have both, now more than ever.
I remember reading an Italian crime novel in which deputy police chief Rocco Schiavone, a tough Roman with a checkered past, is stationed in a town in the Alps, in the region of Valle d’Aosta. The case he had just solved had left him with a sense of bitterness and hopelessness regarding humans and their conduct. He looks to the splendid alpine landscape around him and sadly realizes it cannot comfort him. Man cannot take responsibility for creating the beauty of Nature, it is not our work and at best it can remind us of our shortcomings in taking care of it. I agree but know we can still strive to be deserving of it. Schiavone goes on to say that human hands did not create the mountains and the trees but they did create the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the wonderful baroque churches of Rome’s center and all the paintings and statutes they contain.
(details of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona)
(Santa Maria della Pace and the dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane)
Human creativity as expressed through Art redeems us.
When I was just out of university, studying to take my local guide exam, I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the Sistine Chapel; I never thought I could say anything about Michelangelo and his art. I went to my mother and asked her for advice. “Mom, what am I going to say? How can I communicate why it matters so much that people come to see these places?”. Her answer has accompanied me every day. “Sometimes the world feels like a frightening place, the news shows us war, violence and struggles. As humans, we are capable of absolute horrors. We should go to the Sistine Chapel, look at art, and listen to Mozart and Beethoven to be reminded that we are also capable of extraordinary beauty and harmony, that we have it in us, and allow our spirit to be lifted”. When, many years later, I heard the director of the Vatican Museums say that the Sistine is the place where we can feel proud to be human, I smiled to myself and thought of my mom who has said that to me when I most needed to hear it, influencing my entire path until this moment.
So as we continue on this difficult journey, let us turn to Art and Nature, rejoice in memories of trips past and plan more for the future.
“Beauty stands there […] and it penetrates to one’s soul and lodges there, and keeps saying that man was made not to suffer but to enjoy”.
(Spoken in Rome by a character in Henry James’ 1875 novel, Roderick Hudson)