Travel notes: Revisiting the Old World

Vatican Gardens
St. Peter’s and Tiber River.

After exiting the “snake pit” of ER medicine, I moved on by getting a master of public health at the University of Washington, and entered into the midlife formation of my own professional practice of occupational medicine. Much more sedate, now no nights, weekends or holidays working, and I likely have lived much longer due to that transition.

One pleasant aspect of this practice was travel medicine. My clients got to actually travel, while I just got to advise them. The other favored part of my generally mundane practice — i.e., conducting airline pilot, train engineer and commercial driver physicals — was the performance of immigration medical examinations. I would venture to say that the hundreds of such exams I did annually were far more than any other provider in the Seattle area. I enjoyed each such encounter and highly welcomed their decisions to enrich our nation. Several times I went to the 4th of July swearing-in ceremony at the Seattle Center.

I was well aware that these recent immigrants were largely different from those from Western Europe that had accompanied my three Irish grandparents and the one French Huguenot who came in the middle of the 19th century. This concentration in those earlier waves immigrating continued until I was born in the supposed melting pot of New York City almost a century later. Ireland and France made their contributions to the imbedding of New World cultural attitudes -as did Nordic, German and several other nations in these early waves, but Italy had the centerpiece of impact, thanks at least to the Church of Rome’s influence among us cradle Catholics. And that Church”s power was bolstered by its endorsement by Charlemagne and the conjoined influence during the last days of the failing Roman Empire.

A view of Volterra.
The Roman arena as seen from Volterra.

As Rick Steves noted in his new series on PBS — Art In Europe — there is a church in Rome that illustrates the combined interests of church and state in its artistic presentation. During the “Dark” centuries that ensued, the Catholic Church firmed up its power and continued the centrality of Rome in the Western world. Almost a millennium later, the spark of the Renaissance was lit in Florence and not only introduced a new world of art and architecture, it also launched the practice of entrepreneurial vision. Therefore, while I’ve come to understand my Irish roots quite well —  thanks to a son who has lived there many years, and also via our own acquisition of Irish citizenship — we have late in life more broadly examined our Western European heritage through a run of Rick Steves trips, including the Heart of Italy Tour taken in the latter half of September.

I certainly don’t have to point out the great luck we have locally with Rick Steves being a lifelong resident of Edmonds. But this piece isn’t intended to act as testimony to his generosity or even the worth of his tours, though we have obviously been well satisfied with our visits to Paris, Rome (2010), Istanbul, Prague, Budapest, Munich and Vienna. He has often publicly stated that Italy is his favorite country in Europe, and the Heart of Italy tour is apparently the most popular among the many tours offered in Rick Steves Europe portfolio. I have heard him say that, in order to differentiate a Rick Steves traveler from the usual tourist, he inquires as to whether they have enjoyed visiting Italy. That is upon allowing for chaotic traffic, transit strikes, pickpockets, gritty streets and the overall unpredictable nature of a country, which stilll acts not as a national entity but a host of historic city states. If those he questions aren’t particularly effusive, he suggests that they check out Denmark instead (his reference). As for my own limited experience, after a week each in Paris and in Rome, I used a local metaphor for comparison to our friends by stating that Paris is like Bellevue Square, but Rome is like the Crossroads Mall — less chic but very earthily enjoyable .

Sunrise at Cinque Terre (Monterosso).
View of Coast of Monterosso.

I don’t intend this piece as a travel story that checks off different ancient sites visited like the Vatican or the Pantheon, or to show by photo the many, many remarkable works of art created by the likes of Bernini, Michelangelo or Caravaggio. What I’ll try to do is to capture the reflections of distant roots that I experienced, not just regarding our own family tree, but the broader cultural influences we have had, and then perhaps to encourage others to look beyond a bucket list on their similar travels.

Particularly on a Rick Steves tour, one is able to look beyond the hordes of tourists and start to learn the non-American perspective of the locals, which has been often embraced by some of our guides who have become expatriated in their preference to living out their life in the Italian way. The hotels you stay at, and the restaurants you dine in, have been operated by the same family for generations, and not a chain of investors. The alabaster workshop in the hill town of Volterra has incorporated newer tools, but the final product is still hand crafted.

Central market in Rome.
Florence bridges across the Arno.

You come to recognize that the very existence of such hill towns arose from the conflicts between city-states. You see how the villages of the Cinque Terre initially avoided occupying the coast because of fear of pirates (and also the sickness of “Mal-aria”). A visit to a farm near Florence reveals the value inherent in choosing quality wines and olive oil. Overall, you realize how young our (non-Indigenous) history is in America. Our friends from Seattle have decided to live in Rome in a “newer” neighborhood that is “only” a century old. They took us to a central indoor market used by Romans from all neighborhoods, but not by tourists. One could see several ways that even the beloved Pike Place Market falls short. This is not unique to Rome as such non-touristed markets exist in most European cities, including our frequently visited English Market in Cork City, Ireland.

Most Italians know how others view the short-lived nature of their national governments, but their focus on national identity is far below family, home region, soccer team and perhaps religion, and certainly the prolonged enjoyment and discussion about of meals, wines, aperitifs, coffee, real gelato and other dulces. So they mostly didn’t seem too alarmed about the national election that happened on the last day of our tour, which had taken a sharp turn toward neo-fascism. I am now reading a small science fiction book written by our hotelier in Florence that encapsulates this perspective. A post-apocalyptic world has resulted in a Western Confederacy that seeks to protect itself by the signature imbedding of tracking chips into its citizens and Italy reluctantly agrees to join, but some protagonists in Florence — drawing from the art and history of its golden era — question and even choose to live outside that that protective enslavement. We’ll see if future events ever validate such fiction.

In summary, while we encountered many places on the conventional tourist checklist, we also had the opportunity to begin to understand what some of the more distant roots of our Western European heritage and how many have not been sustained after arrival to the New World. Our segment of American immigration has had its day, but is rapidly being less relevant with the present and future waves. But for those of our age, its been a good ride.

— By Kevin O’Keeffe

Kevin O’Keeffe live in Edmonds

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