In the spring of 2007, I flew to Paris where I joined my parents on a Rick Steve’s, Best of Europe tour. The itinerary covered five countries in two weeks which seemed both exciting and daunting. Although there were a few wonderfully slow moments, the trip passed like a flash. On my return, I was left with memories and impressions like an early self-developing Polaroid where the details are forming, but the whole picture cannot be understood. My impressions were primitive, presumptuous and puzzling, yet there were some I found beautifully simple. I was overwhelmed with a desire to better understand my experience.
I found that helping people was the most uplifting experience because, for a brief moment, I got to serve rather than be served. It was not an attempt to solve any great problems, but simply to acknowledge a need and express enough care to do something about it. It seemed like every other ride on the metro someone was struggling to ascend the stairs with a stroller or a heavy piece of luggage. It didn’t matter that there was a language barrier because they were so grateful for the help. After saying “Thank you” a million times in four different languages, what a cool experience it was to say, “You’re welcome.”
The inanimate museums, churches and walls have slipped from my memory, but I remember the life in and around them. A Parisian woman hanging her clothes out to dry, a Tuscan hotel owner checking the tire pressure on my rental bike only to miss the fact that the brakes didn’t work, or the many adventures I had with my tour buddies. These are the things I remember best.
But after I returned home, the journey seemed incomplete. I was reminded of a passage by Erasmus from the literature I had been reading on the trip. In it he describes, from a 16th century perspective, the English, Scottish, French, German and Italian stereotypes. It’s hilarious, but also revealing about things that have changed and things that have not changed. A question formed: “how do I make sense of my impressions of Europe?” The best answer I could think of was to start reading what other Europe travelers have thought over the centuries. This site is a collection of my memories and photos, and their words.
Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy, 1844
In any country, it is only necessary to take any pastoral poem, or picture, and imagine to yourself whatever is most exquisitely and widely unlike the descriptions therein contained.
Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, 1509
...the English, besides other things, particularly challenge to themselves beauty, music, and feasting. The Scots are proud of their nobility, alliance to the crown, and logical subtleties. The French think themselves the only well-bred men. The Parisians, excluding all others, arrogate to themselves the only knowledge of divinity. The Italians affirm they are the only masters of good letters and eloquence, and flatter themselves on this account, that of all others they only are not barbarous. In which kind of happiness those of Rome claim the first place, still dreaming to themselves of somewhat, I know not what, of old Rome. The Venetians fancy themselves happy in the opinion of their nobility, The Greeks, as if they were the only authors of sciences, swell themselves with the titles of the ancient heroes. The Turk, and all that sink of the truly barbarous, challenge to themselves the only glory of religion and laugh at Christians as superstitious. And much more pleasantly the Jews expect to this day the coming of the Messiah, and so obstinately contend for their Law of Moses. The Spaniards give place to none in the reputation of soldiery. The Germans pride themselves in their tallness of stature and skill in magic.
Charles-Lewis, Baron de Pollnitz, The Memoirs of Charles-Lewis, Baron de Pollnitz, 1739
The French have a quite different idea of the Germans from what the English have, and the English do not pass the same verdict on the French as the Swedes do. Tis the same in private life. Every one makes his own condition the standard of his judgment.
Petrarch, The Ascent of Mount Ventoux, 1334
When I came to look about for a companion I found, strangely enough, that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable, so rarely do we meet with just the right combination of personal tastes and characteristics, even among those who are dearest to us. This one was too apathetic, that one over-anxious; this one too slow, that one too hasty; one was too sad, another over-cheerful; one more simple, another more sagacious, than I desired. I feared this one's taciturnity and that one's loquacity. The heavy deliberation of some repelled me as much as the lean incapacity of others. I rejected those who were likely to irritate me by a cold want of interest, as well as those who might weary me by their excessive enthusiasm. Such defects, however grave, could be borne with at home, for charity suffereth all things, and friendship accepts any burden; but it is quite otherwise on a journey, where every weakness becomes much more serious.
DH Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence and Italy, 1916
If only nations would realize that they have certain natural characteristics, if only they could understand and agree to each other’s particular nature, how much simpler it would all be.