Travel notes: Revisiting the Old World

Vatican Gardens
Saint Peter and River Tiber.

After emerging from the “snake pit” of emergency medicine, I went on to earn a master’s degree in public health at the University of Washington and entered the midlife training of my own professional occupational medicine practice. Much quieter now, with no working nights, weekends or holidays, and I’ve probably been living a lot longer because of this transition.

A pleasant aspect of this practice was travel medicine. My clients really traveled while I just advised them. The other favored part of my generally mundane practice—namely, conducting medical checks on airline pilots, train engineers, and commercial drivers—was conducting immigration medical checks. I would venture to say that the hundreds of exams I take annually were far more than any other provider in the Seattle area. I appreciated each such meeting and welcomed your decisions to enrich our nation. Several times I attended the 4th of July induction ceremony at the Seattle Center.

I knew very well that these recent immigrants were very different from those from Western Europe who accompanied my three Irish grandparents and the French Huguenot who came in the mid-19th century. This concentration on those first waves of immigration continued until I was born in the supposed melting pot of New York City nearly a century later. Ireland and France made their contributions to the incorporation of New World cultural attitudes – as did the Nordic countries, Germans and several other nations in these first waves, but Italy had the centerpiece of the impact, at least thanks to the influence of the Church. of Rome among us, born Catholics. And the power of that Church was reinforced by its endorsement by Charlemagne and by the combined influence during the last days of the decaying Roman Empire.

A view of Volterra.
The Roman Arena seen from Volterra.

As Rick Steves noted in his new series on PBS – European art — there is a church in Rome that illustrates the combined interests of church and state in its artistic presentation. During the “dark” centuries that followed, the Catholic Church asserted its power and continued Rome’s centrality in the Western world. Nearly a millennium later, the spark of the Renaissance was ignited in Florence and not only ushered in a new world of art and architecture, but also launched the practice of entrepreneurial vision. So while I understood my Irish roots very well – thanks to a son who lived there for many years, and also through our own acquisition of Irish citizenship – in later life we ​​looked more broadly at our Western European heritage through a series of Rick Steves trips, including the Heart of Italy Tour held in the second half of September.

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I certainly don’t have to point out how lucky we are locally with Rick Steves being a life resident of Edmonds. But this piece is not intended to be a testament to his generosity or even the value of his tours, although we were obviously very pleased 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’s portfolio. I’ve heard him say that to differentiate a Rick Steves traveler from a regular tourist, he asks them if they enjoyed visiting Italy. This is by allowing for chaotic traffic, traffic strikes, pickpockets, dirty streets and the general unpredictable nature of a country, which still acts not as a national entity but as a series of historic city-states. If those he questions aren’t particularly effusive, he suggests they check out Denmark (his reference). As for my limited experience, after a week in Paris and Rome, I used a local metaphor to compare with our friends, stating that Paris is like Place Bellevue, but Rome is like Crossroads Mall – less fancy, but very pleasant. .

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Sunrise in Cinque Terre (Monterosso).
View of the Monterosso Coast.

I do not intend this piece to be a travel story that checks out different ancient sites visited like the Vatican or the Pantheon, or to show by photo the many, many remarkable works of art created by Bernini, Michelangelo or Caravaggio. What I’m going to try to do is capture the reflections of distant roots that I’ve experienced, not just in relation to our own family tree, but the wider cultural influences that we’ve had, and perhaps encourage others to look beyond a wish list in their travels. similar.

Particularly on a Rick Steves tour, it is possible to look beyond the hordes of tourists and begin to learn the non-American perspective of the locals, which has often been adopted by some of our expat guides in their preference for living outside their lives at home. Italian way. The hotels you stay at and the restaurants you dine at are operated by the same family for generations, not a chain of investors. The alabaster workshop in the mountain town of Volterra incorporated newer tools, but the final product is still handmade.

Central market in Rome.
Florence bridges over the Arno.

You come to recognize that the very existence of such mountain cities grew out of conflicts between city-states. You see how the villages of Cinque Terre initially avoided occupying the coast because of the fear of pirates (and also the Malaria disease). A visit to a farm near Florence reveals the inherent value of choosing quality wines and olive oils. Overall, you realize how young our (non-Indian) history in America is. Our friends from Seattle 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 tourists. One can see several ways in which even the beloved Pike Place Market falls short. This is not unique to Rome, as these non-tourist markets exist in most European cities, including our often-visited English market in Cork City, Ireland.

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Most Italians know how others view the short-lived nature of their national governments, but their focus on national identity is far below family, homeland, football team, and perhaps religion, and certainly prolonged enjoyment and discussion about meals, wines, snacks, coffee, real gelato and other sweets. So they didn’t seem too alarmed by the national election that took place on the last day of our tour, which took a sharp turn towards neo-fascism. I’m now reading a little science fiction book written by our hotelier in Florence that sums up that perspective. A post-apocalyptic world has resulted in a Western Confederacy seeking to protect itself by embedding tracking chips in its citizens and Italy reluctantly agrees to join, but a few protagonists in Florence – inspired by the art and history of its golden age – question and even choose to live outside this protective bondage. We will see if future events will validate such fiction.

In summary, while we found 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 are, and how many were not sustained upon arrival in the New World. Our American immigration segment has had its day, but is quickly becoming less relevant with the present and future waves. But for those of our age, it was a good ride.

— By Kevin O’Keeffe

Kevin O’Keeffe Live at Edmonds


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