For four wonderful months, we have had the opportunity to get to know Italy, England and Ireland in much more detail than we had acquired in 40 years of sporadic visits. Thanks to everyone who came along for the ride.
The amount of time we spent here was new, particularly for Italy, where we traveled around for 88 of the 90 days permitted by visa restrictions. And of course, the amount of time it’s been since our first and subsequent visits to all three places has lengthened.
So maybe that accounts for the changes we think we observed this time around. Some were dramatic.
Is it us, or has the foreign-ness of Europe changed? Are we just more accustomed to languages, foods and plumbing different than our own, or is everything just that much more like our own? (We will make an exception for plumbing.)
The Italians seemed less Italian; the English less English; the Irish less Irish – though all still charmingly idiosyncratic. All the roads had adequate signage (a major achievement in Ireland) and every Italian train ran on time. And I’m talking about maybe 75 train trips.
Everyone knew everything going on in our country, and so we got immediately up to speed on Brexit and its potential impact around the world, the Troubles, and the legacy of Berlusconi. The speed of communication and the passion for news made it feel like we were still in New York. And that’s a shame, because we really did want a divorce from American politics this summer. But sadly, every taxi driver wanted to analyze Donald Trump, and there was no event in our country that we didn’t have to try to explain. That was impossible when it came to horrors like what’s going on with the police and the black community, and the American passion for being armed.
Every young person we met seemed to have learned their perfectly nuanced English from Friends. Now, while we think we watched this TV show as much as anyone, when contestants on British quiz shows know immediately that Kathleen Turner played Chandler’s dad, and that Gunther’s crush on Rachel was a running theme, it feels like the world has become one big living room and we can all share the same jokes.
That’s a wonderful thing in so many ways. But it does mean that some of the romance of European travel is gone, for us. It’s now so familiar and so accessible. Who knew we would ever be lucky enough to be blasé about having next year’s trip to London already booked? (Have to see the Harry Potter play, of course.)
But it also seems to mean, that as with real-life friends, we are able to affect – and hurt – each other so much more easily. What one side does, the other feels.
I very much hope that when we return in March, our dear friends here will not look at us with regret and ask unanswerable questions about how we allowed America to let the world down. When we come here next, I would like to represent the kind of friend that everyone wants to know better and see more of. No country has it easy these days, and it does seem that leaders everywhere we went have lost their shine and often the respect of their people. How sad it would be to lose the respect of the whole world too.
Here’s hoping we can all still be friends, no matter what tough times each of us might have to work through. There’s always a joke in there somewhere.