Rod Dreher, one of my favorite bloggers, is leaving for Paris for a few days. He is going with his niece, the daughter of his late sister Ruth. He is writing a book about her life, and his trip to France with Hannah will become the closing chapter. In preparation for this trip, he shared something by Truman Capote, about whom I knew nothing and now want to know something.
In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”
Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.
It almost always feels prideful to talk about the blessings of foreign travel. It is something that comparatively few people do in my circles; they think it is a luxury. Perhaps it is, but it taught me many lessons. Travel, Twain said, is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I remember being teased about going to France; people said things like, “Are they still surrendering over there?” No one visits France for the politics.
Everyone visits France for its great natural beauty, its exceptional food, and, if they go about it rightly, for the reasons Twain mentioned. What better way is there to understand the world wider than the States than experiencing it? I intend to travel as much as I can, because as Capote relates, the whole place is like a treasure box of lessons about the world.