My mother was the most passionate traveler I’ve ever met. Possibly because during childhood and college, she rarely went far from the small North Dakota farming town where her father, as she used to say, was “the big fish in a small pond.” Let’s hope she never bragged about this to the town’s s other residents, though her family’s sense of superiority may have left her immune to its sting. As far as I can tell, she didn’t yearn to escape her town as a girl, yet once she took to the road, she almost immediately developed a passion for the past. The more medieval and aristocratic, the more tasty and picturesque the better.
Swoon: her senior college photograph (University of Minnesota, circa 1929) captures her inward anticipation along with the quiet beauty which no doubt appealed to my father. They couldn’t have been more opposite: she the last born of a hard-driving German businessman and his graceful Swedish second wife; he the second of four Italian-American boys from Pittsburgh, rascally Lothario with music in his soul. By the time I was conscious enough to study these two pillars of my childhood, they’d developed their differences into a religion: she quiet and hard-driving (except for her naps) and my father dithery and constantly in voice. By that time, I was a teenager with my own carping agenda, thus not to be trusted.
My father spent a year between high school and college studying the violin in Ferrara, Italy. Not only was he blessed with social charm and a gift for languages, but his father, the lapsed Catholic from outside Naples, constantly brought home visitors from the motherland. These were often less affluent relations or unlettered workmen who’d left Italy between the wars for the riches of America. All this primed my father to find travel between the American east coast and Italy a rather common affair. He wasn’t in love with travel per se, but with the smells and tastes. the sounds and histories of Italy.
When my parents moved to Charleston, South Carolina after World War II, they encountered an entirely alien romance of aristocracy and defeat, poverty and pride, which, along with soaring summer temperatures, they tried to escape every summer. These early childhood trips introduced me to them as travelers: my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, heading north though Carolina and Virginia, where my father insisted we stop for every historical sign (he’d recently been transferred from teaching European history to American and South Carolina topics and he needed to tool up). Backseat songs, fighting, and playing games with my sister, munching on celery and carrot sticks from the food pack, and following the flight of summer birds into towering clouds–all this set my own contemplative notion of travel. I was not in charge, and the world slipped by outside my window. Other summers when my father remained at home, we took trains halfway across the country to North Dakota. Trains were even more delicious than cars because we slept over the rhythm of wheels, washed in the hissing spiggots from tiny roommette sinks, and flushed the toilet to the rails flashing by–a terror I revive now on Italian trains. Death, a la Anna Karenina, except down a toilet’s funnel.
Recently I’ve read my mother’s letters from her first European voyage across the Atlantic when the guns of World War II were already taking aim. She was entirely absorbed by shipboard romance–doing her nails for dinner at the captain’s table where my father had gotten them invited. Then in Florence, finding an English-speaking druggist who could sell her a sedative for my father’s stomach. And finally as she lay seasick in their cabin, my father and the captain discussing the distant fireworks of war as the ship passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Beauty, the excitement of the unfamiliar, and the sense that real life drudgery entirely superceded by distant alarms from which motion and change protected her–here is the essence of her love of travel. Later she would swoon over sweets and snails, over romantic histories and vistas. She would propell my father to Asia, where they were both truly alien and he not particularly interested. But through it all would flow her fascination with what is old yet new, and with motion that both protected and put her in danger. That excitement rarely existed over the kitchen sink. Though she could imagine it, listening to “La Boheme” as she dusted.