A friend of mine asked me this question earlier this week as we sat down on a stretch of grass outside the Villa Borghese and watched tourists glide along the gravel paths on tandem bicycles.
It was the most peaceful spot I had yet encountered in Rome: shady trees towering into the bright blue sky, fountains and laughter tinkling in the distance, wide green lawns stretching into the distance for both the Roman and the tourist to enjoy. The day would have been perfect had not the scent of the newly blossoming trees brought eye-watering pollen with it.
Her question caught me off guard, but I realized why she asked it. Here in Rome we have reached the point in the semester where travel has become exhausting.
Few of us look forward to packing up our entire worlds and living out of a backpack for days; running for planes, trains, buses and ferries; shelling out another hundred euros on hostels and apartments that may or may not be everything they promised online. This friend recently had a companion back out of a trip because she just couldn’t do it anymore.
The friend who had asked me the question was not burned out. She was ready to keep travelling, perhaps forever. After her companion backed out, she scrapped her plans, bought a plane ticket to Krakow, and left to take on the city by herself.
A large part of me could sympathize with the companion, though – as fun as it is in the beginning, I can’t help but feel adrift after such a long time. The most difficult question to answer when travelling is “Where are you from?” Where am I from? Rome? Texas? Colorado? The USA? The hostel that I am currently staying in? All of them are right in a way, but none of them fully answer the question. I don’t like that feeling of not having a place.
I pondered her question for a moment, and then, not knowing a good answer, resorted to the time-honored tradition of making something up.
“We travel so we can understand people better and when we understand people better, we can love them better,” I said.
I finished with a smile, feeling quite satisfied with that answer.
My friend was not. To her, travel was something personal, internal and necessary.
The trouble was I had not really answered the question. She had not asked me “why do people travel?” She had asked me “why do you travel?”
It would be preposterous to claim that when I set out for Rome this January, I left with the specific and selfless intention of coming to understand humanity. In truth, when I boarded that plane, I had no idea why I was there, why I had shoved my necessities in a pair of suitcases and left my heart-broken parents outside of airport security to take classes that I could take in Irving on the other side of the Atlantic.
Why did I travel, then? Why did I get on that plane and all subsequent planes, trains, automobiles and boats? Many times I did it for me. Some places, like the ruins of Delphi or the Colosseum, St. Peter’s or the Globe Theatre, I went to because I wanted to become a part of them. I wanted to ingrain myself in their history: align myself with generations upon generations of people who came to these places.
Many other times, I did it just to say that I did – I got my nose pierced in Amsterdam, only to have it fall out a week later. I spent a pound of flesh on the London Eye to get a few cool pictures. I took a train down to the Amalfi coast to try the limoncello and relax all weekend. These were things I did for the story, because it sounds cool to mention in conversation. But these didn’t have any lasting or meaningful impression on me.
The real reason I was traveling wasn’t clear to me when I left – but it became clear at certain places along the way. At the Anne Frank House I was reminded profoundly of the value of human life. A tour of the city of Bucharest, Romania, taught me to appreciate the freedom I so often take for granted. The church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale inspired me to look heavenward through its Baroque architecture, designed by Bernini. The papal audience overwhelmed me with its demonstration of Christ’s love for His church.
These are the reason I travel. These sneak up on you when you least expect them: when you’re tired and hungry and irritated. They strike you with their depth. One shining moment makes everything else worth it.
I’m not like my friend. I can’t travel forever and make it my life; but as long as I have the opportunity, I will keep on travelling; because experiencing these things in person gives concrete reality to that which used to just be lofty ideas. When that happens, it’s something beautiful.