The first time I went abroad it was with my parents, and that had to be the first time I understood that we are all ambassadors—meaning each one of us represents our country. Protocol was stricter then, especially in Europe. Ladies in London and Paris did not wear shorts in the city, and so neither did we. When visiting the Vatican in Rome, females were required to wear hats or veils. Failure to obey this custom would result in being denied entrance I suppose. Anyway, because of European custom and my mother having supervised our packing, I learned the way of “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” And I think there’s much to be said for that. That without that standard of respect, one can easily offend others without meaning to.
These days I don’t have to go abroad to practice this philosophy as Europe, Latin America, Asia, The Middle East and the rest of the world has come to our shores. I am an ambassador of my country in nearly every trip I take to town, or certainly downtown. The Muslim cab driver donning a turban, the Ethiopian caregivers in our retirement homes, my friend the Jamaican psychologist, my Chinese neighbor the former governor of our state, they are the ones who have gone way out of their way to be here and the least I can do as an American is present myself as a good host. Impressions of countries are made on a personal basis too, just as the small encounters I had with people in Paris, London and Rome on that whirlwind trip so long ago meant more to me than any of their governmental policies, then or since.
One day walking with my parents in Rome there was some excitement and tension on the street. We could feel it. Noise was rising by decibels and nerves, by degrees. Men in suits walked hurriedly in groups, some in this direction, some in that. Military police suddenly lined the street—wherever we were it had to be close to the capital, and my dad explained to us we were most likely witnessing a coup. Wow, we were practically in one. And the Italians around us seemed to take it in stride…
In Italy, as anywhere, life goes on and what matters most are the interpersonal relationships: the way you treat your waiter at lunch, and bellhop at the hotel. The proprietor from whom you purchase a woven shawl, the boot maker whose work you admire but cannot afford. The taxi drivers there too. This is what I believe: we are all individual ambassadors running around this earth, and the earth is increasingly becoming our community.
July 18, 2011