The French say, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, often with that characteristic shoulder shrug. I believe them. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve traveled recently in parts of France and Italy. Despite our language and current political differences, there’s much that connects us to our European cousins.
Cell phones are annoying, whatever the language of the conversation we overhear. Many of the train cars I traveled in were supposed to be phone-free, indicated by a sleeping phone icon, but some travelers thought it didn’t apply to them. I was jolted from my reverie of landscape by electronic Bach or Beethoven. Same ring tone choices. In Italy, using a phone while driving is illegal, but perhaps only in cars since too many scooterists zipped by with just one hand available for steering, shifting, smoking and waving to friends.
Graffiti is everywhere, and it looks identical to U.S. graffiti. Spray paint artistes must all study penmanship at the same correspondence school. Or maybe working fast in the dark encourages chunky block lettering. I saw only a few expressions of originality or politics. Most seems personal territory markers, like dog piss. Personal territory extends deep into the Paris Metro tunnels.
As in American, trains often take you through less-than-scenic parts of town. (An exception to this is Monte Carlo. Trains approach and depart Monte Carlo is a tunnel. The Monte Carlo platform is in a tunnel!) Since tracks were laid in the industrial ages of most cities, you pass the backsides of factories and housing that has seen better days. But real people live here, people who dry their laundry on shutters and balcony railings. It’s good to see pajamas, towels and underwear hanging like domestic flags. I feel connected to those people.
Trains also take you past what’s growing. On my way to France’s Cote d’Azur, I slid past grain the color of honey, past giant rolls of harvested grasses that would eventually feed the sleepy blonde cows resting under oak trees, past green vineyards. In northern Italy, the dirt berms dividing watery rice patties often sported a heron or two. And gardens are everywhere: in pots on balconies, behind farmhouses, in tiny triangles between the tracks and a frontage road. Grape vines creating a shady arbor next to a shed. Squashes crowning small mounds. Short rows of green, onions, potatoes. Roses climbing any vertical surface. I’m encouraged by what can grow in such small spaces and again, I feel connected to these people I will never meet but who prefer, like me, tomatoes still warm from the sun.
I noticed that babies and young children everywhere get grumpy when they’re tired or hungry or have had to sit still too long. And adults everywhere make the same faces and noises to entertain them. When a tired parent smiles back at someone who momentarily distracted their fussy child, I believe that world peace is possible.
We travel to touch history, to witness the new, to taste the exotic. It’s exciting, and that’s good. But our moments of connection with what’s familiar and human, tucked between those flashes of new, remind us that we move among ourselves, and that borders are artificial.