City on the Water

I like it when things aren’t what I expect them to be at all. It’s like when I meet a someone for the first time, or even before that, and I come up with these preconceived ideas about that person by what I see on Facebook, hear from someone else, or even just by what I think after having had a usually insignificant encounter with said person. We all do this. But once I really meet them and get to know them, they are so much better- I am not capable of creating an idea of a person even close to how dynamic and wonderful that person actually is.

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The Bridge of Sighs.

Venice was kind of like this. What do you think of when you think of Venice, Italy? Unless you’ve been there, then I imagine your thoughts on it were kind of like mine: a beautiful, whimsical city that is alive in the bright blue waters of the Italian coast, basking in the sun as tiny boats and gondolas glide throughout the canals, selling fresh fruits and vegetables as they swirl along with the romance of couples deep in love filling the air.

Hopefully you’re at least a little more educated about the current state of Venice than I was. While the beautiful city is a lot like what I just described, that’s not all it’s like: a culture heavily influenced by Renaissance, centuries of refining the construction of ships and bridges, a unique and rather intense political history of doges and Napoleon Bonaparte, the Black Plague, and centuries of innovative craftsmanship, including glass making. (The history of Venice is actually really really interesting; read more about it here).

But there’s even more than that, too: Venice is sinking. The marshy land and tiny islands that the entire city is built upon, due to increasing water levels and erosion, are literally sinking. And, as it goes, flooded houses the ruin of your family business tends to drive people out. It’s nearly impossible to live in the city, and it’s one-of-a-kind atmosphere is filling it up with tourists and not much else. I think that the authentic, ancient culture of Venice will have been washed away within the next 100 years.

I went on a gondola ride with some of my friends late at night. It was nothing like what I would expect: there is no night life, no music, no twinkling lights in the streets… nothing. The city is essentially dead at night. But, despite this, it was still beautiful: there is not much more peaceful than gliding through the canals of an ancient city, elegant buildings hugging you on both sides, and all you can hear is the gentle swoosh of the paddle in the water as the lights from the building windows reflect off the water. This is the authentic Venice.

Venice is not dead. I met the city on the water in the darkness and tranquility of the night. I think, really, this is how we truly meet things: Strip away all the assumptions and premature judgement, and let the city speak to you rather than you to it.

It will always be so much better than what I could have ever believed.

The Ultimate Tourist Trap

I think all of us who travel have done this at some point during our adventures. It’s a 21st century thing, really, and with so much of our generation traveling, it’s an easy thing to fall into. I know I’ve done it more than once.

It’s easy for us to go somewhere new and exciting and see all the unique differences that that culture offers and marvel in those unique tendencies that are so distinct from our own. We tend to pride ourselves in our ability to value those cultures for their individuality and experience that difference rather than be the “stereotypical tourist”, taking extra care to keep a safe distance from giant colorful tour buses, the corner McDonald’s, and the pestering salesman waving neon selfie sticks at anyone who breathes in his direction.

This is great, don’t get me wrong. Understanding cultural differences and learning from those is and will always be a good thing, there’s no doubt about that.

But I challenge you this: is it possible to focus to much on those exciting differences that we neglect to see how all of us, our culture and theirs, when it comes down to it, are all simply members of one single humanity?

We put so much effort into recognizing the worth of these cultures because the generations immediately before us have had some problems with this, yes? The internal dialogue is so predictable: Italians drink wine at almost every meal. I don’t do this in the States, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I appreciate Italy for it being so different! But after doing this too many times, our goal of appreciating those cultures for what they are ultimately does a 180-degree flip: they become a place so unique and so separate from our own that we ultimately isolate them. The conversation quickly becomes something else: They can believe what they want; I’ll admire it, but it’s not relevant to me.

How are we supposed to really learn anything from that culture if we’re so busy admiring and separating it from our own? And, if we truly believe there is nothing to learn from it, is that not devaluing to that culture as well?

Obviously the situation I just described is not as intense as I made it seem, but I won’t deny that it does happen in some level for all of us travelers. The solution is easy- Admire the uniqueness of other cultures, yes, but instead of focusing only on how those differences make them separate from us, search for how they bring out our similarities on a deeper level.

After all, we all are simply human.

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Thoughts of a semester.