Published in the Westmount Examiner on November 17, 2011
My first foray beyond the confines of North America occurred in late December 1971 – now nearly forty years ago. I was all of 24 at the time and that singular happening in my relatively young life forever marked me with a love for travel.
At the time, I caught an overnight Alitalia flight to Rome with a quick change of planes at the airport in Milan. I was still a student then and was therefore eligible for the under 25 two-way price, which I call to mind to this day – $199.
I recall that a flight attendant befriended us (I was not travelling alone) and later offered us a ride into Central Rome. When I think back today, friends are so easy to make when you are young.
It was the first occasion I had ever been so far away from Montreal and I was astonishingly surprised how quickly everything and everyone back home slipped from my mind. I was now in someone else’s little corner of the world and everyone seemingly went about his or her business quite indifferent to me. I was a total unknown, which in itself is a very good and humbling experience for any person.
Once in the centro storico of Rome, I remember finding my way to an inexpensive pensione on Via Quintina Sella, not that far from the central train station. Such a lodging habitually sees you living with a family out to make a few well-needed lira on the side. The accommodations are usually simple yet quite adequate, especially if you are young.
At the back of the apartment was found a common courtyard used by the many who inhabited the buildings that together formed a fascinating quadrangle. The shrill voices of the many children echoed and re-echoed all through the enclosure as I tried to catch some quick shut-eye.
Due to the customary effects of jet lag (yes, even at 24), I don’t call to mind much else of that first day in the Eternal City but, after a good night’s sleep, I do vividly recall the day after.
I distinctly recollect the diverse businesses on the street below and the rattling sound of their protective shutters being opened that very next morning. Shortly thereafter, the incredibly captivating aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the ancient neighbourhood. I remember thinking that it would take innovative Italians to appropriate a product that was not native to their land, and to perfect it.
Of course, I visited many of the traditional, and some of the more novel tourist attractions of that beautiful national capital of the Republic of Italy. By New Year’s Eve, I had completely forgotten Montreal, being thoroughly absorbed into a different city, culture, and country.
Below, photo I captured on Via Nazionale, Rome, in late December 1971
That same superb journey later took me to Greece; and from there to Yugoslavia, and then back to Italy – an entire loop, eventually returning me to Rome where more great food, wine, coffee, and friendships awaited me.
Was I transformed by the experience? You bet I was – so much so that I returned just six months later, only this time flying into Scotland and thumbing lifts from there all the way to Sicily, and afterwards back to Britain.
As a result, I have seen most all of Europe over the years. Today, open-minded young people happily venture much farther a foot. Passing glances at Facebook pages illustrate this quite clearly with ‘uploaded’ photos appearing from virtually every part of the planet. The world belongs to them, and most will not allow themselves to be confined to just one corner of it, and that is all for the good.
It is often said that travel is the best kind of education, a sentiment with which I entirely agree. In fact, the farther into this world those voyages take you, the more comprehensive the learning.
Last November, I had the good fortune to find myself in Gibraltar where I was conducting some research on a nineteenth century link between Canada and that British colony. While doing so, I chatted for over an hour with the principal archivist of that colonial district. For one reason or another, he had a particular interest in the affairs of Canada, especially Quebec, and was riveted in our conversation about Canadian matters, as I was in those of Gibraltar. Well-travelled himself, he expressed thanks to me for having visited the territory, encouraged me to continue my journeys, and assisted me interminably with my investigation. In all, yet another wonderful travel adventure, I thought.
Today, some 40 years after my first trek took me to the Eternal City, I still move regularly about of this precious planet of ours, and, in so doing, I feel more and more at one with it.
Below, me in Western Ireland in July of 1972