Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Italian Man in Seat 37E

         The navy blue cloth of an airline seat back gradually materializes in front of me as I awaken from an uneasy slumber. For a few seconds I lose any sense of my whereabouts as my fuzzy mind struggles to find reality. Who am I? Elizabeth Sager Miller Campbell. Where am I? Somewhere on an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Where am I going? Italy. I’m going to Italy to travel write.

         My body aches as my legs untangle and I free myself from my contorted position between two armrests. Looking around, I see familiar faces sleeping soundly despite the desperate wails of a toddler nearby. On my right, I notice an Italian man with gray-speckled hair and half-moon glasses snoring across the aisle. His blue striped linen shirt and ironed pants suggest that he is careful of his appearance and his worn leather shoes reveal that he has traveled many miles. He looks like the kind of tired that comes from too much living. His crimson Italian passport peeks out of his shirt pocket and I wonder about the stamps that line its pages. Where has he journeyed? I am acutely aware of the vast cultural ocean that separates this man from me. My mind travels along the deep wrinkles that line his suntanned face—what wisdom do they hold? What is it like—this place he calls home? It is surely not like mine.

        I imagine that he lives in the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside with his apron-wearing wife of many years. She raised the children and cooked the spaghetti. He worked long hours on the family vineyard until his back started to hurt and the heat wore him out. Like his father did for him, he passed the business down to his hardworking sons. He wakes every morning with the sense of satisfaction that he has given back to the earth, and he spends the remainder of his days bonding with his grandchildren in the garden behind his little house. He is never bothered with rush hour traffic and he doesn’t carry a watch. He lives by dawn and dusk, worrying little about what tomorrow will bring. His home is wine, family, and the fresh country air. His home is Italy.

       My home is Arkansas. Memories of my almost twenty years of life flash through my head one by one. I recall learning to ride a bike on the suburban streets of my old neighborhood, playing tennis with my father on Sunday afternoons, and the fast pace of growing up with parents who worked long hours at the office. A product of the technological age, my life has been defined by widespread Internet access, text messages, and impatience for anything that takes more than a few seconds to download. My rural house is a picturesque refuge from the rush of the city. My home is sweet tea, southern hospitality, and thirty-minute commutes.

        The elements of my home make up everything that I am so far. My travels, too, have shaped me. The charming streets of Europe and the breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps have shown me physical beauty. There has been pain in the form of homesickness, stolen wallets, and the weariness of sleeping on another hard hostel mattress. But most importantly, my journeys have shown me humanity. I think of the roofless home of a Moroccan family in Rabat and how they were more than kind to a tiny American girl who did not speak a word of their language and whom they would never see again. There is my Spanish host mom, Elvira, who revealed the pain of losing family members and the joy of welcoming new guests, like me, into her home to stay. I see the tears of strangers and the grin of the elderly man I passed by every day on my way to school in Seville. With each new destination, the differences between the next person and myself shrink. As I explore the cultures of others, I recognize the flavors, colors, languages, gestures, flairs, and backgrounds that make us unique but not divided. We all miss someone. We all lose people we love. We all hurt, laugh, feel and share the experience of the fragility of being human. Perhaps we are not so very different after all. Maybe the Italian man’s home is not so different from mine.

         I aim an ear-to-ear smile at my elderly neighbor in seat 37E, who is now wide awake. He mutters something friendly back in Italian that I do not understand. The language barrier does not matter anymore—the oceans in his eyes seem to write back to me. I imagine we communicate on a deep level, both searching for what holds us as beings under the same constellations; as breathers, thinkers, and lovers; as creatures who start wars and who are simultaneously devastated by them, together. We are both on journeys that have little to do with our destination. I hope he, too, has found true beauty on his.

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