Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Viaggiare (v.): to travel, to journey, to tour, (by plane) to fly

It’s just after nine on a warm summer’s night and I’m sitting comfortably aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Paris, France, waiting for the engines to accelerate and the wheels to leave the ground. For me, it seems a miracle of human technology, this ascent into the heavens, and no matter how often or how far I roam, it never grows old.

As I crane my neck toward the window, eager to see the street lights and the chain of cars along the highways disappear beneath a dark canopy of clouds, the world inside the cabin feels as small and as ordinary as the universe is large and mysterious.

I break my gaze for now, knowing there are minor tasks to be accomplished, and these must occupy my hands. I reach for my iPad and noise-cancelling earphones, reset the time on my watch, inflate a foot rest to make myself more comfortable for the long flight ahead, and laugh as the safety video on the screen in front of me explains about emergency exit rows and oxygen masks using a 1980s theme featuring Alf, break dancing, leg warmers, and Rubik’s cubes.

I’m sitting next to a charming older couple in row thirty-four. They introduce themselves as Mary and Bob, and as we tuck into dinner they announce that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a vacation in Paris and a Viking river cruise. I’m going on to Italy, I say, and for a few minutes we chat amicably about our itineraries and we wish each other well. The flight attendants clear our trays and dim the cabin lights, and soon there is only a patchwork of TV screens, laptops, and smart phones to illuminate the dark.

It’s then that Mary falls ill.

Whether with airsickness or anxiety, she is nauseous and shaking, and I’m struck by the quiet way in which Bob holds her hand and strokes her back as she leans forward, her head resting upon the small plastic tray table. It’s a strange thing, to be forty thousand feet above the earth in so confined a space. As passengers, we are so close to each other that we can’t help but be privy to intimate details in one another’s lives, and yet we sit stolidly facing forward, row upon row, pretending we do not see.

All of the sudden, I feel like an intruder in a story that is not my own. There is nothing I can do to help, and so I’m willing (and grateful even) when the flight attendant motions me to a new seat in the rear of the plane. By now I’m wide awake and restless, so instead of curling back to sleep, I scroll through for a movie to watch, settling on a new film by Richard Curtis, called About Time. The premise is that a socially awkward young man named Tim is able to use time travel to woo the woman of his dreams. It sounds silly from the start, but before long I’ve embraced it.

By the end, the man’s father, who is dying of cancer, has shared his secret formula for happiness: “Part one of the two part plan,” says Tim, “was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.”

It might be a better movie than I thought. Or, maybe I’m still thinking about Mary and Bob and the simple beauty of life-long love. Perhaps it’s because I’m on an airplane, and people tend to get overly emotional on airplanes. Whatever the reason, the moral of the story resonates, and as I lean back into my seat and pull up a blanket, I stare out the window into the endless dark of night and think about how this year’s adventure feels very much like traveling back in time.

A year ago, I was anticipating a well-orchestrated trip to Italy—my third in six years—but a string of bad luck, including health problems and a stolen credit card, derailed the entire first week, and I was forced to simplify the rest. I would miss the pope on Corpus Domini and the annual infioriata in Spello. Gone, too, was the trek to the coast to wander about the pastel fishing villages of Liguria. All that remained were Venice, Florence, and Rome—an off-kilter itinerary from the start, run in reverse.

A year later, what I want more than anything is a do-over.

I’ve rebooked the same hotel in Rome, with its stunning rooftop terrace, from which I’ll see the pope in a candlelight procession between the basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. I’ve snagged a room in Spello to see the floral carpets that weave through the streets of that tiny Umbrian hill town on the Sunday following Corpus Domini. And I’m bound once more for the sea and the sun of Liguria, where I plan to sail by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to Rapallo, San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Camogli. And there’s more, too. So much more that I can hardly contain my excitement.

For the next month, Italy will be mine. And my home will be in Florence.

I reach over and pull down the shade on the window, so that the rising sun doesn’t wake me too soon. I close my eyes and try to empty my head, but I’m still thinking about the heady possibilities of time travel when I finally doze off.

“Okay,” I’m ready. “Let’s give it a go.”

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