The golden glow of the pastoral Tuscan countryside had lulled us into a stupor from which our tour guide had so rudely awakened us. He announced that we were taking a stop outside Assisi for lunch, claiming it would be more “authentic” than what we had seen so far, but the rural, fog-shrouded hills seemed uncharacteristic of our conception of Italy. As we swerved along the dirt roads, simple and solemn farmhouses stood to greet us.
Our pilgrimage from Florence to Rome had already taken longer than expected. As Californians, we were accustomed to lengthy drives, but our anxiety to arrive in Rome overrode our patience. We had an agenda. Rome was another location chock-full of what we thought was culture, a place where we’d go from basilicas, to photo ops, to pizza, to sculptures, to pasta, to more photos, to religious icons, to gelato, to historical landmarks, and at last, to more gelato. Our “experience” had become a checklist, and we wanted to check off everything. After all, our school sent us here and our parents had raised the money so that we could see the icons and apply our knowledge.
Therefore, none of us expected to feel anything special as we approached a stony cottage nestled into a vast array of agriculture. In the distance was St. Francis’ Basilica on the grassy hillside, but we just trudged our tennis shoes along in the dirt, looking for sustenance. At first, this house was a just location to feed our voracious appetites, but it became a place whose beauty and richness would consume us.
Inside the rustic townhouse, the pink curtains created a soft, angelic light as the afternoon poured in from the countryside. An old Italian couple served us a heaping pile of steaming hot, explosively flavorful lasagna that they had toiled over all day. As we fellowshipped with their family and ate, it was like Italy was nourishing us with the fruits of its own soil. The fertile hills that bore our lunch were right outside the window. Because of their hospitality, we were taking communion with their culture; Italy was showing us something we’d never understand, but that was profoundly more powerful than checking the statue from your history book off the list. We were no longer foreigners swarming and clobbering the sacred sights of Italian cities like the pigeons of San Marco’s square; we were explorers who were not there to map the countryside or jot down notes, but to immerse ourselves in a different way of life.
As we trod through the fields and inhaled the brisk air, the humble solemnity of Assisi somehow penetrated my consciousness, making me contemplate the beauty that lay in the Italians’ way of life and how different it was from my own. Later in the day, we saw Saint Francis’ humility and compassion for others displayed in the kaleidoscope of medieval murals and frescoes of the hallowed Basilica, and understood how those sacred values made this city on a hill so ethereal. Perhaps St. Francis had fertilized the fields with a tranquil sense of community and understanding, and the vines that crept across the medieval edifices and quaint cobblestone roads spread those values to the people of the town.
Although I learned a lot about art, history, and culture in Italy, what mattered most was the insight I gained in the sacred air of Assisi: that it isn’t how much I do or learn on a trip that matters, but how much I recognize that others know things I do not. That is the essence of travel.
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