Travel has a transformative effect on our consciousness. It enables us to compare and contrast human systems as well as societal norms – sometimes to the advantage of the place we are visiting.
However, at other times these comparisons can induce nostalgia and make us realise that familiarity often numbs our appreciation for the good things in our own surroundings.
My recent visit to Italy was inspiring in many ways. I was impressed by the grandiose scale and artistic beauty of Rome’s ancient architecture and its happy, carefree café culture.
Just as the city’s monuments overwhelmed my aesthetic senses, the fresh smell of espresso and croissant lightened up my mornings. There is yet another engaging side of Rome – it offers the latest fashion in clothes and accessories, stylishly displayed in the shop windows.
Taking a walk down Via Condotti (the street lined with designer boutiques) is a gratifying experience, even if the products are beyond one’s pocketbook.
Quintessentially, Rome is a beautiful blend of the old and the new . . . what else does one need, you may ask? But there were times I felt I did not fit in and not only because I was a foreigner. Partly it was the lack of signs and the absence of elevators in major sites and public places. Of course, the language barrier and dearth of vast open spaces added to my frustration.
At the risk of being branded as a killjoy, I must confess that I am relieved that my Roman holiday is over. I am happy to be back home in McLean, Virginia and sitting outside a neighbourhood cafe in a public square.
Despite all the brilliant attractions of Rome, I missed this little town that is a stone’s throw from the US capital, but it has preserved its suburban character.
Here one can observe people of diverse ethnicities who speak the same language in ten different accents and yet they understand each other perfectly. The local Lebanese style coffee shop does not match the tone of an Italian café because it is part of an apartment building with the fire station just around the corner and loud sirens often disrupt the human chatter.
It offers limited gastronomical choices: salads, cheese and fruit platters and assorted desserts. What my husband and I like most is the steaming Turkish coffee served in a painted enamel coffee pot and poured into quaint ceramic cups.
This is what is unique about this country: it offers Bohemian and eclectic experiences like sipping Mediterranean coffee in a suburban café only a few miles from the White House!
The small fountain facing the coffee shop is a mediocre structure that can hardly be compared to the elegance and beauty of the Trevi in Rome. The real focus of the place is not its exquisite architecture, but that it acts as a stage for humanity.
Sitting here one can satisfy one’s human curiosity in the most unobtrusive and natural way. One rarely sees elegantly dressed women as in Italy (except for the rare occasion when a coiffured lady in her stylish autumn coat appears with her dog on leash).
However, what one gets is a glimpse of the lives of ordinary people: the grandfather limping behind his two granddaughters, spending a pleasant hour partaking generously of the café’s signature Torta Nocciola (layered hazelnut cake); the attractive Chinese American woman in red slacks eating her salad lunch before dashing back to work.
There is also the homely sight of a mother wheeling her infant in a pram around the fountain. And, of course, one cannot miss the laughing young people in their casual jeans and T-shirts sipping lattes and exchanging ideas animatedly. The experience is like watching random scenes from several plays with no beginnings or endings.
Sipping my coffee on a sunny October morning, I realised why travelling to exotic locations makes me nostalgic for America and my neighbourhood coffee shop.
This humble square in McLean is no match for the villas and piazzas of Rome; however, it’s a public space open to everyone. It may not serve gourmet coffee or the best pizza in the world, but it is all-inclusive in character.
Sneakers are as acceptable as high-heeled designer shoes. A worn-out, loosely fitting jacket gets as much respect as a Max Mara coat. The café’s egalitarian nature allows the constant flow of guests. There are no defined standards to destroy the public spirit and insulate the clientele from the joyful proximity of diverse groups of people.
As I found an explanation for my recurring nostalgia whenever I travel, I realised that we humans are essentially products of our environment and habitat. Above all, we are creatures of habit. Our minds are enriched and broadened by our travels, but, sometimes our outward journeys help us rediscover the beauty of the familiar and seemingly mundane!