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Globe-Trotting Tales


© St. Petersburg Times

My seatmate on the Delta 767 seemed uninterested when I nudged her gently and pointed out the window, announcing, "We're leaving land and crossing over the Atlantic."

Her response, as I leaned back into my seat to let her look out the window, was, "Oh."

But she did not look up from her thick book, Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon.

Trying to put this moment in perspective, I persisted: "Five hundred years ago, this was taking your life in your hands. Now, it's just part of a long trip."

The 880-page novel that held her engrossed involves a time traveler who moves from land to land. But my fellow passenger neither noted the irony of that nor acknowledged my effort at philosophy.

Quite soon, we were above the clouds, the vast Atlantic invisible as the sky outside the window crossed the palette of blues. Aromas from the lunch cart wafted toward us. The CNN news videotape, with former Tampa Bay news anchor Don Harrison in command, had just finished. Nearly everyone else I could see in the plane was also reading.

Has the idea of a voyage become that common?

Surely the majority of the 200-plus aboard this flight from Milan to New York had just been touring Italy, or visiting relatives there. Even if none of the other passengers had strolled -- as I had -- the medieval alleys where Cristoforo Columbo had trod, did these people no longer take note of passages?

All right, so far as I know, there were no other travel writers on board the flight earlier this month. And perhaps every one of the passengers was secretly wishing that we were not about to fly over water for several hours. Maybe a lot of them simply were dreading the rest of the nine-hour trip because it's a long time to be cooped up anywhere, much less when the choice of food and entertainment are really limited.

Admittedly, I, too, had brought a book to help me on the flights over and back. And I had finished my book. What's more, my laptop computer had thwarted me (yet again), more or less forcing me to occupy myself at my window seat.

But this step in our long journey was significant -- it always is. It is important to every one of the thousands of passengers flying each day on intercontinental and transoceanic flights.

Not because the danger is greater (most crashes happen on takeoffs and landings -- and we had had an uneventful takeoff). It was significant because of the symbolic nature of the trip.

For about 40 years, since jet travel became available to commercial travelers, our world has gotten smaller by the day. Although satellite television, e-mail and convenient, instantaneous telephone communications have let us see or speak with other peoples, it is face-to-face occurrences that have made us aware of similarities and differences around the globe.

Except by experiencing other cultures and heritages, how are we to learn that the Earth does not rotate around the United States? Several billion people do not care what our entertainment, fashion and fast-food industries are churning out -- no matter how many European teenagers wear Chicago Bulls jerseys or how many Latin American adults scarf up magazines whose covers feature O.J., Ellen and JFK Jr.

It may be evidence of their reaching toward our culture. But these fads and purchases are also interruptions of their real lives, just as they are interruptions of ours.

It is more important to residents of Genoa that their laundry dry properly on lines above the busy streets than that the clothing carry U.S. labels. It is more common for the Genovese to buy fresh beef and piquant cheese to enjoy at home than for them to hit the McDonald's by the Brignole train station.

Yet how are we to know of their habits unless we stroll the medieval alleys with them, ride the train with them south to an annual fried-fish festival, gape at the Renaissance frescoes decorating the former palaces that have become their municipal buildings.

Every trip is a chance to put into context our fuzzy memories from history or civics class or humanities lectures. Every voyage is a chance to see that Genoa's Columbo was right -- that people live all around us on the globe and that we need to leave the safety of home to learn that.

But we have to look out the window -- of our plane or car or boat or train -- to appreciate the new view.

Originally published May 25, 1997

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