What it Means to Travel
Today's blog post will be a bit different than usual as I will be sharing some old artwork and photographs I made from before the completion of my undergraduate education. To start, I would like to share the photograph which inspired me to write this post in the first place.
This photo, was taken on May 23rd this year, spotted under a bridge with some other graffiti tags on the canal side in Stoke-on-Trent on one of my walks.
I've thought about this picture a lot since taking the snap on my phone, mostly because of how much I desperately wanted to take the shot. Far from making me angry, I think it relates more to the "things" people notice while traveling outside of their own nation. I become hyper aware of anything relating to my home country or culture. For instance: tourists with an accent I recognize from home (or a clothing style), pub patrons chatting about US politics (for those of you who don't know, this happens everywhere outside of our home), or some more oddly specific cases, such as the US flag wrapped around a large pole at the Newport Bus Station, complete with golden sparkly star garland in what I interpreted as a celebratory feel (we're going with celebratory).
Perhaps it is because I'm a photographer that I take extra notice of these odd little happenings, and instinctually collect them, sealing them away for no reason in memory and in pixels. The message in the photo above made me reflect on imagery, the arts, culture, and traveling. It's not the most polished piece, the message nor the photo, but it got the gears grinding. My experiences traveling are those which shaped who I am more than any other major event in my life. It was crucial in developing my confidence, my personality, my education, my empathy, and my artwork. When people say it is "life changing" they are not exaggerating. In the same way many individuals think it would be good for young people to be required to work several years in the service industry, or volunteering, or in the military, I put my lot in with the group that says every person, with some exceptions, should be sent away from their home at least once; banished! The US is such a vast country with pockets of "micro culture" everywhere. My life living in the suburb was, I'm sure, completely different to those people of my generation attending school in our city district. But that is not the type of change to which I am referring. I am thinking of a specific time in 2006 when I was sitting in a small family restaurant in Italy, when I couldn't politely order food for myself at sixteen years old because of language barriers. The little place was buzzing with people, all sitting at small square tables with red and white checked cloth. It would have been idyllic, except for the loud American rap music blaring through speakers stuck on the wall.
I recall looking at an elderly couple sitting at a table across the room. They looked to be Italian to me. I wondered if they could understand all the foul words in the then popular song. I wondered why such a place would play that genre of music. Did they know what was being said? How weird. Did they play it to attract tourists? I don't mind rap music, but it wasn't exactly what played in family restaurants at home. I'm thinking on this as I wait for my pizza (the only thing I recognize on the menu besides the word spaghetti) and suddenly notice something else: All the American tourists are seated in one area of the restaurant. This is the first time I recall being very conscious of my culture, and being a minority. Compared to other people's life experiences this is such a minor, pathetic act of segregation. In fact, it was probably for my benefit. I'm sure the servers who waited on "foreign part" of the restaurant were simply better at understanding English speakers. Still, it was noted because it was such an odd feeling. My trip to Italy was a big deal. It was two weeks away from my parents, and I was with classmates and my art teacher. I learned so much, gobbled up every little tid-bit of art history that I could. But this did not come without lots of work. I was going to be sixteen soon, and the money I had earned from my first job went to the trip, and not a car. That first job as a waitress was also a big wake up call for me. And of course, I could not have made it happen without my parents who spent hours fundraising and helping me with passports, itineraries, shopping for power converters and adaptors, calling cards, and other travel paraphernalia. I wasn't the little rich white girl who could just go on her merry way.
But now, I look back and realize that I was, even despite being from a working class family with our own obstacles and issues. I had so much support and opportunity compared to so many people in this world. However, if I never would have traveled, I may never have reached that conclusion. If I had never traveled, I may never have found my love of photography, as it is I have no idea if my photographs from this trip still exist. Being out of my comfort zone is what made me consider things more carefully and look for knowledge. It is what instilled a love of learning in me as an adolescence on the edge of adulthood. It taught me to listen and pay attention to what is going on around me. It taught me that I, nor my home country, are at the center of the universe, and that just because I experience something doesn't make it absolute. So many young people in the US have this absolutist view long after the age that they should. It is only natural that a child's world is small, but that is a luxury of safety and not the real world. Ignorance is one criticism of my countrymen which I unfortunately often find to be accurate. Travel to another culture, if not another country, is a good way to create a well rounded and educated person. One is not uneducated and stupid for never traveling, but one could enrich their life and education if they were to pursue traveling. Many people think it is impossible for them. It is not, but you have to want it, you have to work for it; and right now as an educator, as an artist, as a fellow human, I am telling you "Yes, this is something you should want."
Flash forward to 2010, and I have fought my way through paperwork and school loans back to Florence, Italy. This time, I'm there for over a month in a rigorous, but insanely fun, study abroad. Looking back, this period of my life is perhaps when I have made my most honest documentary photographic work; photos just for me, just to collect, just to see, and to greedily take with me something I hope to never forget. I took pictures anytime I could with little in the way of art philosophy weighing me down, and only one or two technical photo classes under my belt. I also drew and wrote a lot, much more than I do currently, as photography has become a prominent focus of my art practice. Below are sketches of silly things imagined, inspiration from the walls of cathedrals, and alters, and statues, and all sorts of pictures of all sorts of things that captured my imagination. Now I look back with a critical mind and think of genres of photography and photographic philosophies and wonder at my own naivety yet again.
Another flash forward, and I am married to a foreigner and living abroad! He isn't Italian, and England is a far cry from the tropical heat of the Mediterranean, but my mother did warn me such a long time ago not to "fall in love with some Italian boy." what she couldn't see is that I fell in love with something much more tempting, the notion of living a life different to my native culture. An exciting life-long pursuit of knowledge, adventure, and travel. It comes with its harsh sacrifices: political rights, being a second rate citizen, financial challenges, a heap of work, home-sickness, the waning of friendships and bonds, and unending hoops (usually fiery ones) to jump through. Despite this, it has made me a better person, a smarter person, a more compassionate person, a harder working person, and allowed me to find the one other person, out of a whole-wide-world of people, with whom I belong.
So travel! Don't make excuses. Work hard, save up, better your artwork and better yourself. Learn something about this insane world we inhabit in 2016 and its crazy political climate. Better yet, let that inspire you to make some good changes. More people are literate than ever before, and humanity is learning faster than ever. Go and have a lesson in compassion from our fellow people, and travel safe.