Across the Big Water

Been away for a few days, across the wide Atlantic, and as always I am struck by the perspective that the separation of an ocean gives a traveler.

It’s not only the great distance that figures into this – a vast remove of miles and time zones from the routines of home – but also the fresh wisdom that we draw from new friends we meet on the far side of a great divide.

Take the delightful Brit couple we met at dinner, sitting at the next table. She noted our accents and inquired about our hometown. In a moment she asked where exactly Tennessee is. To our questions, she spoke movingly about the treat of an opera festival she and her husband had experienced in Lucca the week before. Not an opera buff, she admitted, but she also told how Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” aria had brought her to tears.

Or the gracious Italian couple who invited us to lunch in their home in Panzano, in the hilly terrain of the Chianti region, not so unlike the highlands of East Tennessee though at a higher latitude. This was a day trip, by bouncing bus, and once there we shared a midday meal and family stories.

She spoke of her mother, born in Austria in the time of gathering darkness, who became the only survivor of the Holocaust in her own immediate family. (The very thought that there are Holocaust deniers at large in the world seems immediately cruel and stupid. To this day, the generations of extended families still suffer as no one else can ever know.)

In so many European capitals the scale of time and history are of a different order than in youthful America. From many trips ago, we have a friend in Paris who once remarked: “In Europe, when we say ‘old’ we mean really old. When you Americans say ‘far’ you mean really far.”

Politics still intrudes in conversations even across the Atlantic. Not the minutiae of city elections but the constant puzzlements of Washington and London, too. The most common comparisons one hears now, in fact, are those between the American President Donald Trump and the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, each one so anti-historical in his own nation. One hears of their low success rates on policy, their strings of rejections by courts and their respective houses of representatives, the rash decisions, and how the more complex economic questions – Boris on Brexit, Donald on trade – have seemed to baffle them both.

One difference, at the moment, is how Parliament is standing up to the PM (six times in six days, I believe) but how the U.S. Senate so caves, with no courage or stomach for telling Trump no. Defiance on the one side of the pond, cowardice on the other.