Tag Archives: Travel

Touring Oppression, Obsession and Greed

Americans like to tour other countries. Sometimes we say that they have history all around them, but in America it is hard to find anything that is more than a few hundred years old. So we travel the rest of the world looking for really old stuff, stuff with real history. Of course the things we find are the great structures and works of architecture that have withstood the test of time: the pyramids, palaces, cathedrals, temples, fortresses, and castles.

In general, we don’t have those things in America. We think it is because we are not that old. The truth is age has little to do with it. It is about the structure of society and the concentration of power and wealth. Egypt does not have pyramids because it is old. Egypt has pyramids because it had a social structure that placed all power and wealth in the hands of a very few people. The rest of the country was enslaved and worked to accomplish the wishes of those at the top. It is estimated that tens of thousands of slaves worked to build the pyramids.

No one travels to Russia to see the great accomplishments of the communist system. No, they go to see the churches and palaces built during the time of the czars.

In Rome we see the great temples, forum, coliseum, aqueducts and fountains built by the thousands of slaves captured during the various military conquests. It is estimated that at one time there were ten slaves to every free man in Rome.

In France we see the ridiculously lavish, palaces and art collections of the Kings who taxed the peasants to near starvation.

At the Vatican you can see some great cathedrals and works of art paid for through abusive practices of paying indulgences.

As you travel from place to place the names change but the story is much the same. Wonderful architectural structures and beautiful collections of fine art all acquired because a few people had the power, wealth and control of public resources to lavish on themselves and their own interests. We don’t have those things in America not because we are not that old. We don’t have them because we have placed our focus on the freedom of opportunity for the common man. That is not to say that we don’t have some very wealthy people. We do, and they live some very lavish lifestyles. You can watch “lifestyles of the rich and famous” and see all kinds of wealthy Americans, but there is something radically different. We feel that these people earned their money, or at least we willingly bought their product of service. Somehow we don’t feel like they obtained their wealth through the oppression of others.

So there you have it. We admire these great structures, and art collections of history. We marvel at the great empires of the past that brought them into being. Then we create laws and social structures to guarantee that concentrations of wealth and power like that will never happen again.

It really is hypocritical tourism. We praise the accomplishments of oppressive empires of the past and condemn them in the present.

What kind of monuments will we build in our present day that will become the tourist attractions of the future? Will they be monuments of greed and oppression? Will they be monuments of individual expression, like the Watts Towers, Scotty’s Castle, or Salvation Mountain, that were built in the past, but new building codes will guarantee that type of individual expression never happens again. Maybe we will simply continue to admire the monuments of ancient history because we can no longer build them in the present.

Chipped Paint and Broken Plaster

I am sitting in a solarium café in a hotel in Italy. The room is filled with old patio tables with simple formed steel tops and elaborate, decorative, cast metal bases. The chairs are also old and mismatched. It seems that they are simply collected over time from just about anywhere. Some are indirectly carved, others are delicately curved steel bars, bent to create curly-ques, and heart shaped backs. Like the head board of a fine brass bed. There are wicker benches with woven seats and backs. Some chairs are formed of bamboo or some type of reed. There are also simple folding chairs made from steel flat bar and wooden slats. Everything has multiple coats of paint. The last layer is white. All the paint is chipped to expose the earlier colors of the bare steel. The rest of the room is decorated with various pillows, lights, baskets, fresh fruit and plants. There are wire hearts covered in fabric hanging around the room. Some are right side up, but most are cocked at some odd angle of even upside down. It is exactly what you would see in some “Country Cottage” magazine.

It is all very romantic and appealing. I just can’t figure out why.

Two days ago I went to visit our office in Assago. It was a very modern building, the type that would e featured in “Architectural Digest”. My guess is that it was when it was first built. It is what I call an architect’s playground. The architect went wild with every new and different idea he could come up with. Often these buildings are not about beauty of even functionality; they are about being different, cutting edge, breaking the rules and being modern. The ironic thing is that in 20 years these buildings will look old and dated.

The truly old architecture is called timeless and classic. As I walk the brick streets of Tortona, Italy, I am in awe of the old brick buildings with heavy wooden doors opening to brick and tile paved courtyards—the shuttered windows and balconies with hanging flower boxes. Everywhere there is chipped plaster. Occasionally I will run across a grand old building that is abandoned and decaying. The plaster has fallen away exposing large areas of ancient brick. The red tile roof has collapsed in places letting light filter through the broken windows from the inside. Great chunks of the wall have collapsed. Somehow there is a beauty in all of this decay. It is the subject of great photographs and pencil sketches.

Once again I ask myself, “What is it that makes old decaying buildings so appealing?”

What is funny is that I can remember as a child I didn’t like old looking things. Chipped and broken, meant chipped and broken. It seemed dirty. I expected bugs to come crawling out. There was nothing beautiful or romantic about it. I liked the clean, slick modern styles.

I guess your tastes change as you get older. You appreciate what happens with the passage of time. You understand that many of those chips and broken pieces have a story—the story of people’s lives: the events that formed them, the attempts to repair them, the new plaster and the new coat of paint. Many things have no specific story, it is just the wear of daily life that weathers and shapes us and leaves small cracks, chips and smudges. The buildings, the furniture, the collection of odds and ends, the tilted hearts—they all have a story. I will never know these stories they are lost to time, as someday mine will be, but there is something beautiful and romantic about sitting in a solarium in Italy, sipping on a cappuccino, surrounded by a million silent stories told by chipped paint and broken plaster.

Familiar Faces in Foreign Places

America is very unique in that we truly are a nation of immigrants. People have come from every nation on earth, and they have become Americans. This amazing blend, this bringing together different people to form a nation is truly American. This inviting and accepting of people is one of the factors that has made America great.

People come from all over. The first generation to arrive holds strongly to their roots. They are a generation in transition. They see themselves as coming from somewhere else. The next generation sees themselves differently. They are Americans but they have a strong heritage from another country; often a country that they will never know first-hand. It is only through their parents that they maintain the connection. By the third generation they are undeniable Americans. They still may take some pride in being a hyphenated American; but they are Americans through and through, just like every other hyphenated American.

I was born and raised in America and I am a blend of a few different ethnicities. I have never been able to think of myself as anything other than American. I’m not even hyphenated. As such, I look at other Americans as just simply Americans and have not given a lot of thought to where their families come from. That has changed for me now that I have done some international traveling during the last month.

Before I left for Italy a friend, Nadine, asked what town I was going to. I said “Tortona” and she excitedly said, “My family is from that area.” A strange thing happened. As I met coworkers in the Tortona office, I began to see familiar faces. There was a girl in the office that had some facial features, gestures and way of communicating that reminded me of Cheryl, Nadine’s daughter. A Guy in the office named Simone, looked like Nadine’s son, Dan. The way he would look at me reminded me of Dan. He even had Dan’s grin. In my mind I even used it to try and help me remember names. I would say to myself, ‘Oh, yah, Simone—he is the purchasing guy that looks like Dan Deal.’

There was another thin, energetic, young man named Pietro. He reminded me of a thin, energetic, third generation Italian-American guy I worked with in California, named Nick Carbone. This whole experience of seeing familiar faces in foreign places has been interesting and kind of fun. It has made me aware of the ethnicity of my friends at home, something I had never paid much attention to. Mostly I think it is a way of avoiding being homesick. These people are strangers to me, but in some way there is comfort in seeing the American counterpart in their eyes, and their gestures.

The strangest one happened this morning at breakfast. I am in Mumbai, India right now. I sat down for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. My nephew James came up to take my order. Okay it wasn’t James, it was some Indian waiter that looked like my Mexican-American nephew, James. I smiled as he asked me something that I really didn’t understand. Then he gestured to the side with his head. I went. ‘Oh my gosh! It’s James. I never noticed before but he does that same gesture with his head.

Again it was fun and a bit comforting. I guess I am home sick.