Italy, September 11th, and why we travel anyway

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I was recently discussing my first trip to Italy with a friend (before kids, before digital cameras, before Blackberries), and had the sudden realization that, these 8 years later, we remember much of the trip in detail, but not so much its significant beginning. I think that in itself makes a very good case for having taken the trip in the first place.

Everyone has their September 11th story, and I’m very grateful ours is not one wrapped in personal tragedy. On September 10th, 2001, Tim and I had flown home from a family wedding, with the plan to return to work the following morning—Tim in downtown San Francisco, me freelancing at home. Like many people on the West Coast, we awoke to the bizarre news that an airplane had flown into one of the twin towers in New York. We all know where it went from there.

Amidst all the uncertainty during the week that followed, including the big question mark of who did this horrific thing and why, we were locked in our own holding pattern at home with nearly-packed suitcases and two tickets to Venice scheduled to depart San Francisco just a week after the attacks. It was to be our first trip to Italy. We had planned and dreamed about this trip for quite some time.

Meanwhile, airplanes were grounded, understandably, across the country. The nation was in mourning. We grappled with feelings ranging from outrage and shock to a selfish desire for normalcy. No one knew what would happen next. Extended family was still cooped up in post-wedding chaos, unable to return to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and fearful of the news of friends and neighbors when they would. We knew we were lucky to be home, yet a small part of us still couldn’t wait to leave on the next adventure.

Some people expected Tim and I to cancel our trip to Italy. Some people expected we would have no choice in postponing it. We weren’t sure what would unfold exactly, as we sifted through our emotions and kept the guide books ready, until we learned that the first international flight had departed SFO. We were on the third.

It was a strange time to travel abroad, to be sure. I tried to comfort family by explaining that Air France actually had undercover armed air marshalls on some of their flights, but quickly realized that was not something to comfort your mother. In line at the airport, we stood behind a German family with small American flags tucked into their backpacks in a show of solidarity.
What really moved us, however, was arriving in Venice and, for the first time, motoring down the Grand Canal by vaporetto, seeing large American flags draped over the balconies to greet us.The Italians we met on during the trip were stunned to learn that we were visiting from the U.S., and all had words of sympathy and compassion. We would not feel this kind of affection for our country in Europe in the next trips to follow. But I like to remember still how, for that brief window in time, we were all distant cousins. We spent the next few weeks traveling around Italy, seeing some of the most amazing sights a person may hope to see in a lifetime—the Duomo, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Tivoli Gardens, as well as the simple unexpected things that make travel so rich, like seeing how toilet paper and other goods are delivered by hand cart throughout Venice.
Along the way, we watched for every new issue of the International Herald Tribune we could find to learn of any new developments (which we dreaded), or any new information about the attackers. Even the newspapers we read on the flight home had little new information. It was not until my brother greeted us outside customs at SFO and asked, “So have you heard then?” that we learned our country was at war, and with Afghanistan. It’s somewhat ironic that here we are, eight years later, and it seems like very little has changed. We pack differently for air travel. We no longer greet our loved ones at the gate. In general, we fear more—like it or not. We were very lucky, and very privileged to have that chance to go to Italy in the first place, and I’m glad we didn’t let fear come between us and our attainable dream.

As Robin Williams’ character states so well in Dead Poet’s Society: “Poetry, music… love… these are the things we stay alive for.” I would add to that list “travel.” And I do.
Safe journey,
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby post is part of Photo Friday at

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