As I was growing up, my family only travelled for two reasons: to see family or to meet Jesus. We made yearly trips to relatives in Indiana and Mississippi, as well as numerous pilgrimages to religious conferences and mission trips, usually as part of my parents' ministerial work with college students. I loved (and still do love) such journeys, not least because they have a clear purpose, and I like Purposes.
Going on a trip with a purpose lays the foundation for telling a good story when you return. Perhaps you fulfilled the purpose gloriously. For example, you might report that you and your kin renewed your love for one another, that you helped clear debris after a natural disaster, or that you heard a life-changing sermon. Even if the purpose falls apart, there's a tale in such disasters.
I know how to tell family stories and mission trip stories. However, I'm not really sure how to talk about my recent trip to Italy. Last month I spent nine days in Venice, Florence, and Rome. And why? Because I could. I could enumerate my list of justifications (a desire to travel with four bright young women; an academic interest in seeing the cradle of the Renaissance, etc), but in truth, the trip was like art itself: gratuitous, costly, and yet, mysteriously, essential.
I'm not going to try to give the grand narrative of my trip to Italy because I have no idea what that story is. It's out there, somewhere, beyond the ken of my mere week's worth of reflection. Instead, I want to share a few moments from our trip, scenes and experiences that suggest, but do not explicate, the mysterious purpose that compelled me to buy a ticket to Italy instead of paying to have my car's air conditioner fixed, or instead of buying a washer and dryer.
Maps are curious documents: in order to guide a traveller through a multi-dimensional world, cartographers simplify space, color, and information. As a child in a midwestern town, this simplification seemed slight, since the grid-even streets of my neighborhood contained little more than the map suggested: modest houses and lots of green grass.
In Venice, my excellent map necessarily excluded almost all of the really interesting things about the city: the shop-window full of Carnival masks; the gelateria smelling of fresh waffle cones; the children playing the piazza; the glorious little church, all pink and green marble, tucked behind humbler buildings.; the deep quiet of a city without cars. The cartographer had more than enough to occupy him (or her) with mere directions, for Venice is a warren of tiny streets that seem to change names every thirty feet.
When deciding what grand sights to see, my companions and I planned our days in Venice from other sources, using the map simply to navigate from one point to another. However, on our last evening in the city, I noticed a curious detail on the map. Along the northern shore of the island-city, a little note said, "Vantage point for the most spectacular sunsets in Venice."
All the other information on the map was objective, offering names of streets, stations, museums, and neighborhoods. This tantalizing note, however, offered a glimpse of the map-maker, surely someone who knew Venice well and could not resist sharing a favorite spot to rest after a long day of walking cobblestone streets.
We followed this note, expecting to find a picturesque park or a historic pier from which we could enjoy the sunset. Instead, we found ourselves far from the tourist mainstays. The map lead us past a large hospital, through a quiet neighborhood of apartments, and finally to a little vaparetto dock. Lacking chairs or benches, we sat on the dock, looked to the west, and waited for the sun to set.
As we sat in the twilight, something in us settled. For an hour, we stopped feeling like tourists. We were not gazing upon, nor even discussing, any of the famous landmarks of the city. Instead, we sat on a ordinary boat dock, under the windows of ordinary families. As we watched the sun dye the sky, we shared stories about boys and laughed. We were half a world away, entirely at home. Our mapmaker had guided us to a little corner of Venice we would not have thought to seek on our own.