Everyday Europe, In Black & White

City parks are abundant and accessible in Europe.
City parks are abundant and accessible in Europe.
The beautiful landscape invites contemplation.
The beautiful landscape invites contemplation.
Some do, some observe.
Some do, some observe.
Life extends to the streets.
Life extends to the streets.
Cafes are cultural centers.
Cafes are cultural centers.
Outdoor markets as part of everyday life.
Outdoor markets as part of everyday life.

I find very few things as satisfying as walking around neighborhoods in Europe to find out what people are really like away from the tourist spots and the hustle and bustle of city center. I’m talking about those neighborhoods that never make it to travel brochures, but which are teaming with ordinary life like the one I leave behind every time I embark on a journey. Interestingly, I travel thousands of miles, spend more money that is prudent to spend, and put my joints through grueling day walks, just to observe and experience the lives of ordinary people like myself living ordinary lives like mine. Now, I grant you that this is not everyone’s cup of tea, or that it ranks up there with what most people would choose to do with their limited time and money, but for me, this relentless pursuit of “distinctive sameness” (how’s that for confusion?) is what has fueled more than 40 years of travel around the world. You could say that I am simply fascinated by all that is the common amongst the people of the world, but at the same time different. A narrow line marking the distinction between cultures and people, but for me, a demarcation zone that has fueled the pursuit of a lifetime.

In absolute terms, human behavior and culture, are rather similar. We all eat, enjoy art, labor, love, pursue happiness, experience sadness, etc., etc, etc. We just go about it differently, and that is where my insatiable interest lies: on the “unique” ways we all experience all these common traits of humanity as a result of history, culture, and geography. The Japanese people bow deeply with tears flowing down their cheeks upon seeing someone dear to their hearts after years of separation, while the Italians hug incessantly as if trying to fuse two people into one. Same feeling, different expressions. And it’s the same wherever you look, be it in what people eat, or what they do with their free time. A beautiful river with incredible landscapes invites contemplation and romance. An industrial city replete of square, concrete buildings, perhaps not as much. Thus, the factors affecting our adopted behaviors are indeed many and varied, and there’s no better place to discover these behavioral distinctions than in the neighborhoods where people disarmingly engage in them without a care in the world. In the process, I learn a lot about them, and without a doubt, a little about myself.

A Lover’s Kiss

The cool days at the beginning of autumn bring out couples to the Potomac shores. [Click photo for larger version]
The cool days at the beginning of autumn bring out couples to the Potomac shores. [Click photo for larger version]
Lovers kiss while oblivious to the world around them.
Lovers kiss while oblivious to the world around them.

Who would’ve known, that in a city hardly ever associated with romance, you would find such a display of PDA (i.e., Public Display of Affection). That’s right, I’m talking about Washington, DC, the same place where sanguine bureaucrats like to play with your hard-earned money and where where sensitivity is not a word most locals would use when socially describing their ideal versions of themselves. But a few days back, there it was, out in the open for all to see. Love, affection, and obliviousness to the world around them. A cool day ushering in the short days of autumn, a lazy sun tired of its summer work, and a lover’s kiss. Who would’ve known, there’s hope for this city after all.

 

The Lakeside Town Of Como

Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Lake Como is surrounded by some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. [Click photos for larger versions]
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region's hidden treasures.
Getting lost in the winding, narrow streets in town is the best way to find the region’s hidden treasures.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
A typical, small bar down one of the many side streets in the old part of town.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
The small Piazza Duomo is lined with restaurants facing the imposing Cattedrale di Como.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
Street musicians bring a little romance to the old town.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta  is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
The Piazza Alessandro Volta is typical of the small towns dotting the northern Italian lakes.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
During the spring season, and before tourists descend on Como in great numbers, you can have many streets to yourself.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
The beauty of Lake Como attracts lovers from all over the world to its shores.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town's main train station.
Set of stairs leading to and from the town’s main train station.

If I ever were going to attempt to write romantic novels for a living (don’t worry, I’m not), there is no doubt in my mind that I would do so from a place like Como in Italy. This sleepy, little town by the shores of the lake that takes its name, Lake Como, is everything you can imagine of the romanticism of a bygone era, and then some. What is it with these northern lake regions in Italy and southern Switzerland? To say they are beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe them, because they are so much more than that. In fact, I had once heard a Swiss actress in America say that she returned to her small village in the area every year in order to recharge her spirit. And now that I have had some time to wander in the area from Locarno in Lago Maggiore to Como, I now fully understand what this actress was talking about. Life at a slower pace, natural beauty beyond description, and some of the most wonderful food in the world combine to form the perfect antidote to all that ails us in our busy, chaotic lives. I may not know how many places in the world possess such wonderful potion, but Como definitely has its share of it.

Como the town is not a big place, but three main areas seem to dominate the region. For starters, there’s Lake Como with its postcard-perfect landscape. This southernmost part of the lake is quite a busy place, with ferries taking passengers to other famous towns around the lake and lovers slowly strolling down Lungolago Mafalda di Savoia as if oblivious to the world. The lake and its indescribable scenery are nothing short of visual candy, and sitting by that shore on a perfect spring day will be all the proof you’ll ever need that it is possible to be happy in this life.

The other two main areas in town are the city-center square, Piazza Alessandro Volta, and the imposing Cattedrale di Como at Piazza Duomo. Both extremely impressive and surrounded by small shops and quaint restaurants where you could easily pass the hours away with total disregard to time. In between these two, an old-world paradise for the senses makes sure that you never move at a fast pace while you are in town (which the many cafes in the area would’ve guaranteed anyway). Stopping every few steps to gawk at some window display while stopping yourself from spending your retirement money becomes virtually impossible in Como. This is what Italy does to you, and we love her for it.

On the train back to Milan I couldn’t stop thinking of how beautiful this country is.  Sitting in that train longingly looking out the window to the passing countryside before me, I couldn’t help but think that I had just been to one of the most wonderful places on this planet. And as the train got farther and farther away from Como, the famous words of composer Giuseppe Verdi kept replaying in my head: “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” My sentiments exactly.