It's often said that a journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step. But when that first step is onto a muddy gravel road near Seattle and the last one is onto a polished marble terrace in Rome, it's hard to know what shoes to pack.
Most Americans put comfort ahead of style when traveling. Generally that's not a bad idea. After all, who cares if that sleek, Gucci-clad Italian woman is laughing behind her immense sunglasses and copy of Corriere Della Sera at your Universal Studios Orlando sweatshirt and fanny pack (not to mention your actual fanny)? It's not as though the two of you are ever going to see each other again. And she didn't spend twelve hours yesterday squeezed between an obese actuary from Delaware and operatically screaming baby to get to that sunlit piazza this morning.
But when your mother is a glamorous retiree who spent eleven years working in Rome and the two of you are off to the Eternal City for a week visiting her former colleagues, all of whom have known you since you showed up in suitcase-squashed shoulder pads for your first visit, comfort must take a back seat. Way back, in those smelly rows near the lavatories. Going to Rome without a complete set of the most elegant clothes I can afford would create permanent social scarring.
Plus, it's fun. As my mother remarked when she arrived back here after retiring, Seattle's "not an open-toed shoe kind of town." Northwesterners would sneer just as enthusiastically behind our Revos and copies of Outside magazine at Ms. Corriere Della Sera if she ever set a Prada-shod foot here. Day after day, we wear our traditional native dress: Fleece, jeans and sensible shoes, all in colors found only in the dankest recesses of nature.
Visiting another culture, especially Italy, is a chance to play dress-up. To try on the identity that goes with the clothes. No Italian is ever going to think for one nanosecond that I'm a fellow countrywoman. But sitting in that sunlit piazza in my big sunglasses and (knockoff) Gucci is as much a sample of the Italian experience as the espresso I'm drinking.
I just need enough room in my suitcase for the gravel-road shoes.