The wise traveler travels only in imagination.
— W. Somerset Maugham
Although nobody handed me a sheet of instructions before boarding the plane to Lisbon with my younger brother in the summer of 1954, I understood that I was setting forth on the pilgrim road to an uplifted soul. Twenty years old and safely through my sophomore year at college, I’d paid close enough attention to the surveys of Western Civilization to know that the route map of “The Grand Tour” had been clearly marked both by the sons of eighteenth-century British dukes and the wives of nineteenth-century American railroad barons. The accommodations weren’t as gracious as in the days when Henry James sailed for England with steamer trunks and a silver tea service, or as richly appointed as when Horace Walpole at Rome in 1740 could say to a friend, “I would buy the Colosseum if I could,” but the itinerary hadn’t been much changed over the distance of two hundred years, and neither had its self-improving purpose. The sights were still there to be seen, and one was expected to take notes.
For three months I kept the obligatory journal, careful to observe the transience of empire in the dust of the Roman Forum, not failing to notice in Venice that the afternoon light had been painted by Tintoretto. The fierce gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame brought to mind the grim consequence of Abélard’s ill-fated love for Héloïse; across the river at Les Deux Magots I ordered absinthe and wrote postcards in a style meant to be mistaken for that of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor did I neglect the guidebooks or miss attendance at the museums, but had I been given a test in advanced sensibility on my return to America in September, I would have fallen well short of the mark set by Goethe in Italy in 1786 (Rome, page 121). He speaks of his first coming upon the ruins of antiquity as “my second natal day,” his rebirth in the presence of “vistas,” “gardens,” “triumphal arches,” “inscriptions,” and “coins,” prompting him to look back on his former ideas “as though they were children’s shoes.” My own observations were born again not from the raw footage of unedited experience but from tape-delayed sentiments filed by other travelers in other centuries. I was never sure whether I was looking at the Arno or the Rhine through the open window of time present, or whether I was looking at the Arno and the Rhine in the clouded mirror of time past, as they had been seen by Caesar’s legions or Napoleon’s horses. No matter how many times I climbed Rome’s Palatine Hill I wasn’t walking in new shoes, and if in the morning I had looked down on the Circus Maximus from the heights once commanded by the Emperors Nero and Domitian, by noon I was content to squander the rest of the day in a cafe on the Via Veneto in company with Boccaccio’s Decameron or The Pisan Cantos of Ezra Pound. When not sightseeing in the pages of an old book, I leafed through the vocabulary of a new language for the words to ask the young lady at a nearby table where did one go, per favore, to hear the sound of magic flutes.
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