We’ve been thinking lately about our purpose in life.
Philosophers have spent lifetimes pondering the question, but I’m happy to say that for people on the cusp of 60, it doesn’t deliver quite as much of an existential punch as it did when we were 18. Paula and I put in more than 35 years in journalism, did some good work, maybe materially improved some lives, and made it through some hard times in our professional and personal lives. Occasionally, those personal and professional hardships were the same thing (I’m looking at you, Hurricane Katrina).
We’ve managed to land in a place where we can enjoy whatever time we have left, and pursue the passions that animate us. I suppose some would say that after our many years of hard work, we have “earned” our rest. Maybe. More likely, we’re just incredibly fortunate.
Still, it’s not as easy as you might think to quiet that voice in your head that says, “What are you doing with your life?” It doesn’t speak any more softly, either, as the world seems to become a more troubled and ugly place every day. When you have the ability to communicate clearly, you always ask yourself if maybe you could be doing something more.
What we want to do is to pursue our dream of traveling around the world, and writing and taking photos about what we experience. And even though we’ve been in France for more than a year, it feels like we’re just now getting settled in, and ready to chase that dream in earnest.
But we find ourselves asking the question: To what end? The last thing the world needs is another Instagram account that screams out, “Look at where we are, and how cool that makes us!” It’s not our intent, but you don’t have control over perception.
So, what is our purpose? The answer is still evolving – I guess you could say it’s been evolving for our whole lives. But here’s our best shot at articulating what this adventure means to us.
We were in Paris earlier this month at the same time world leaders were there marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Today, the conditions that led to that war and the one that followed are on the rise again all over the world: nationalism, isolationism, racism, anti-Semitism. A lot of places where an unspeakable amount of blood was spilled over fear of the other seem to have short memories about that.
We came up to the city to see Paris Photo, the largest gathering of fine art photography in the world. The show was held on the vast floor of the Grand Palais, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece built for the 1900 World Exposition.
There were beautiful works by some of the world’s greatest photographers. But there was also a tremendous amount of work that showcased the dark forces at work in the world today: searing images of war, famine, racism, violence and oppression. The net effect of walking through the show was not really to be uplifted.
But when I wanted to take a photo of the day, I instinctively looked for beauty. I found it pretty quickly, on a high terrace at the back, in a spot that showcased what a stunning piece of 19th century architecture is the Grand Palais. And I think that instinct to show what was beautiful about the show – its setting – rather than what was horrifying about it began to bring into focus for us what we are trying to do with our lives.
We are not blind to the darkness at work in the world. We live on the continent where 87 million people died during two wars, and where even the tiniest village has a war monument that testifies to the unspeakable loss of generations of young men and women.
But the dark side of humanity always co-exists with take-your-breath-away beauty. You find it not just in places, but also in human beings, full of kindness and dreams and compassion and generous hearts.
To travel, then, is to experience, as Zorba the Greek called it, “the full catastrophe” – humanity in its full breadth and depth. When we travel, that is mostly what we are looking for: beauty, of the kind that fills the heart and the eye.
And it is travel that we seek, not just tourism. We talked about the difference recently with a friend of ours in Flavigny who is worldly and smart and thoughtful and successful – a typical citizen of this very atypical French village. Liz spends half of her working life at the film production company she founded in England, and the other half in China, filming documentaries about the extraordinary changes going on in the world’s most populous country. She speaks something like four or five languages, including Mandarin. In her travels, and through the journalistic exercise of documentary filmmaking, she has earned a perspective on the unsettling changes going on in the world that we admire and, frankly, covet.
She and her husband made dinner for us a few weeks back, and we got to talking about retirement. People like Liz who are still working hard, but are at a stage of life where they can think seriously about not doing that anymore, are curious about how Paula and I manage to fill our days. Like a lot of successful entrepreneurs, Liz has trouble picturing the fine details of “not working.”
So I asked her, what about travel? She responded, “I have no interest in being a tourist.” This from a person who has seen places we’re only just starting to dream about seeing.
And that launched us into a long conversation about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Obviously, Paula and I are both. Here’s how I’d define the difference: One day in Venice a few years back, we visited the Rialto Bridge, bought souvenirs, waited in line with a couple hundred cruise ship passengers to ride to the top of the campanile in Piazza San Marco, took a picture through the stone grid work from inside the Bridge of Sighs in the Doges Palace, and hopped on a gondola for a memorable, albeit expensive, sunset ride. It was a lovely day of tourism. But I can see why the crowds and the constant hustle wouldn’t appeal to everyone.
Here’s a travel story:
Whenever we are in Venice, we stop by one of our favorite restaurants in the relatively quiet Cannaregio neighborhood. We like the place not because of the food, which isn’t bad, but because of Peter, the owner. We’ve been to Peter’s place four or five times now, and we adore him. Because we are highly trained snoops, we’ve gathered bits and pieces over many visits about Peter’s life, to the point where we know more than you’re supposed to know about the person who serves you pasta and breadsticks.
Peter is an immigrant from Egypt, where he was (and is) a member of the Coptic Christian faith, a minority that isn’t always well-treated there. He emigrated to Italy more than a decade ago seeking a better life for him and his family, and opened a canal-side restaurant along with a partner on the northern reaches of Venice proper. A couple of years ago, when we were at Peter’s place, he seemed to be a bit down, and we discovered it was because on that same day, Coptic Christians in Egypt had been gunned down at churches in a coordinated terrorist attack. That made it harder than usual to be cheery while serving Italian food to tourists.
We noticed it because normally, Peter is playful and sly with his customers, quick with a joke, flirty but never inappropriately so with the women customers, mock-scolding their husbands and partners. The tourists eat it up so much that it should be on the menu. But if you spend enough time in his place, you can tell that to support his wife and two beautiful young daughters (whom we met briefly in the restaurant one night), he arrives early, leaves late, works hard and, like all working-class Venetians who can’t possibly afford to live in the city, has a long commute to his home in the provinces.
On a visit to Venice earlier this year, the night after we ate at Peter’s place, we took a water bus (or vaporetto) to a restaurant on the other side of Venice, down in Dorsoduro, for a late meal, followed by a couple of drinks. We stayed out so late, in fact, that we missed the last vaporetto back up the Grand Canal to our apartment, and had no choice but to walk. (Oops. My bad.) Add to that the fact that my phone had gone dead, and Paula hadn’t brought hers, so there would be no Google map to help us find our way back.
Those of you who know Venice know that not having a map at night far from your hotel or apartment – well, that can be a real problem. To top it off, Paula had worn her new “we’re taking the vaporetto tonight!” shoes, and our fast-walking around somewhat frantically trying to catch the last one home had already given her blisters. It could scarcely have gotten worse.
Then it got worse. A dense fog rolled in off the lagoon, heavy, wet and thick. We found ourselves a good hour’s walk from home, in the dark and fog, with no map, and hobbled by blisters. But you can’t call an Uber in Venice, so there was no choice but to hoof it. I gave my socks to Paula to cushion her feet, and we started to walk in a roughly northwesterly direction, stopping every now and then on the rare occasion when we saw another human being to confirm our bearings in the constantly shifting walkways of Venice.
What signs we could see in the fog kept leading us to Piazzale Roma, the giant bus terminal on the western edge of Venice that marks the line of demarcation between land-based vehicles and the magical, all-boats world of Venice. It wasn’t exactly in a straight line toward our apartment, but I knew if I could get there, I could get us home.
After about 40 minutes, we arrived at last at the bus terminal, still busy just after midnight with workers heading home. From there, we turned northeast, and left the bustle behind. Then it was just the two of us, alone in the fog, heading toward the beautiful art deco façade of the Santa Lucia train station, and 10 minutes beyond, home.
Venice is pretty safe, so I wasn’t terribly worried about our well-being. But in any deserted city after midnight, when you’re alone and far from crowds, your senses are heightened, even if the city isn’t shrouded in creepy fog. As we passed in front of the train station, the outlines of a lone figure, a man, emerged from the mists up ahead, moving purposefully toward us. I stiffened and felt the adrenaline start to rise.
Then I recognized him, and immediately relaxed. It was Peter, heading home after a long day at the restaurant. He smiled, gave Paula a hug, shook my hand. His playfulness was gone – that’s his work persona. In the dark fog, he was just a tired businessman, heading home to his family after a long night.
We laughed at the improbability of it all, talked briefly, and said goodnight. But in that moment, the distance that normally exists between Restaurateur and Tourist had been wiped away.
We were all just fellow travelers, trying to get home.
Those are the moments we seek. I suggested to Liz during dinner in Flavigny that she didn’t have to just be a tourist. With her journalistic skills, she could strive to be a traveler as well, for fun instead of work. I’m not sure she was convinced.
But we are. Like everyone, we are shaped by our past – my parents and one of my brothers were dead before they reached 45. Paula’s dad was killed in an accident when she was 3. Those lessons keep echoing in the present as well. Just last week, a colleague on the cusp of retirement whom we both had worked with for many years died of a heart attack. He was a brilliant reporter and good friend for a long time. Then we learned two days ago that a colleague who had once been my editor for several years was found dead, alone, in his apartment.
So we begin our discoveries in earnest, becoming tourists so that we can seek out the magic of being travelers. We go forth armed with our clichés: No day is guaranteed. The only moment you have is the one you’re in right now. Live each day as if it’s your last. The clock is ticking.
Here’s the thing about those clichés: they’re easy to say, but very hard to live. So that’s the work we set about doing every day: To walk in the present. To live, and love, with intention and gratitude. To seek out beauty. And to share it with others in words and pictures when we can, whether it’s the people we meet on the journey, or our friends and followers.
That’s enough of a purpose, for now. We hope that if you come along for the journey, you will find that, in a world that can seem increasingly dark, being reminded how much beauty there is in it will bring light.
Lovely put Uncle James.
Could not say it so easily but so true.
Will have to take you to the hidden Friul north of Venetia some days.
Thank you for beeing in my near neighborhood in our beloved Flavigny ☺
Beautifully written, James. I am so there. Same birthday, but years older, so in addition
to deaths you mentioned, there have been too many more in my life. I attended the funeral of one of my closest friends Tuesday.
And I have had several unexpected health issues pop up out of who knows where in the past four years.
Doctor gave me a good report last week, the day before our birthday, so i immediately booked a big trip for early March. Financial planner said, “Go.” Then last night found a Black Friday discount in May at my favorite hotel in NYC.
We’ve always spent our money on travel, and I too talk with many strangers, Often more memorable to me than paintings in museums.
At home, am taking Ted Jackson’s phoyography class with several former colleagues. My retirement priority is spending time with friends. They matter the world to me. And time with our beloved dogs. Priorities change as we age. In many ways I’m content.i
How was Ted’s course. I wish I had been in New Orleans when he started teaching it.
Profiter de chaque jour, j’ai découvert cela avec la maladie de ma soeur.