Wonderful world, beautiful people

Posted: Dec 04, 2001 12:00 AM
LONDON -- This year we traveled, before and after Sept. 11. We basked in delights that some people will never know, and that some cannot appreciate. My husband, Wesley, and I took my mother-in-law, Leona, to the Tuscan hilltown that her mother, Giulia Betti, left at age 16 to come to America. Leona's cousin knew a woman in a nearby town who knew Leona's aunt, Marianella. Cousin Lena took us to Sassi, where a woman standing near the church told us she knew of Marianella. She proved it by repeating the exotic-sounding name of Marianella's adopted home -- Pao-duke-eet (Italian for Pawtucket, R.I.) Earlier, when we first called on Lena, her son Luigi and daughter- in-law Rosa insisted that we join them for a long, delicious lunch. Four courses and four hours later, they figured we should stay for dinner. We didn't, but before we left, Luigi brought us to his favorite room with his prized collection of wines, all corked in the name of famous communists (Chateau Ho Chi Min, Stalin white). In Australia, we oohed and aahed as we watched water go down the drain clockwise. (It flushes counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.) Father Eugene brought us to a wildlife sanctuary where birds of prey swooped over gaping crowds and kangaroos lazed in the sun. An orphaned wombat sat near a stuffed animal that workers gave it as a proxy mother. Outside Sydney, we watched Lela cut strips of bacon for the laughing kookaburra that comes to her deck for a snack. Later came the wild parakeets and lorikeets. At a Glasgow bed and breakfast, Angus and Kathy made Wesley haggis for breakfast. Our cab drivers explained the superiority of Glasgow over Edinburgh. We knew the debate well. We'd heard it before. Melbourne versus Sydney. Oakland versus San Francisco. Hospitality knows no nation. There are towns that you drive away from with an ache in your heart and a resolve to return. You carry with you the smiles and goodwill of people you will never forget and never see again. You are richer for the knowledge of how other people beautify their corner of the planet. I've been proud to be an American. OK, so I cringed when I saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food place near the Great Barrier Reef and the Golden Arches on the Champs Elysees. I've coveted how Italians eat and how Aussies play. I've paid homage to the rich pasts of other countries, and could not help but compare their history to that of my own country. I've become used to the give-and-take of America bashing. When an Aussie mentions slavery, you counter with Australia's treatment of aborigines. For the Brits, you can always evoke colonialism's many sins. Then, all agree that every country has its own special shame. Of course, I've shared my opinion the world over -- on the IQ of Dubya, abortion politics, Aussie roadblocks -- secure in the knowledge that I am, after all, paid for my opinion. Some of the arguments have been heated, but they've never lacked the knowledge that people across the world devise valuable ways to live and laudable approaches to life. From our travels, we became aware of so many possibilities, of so many paths to fulfillment. Travel is one thing that I share with the 19 terrorists who attacked my country on Sept. 11. They had traveled the world more than I have. They, too, benefited from technologies and industries that make this large world traversable for ordinary people, not just the wealthy. They returned strangers' smiles. They tasted unexpected hospitality and inhaled the aromas of many kitchens. They enjoyed sunsets with people of other origins and beliefs. Yet, somehow they were determined not to be enriched by their experiences. They decided to return hospitality with murder. America opened her gates to these thugs, and they repaid our hospitality with bile.