April 16, 2024

SCHWARZ | Passion for Travel:  Letter from Spain

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Introduction: Travel as Learning

At almost 83 I think of myself as a Janus figure, looking backward over my long life and, at the same time, looking forward to the future, and that applies especially to my love of traveling. I have had the privilege — and I used that word deliberately — of visiting over 100 countries and writing for close to 25 years a few travel articles for newspapers and magazines. I am as conscious of what I have missed as well as what I have seen. I find returning to places I love is as fulfilling as new places, and that is the reason for my current 25-day journey to Madrid, Barcelona, Paris and London.

Travel has been one of my passions and the source of great pleasure, but it has also been my path to understanding history, different cultures and other ways of living. When we travel, we vacate our daily world and enter a different one; indeed, the etymology of the word vacation suggests freedom from service and exemption from work.  

Rather than owning a second home, I have chosen to see as much of the world as I could. My passion for travel is driven in part by curiosity, a desire to know more today than I knew yesterday and  to experience as much of the world as possible. Travel breaks routines: it is exhilarating and exhausting, thrilling and frustrating.  It can involve moderate risk-taking; it can take you out of your physical safety zone, particularly as you age. At any age, travel takes you out of your mental safety zone.

My History as a Traveler and My Intersection with History

My travelling abroad began with a junior year abroad at Edinburgh University in 1961-1962.  Without email and with  a family that resisted spending money on what were then expensive international phone calls, I was on my own. Europe and the UK were still living in the wake of World War II, and buildings  had bullet holes and bombed out areas with reconstruction still in progress.

I bought a new Renault Dauphine — a very inexpensive car — and drove around Western Europe, covering quite a bit of ground in Italy, France, Belgium and Holland as well Scandinavia. I joined a month-long train tour to Russia organized by a Scottish student group, a trip that also took me to both East and West Germany which were then separated by the Wall as well as Poland.

I learned as much about myself as I did about the places I visited and that, too, is what travel makes valuable. Several incidents reminded me of my Jewish heritage. Had I been living in Europe during WWII, I probably would have been a Holocaust victim. In Rome a woman with concentration camp numbers tattooed on her wrist approached me because she guessed I was a Jew.  One night during an automobile trip in Germany, I unknowingly  rented a room in a house owned by the widow of a late Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) officer whose picture was proudly displayed.

On later occasions, my wife and I have intersected with history. We were in Tunisia in late December 2010 when the Arab Spring began in what we now know was an abortive movement of unfilled hopes. These dates with history have happened on a few other occasions, too. When lecturing in Greek Cyprus for the United States Information Agency, my wife and I were among the very first to cross into Turkish Cyprus through the Green Zone. I gave the keynote lecture at a literary conference there in part because the US Embassy wanted a precedent for future interaction between Greek and Turkish Cyprus. We were told not to tell our Greek Cypriot hosts that we were in Turkish Cyprus for a few days.

Among the joys of travel are serendipitous conversations with people I meet along the way, both citizens of the countries that I visit and fellow travelers from the US and other countries. These conversations along with other experiences enrich my life by giving me a different perspective on my Ithaca world and the United States. Travel opens the doors and windows to history that predates standard American history except for that of the indigenous Indians. Travel to Asia, Africa and South America has made me aware that the history of Western culture, with its focus on classical Greek and Roman antecedents and Biblical origins, is only one strand of history and, not as I was taught in high school and college, the dominant strain.

Even within the US, I find travel important for understanding diversity in different regions. My wife and I try to spend 25 to 30 days a year in Manhattan, three weeks on the ocean in Provincetown, and much of another week on the same trip in Boston visiting my son and enjoying that city. We spend a few weeks on the seashore of west Florida to escape some of the cold dark days in Ithaca. Even more exhilarating are the wonders of the National Parks such as Grand Canyon, Zion and Yellowstone to say nothing of the beaches in Hawaii as well as the cultural resources of such major cities as Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Returning to Beloved Venues: The Role of Memory

One of the joys of travel for me is returning to a city which I have enjoyed before as with our visits in the past ten days. While experiencing the present visit, we remember and savor the delights of past visits. Returning to a place where we have made prior visits enables us to understand how countries and cultures evolve.

We had many first-time experiences such as the Barcelona History Museum and a chance encounter on Easter with a Catalan band accompanied by dancing. In Madrid our new experiences included an exhibit of medieval Sephardic history and an evening of Flamenco dancing in Madrid. We tried different restaurants in both cities.

In Madrid we again visited Plaza Mayor and the Botanical Gardens as well as the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen museums. In Barcelona, my wife and I walked favorite streets such as the Rambla and the narrow streets of the Gothic area as well as visiting the Miro Foundation and Picasso Museum. We also saw again the Gaudi designed Sacred Family (Sagrada Familia) Basilica. First conceived over 140 years ago, the Basilica was stalled in the mid-1960s when I first was in Barcelona; on my second visit in 1994, not much progress had been made, but it is now moving towards a stunning completion.

Sagrada Familia / Marcia Jacobsen
Casa Batllo / Marcia Jacobsen

My first visit to Barcelona was in 1968 when Franco ruled, and Barcelona was an especially dark and gloomy place where the Catalans were regarded as a suspicious people whose loyalties to Franco the fascist dictator were very much in doubt. Public assembly was limited by law and many people wore black. Now Barcelona is one of the liveliest and most ebullient cities of Europe.

Viewing favorite paintings in the Prado such as Velasquez’s  Les Meninas (1656), Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435) and Peter Brueghal the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1652) have become catalysts for other memories of Madrid visits. At the Reina Sofia Picasso’s Guernica — his 1937 iconic elegy for the Republican victims of fascist and Nazi bombings in Spanish Civil War, a painting I first saw in MoMA before it was returned in 1981 to Spain — has an even more complex effect, evoking the New York of my first 40 years and my earlier visits to Madrid. The same is true of the Picasso and Miro museums in Barcelona, particularly Picasso’s Portrait of Sabartes (1901).

Guernica / Marcia Jacobsen

In Barcelona we visited the Miro Foundation museum and found most helpful wall descriptions in English that were not there on our last visit in 2013. If anyone doubts Miro’s stature as the third most important European painter of the 20th century after Picasso and Matisse, that person needs to spend a few hours at this museum. The same was true of improved English descriptions at the National Catalan Art Museum which has an important if disturbing exhibit that complements a major exhibit that we saw two days earlier in Madrid on Sephardic Jewry in Spain and the Middle East prior to the 1492 expulsion of Jews. Stressing Spain’s Antisemitic History, this unsettling exhibit is entitled “The Lost Mirror: Jews and Conversos in the Middle Ages” and shows how negative depictions of Jews in later medieval paintings contributed to hatred of Jews.

Miro installation at Miro Foundation / Marcia Jacobsen


Because in my lifetime I have visited Israel, Egypt,  Jordan and the West Bank as well as Dubai, Morocco, Tunisia and have spoken to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, I would like to think that I better understand the continuous conflict in the Middle East than I would otherwise.

Had I not been in Myanmar in 2014 during a lull in that country’s isolation and the emergence of Aung San Suu Ky, I would not understand what is happening now with the 2021 military coup. Nor would I understand the Moslem-Christian tensions in Bosnia, or the history of Northern Ireland, had I not been visited these places,

When I hear vast oversimplifications about Africa, Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and even countries in Western Europe, I often think that we can only begin to know the world by seeing the world.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023-2024 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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