Travel Stories

The Meaning of a Morning

When in a strange city I have always been in the habit of roaming its streets in the early morning and watching it wake up. I like to be out before the dust-bins have been emptied and the blinds pulled up, to watch the street cleaners and caretakers arrive, and to see the first wave of the day’s workers in buses and on bicycles. — H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Italy (1964)

I love this too, and based on comments from others, I am not alone in this traveling habit.

The question for me is why…? Why do I love this ritual so much that is has gone from an enjoyment to an actual need, whenever I travel, even if I’m in a city I’ve seen before? I need my early morning photo walk, my commune with the city, to feel like I have really experienced it.

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Just me and gli uccelli on the Ponte Vecchio, 
early summer morning in Florence.

Last summer, after spending a handful of days in Sorrento — enough time to explore beyond the main piazze and have plenty of walks throughout the city, I departed with a tiny nag of disappointment upon realizing that I never had my morning photo walk. The one early walk I did have was rushing to catch the ferry to Positano — during which I was both late and lost — thus a much different experience than the peaceful, cool, mindful morning walk I crave.

One thing I realize I seek, in any travel experience, is authenticity. Finding those little authentic moments that pull you into the folds of everyday life, wherever you might find yourself. If your visit is (understandably) all tourist attractions and rushing from one must-see spot to the next, without the opportunity to discover a deeper layer of the city, one sure way to experience authenticity is to watch a city wake up around you. Residents on their way to work (or, on their way home from the night before!), fruit and vegetables delivered in crates ready to be crafted into the day’s deliciousness, men and women sweeping and washing their little patch of street in front of the shop that’s been in their family for years, maybe even centuries. This is the quiet, but fleeting, heartbeat of a city.

Again, Morton writes, “The ancient Roman recipe for cleaning marble with damp sawdust is used in [Milan’s] Galleria just as it is at daybreak in St. Peter’s in Rome. The returning traveller, indeed anyone who entered a friend’s house in ancient Rome before the household was up, would have seen the slaves scattering sawdust on the marble floors and sweeping it up as men do today all over Italy, the unchanging routine of a land of marble floors.”

And I do suppose, it’s these little moments of ordinary — the taking out of trash, the washing of tiles in one’s little plot of world, the quick but loving greeting to a neighbor, the acceptance of the day’s fresh-from-the-farm offerings — these moments that have been taking place every morning, century after century, mean something to me. It’s these snapshots of everyday life, translated just a bit differently in each different culture, that remind me that in our tiny differences, we are also the same.

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