Italy — 1st day – Leg 1
Stand and be a hero. Some days it can feel like standing up on your own two feet without falling over is an act of personal heroics. However, the difference between standing against something and standing for something depends on your intention.

I wake up exhausted. I may have gotten four hours of sleep before we woke up and left for the airport. Despite my best-laid plans, I forgot to download movies for streaming on my laptop. I have things to read and work on, but on a long flight, options mean everything.

I was up late worrying that I had forgotten something. Because I always think I have forgotten something because usually, I end up forgetting at least one thing. It’s more than just last-minute packing which I am also guilty of doing.

Be Present

But my problems were not just about packing or forgetting things. I was multitasking instead of enjoying and focusing on my trip. I had written a review draft that I needed to finish. I also had to record a podcast segment for an episode I had sent the week before.

I wasn’t paying attention to the format and now my editor could not download the files. And these were the things I was focusing on.

We waited at our gate for the flight departing from San Francisco International Airport. I get a large Peet’s latte and a breakfast sandwich before we board. A matter of minutes after we take our seats Tracy is watching a movie she downloaded on her phone and I take out my phone and start jotting notes.

I write down the pages for a new draft, make notes for this post, then my next podcast, and I then pick up a collection to read when my brain needs the break. But my notes for the game continue to interrupt my concentration on the story and eventually I stop reading and just write.

In a few hours, I will land in Philadelphia and try to touch base with Jabari about the game and what is next on the horizon. This won’t actually happen because a few things would get in the way. There was a shuttle to grab and a story to hold and the night was long and I was running for the next gate.

I get hungry a lot when I travel. This means on top of the protein bites meal I had on the plane, I stop to get a Buffalo Bleu panini at a sandwich shop. I promise myself that my body will punish me for it later.

When You Can’t Stand

Leg 2
We board the next flight and departed Philadelphia for Rome at 6:20 p.m. EST. Within 30 minutes of our flight, the passenger in front of me slams back his seat. I’m lucky enough to move the one knee before it gets crushed. After three surgeries that knee struggles through long flights.

I tried to put it up against the seat to buy a little legroom. Maybe I think it will convince the guy in front of me that my being taller means that my legs will naturally interfere with his desire to recline. Likewise, his trying to get comfortable will cause me harm.

But then I looked around. It felt like the people around me were just waiting for me to give up and be as uncomfortable as they looked. So I stopped and he stopped. Sort of.

He backed off for about 30 minutes and then midway through the dining course the seat came all the way back. I moved my legs out to the side so they would not get hit and then pulled them back in so people in the aisle would not trip over them. Then I moved them back again. This would be my process for the next nine hours.

Homeland Heroes

However, even though I was leaving America, Americans were traveling on this flight and many others were already at my destination. I would see more of this when we landed. There would be ugly Americans who would be rude and entitled. Some would treat us badly to compensate for a personal shortcoming.

But knowing it and expecting it maybe we could make the difference. Just as we could hope and that some fellow travelers will be kind and helpful. We couldn’t control how we were treated but we could control how we responded.

So there I sat watching DC’s Justice League — more about that here — with the headrest holding my viewing screen about 18 inches from my chest. Looking down at an angle to avoid straining my neck, I avoided getting angry. I focused on heroes. I thought about heroes and characters who have had it worse.

I thought about baby Perseus tossed in a box for his mother’s crime of falling in love, rolling across deep water waves in a tighter space than I was experiencing. I thought about Romeo dying in front of his Juliet and realizing that his decision has cost them both and cost their families a chance at true love, and maybe even happiness. I think of Othello slowly betrayed again and again.

It’s comic books where I found so many examples of heroes outside of the Bible stories in Sunday School that my pre-teen mind already memorized. So, I continue to think of superhero tragedies and sufferings. I try to think of others who had it worse, or who took on challenges bigger than my current struggles.

I think about Superman. I think about the people who say he is too boring. I think about the sadness of Superman. I think Superman is one of the hardest characters I have ever read or considered writing.

His daily realization is that he did not do enough and that he could have done more. The problem that I see, is that he has a moral code. He could do more if he was not bound by human laws.

Superman-Cosmos

But he is. It’s part of the symbols he represents and the identity he has embraced. It reflects the values that were the foundation for his upbringing. It’s the limitation that he has placed on himself by agreeing to live up to the ideals that he believes are a value to others. That value is more important than his feelings — let alone his wants.

Standing for Others

Then I think about consideration and being considerate. I think of the science experiment involving elephants and other animals. Their ability to put themselves in the mind, body, or shoes of another demonstrates the ability to believe in God.

It is called the Theory of Mind. The theory posits that the capacity to see the world from another being’s point of view is a line of separation. It means the ability to think of others and how our actions can affect them is related to a belief in God. The elephants suggest an awareness of others and the ability to conceive of a higher power.

So I scan through the list of movies available on my headrest viewing screen and find the Marvel movies, and put on Captain America. By now my knees and hips are tight and swelling. The cabin lights are off to allow people to sleep.

I take a chance to pause the movie and walk back to the flight attendant station. I ask for a cup of coffee and commit to not worrying about sleep. I walk back to my seat, tilt the screen up, plug in my headphones, and watch the movie while standing in the aisle and sipping my coffee.

Inspiring Heroes

And then my favorite scene from Captain America makes me pause, and my eyes well up with tears. Dr. Erskine the man in charge of the super-soldier program interviews a skinny 92-pound kid named Steve Rogers and asks him if he wants to kill Nazis as a soldier in World War II.

“I Don’t Want to Kill Anyone. I Don’t Like Bullies. I Don’t Care Where They Are From.”

Steve Rogers — Captain America: The First Avenger

Steve answers that he doesn’t want to kill anyone. He wants to fight because he doesn’t like bullies.
This matters later when the commanding officer played by Tommy Lee Jones throws a dummy grenade amongst the best and the brightest recruits after saying to Erskine that you don’t win wars by being nice. When the grenade strikes the ground, everyone scatters and Rogers leaps on top of it.

So I think about my size and appearance — I’m 6’4″ and over 200 pounds —and how it can make me look to others. I know that my best recourse is to think about the person in front of me. I start thinking about how I can be better for him. Unless I am willing to put myself in their shoes and think about what is happening to them How can they be willing to think about me?

Touchdown. My clock says 2 a.m. because my phone is set to airplane mode. It will stay there until I reach our first WiFi connection.
I’ve been awake since the alarm went off at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning.
The sky is gray. As we drop lower through fog and mist I feel disconnected and a little dreamy.

Roman walls still stand

Leg 3
We make it through customs despite my getting lost using the bathroom and then trying to find Tracy. Sometimes I’m just a hazard. I know heroes sometimes feel this clumsy but I never remember it in moments like these.

Then we meet Stefano, who Tracy arranged for us weeks ago, at the airport and he drives us to the Rome Termini train station. Stefano is great. He has graying black hair, glasses and an olive corduroy jacket over his dress shirt. He is proud of his country and talks of its history like an aficionado. He tells us that the city was once only the property within the old Roman walls, which is now called the City Centre.

After WWII, Rome expanded its borders to include what were once small croppings and villages and countryside. This expansion changed the landscape of what had been traditionally known as Rome, but it also reflected the values that Rome maintained during its expansion.
We talked with Stefano about arches and aqueducts before and after we passed through the dark red city walls. They were ancient. Some parts looked like crumbling sandstone and others looked firm and unbreakable. He told us that originally there were only four entrances to the city center, among them the Appian Way, the first official Roman road. And then he told us that we would see many areas where there would be nothing but land. We came upon a field to our right. It was littered with trees and he said that the entire area of undeveloped land contained catacombs that date to 2 BCE.

Obelisk-Rome-Italy
The Egyptian Obelisk through the window of Stefano’s car.

Then we saw the obelisk from Egypt. One of 13 ancient obelisks in the city, this was the biggest.
When Stefano dropped us off at the train station, he mentioned that the modern structure was the pet project of Roberto Mussolini. Then he looked back with a smile and said, “Do you know Mussolini?” Tracy and I chuckled.
After some confusion involving the train schedule and platform locations, we purchased our tickets for Italo Treno, destination Firenze SMN — Florence.

I love how comfortable and polite the trains are here. The seats are comfy and include ample legroom with a footrest, a charging station, tray table, personal garbage receptacle, and a reclining seat. When we were twenty minutes into our departure, a cart came by offering coffee, tea, crackers, and biscuits. It was easier than our plane service had been.

Coffee-Crackers-Biscuit-Train-Tray-Table
Fancy a Snack?

When we departed and were on our way, the PA announced in Italian and then in a polite British accent that the train did not allow smoking, you were encouraged to turn down the volume on your personal device and that you could contact the train manager at any time if you did not have a ticket but wished to continue your journey.  Upon arrival at the Firenze-SMN station, there was a new reminder regarding the approaching station and encouraging you to remember all of your items as you prepare to depart.
It was so polite I am going to let you listen to the recording here.

The train pulled into our stop and we prepared to spend our next three days surrounded by wonder. There would be more chances to stand if continued to think of others.


About the Storyteller

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Seth Singleton believes in a common thread that connects us all. In the end, everyone has a story to tell.

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