By: Philip Richardson
I was 32 years-old when I took my first trip outside of the United States.
I boarded an evening flight from John F. Kennedy airport — on the Indian airliner Jet Airways — which landed in Brussels the next morning, where to my surprise, signage and announcements were all made in French, Dutch, and eventually, English. Here was the Europe I had spent an entire academic life reading about. As a teenager I was self-proclaimed history-buff who enrolled in A.P. history courses well beyond the requirements needed for my high school diploma. To put it another way, I was in nerd heaven.
From Brussels, I made a connection that landed in Milan, to spend two weeks with an architectural historian I befriended while doing laundry in South Brooklyn. His apartment in Bruzzano, a neighborhood in the northeast of Milan, was once a fifteenth century castle that was now converted into several apartment units.
From there I purchased economy airfare to Sicily, visiting Palermo, and heading to Venice via train.
My eyes were opened to the Old World when I stepped foot onto Italian soil. History permeated the Roman columns and aqueducts of Milan, the Norman castles of Palermo and the Piazza San Marco of Venice. I had stepped out of the pages of my history books, onto the very soil that cradled the feet of Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Silvio Berlusconi.
"It was my first personal experience with the double consciousness about which W. E. B. DuBois wrote, and so many African-American travelers speak of. I stepped into a forgetfulness that allowed me to be something more than just my race."
A lot of what I experienced was familiar. Getting around Milan was easy thanks to its buses, light rail, and subway system. The very same things I use to get around in New York, Chicago or San Francisco. I ate finger food from street vendors while strolling through parks. I went to art galleries, ran into fashionistas, witnessed random quarrels between lovers, and even had breakfast at McDonald’s (although they don’t serve egg McMuffins).
For the first time in my life began to feel like a citizen of a whole world. The Italians I met were intrigued by my Americanness, and my Blackness. They were not afraid of me. My humanity was never questioned. I learned to let my guard down and truly be seen.
It was my first personal experience with the double consciousness about which W. E. B. DuBois wrote, and so many African-American travelers speak of. I stepped into a forgetfulness that allowed me to be something more than just my race. It was a moment, perhaps the first, when I walked the Earth not as a black man. At least not in the vilified and adversarial ways its experienced in the United States. It’s a strange moment when you finally experience a comfort around total strangers who see you in similar ways as you see yourself.
Philip is a freelance journalist, photographer and news assistant for The New York Times. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Dallas, Texas. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of arts degree in Africana Studies, he is currently living in New York City and is an M.A. candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate School of Journalism.