Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. – Gustave Flaubert
I can’t profess to be a great world traveler, but the travel I have done, albeit much of the time spent in a van on an interstate or Italy’s Autostrade, has taught me a lesson or two on human nature. Not unlike those early travelers discussed by Joan Pau Rubies in Travel Writing and Ethnography, I find myself looking for what intellectuals after the Renaissance sought as “universal human truths,” characteristics which appear to transcend culture, ethnicity and nationality.
An interesting phenomenon occurred on our first tour of Italy when I was pregnant with my daughter. I wasn’t showing at the time, and I didn’t feel inclined to tell people we met that I was pregnant. But one evening, after turning down many glasses of wine and cups of espresso, I decided to spill my secret. Up to this point, everyone had been very kind; but upon learning of my pregnancy, they became incredibly protective. I was treated like a delicate prize, cautioned about my lively dancing on stage, and I could no longer lift a guitar without people rushing to my assistance. They wanted to know my plans for after our tour when my child was born. Our tour manager, Carlo, boasted about Italy’s maternity leave law which offers 5 months of leave at 80% of the woman’s salary. The salary is paid through the social security system rather than the woman’s employer, so even a self-employed musician like myself would be eligible.
As a self-employed United States citizen, however, footing my own healthcare bills and maternity leave, I was compelled to continue working as long as the doctor and I saw fit, which was right up until the last two weeks of my pregnancy. After our return from Italy we were scheduled to travel to Texas. On this tour there was no question as to my condition, unless you follow Dave Barry’s advice and don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant until you see the baby’s head coming out. Most of the people I met didn’t follow Dave Barry’s advice. Men were chivalrous, women mothered me, and children gazed in awe at the round protrusion that would one day be a baby.
Our accordion player, Kevin, a New Jersey native who kept the van running in terms of mechanics and wheels on the road, was notorious for wanting to put a certain amount of miles behind us between stops. He could become quite impatient when unscheduled stops were requested and grudgingly waited in the van as various biological or personal errands were run, twitching until the wheels of the van were rolling once again. My pregnancy evoked a change in him, and a new found patience was born to accommodate my ever shrinking bladder. He would even check in periodically, calling out, “last exit for 20 miles, anyone need a rest stop?” Our Jersey friend wasn’t the only one on the lookout for me. In travel plazas on I-10 and I-20, lines at the restroom would part to let me pass with sympathetic, “You need it more than I do,” remarks as I made my way to the toilet. Women would smile maternally when I wobbled by and men would fall over themselves to help me move my gear.
This protective behavior on both sides of the Atlantic struck me as one of those “universal truths” about humanity that some early travel writers were searching for. Granted, I only tested my theory in two countries, four if you count New Jersey and Texas. But survival of the species depends on the protection of expecting mothers. It seems they weren’t just adopting me, they were adopting the creation of life itself. Just as Rick Steves in Travel as a Political Act explains how at fourteen he felt a sense of common humanity when he stood among Gustav Vigeland’s statues in Frogner Park, realizing that the world was full of parents who love their kids just as much as his parents loved him, I came to understand that a pregnant woman tugs at the maternal and paternal heart strings of human beings the world over. It was a humbling experience to be looked after in this manner. And while at times I found the attention a bit stifling, I realized that it wasn’t really about me; it was human nature looking after its young.
Mark Twain said, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And so, for those who would vegetate in this little U. S. of A, let me say that not only do Italians make a fine cappuccino and have beautiful fruits and veggies for sale in open air markets, they love pregnant women as much as folks in Texas and New Jersey, and they provide a maternity leave of five weeks at 80% of their salary to nurture and protect them