Aside from the cheese and the red wine, the French grandmother sitting next to me on the plane and I had only a few things to bond over: namely brown bears and my desire to speak French.
With my Humanities I professor soundly asleep on my right, Marie-Liesse and I talked at great length: an impressive feat of linguistic choreography given my limited vocabulary. After finally figuring out that she had seen three bears in Yosemite, the conversation turned to a dreaded subject: politics.
I quickly went through a French version to explain how my government's actions did not reflect my own political views, an explanation I had perfected in Italian while learning how to ask girls to dance and ride on my hypothetical Vespa.
Marie-Liesse smiled soothingly, and the conversation turned back to what animals she had seen. She also told me of her children and her grandchildren, and then fell asleep.
Later in the airport, she handed me a note for which I would be teased throughout the rest of the trip. On it was her phone number, her address in Orléans, and a standing invitation to stay at her home.
I was glad that she had gone to the United States, ordered French fries and shown us that France was not wholly made up of beret-wearing, jazz-listening socialists who spewed cigarette smoke and contempt for our country. I was glad I had had the chance to convey a different America.
In my month in Rome, I met quite a few characters: the affectionately nick-named "wine wench" who sold wine out of metal vats; the would-be host who wanted to wrestle me; the Italian b-boy with whom I traded both vulgar vocabulary and dance moves.
Behind these people and experiences, the underlying lesson was a reaffirmation that governments and politicians might do one thing, but behind them are currents of people who can be engaged on the simple level of curiosity and human interest, in the simple joy of discovering something new and different.
In this, I found hope for our ability to unite behind human kindness, to stand for mutual respect and compassion. I found hope for our ability to come together as humans - bringing the bears with us, of course.