Travel photos, travel memories

 

1 Jim Flege 1970

Jim Flege in the winter of 1969-1970 in Frascati, Italy, while he was a student at the Rome Center for the Liberal Arts

When you travel, how many cameras do you pack and how many pictures do you take? Do you enjoy your trips more when take photos? Once you’ve returned home, how many photos do you share with friends and family? And how often, in the following years, do you return to your photos to enjoy anew your earlier trip?

Questions like these yield a wide range of different answers because people have differing ideas of how best to take their pleasures. Does eating one chocolate per day from the box yield more pleasure than gobbling them all down in a single frenzied session? Some would say yes, but …

These questions were triggered by the unexpected arrival of the photo you see at the right. It was taken by a friend when we were both “junior year abroad” students in Rome (Rome Center for the Liberal Arts, Loyola University Chicago).  “Too bad”, she observed”, “that we didn’t have digital cameras back then.”

2 Frascati station train

Frascati is connected to Rome by a light comuter rail line.

I am not sure if she was referring to the quality of the photo, which was a bit grainy, or to the fact that developing photos back then was prohibitively expensive for most student budgets, meaning that few photos were printed. I was delighted, of course, to have gotten a digital copy of the photo, which was taken in the winter of 1969-1970. When it arrived, I asked myself why I hadn’t taken my own photos during that year. This triggered the first of several recollections. I remembered myself expressing the opinion that it is better to travel without than with a camera.

3 Villa Aldobrandini

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati, Italy

Huh!? What was I thinking? My reasoning, as best I can now reconstruct it now, went like this. People who know they won’t have photos to rely on in the distant future will dedicate more attention during a trip to what they are actually seeing, looking longer and deeper in order to “burn into” their memory what they hope to remember later on.

I’m not sure if this approach really does result in the creation of richer and more durable memories. At least that seems to have been the explanation I gave myself for not taking pictures during my junior year abroad. The real reason, however, was probably that I didn’t have enough money to afford a camera or develop the pictures I might have taken.

Most people who take pictures on a trip will on occasion ask themselves “Where was this photo taken?” (The question has, of course, provoked many a marital battle.) I wasn’t sure initially where the photo of me as a 19-year-old had been taken, but gradually I began to recall bits and pieces of information. With these fragmentary recollections and information I garnered on the internet I reconstructed the context in which the photo had been taken.

Here’s what I think happened. Those present feel free to correct my recollections.

4 itineraryi
The archaeological park we visited is roughly 4.5 km to the West of Frascati

We took a commuter train from Stazione Termini in Rome to Frascati. The purpose of the trip, as I recall, was to visit Cicero’s villa on the “Tusculum Hill”. I don’t remember who suggested this destination but I’m sure I was enthusiastic because I had studied Latin in high school and spent a lot of time translating Cicero.

Once we arrived in Frascati, I’m sure we had a brief look at the Villa Aldobrandini from the outside. It is unlikely we entered because our general strategy was to avoid doing anything that involved spending money. We then followed a curving road that passed to the left of the Villa Aldobrandini, walking in a westerly direction for 4.5 km until we reached what is now an archaeological park (Parco Archeologico Culturale di Tuscolo – La Via Latina) but was then simply pastureland. There we saw an amphitheater built in the second century A.D. with room for 3,000 spectators.

5 amphitheatre

A Roman amphitheater located outside Frascati, Italy

Nearly all of this is conjecture, inasmuch as I have few specific recollections. The lack of specific information seems to belie the claim I made as a youth, namely that the absence of a camera promotes the creation of rich memories. I now agree with my friend that it would indeed have been nice to have had a digital camera back then. If I had gone to Frascati with my present smart phone, I’d now have access to the exact GPS coordinates of all the photos I took and could even listen to notes I recorded as I took them.

However, as I continued to ponder the photo, additional memories began to emerge. I retrieved several images of our walk: a yellow sign with brown letters that pointed us towards our destination, and a section of the road we walked, curving upward and to the right, thick vegetation on either side. I have no recollection of actually seeing the amphitheater, but I do remember how crisp and clear the day was, and I remember the sounds of shotguns as local “sportsmen” blasted away at small black birds.

6 anfiteatro_Tuscolo

The Roman amphitheater outside Frascati, Italy

Now, 42 years after the fact, I know that we did not actually visit Cicero’s villa in the Castelli Romani. Historians are quite certain that the Cicero’s beloved villa was located within the limits of the modern day cities of Grottaferrata, Frascati and Monte Porzio Catone but its exact location remains uncertain. One local writer suggests that the most likely of three competing hypotheses is a site on the Colle delle Ginestre outside Grottaferrata, where it is said that “not so many years ago it was possible to see the ruins of an important Roman construction.”

7 basoli

A section of the Via Latina in the Archological Park near Frascati, Italy

Those vestiges are gone, probably having been sold by dealers in illegal antiquities or else incorporated into the gardens of the modern houses built over the Roman ruins. What does remain, however, are the political, social, and philosophical writings of Cicero.

What remains of my school outing four decades ago are the memories I managed to conjure up, a single photo, and a question of how best to immortalize trips in memory.

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About Jim Flege

Jim Flege carried out research on phonetic aspects of second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an American university. He moved to Italy after retiring and lives with his Italian wife and their Jack Russell terrier in a small town in central Italy. Jim currently serves as the European Director of the Travel Learning Network, an organization provides educational and cultural immersion programs in Europe. You can reach Jim directly by writing to: director (at) www.travlearning (dot) net
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2 Responses to Travel photos, travel memories

  1. avatar Karen Smith says:

    Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it? There’s only have one specific thing that I remember from an introductory psychology class I took in college (long before digital photography). As I recall, we learned that if a person has a photograph of an event, his/her memories of the event are very specific to the photo — to the exclusion of everything else. So, according to this professor, your 20-something decision to travel camera-free was a solid one. Your memories of the day might be richer since you didn’t rely on a handful of photographs.
    Perhaps being treated, as you were, to an unexpected and long-forgotten photo to jog the memory is the best way to go.

    • avatar Jim Flege says:

      Thanks for this interesting observation, Karen. Perhaps looking at photos reinforces memories of what is visible in the photo, but has the opposite effect for elements that were part of the original scene but don’t show up later in the photo. When we take a photo we frame the scene, placing the “important” people (or events, or objects) near the center. Later, we may edit the photo, removing “unimportant” elements that seem to clutter the photo, further defining what the photo is “about” visually.

      What happens when we see a photo years after it was taken? Do the visible elements trigger old memories lurking just below the threshold of conscious access? Is the opposite true? That is, will faint memories of elements that were part of the original scene but are not visible in the old photo (e.g., a member of the group who was standing off to one side) become less accessible?

      I don’t know of any research bearing on these issue, but the notion of “suppression” of non-visible elements rings a bell. You may recall that 15 years ago when digital photo editing became widely accessible we began seeing “retouched” family photos. Ex-spouses had a way of disappearing from treasured family moments. Out of sight, and so OUT OF MIND.

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