As I begin my NIAUSI Fellowship, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity. During the next two months, I know I will be meeting people whose lives, on the surface at least appear to be very different from my own. How difficult will it be to connect, and what, if anything, will serve as that connector? Language? Food? Temperament?

On my way east, I stopped for a few days in Washington, D.C. to help settle our daughter in at American University where she’s beginning her studies in the School of International Service. During the welcome ceremony, one of the speakers cautioned against defining oneself too closely or tightly by any one characteristic (gender, race, religion, nationality, etc) no matter how important you deem it to be in your life. His reasoning was that by identifying too closely to any one signifier you risk the danger of it becoming your only defining quality. Then, he said, it becomes “all about you.”

At the other extreme, of course, is as global travel broadens our lives and way of living, we lose a bit of each of our separate cultural identities along the way. Changing dollars to Euros instead of lire felt like one small but obvious reminder. Then when I landed in Rome, I was struck by how many of the signs were offered in English. Many were in Italian and English but a fair number were English only. In a remote location like Civita I wondered how these cultural and economic pressures to reach out to as many people as possible might play out.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out. I opened the New York Times Style magazine to discover this fashion ad for the Italian brand Brunello Cucinelli.

I keep imagining the camera crews knocking over the Italian nonnas on the bridge to get that perfect shot of the supermodels. Maybe there’s more that connects us than we think. Oh, and if anyone can figure out the meaning of the tagline, please let me know what it is.

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