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Letters Home from the 1996 International Congress of Entomology in Italy

Editor’s note: The author, Tom Sappington, attended four different International Congresses of Entomology, from 1996-2008, and sent hand-written letters home during each of them. The following, the first part of four, is unedited text from his trip to Florence, Italy for the 1996 Congress.

By Tom Sappington


Tom Sappington

As a professional entomologist, I have been blessed with opportunities to visit many places I otherwise might never have seen, often for the purpose of swapping news of discoveries with other entomologists. Entering into another’s discovery as he/she describes it is essentially an experience of traveling to a new place. We see through their eyes the new thing they have uncovered, and feel that sense of “Oh, that’s it, that’s right” when a new insight about nature hits home. As scientists, we tend to exult in travel for the same reasons we exult in the science we do. Wherever we go, and especially when it is a place we have not seen before, we bring our scientist’s eyes to the scenes before us, approaching each with an eagerness to really see them, to see into them. We cannot help ourselves. Purposeful observing is what scientists do.

I have been to four International Congresses of Entomology since my first one in Florence, Italy, in 1996. It also was my first trip overseas. Because we were parents of school-age children, my wife, Cynthia, could not go with me to that ICE, or the next two – Iguassu Falls, Brazil, in 2000, and Brisbane, Australia, in 2004. But I wanted her to see the exotic places I was in, to experience them with me, as if she was there. So I wrote her long, detailed, descriptive letters while on these trips. By 2008, we were empty-nesters, and she accompanied me to the ICE in Durban, South Africa. I still kept a travelogue for other family members who I knew would enjoy it. But, really, I kept it just as much for myself, because even while memories of feelings linger long, memories of the observations that generated them can fade swiftly.

I co-organized a symposium for the ICE in Daegu, South Korea, in 2012, but reluctantly cancelled my trip when a long illness forced me to stay home. I came out the other side of that unwanted adventure well-enough and was looking forward to the next ICE in 2016. At first, I was selfishly disappointed to learn it was going to be in the U.S. This feeling loitered in the back of my mind for an unseemly length of time, even though I recognized immediately what a priceless opportunity Orlando would be for young Americans to attend an ICE, which, if held far away, might have remained a dream deferred to a distant, uncertain future. At least that is how I felt as a grad student and early postdoc dreaming and waiting for my time.

Then one day I pulled out my old letters. In reading through them and seeing again through my younger eyes the scenes of the Congresses and the exotic places I was in, and feeling the old familiar resonances of discovery and adventure, it occurred to me that Orlando is actually quite an exotic place after all. It is a beautiful city, and Florida is as exotic and unfamiliar to me as anywhere else in the U.S. More importantly, I started imagining how Florida and the U.S. would look through the eyes of scientists from other parts of the world. Suddenly the anticipatory resonances began coursing through me again, and they are as strong now as they ever were before past Congresses. I can tell you, absolutely, it will be wonderful for you! Whether this is your first or tenth ICE, regardless of which hemisphere you are from, whether a beginning student or a professor emeritus – your visit to Orlando and the XXVth ICE will be wonderful. And it will be wonderful for me. I will be seeing it not only through my own eyes, but through the eyes of all of you who travel here from distant lands.

I hope you will find the following brief excerpts from the letters I wrote during past ICEs entertaining. Beyond that, they are my offering of thanks and welcome to each of you in the global community of entomologists for coming to Orlando and bringing with you your unique eyes, the eyes of a scientist, the eyes of an explorer. It will be wonderful for us all…


En route to Florence, Italy, Friday, 8-23-96, 5:31pm: I’m on the plane getting ready to leave for Paris, then on to Florence… I am sitting next to a young engineering student from France, just out of high school. He asked me politely why I was going to France, and I told him I was actually going to Italy for an International Congress of Entomology. It didn’t seem to register – they must have a different word for entomology in French. “You know ‘entomology’?” No. “Umm, you know, ‘insects’?” Puzzled look. “Uhhh, ‘bugs’ – I study bugs – six legs.” I made a crawling motion with my fingers. Light bulb goes on. “AIEHH! Bugs?! You study bugs?!” He couldn’t stop laughing (he tried for several minutes – ahh, the young are so innocent…). Nearby passengers turned their heads and craned their necks in our direction. Finally he caught his breath and said, “Zeese eeze very strench!” “Yes, my mother-in-law thinks so too.”

Florence, Italy, 8-24-96, 9:15pm: Where do I even begin to describe this day? We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel on the other side of town. What a wild ride – like a stereotypical New York City taxi ride, only it’s worse because everyone else, including grandmas, are driving like New York City taxi drivers too – mopeds and minibikes everywhere zooming around, whipping in between cars, cars whipping in between other cars, people walking in the streets dodging cars and mopeds but mostly not caring and letting the cars whip around them at high speed, five and six roads entering bizarre intersections all at once with people trying to cross…

The jet lag seemed terrible to me… After a 1-hour nap I took a shower but there was no hot water – the cold water woke me up good though. Then Alex [Raikhel, my postdoctoral mentor] took me around to see Renaissance architecture, cathedrals, the Medici Palace, etc. It was incredible. I had seen photos in books before but flat on a page – nothing prepared me for the 3‑D reality: The streets full of people of every nationality and description. Sunlight and cloud shadows playing on the buildings and gigantic statues and courtyards and cathedrals and plazas and people. Such narrow streets, with the buildings separated from the pavement by only very narrow sidewalks. Pigeons on the ground everywhere with people of all ages and occupations coming by to feed them. Old couples sitting on benches under a grove of pine trees surrounded by the walls of buildings I don’t know how many centuries old. The cool breeze wafting down the chute of one of the narrow streets to blow my hair and evaporate the sweat on my face built up while walking along a south-facing row of walls that re-radiated the sun’s heat right through me. Sitting on the sidewalk at a table under umbrellas in a plaza as the sun went down and finishing my real Italian pizza as the moon rose over one of the spires of a medieval cathedral. The contrast of an old, old church from the Dark Ages, with its rough-hewn rock walls and almost windowless exterior, now with pigeons perched up its side on the regular rows of thin stone slabs protruding from the larger stones – to the unbelievably ornate 14th-century cathedral of smooth green and white marble covered with carved stone and iron, statues, mosaics, paintings, and golden panels reflecting the setting sun like mirrors….

Florence, Italy, Sunday, 8-25-96; 4:43pm: I’m sitting in an outdoor café in the plaza in front of the Medici Palace drinking a cappuccino. There are many people still on the streets even though it is Sunday night, many of them tourists of course. I went to the opening ceremony of the Congress – it was a big crowd, standing-room-only. The Congress President, an Italian insect taxonomist, gave the opening address on the History of Italian Entomology. It was presented in the manner of a devoted taxonomist, with detailed, complex academic genealogies of every Italian entomologist who ever lived (it seemed like) beginning in 300 something B.C. and going through each century – by the 20th, there were quite a few Italian entomologists, so he had to divide them up into “schools” of thought like the “Florence School” and the “Naples School” and the “Genoa School,” etc. After about an hour, it all culminated with his last slide of the “Rome School,” a hopelessly complex tree of Italian entomologists that he meticulously dissected for us.

E. O. Wilson’s plenary lecture was very entertaining. He described the adaptive radiation of insects at the end of the Carboniferous. “For one hour – just one hour with an insect net, back in time in the late Carboniferous, I would willingly spend a day (no more than that) in hell, or even 1 hour in JFK Airport.” I worked my way backstage afterwards, and asked if he would autograph my copy of his autobiography, The Naturalist, a gift from my dad. He sat on a bench and wrote in it absently while continuing to talk to someone else, drawing a little ant below his name.

The bell in the palace tower is tolling midnight and the waiter is stacking chairs, so I guess I better go. The last musician in the nearby courtyard has finished playing. Earlier there had been a violinist… Later a folk group performed, one guy on guitar, another playing big drums wrapped around his waist as he walked around. Lovers have been embracing in the plaza all evening. There are still people out, not wanting to go to bed – I don’t either but I have to. The waiters are polite but I have no doubt could get politely testy if I don’t get out of here.

Florence, Italy, Monday 8-26-96; 1:32pm: We rode the bus to the Congress this morning from our hotel. How do I describe the experience? Well, in all its essentials an Italian bus ride is exactly like an Italian taxi ride but in a vehicle 10 times as big and driven by a man even more confident of his prerogatives than a taxi driver (if that is possible) because he is in a machine that cannot possibly lose in a collision, except of course with another bus. So he flies down main roads, which we would classify as alleys, at 40-50mph, slows down to 30mph to turn sharp corners, pulls up to within a foot or so of the bumper of a car in front that makes the mistake of slowing him down… He slams on the brakes at bus stops, then takes off again into traffic without checking to see if it’s clear, because if it’s not it soon will be.

I figured I must obviously be a foreigner to the impassive eyes of the Florentines, the way I was bouncing around like a pin ball on their city bus. But maybe not. A little old lady got on and was almost up the steps when the bus bolted out into traffic. Her eyes opened wide and her right hand flailed trying to reach some sort of support, her bag swinging off her shoulder and dangling around her left wrist. She lurched forward, forced to make quick movements a lady her age should not have to (and shouldn’t be able to) make. But she made it somehow to a semblance of stability instead of being slammed to the floor and trampled by the unwilling movements of the dancing feet of those hanging on around her. She got off about five minutes later, apparently unruffled, and walked off unperturbed down the street with an air of complete dignity. I think that’s actually how locals can spot a foreigner – he gets off the bus with his eyes still wide, head shaking in disbelief, mumbling something incoherent, and hands trembling slightly. The native Florentine did not expect any other kind of ride and thinks nothing of it.

Florence, Italy, Monday 8-26-96; 10:04pm: I’m listening to the same guy as last night playing the violin. He has long straight brown hair falling past his shoulders, wearing a bright green long-sleeve cotton shirt, not tucked in, a black vest, long chocolate brown pants, and sandals. I’m leaning against a pillar over 500 years old and letting the music soak in. Many students walk by or pause to listen for a minute or sit on the plaza steps. A Japanese family crowded close to him, taking photos. Satisfied, they turned and left, a grandma, mom and dad, two young boys and a little girl. They walked quite a ways, then turned around to see their eldest teenage daughter still standing and listening – never noticed they had gone….

Florence, Italy, Tuesday 8-27-96, 9:33pm: Bus Exploit of the Day Award: I was walking back to the hotel along the river after the meetings, around 6:30, when I heard the clopping of a horse coming up behind me down the narrow one-way street. There are a lot of horse and buggies around giving rides to tourists, with some of the drivers dressed as if from the 1800s, but others dressed however they want – like with Hawaiian shirts and loafers. As the horse trotted past, I saw that right behind the buggy was a bus creeping along a few feet from its rear, followed by a little car and a milling swarm of motorbikes jockeying for position. There was a certain electricity in the air, and I sensed something important was about to happen. As the throng entered a slightly wider portion of the road, the bus driver gunned it and roared past the buggy with at least six inches to spare on either side. The car and the motorbikes simultaneously gunned their respective engines and passed each other weaving in and out as they overtook the buggy right behind the bus. The noise and clouds of exhaust were spectacular. The good Italian horse seemed not to notice anything….

Florence, Italy, Monday 9-02-96; 8:00am: Well, the Congress is over. I haven’t written the last few days because all my spare moments were occupied either with preparing for my talk, which I knew was too long by about 3 or 4 minutes and had to be shortened, or networking. I spent my last night in Florence in my favorite places. I ate dinner (a pizza) at the café in the quiet square under the glowering stare of Dante (I wonder where he is now?…). Three kids played soccer in the square, with their dad as goalie, until a wild shot came bouncing loudly into the café, rolling among the tables and they called it quits. After dinner, I walked to the long rectangular plaza where I hoped to find the folk singers. They were there and I stood and watched and listened for over an hour, not wanting to leave, because, once I did, I would never hear them again…. I saw many beautiful things in Florence: sculptures, frescoes, paintings, domes, mosaics, a palace, courtyards, cathedrals, ancient coins, metalwork, medieval armor and weapons. And my jaw dropped more than a few times as I looked at art that no human should be able to produce. And I could appreciate the beauty and the history and the feel of oldness and time in objects held and molded by human hands so long ago and created by human minds and eyes and fingers and hearts from a distant, alien, but somehow familiar age, made more familiar by standing in the same halls and courtyards and climbing the same steps to look out over the city from the same windows with eyes and brains and minds coded by the same, albeit shuffled, DNA….

But only one thing in all of Florence sent chills through me, and that was the folk band. This was a group of friends whose members came and went to provide percussion background for the two lead singers whose voices exploded out from their average-sized bodies into the night air to echo and resonate through the box canyon of stone pillars and statues and walls, mixing with the chords of the guitar, creating patterns of timbre and rhythm and overtones that can rival any sculpture or painting or mosaic for pure beauty. But they must create over and over again each night, with the finished product vaporizing every time into the cool night air – but not, this time, before it sent chills through the American… So I spent my last free hour in Europe leaning against a pillar and listening and watching the musicians, and I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, placing the moment carefully in memory lest I should ever forget….

Thomas W. Sappington is a research entomologist with the USDA-ARS and a collaborator professor at Iowa State University in the Department of Entomology. He is an insect ecologist, with a primary interest in dispersal and migratory behavior of agricultural pests. The views reflected in this article are solely Tom’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARS, the Department of Agriculture, or the United States government.

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