Back in the States

May 20, 2012

What do you get when you cross an ex-circus performer with the Italian countryside?

I don’t even know where to begin.  I spent the entire month of April backpacking in Europe, and it was a really eye-opening experience.  I learned a lot, and now that I’ve been back in the States for a few weeks, I’m ready to write about what I saw, felt, and did in Europe.  I wanted to give myself and my thoughts a little incubation time, so that I’d write only about the things that really stuck.  That said, here, in no particular order, are the lessons that have really stuck (and will stick) with me from my trip.

1.  The internet has really made the world smaller.  One of my first stops was a fairly small city in Tuscany called Arezzo.  I was lucky enough to be staying with a friend studying physical theatre there, and so I had access to a kitchen, a lovely apartment, and a friendly face to show me around.  Under those circumstances, I really just tried to soak up what it would be like to live in Italy – Arezzo is not a particularly famous town or major tourist destination, so I spent 4 days being a regular at a coffee shop, reading the paper, buying groceries at the market, and speaking Italian.  On my last day, the barista at “my” coffee shop, a really friendly guy named Stefano, said “A domani!” (“see you tomorrow!”).  I explained that I was leaving town that evening, and wouldn’t be back, and without missing a beat, Stefano said “Scrivime il tuo nome, e facciamo amicizia su Facebook” (“write down your name for me, and we can be friends on Facebook”).  Of course, I know that Facebook is everywhere, but this was a totally unexpected (and thoroughly charming) turn of events.  The “find us on Facebook” signs that are ubiquitous in the USA are ubiquitous abroad, and proved to be a good way of keeping track of some of the places I went and people I met on the trip.  Which brings me to my next point:

2.  What makes travel meaningful is your attitude.  Travel isn’t a panacea for your troubles, nor is the act of entering a foreign country automatically going to expand your worldview, because mostly, people in other countries are like people in your country: they go to work, they have families, they have the same basic needs that we all do.  Yes, there are differences from one culture to another in terms of how exactly they meet those needs, but at the root of it, people are people.  So the thing about travel is that it expands your worldview to the degree that you allow it to, to the degree that you welcome and engage the world around you.  It’s not so much that people or things are so radically different, it’s that every day you’re traveling, you are saying “yes” to new experiences, talking to strangers, and actively seeking out the best a city has to offer.  And here’s the kicker, folks: that’s something you can do at home.  The mind-blowing, world-expanding effects of travel can be had whether you travel or not.  Just be present, be friendly to, and interested in, strangers (even in your town, there are people with radically different life experiences to yours), and go out with an open mind, hoping to learn something new.

3.  People are basically good.  When you travel, particularly when you travel to a place where you don’t speak the local language, you will have to rely on the advice of strangers.  You have to ask for help with all kinds of things, from locating a toilet (or even figuring out what the local word for “toilet” is) to reading a menu, to catching your train.  After I left Italy (the only place on my trip where I had a real command of the language or knowledge of the culture) I found myself asking for help daily, and virtually without exception, it was offered freely, with a smile.

4.  No man is an island.   The flip-side to that last one.  No matter how independent or self-sufficient you conceive yourself to be, you really can’t get by without other people.  This is true both from a practical perspective (navigating a foreign city, as above) but also in terms of socialization.  After a month on the road, the things I remember most clearly and most fondly are the times shared with others, whether they were friends from the States, strangers, or fellow travelers.  It’s people – community – that give the sights and museums context and value.  I spent four hours at the Louvre, and don’t remember it nearly as well as the dinner I shared with a couple of French backpackers (cooked on their camp stove on the roof of the hostel) one night in Salerno.  The dinner was simple, and the conversation, which ranged from a lesson on French geography to questions about America’s health care policy, was spirited and engaging.  Those moments – the human ones – are the things that stick with you.

5.  We take so many things for granted.  About two weeks into my trip, I stayed in a beautiful, luxurious hotel in the Swiss Alps.  It was my first time in a serious hotel since I left the United States; up to that point, I had been sleeping in cheap motels, hostels, or on people’s couches.  I had been doing my laundry by hand in hotel sinks and wearing it the next morning, still a little damp as I walked around for more than twelve hours each day.  So, when I arrived at the hotel in Switzerland, the first thing I did was take a long, hot bath.  I have never enjoyed a bath more in my entire life, and I doubt I ever will.  Similarly, when, two days later, I arrived in Paris and discovered my hostel had a laundry room, I was actively excited.  Seriously.  Travel has a way of really putting your priorities in perspective.  It reminds you of what you take for granted and makes you appreciate what you have.

Feedback: Those are the top five lessons I learned from traveling abroad, alone, for a month.  What have you, the reader, learned from any travel experiences you’ve had?  Leave a comment below with your best story, best tip, or best lesson from the road!

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