What makes one travel experience more memorable than another? More pleasurable? Challenging? Just as three people who grow up together can have entirely unique memories and ideas about what their childhoods were like, the same can be said for solo travel- If I was experiencing this exact trip as the Christy of 2009 or 2005 or 1999, each one would be completely different. Weather, company, locations visited, emotional state, time of year, what happened right before departure, physical health, functionality of one’s camera and/or laptop all play a role in how my days go. I would like to say that I have achieved such a state of consciousness that any external occurrences would have no effect on my mood, or how I view a particular place that I’ve stayed- sure, any of us can say that we control our emotions, in theory. Yes, our intelligence tells us that we can turn a given situation around for the better, but in the moment, sometimes things are just generally crappy.
The point I’m getting at is I don’t want anyone thinking that I go away and don’t experience loneliness, or that each person I encounter is suddenly a lifelong friend, or that my depression goes away when I’m in another country. That simply isn’t true. I am here, living with another family and cleaning up their kitchen and eating meals with them and witnessing their arguments…and the last few days I have been depressed. I know, this is unorthodox– have you ever read a travelogue about a depressed person? Someone who feels a sense of isolation, inexplicable loneliness and blankness, and yet chooses to travel alone anyway? This is not a perpetual emotional state, of course, but the feelings are always there waiting in the wings, eager to creep up on me when I let my guard down, when I’m not keeping myself busy enough, when I don’t have enough contac t with certain loved ones, etc. This trip seems to have been a particularly challenging and introspective one. It’s the first time in a long time that I am actually looking forward to returning to New York, not scrambling around trying to figure out how I can stay longer. But it’s okay! Of course I love traveling, and I appreciate that I strive to plant myself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. For every positive experience in Italy, it seems like there have been at least five negative/stressful ones. I look back on those situations and shake my head, swearing that next time I really will do it better. At least they make moments like arriving at a lovely new host’s home or enjoying a particularly satisfying homecooked meal that much brighter.
If travel is a process that helps you ‘find yourself’, it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind- it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here, in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self. –Rolf Potts
And here’s an amusing picture from Prunecchio to lighten the mood a bit:
Travel intensifies the elements of a person’s nature- both fine and toxic- making them stand out more starkly than they ever do in the safe, regulated environment of home. When I travel alone, I can give the whole mixed bag full rein, without monitoring myself, making compromises, negotiating, or even talking. I am somehow better able to tap my thoughts and feelings. It is as if the stage clears, the background music fades, and I come forward. –Susan Spano
Okay guys, so listen. I’m not here to tell you all about the glamour of travel and how it’s blissful every minute. I’m also not saying it’s easy, or “better” than staying at home. In fact, solo traveling- and let’s insert “budget” into that description as well- is pretty much the opposite of all that. Sure, it’s fun and adventurous and inspiring and mind-expanding, but it’s also one of the most frustrating endeavors. It’s feeling as though no is on your side; it’s filled with body aches and ailing feet and not enough sleep and paying over a dollar just to use a bathroom. Just as when I first arrived in Bologna, my first two days in Florence proved to be a series of moments that I can’t wait to look back on and laugh over.
The SNAFUs began with my train ride from Bologna to here. I had intended to take the cheaper, 10 euro train that also took a moreslow, scenic route down into Tucany. Well, I somehow forgot about that whole notion and when I was standing at the ticket machine I booked the next available train. “Oh, this is one of the nice Eurostars!” I said to myself as I boarded, and to my dismay, a few minutes after we left the station we descended underground. Why would you want to sit on a nice comfortable train and stare out at zooming blackness as opposed to gorgeous countryside?? I lamented this in my journal, bemoaning that faster is not at all better, and at least contended that it would be nice to arrive in Florence while tt was still light out.
My hostel, booked for only the first night in the city, was colorful and expansive as promised, its walls filled with drawings, scribbling and notes left from other backpackers (in addition to beautiful murals and frescoes) I happily took part in my free dinner of a personal thin crust pizza with peppers and olives ( having craved pizza for nearly two weeks, I eschewed the other two choices of pasta or a salad) and then headed toward the historical center of town to explore. I’m pretty sure I knew I wanted a gelato or some such dessert, and I certainly hadn’t paid anything over 3 euros on my previous gelaterie visits. But of course, I found myself wandering through an overcrowded, tourist-filled area near the Duomo and so everything was more expensive. Also, I spotted and was immediately drawn to a little shop that not only sold gelato, but waffles, too. Ahh! The image of the cold, creamy milky gelato sitting atop the crispy, freshly made waffle was enough to block everything else from my mind. Plus they had my favorite flavor, strachiatella, first discovered on my first trip to Italy on a high school trip and not enjoyed since! I was sold. Then, to my surprise, The woman behind the counter even topped the gelato with *another* waffle on top, making a sweet, delightful dessert sandwich! I’m sure my eyes were at their widest and the tiniest bit of drool was collecting at the corner of my mouth. “10 euros”, she pronounced, and I had a second of hesitation but of course there my treat was, hypnotizing me and any rationale I’d previously possessed. I handed over my money and quickly found somewhere to sit down in order to properly enjoy the extravagance I’d bestowed upon myself. I settled on some steps opposite Giotto’s Campanile (the bell tower), and was so enraptured that I didn’t even think to take a picture until I was down to one waffle! I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads in disappointment and surprise, me, who doesn’t even let other people eat until I’ve photographed their plates! But it was soooooo delicious, and the gelato was melting along the sides and I had to lick it up, and here you go, that one (terribly lit) picture I was able to get:
So my friends, this is the beauty of traveling alone and being anonymous. You can make these ridiculous mistakes and laugh, and there’s no one there to make you feel even worse about it. You can shrug off whatever it is even faster. You can sit down in a historic piazza and make a mess of yourself as you attempt to eat your dessert with some amount of grace (and then give up). I smiled as I looked down on the cobblestone when I was done and saw all the white drops that I had left behind from my dripping gelato, and felt my stomach gurgling in satisfaction. Often I’ve said to myself, It doesn’t matter, I’m not going to care what anyone here thinks of me, and it’s a mantra that has worked pretty well so far. It worked when I broke my glasses in Bologna and I was walking around like a pirate, able to see clearly out of only one eye, and it’s working quite well here in Florence where I am allowing myself to spend a couple of hours in one cafe, taking advantage of their wifi when I am feeling lonely and disconnected from those I love. (That being said, I think my next post might be about the re-appreciation of home that travel inevitably brings).
One last point: I’ve noticed that I have said in multiple posts “Travel is this, it’s not this/difficulties/challenges/etc”. I realize this may be getting a bit repetitive, and I’m going to try and make the effort to highlight the positive from now on. This seems an especially vital task when my mood is low for more than two days, and my camera breaks and everything seems to be going wrong. This is a beautiful city– I love looking up and seeing all the arches and frescoes and statues everywhere, the detail in the architecture that shows what the Renaissance was all about. I love how it seems the whole city is an outdoor museum, and everywhere you look there’s some other palazzo or church or public work of art to appreciate. I love the panoramic view from the Piazzale Michelangelo, all the delicious pastries I’ve eaten for breakfast, and the nice loft I’ve been sleeping in. And not fifteen minutes ago, in the cafe where I have been a regular for the past four days, the barista wrote Good Morning in chocolate syrup on top of my cappuccino. This touched me so much I almost started to cry. Here and now, I open myself up to more of those unexpected moments.
We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can. Everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. –Rainer Maria Rilke
You know what? Travel isn’t just about rapture and adventure and new experiences and loneliness and getting sick. It’s mostly learning lessons, over and over again. You learn lessons about yourself, about your own country, about the way different families interact and operate, about the world as a whole, about fellow travelers, society, culture, courtesy, perspective, spending, and did I mention yourself?
I’m coming to realize that I travel in order to get an education. More specifically, I travel solo to get an education. This is all about me; if I don’t get up off that bench and figure out which bus I need to take, I’m not going anywhere. If I can’t communicate to the optometrist/shop owner/ticket seller/conductor, then I may as well just stay home, because otherwise I’m not going to accomplish anything. Being an awful self-critic and perfectionist, I’m constantly wishing I’d done certain things better, or with the savvy I expect myself to have after so many solo trips. Shouldn’t I no longer be so hesitant about approaching someone to see if they can help me? Shouldn’t I remember to validate my train ticket before boarding? Shouldn’t I make my sleep preferences known before spending four nights in an apartment where no one goes to bed before 1 or 2 AM? These examples of the last week are what I like to call my foibles. I can’t beat myself up about them, and I can’t dismiss them, either. All I can tell myself is Remember this, and act wiser next time.
Legendary travel writer Paul Theroux wrote “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect”, which quite sums up the two days right before I came to Dozza. I speak of my most glorious mishap thus far: my illness in the wee hours of last Sunday morning. If you’d like to skip ahead one paragraph down, this is where I discuss my stomach virus that did not even last twenty-four hours. Let me just say that I’m glad I was in a place with a working toilet, because I’m pretty sure I ran from my bed to the bathroom 8 or 9 times between 2 and 9 AM. Everyone has a travel story like this, right? It happened to me last year when I was in Costa Rica, but this episode was decidedly worse. I put off my departure from the city a few hours, sleeping for much of the rest of Sunday and nibbling on banana and crackers. Then, Mother Nature thought she might keep me in Bologna even longer; any train I might have taken that night was canceled due to snow. At that point, I was so done with Bologna that I wanted to scream JUST LET ME OUT OF HERE!! I wanted away from the sickness, away from the sleepless nights, away from all the cigarette smoke and crowds and sub-par graffiti ruining the beauty of the old architecture.
And so, I got on a train headed east first thing the next morning. This brings me to my next point of contention: my packing inabilities. There’s that old cliche, “pack half of what you think you need”, and I honestly thought I did that. Before I re-packed on Long Island, I had two dresses with me, now I had just one. Before I had thigh-high socks and long johns in addition to two pairs of super warm socks and leggings, and I definitely removed at least three pairs of pants from my backpack. Of course, the glaring difference on this particular trip was my laptop bag, filled with several things filed under the “just in case” category.
Here is where I leave you hanging, darling readers. You’ll hear about the farmhouse I’m in and my work here at the farm in the next post– and this time I’m keeping my promise, it will be later today. My new goal is to publish two blog posts a week, at the minimum- let’s hope I stick to it. Happy Sunday all!
“i have often felt called to journey by myself- and i’m not particularly brave, either…so many adventures speak to us when we travel alone. it’s as though the adventure takes the place of a person. stretch your traveling alone muscle. start with tiny trips, or leap into the glorious unknown of a big trip.
where have you always wanted to go?
don’t wait! travel alone…” –SARK
Ack! It pains me to do this, but I am writing the shortest post ever due to lack of discipline. Can’t someone turn off the rest of the Internet while I do blog stuff?
Today, you get one picture, with the promise of much more after I finish working tomorrow.
Dolci Sogni/Sweet Dreams!
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, the sky – all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.” -Cesare Pavese in The Comfort of Strangers
[This is a wonderfully accurate quote about travel except for one thing- sleep is one of those essential things that has on the whole proven difficult for me so far. I have allowed myself some leeway, given the six hour time difference, and this means opting to going to bed earlier rather than hitting the town with my hosts on some nights. Everything in moderation! ]
In the past five years, I have realized that travel isn’t for everyone. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain, unsettling and isolating. The only constant is knowing that the factors involved in your day-to-day life will not remain the same for long, and knowing this at least provides some comfort. Perhaps it is because of the unstoppable changes that traveling appeals to me; there is always something new to discover, a new person to meet, a great mural around the corner, or some food that for some reason I never knew about until now.
Enter the panzerotti.
I think that I am forever in debt to my host in Milan, Stefania, for introducing me to this culinary masterpiece. Wikipedia tells me that outside of Italy, the panzerotti is popular in the United States, particularly Southern New Jersey, which is news to me. I must have been concentrating too hard on the zeppoles, garlic knots and pizza to notice them on all those childhood vacations to the Jersey Shore. Back to Milan- Stefania told me that this particular place, Luini, just off the Piazza Duomo, is famous throughout the city and is known for nearly always having lines out the door, though she hadn’t been there yet herself. Why, what better reason to tackle something you’ve been putting off than showing your couchsurfing guest the best your hometown has to offer! True to rumor, the line was out the door and spilling on to the narrow cobblestone street. And as for the taste? Well, if you can, try to imagine biting into one of the most delicious plain doughnuts you’ve ever had. Now, combine that with the taste of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese- and how your taste buds will delight! Though it may sound like a strange combination at first, I immediately had another, this time filled with spinach and ricotta cheese. Subsequently, I also sampled a panzerotti in Bologna, which was still delicious but couldn’t compare to the high caliber Luini in Milan. And though I’m curious where and how soon I might find panzerotti back in the States, I know that it will be a far cry from any I eat here in Italy.
Another bready food item I’ve had is panetonne, somewhat similar to what we call fruitcake, though this is more palatable. Cliche as it sounds, I have had pasta every day so far (and even introduced my Bologna host to tossing eggplant, garlic and olive oil in pan and serving it with penne), and I treated myself to gelato twice while in Milan. The other morning, I visited Bologna’s fruit and vegetable market, eager to get some frutis and vegetables in my system. Though there were far too many options with all the exact same selection (terrible for someone as indecisive as I), I walked away satisfied with the prices and even hungrier than when I set out.
This is a photo I hastily took before i ate- both the eggs and spinach picked up at the city market. I’ve seen dark yolks before, and plenty of double-yolked ones, but these eggs were definitely the most orange I’ve ever cooked.
Now I am situated in Dozza, which is about half an hour from Bologna, with a family that keeps animals for consumption. You might be eating a lot of pasta and pesto for dinner, they said, when discussing my vegetarianism, but that is just fine with me. I’ve gone from couchsurfer to helper- doing various tasks around the house and with the animals in exchange for a place in their home and all meals provided for. My arrival here marks the 10th place that I have spent the night throughout the month of January, the most I have bounced around, ever, to my recollection. Here’s to feeling a bit settled!
A shot in Milan from Thursday (I will be sure to get better pictures of the Duomo and the rest of the city when I have a few more days at the end of my stay):
Tonight is my second night in Bologna, and I am here one more day, then I travel to the town of Dozza (an hour east of here) to participate in a work exchange with a local family. As I sit on a bed loaned to me by my host’s roomate, on the third floor of a beautiful old building on one of Bologna’s busiest streets, I am coming to the realization that I have become a country girl. For the majority of the last five years, I have lived in the Hudson River Valley, and though I have loved and appreciated this chosen home, I haven’t fully appreciated the effect it’s had on me until now. There is a sense of bombardment as I walk down the sidewalks in this city, people constantly jostling and trying to walk faster than everyone else. Everything feels cramped and squished together, and my senses are on overload. Can everyone just stop for a minute and look at the person next to you? Can we all just smile at each other for five minutes and see what changes that might incur? I want to say these things, but of course I don’t.
The best part of my day was also the most spontaneous and the most human. An adorable boy, perhaps two years old, was toddling on the pavement, excitedly approaching two pigeons. All of a sudden, the birds took flight, wings flapping. The boy, startled but laughing joyfully with the biggest smile I’ve seen in days, shouted “Non è colpa mia!” (Not my fault!) He was so full of in-the-moment glee that he made everyone around him laugh too, and it occurred to me how little I have laughed since being in these cities.
What I am anticipating come Sunday is some of what I miss about the Hudson Valley: seeing a multitude of stars at night. Listening to the wind blowing through the trees, birdsong, leaves crunching underfoot. Falling asleep at night not being disturbed by the ever-present Vespas or cars racing by, but content in the quiet and darkness of the country. Smelling fresh unpolluted air, being in close contact with farm animals, and going for a walk with grass and soil underfoot rather than concrete.
For now though, I will continue enjoying the pizza, gelato, and perfect homemade pasta 🙂
“Keep things on your trip in perspective, and you’ll be amazed at the perspective you gain on things back home while you’re away.”– Gail Rubin Bereny
“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” –George Bernard Shaw