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
I will get the obligatory and quite cliche “Hi, world, this is my first blog” line out of the way and say first, thank you for reading this (though I imagine most of you are family members eager to hear of my safety and whereabouts)!
At long last, I am here- what does this mean? For the fourth time, I am in Europe, and for the third time, in Italy. I believe it is the fifth time I am on an extended solo trip (certainly not a “vacation”), and it is the second time I have bought a plane ticket relatively spur-of-the-moment because I got an email about cheap flights that I simply could not pass up.
“Here” also means finally starting a travel-related blog that I have been meaning to write for probably over a year now. After much debate, I settled on this name, partially inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road”, and a bit borrowed from the title of an Iron and Wine song, “Lovesong of the Buzzard”. Whether or not this is actually a good title, or everyone else likes it, is neither here nor there at the moment, as I wanted to get on and just write already. I hope to share what I learn, see and experience while traveling- at the moment in Italy- as well as provide you with interesting articles, websites and resources I find that will probably have something to do with travel, sustainable living, a combination of the two, or maybe even something else entirely. In addition to mere words, I will try to include plenty of photos (yay! everyone likes pictures), because seeing places from each person’s point of view is really one of the most intriguing aspects of storytelling and traveling.
Lastly, “here” refers to the place I am in internally while on the road. As my plane took off from JFK last night, I wrote in my journal, “Happy Me Time again! (I have granted myself this)” , for traveling alone is where I come alive. I feel rejuvenated, reinvigorated, and reinspired. I am in my element- in a position of being both the audience member of the play and the one in the starring role. Armed with my camera and my journal (and for the first time, an amazing assortment of techie gear), I am suddenly an expert at such things as navigation, geography, miming, reading foreign street signs, and striking up conversations with strangers. Of course, I’m no expert: earlier today at the Milan Stazione Centrale (the central train station), I somewhat desperately ended up paying 3 euros for one local phone call. This little incident ends up being one of the comical snafus that usually occur on those uncertain first days and don’t detract at all from the overall sense of, well, awesomeness! This is me, doing what I do best. I am soaking up those feelings of competence and self-confidence, revelling in the unique perspective I get by staying with locals…and hopefully doing some interesting enough things to keep you guys interested. Happy reading! More to come quite soon!
“From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.”
–Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road