I just finished my final exam and thought I would share it on my blog. The prompt was to discuss what travels means to you. I wrote it in 1 hour and 40 minutes, so there may be a few typos, but my prof. said not to worry too much about the fine tuning since it was an in-class essay. I’m on day three of my cold, and things are looking better! xo ~e.
December 12, 2016
First Year Seminar
Before boarding my Alitalia AZ0603 flight from JFK to Rome, I knew I had lost a sense of innocence. I was no longer a high school senior; I was a freshman in college about to embark on a once in a lifetime opportunity to study abroad in Italy. I would not see my parents for five months, my dog, friends, and other family members for nine, and I would return with a higher level of maturity and independence. I clearly remember being in the long security line in JFK and constantly looking behind me at my proud parents who hid their anxiousness and sadness with a tame smile. When it came time for me to put my shoes, backpack, and iPhone in one of the grey bins, my parents sat directly in front of me at an airport café. I could not see them through the blurry glass unless I bent down. I did for a final wave goodbye. I did not have the time or courage to shed a tear because the security workers moved us through the line swiftly. I also was too excited to achieve my dream of traveling the world. It was a longing I desired to be fulfilled. Before stepping on that plane, I viewed travel as a way to escape reality and experience things I would not at home. Flash forward four months later, and I still view travel as an escape and opportunity to try new things and learn about a new culture. However, I have learned that travel is so much more. Travel is the ultimate platform to utilize transportation, get lost, take a pilgrimage, and most importantly, fall in love.
Before arriving in Italy, I expected to use the European’s famous mode of transportation: trains. Every person I talked to in the United States told me I had to take advantage of the European train system during my year abroad because they are so cheap and accessible. The only trains I took in the United States (for a pretty penny I might add) were from Albany-Rensselaer station to Penn station. I could not fathom taking a train from a major city to the next or even entering a different country via train. After being in Florence and departing from Firenze Santa Maria Novella stazione to places like Riommagiore, Venice, Rome, and Lucca, I have realized how important trains are. They are fast, reliable, and convenient. I feel at peace on the train staring out at the smaller Italian towns, the mountains in the distance that remind me of the Green Mountains at home, or the rain droplets on the window.
Trains are also the perfect place for avid people watchers like me. Tim Parks, author of Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milano to Palermo, describes how trains are “snake[s] of carriages through a maze of switches… the passengers hurtled from one town to the next while he reads a book or chats to friends or simply dozes, entirely freed… from any necessary engagement with the world he’s passing through” (Parks xiii). No matter what train I am on or where the destination is, I constantly admire the strangers surrounding me. Where are the African men who loudly pass through all the carriages going to? Does the little Italian girl in pigtails enjoy the ride as much as her parents do? What is the Italian book the gentleman sitting diagonally from me about? Is the Middle Eastern man with a hood and headphones on actually sleeping or simply resting? Parks suggests that passengers either read, chat, or doze on trains. I cannot help but agree with him because there is not much else to do on a train, especially when you are by yourself. His observation about being free of engagement with the world is one of the most important values of riding on a train. You are temporarily free from deadlines, assignments and immediate stress because they only thing you can do is sit there and wait until the train halts at your destination. As soon as it does, your freedom of engagement with the world terminates because you are not protected by the isolation and serenity of the train. Stepping off the train at Venezia Santa Lucia station is a perfect example, for I was on my own in Venice for the first time; I was forced to engage with the city I would be spending two days in alone.
Aside from trains, planes, boats, buses, and automobiles are just as important modes of transportation. They get you from one destination to the next in a timely fashion, and they are essential when it comes to travel. I personally enjoy the main hubs for transportation (terminals, airports, docks, etc…) rather than the transportation experience itself because you feel the buzz and energy of the thousands of travelers you are with. There is never a dull scene. I could sit all day in an airport and be content just watching. During my time thus far in Italy, I have been on trains, planes, automobiles, and boats more than I ever have in my life. These forms of transportation remind me that transportation is the building block to travel. Instead of complaining about the hassles of getting to the gate or platform on time, I have focused my energy on the experience and scenes around me.
In Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, Solnit expands on the importance of getting lost both at home and during travel. Although the idea of being physically lost is one that is normally feared, it is inevitable in a new environment. I remember trying to get to a bank in Florence I had been at the day before, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get there. I tried so hard to think about where I was and where the bank was close to. I knew it was near the Duomo, so I tried every street branching off of Piazza del Duomo. After half an hour, I finally caved and turned on my Data Roaming so Google Maps could direct me. I was prepared for this little excursion since I had a GPS; other times I have not been so lucky. Solnit reminds us that “you should be prepared to be out for any amount of time, since plans go astray and the one certain thing about weather is that is changes” (Solnit 12). Fall break in Ibiza is a paragon of how being prepared is crucial and how making mistakes is part of the traveler’s experience.
Olivia Vollaro and I took a ferry from Ibiza to Formentera, an island in close proximity, on Monday, October 24. In our bags we had a towel, change of clothes, sunscreen, camera, wallet, phone, and one bottle of water. When we got off the boat, there was a bus waiting for us. We immediately saw one of the beaches we recognized plastered on its exterior, so we hopped on after paying the eight-euro fee. The fast bus took us through the windy roads and stopped at Playa des Ses Illetes. We got off the bus and walked a good ten minutes to the boardwalk overlooking the crystal clear waters. We were so excited to spend six hours relaxing on the beach. However, it did not take us long to discover we were in the middle of nowhere, and we did not bring any food with us. For some odd reason, packing snacks and plenty of water did not occur to us. Although we had an amazing time on the beach and in the warm water, we suffered from fatigue, dehydration, and some degree of starvation. It resulted in a very early night and me throwing up on the ferry back to Ibiza. We were not physically lost because we knew where we were, yet we were still lost because we were not prepared and did not know where we could access places that had two of the most basic things needed for survival. This story is an unforgettable one and a friendly reminder that Solnit is absolutely correct; be prepared during travel and pack efficiently because there will be times when plans go astray.
Prior to Dr. Graham’s First Year Seminar class, I did not think much about pilgrimages. I associated them with religion, and as someone who is not very religious, I never had the urge or desire to embark on one. With that said, Graham taught me not to fear pilgrimage and instead encouraged (and assigned) one. My pilgrimage to Venice is one of my most precious experiences I have had. Going to the Rialto Market, drinking a glass of prosecco, and eating fried fish next to the Venetian canals were “thrilling moment[s] when [my] longing [was] finally fulfilled” (Cousineau 23). I fulfilled my desire of solo, ‘authentic’ travel, and I felt like I was on a real pilgrimage. Cousineau defines a pilgrim as someone who “will risk everything to get back in touch with life” (Cousineau 18). In a lot of ways, I did get back in touch with life over just two days. The solitude allowed me to reflect on my study abroad experience and think deeply about life. Venice was an escape of my life in Florence and provided me with confidence to travel successfully by myself. In a way, it was spiritual and led to self-discovery about authenticity.
Cousineau claims “pilgrimage can also occur just down the road” (Cousineau 15). I can attest to that because I have realized how daily routines and tasks involve the different stages of pilgrimage according to Cousineau (perhaps in simpler and less spiritual form). For example, going to Conad every Sunday is a pilgrimage literally down the road of Via San Gallo. My stomach resembles ‘the longing’, Sunday morning acts as ‘the calling’, getting my wallet and tote bag describe ‘departure’, walking can be perceived as ‘the pilgrim’s way’, budgeting is certainly a ‘labyrinth’, picking up a blue basket is the first thing I do upon ‘arrival’, and unpacking the recently bought products is ‘bringing back the boon.’ The whole idea of a pilgrimage is not limited to a trip for finding yourself or discovering a revelation, like in Venice. It can also be thought of when thinking about my daily life in Florence: going to the grocery store, getting a cappuccino, going to class, checking my mail, buying stamps, etc… Cousineau’s reflection on pilgrimage has taught me to experience the small thing sand the big things in full circle. That has added to my thoughts about travel tremendously.
The phrase “I have fallen in love” has commonly appeared on pages of my journal because I have learned through travel how easy it is to fall in love. I have fallen in love with scenes like overlooking the coast at Monterosso, staring in awe at the Duomo every day, jogging along the Arno, and appreciating Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo. I have also fallen in love with the Italian ways of riding trains, drinking cappuccinos every morning, shopping with locals at the Mercato Centrale, listening to live music at Piazza Repubblica, and bringing dogs everywhere.
Florence has forced me to fall in love with walking since it is my main mode of transportation in this breathtaking city. I used to not be very excited about taking walks in Sandgate, Vermont due to the lack of excitement found on the dirt roads or walking from building to building on campus at Emma Willard during the freezing winter. However, being here has made me excited about walking because there are not only lots of things to look at but also the serenity to think. Rebecca Solnit describes how walking “leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts” (Solnit 5). I have had unlimited opportunities to think on walks in Florence. I think about home, classes, my weekend plans, what is beyond the horizon, what will happen when the world explodes, what I would do if I saw Taylor Swift walking past me, in addition to a variety of other random thoughts. Walking has become an outlet for stress because it gives me the air to breathe and think. I have incorporated daily walks into my schedule aside from my mandatory walks to class.
My walks remind me of Frank O’Hara’s poem “A Step Away from Them” because I constantly observe and note my surroundings of the people and places I pass. His details about “laborers feed their dirty / glistening torsos / … skirts are flipping / above heels and blow up over / grates. / The sun is hot, but the / cabs stir up the air” are the kinds of details I note during my walks (O’Hara). I avoid eye contact with the beggar I pass every morning on my street and shamefully ignore him when he says “Ciao” in a deep, monotone manner. I smile at the waiters in La Ménagère wearing their jean jumpers. I admire the woman in flowy pants who walks her dog that for some strange reason looks exactly like her (they both need haircuts). I have fallen in love with walking not just because it is how I get around but because it gets me to think and be a traveler in my temporary home city.
Pico Iyer sums up in his opening paragraph of “Why We Travel” why I travel. He states, “We travel, in essence, to become young fools again –– to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more” (Iyer 1). I am young, but I do not think of myself as a ‘young fool’ often. It takes moments like running in the pouring rain up a hill in Rome with my newfound friends to feel like one. It takes train rides and hours in the VIP Lounge at Pisa International Airport for me to slow time down and be completely absorbed in travel. It takes eating paella in Spain, riding bikes and honking at friendly strangers at Villa Borghese, climbing the tower in Lucca, seeing the tree lighting at the Duomo, and being scolded at for kicking a pigeon in Manarola for me to fall in love.
These past four months have shifted what travel means to me in a much more abstract and complex fashion. Travel is more than just transporting from one place to another. It is about the lessons learned, the challenges overcome, the personal revelations and self-discovery found, the food and drink consumed, the unforgettable memories. The great thing about travel is that it means something different to every person; that is what makes travels and experiences unique to each and every individual. Travel is something that occurs every day in Florence and the special days when it occurs outside of Florence. I am excited for my upcoming travels to Rome, Budapest, Munich, Athens, Crete, and Kiev in the next month and a half. I have concluded that travel is not simply a passion of mine. It is a lifestyle I will long for throughout the rest of my life.