I have returned from Italy! What does this mean, readers? It means lazing around in my sweatpants for a couple days, jet lag punching me in the face on a regular basis (my body thinks it’s 9:00 pm right now, WOO!), and getting to write another blog post after nearly a month away from it.
As you know from reading my previous blog post, I was in Italy with a class. Now, I am a big fan of scholarly pursuits, and traveling is one of my favorite things to do. Putting them together is like combining peanut butter and chocolate for me. So, I had some expectations. I expected the other members of my class would be just as enthusiastic about learning as I am, and as conscious and self-aware (read: as non-touristy as possible) about being in a different country as I aspired to be. I thought I’d be traveling with a band of “my people.”
Before I proceed, please note that I am not slamming my classmates, nor am I saying that they are wrong or disappointing because they did not bring my fantasy to life. Some of them were truly there for the class, while some just wanted the experience of being in Italy. That’s fine; to each his own. Many of them did not manage to finish all the homework, or did not attempt it. People half-assed their final projects, or found ways to get good grades while still not putting their all into their work. Almost every night, most of my classmates went to a bar and got drunk. Again, that’s all totally valid. People were there to have fun, and that is their version of fun.
Conversely, I’m the type of person who likes learning for the sake of learning, and gets frustrated when others do their work in a way that rewards them with strong grades but cuts how much they actually learn in half. I get more frustrated when so many people don’t do the reading that we can’t have a fruitful class discussion as a result. I don’t drink and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a bar, unless it was also a restaurant. So, was I in Italy with “my people?” For the most part, no. But did I have fun with them? Yes. Not in the way I expected, but I very much enjoyed my time with my classmates and will always be happy for the experience we had together.
The point of this semi-disclaimer is I want to post some tips on traveling that occurred to me while abroad, but I also want to emphasize that these tips apply to the type of experience I, specifically, like to attain while traveling. My classmates didn’t follow all of these tips, but that doesn’t mean that the way they traveled was “wrong.” It just means that they wanted to get something different out of Italy than I did. So, if your personality isn’t much like mine, these tips might not help you. Or you could get something out of them. You never know. If you are like me–eager to learn both academically and culturally, not too interested in the night life, aiming to be as efficient as possible–then you might enjoy these tips:
1) If you are traveling for a reasonably short amount of time (such as a month) and know you will be based in more than one hotel or city, pack as light as you possibly can. My professor suggested none of us check any bags and to avoid rolling suitcases due to all the cobblestones. I took this to heart. I purchased a backpack that just barely fit the tripod and telescope required for the astronomy portion of the class. I only packed a week’s worth of shirts and three pairs of pants, choosing not to care that I’d have to wear them multiple times without washing them. I made sure all my liquid toiletries were less than 3.4 fluid ounces so I could carry them on. Was it worth it? Hell yes! I didn’t have to worry about stairs or a ridiculously heavy bag. Travel between cities went more smoothly, and it felt good to have all my stuff on my person. I didn’t have to worry about lost luggage or anything.
2) Be culturally sensitive and conscious of how you behave in public. If you’re American, like me, many other countries already have a bad impression of your country. Some of this extends to USA residents, meaning some people who live elsewhere assume certain things about you just because of where you’re from. For example, before departing for Italy, my professor’s wife warned us that American girls have a reputation abroad for being “loose” (translation: not so picky about who they sleep with), loud, obnoxious, ethnocentric, and big party animals. Now, some American girls are like this, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People are different. But for people like me, who don’t fit any of these traits (at least I hope I’m not obnoxious or ethnocentric), it can mean having to work extra hard against people’s preconceptions of you. I only looked a man in the eye if I had to directly interact with him, such as if he was my waiter. I spoke as much Italian as I knew instead of expecting everyone to know English, even though most Italians do. When what I needed to say went beyond the Italian words I knew, I asked if they spoke English to be courteous (though, sadly, I sometimes forgot to do this).
As a side note, I really dislike the philosophy, “Who cares what I do? I’m never gonna see these people again.” Sure, but you’re perpetuating negative American stereotypes. Worse than that, sometimes it means being incredibly rude to people, which is doubly insensitive when you’re a visitor in THEIR country. Just be nice! And if you make an honest mistake, learn how to say “I’m sorry” in Italian, or in whatever language best corresponds to the country you visit.
3) Don’t get drunk every night. I might be biased because I don’t drink, but there are some good, practical reasons for this. Of course you wanna drink wine in Italy and have some fun. From what I hear, Italian wine is excellent, and if you’re between the ages of 18-20, you can buy alcohol abroad when you can’t at home! If you wanna get drunk a couple of times, go for it. But don’t go overboard. According to a guidebook we read, having a good time by getting wasted is a pretty American concept. By the time European kids are 18, they’re used to wine. I might be wrong about this, but I’ve heard some of them have been drinking it with meals for a while by then. For them, it’s not this forbidden substance or a big thrill to drink (excuse my ignorance if I’m wrong). Americans who get completely trashed all the time while abroad are, among other things, supporting a stereotype. More importantly, keeping an eye on how much you drink is for your own safety. You’re in a foreign country. You don’t wanna be taken advantage of. Also, do you know how much money I saved by not buying alcohol? Probably hundreds of euro.
4) Balance your sightseeing with your studies. There’s a reason we went to Italy to study Galileo instead of China. How wonderful is it to read about Galileo facing the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Vatican and then walking down that intimidating hallway yourself? How awesome is it to look through a telescope and see the moons Galileo discovered with your own eyes? I would have loved Italy either way, but viewing it through Galileo’s eyes, 400 years after he made his discoveries, enriched my experience a hundred fold. I will never forget his story, which is so significant to human history, because of the context in which I learned about it. I understand his importance so much better than I would have if I’d read about it in a classroom in Southern California. Sure, I could have been out exploring more of Florence when I was reading about Galileo’s discoveries in my hostel. But do I regret it? Not for a second.
I have lots more to say on this topic, but I realize this post is getting rather long. So I will say one more thing. I grew a lot in Italy. I feel much more like an adult now than I did when I left. I walked through Roman and Florentine streets by myself and found my way back to my hostel without issue. I only got lost twice the entire time I was there. I spoke to non-English speaking people even though I was embarrassed by my lack of fluency in Italian. Above all, though, I did not worry nearly as much as I do when I’m at home. In Italy, I let things happen and I didn’t stress about it (for the most part–there were a few exceptions). My concerns suddenly became small. All the things I fretted over on a regular basis while at home seemed tiny when I was so far away, in a country that was practically a different world. Yes, I am a writer trying to get my work published. But if that doesn’t happen or doesn’t work out the way I want it to, the world will not explode. The Colosseum will still be standing, with historical richness literally etched into its walls. Venice will continue to be made out of magic and unicorns. Wonderful things will still be happening all over the world.
I hope everyone who reads this gets to escape their bubble, if even only for a few days, at least once in his or her life. Happy travels.
*Avatar by Charlavail