Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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In the not-too-distant past, there seemed to be a stigma against solo travelers, especially nomads of the female variety. But then came The Blonde Abroad, Alex in Wanderland, Anna Everywhere, Globetrotter Girls and a whole host of other brave, blogging trailblazers…and suddenly, to a new generation of travelers, striking out on one’s own didn’t seem so scary after all.

If you thought solo traveling was only for lone wolves, photographers or teens taking a gap year, think again—it’s for anyone who wants to see the world and isn’t afraid of a little self-discovery along the way.

Here are 5 reasons why you don’t need a companion to take that dream trip.

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It’s your party; you can lounge by that Vegas pool if you want to.

Reason #1: Your schedule is totally up to you.

If you’ve ever traveled with a companion, you know what it feels like to get frustrated when the two of you fall out of sync. Maybe, on a previous trip, you’d have preferred to check out the 6 a.m. cafe scene in a new city had your spouse not been more amenable to sleeping in. Or perhaps you’d have liked to take your time exploring that museum over the course of a whole day, but your friend insisted on sprinting through two more museums before noon.

When you travel alone, you’ll never have to run on any schedule but your own. Celebrate freedom of choice by taking that mid-afternoon nap you wish you could have taken on your last trip. Or, once your feet start to hurt, don’t hesitate to loiter on a park bench and people watch rather than bravely soldiering on for the sake of your companion. Where you go and what you do is completely and totally up to you…no more compromises!

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Perks of traveling alone: no one’s there to complain about the Friday night museum line.

Reason #2: You can follow your heart.

When you travel alone, not only is your schedule yours alone, but it’s also free from any outside social pressure. When I visited New York for the first time on a solo trip, I had no desire to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square, and I wanted to keep things as simple and cheap as possible. Had I traveled with someone else, I may have felt obligated to visit these NYC hallmarks and splurge on a nice hotel room. But because I was alone, I didn’t hesitate to reserve a bunk at a centrally-located hostel or to follow my heart to funkier, lesser-known locales like the Cloisters in Inwood, a gritty, greasy diner on the Lower East Side and a used designer clothing shop in NoLiTa.

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Backpacking with new friends in Trieste.

Reason #3: You’ll meet cool new people.

While part of the allure of solo travel is the alone time it affords you, sometimes it’s nice to get out of your own head and strike up a conversation with someone new. Traveling solo is the perfect way to meet interesting new people, especially other solo travelers your age.

Think of the world like a high school cafeteria: When you’re a new student, you’re more likely to walk up to a friendly-looking table of one instead of the boisterous group of popular kids. In the same vein, when you travel with someone else, strangers are less likely to approach you (and sometimes that can be a good thing…see: creepers). But when you’re alone, other travelers will find you less intimidating and more approachable.

If you want to make friends but have concerns about aforementioned creepers, your best bet will be to stay in casual environments where you’ll be surrounded by lots of people, like pubs, museums, low-key concerts and popular parks. Open your mind, take off your sunglasses and flash your pearly whites.

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Reflecting from a canoe on the 4th of July.

Reason #4: You’ll learn to depend on yourself.

When you’re alone and you get a splitting headache, you can’t stay under the covers at the hotel while your companion runs to the drug store. When you lose your passport, no one else is there to help you find the nearest embassy and navigate the complicated waters of international bureaucracy. While that may sound somewhere between daunting and downright terrifying—and to be honest, it is, at least in the moment—it’s also hugely educational. Those mini (and maxi) crises you face alone become defining moments in your life, moments you can point to and say, “That’s when I really became an adult,” or, “That’s when I overcame my biggest fear.”

When you weather storms by yourself, you feel like a total confident badass…like you literally CAN take on the world. And—bonus!—you usually get a great story out of it.

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Exploring my own backyard.

Reason #5: You’ll get to know yourself better than ever before.

Comments from friends with whom I’d traveled in the past made me think my travel preferences skewed heavily toward arts, culture and snobbery. While I won’t deny that I love a night at the symphony, traveling alone made me realize some of my preferences were less upper-crust and more serflike. Now, when I explore a new destination, I know to create loose itineraries that combine the high-class with the lowbrow. If I were in Paris, I might don a sundress and spend the morning at the D’Orsay, spend lunch on the Seine with a grocery store baguette and a juice box of wine, and change into ripped jeans for a night at a hole-in-the-wall hangout in the Latin Quarter.

Finding your unique style as a traveler is great, but even better are the discoveries you make about yourself as a person when you’re on the road. Traveling alone allows you to discover your limits, physically and emotionally, and sometimes put them to the test. It illuminates your strengths and establishes your weaknesses. I’ve never felt more self aware than at the end of a solo trip.

Have you traveled alone? What tips would you give to aspiring solo wanderers?

 

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Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station

I’m ready for a vacation!!

It’s down to the wire here at the Istituto Filippin. There are four academic days left until we leave the CIMBA campus for good and jet to our homes back in the States. We’re getting weepy, but surprisingly, we’re also glad to be going home. We’re all, as we’ve said to each other for the past week or so, “over school” and for the time being and we’ll be happy to get a little ( or in my case, a lot) relaxation time before hitting the books next term.

Budapest Hungary Chain Bridge

I never knew how much travel could take out of me. The fact that, during this whole program, there was never really a “break” in terms of mental or physical relaxation because we were either studying or traveling the whole time, has really gotten to me. My back is sore. I’m probably sleep deprived, but I can’t tell anymore. This week, made up of three days of classes and three days of finals, has pushed me even further to the limit. I’ve been typing nonstop for three days, and I’ll probably continue to do so until Friday, the day before my last paper is due. In the meantime, I have to figure out when (and HOW!!) I’ll pack, where to get a hotel near the Venice Mestre train station for easy access to the airport in the morning, secure a CIMBA yearbook, fax my course syllabi to my home university and–tear!–say goodbye to everyone. Wish me luck.

This term, though it was technically much longer than any term at U of O, has gone by faster than any other. I feel like it was barely a month ago that I came here, sweaty and confused, with my huge suitcase and my shy smile, dubious about whether I’d be able to call this place home. I needn’t have worried. In fact, I should have been more concerned about how I would leave without pulling out a generously sized Kleenex box. I’ve gotten to know 89 American college students, four tabacchi employees, a pastry shop owner, two taxi drivers, a pizzeria owner and a jewelrymaker, and to have known these people so intimately for three months and then to never see them again seems so odd.

Waiting at the Venice Mestre train station
I’ve seen nine countries, flown on 15 planes, taken a dizzying amount of train trips all over the place. (And even with all that travel time, I still learned valuable things in my classes!) I should feel worldly, but instead I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the world has to offer. I’ll be back–I hope–to conquer Rome, to ride the train all the way down the Rhine, to discover the undiscovered parts of Eastern Europe, to freeze my butt off in the Scandinavian countries, and to revisit every inch of London.

In the meantime, I’ll be glad to return home, where Mexican food tastes good and where my pillow-top bed awaits. I hope to see all of you soon.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary

Back to class

I returned from another great travel week on Sunday, and once again, I had barely enough time to rest before the work rained down on me. On top of keeping up blogs for two classes and getting all my homework done, I had to deal with class scheduling woes in the wee hours this morning while attempting to wash my clothes in broken machines. I’ve also just accepted a position as a student blogger at the U of O and I’m now dealing with very unfun employment paperwork, made doubly unfun by the fact that I don’t have access to a lot of financial information I need while abroad. I think this week, with all its stresses, is a preview to the stresses I’ll be experiencing when I go back to Oregon for my next school term. I’d better get used to it.

I can barely remember as far back as the day we left for the second travel week–Nov. 8–but I’ll try to recall as much as I can.

Dohány Street Synagogue Budapest Hungary

Our first stop was Budapest, which proved to be a lot like I pictured it to be: a slightly more Eastern version of Prague. In fact, it was even geographically similar: a river, the Danube, ran through the center and on one side, on a hill, was a castle and the old town (Buda) and on the other side was the sleeker, newer town (Pest) with a Jewish quarter. The difference in the Jewish quarter: there were more small synagogues scattered over the district in Prague, and here, the focal point is one synagogue in particular, which happens to be the largest one in Europe. We inadvertently signed up for a tour, but were glad we did when we learned the Gestapo set up a communication station right in the pews of the synagogue, as if in an effort to crush the spirit of the Jews as much as possible. Monuments like these are just impressive, gilded empty shells unless one knows the incredible and terrible history behind them.

We wandered around the streets of Pest for a little while before we crossed the Danube via the Chain Bridge to get to Old Town. We took a tram up the hill to the castle, which reminded me of riding up the Shadowbrook tram after an atmospheric dinner, and we were slightly disappointed upon arrival: the castle wasn’t really set up to display rooms as they were in royalty’s heyday. Instead, each segment of the castle was a different modern art museum or renovated concert hall or something else that involved completely gutting all the rooms to give the building another purpose. We thought it was odd, but we saw some beautiful streets ahead of us, so we walked away from the castle to explore the rest of the old town.

Fisherman's Bastion at night Budapest Hungary Pest at night Budapest Hungary
After grabbing a coffee around 4, it was already getting dark by the time we ran into St. Matthias Church, classic gothic but for its Eastern tile-patterned roof. Even more impressive was the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, a balustrade that somewhat resembled a sandcastle and began to light up just as we arrived. Not only was the structure magnificent in the evening glow, but so was the view of Pest from up high on the bastion, especially as other structures–the bridge, parliament, huge hotels along the water’s edge–began to light up too.

I’ll talk more about my other visits during the travel week–Vienna, Prague and a spontaneous day trip to Bratislava–when I’m back in control of the work situation. Before then, you can read the update to my class blog on one particular morning in Prague.

An epic American night…in Italy

It’s now 2:30 p.m. in what will probably pass as one of the most important political days in my young adult life, but there’s a good chance I won’t remember a minute of it.

Last night, I stayed up without sleeping until 6:30 a.m. (9 p.m. on the West Coast) to watch all the states’ returns come in and to see what everyone already knew was coming–Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. I’ll remember the excitement I felt every time a new state flashed on the MSNBC virtual map, leading us closer to a conclusion to the stat-packed night, and I’ll remember watching the interesting patterns developing in the form of blue and red clumps in the counties of battleground states. And I’ll most certainly remember the first address of the first black president, one delivered with such determined fervor that I could tell Obama knew the serious trouble he was getting himself into and knew he could conquer it all.

It seemed like as good a time as any to #ThrowYourO.

But my memory will probably go fuzzy after the time that I fell into bed at 6:30, especially considering that I had to wake up a mere three hours later. All the more reason, then, to document my findings from newspapers from all over the world in this blog.

I looked up the online translated version of Il Messaggero, the most widely read newspaper in Rome, and my beliefs were instantly confirmed: that most of Italy was overjoyed by Obama’s victory. The paper proclaimed Obama won “by an avalanche of votes”; a reader in support of the outcome wrote in a comment “long live REAL democracy.” European leaders hailed the new president’s election as “a turning point” that made the year a very strong one for democracy in the U.S. and the world (EU president Jose Barroso), a “wonderful example of democracy given from the United States to the world” (Nicolas Sarkozy), and a testament to new “progressive values and a vision for the future” (Britain’s PM Gordon Brown). Even Russia welcomed Obama with open arms, assuring him a “full partership of trust.”

It’s a shame I couldn’t have been right in the middle of the action–say, celebrating on campus with fellow U of O students or dancing on tops of cars with other Santa Cruzans (yes, they really did do that)–but in a way, being in a foreign country for these elections has made me see the importance of the perspective of the world, not just that of the U.S., in these elections. I think the American media focus so much on Americans’ reactions to the election results that they don’t immediately take into account what foreign leaders–and foreign equivalents of the average joe–are saying. Thus, had I been in the U.S. while this was happening, I wouldn’t have thought to read up on foreign perspective.

Thank goodness for the Internet–and thank goodness for study abroad!

In Barcelona, shabby is chic

Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudi. Flagship of modern architecture. City by the beach. All of this, technically, is true, but it omits the many pieces of grit and grime that define the distinct personality of this Catalan city, pieces that were immediately evident in one short walk to Park Güell from the nearest underground metro station.

Even in this part of the city, where millions of foreign travelers tread every year, Barcelona doesn’t try to clean up its shabby exterior to attract outsiders. Broken windows have been boarded up but show no sign of plans for further repair; they’re already covered with years of graffiti, styled curse words in Catalan and Spanish in brilliant reds and greens. The cobblestoned sidewalks are worn with age and dangerously uneven; some sections have been carelessly filled in with misshapen chunks of concrete. Though the roads were still wet from nighttime street cleaners, back alleys and street corners still stank of urine. Apparently, Barcelona doesn’t care. It likes itself the way it is, and it wouldn’t mind being an unknown European city nobody bothered to visit. So why do people keep coming?

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We started the climb to the top of the hill where Park Güell sits, overlooking the city. As if hearing our audible panting, escalators appeared in the middle of the hilly street to whisk us up. We glided past a scarf-laden woman who couldn’t be any younger than 85 making her way down the hill via the stairs. With each step she winced, paused one or two seconds, then grabbed onto the rail with both hands and continued her descent. Why weren’t there escalators for the ride down, I wondered?

When we finally reached the top, I could see nothing but metal stairs and what looked like several piles of packed dirt, which I quickly realized was the foundation for the park’s dirt pathways above me. At the top of the stairs, paths led in several different directions, all promising sweeping views of the city below. We chose a route sparsely landscaped with tear-shaped green cactus plants. Their threatening thorns were ripped off in places, and the green surfaces were mutilated with crude etchings and Sharpie markings of initials and declarations in Catalan, Spanish, French, Basque, and languages I didn’t even recognize.

Several musicians had taken up residence along the spiral dirt path to the top of the park. A twentysomething dark-haired man with a goatee and a serene expression furrowed his brow as he concentrated his energy on the marimba on his lap, tapping up, down, back and forth on sections of the bowl-shaped metal instrument to produce a gong-like contemplative melody. Nearer the top, a stringy, leather-skinned man with a scraggly gray beard and several teeth missing attempted a rendition of “Moon River”, but more spit and Spanish curse words came out of the trumpet bell than did musical notes.

As I tiptoed warily up narrow, rough-hewn stone steps to the circular top of Park Güell without the aide of a railing, I knew the view would stun me. Before I turned around to look, I stood facing the other way, staring at the mutilated cacti and the bearded trumpeter and thinking the view couldn’t give me a better glimpse of Barcelona than did my trip to the top.

Back in Eugene, just for a moment

Sure, it’s rained enough in the last week to rival Oregon’s rainfall record, but let’s face it: Paderno del Grappa, Italy is nothing like Eugene.

I know, I know, I’m not exactly in a position to complain. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to study—right at the foot of the Alps, surrounded by villas dotting the countryside, an hour’s train ride away from the romantic canals of Venice. But even so, now that my time here is two-thirds gone and I’m stateside bound in just a month, I can’t help but think about everything I miss about Eugene, where I’ve lived for the better part of two years, and how excited I am to return.

In those moments when I get what I’ve started calling “hippie withdrawal,” I’m lucky to have more than 10 fellow U of O students to turn to. We all feel the same way, torn between the excitement of traveling and new experiences and the familiarity and comfort of our home away from home. We talk about our favorite cafés on campus, study spots we like and great professors at dinner sometimes, but even after getting some of it out of our systems, we still yearn to return.

But something fortuitous happened on Saturday night that eased the chill of the Alpine foothills and made me feel a little more at home: a barbecue. We all skipped dinner in the cold, cavernous cafeteria that night and instead broke out the barbecue. There were French fries, hamburgers, hot dogs and baked beans, and we gathered it all up on our plates like ravenous pigs. We chatted among ourselves as we dove into the all-American fast, and amid conversation, someone mentioned an Oregon game was scheduled to play on TV tonight. And suddenly four of us, decked out in Oregon shirts and sweatshirts, were parked in front of the television in the campus lounge. Then eight. Then 10. And then the Oregon faculty members were there too.

University of Oregon alumni at a CIMBA dinner in Italy

All the Ducks in a row…er, two rows

The game was at UC Berkeley, not on home turf, but what did it matter? We could see our team, up close and personal, and we identified our yellow-clad fans in the stands as if we were there with them.

We gave loud whoops when the game was in our favor and groaned, heads in hands, when our team let us down. We yelled in unison and held our hands above our heads in “O” shapes at the kickoff. We tried practicing other traditional game chants even though the band wasn’t there to back us up.

Practicing a U of O tradition, even when we were nearly 5,600 miles away from U of O itself, staved off my homesickness enough to make me feel buoyant even at the end of the game, when we lost to Cal and the rain in Berkeley fell harder than ever.

Italy’s newest theme park? Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The restaurant had taken advantage of every inch of its tiny corner-of-the-block space. Tables were crammed into the corners and smashed against the front windows, leaving barely enough space between them to allow waiters to pass. Across from our tiny sitting area, pushed uncomfortably underneath the stairs to the second floor bathrooms, was a huge case of chilled five-dollar water bottles. Customers’ expressions revealed feelings of worry, harriedness, stress and slight unease, with the exception of two couples in fluorescent Hawaiian shirts laughing and boisterously singing the chorus of “Hotel California” with the waiter.

No, this wasn’t Disneyland. This was Venice, Italy.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Or was it? I doubted many other Italian cities considered English their primary language and attracted about 20 times more annual visitors than permanent residents. Maybe this was Disneyland after all.

Though the claustrophobia of the restaurant did nothing to calm my nerves, it was at least an escape from the hordes of tourists and pigeons only a block away in St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visited spots in the city.

When you’ve only got a day to spend in Venice, as my friends and I did on this rainy Sunday, seeing the square is a visitor must—especially when the visitor in question, like me, has gazed at photos of the cathedral, the clock tower and the Doge’s Palace in wonder for years. I had dreamed about visiting Venice, particularly this venerated square where so many scholars and poets before me had passed through, since eighth grade, when I sang in a play called “Viva Vivaldi!” which celebrated the life of the famous Venetian composer and his lovely home turf.

Photo by Jill Kimball

With all my senses, I routinely imagined the red-roofed city’s atmosphere: the tiny, romantic canals lined with orange and yellow houses, clothes strung between the crumbling balconies; wafts of warm pasta and pesto sauces lingering in the air; a cool, salty breeze from the Grand Canal.When I finally arrived at the square in person, though, only two of my senses awakened: sight and smell. The former spotted dark, ominous clouds threatening to pour rain down on us, and the latter couldn’t ignore the repugnant rotten-egg smell emanating from the canal 200 feet away. To make matters worse, a large construction banner covered a ring of scaffolding around the red-brick bell tower, obscuring the full view of the square and making it even more difficult for the huge crowds to maneuver around each other.

Was Venice always like this, I wondered? What happened to “bella Venezia”, the city of Vivaldi, the capital of romance?

Here’s what happened: the Disneyland effect.

Photo by Jill Kimball

In June, city officials estimated that somewhere between 18 and 19 million people visit Venice every year. This statistic looks astronomical even by itself, but juxtaposed with the number of residents within city limits—62,000, according to a 2006 census—it seems downright insane. Actually, it closely resembles tourist figures at Disneyland. In 2007, nearly 17 million people visited Disneyland, which means in the high season visitors staying in hotels could easily have outnumbered the fewer than 350,000 Anaheim, Calif. Residents.

Venice wasn’t always so overrun with non-Italians, though. Fifty years ago, its population was twice that of today, and according to an article in the New York Times, the city saw half the amount of current annual tourists 20 years ago. No wonder my high school Spanish teacher, who visited Venice in the 1960s, reported a very different experience from mine: she called the canals and the square “charming” and said most people there were Italian, not foreign.

Venice has changed, and mostly for the worse. In 1960, I could have gotten off the train at Santa Lucia station and said, “What do I want to see first?” When my friends and I got off the train, we spent 10 minutes elbowing our way through the crowds to reach the station and my friend Mark aptly said, “So basically what it comes down to is, where do we want to wait in line first?”

Photo by Jill Kimball

We chose the hundred-person-long line to the baggage storage room. Then, we waited in line to buy tickets for the “vaporetti,” or water taxis. Then, we waited in line to get on the taxi. By the time we had waited in line twice more, once to ride the elevator to the top of the bell tower and again to see the unfurnished, musty and dark interior of the Doge’s palace, we were entirely too hungry and tired of crowds to bother with the line that snaked from the cathedral’s wrought iron entrance doors all the way to the edge of the canal.

There were no lines in front of the restaurant. But there was a Venetian waiter there who, when I tried to ask him about life in the lagoon city, drowned out my questions with talk of L.A. and another rousing chorus of “Hotel California”—all because I told him I was from San Francisco.

Clearly, Venice is no longer the cultural destination it once was—the city seems more American than it does Italian—but it is nevertheless home to 62,000 more people than Disneyland. It must, therefore, retain some sort of distinct local spirit, though it may be buried deep in the narrow, windy streets and tiny straits of water a little further from the Grand Canal. I hope to return to Venice in the off season and with a little more time on my hands to veer from the oft-tread path and discover the city as it once was. You’ll probably see me: I’ll be the underdressed American attempting fluid Italian sentences and murmuring under my breath about Disneyland tourist traps.

A taste of home in Padova

It had been quite a confusing day, first with the difficulty of orienting ourselves in Trieste long enough to catch some of the sights before afternoon, when we stumbled through the town in search of the train station, where we’d catch a regional train to Padova. Our confusion was only temporarily abated on the short hour-and-a-half train ride between the two cities; at the Padova station, it all started again. We were to catch bus number 19. I couldn’t remember how to say “nineteen” in Italian. Lynn and Mark couldn’t find the bus stop. If we ever got on the bus, we realized we wouldn’t be able to find the “big blue bridge”, our cue to request a stop, in the dark of the night.

A half hour later, we stumbled down a quiet alleyway a mile outside the city center, with very little streetlamp light to guide the way, to our bed and breakfast. An Italian couple greeted us at the door in broken English, and I greeted them back in the best Italian I could muster in my exhausted state. Ten confusing and not entirely grammatically correct minutes later, we had our room keys and directions to two of the nearest restaurants: a traditional pizzeria and Le Chevalier, an Irish pub that also served Italian food and cheeseburgers.

Somehow the idea of a French restaurant with an Irish theme serving Italian and American food didn’t seem appetizing, so we opted for the more predictable option. Though it was 9 p.m., a fairly typical time for Italians to eat dinner, the pizzeria was almost deserted; as we ate our pizzas and sipped on our two-euro water, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk above a whisper for fear of disturbing the two other couples quietly eating near us. I glanced wildly around for something that might inspire a conversation topic, but only one sentence came to mind: “This is good pizza.” Lynn and Mark nodded. That was the end of the conversation.

The next day was a whirlwind of churches, outdoor shopping, public transportation and frescoes; it was a day in which we explored all that was unfamiliar to us. We returned to the bed and breakfast with the collective desire for a louder, less strained dinner than last night. We were wary to try the pub in all its cross-cultural oddities, but we were so hungry that we went anyway.

We were greeted warmly by a twentysomething Italian woman in Chanel glasses who was pouring beer from the tap into four two-liter containers. It was fairly early for Italians to be eating dinner, but at least half the wooden tables and benches were filled to capacity with young people. We took seats at a table and gazed at the menu: Cheeseburgers! French fries! Fried mozzarella! Chicken Caesar salad! Fruit bowls! On television: American pop stars! Was this home?

No, but it was a taste of home. I realized that this weekend, and this entire semester, I thought I’d completely immerse myself into the unfamiliarity of Italian culture as entirely as possible. I wanted something new, something un-American—and I got it. But even though I was willing to throw myself completely to the mercy of foreign people, places, and things, I needed that little bit of familiarity to get myself through the day.

Guys’ night out

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Fabio drives his taxi-van like a high-powered Silicon Valley software executive might drive his Ferrari. Even when navigating around the sharpest of hairpin turns, the speedometer doesn’t dip below 110 kilometers an hour. All the while his favorite Italian radio station blasts its ballads and American pop tunes, and over the din it’s hardly possible to hold an ordinary conversation.

But we try. “THIS IS WHERE I ATE DINNER WITH MY ADVISORY GROUP,” I shouted to crazy-eyes Mike as we drove through the outskirts of Bassano del Grappa and passed El Rancho, a lively and brightly-colored Mexican-Italian restaurant. “WHAT?” Mike said. I shook my head as if to say, “It’s no use,” and he once again fixed his eyes on the road nervously.

The group of us—five boys, one girl—was glad to be out of the van when we arrived at the traffic-laden center of Bassano, not only because we’d feared for our lives the whole ride but also because we’d clearly left the provinciality of Paderno del Grappa, population 2,002, far behind in just a 15-minute car drive. Just seeing the hordes of glamorous Italian sidewalk wanderers and the handfuls of Smart ForTwo cars hurtling at top speed through roundabouts and thoroughfares was alone worth the five euro price.

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Our first stop was Bassano’s historic center, just a few narrow and crooked blocks off the modern artery from which we had come. Right at the base of the huge, centuries-old white cathedral was a car show of souped-up Honda Civics revving their engines and backfiring with a loud CRACK every few yards. The main attraction, though, seemed to be a bar on the square where at least a hundred Italians in pressed Lacoste polo shirts and mile-high suede boots gathered at outdoor tables. The bar itself was smaller than my prison-cell college dorm, and once I was in the door, someone smashed me into the bar and within two feet of the bartender’s face. “Tre spritz!” I managed to yell before I was swallowed in a sea of leather jackets.

We took our time enjoying the drinks—we’d earned them—but noticed something peculiar almost right away. “Has anyone else wondered why there are so many men here?” Mark asked. Indeed, at least three-quarters of the crowd gathered around the closet-sized bar was made up of sweater-vested men in black frame glasses and carefully gelled dark hair. Within seconds of Jake’s murmur of the words “gay bar,” the historic center’s heterosexual American contingent was gone and never to be seen at that bar again.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The Foreignness of Home

“I think about four or five.”

Never had one sentence, especially one said so off-handedly, made me want to scream in agony and burst out laughing simultaneously.

I thought this whole day—which included a weepy goodbye to my parents, two international flights totaling 13 hours, and luggage-hauling at the Venice airport and train station in 80-degree weather—had toyed with my emotions enough. I thought once we got on the train bound for our ultimate destination, I might feel some relief. I was wrong.

Waiting for a train at Bassano del Grappa Italy

According to Mandy, the resident intern who guided our group of eight to our train in Venice and filled us in on the specifics of our study abroad program, “about four or five” was the number of journalism students enrolled; business majors outnumbered us at least 20 to one. Was this statistic frustrating? Disappointing? Humorously endearing? My mind wasn’t sure; it was 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and I hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep for 24 hours.

On the one hand, I thought, the notion of spending three months with close to a hundred people whose class titles I did not understand sounded horrendous. On the other, suggested the glass-half-full voice in the back of my mind, being in the minority would give me a chance to learn more about the kind of students I never befriended back in the United States.

Almost all of my travel companions, who I’d met on the flight from Frankfurt to Venice, were from the Midwest. They studied finance, accounting and strategic communication, three subjects I couldn’t define. Their conversations seemed to revolve around chain steakhouses I’d never heard of, closets full of shoes I couldn’t afford, and social and political commentary I didn’t agree with. What was I, a vegetarian left-winger who didn’t even own a decent pair of pumps, to do?

I sat in silence for most of the hour-long trip to Bassano del Grappa. I didn’t have much to say about steak. Instead, I thought about the Italians I’d encountered so far. I overheard a young woman riding the bus to the train station talking to a friend on her cell phone. “I’m on the way to the train station, but I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s have dinner. OK. Ciao Ciao.” The man at the train station’s ticket counter asked me how I was, and when I said, “Bene, fa bel tempo (I’m doing well; the weather is nice),” he smiled and nodded. And when the old man with the cane spotted an old friend in the same train car, he slapped his pal jovially on the back the same way any American man would.

They spoke a different language and a few of the illustrations on their road signs confused me, but I felt very few barriers between these foreigners and myself. Their conversation topics were familiar; their mannerisms were surprisingly similar to my own.

As I sat pondering my odd familiarity with foreigners, I could not have felt further away from the Americans in the seats across from me. I suddenly understood just how much studying abroad demands exploration outside one’s comfort zone. Before, I considered the U.S. to be my official comfort zone. But on my first day in Italy, I learned more about my homeland than I did about the Veneto.