The Dragon and the Wanderer may have returned to the U.S., but don’t worry! This is just one of a whole handful of posts about our Europe trip that are still on the docket (because it’s totally on purpose that I’m behind on my posting. Obviously. This way it’s like the trip never has to end…). But even once the story of this summer is complete, you still don’t have to worry! The adventure shall continue right here in the States, and the blogging shall carry on along with it. (Plus, who knows if I’ll every catch up with real-time). The journey never ends, my friends.
So, as this is not the end, let us pick up where we left off. And that is (drumroll please)…Italy!
The incredible thing about these three months is that, although we did get into the swing of our wandering way of life, we never stopped learning new and unexpected things. As Aaron said over dinner with my parents a few nights after our return: just when we thought we had it all figured out, the universe would laugh and throw us a brand new curveball to show us how very wrong we were. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. At the very least, we were never bored; and at best, we found we had a lot to be proud of–even when we didn’t feel like we were at our best at the time. So without further ado, here are (more) lessons we learned about traveling as we explored Italy.
1. Adjust Your Habits (and Take a Siesta)
Like many other places in Europe, everything in Italy closes down in the middle of the day. We knew this going in, and we thought we were prepared for it. We weren’t.
Sometimes, our bus or train would arrive just around lunchtime (or at least, what we consider to be a normal lunchtime). Usually this meant we’d set out before the sun, or even that we’d been traveling overnight. So we would arrive in, say, Milan, super tired and super hungry.
We’d taken an overnight Flixbus from London, with a layover in Brussels, and the journey had been an eventful one. It began in the London Victoria Coach Station, where we witnessed fascinating choices being made by fellow travelers. One man’s selected meal was to double-fist a large baguette (fair enough, I have and will again tear hunks off a plain baguette with my teeth, and thoroughly enjoy the experience), and–nearly the same size as the baguette–a raw potato, which he attacked in much the same way as the bread (although it looked decidedly more difficult. He had to gnaw at it with a crunch almost like an apple). This was also very much a calculated choice. Although the potato hadn’t been cooked, it had clearly been washed (which is good I guess?). I shouldn’t judge other people’s eating habits, I know. I’d just never even considered that this could be a thing.
After encountering Raw Potato Man, there was some drama in the process of getting onto our bus. The company had somehow overbooked it. We had to stand strong about the fact that we had indeed already paid the extra £20 to bring 2 bags each instead of one (at this point, we were traveling with our camping backpacks as well as the suitcases carrying our show). And then, after we’d settled into our seats, there was a loud and heated argument between one of the Flixbus workers and the woman sitting across the aisle from us. The woman had booked two seats for herself, because she didn’t want anyone sitting next to her on the overnight journey. The Flixbus worker wanted her to give up her extra seat so that a person could use it. It didn’t take long before they were both yelling at each other–the woman working for Flixbus was trying to problem solve and get our already-late bus on the road. The passenger had, as she put it, “paid 80 quid for these seats,” and refused to give one of them up. At first, this seemed entitled and rude to me. Just contact the company for a refund and stop hogging a seat you don’t need. Afterwards, though, the woman explained that she’d taken an overnight bus in the past, during which she’d awakened to the person in the seat beside her groping her while she slept. She was no longer taking any chances after that (and for some reason this overnight bus had been the only transportation available to her for this trip). After that, I was a bit less sure where I landed on this issue. All I can say for sure is that everyone involved could easily have been more civil (and less shouty). Such is the way of these adventures: always lots to think about; never a dull moment.
We did arrive in Milan safely. And often after our journey, we’d have some time to kill before our 2:00 or 3:00 check-in at our hostel or campsite. So what do we do? Try to find a café, of course. Satisfy that post-travel hunger. Noon or 12:30 is a good time for such a thing, right? Everywhere should be open for lunch…right?
Wrong. Cities close down between noon and 3:30. And even if you do find a place that’s open, they might be serving nothing but beer and coffee. Or even if they are still serving food, they somehow have nothing left. Bakeries without bread. Sandwich shops without sandwiches. Somehow by 11:30, they were already sold out of whatever it is they sell.
Eventually, we figured out a work-around. We bought lunch at the same time as breakfast, packed it, and sat in parks playing cards while we waited to check in or catch our next train. Huzzah! We’ve done it! We had lunch!
Even after figuring that out, I was still–and am still–unclear on exactly what a normal eating schedule is. Because if everything’s closed between 11:30 and 3:30, and then when places do open back up, they’re prepping for dinner which is generally not served before 8pm….when do people eat?
Dinner, though, was slightly easier to navigate. Some hostels serve a free dinner, which is a pretty sweet deal (though granted some of those are more well-balanced than others). Mostly we did that, or cooked for ourselves, or ate pizza (because, hello, Americans in Italy).
We also took ourselves out to a nice dinner at the restaurant in our campsite outside of Rome. At 8:00, we were an early reservation. Most people, including families with kids, didn’t show up until 9 or 10. And our star of a waitress was literally running the whole show herself; she was clearly stressed that it was just her and the cook, but she bounced around between tables and hosted and poured wine and served bread like a champ. We had an amazing (and quite alcoholic) bottle of local white wine with our meal, and the bread was fresh and warm. We both got pasta dishes; mine was a vegetable ravioli. And, maybe it’s because it was a more upscale, “classy” restaurant, but…there were 4 of them. My entree was 4 individual pieces of ravioli. And not large ravioli. Normal sized, like you’d get out of a box here in America, maybe an inch and a half across. 4 pieces of pasta, spread out over the plate as if there were no question that this was a totally sufficient meal. To be fair, it was freshly made and obviously high quality pasta. There was no question about that. But boy, was I feeling that wine by the time we were done.
Meals aside, there were other adjustments we made to our habits that really paid off. Because of our unpredictable travel schedule, we didn’t have a consistent bedtime or wake-up time in the morning. Instead, we found extra opportunities to sleep when it seemed convenient, especially when we wanted a bit of extra shut-eye in preparation for an overnight journey (because sure, some of us can sleep on buses and trains, but it’s never exactly restful). Those European afternoons when the world shuts down are, unsurprisingly, perfect times for a nap–especially when you can take that nap under an umbrella by your campsite’s pool. It’s an escape from the summer heat. And, since the cities themselves are taking their own midday break, it’s much easier to escape that jagged voice that keeps interrupting your rest to inform you of all the other things you “should be doing.”
This opened us up to other beautiful opportunities. When we arrived in Rome at 4am, for example, we were awake enough to pursue a rather magical thought: let’s go watch the sun rise over the Colosseum.
It was absolutely stunning. Apart from the majesty of the Colosseum itself backlit by the pink and yellow glow of the birth of a new day, it was also empty. It was like we, along with the select few morning souls riding the bus and roaming the streets, had the run of this ancient city. We could listen to its quiet breathing while the rest of the world slept. To me this is the way to see tourist attractions–well before the rest of the tourists get there. It’s true that the Colosseum wasn’t yet open, so we couldn’t wait in a snaking line to actually enter the place. And this isn’t to say that the experience of going inside the Colosseum isn’t well worth the wait. But there’s something so refreshing about having your own private moment at a place like that, even if you’re getting your view from the hill across the way. Plus, this way, you beat the heat.
2. Adjust Your Expectations (and Come Prepared)
Hand in hand with tailoring your habits comes tailoring your expectations. Sometimes it’s just the little things, like asking for an americano, not just a coffee, unless you’re ready for some powerful espresso.
Sometimes, the mismatch between expectation and reality can be exciting. For instance, I’ve been to plenty of beaches in my time. I grew up on the east coast, and then came here to Philly, so I’ve experienced beaches all around the Long Island Sound, the Jersey shore, beaches further north on the Atlantic and further south (my grandparents are snow birds, and when they migrate to Florida for the winter, we often visit them). I’ve also got family on the West Coast, and, after 3 years of touring the U.S. in a van and truck with Enchantment Theatre Company, I’ve been to nearly every state, so I’ve also been to beaches on the Pacific. I’ve felt the warmer water, seen how the Pacific’s blue compares to the Atlantic’s gray. I’ve visited Costa Rica and Puerto Rico and even Maui once, (and Aaron lived in Hawaii for two years). There, it’s astonishing how the soft sand gives way to the clearest, warmest water I’d ever seen. I thought I had a pretty solid idea of what to expect when it comes to beaches.
The beaches of southern Italy–and of Corfu, Greece, across the water, where we went next–were nothing like what I’d experienced before. I’ll get into more detail about Greece in my next post; Greece was our full-on Beach Vacation. But first we were in the region of Puglia, Italy, camping just across the street from the water in a town called Giovinazzo, just outside of Bari. And when we went out to the water, it wasn’t by walking across a beach of sand or pebbles, but by leaping off stone outcroppings directly into the crystal waters below. Some of the rocks were slick and wet, others coated in algae and seaweed like a thick, soft rug–and some of the rocks were just jagged enough to stand on without slipping, just above the buffeting waves. The drop-off was steep enough that you could dive (or flip, if you were Aaron) into the water.
And that water–clear and bright, like the Caribbean, and just on the cool side, like the Pacific in summer–was also so salty that you could float on your back with hardly any effort at all. The only other time I’d been able to float like that was in the Dead Sea in Israel, where there was so much salt it actively burned, and we were strictly told not to shave a few days before visiting. In Giovinazzo, though, the water felt perfect–minimal sting despite the salt, to the point that Aaron was swimming underneath the clear water with his eyes open. Not to speak for Aaron, but I think the joy of swimming in that ocean was (at least mostly) worth the sunburn he got on his thighs in his new short-shorts bathing suit, which we bought at a pop-up market.
However, there were a few less exciting surprises: namely, bathrooms. In the U.S. there are certain things that I assume just come with the territory of a bathroom. A toilet seat, for instance. Toilet paper. Soap. I never know for sure if there will be a way of drying my hands, but I can at least assume that there might be. In Italy, we could count on none of those things. At least half if not more of the public restrooms we used had toilet bowls without a seat. Often, you could see where the seat would be attached; it simply wasn’t there. In campsites especially (though a few other places as well) toilet paper was not provided. And I’m not talking, like, they just ran out of toilet paper. No. There was no place to even keep any toilet paper. We took to carrying our own toilet paper around with us–we learned to come prepared. Hand sanitizer was a must. And my favorite way of being prepared as a woman–a must-have for everyone with female parts, in my opinion–is the p-Style. It’s basically a little funnel that comes in a convenient carrying case that allows you to pee standing up. It is the best. And it’s super affordable. Go order one online right now. They definitely aren’t paying me for product-placement (but hey! P-style! I’m not above selling out! Contact me!). I highly recommend.
3. Don’t Be So Precious (and Get Dirty)
Things like that made me realize that the life I’m accustomed to is full of much more luxury and convenience than I actually need. And along with that, I’m often much more uptight than I need to be when it comes to keeping everything tidy, everything just so, everything in my control. Before this trip, I hardly noticed how far out of my way I was going in order to keep things organized, to avoid getting dirt on my clothes or my bags, to avoid touching a handle on the train because of the germs, or even to minimize the amount I would sweat on my way somewhere in the summer heat.
It wasn’t just the three straight months of camping that forced me to start letting go of that a little (although that was certainly part of it–it just isn’t practical to try and avoid dirt when you’re sleeping outside). The fact is, the level of control I’d been constantly trying to exert over my own life was more than impractical–it was an absolute waste of my energy and attention. It was distracting me from actually living. I was making decisions to forego things that I enjoyed in order to protect things that didn’t need protecting–like not taking a bike ride because I’d just taken a shower and put on clean clothes. In Italy, though, there was far too much to do and see to waste time trying not to sweat in the summer heat simply because I’d just meticulously hand-washed my clothes the day before. I discovered that I could get dirty, that my stuff could get dirty, and I (and it) would survive. Even if some time had to pass before I had the opportunity to clean everything up again, that was okay. It wouldn’t kill me–wouldn’t even make me sick. The body is resilient. I didn’t even have to be quite so meticulous about the cleaning process. As Aaron and I started saying to each other (in many, many contexts), if it was “good enough for government work,”–if it was functional, and safe–it could be good enough for us.
This freed me up to do much more living. I swam in the ocean waves even if my clothes might stretch out in the tides, even if the water was cold enough to leave me shivering for a while. I sat comfortably in the dirt by our camp stove as we cooked, instead of tiring myself out by squatting to keep my pants from touching the ground, or to keep bugs from crawling on me. I made friends with the bugs. I made friends with the dirt. I made friends with my body, trusting it instead of babying it. I stopped being so precious.
Another part of not being so precious and protective was sharing. The rewards of being generous and welcoming only continued to reveal themselves, and as we traveled through Italy we tried to emulate the generosity that we’d been shown in the preceding month and a half. And in Italy, this often took the form of buying giant bottles of wine (which, of course, are stupid affordable since they’re made locally), and inviting anybody in the common area of the hostel to join us and partake. Hostels, intrinsically full of other travelers, are the perfect environment for this. There’s a built-in element of some amount of safety, and also of approachability, since many people are looking for new experiences and new connections. It’s amazing how easy it is to share and connect with people from such vastly different backgrounds in an environment like that. For one, there’s something deeply meaningful about sharing food and drink. For another, we all had something in common to begin with–for one reason or another, we were all in a new place, all on our own respective journeys, and that commonality gave us somewhere to start. Before we knew it, a whole group of us in our Milan hostel–from Germany and Holland and Indonesia and England and Egypt–were having a conversation about values, and the pursuit of change in the world, the pursuit of dreams.
4. Allow Yourself to Change Your Mind (and Your Plans)
Before our stay in the Milan hostel, we were actually staying in a campsite just outside the city. The plan had been to camp there for the entire time that we were in the north of Italy, before moving south to Rome. But sometimes, plans have to change. And other times, they don’t necessarily have to change, but it’s the best choice to change them, even if it might be a little inconvenient, a little more expensive. As much as we were incredibly proud of our budget-travel lifestyle, your own well-being has to be a priority, and that includes both your physical health and your sanity.
It wasn’t the fault of the campsite, but we were miserable staying there. We were being eaten alive by bugs. Now, both Aaron and I are very familiar with bug bites. We grew up hiking in New England. But this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. You couldn’t even get through a single sentence without having to stop at least two or three times to swat another mosquito away–and that’s not even taking into account the bites we already had from the bugs we didn’t swat in time. What was more, every plot on the campsite was covered in ants. They were in our tent, in our backpacks, all over everything. We weren’t cooking meals because of the bugs. We got to the point that we couldn’t have a civil conversation with one another–the discomfort was taking such a toll that we’d started venting our frustrations at each other. Something had to give. We decided not to stick it out just because it was “The Plan.” We moved to a hostel instead (and made our apologies to each other once our mindsets had come a bit closer to an even keel), and we were much better off for it.
5. Experience a Small Town (It’s How You Really Know a Place)
In spite of the difficulties of that campsite, I absolutely do not regret starting out there. Yes, valuable lesson-learning came from it and all that. But we also got to experience the town of Pavia, outside of Milan, and that experience was well worth it. We ended up in Pavia because there were no campsites in Milan proper, but it turned out to be a much clearer taste of what Italy is like for people who actually live there.
When we arrived in Pavia, we got a coffee from a cafe near the train station and then walked to the campsite down sidewalks that were….well, I definitely wouldn’t say “sketchy” (we never felt remotely unsafe), but certainly more reminiscent of the outskirts of Philly than anywhere we’d been so far: concrete, security bars on windows, scrawled and illegible graffiti here and there. The campsite itself was very nice apart from the bug problem–plenty of shady pitches, a pool, a playground, and a very personable owner who showed us on a map which direction we could walk to get some dinner. This gave us multiple evenings of generous portions of affordable pizzas, and drinks at the local bar next door, where we seemed to be the only tourists. Folks stopped on the sidewalk to catch up with their neighbors before heading back to their apartments across the parking lot. The ceiling of the bar was tiled with drawn and painted pictures on each panel, each distinct and unique, each created by a local.
Pavia also had some surprises to offer. It taught us the true value of exploring a place, and not just assuming you’ve got a taste for it after spending a few days in one neighborhood. Aaron and I had spent a couple of evenings at the same pizza place and bar, because they were the only places near the campsite that weren’t table-serviced restaurants (which, even if they were relatively affordable, were likely to cost more, and we were already feeling a bit guilty about our lack of cooking during this time, but we just couldn’t put ourselves through cooking amongst all those ravenous bugs). We were pretty sure we had a good idea of what the town of Pavia had to offer. That is, until we ventured to the literal other side of the railroad tracks.
Our friendly campsite manager had directed us where to look for a couple of rolling dollys–hand carts that we could use to protect the wheels of our rapidly deteriorating suitcases as we tried to drag our stage and puppets down cobblestone streets, rocky and sandy campgrounds, and all sorts of terrain that our luggage simply wasn’t made for. He sent us to the other side of town, and what we saw when we got there blew us away.
Gone were the graffitied concrete walls and the long shadeless sections of potholed sidewalk. Suddenly we were surrounded by manicured, landscaped squares, well-kept stone and brick, massive basilicas, statues, and art. Pavia was gorgeous. It was a quintessential Italian city, without the hordes of tourists.
And, it was clearly a functioning city–a place where real people actually live–not just hotels and airbnbs and shopping centers. The shopping areas that were there were much more practical: dollar stores, hardware stores, clothing boutiques, and–further out of the city center, where the streets again became less luxurious and more like South Philly–we found a large home and garden center (á la Lowe’s or Home Depot) where we bought the hand carts we sought.
Of course, none of this is to say that the tourist cities aren’t worthwhile. The duomo in Milan was one of the most incredible structures Aaron and I had ever seen. Each statue and carving–and there were thousands upon thousands of them–was completely unique and insanely detailed.
And the park we went to afterwards, to walk among the trees and across the little stone bridges, watching the river and eating amazing pistachio gelato from a food truck, couldn’t have been more perfect. It takes both things–balancing the touristy with the “off the beaten track”–that gives you a real taste for a place, and a real chance to continually renew your own joy and wonder at being there.
But how do you find the “off the beaten track” stuff, when the whole idea is that it isn’t well-known? For us, it was sort of a two step process. The first part was to take a chance on something. When we moved south toward Bari (where our ferry would depart for Greece in a few days’ time), we stayed in another town we’d never heard of, outside of the city we knew about, because the town–Giovinazzo–had a campsite on the beach. As I mentioned, this turned out to be a fantastic choice.
However, even more than taking stabs in the dark and hoping you get lucky, the best way to find unexpectedly incredible experiences is to take the advice of the locals. Nothing emphasized this better than our time in Giovinazzo, Italy. We had to balance our time between joyous beach swims across from the campsite, and taking care of our travel responsibilities. This meant spending a decent amount of time bumming around at one of the tables near the campsite’s reception so that we could connect to the WiFi and ensure things were in place for the month ahead (particularly for the Tour du Mont Blanc, our 2-week backpack excursion through the Alps, but more on that later…). Luckily, it was pretty pleasant by reception. We were still outside, with the salty sea breeze in our hair and an umbrella to shade us at our little plastic table, and a new stray cat friend whom Aaron named Snickers. It was here that we were given fresh figs, picked right from the trees all around us (I’d never eaten a fresh fig before, and I cannot even describe how luscious it was). And it was here that we were given some of the best advice we’d ever received from a man who had clearly been living in this town for decades.
First, he told us the best spot to go to watch the sunset over the water, and exactly what time it would set that day. “Then,” he said, “Walk west along the coast and into town. Go to Luigi’s. They make their panzerotti fresh, for only one euro. Get there at 8:00; then you should beat the dinner rush, when they’ll have lines out the door. Then, go to the square and watch the parade.”
This made for the one of the most memorable evenings of our entire trip. The sunset, obviously, was gorgeous.
Luigi’s was a little hole-in-the-wall place that didn’t even have any tables–but we got there in time to be the first ones in line, and it was so good we even returned the next night. For a total of €5 we each got a fresh panzerroto (which is basically a fried calzone) and a beer, and it was delicious to the point that we couldn’t resist scalding the living daylights out of our tongues rather than waiting for our meals to cool.
Then came the parade, which we never would have known about and which would have been such a shame to miss. All of our three days in Giovinazzo (in mid-August) happened to be during a time of Italian celebration. This was something we could not help but be aware of–our nights at the campsite were filled with the pounding bass of nearby parties, and on the final night there seemed to be two competing raves, one just to the east and one just to the west, with DJs who seemed to be trying to outdo each other by yelling into their microphones, and then that morning the festival finished off with multiple rounds of cannon fire at 8am, which woke me up in a hurry, let me tell you.
I couldn’t be too angry about it though. For one thing, I was fascinated by experiencing an Italian holiday. And for another thing, that parade made it all worth it for me. Colored lights illuminated the square, and hundreds of people gathered to watch their friends and family of all ages take part in the parade, dressed in traditional garments spanning centuries, spanning all classes and professions, and complete with fire jugglers and flag throwers who hurled their flags at least fifty feet in the air.
Clearly, this beach town was a place where Italians went for vacations. And the amazing part was, I never felt unwelcome, or even terribly out of place. The joy and celebration around us was not exclusive–it was catching, it was inviting.
Our trip has shown me time and again (in the best ways possible) how little I know, how much there is to learn, how there will always be more new and unexpected things to experience; and, despite (or maybe because of) the hardships, going out of my way to experience those things is so worth the trouble, and is so much more doable than it may seem.