We at DWWP love working with writing prompts! Continuing from last week, each writer this week will take on the theme of “vacation.”
My first “vacation” overseas was at the age of 21. When I moved from San Antonio to Chicago to go to college at Loyola University, I was encouraged, almost immediately, to spend a semester at their campus in Rome. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to want to go, but it took me a few years to take some Italian classes and for my parents to save up the money to send me. Little did I know how much I would question about myself, my place in the world and society, and what is was like to put my skills at becoming a world traveler to the true test.
I landed in Rome two days before the school opened for the summer. I got lost so many times on my way to the youth hostel across town from the airport that I am still surprised that I found it. The culture shock of being in a different country was immense and immediate. I was not received well by strangers when I asked for directions in the most polite Italian that I could muster. People on the bus and trains scowled at me and my admittedly oversized suitcase taking up too much room on public transportation. The hostel was huge and empty, a cold concrete edifice with multiple beds of ghost inhabitants and no hot water. I felt like I was the only person staying there, forced to try and make the best of things with the little resources I had brought.
I struggled to adjust over several days. I was hungry at odd times, like during pausa when all of the shops would close from 1:00pm to 4:00pm in the afternoon or I was embarrassingly too early in the evening when restaurants would be completely empty at 7:00pm. Previously, I never found it difficult to make friends, find my way through a city, or feel confident around strangers. I had conquered the city of Chicago after only 3 years, right? In Rome, I wandered, got lost frequently, and felt alone like a social pariah who doesn’t know why people don’t like them. It seemed the harder I tried, the more I turned people off. By the time I reached the school for the start of the semester, I was desperate to know my place in the world and I threw myself into my school work, looking for refuge where I could find it.
Luckily, there was a very handsome and friendly Roman native who was employed as the porter at the school named Simon. He was tall, lanky and wore glasses over soft, intelligent, and mischievous brown eyes. He had a sweet art school kid vibe to him like he saw the world differently than most people, but was generally amused by it all and showed it with a wry smile. He was also highly intelligent and liked to chat (his English was way better than my Italian).
We became fast friends and talked about sociology (my undergrad field of study), Italian culture, music, and art. I confessed to him my frustrations about not being able to get around well and how the first dozen Italian people I spoke with were not thrilled with my presence. He told me that it might be because I was a woman traveling alone without her family and that I needed to be more deferential when I asked a question by first stating that I spoke Italian “brutishly” and that I was sorry to ask a question in such a manner, but could they help me? I was and still am an ardent feminist and it bothered me to be differential, but I knew that being direct and what I was though was “polite” wasn’t working for me. He told me to understand that Italian culture was struggling to understand concepts like double-income households, women working outside of the home, and people who lived together outside of wedlock like him and his long-term girlfriend.
He told me with a smile, “You are having a real experience of Italy.” I asked him what he meant. “You aren’t a tourist in the same way that other people are when they come here. You don’t have a designated plan laid out before you. You are experiencing the side of traveling that isn’t going to be like Disneyland.”
I thanked him for that insight. Eventually, I learned some key phrases in Italian and was even complimented on my “Roman” accent when talking to shopkeepers and waiters by the end of my stay there. I finally adjusted by dinner schedule to a more reasonable 9:00/10:00pm slot. I knew I had “arrived” when a waiter and I scoffed at some rude Americans trying to order food in very loud and slow English as if their waiter was hard of hearing instead of realizing that they may be in a different country where people don’t speak their language.
When my parents joined me at the end of the summer, I was their tour guide to the best gelato places in the city (across from the Vatican), we traveled the buses and trains with ease, and I was able to interact with local folks on my parent’s’ behalf throughout the rest of our travels. I was flattered that my parents differed to my “expertise” of having lived there for a little over a month.
When I came back home, I fully appreciated American breakfast in a way that I had never in the past: I almost wept at the thought of crispy bacon and scrambled eggs instead of the parade of cold cheeses, meats, yogurt, and boiled eggs that I had eaten everyday for two months. I cherished the ability to walk down the street to the 24-hour drugstore for all of my convenient American needs and to eat at whatever hour my stomach desired. Even though it took me some time to glean lessons from that trip over the last 12 years; I’m glad I took that trip even if it was bruising to my ego. I wasn’t the “cosmopolitan” person that I had always imagined I was, but I had the tools to get there: I always make an effort to learn some of the language of the country I’m visiting, I try to learn some etiquette before I get there, and I’ve learned to pack much much lighter.
If you do vacations a certain way, you can kill your ego a little; which I think we could all use, especially Americans. Part of the willingness to do this comes from being an adventurer, willing to leave behind everything you know in order to throw yourself into a new and real experience. You may undergo a fundamental transformation when you realize that there is a whole world out there for exploring. If you surrender to the transitions that you find, you may discover more things about yourself and hopefully, you’ll be less of an obnoxious American.