I have been home from Italy for a few days and though I am still suffering from jet lag and altitude adjustments, I feel like sharing what I have learned over the past five and a half weeks. And I don’t mean all my new language skills….
How about in list form?
*When one is traveling abroad one is tempted to think that because the distance and/or time is so great, oodles of luggage is required. This thought process would seem logical. Right up until the point when you are trying to shove all your luggage onto a European train. So, for future reference when traveling the best way to deal with luggage is as follows: a backpacker’s backpack, a carry-on size roller, and a small personal item. That is it. The backpack can range between carry-on size and checked size, but that is it. In these few pieces of luggage, back only a few outfits and the necessaries for living, not forgetting to pack emergency clothing into the carry-on if checking main bag. Simply wear and wash often.
Here is why I suggest the above methods for packing: as mentioned before, train travel is extremely difficult with a bunch of luggage. There is rarely enough room so you feel like the obvious American, cramming all your stuff under your legs and on your lap and in the aisle. Also, it is very common for hotels/hostels to be without an elevator. If you have 70 pounds of luggage you could be lugging it up the stairs by yourself. And finally, the airline losing baggage is not uncommon. I realize it is not always possible to only pack carry-ons, but when it is possible it is a far superior idea because you rid yourself of the risk of having to waste time retrieving lost baggage.
*Do as the locals do. This does not mean you have to lose yourself or forget your country. But, if you are traveling abroad you are (I hope) wanting to gain new understanding of a different culture. This is better done by trying to do as the locals do to the best of your ability. For example, Italians do not wear shorts except at the beach. During my stay in Italy, I refrained from wearing shorts except at the beach and was able to blend in more. This is only a small thing, but it is a simple example.
Besides allowing for a more authentic experience, doing as the locals do also provides more safety. There is nothing wrong with being an American tourist. But for many reasons, American tourists stand out more than any other and we are often considered the wealthiest of tourists. I had absolutely no problems with any local, but I have heard of Americans in particular being targeted because of their ignorance as well as supposed wealth.
*Do not get drunk. I do not drink alcohol. But most of my companions did and most of them got drunk almost every night. Aside from the many health problems this can cause, this is a very dangerous thing to do in a foreign country. Because you don’t know your way around as much, you might get lost. You might not know the local law and therefore could get into trouble. You might make yourself an easy target for evildoers. All this is especially true because in many cultures, the people do not get drunk. They merely drink socially.
*Know the local laws. This seems pretty self-explanatory. No one wants to end up in a foreign jail.
*Be prepared for the unexpected, and take it with a good attitude. It is difficult to say how to be prepared for the unexpected. The “unexpected” part is why. One thing though, plan everything to the last penny as best you can, then add $1,000.00 or more. Running out of money in a foreign land is very bad. And you never know what could happen. I was not planning on having allergies or getting the flu and a cold and a sinus infection. Yet, all four things happened. So, I had to spend a lot more money on medicine than I had been planning. I had been planning on spending no money on medicine, as I am not a sickly or allergy troubled person. Budget for the unexpected.
Because you are in a country where customs, laws, etc. are different, you never really know what could happen. Many things happen, often annoying. You must prepare yourself to have a positive attitude regardless of what happens. For example, when I was returning from Paris I had planned on taking the train to Siena immediately upon my arrival at the Pisa airport. Unfortunately for me, that day they had a train strike. My only other option was to take the bus. No big deal, aside from the fact that the bus to Siena only comes twice a day and I’d missed the first one by twenty minutes and the next one wouldn’t come for 6 hours. It was a bummer, to understate it. Especially since I was sick. Pisa not being my favorite place in Italy to begin with, this was quite a blow to me. Six hours! Sick! In Pisa! Uggghhh!!! I allowed myself to grumble for about ten minutes (not much out of six hours) then took a deep breath and contented myself with napping and reading. It wasn’t the greatest experience ever, but it was better than it would have been had I allowed myself to grumble for the entire six hours.
Occasionally, depending on the location, a simple solution to the above situation would be to explore the surrounding area. This is much more exciting than napping. However, it is not always possible (like at the Pisa airport where there is nothing nearby) so you need to simply make the best of everything.
*Learn a bit of language and culture before you go. Almost everyone I encountered knew English and could easily tell I was an American after I spoke. However, they were always delighted to hear me try my best at speaking Italian. And, assuming everyone will speak English is a dangerous method of travel. Learn the very basics and you should be okay in an emergency.
Learning the culture is important for many reasons. If you are traveling to a country where the customs are seemingly bizarre, learning about them before hand will help you to understand what is going on, avoid uncomfortable or awkward situations, and will help you know how to respond. For example, if you are traveling to New Zealand and did not know before you went that in the Maori custom it is common to greet by touching foreheads, you could be in a very confused and awkward state.
*Learn to relax. This good advice for life as well as for travel. I observed that Italians are much more laid back than Americans. They are also more happy, less pill dependent, and more healthy. If your schedule doesn’t go according to plan, don’t worry. Just make a new plan and have a good time. You’re traveling for crying out loud!
*Don’t be afraid to try new things. Do be afraid of clinging to your American businesses. The point of travel is not to go to a new place and go to the same places you do at home. The point is to go to a new place and try new things. I was amazed at the number of people in my group who swarmed the McDonald’s every time we came across one. When you go to a new place, absorb the culture! You’ll have your comfortable American thingies back soon enough. Enjoy the new place while you may!
*The stereotype that Americans are fatter than other people in the world is true. I saw maybe two overweight Italians. Whenever I saw an overweight or obese person, it was almost always an American. And yesterday at the mall, I was shocked at how many people with obesity I saw. Being gone for five weeks seems to have made me unaccustomed to obesity. Perhaps this is considered an unkind or sensitive observation. But, it is very true.
*We need to lighten up. About most things. In this moment, I am speaking about nudity in particular. This might seem odd, but bear with me. In Europe, it is not a big deal at all to go to the beach and swim and sunbathe in the nude. To Europeans, it simply isn’t a big deal. So, if you plan to go to a European beach you had better make sure you don’t think it is a big deal either. Do not be offended by culture. Also, women in Europe do not go to the beach to be gawked at or silently told to cover it up because they aren’t attractive enough. They go to swim and be in the sun and with family. So, nudity on the beach=no big deal at all. It is not offensive, it is not exciting, it is not gross. It is simply how it is. Get over it.
*Go to Europe in the fall or winter. Unless you don’t mind crowds. I have always hated crowds. As it turns out, crowds also give me anxiety. No kidding. So, from now on, I go to Europe in the fall or winter.
*Don’t be afraid to meet and talk to people from other countries. Only sticking to people from your own native land is a big sign of culture shock. Culture shock is very common and nothing to be ashamed of. But, it should be dealt with. Getting out there and meeting other people and really absorbing where you are visiting is the best way to deal with culture shock. Sticking to the familiar and holing up in your hotel room are detrimental.
*To find the best and most authentic, go off the beaten path. This is a good way to avoid prices set specifically for ignorant tourists, as well.
*For the last year or so, I have been at my most judgmental, one-sided, and defensive. I’ve never before been like that. I don’t know how many of my acquaintances if any noticed. I knew I was having issues, but it wasn’t until I was taken out of my comfort zone and placed into an entirely new country that I realized how I had been. So, I am taking my own advice and lightening up. It is so important to be relaxed. If one is uptight about others, one is equally uptight about oneself. This creates nothing but negativity for everyone. I don’t know if it was the relaxed atmosphere of Italy or the friends I made who roll in a circle outside of my normal one that made me realize I’ve been too uptight. I, who have always considered myself to be pretty relaxed and chill and understanding, need to chill out. It is amazing what travel can do for you. I learned many things on this trip, but this re-evaluation of self is probably the most important.
*Everyone should travel. There is an entire world outside your localized sphere. There is so much to learn, so many people to see, so much food to taste, so many smells to smell. Whenever you can, travel.
*When you travel, live with your eyes open. As someone who loves to travel and has an ever-growing list of places I would like to visit, I’ve heard countless people tell me what I need to look out for. Or warnings that I should just forget about going there, it is terrible. At this point, I’ve only been to two foreign countries. But on both occasions, all negative warnings were needless. Both Peru and Italy are magical places with wonderful people. I had a scary incident with my landlady in Siena, but besides that everyone I met was unbelievable. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay to be smart and safe. There are bad people in every country, just like in our own. But, just like in our own, they are the exception not the rule. If you travel expecting a bad experience and horrible people, that is exactly what you will get. Travel with your eyes open and you will see the beauty and wonder that encompasses the globe of humanity. It is breathtaking.