In a way, it’s a bittersweet feeling to sit down and write what I suddenly realize will be my final (dedicated) post about my travel in Europe this summer. It’s been over two months since I returned from the final leg of my visit in Italy, yet it’s hard to imagine how differently my summer would have panned out–how different everything might be right now–if I hadn’t decided 5 months ago to take this trip. So with a bowl of this creamy mushroom risotto in hand (it’s one of my favorite Italian dishes and not as difficult to make as it sounds, as long as you’re patient–you can find the recipe at the bottom of this article), I wanted to spend this post reflecting on a few important lessons that I learned from my summer visit abroad.
What I learned during my three weeks in Europe:
1. Take the road less traveled. One of the main reasons that I wanted to take this trip in the first place was to experience something completely new and outside of my comfort zone. Unlike most vacations that I’ve taken in the past, this sojourn was carefully engineered to include both a healthy mix of tourist destinations and some wildly unfamiliar places that I never would have visited otherwise. My decision to visit Alex in Cork and Alessio in Putignano, in particular, was motivated by the fact that I knew nothing about either of those places and would be a complete stranger to the regions when I arrived. Allowing myself to be more spontaneous than I usually am and simply experience these places with no expectations not only opened up new opportunities, but also helped me appreciate every single moment for what it was.
2. Surround yourself with the people who bring out the best in you and are happy just to see you happy, not because they want something out of it in return. Then do the same for them. One of the major challenges that I faced while I was abroad was feeling completely alone in a place that I didn’t know halfway across the world. Being constantly with someone who was detached and unapproachable 80% of the time quickly took its toll, which in turn made me miserable throughout our trip together and much less tractable to deal with. It was as a direct result of this experience, though, that I came to really appreciate the friendships that made my stay in Ireland and Italy so wonderful. This gratitude has also made the clean start of this new school year hands-down one of the BEST that I’ve ever had in grad school, and I can say with 100% honesty that I’m happier than I have been in a long time: happy to be able to surround myself with people whom I love wholeheartedly and who continue to lift me up, too.
3. Family matters, so pay attention. Those of you with in-laws probably don’t need telling twice on this one! I had three very distinct family experiences (all completely lovely!) during my trip, and at each house I learned so much about my friends that I would never have realized without being a part of those interactions. I distinctly remember beaming when Alex and his mom tag-team toured me around downtown Cork or when Alessio and his sister would crack up together over some hilarious Italian joke that I didn’t understand. By the same token, I could tell when one-sided dynamics within the family translated to problems in our own relationships. On two occasions, I spent the evening helping my UK host mom look up car rental and hotel info (my ex had walked out of the room with the reply that he “couldn’t be bothered” when she asked for help planning their upcoming LA trip). I was happy to help, of course–but I was also reminded forcefully of that same scenario when I spent two hours alone on a cold bench in Cambridge one evening, frantically trying to book a last-minute hotel in London center because I’d just been informed that we wouldn’t have a place to stay the next night. There was no offer of help, and frankly it was pretty clear that I could expect the same kind of treatment down the road that I’d witnessed earlier in the trip. There are exceptions, obviously, but I think it’s a good rule of thumb that if you want to get to know someone really well, try seeing what they’re like when they’re with their family and folks.
4. The “American work ethic” is a secret code phrase for driving yourself crazy with the idea of unachievable productivity. It’s also not the only way to live life. During my three, data-less weeks in Europe, I learned how to breathe again. I disconnected from most of my social media, stopped checking my work emails, turned my phone off at night, and adjusted to a steady pace of life that was completely foreign to me. I sat down for meals that took three hours from start to finish; I whiled away evenings chatting in pubs over a pint of pale ale; I spent 9 hours just lounging on a beach and soaking in the sun without once looking at a clock. It’s crazy how wrapped up in our day-to-day lives we can get when there’s pressure at work, school, with friends, with the future–but in the UK, Ireland, and Italy, I had a chance to hit the reset button and experience a stress-free way of living for 21 whole days. By the time I returned to the States, I was completely recharged and ready to–haha, oy–work, but also to enjoy myself with a level of mindfulness that I hadn’t experienced since high school.
One last lesson that I learned while I was in Europe is that there is no better way to challenge yourself to grow and expand your knowledge than through travel. After my three weeks’ visit, I can better understand what many of my friends who studied abroad mean when they talk about catching the “travel bug.” I love my support network at home dearly and will probably be a California girl for life–at least, in the foreseeable future–but now I can also envision spending half a year abroad or traveling after I graduate, simply to see the world out there up close. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience, and besides: what kind of foodie would I be if I didn’t gratify my palate by eating my way through the world, right?
What’s the most important travel lesson that you’ve learned?