Saturday, November 10, 2012

Kind of feeling European

There's a lot of Italia that I'll never get to see. Or, at the very least, there's a lot of Roma that will never reach my eyes save for in photos.

It's hard traveling to a new place. You make an itinerary full of sites to visit, perhaps (like me) you even try and find local eateries and cafés, shopping and market streets or individual boutiques to pop into along the way and back. This kind of meticulousness requires discipline and patience: the discipline of finding potential experiences to partake in, and the patience to avoid getting frustrated if things don't work out exactly as planned.

I tried not to go overboard with touristy plans while on my grand European adventure. I wanted to avoid places that would become elaborate traps to traveling salesmen and purveyors of precious replicas of the leaning tower of Pisa. In the end it was worth the effort.

My experience has made it so just turning a corner in Roma is like stepping into a fairytale. Like I explained to my friend Diana, this place makes me think I'm in the middle of EPCOT at Disney World. It's too idyllic, too quaint, providing too many subtle luxuries to explore. And by that I don't mean name brand or odd rip-off prices on handbags. I just mean the luxury of a calm life among the artificially planted trees and the erratic drivers of this, the Eternal City.

Together with Diana - and a bit on my own yesterday - I found myself enjoying the experience not necessarily of exploring the more frequented locales in Roma, but of looking past the most well-known places and exchanging them for new, humbler experiences.

Yesterday, while walking through the town toward the Piazza del Popolo, I found a man creating street art on a curb along the road. I marveled at his little creations. That chance encounter, more than any other experience of a similar magnitude, was something to love about Roma. It was a clear cut example of coming to a city and seeing culture play out casually. This was how a real Roman (granted, an eccentric one) lives. Not catering to English-speaking mouths all the time, but feeling content with potential miscommunication, instead, he tried to make conversation with me and share his art.

It was this experience, along with the rest of my evening which was spent wandering the streets near the Piazza di Spagna, that helped me to figure out what it is I love most about traveling.

And it's not the fascinating sites that I've been noticing on TV and in movies since I was five.

What I enjoy most about traveling is allowing myself to become a part of the place I'm in, inextricable from its residents. I want them to look at me and automatically assume I'm a local, or at least not brush me off as a tourist. It hasn't been easy - but as many moments as there are when you feel completely ill at ease in a new city or country, there will also be moments to remind you that you do have the capacity to belong.

It can be hard to reach this state of integration, especially when you're surrounded by people who've gotten used to the omnipresence of foreigners traveling to their shores and occupying the seats on their metro lines. They're frustrated which makes me frustrated. But we don't have to be frustrated at at all.

It can be extra hard when you decide to go to places like the Vatican. With all the tourists, pan handlers, swindlers and homeless or disabled people begging along the street, you almost lose that sense of being in a real place full of history and culture rather than an imagined one.

The best part of being in Roma, and being all over Europe in fact, has been that moment of realization at every single stop on my journey when I've reminded myself that yes, I am in fact in a foreign country and I can feel comfortable and knowledgeable here. In just a short amount of time I've turned a vague notion of this city into something tangible. I've learned how to use the Metro and how to navigate through the twisty streets.

As someone who goes to the Disney parks a lot at home, I can easily find myself confusing glossy fiction to reality. I mean, when a person in a giant mouse costume is part of your weekly entertainment schedule, you almost become lost in the idea of romanticized realities.

But the truth of Italia, and Europe so far, is that it has the capacity for that romanticism, but without the kitschy reminders that it is fiction. Because it isn't fiction. It's flesh and blood. It's alive and well. It may be a foreign country and feel like a rollercoaster ride, but it's nowhere near that kind of novelty attraction. Because it's unpredictable and simply real.

I truly believe it's the moments away from the expected, wandering the streets of an unknown city at night or simply exploring aimlessly with the hope of finding something or someone worth getting excited over, that make traveling worthwhile. And wherever I've been (at least in the last week), I've taken the initiative to make those aimless wanderings happen.

So I don't really mind if I stand on the periphery of the major tourist attractions. Even if I don't get to say I've been inside [insert landmark here], I can do one better. I've felt what it's like to really be a part of [insert city here (i.e., København, München, Wien and Roma)]. And that's all I really wanted anyway.

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