I come from a family that traveled a lot domestically when I was little, particularly to the major historical towns in the East: Sturbridge Village, the Mayflower Landing, Jamestown, and Williamsburg. These were certainly not vacation destinations my sister and I would have chosen, but it wasn’t up to us. I, however, did get to choose where we went on my first European vacation.
In middle school, I was the nerdy kid who took Latin because “learning the roots of words will help with the SATs.” As I was really enjoying class, I chose Rome and Pompeii for our trip. A ticket deal allowed us to have a few days in London on the way to Italy. I may have been forward thinking in choosing Latin, but I didn’t know I’d get to see the dead language brought to life.
I knew I was lucky. I was certainly the only kid I knew going to Europe. But I didn’t quite exactly know what I was going to be experiencing. Saying “Yes” seemed to be the easy part. Mixed in with the excitement was the anxiousness of encountering the unknown. London proved to be a good stepping stone. I tend to be a silent observer so the fact that I could read the signage and understand what was being said around me went a long way in comfort building. I found, however, that very few people would sound like my teen crush, Prince William, with his posh accent. Nevertheless, London served as a great jumping off point.
Italy was altogether a different experience. It was where I had my first gelato, where I learned my mother’s true travel style of walking until you can’t walk any farther and saying “oh just a bit more,” and where my Latin class was transformed into more than just an SAT prep course. Rome was all glitz and glamour with the Forum, Colosseum, and Circus Maximus while Pompeii was more modest – a Williamsburg of Italy, if you will.
I was awed by Pompeii. Our tour took us past the pistrina (bakery). There was something familiar about it. It wasn’t until we passed again that I realized that I had seen this same exact bakery in my textbook! That was the moment my brain shut off all the other thoughts in my head: why did I wear these jeans, why didn’t I bring sunglasses, why must my mom embarrass me with all her photo taking, when’s lunch. These were replaced with silence and then, “Whooooooooaaaaaaaa.”
I had made the leap, the connection between classroom and real world. The story of Caecilius was instantly brought to life. I could finally see him walking in the Forum, buying bread in the pistrina, shopping in the tabernae (shops), seeking out entertainment at the amphitheater, training at the palaestra (athletic fields) and finally dying in the eruption of the looming Vesuvius. The language might have been dead but there was still so much to learn from the lives lived, the traditions kept, and the empire built and felled.
It was the experiences from this trip, good and bad, relaxing and stressful, fearless and fearful that gave me the gumption to say “Yes” to future travel opportunities. I was definitely bitten by the travel bug – the European travel bug.
Here’s how I kept going. I was one of the smart kids, a repeat scholar athlete, in the top ten of my class. Academia was my comfort zone. For me, going abroad through a school made the most sense. I didn’t think I was outgoing enough to survive the grunge-chic option of backpacking across Europe nor did I think an organized tour would grant me the opportunities to forge the types of relationships I wanted between foreigner and countryman. Like the family trip to Rome and Pompeii, I wanted to make the connection between classroom and real world. In college I said “Yes” to studying abroad in a summer program followed directly by a full year (which turned into just a semester, but that’s a whole other post), and then a couple of years later I completed my Masters degree at a European institution.
My continued Yes-saying has brought me to Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Italy, Russia and Japan.