Posted in Domestic Travels, Issues, Souvenirs

Traveling & Self Confrontation Part I: The Good

In a recent Associated Press article actor-turned-writer Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Weekend at Bernie’s, and, my personal favorite, Mannequin) discusses his new travel memoir and his views on travel. In the last few lines of the interview McCarthy states:

You go, you leave everything you know that you’ve safely constructed to keep yourself from having any anxiety and you go to a beach and you lay there and all you have is your mind. How can you not think that’s gonna be a stressful experience? I always think travel is not about escape at all, it’s about confronting yourself.

I totally agree. He doesn’t get the opportunity to expand upon this but I understand McCarthy’s “stressful experience” to be of the ‘all you’re left with is yourself and who wants to be alone with their own thoughts?’ variety. This definition has a bad connotation. Goodness knows I’ve had plenty of those moments while traveling. And of course through serious, forced self-examination in the end those confrontations can be positive experiences. But what about the confrontations that are positive from the get-go?

What about the times when you find yourself somewhere that frees your mind up to really examine and look at an issue or question that you might have been too busy or bogged down by everyday details to devote the time to reaching a resolution or solution? I decided to join two of my friends on a last minute road trip from Madison, Wisconsin to Empire, Michigan. The three of us left in the late afternoon and didn’t arrive until the wee hours of the morning to the family house of another friend.

The issue weighing on my mind was what to do next with my life. Did I want to go to grad school? Did I want to travel? Did I want to stay in Wisconsin, go home to New York, or go somewhere else? Did I want to work? I didn’t have high hopes of being any closer to a solution by the end of the trip. But, we were gone for less than 48 hours and the time spent walking along Lake Michigan, climbing up and then running down the huge sand dunes, and feeling carefree for the first time in a long time turned out to be just what I needed.

When I returned to Madison and my regularly scheduled programming of daily life, two things had changed. I had an answer, a doubtless, resolute answer, and a plan started. I was going to move home to New York, and work for a year while applying to grad school in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Being in a new setting allowed me to truly feel removed from the pressures and stresses of my life. The simplicity of my surroundings aided my self-examination. I was able on this trip to focus on the one topic without having many distractions to hide behind. It is this experience that I often refer back to, and try to replicate, when I’m in need of making some big decisions.

View from about the position of where I sat the night before.

Also, what about the confrontations that can come in the form of finding out you are stronger or braver than you thought you were? That’s the realization I could no longer deny as I sat on the ground one evening in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. As I state in my about page, “This Lady,” this was the trip where I allowed myself to recognize how all of my travels – solo, in groups, with family – were me fighting through all my personal doubts, issues, and BS to do what I wanted to do, go where I wanted to go. I said it best on that page:

As I was taking in my surroundings […] I began to think about my travels over the years and how this was the first trip I had taken on my own. How had I, that shy, dependent, and scared girl, gotten to where I was?  I was dumbfounded. Thinking back I saw no giant leaps, no major personality changes, just a gradual building of sense of self and confidence to do what I needed to do for me that had brought me to that point.

Siena was more of a struggle than my decision-making in Empire. I was forced to look at myself through a different lens, one that didn’t belong to me, but one that I would make mine over the course of an evening. I had nowhere to be but where I was. Taking the moment to really look around me and not just see, but observe where I was and with whom I had interacted is what prompted the introspection.

As McCarthy stated, I was away from my daily safety net and left with nothing but my own mind, but these self confrontations I had in Michigan and Italy were positive. And though travel has an element of escape, it just isn’t always from what you think.

Posted in Travel

Palio di Siena

I arrived in Siena on August 18, two days after the second and final Palio race of the summer. Torre (Tower) contrada had won. Had I arrived in time for the centuries-old, barebacked, contrada-versus-contrada horse race, the city would have been mobbed with thousands partaking in race festivities. A couple days later and the masses gone, the city showed a quieter (or perhaps a recuperative) side with few tourists and only the Palio champs (still) rejoicing through the streets.

The Palio (banner) in the local Torre church

Arriving in the wake of the excitement, I was surprised to encounter a parade marching around the Piazza del Campo with participants waving large flags as I made my way to my ‘mini-residence’ down Via del Porrione. After checking in I headed back out to explore. More and more people kept flooding the piazza. It took me a minute or two to realize that the smug, puff-chested crowd was mostly male.

Following the crowd from the piazza down Via di Sallicotto I was able to take a peek at the prize – the Palio (banner) – in the Torre neighborhood church. As I entered the church I almost felt I was trespassing in observing this highly-regarded, highly-charged, and bragging-right-filled tradition. But it was too awesome a thing to miss out on. Plus, I told myself, my hostel was within the Torre boundaries so I was practically family. I snapped some photos and left the church.

Further down, filling the narrow street, were lengths of tables donned with tablecloths and vibrant blue sparkling water bottles. The seats were filled with the jubilant and proud. The neighborhood I used to live in as a kid would have a block party at least once a summer but the preparation, effort, and excitement paled in comparison. When I returned to my room for the night I could still hear firecrackers and the occasional singing through my window.

The following evening (three days after the race) I was dining outside at a restaurant on the Piazza del Campo when I began to hear a drumming in the distance. The beats continued to get louder and louder. Finally, from the alleyway-sized street to my left emerged another procession of Torre residents. This group was even larger than the one I had seen the evening before. The Palio had been brought out and was worshiped for another night. Then again, who could blame them – Torre hadn’t won in 44 years.

I had thought the stories I had heard about the Palio di Siena and the pride of winning to be exaggerated. From what I had witnessed in just 24 hours of being in town proved the stories to be true. To have been able to be a spectator of this slice of Sienese life, when the tourists were few and it was just for themselves, has always made the trip that much more entrenched in my travel psyche.

Posted in Souvenirs

What I’ve Said “Yes” To

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.