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 Travel

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Are Signs

Be them street signs, signs on a building, or informative markers, here are a few of the signs that played a role in my travels abroad.

Dublin, Ireland

(Photo: Benedicto16)

The above sign was the first I encountered in Ireland that, probably shockingly, threw me for a loop, but also helped formulate a bond. It was my first night in Dublin and a group of six or seven of us were in a pub just off Grafton Street. One girl, Lisa, and I were looking at the jukebox when another girl in our group came over to ask us if we knew where the bathrooms were. Neither of us had any idea but I remembered seeing a guy head through the door that had this sign above it and go up some steps. So I said to the girl, “I think that sign means the bathrooms are through that door and upstairs.” She hit me with a look that questioned my intelligence and sobriety and, before moving on, replied, “I think that means Exit.” My brief embarrassment quickly vanished as both Lisa and I fell into hysterics. She and I became fast friends after that.

Siena, Italy

The sign to the right is an unconventional, handmade one from Siena, Italy. I arrived the day after the Palio di Siena horse race. This day the winning contrada, or district, was celebrating its victory by parading through the streets waving flags of their contrada (Torre or Tower), beating drums, and blowing whistles. I encountered the large group when they made their way to the Piazza del Campo, the site of the race. This gentleman is being helpful to the tourists by wearing a sign indicating which way to the fountain and which way to the Duomo, two of the city’s main attractions. Either that or he was just tired of being asked for directions. I never quite figured out where he needed to be standing in the city for the arrows on the sign to be accurate.

Antwerp, Belgium

One sign that was no trouble to understand was this one below, which was on the side of a restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium. Alas, I did not go in to see if the proclamation was indeed true, though I had little doubt it was telling the truth.

Also in Antwerp was the sign for the hostel my friends and I stayed in. The sign was telling us more with its rust than we originally suspected.

Upon arrival we dropped off what we didn’t want to carry for the day. When we returned to our room later in the evening, we found much of the floor, bedding, and walls to be damp from the rain. We gals muddled through laying out wet clothes to dry for the next day and sleeping on top of our towels. It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized the damp, rusty-signed hostel had given me a parting gift of scabies on my hand. Not surprisingly, I do not recommend this hostel, and, according to some of the reviews on-line, other people do not recommend it either.

Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

On our way to the Cliffs of Moher, my friends and I decided to take in the views along the ocean as we walked from Doolin to the main cliff-viewing area at O’Brien’s Tower. This was about three miles of gorgeous scenery. As the terrain rose we came across the sign below that we took as a simple warning as the path we were on was well worn. Walking between the property fence and the edge did produce some heart palpitations as the space was quite narrow making me think twice about disregarding the sign.

Here’s how high we were prior to reaching the ‘Extreme Danger’ sign.

Before we made it to O’Brien’s Tower to see the full view of the breathtaking cliffs, we had one more hurdle to climb – a gate with barbed wire – next to which was a sign telling us in three languages not to take the very path we had just taken. Oops.

Drumnadrochit, Scotland and Cornwall, England

Last, here are some of the street signs that caught my attention for their humorous specificity, imagery and drawn figures. The first was found in Drumnadrochit, Scotland and the latter two were found in Cornwall, England.