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August 14, 2014

Life Lessons Learned on the Road. ~ Carolyn Gladd

trevi fountain rome travel adventure abroad tour Europe

Over a year ago, my flight from Europe dropped me back in America.

I remember walking to the final airplane ride of my journey with light, fluttery butterflies bouncing against my ribcage, and joyful tears stinging my eyes. I was returning to my family, and I was eager to jabber plenty of stories about my adventures and embrace my sweet loved ones who I missed so much.

At the same time, I grounded my ruined boots over every rickety cobblestone, and felt sad to leave. I finally felt adjusted to this distant country. The fruit stand man could correctly pronounce my name, and I could shlep around town without stumbling for directions.

My heart was torn, pulsing in opposite directions.

The first few weeks of being abroad were difficult. I was devastatingly homesick, wanting nothing more than to snuggle my warm boyfriend (who was an ocean away) on lonely nights. Now, part of me wanted to continue absorbing the rich cultures of Europe, gradually molding myself to belong there.

However, I was broke, and knew it was time to go home to eat a proper, nourishing meal. After splashing my last coin over my shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, I had a full promise to return to the place that helped me grow into who I am today.

I am still discovering new traits and perspectives that I picked up from my experience on my own in Italy. Here are a few things I learned:

There will always be people who mean well.

After midnight and one too many gin and tonics, I was depending on my friend’s shoulders to support me while I dragged my feet home. Two young men with choppy English approached us, eager to discuss our study abroad endeavors and what it is like to live in America.

Naively, I thought we were engaged in an intriguing conversation. Mid-sentence, they both started sprinting away. “Check your purse,” my friend sternly advised. “I think you just got robbed.”

Surely enough, my phone was gone. One little device that held all of my pictures, directed me around this new city and allowed me to communicate with my friends around the world was gone.

I don’t remember falling asleep that night, but I woke up hoping with all my might that it was just a dream. I didn’t realize how much I was attached to my phone until later, on a lonely tram ride back to my apartment.
Uncontrollable tears flooded my eyes as I looked around at all of the families laughing together, sharing secrets and enjoying each other’s company. Their beautiful, sing-song language irked me; it was so foreign. I could not comprehend much of what anybody was saying.

I felt like an outcast. Nobody wanted me on this tram, or even cared that I was crying. I was gulping for air, and wanted nothing more than a hug or a familiar face to tell me that everything was okay.

I was feeling stupid, irresponsible and pathetically homesick, when a kind lady reached her hand to me with a tissue, a smile and a nod. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see an elderly man acknowledge me with sympathetic eyes. In the seat in front of me, a middle-aged fellow wearing dirty clothes and carrying a briefcase turned around and looked me softly in the eyes. With a low voice and careful English, he gently asked what was wrong.

More and more people gathered around me on the moving tram. They separated from their friends to stroke my hair and offer tissues and smiles. We laughed together about how petty losing my phone was. The man in front of me showed me his battered flip phone, and asked why we (Americans) obsess over our iPhones.

Deep down, I knew that it was not the phone that I was crying for, but that I was searching for a place to fit in and just missing intimacy.

They apologiized for the misdemeanor that happened last night, consoled me and patted my pitiful tears dry. On the same tram ride that I entered feeling woozy and disgruntled, I left feeling high on love.

You get what you need.

If the Rolling Stones didn’t already make this clear enough, I certainly learned this statement when I was abroad.

I was convinced that I did not need help from anybody else, even when my bank account hit zero after the mere expenses of food and traveling. I did not want to ask for more money. I was lucky enough to be abroad, and did not want to bother my family with my problems.

After a few days of living off of hot water and free espresso, my neighbors grew concerned about my baggy pants that were once form fitting. I was ravenous for sustenance, so I sucked up my pride (which was not as satisfying as a slurp of pasta) and informed my mom that I probably would not survive the rest of my trip without money. I do not know why I was so surprised, but she graciously wired me some money so that I would not wither away before I came home.

By accepting the embarrassing fact that I could not support myself, I let myself be vulnerable. I owed my mom a couple hundred dollars, but hey, I got by.

I am more open.

Nudity no longer fazes me. Naked people shamelessly strut on beaches, provocative pictures of “real” men and women are displayed and there is an understanding that sex is very normal in Europe.

I wasn’t prude before, but my mind has been exposed to the reality of what human bodies are made for: to enjoy food, rest and sex.

Don’t gyp yourself.

Yes, sleeping with my eyelids half-open on the sidewalk of the airport surrounded by homeless people was quite an experience.

Next time, I think I’ll splurge the extra six euros to sleep an extra night in the bunk of a hostel.
Stay humble, my friends.

My American friends tend to think that America is the best, but I disagree.

There is so much to see in this world, how can you pick just one place as the best?

 

 

 

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Luca Serazzi at Flickr

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Carolyn Gladd