As I moseyed along the nondescript, concrete path to the Colosseum under the relentless eye of the sun, I felt tired and uninspired. When I rounded the corner and saw the first sign of the ancient, architectural beauty, I didn’t feel moved or awestruck. I was hoping for a moment like Jullia Roberts had in Eat Pray Love, but to no avail. Here, standing before me, was an icon I had only come to know of through history books and movies, one that I had longed to see since I was young, yet my first impression was merely a standing pile of rock that someone took a bite out of like cake. Appalling to think, right?
Well, overall, what I saw and experienced wasn’t authentic Italy, or at least, it didn’t feel that way. Perhaps, it’s more appropriate to say I didn’t get to explore Italy the way that I’m used to or would’ve liked to. It was the textbook, tourist version of Italy. My mom and I signed up for a 10-day package tour with Trafalgar that took us to Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Venice.
At first, I thought traveling in a group would be a richer learning experience. I’d get to visit a different country in a new way with my #1 supporter (love you mom). My mom would get to travel outside the U.S. for the first time in 30 years, all the planning would be done for us, and I’d have the same group of people around to share real time memories and opinions. As it turns out, packaged tours (at least in first world countries) are not for me. Every time I saw a backpacker walk by, I felt myself yearning for hostels, riding the metro, and roaming the back alleys. Tours may be something I appreciate more when I’m older, but at 25, I want my own time with a new place. Selfish? Yes, but that’s what my 20s are for.
The way I think and my purpose for traveling has changed. The glitz and glam of moving around the globe has washed away, and my interest in tourist sites has vanished. So imagine my disappointment being shuffled from one tourist site to the next, spending a majority of my day indoors at museums and cathedrals when the sun was shining, being subject to sales pitches at leather and gold stores, and eating at “local restaurants” packed with tour groups.
The whole trip felt rushed. We spent 9-10 hour days on our feet being herded like cattle and fed information through walkie talkie earbuds which by the end of the trip I didn’t even bother using. While we did see a lot more than we probably could’ve accomplished on our own, the pace wasn’t relaxed enough to soak it all in, and trying to recall what we did just hours before became a struggle. It was disheartening, and at times, made me feel empty. It made me cherish that much more what little free time my mother and I had to explore on our own.
The good news is that Italy looks just like I had pictured it. It is dessert for the eyes. Earthy colors, natural and unmanicured landscaping, free of neon lights and skyscrapers, cobblestone streets paved to break the heels off of shoes, and friendly and passionate people who I think make the best bunch with which to share a meal. Building exteriors are flat and can only be distinguished from one another by the colorful, wooden shutters, clotheslines, pigeons, and the occasional cat. The Italians walk with purpose, sip coffee at an outdoor table watching passersby, and greet friends with such love accompanied by a kiss on each cheek.
What I didn’t know is that Italy’s major cities are melting pots of different ethnicities. Indian and Chinese shop owners, vendors from Senegal who pester people to buy their knock-off handbags, Japanese tour groups, Mediterranean influenced cuisine, and European travelers.
Perhaps it was just the people I came into contact with (i.e. tour guides, restaurant owners, etc.), but I thought everyone spoke English really well. It was brought to my attention by a fellow traveler that after 9/11, because Americans were afraid to travel, many European countries were pressured to improve their English so tourism industries wouldn’t suffer. While I don’t know if this theory is correct, it is one I never considered and will entertain for a bit.
So, in short, I’m not currently well-suited for structured tours, and except for Switzerland, the rest of Europe is not high on my list of places to visit, but I still had a lovely time. When I visit Italy again on my own, I’ll set my curiosity free to discover the real charm of the country and make twice the effort to see beyond what I once thought was just a “pile of rocks”.