I keep hearing some version of this statement from friends, family, even strangers, about my return from WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Italy.
At first, I’d shrug and nod, “Mmmhmm,” still daydreaming about being back in the Italian countryside, paying my room and board in grapes crushed, olives picked and weeds weeded.
Then, I took a moment to consider the statement in all its absurdity. Living, sharing stories and meals with real people, in real homes, digging my fingers into real dirt and eating really, real good food … that wasn’t real? Those centuries-old towers, wonderfully geometric broccoli alla Romana and thought-provoking conversations over dinner were just figments of my imagination?
No. They were every bit as real as the snow-covered house and uncertain future that greeted me back at home in the Boston suburbs. Yet, the way I think and act in the two scenarios can be so different it feels like my vita vagabonda was just a fleeting dream. I’ve decided that the key to keeping things “real” at home is packing up your traveler’s mindset and taking it with you.
Here are eight essentials I brought back on my return flight. Take them home with you to make your descent back down to post-travel “reality” a lot more enjoyable.
#1: Be Here Now
Traveling alone requires constant, independent decision-making. Empowering and freeing? Yes. Overwhelming and daunting? Yes! I tend to agonize over decisions, big and small. Should I have chosen a different major? A different country? A different appetizer? It can be an exhausting waste of time; time better spent enjoying what’s behind the door I chose to open.
I forced myself to do this while traveling — to embrace my decisions, soak up the company, the surroundings, the moment, without worrying about the museum, city, restaurant or party I may be missing out on. I’m trying to hang on to this mentality of presence at home. Live more, stress less.
#2: Buon Appetito
As Michael Pollan says, “Drink your food, chew your drink.” Savor your meals. Sure, the life of a thrifty backpacker can mean lots of Nutella and banana sandwiches. However, a significant aspect of travel is food exploration.
My days WWOOFing revolved just as much around mealtimes as they did the harvest. We didn’t rush to prepare a meal in ten minutes, and we never rushed to eat it all in ten minutes.
Whether I was with a big family on a farm or staying on the air mattress of a single Couchsurfing host, I saw the same pattern: most Italians cook more, eat slower, talk more (and typically drink more) at lunch and dinner than we do in America.
A “Buon appetito!” before digging in was a simple way to express appreciation for the cook, the ingredients and the act of sharing a delicious meal. When Italians asked me for the equivalent saying in English, all I could think of was “Let’s eat!” Something’s definitely lost in translation. I’m sticking with “Buon appetito“.
#3: Stay Culturally Curious
Cities don’t reveal themselves in all their quirky glory to the incurious. When I’m in a foreign city, I’m always seeking out the likes of special exhibitions, free museum nights and discounted theater tickets.
If I notice an old church, I’ll take a peek at the artwork. If a pass a gallery, I’ll stop and take a look. In Italy, my curiosity led me down paths less tourist-trodden, to private tours of crowd-free palaces, galleries and catacombs.
Like many, I grow complacent at home and take for granted the culture around me. Why don’t I ever volunteer at my local farm? When was the last time I went inside Boston’s Trinity Church or walked Freedom Trail? Maybe I’ll pop into that tiny stamp museum I always drive by. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a private tour …
#4: Take a Look Around You
Sometimes I couldn’t sleep, read or write on train rides and downtime on the farm because I was too busy gawking at the nature around me. I paid attention to the beauty of morning dew, the soft Tuscan sunlight, the peacefulness of fields at dusk and the splendor of stars at night.
I’m trying to keep my eyes open back here in America. We have our own tall pines, rolling hills, long flat plains, rocky mountains and bright blue skies. There aren’t any olive trees in my backyard, but there’s a birch tree by my bedroom window that glows with the sunrise.
#5: People Are Good. Talk to Them.
I relied on Couchsurfing on city visits between farms. When you first start to Couchsurf, it can feel counterintuitive. You’re trusting a stranger? And they trust you? You don’t know this guy, but you’re having dinner together, sleeping in the same apartment, maybe even in the same room?
I forced myself to let go, open up and assume that people are inherently good (while still checking references, listening to my gut and using common sense of course). I opened up to my hosts, their friends, backpackers, farmhands and bakers. I went out of my way to meet new people and get to know them beyond the surface.
There are millions of interesting people, Americans and foreigners, in American cities. Why not keep meeting people — travelers and neighbors — keep giving people the benefit of the doubt and asking them their stories? They’re probably a lot more interesting than the reality star you could be watching on TV.
Starting the workdays with the roosters; spending fourteen hours out getting lost and found and in the city; taking the train from Rome to Napoli and a post-pizza ferry to Palermo. Traveling reminded me that days are long.
There are a whole lot of minutes in the day to enjoy. You can do a lot. See a lot. Relax a lot. All of the above. Whatever you choose to do with your day, remember rule #1.
#7: Delight in Diction
Italiano. What a language. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s almost as expressive as Yiddish. The sounds, the words, the dialects, the slang – they were musical, comical, entertaining, poetic! Who knew asking someone for a towel (asciugamano or “a-shoo-go-manno”), or to pass the fennel (finoccio; rhymes with Pinocchio) could be so much fun?
English may never have the boldness of Italian or the seductive elegance of French. That said, well-spoken English ain’t half bad. Our diction is fascinating when you take a minute to listen and consider the sounds, origins, and meanings of the words and sayings.
One of my Italian friends was always in awe of the many definitions of English words like “spring.” When I taught him the meaning of “serendipity,” he was as stoked as I was when he told me about Sirocco, the Saharan wind.
#8: Feel the Bearable Lightness of Being
Sitting on the train, en route to my last stop in Rome, I felt an incredible lightness. Now, Italy had taught me that good olive oil makes most every dish better, pasta is but one course of a complete (wine-filled) lunch and fresh ricotta goes down like water. Needless to say, this lightness wasn’t physical. It came from the empowering sensation that I can let hardships roll off my back and just keep rambling.
Between many “How did I get so lucky?” travel moments, I’d had plenty of dubious ones: cleaning chicken refuse alone in the rain; wandering lost in the city at night with my heavy backpack in the rain; watching my train roll by on the opposite platform…in the rain. Rather than let unfortunate circumstances and mistakes weigh me down, I’d just breathe, smile and crack a joke in broken Italian to the stranger — or chickens — beside me.
There’s nothing we have greater control over and nothing that has a greater impact on our experiences than our own reactions. The next time you encounter a problem, avoid the tendency to get frazzled. Try keeping things light.