Agatha Christie is one of my favorite mystery writers. Most folks love Poirot, but I loved Miss Marple, the old lady from a tiny town who was a genius sleuth. Characters were always very skeptical about her detective skills, because who was she? Just some spinster who never left her little corner of the world. But Miss Marple knows something that people forget: it doesn’t matter where you come from to garner lessons about humanity and life.
At this point in my life, I’ve spent a bit more than an accumulated year in Italy. Most of that time was passed living in Orvieto. Now, Orvieto isn’t very large. Wikipedia says it’s 20,000 people, but I”m skeptical. In any case, Orvieto was certainly the smallest place I’ve ever lived. And guess what?
I learned some of the most important lessons about traveling by living there.
Lesson 1: Be flexible.
In a small town–especially an Italian one–shops close early, they might be open at random times (i.e. the grocery store randomly closed every Wednesday afternoon), they might go on vacation *gasp!* for two weeks and you won’t be able to find your favorite bread or whatever.
It’s a small thing, but the ability to go with the flow and reset expectations is important. You might miss your train, you might need to adjust your idea of what personal space means, whatever it may be, while you’re traveling you’re going to encounter what might seem like an obstacle: be flexible.
Lesson 2: Slow down.
Orvieto is a huge player in the slow food movement, and a proper Italian Sunday lunch should last for at least two hours and it should include a few bottles of wine, huge amounts of food, a digestivo (hellooo, sambuca!), and good company. Taking time to enjoy something like a meal really enhances an experience.
Literally slowing down and moving at a different pace changes an experience, too. I personally don’t love quickly traveling from place to place; I don’t feel like I get a sense of a place unless I’ve been there at least a week, and this year I was really glad that I spent 7 weeks in Ireland, and even more in Istanbul. Plus, it’s exhausting; you don’t have time to take a couple hours at a cafe to sit because you feel guilty about not seeing everything on your list.
And although I’m a brisk walker (anyone who’s traveled with me will likely affirm this), I try to slow down when I know I have nowhere to be. You can’t look at a view unless you actually look at it.
Lesson 3: Get lost.
Like many idyllic Italian cliff towns, Orvieto has a lot of twist and turns down its ancient cobblestone streets. Getting lost and stumbling upon a shortcut to get to school or wandering down an alley only to discover your favorite jewelry shop usually only happen when you let yourself get lost.
Lesson 4: Meet locals.
Living in a town so different from Florence and Rome, so much smaller and with so few American students, meant that we ended up interacting with a lot of locals. We befriended not only our grocer (and yes, now I have been to his home and met his family), but also the lovely woman who sold us wine down the street and a group of engineers at school.
Hanging out with travelers is fun, but forging connections with locals was one of the highlights of my trip. I am so grateful for all the locals I met (I SEE YOU, IRELAND!) who made my experience so much better. I felt like I learned so much more about countries because I had natives there to help me navigate them.
Plus, you get all the tips about where to eat. 😉
Lesson 5: Pack light.
I studied in Orvieto for 4 months with one checked bag and a carry-on, school-sized backpack. I was able to get on and off trains without risking a) serious injury or b) missing my stop because I had seven suitcases to move.
Clearly, this trip proved to me that even that amount of luggage was unnecessary. And although I was admittedly tired of some of my wardrobe by the time I got home, I also was way more glad that I had so little to worry about in case I got robbed, or things got damaged or I somehow managed to lose them. Which can happen.
Lesson 6: Say yes.
Si, oui, evet, ναί, da, ja, however you say it.
“No” is too limiting. The great Tina Fey attributes her success to a lesson learned from years of improv, a huge rule of which is “Greet everything with ‘yes’ and…”
If I hadn’t said “yes,” I wouldn’t have drunk wine on the steps of the duomo in Orvieto or eaten breakfast at 3 in the morning after dancing in Viareggio or gone tomb-exploring in Etruscan necropolises or or or or. Having a safe place to embrace spontaneity and accept challenge–which was incredibly difficult for me for a long time–helped me to understand that this is important. Very important.
And Tina Fey is right: this is totally pertinent to life. In fact, I wouldn’t have seen Cake play at the last-minute on a road trip to Phoenix in college. I wouldn’t have gone to an insanely awesome carnival, participated in an international dance comp, wouldn’t be going to Costa Rica to write a GUIDE BOOK this spring, accomplishing a life-long goal.
As a buddy told me one night, when I was being wishy washy about going lindy hopping in Ljubljana, “You’re never going to remember the night you sat in on your laptop. You’re going to remember the night you went dancing in Slovenia.” He was right; I needed to say ‘yes.’
If I hadn’t said “yes” to myself, I wouldn’t have gone on this trip. And that was the biggest part of the battle.
Have you learned any tips about travel from your hometown? Share in the comments below!