Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a new-to-me city in Italy: Bergamo. It was my fifth time in Italy, and once again the country did not disappoint: the food, the wine, the architecture, the cobblestoned streets, the people, the museums, the countryside, the food, the wine. I didn’t have much time, and wanted to see a lot in a short period of time, so the first two days there were filled with lots of activities and sightseeing, including a trip to the opera, an afternoon on Lake Iseo and its surrounding towns, and even a tour of a local winery to sample the region’s famous muscat wine, which was delicious.
On my last day in the city, however, I decided to do what I love to do the most in any city, familiar or not: wander around, take some photos, and sit at a café to people-watch. Since I started travelling on my own nearly ten years ago, that’s always been my go-to perfect day, and I’ve had some of the best days of my life doing exactly that. I can think of a few favourite locations for doing that around the world off the top of my head, but most of my favourite cities in the world are favourites because I’ve taken some time to just live them, to just wander and walk and breathe and see.
My final day in Bergamo was my favourite, then. It didn’t hurt that the weather finally cooperated; after two days of solid rain, there were blue skies, showing off the Upper Town’s sun-bleached marble, intricately tiled basilicas, brightly painted windowsills, and narrow cobblestoned streets. The people came out, too, stopping for lunch at the local pizzerias, wandering arm in arm through the main square, and sitting in the sunshine with coffee and white wine.
Sounds of Bergamo, Italy
As I sat in the main square myself – I ordered my first glass of wine at 11 a.m., because when in Italy, you do as the Italians do – I was reminded of my first trip to Italy. It was 2006, nearly ten years ago. I was newly twenty-two years old. I had short, dark hair I had cut myself with my mother’s sewing scissors the night before I left my hometown in Canada. Italy was my sixth country on a huge, whirlwind backpacking trip through Europe: I had already been to the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Germany. I was completely on my own, bouncing from one major city to the next, staying in hostels for a few days before strapping my backpack on and clutching my Eurorail pass to my chest to find another train to another city. When I think of that trip, I think of the click-clack of the destination board in the train station as it updates; I think of arriving in dark cities late at night, searching for a taxi; I think of staring out the window as the world whizzed past, watching green hills unfold in the distance, fairy-tale castles perched atop a few of them. I think of movement. And then, I think of Italy, of stepping off the train in Florence and realising this felt different. I remember thinking that Italy felt like the Europe of my dreams, the Europe I had always longed to see.
Despite my instant taking to the country, in retrospect I didn’t give it enough time (though do we ever have enough time?). With a week in Florence and a week in Venice, with day trips to Verona and Pisa, I barely covered any ground, but what I did see, I fell in love with. I ate gelato at least once a day, if not twice. With my meagre backpacker budget I bought all my meals from small bakeries or markets, sitting beneath marble statues as I ate cheese and bread. I hardly had enough money for wine, but even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have bought it – I didn’t like wine then. To call home I had to buy a calling card, or charge my credit card at a payphone. To go online I had to go to an internet café (remember those?) and put coins into a machine to give me slots of fifteen minutes of online use (though I still managed to occasionally post on my old blog). I met loads of other backpackers around my age, but I spent the majority of the time on my own, seeing the famous museums, taking photos, writing in my journal about what I saw and heard and smelled. I’d spend all day walking around, seeing as much as I could possibly see. It felt exhilarating and powerful, like I was uncovering a secret. The world can’t possibly be this beautiful and this interesting, I’d think, and then I’d turn another corner and my breath would be taken away once again.
And when I think back to that time, I also think of youth. On one hand, I thought I was so sophisticated. I was in Europe! I smoked clove cigarettes and read books by French authors! I drank cappuccinos by canals! I kissed a South African and an Argentinian! On the other hand, I knew that I was still very wide-eyed, very naive. Despite living on my own for four years during university, and in a different city in Canada than my hometown at that, I had always lived a relatively sheltered and comfortable life. This was the first time I was truly out in the world on my own, completely reliant on my own capabilities and my own decisions. There were so many times I felt lost, and confused, and scared. There were so many times I felt like an idiot, embarrassed at my own blatantly obvious role as tourist (nobody was going to mistake my shorts and hiking boot combo for a local). But when I think back to all of that, all of those feelings of insecurity and doubt, I am eternally thankful for the opportunity to essentially grow up on the road. I was fortunate enough – and, without blowing my own horn too much, brave enough – to be in a situation that forced me to mature. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know anybody. I barely had any money. And yet I survived. I not only survived, I grew up, I grew into the woman I am today. Travelling, and especially travelling on my own at such a young age, helped me do that.
Venice, Italy (2006)
Over the years, I’ve been to Milan, Rome, Basilicata, and now Bergamo, and I’ve travelled to dozens of other countries on my own. I still feel lost sometimes, confused or scared. But I feel different emotions, too. I feel at ease, I feel confident. I feel a lot less worried about the surface things – finding my way to the hotel, figuring out the train schedule – and a lot more excited about the, for lack of better word, deeper, more meaningful things: figuring out the best coffeeshop by trial and error, chatting with the locals at the market, finally seeing a piece of art I’ve always loved in person, just being there and relishing just being there.
Looking back, it was that first solo trip to Europe that really shaped who I am today, and it was the catalyst for all of the other travels I’ve done since. It was the summer that launched me in adulthood, moreso than actually turning eighteen or going off to university. And when I say that I grew up, or that I matured, I mean these things in the very best way; I mean that I grew into my own, so to speak, and felt like I finally unlocked the personality that was always inside of me. I also don’t necessarily think that you need to travel in order to do that – to say so wouldn’t be fair to those who can’t or don’t want to travel. I think the key to this discovery was that I found my passion, so whatever your passion is, I believe it can help you develop into the person you’d really like to be.
So last week, in Bergamo, I reflected on all that had happened in the past decade to get me where I am today, to get me to that place with that perfect glass of wine (because I did indeed learn how to love wine). In many ways, I’m still naive and I’m still wide-eyed; I don’t think that those are necessarily bad things to be. But sitting there in the beautiful sunshine, the church bells ringing all around me, I felt a sense of contentment that stemmed from those reflections. At twenty-two, I definitely didn’t realise that I was shaping my future, but I was still cultivating the experiences and the skills I’d need later in life. Without realising it, travelling – and discovering just how much I loved travelling – helped me grow up, it helped me become the person I really want to be.
And as I ordered my second glass of wine, I saw her across the square: the girl with the short dark hair, hiking boots on her feet, her face lifted ever so slightly to the sun, taking it all in.
Me in 2006 (Florence, Italy)
Me in 2015 (Bergamo, Italy)
Do you agree that travelling and growing up – or at least learning life skills – go hand in hand? Do you feel that you’ve ever “grown up” while on the road?
To read what I thought of Italy in 2006 (and to see photos of my time there, including so many more of my hideous haircut/clothing choices), here are links to my old blog. Please don’t look too deep into the archives… for my sake and for yours, hah.
Many thanks to Visit Bergamo for hosting me in their city.