On Travelling and Growing Up

by Brenna Holeman

Bergamo Italy 3

Bergamo, Italy

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.

Bergamo Italy 5

Bergamo, Italy

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.

Bergamo Italy 4

Bergamo, Italy

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

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.

Bergamo Italy 2

Bergamo, Italy

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 22, 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.

Brenna in Florence

Me in 2006 (Florence, Italy)

Bergamo Italy 1

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.

Italy: Florence and Pisa

Italy: Venice, Verona, Burano, Murano, and Torcello

Many thanks to Visit Bergamo for hosting me in their city.

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Michelle October 27, 2015 - 5:10 am

I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost my patience with certain aspects of travel. I’m no longer into the take-the-15-hour-night-bus-cause-it’s-cheaper thing- I would rather just pay my way to fly. I want my travels to be indulgent and relaxing nowadays.

But I do also wonder if that carefree spontaneous adventurous thing was indeed a youth thing or a single girl thing. Hm…

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:18 pm

I understand that – I would rather pay a bit more for comfort these days, although having more money now than I did at twenty-two definitely helps!

I still think that we can be carefree/spontaneous/adventurous no matter what the age or the relationship status 😉

Ellie Quinn October 27, 2015 - 5:56 am

This was beautiful to read!

I totally agree that travel makes you grow up and learn life skills. Being out there in the world with only yourself to rely on is major growing point in your life and I’m glad that I have grown up in that way over the last 5 years!

Bangkok and Thailand in general was my first solo trip and I’m heading back there very soon and I love thinking how different and naive I was then. Infact I was there again last year and I feel I’ve changed and grown since then too due to seeing more of the world in between.

I also love the wine comment, Argentina ‘matured’ me into liking Wine this year so il have to make my way to Italy soon to try their wine!

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:16 pm

Thank you so much, Ellie! I’m also going back to Bangkok soon, I wonder how I’ll feel about it now that four years have gone past.

Glad I’m not the only one who learned how to love wine… whatever were we thinking back then?! Ha ha 🙂

Katie @ Domestiphobia October 27, 2015 - 12:14 pm

Brenna, this is one of my favorite posts of yours in a while. I feel the same way about Italy (but really, who doesn’t?), as though I might have lived there once before. There, when drinking the wine, it really feels like you’re drinking the whole country. And while I enjoy looking at art, The David is the first piece that truly brought me to tears. (It might have been the back story. Or possibly the fact that I’m 33 and still haven’t completed a book, while Michelangelo finished The David before he turned 30. Ah well. No sense comparing ourselves to genius.) It’s been a year now since I visited, and I would love to go back. I especially loved the south — the limoncello of Sorrento and the grit of Naples. If you haven’t yet read the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, you might want to give them a try!

Katie @ Domestiphobia October 27, 2015 - 2:30 pm

Um. Also pretend “in a while” doesn’t sound snooty. I love your writing and didn’t mean it that way! I just really enjoyed this post. 🙂

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:15 pm

Oh, and no worries, I didn’t take it the wrong way at all! 🙂

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:14 pm

Thank you so much, Katie, I’m so glad that you liked it! What is it about Italy?! I could definitely live there one day, too. I was also blown away by the art there (and continue to be)… I remember how emotional I got when I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I really need to spend more time in the south, thanks for the recommendations!

Brittany Herriot October 27, 2015 - 1:10 pm

Great post! I’ve been on the road for the last 9 months, my first time travelling in my life – I left home at the age of 28 – you think I’d be grown up by then, but I am completely surprised at how much personal growth i’ve gone through travelling on my own these last 9 months. I’ve learned so much about myself, about my capabilities, my fears, and my passions. And I’ve gained insurmountable confidence, something as a person with anxiety, I always struggled with. Travel does indeed help you to grow – no matter what age you embark on your journey on!

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:12 pm

I totally agree with your last line… I just happened to be quite young when I first started out, but I think that travelling helps you to grow no matter what age you start! Thank you so much for sharing your story.

Adina Marguerite October 27, 2015 - 4:02 pm

I love this piece Brenna and couldn’t agree more. I’ve found travel has a particular way of really helping me grow and inch ever closer to the life that I want!

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:11 pm

Thank you so much, Adina! I’m really glad you liked the post.

Paige October 27, 2015 - 4:31 pm

Gorgeous and inspiring post as always, Brenna! I loved the sound clip. All of this brought me back to my first trip to Italy and first time in Europe when I was fifteen (I’m 24 now). I stayed with my cousin in Treviso (near Venice), and it was my first time being away from home/my parents for an extended period of time. While teenage growing up is different from early 20s growing up, the time was so rich in emotion and sights and sounds and stepping firmly out of my comfort zone. I found Italy to be beautiful and chaotic and overwhelming at times, but that trip gave teenage me a confidence boost! I’ve been lucky to do a decent amount of domestic trips this year with some solo adventures mixed in, and I firmly agree that travel and growing and learning go hand in hand. Now, to get back to Italy. : )

Brenna Holeman October 27, 2015 - 4:46 pm

Thank you so much, Paige! And thank you for sharing your story. I was able to visit the UK and France a few times in my teens (and took family trips to Mexico, USA, and a few other Caribbean countries) and I agree that travelling as a teen is also eye-opening. I hope you get back to Italy soon! 🙂

Jennifer October 27, 2015 - 11:47 pm

This was wonderful. You truly have the ability to transport people when you write. As I read this all I could think about was my first trip abroad. It’s strange, having to explain the growing up one does on the road, but we do grow up, somewhere between that first flight and that lost wallet. We learn to trust our inner voice, at least I did when I first went to Europe. For you it was Italy, for me it was Paris. I first went there as a Sophomore in college with friends, so to go back, at 23 by myself, well it was shocking to see my personal growth in those few short years. I can’t wait to see where you go next!

Brenna Holeman October 28, 2015 - 12:50 am

Aw, thank you so much Jennifer! I really appreciate it. I went to Paris when I was seventeen on a class trip, and it has changed so much for me every time I visit. I’d love to go back again, in fact! And you’re totally right about learning to trust that inner voice.

Thanks again for your comment!

Erin October 28, 2015 - 2:12 am

This post tugs at my heartstrings!! it made me think about my first solo trip this last spring to Malta.

Ps love the sound recording.

Brenna Holeman October 28, 2015 - 1:45 pm

Aw, I’m glad you liked it, Erin! Thanks for the comment.

Kaitlyn Burke October 28, 2015 - 9:56 pm

This is a wonderfully written post. I have been travelling on and off for about 8 years not, and I definitely approach trips and new places a lot differently than I used to. Traveling has definitely changed the way I have grown up in a very wonderful way. I am visiting Prague in January for the first time since living there for a short time in 2011, and I am very interested to see how I take in the city compared to just drinking my way through it. There are a lot of things I missed out on there and I am looking forward to my second chance.

Brenna Holeman October 30, 2015 - 1:03 am

Thank you so much, Kaitlyn! I really appreciate it. I definitely approach trips differently, too, and I agree that I have changed because of travel (in good ways, I hope!). Have an amazing time in Prague, I’d love to go back there, too!

Christine October 28, 2015 - 10:55 pm

Having accumulated life experiences both at home and being on the road made me grow up. The person that I am in my early 20’s and going to Europe on a solo trip was an eye opening experience for me. I don’t know how I did it and I can’t believe that I survived in one piece.

I have a very different outlook now. I used to cram every thing on my itinerary but now I like to have a more relaxed pace to really “soak in” the country/city that I’m visiting.

Brenna Holeman October 30, 2015 - 1:03 am

I totally agree with your new relaxed attitude, Christine! Thanks so much for your comment. 🙂

Amy (Two Drifters) October 29, 2015 - 8:21 pm

What a beautiful post, Brenna! It reminds me of my first trip to Europe. I can totally relate to that sense of wide-eyed wonder and of feeling like everything you did was so adventurous and worldy…so sophisticated. I love looking back at the past to see how I have grown and changed. 🙂

Brenna Holeman October 30, 2015 - 1:04 am

Thank you so much, Amy! Isn’t it cool to reflect like that?

Ashley November 1, 2015 - 5:47 pm

I love this, Brenna! It must have been so lovely to be back in Italy, relfecting on such a pivotal time in your life. I agree that my first solo backpacking trip helped me to mature moreso than any other experience, and I’m so grateful for that.

Brenna Holeman November 1, 2015 - 11:11 pm

Thank you so much, Ashley! I’m so grateful for it, too. Thanks for your comment 🙂

Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate November 1, 2015 - 10:45 pm

I did a very similar trip to you in 2003 when I was 20, and all the things you said (minus the smoking; still haven’t had a cigarette) remind me of that year abroad. Though substitute Argentinian and South Africa for German and Brit 😉

Nostalgia is great, isn’t it?

Brenna Holeman November 1, 2015 - 11:11 pm

Nostalgia is SO great – I often read through my journals from that time and they make me laugh, cry, and cringe. Thanks for the comment, Kristin!

Mary November 3, 2015 - 5:25 pm

Wow! That audio clip was an excellent addition to this post… definitely felt a little teary eyed reading this because you spoke about your experiences with such honesty, respect, and reflection. I love that travel changes people, or better brings out the person we have always known was inside. Sometimes, back in my “regular life” I forget the person i became abroad and have to spend some time reflecting and giving gratitude towards my travel experiences.

Brenna Holeman November 3, 2015 - 8:00 pm

Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Mary! I’m really glad you liked the post.

Zalie November 5, 2015 - 6:08 pm

I loved hearing about your 2006 travels and how you felt about yourself and the world around you. I remember feeling the same way when I left for Australia and Asia back in 2000. It’s incredible to look back and see the person you have become and how much your life experiences have shaped who you are!

Brenna Holeman November 6, 2015 - 3:27 am

Thank you so much, Zalie! Isn’t is so amazing where life has taken us over the years, both in travelling and in our personalities? I’m glad that we’re in it together 🙂 xoxoxox

Stuart Forster November 5, 2015 - 11:09 pm

Travel is definitely a catalyst to developing. Revisiting spots also prompts us to consider the past and how we’ve developed. Maybe that’s one of travel’s many beauties?

Brenna Holeman November 6, 2015 - 2:12 am

I definitely agree with you, Stuart! Thanks for your comment.

Natalie April 6, 2016 - 12:37 am

Hi Brenna!
I definitely agree with you that travelling allows us to visit and experience all these new cultures and people, essentially building and making us the people we are today! I am currently 16 and been have been fortunate as yourself, to travel the world with my parents. Next year, when I am 17 I am thinking of doing some travelling in the first half of the year and starting university in July. What do you think of au pairing? I have a friend who has done it and she loved it! I speak French, so I think France would be ideal for me. Would very much appreciate your thoughts!

nat xx

Dianne Tho April 6, 2016 - 9:15 am

aw, i want to go to italy so badly :'(
well, anyhow, i’m going to paris next month and I’m super excited caz it’s going to be my first time
and yesssss, i totally agree with you, i love traveling caz it teaches me a lot not only about the world but also about myself

Sarah November 2, 2016 - 11:24 pm

Brenna, you are an absolute gem. Everything you put out is thoughtful and brave—especially those links to 2006-blogging-you. They’re great.

Brenna Holeman November 3, 2016 - 4:26 pm

Aw, thank you so much! I’m so glad that you’re enjoying the blog. 🙂

Melissa November 3, 2016 - 4:47 pm

Your first solo trip sounds a lot like mine! It’s inspiring and encouraging to see how far you’ve come and to know that there’s still so much out there to see.

Brenna Holeman November 3, 2016 - 6:51 pm

Agreed – and I believe I’ll never run out of things to see/places to explore! Thanks for the comment, Melissa.


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