It was November of 2005, and I was spending my fall semester of my junior year studying at in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when four fellow students and I decided to be daring and have a continental adventure before we went home for Christmas. Ryanair direct to Fiumicino, here we come!
It seemed clever and brave. But the truth was, I had never before visited a non-English speaking country. I had never spent a holiday abroad. I was still terrified of speaking Italian, and I carried my own personalized phrasebook with me–printed on paper–at the very top was “No parliamo italiano.” In other words, for the love of god, please don’t talk to me. Please don’t make me humiliate myself. Above all, I was terrified of doing something wrong.
- How to make friends–no, family!–out of anyone. The truth was, I didn’t know any of my traveling companions that well. One was a softspoken boy from Alabama who liked tacos; another was an angelic Catholic girl from eastern Pennsylvania who just wanted a souvenir rosary from the Vatican “‘Bring me something holy, Angela!” my mom said. ‘Just bring me something holy!’” Another was a tall, dark-skinned girl from Indiana I’d never even met. “I never thought I’d be traveling to Rome at age 19,” she gushed. I was skeptical.
These weren’t exactly the cool, glamorous traveling companions I’d dreamed of. They were as naive as I was, if not moreso. But as it turned out, they were right for me. We helped each other read maps, puzzle out signages and agree to skip the overpriced tour of the Colosseum. We listened to our shoes tap on the polished floors of ancient churches, and had our pictures taken with some guys dressed up in cheesy gladiator costumes. I was the best at languages, so when a woman asked about the book I was reading on the train, I spoke for all of us. No parliamo italiano, I said with an abashed grin. My friends thanked me. And I didn’t die.
- How to travel cheaply. Of course, as tourists, none of us had planned to eat anyplace except a restaurant. Certainly our parents never did while traveling. Except this was Thanksgiving, so if we wanted anything close to a traditional American turkey day, we quickly realized we’d have no choice but to –gulp–shop locally. I’d never been so terrified. What if I didn’t understand what something was? Would I have to ask?. For someone clinging to her sweaty phrasebook like a deflating raft, and with crippling shyness around people I didn’t know, this was genuinely terrifying.
Tiptoeing into the store, we didn’t find a big frozen Butterball–none of us knew how to cook it anyway, but we did find some turkey breasts at the deli, and my friend said she thought the Italians eat potatoes. (Gnocchi, right? Right?) And pasta was just as starchy as pumpkin and sweet potatoes, so that was a good stand-in. Cranberry was out of the question, and we didn’t have the first clue about how to make stuffing. All in all, we only had maybe one or two of the Thanksgiving trappings. My stomach started to sink. Homesickness was creeping in. But I stuck my chin out.
- How to feel at home anywhere. We were all ready to leave the store, when I turned around and realized my companions weren’t with me. Then I heard sweet little Angela’s voice behind me at the deli counter. She spoke clearly, loudly enough for the entire store to hear. “Formaggio?” Silence, for two, three seconds. Then the guy laughed and handed her a huge hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and we skedaddled back to the hostel. Alive.
Back at our crowded hostel near Termini Station, we Americans took over the kitchen and whipped up our sad little turkey breasts–which, warmed up and coated with, what else, tomato sauce–didn’t look so sad anymore. We forgot the butter, so our potatoes weren’t exactly creamy, and the utensils seemed to date to Tiberius’ reign. And of course we made pasta, because Italy! Angela and Cody, of course, insisted on holding hands and saying grace. The kitchen started to feel a little warmer; the city not so dark and foreign. These people–these strange, stupid American kids–started to look, well, nice.
- How to be thankful. We rejoined all 12 or so of the rest of our hostel companions–two backpacking Serbians, a group of English chavs, and that one Irish guy who shows up hammered at every hostel on Earth—-and instead of trying to dazzle each other by naming all the exotic locales to which we’d traveled, we played parlor games. And then we actually talked. To strangers. Who didn’t hate us, even though we’d appropriated the entire kitchen for the past three hours and probably didn’t clean it all that well. This seemed to be the biggest miracle at all.
Up till then, all I’d wanted was to get out of this alive. But that Thanksgiving, something changed. I was thankful. After all, not everybody gets to go to Rome at 19. Not everyone gets to travel at all. Not everyone has a family waiting for them across the ocean when they’re broke and weary and ready to go home for Christmas. Not everyone has that moment where they realize for the first time that this isn’t a fluke. That I didn’t have to be a terrified tourist. That I could be smart, That I could be brave, that I could be wise. That I could be a traveler.