Or rather, under the backpack
Writing to you from a cafe in Verona, the inspiration for the setting and inspiration of Romeo and Juliet. Ah yes it is fitting that I, a young Shakespeare myself (*swirls glass of cheapest white wine*) would come to Verona for my own inspiration. It’s only been twenty minutes since I got off the train, but my literary masterpiece is surely impending.
In the meantime, you’ll have to just settle for this…
On the Road Again
For the most part, it feels like I never left. The minute I got to my hostel in Rome on July 14th, I felt the familiarity (both good and bad) of the traveler lifestyle… and I was thrilled.
Let’s start with the bad, because who doesn’t like to do a little complaining:
Hostel bunk beds. That’s self-explanatory.
Remembering where I put my wallet in my 50 liter pack. Thinking I lost said wallet. Breaking into a cold sweat and preparing to call my parents with my tail between my legs. Finding the wallet three minutes later under my left thigh.
Back sweat from carrying said pack and the 90+ degree heat wave across Europe. (It’s literally been 90+ every day since I go here)
Ok so before I get into this one, I know how it makes me sound. And frankly, I! don’t! care! so save the eye roll……….Iced coffee. Or rather, the irrational lack of iced coffee. Europeans are rather smug about their tiny little scalding espressos. OhHhHHhhhhhh save it. It’s 95 degrees today and I am sticking to a plastic chair while my sunglasses slide down my face in an avalanche of sunblock and makeup. And you have the utter audacity to offer me a hot coffee sir? This goes beyond preference, it’s simply not logical: it’s hot, people need coffee, let’s make the coffee cold (mind-blowing intellect, huh?).
Perhaps the biggest slap in the face: the fake-iced-coffee-disguised-as-a-fancy-drink:
If I have to use an airpod for scale on my European iced coffees (if you can even call them that) then we have a grave problem that even universal healthcare cannot solve. Give me my greedy-capitalistic-gluttony-induced 20 ounces of sweet sweet Dunkin cold brew (whole milk and no sugar…if you were ever feeling thoughtful 🥺👉🏼👈🏼).
Ok but I’m in ITALY so I can’t really be complaining. So now for the good…the great!:
I’m TRAVELING AGAIN. I can’t believe my lack of ACL’s (and dwindling menisci) haven’t stopped me. (Feeling very grateful to the doctors, PTs, friends, and family that helped me push through recovery…five months ago, I would have NEVER thought I’d be back)
This is perhaps the best part of being in Europe: the gluten. Oh sweet, sweet digestible European gluten, you (almost) make up for the caffeine snobbery. I can’t eat gluten in America. Nope, not a good idea for me. But here, for some reason, the gluten is less hostile. I was explained all the science behind it but honestly, I was too busy eating my pasta to really care that much (I have a year of no gluten to make up for, and I’m well on my way).
The incredible people you meet along the way... that’s why you really travel. These are the connections that you remember. When traveling alone, you experience a little mix of FOMO and loneliness. Here’s an example of an internal monologue: “oh cool I can see the Duomo in Florence, but there’s also the bell tower, and what about walking down the river and Ponte Vecchio, but wait a second, when will I have time to make friends in the hostel? Will it be fun to see this stuff alone? Am I doing enough, am I seeing enough, is this cafe cute enough to make me feel like I’m in my own little travel movie!!?” This probably goes through my mind 10-20 times a day. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed (when really you’re just spoiled for choice) when you’re traveling alone. It’s typical to spend time fearing regret. But even a couple of weeks into my travels, looking back, it’s the unplanned connections and newfound acquaintances that I remember instead of what I didn’t end up doing or seeing.
The IDGAF attitude of solo traveling (I’m using abbreviations because my father requested I do less cursing in this blog…you know dads… always saying the craziest s***!). So, the IDGAF attitude; it stems directly from the fact that solo traveling is baseline a series of mishaps (but that’s what makes it fun). At some point, you gotta throw up your hands and not GAF. Let me give you an example: It’s 97 degrees. I’m getting on a train with my pack and the ticket-scanner-man is approaching. I need to grab my wallet. It’s in the fanny pack around my neck that keeps hitting me in the face with each step. Meanwhile, a bottle of shampoo has exploded in the bowels of my pack and I am unknowingly walking towards an hour-and-a-half of cleaning my only three outfits in a communal hostel sink. The scanny-man is two rows away. I am sweating on the sticky little table in front of me, fiddling with my wallet. *Where is it!? Where IS IT!?* He stares at me disparagingly in Italian (and Italian state is extremely unsettling, fyi). I found it!! Ok he grabs my soggy ticket, scans it, rolls his eyes (in Italian), and moves on. Mission accomplished…. Well not quite yet. Someone wants to sit next to me so I have to hoist (and I mean hoist) my 40+ pound pack over my 5’4” body and throw it on the rack above…only putting weight on one leg to spare my new knee. My phone, wallet, and some crushed snack fall on the floor out of my pocket. I turn to my weary neighbor, clear my pocket-crumbs off of their sear, and give them a big IDGAF smile. Peak liberation.
The millions of other stuff: the churches, the scenery, the accents, the wine, the everything. I’ll spare you the litany. Basically, I’m really grateful to be back.
Rome: The Glorious Reunion
I’ve been to Rome a couple of time before, so this time, I was just stopping through to say hi to some old friends.
Of course, before doing that, I had to do a little touristing. I had a bit of a Lizzie McGuire moment in front of the Trevi fountain:
And pasta, of course some pasta:
I also visited some new places. I went on a tour of the early Christian graveyard at the catacombs of Saint Calixtus. Apparently they go on for 13 kilometers, deeper and deeper underground. Hundred and hundreds of niches were carved into the underground walls for tombs, many surrounded but ancient frescoes of different early Christian symbols. Highly recommend if you find yourself in Rome.
I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures, so here’s a picture of a picture I paid for…all for your viewing pleasure:
Another first was visiting the Ursuline order’s headquarters for the Roman Union. The Ursuline sisters founded my high school. Their education inspired me to continue learn about my faith and to seek this fellowship. Sister Mariangela was nice enough to show me around:
Ok now to the friends.
First visit was to one of my first travel friends. Last July in France, when I was at the monastery in Jouques, France, I met Father H a Rwandan priests who was completing his studies in Rome. Father H’s story is one of the most powerful calls to vocation I’ve ever heard. His family was able to overcome the wounds of genocide and the societal divisions drawn between the Hutus and Tutsis. Seeing the love that conquered these divisions inspired Father H to take his vows. (You can revisit his story in more detail here).
We met up at the Vatican in front of St. Peter’s and got a drink right outside the walls. Father H shared some exciting updates: he’s moving back to Rwanda next year and will be in charge of his own parish. He’s invited me to visit.
I promised I would.
Another joyful reunion: the Dreamy Italians!
As the loyal reader you undoubtedly are, you might remember my lively friends from the Camino de Santiago. Despite speaking differing languages, we ended up walking every day together, exchanging an ever-evolving mix of English, Spanish, Italian, French, and many many Italian swear words (where does that leave me now in my Italian language skills? Well I can’t even order a plate of pasta but I can tell the waiter to go do plenty of things I would have to abbreviate for my dad’s sensitive eyes).
I saw Susanna my first night in Rome:
And then the whole group had a reunion in Travesterre, a cool! young! hip! neighborhood in Rome. Our next reunion has been planned for New York City or, perhaps, on another Camino.
Florence: New Friends, New Places
I got to Florence with a simple plan: Duomo, Uffizi gallery, and Ponte Vecchio. All of these things ended up exceeding my already-high expectations. I’ve wanted to go to Florence since I took AP Art History (*hair flip*) in high school and studied the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s Duomo.
My jaw actually dropped when I saw it. The old pictures-don’t-do-it-justice cliche:
With the influx of tourism in Europe this summer (ugh…so many Americans), I was even lucky to get inside. I attended mass my first night in Florence right under Brunelleschi’s dome. I spent the entire hour staring up in awe:
Special thanks to my sister Vicky — who took Art History this year (*hair flip*) — for saving me 20 euros on an audio guide:
Another notable moment was visiting Michelangelo plaza, a piazza on the top of a hill that gives you a panoramic view of Florence.
I went at sunset, when most people go to sit at a cafe and look out on the city. I was feeling so empowered: “after five months of trying to bend my leg, I’ve made it to Florence alone!” Buuuut I was also feeling that slight loneliness you can get in a new city: “I’ve made it to Florence….alone.” There were so many friends drinking bottles of wine, chatting, and there I was with my solitary panini (which honestly isn’t the worst company…).
This was just the impetus I needed to remember one of my golden travel rules: you can always make friends in the hostel.
A couple of groups of American girls were, like me, indulging in a glass of the one-free-voucher-house-wine at the hostel. All it really takes is a smile and a “where are you from” (and my magnetic charisma of course). We ended up sitting on the terrace al together and, eventually, forming a plan to go out on the town.
Ok so Florence is not what I would call a “going out” city…but we made it one. I had an incredible night out with these new friends enjoying the cities finest ~establishments~.
I ended up taking a tour with these awesome ladies the next day and getting dinner all together:
Traveling — especially solo— is always about the people you meet.
Hostels, the Friendliest Places on Earth
I don’t know what it is about a hostel, but it brings out the best in everyone. It’s like the first day of school — everyone is extra friendly. Maybe it’s the sharing bunk beds, or the sticky communal kitchens, or (more likely) the free drinks, but everyone is automatically more open, more vulnerable. And you already all have something to talk about: your travel stories.
My first night in Rome, for instance, I was using my drink voucher (a staple of any hostel worth a damn) at the hostel bar (also a staple of any hostel worth a damn). I dropped my phone (a staple of….me) and my neighbor picked it up. That was all it took for me to be sitting at table with three other visitors — one from France, one from Germany, and one from Argentina — for the next hour exchanging stories, plans, and tips.
I don’t think our world values friendliness enough. It’s a form of generosity that’s touched me deeply this year; the helpful tips from hostel owners, the invitations from fellow travelers, the kind smiles. It all goes a long way when you’re feeling overwhelmed in a new place.
At the beginning of this fellowship I thought all of my PErsOnAl GrOWth would happen in the monasteries I visited, that the city visits and hostel stays in between would be mere tourism, some fun memories. And yet, my hostel experiences have had just as deep of an impact on me.
One, I just have a lot more hope in humanity. People are generous, people are fundamentally friendly, you just have to be actively receptive and reciprocal. It’s a two-way street: my first two nights I was nervous and a bit withdrawn, hiding in my book or in my phone…that does no good. I had to start actively saying hi to people and being a bit more outgoing than I’m used to. I could have taken my phone back from the nice French gentleman, said thank you, and scrolled through my Instagram feed. But I decided to take him up on his conversation which led to a lovely night with new friends.
And two, it’s empowering to know that anywhere you go, no matter the language or culture, there is a connection to be forged.
Assisi: A Pleasant Surprise
Between Florence and Rome, I was already getting overwhelmed by the fast-paced city tourism. The hostels, the packing, the socializing, the walking a million miles a day… I just wanted to pause and remember why I’m doing this fellowship in the first place.
So I went to Assisi.
Assisi is the birthplace of many saints, most notably Saint Francis and Saint Claire. The minute you get to the village nestled in the green mountains, you can feel the spirituality. And that’s not just because there are a bunch of Franciscan monks and nuns walking around.
I think there’s a magic to solo traveling; you always end up being in the right place at the right time. So there I was, balling on a budget, eating a cheap panini on a public bench in front of Saint Rufino’s church. There was quite literally a mob of monks in their brown Franciscan robes, priests, and nuns walking into the church. I crammed the last bites of precious cheese and prosciutto into my mouth and followed them in, figuring if I wasn’t allowed I could play the dumb American card.
When I entered, I remembered it was Corpus Christi — a Catholic feast day celebrating the Last Supper. I sat for the mass and found myself enjoying a 30+ person choir and a ceremony celebrated by over 20 priests. It was simply beautiful. Due to my (quite literally) crude Italian, I didn’t realize until the end that there would be a procession from San Rufino’s all the way to the Basilica of Saint Francis, a roughly 1 mile walk. When the mass ended, the priests, monks, and nuns led a procession around the consecrated Host. As I walked through the streets among the congregation, tourists and onlookers watched in a kneeling position or stood in solemn respect. Some people hung out their windows watching from above. When we got to Basilica San Francesco, it was completely dark outside, but the magnificent church was illuminated with candles and flooded with songs from the choir.
When I got the green light from the doctor to start traveling again, I was so surprised that I didn’t have so much time to do detailed planning. All I have specifically planned are the countries and the monasteries I’m visiting. The in-between is intentionally an adventure… and that stresses me out. But it’s also on purpose; the last time I was in Europe, the best moments were the unplanned excursions, the unexpected connections, or the suggestions from a local to “go there,” “see this.” So this time, for the most part, I’ve been challenging myself to show up, be present, and enjoy whatever and whoever I find.
So far, it’s been working.
As much as I was excited, elated, amazed, etc, etc about getting the green light to travel again, I didn’t just mic drop and hop on the plane.
It was really, really hard to leave, just like it was my first time leaving last July.
There were hard goodbyes…again. There were hours of packing and planning…again. There was the fear of the unpredictable nature of solo travel…again. There was uneasiness about being a woman abroad alone…again.
Though I did go into this trip more confident about my sheer ability to travel alone (I now know you won’t evaporate into a fine mist … buuuut you might tear a ligament).
And it was more than that… despite not loving my injury or being stuck at home, I was comfortable. I had an internship I enjoyed. I got to see my friends whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to be constantly vigilant as you do when you’re solo; I didn’t have to lock up my belongings up every night, or research every place I went. With New England Dunkins as far as the eye could see, I didn’t have to wonder where my next iced coffee was coming from!!
I could have stayed home, but I had to decide: comfort or growth (re-growth?).
So a month ago, in a moment of what I’ll call wisdom…maybe…I impulsively booked a totally non-refundable, non-changeable flight to Rome for a little earlier than I would have liked.
Because (as my good friend/life coach Neloy likes to remind me) you can’t grow in your comfort zone.
I’m currently in Desenzano on Lake Garda, where I’m visiting my first religious community since my ~slight hiatus~ from my fellowship. Sister Armida and the Ursuline sisters are hosting me!
Come back next week for tales from Verona (and perhaps my completed masterpiece…they’re saying it’s the next Hamlet), Desenzano, Lake Garda, and more.
P.S. The Lemmings We Truly Are…Museums and the Dark Side of Humanity
Getting to see the works in Florence’s famous Uffizi gallery was of course moving. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Titian’s The Venus of Urbino are just a couple of the iconic pieces that I was looking forward to visiting.
And it was a truly beautiful, educational exhibit. But I left with more than some new Renaissance knowledge, I also felt a deep uneasiness: Am I a lemming??? A sheep??
Tell me why, WHY I feel the need to take a picture of everything. I do the same at every museum I’ve visited; it’s an uncontrollable force. I took pictures of the freaking ceilings. When in my life am I going to say “hm, I really miss the Uffizi ceiling” ???
Am I ever gonna go back and peruse these OVER FORTY (blurry) pictures. Likely not:
When recounting my epic year of kickass-solo-female-traveling, am I ever going to tell my grandkids, “you’re old grandmother has seen some things in her day… check out this … this … angel in a triangle!”
And the worst part is that while I’m taking these wastes-of-gigabytes, I actively know that I’m never going to look at them. And so does the dad pushing the stroller next to me. And so does the crop-top TikTok teeny bopper behind me. So why! Why!?
And just to rub it all in, the irrational side of humanity, I exit through the gift shop and see this:
I mean who, in their day-to-day life, is going to feel the need to blow their nose into Venus or David. I mean… I guess you’d at least have to look at the painting.