There's a part of travel, particularly international travel, which is left out of most brochures, movies, and social media. It's the level of discomfort that accompanies such travel, and not only the 10+ hours seated on the flight. Discomfort is a travel reality when we step out of our usual environment, and into a foreign country; and judging from some recent experiences, the results are not always pretty.
When pictures are uploaded on Instagram, everyone is smiling, and gorgeous scenery is the backdrop. There are no crowds, heat or jet lag in those photos. Is it this unanticipated discomfort which brings out the dreaded 'Ugly American' moniker, or is it a lack of realistic expectations?
Below are the four annoyances I hear most often when people arrive in Italy. I offer a few suggestions on how to turn them around.
1. People don't speak English.
I know that seems obvious, if you're in a foreign country, that people won't speak your language. However, it still annoys a good number of tourists in Italy. Some Italians speak English, but many will not. Repeating your demand louder, and getting angry, won't change their understanding.
*It's amazing what can be communicated, even if you don't speak the local language. Slow down, and create dialogue through signs, gestures and lastly, a smile. The entire concept of Italians speaking with their hands grew out of a need for a common language. You, too, can successfully navigate your way through this challenge with a little humor and patience.
2. I feel anxious.
I'm not talking about fearing for your life scared, although perhaps you will be. I'm speaking of the anxiousness that comes about when we are unsure of our surroundings.
Linda Martinez, an expat friend, and owner of The Beehive Hostel in Rome, wrote to me recently of a concern from two of her guests. The couple had traveled to Florence, staying at a property Linda's husband had suggested, but were afraid to leave their hotel room. They felt uncomfortable in the neighborhood, indicating that there were non-Italian men aggressively selling jewelry and selfie-sticks.
These are the experiences that make expats such as Linda and me sad to hear. We want to share our passion to travel, and especially our love of Italy, with other Americans. Whether it's boarding the wrong train, exiting at the right stop, or a thousand other possible mishaps, there are going to be moments where you will feel uncertain and anxious.
*Trust your instincts and, for the most part, other people. Do some reading ahead of time as to the safety of the cities you will be visiting. Ask the personnel at the hotel if it's safe to walk after dark, or if you should go into certain neighborhoods.
Having traveled nonstop for the past four years, there have been a few situations where I felt nervous. Riots broke out in Budapest at the train station as I was preparing to leave. I was dropped off far from my destination by a cab driver in Istanbul who became annoyed with the traffic jam, and apparently, me as well. Momentary uncertainty led to creating a backup plan, asking strangers for assistance, but not disappointment.
None of my experiences tarnished how I felt about those countries, or traveling in general. I have found that people are overwhelmingly generous in their desire to help. And regarding my adopted city, I have never been afraid in Florence, where I often walk after dark, alone.
3. I feel tired.
At some point, even the most thrilling vacation becomes exhausting if there is no down time. Jet lag, unfamiliar food, time changes, and new surroundings can create fatigue. Add to that dawn-to-dusk sightseeing every day, and you are worn out.
*The beauty of a new place unfolds only if you slow down. Plan time in your schedule to do some people watching in a piazza, lingering at a trattoria or taking an afternoon nap. Don't finish your vacation needing a vacation!
4. My plans changed.
While vacations are supposed to be fabulous retreats from our daily lives, traveling can regularly throw curve balls. Internet connections may not be conveniently found, or easily utilized. Phones won't work, flights may be delayed, and in Italy, strikes are common occurrences. Often, for a myriad of reasons outside of your control, Plan B becomes the action of the day.
*Enjoy the journey as you come up with an alternative. I can attest to the fact that some of the most magical and interesting experiences I have had in the past four years, came about on a backup plan. Flexibility is an international travel requirement.
Is it worth the discomfort to travel? I have heard some say that it is not, and that is their prerogative.
As for me, there is no choice. The exquisite joy of being embraced into another culture, seeing art work in world famous museums, or tasting the season's new olive oil, is a small price to pay for some discomfort, and will keep always me coming back for more.