I have a passion for traveling—deep, abiding wanderlust and a consuming love for adventure.
I’ve been fortunate to visit 42 of the 50 states, and various places like Puerto Rico, The Bahamas, Mexico and Canada. Two years ago, though, I was finally able to take two full weeks off and travel overseas. Thankfully, I got to do the same thing about a month ago. During those combined four weeks, we visited Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Greece—with 75% of that time spent in Italy. Heavenly, dreamy, unmatched Italy.
Before my first true international trip, I was under the assumption the biggest challenge would be communicating with locals. I thought it might be frustrating trying to read signs and order pasta and wine. I believed we’d encounter many residents who really didn’t want us in their village, town or country. I had a lot of preconceived notions about what traveling abroad would entail. Boy, was I wrong. None of these concerns came to fruition—not one.
But there were real surprises for which I had not accounted.
1. Trusting strangers becomes normal and natural.
I don’t know why, but I found myself trusting people and situations I’d have never even considered back home. In fact, there were times I didn’t want to text anyone in my family about something, because I knew it would sound the alarm.
Case in point.
Jocelyn and I headed to the train station in Salzburg, Austria to board a train going to Venice, Italy. Because of a stretch of railway under construction, we were going to have to take a train part of the way, then transfer to a bus, then back to a train. The first train leg was amazing in every way—watching the Austrian countryside become the Italian countryside was a dream come true. We disembarked and made our way to the bus to ask about tickets. It was leaving soon, and although we try to never split up when traveling—and succeed at this about 98% of the time—time was of the essence, and I needed to wait with our bags while Jocelyn ran in to buy tickets.
Suddenly, after a few minutes of me frantically looking back and forth at the driver (who was clearly getting ready to hit the road), and the door (where I hoped she’d shoot out of, with tickets in hand), he waved at me in a way that said, “We’re leaving and you’re not going with us.”
I was a bit crestfallen because we had a room reserved in Venice and the next train wasn’t leaving for hours. I wheeled our bags into the ticket area, where I found Jocelyn … beaming.
Me: They left.
She: (all bright-eyed and awash in jubilation): There’s a lady who can take us to the train station in Latisano!
Me: (hard, slow blink … stare … trying to make sense of the words coming out of her mouth and reconcile them with the merriment in her eyes): I’m sorry; what’s that?
She: I met a lady. She’s like a mix between my mom and yours, totally normal and nice, and she heard me trying to get tickets and tapped me on the shoulder. She said she just dropped her college-aged daughter off and was driving back to Latisano and would be happy to give us a ride!
Me: You want to ride in a car … on the highway … with a stranger? Is this what you’re telling me?
She: She’s not a stranger! She’s Katherine! And she’s a mom! Oh, here she comes—what do you think?
I’ll cut to the chase. Katherine was indeed a mix of Katy and Meralyn—in both maternal demeanor and warm disposition. She had a nice mini-van and the three of us had quite the little adventure.
While en route, I sent a text to my mom and dad: “So, I can’t send a lot of texts, but I figured this would qualify as important. We’re speeding along the Autobahn at 90mph with a mom named Katherine who helped us out of a jam. Don’t worry! More details through email later!”
It gets better. We had some time to kill before going to the train station and she asked if we’d like to visit the local winery and get some vino to take with us. Oh, why not.
We got there and ended up meeting some neat people and seeing part of the real-deal wine-making process. It was as Italian as it gets, and we were in hog Heaven. We just kept sneaking looks at each other like, “This is crazy. We’re crazy.”
We bought red and white wine, and she asked if we’d like to see the villa she and her husband were building. Go to a remote location with a stranger in another country? What’s not solid about this plan?
But, it was beyond cool. Very “International House Hunters.”
After the tour, she took us to the train station, and we felt like we were saying goodbye to a beloved aunt. We took our seats, and the train started moving. We just looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed.
I’m thankful we trusted our instincts and intuition, and said yes. It’s an experience we still talk and smile about today.
A similar’ish thing happened on our most recent trip to Italy. We were leaving a two-day Farm Stay at a working organic farm between Rome and Naples. Our cab driver picked us up at 6am, to take us to the bus station. From there, the bus was going to take us to the train station in Rome, for our ride to the Amalfi Coast.
He picked us up in supremely rural Italy, in the pre-dawn darkness, and took us to his full-time job—the restaurant he owned that overlooked incoming and outgoing buses. We got there a little early and he said, “Come in’a, come in’a, I make a’cappuccino!” We followed him as he raised up a garage door-like front. He turned the lights on, got the coffee machine going and we talked about his family. He presented us with a perfect espresso, and as we finished it, our bus arrived and he sent us off.
There wasn’t one thing truly scary about any of it, except the idea that we should be wary—but we just weren’t. It was another lovely experience.
Bathrooms are surprising, for so many reasons and in so many ways. Even if you aren’t one who discriminates between public restrooms and the ones in your home—a lot of the bathrooms overseas will test your resolve.
My first experience with this was at the winery Autobahn Katherine took us to. I was about to bust and asked the owner for a restroom (well, Katherine did; he didn’t speak a lick of English). I hustled back, only to come face to face with this:
I just stared—truly unsure of what I was seeing or what I was supposed to do with it. I buttoned back up and poked my head out and did a quick, “Psst!” in Jocelyn’s direction. I tossed my head like, “Come here! Trouble is afoot!” and she rushed over. I said, “What is this madness?” She laughed so hard. Even after her explanation, I kind of wanted to die— but I had to go too bad to waver much longer. That was my first, but not last, foray into in-ground toilets. Here is another one in Desenzano, Italy. Again, I’d waited far too long to discriminate; it was this or an even worse alternative.
Side Note: If/when you travel overseas for the first time, make a point to use a WC when you see one. They’re not as plentiful as they are in the states, and as a best practice, you should take advantage of the free ones when they appear. (Yes, exactly when you are at your most desperate, they’ll cost €1 to use.) Oh, WC stands for “water closet” … bathroom.
Greece upped the ante with many, many WC’s displaying signs reminding users to not flush toilet paper. I’ll say it again … you’re not supposed to flush used toilet paper in the toilet. You’re supposed to put it in the trash. I don’t feel guilty telling you I rarely followed this order.
Most of the time, it was neither here nor there, but truly, the Santorini airport smelled like a giant port-o-potty—which was shocking, because the island itself is stunning beyond measure.
There is one particular highlight of all the restrooms though—the signs on the doors indicating the gender. I wish I’d taken pictures of all of them from both trips, but I do have a few. Each and every WC has its own personality and it’s fun to see them all.
3. The array of quality—and fun—transportation.
Another surprising thing about traveling overseas is how many forms of transportation you take—and often in the same day. It becomes second nature to hop on a train, a bus, a ferry, a quad, a funicular, a plane, a bike, a scooter, a kayak, a gondola. And it’s all so organized and seems to run like clockwork. The schedules for us, so far, have been largely accurate and seamless. It makes you realize how far behind most states in the U.S. are, when it comes to getting from Point A to Point B—without a car.
Side Note: Jocelyn and her mom have this word they say that means one of several things. The word is “oofta” and it can mean something’s hot, something’s cold, something’s strenuous, something’s shocking, etc. A synonym might be “wowza” or “yikes” … from what I gather.
Anyway, we were on a train going to Cinque Terre … the region of Italy with the five famous villages that look like this:
For reasons still unclear, the train was jam-packed and we ended up having to ride in the area between the carts, where you typically just board and pass through. There was a pole in the middle that we were able to hold on to. Here:
Standing—and holding on to the pole during a ride—normally wouldn’t be necessary, because that area isn’t often crowded. Most of the time, it’s only used by someone getting on, and then quickly off, at the next stop. But this time, more and more people kept boarding at each stop and we were completely smashed in there. In fact, upon subsequent stops, we became so tight and immobile that the next time we stopped, and the doors opened, we bellowed, “No room!” But guess what; 11 more people shoved their way in, and Jocelyn and I became separated (but when you’re in an 8×8 area, what’s the difference?) We had never experienced such an over-packed train—and the escalating situation would’ve been comical—if it weren’t for the HOUR remaining on our trek.
Then came the smells, y’all. The smells. With every boarding body came a new odor. It was a 95 degree morning and many people had their arms held high, grasping the pole, and others had opted to skip toothpaste. I started getting slightly panicked, not over anything clausterphobia-related—I’m not clausterphobic—but over the smells, and if I was going to survive them. We were so sandwiched in place, that I couldn’t even bring my hand up to cover my nose, so I was getting nasal-assaulted in a major way. Someone in particular was quite tart—like really super-rank—and I was talking myself off a ledge, when all of a sudden I heard a faint, “Oofta!” Suddenly, all was right in my world, because in the midst of that tense ride—even though I couldn’t see her—I realized Jocelyn detected the funk and registered its severity, and I began silent shake laughing to the point of tears.
4. Architectural character.
One of my absolute favorite surprises abroad is, not just their architecture, but how they build their homes, towns, villages, shops and cafes around the landscape … and into the landscape—not leveling it all and starting fresh. It’s exquisite. It’s swoon-worthy. It’s the definition of character—and it’s captivating. Getting away from cookie-cutter buildings, strip malls, houses and highways—and immersing yourself in the pure art of their landscape—is breathtaking.
Nothing sparks my creativity or sends me into a glorious daydreaming stupor more than being surrounded by such character and beauty.
Although, along with this design style comes one very predominant thing. STEPS. Lots and lots and lots of steps.
Regardless of ample transportation options, our #1 preferred mode is walking. It’s truly pleasurable to be able to get around by foot—something we simply can’t do back home. Our Fitbits got LOTS of playing time. The image below was just one particular day.
5. Traveling changes how you think.
Traveling overseas—or really anywhere for me—makes my head spin in such a good way. When I’m in new places, seeing fresh sights—and away from my normal routine—it becomes so glaringly obvious to me that we (as people) just aren’t doing life right. That’s a strong statement, but I believe it. I work 48 weeks a year, so I can do what I actually want to do four weeks a year. I don’t know about you, but that math is a real downer.
Don’t get me wrong, I L-O-V-E those 48 weeks—namely the evenings and weekends—but I love them in a different way than I love traveling. They’re comfortable, safe and very fulfilling; but, they don’t ignite my imagination the way adventures do.
Inevitably, every time I travel, whether it’s abroad or two states over, more than one person asks on Facebook, “Do you ever work?!” It’s comical to me. Why, during the 48 weeks I work, doesn’t anyone ask, “Don’t you ever take time off?!”
We met many people on our trips who were in the middle of month-long vacations. Successful, well-balanced people.
Traveling is a blessing. I’m so abundantly grateful every single time I get to climb out of the lather, rinse, repeat cycle of commuting to work—to see how others live and to enjoy their landscape and eat their food and hear their stories. I thank God every time I get the opportunity to experience more of His world. I don’t travel to escape my life—I’m in love with my life—I travel to show my eyes something new; to open my mind to life outside of my tiny, tiny world, and to revel in the heart-swelling splendor of it all.
6. I almost forgot.
The single most surprising thing about traveling 5,600 miles away is passing Guy Fieri on the chairlift—and somehow capturing a pretty clear selfie—on the Isle of Capri.