It was my very first week as a new freshman in college, orange leaves littering the ground, when I saw a poster up in the main cafeteria: “Summer Study Program in London, details this Sat from 10—noon.” Waking up before 10 AM was against my new religion (College-ism), but I would definitely have to make an exception for this.
I showed up, like the throngs of other students, at 9:45, hoping to get a good seat. I brought a bright green notebook so I could take notes about the cost and the classes. Imagine my surprise when the cost turned out to be the same as a regular semester, just add airfare and shopping sprees at Harrods. I immediately signed up, got the address to mail the deposit check, and called my father.
Now, my father is a reasonable man. He heard the part about it costing the same, and he calculated out listening to me beg to go to London for the next eight months vs. saying yes right away and having me thank him for the next eight months instead. He chose the latter.
This essay has nothing to do with my summer in England. It also has nothing to do with my subsequent summer in France. This is all merely backstory. The travel bug bit, and it bit hard. I was only months from graduation, when I stumbled upon yet another study abroad program: Italy.
“This is not through your school,” my father said wisely, as he leafed through the stack of brochures, “and I have never heard of University of Educational National International Adventures. Is that a real school?”
“Of course it is,” I replied, pointing to the logo at the top of the ad. “Fake schools don’t have logos.”
“You are graduating in June,” he said, not even looking at the calendar once to confirm, “You don’t need these credits.” He shrugged.
I did the only thing I could. I called my mom. Long divorced, they rarely spoke.
“Mom, I really need you to pay to send me to Italy.”
“I already spoke to your dad. No.”
That was only her first reaction. This was followed by several weeks of No-No-No-NO-NO-No-no-No-No-No-No-No-No-No-no-No-forget it-No-No-Not gonna happen-No-No-okay all right yes.
I had worn her down.
Do not be fooled. This essay is not about me convincing my mom to send me to Italy, nor about some whirlwind romance over there (that would be nice though), this essay is about my, shall we say, “over”-confidence in nearly every possible situation.
I immediately settled into some wonderful friendships with a group of girls on the program. They, much like me, did not need the credits either, but did need the opportunity to travel. Our program included many side excursions away from Florence to explore other beautiful parts of Italy: Venice, Rome, Pisa, Bologna, Perugia, Torino, Orvieto, and Genova. Strangely, Naples and Capri were not on our itinerary.
We took it upon ourselves to plan a weekend jaunt to Naples and Capri. In only three and a half hours (and a quick change of trains in Rome), we were in Naples. Unfortunately, we had no idea what we were doing, as this was our first time without a tour guide/ group leader/ translator.
The people of Naples like to drive fast. On the sidewalk. They think of stop signs and signal lights as “helpful reminders” and in no way obligatory. We were almost hit five times within our first 10 minutes there.
My friend Melinda had her purse stolen at a gelateria. Yes, her passport was in it. Yes, this was the in the days before cell phones. (In retrospect, Melinda was a very forgetful person. It is quite possible she forgot her purse somewhere along the way, maybe even on the train.) We panicked, but there was really nothing we could do until we got back to Florence and talked to the director of the program. Miraculously, she had her train ticket in her pocket, so we were still able to get back to Florence.
We decided, under the circumstances, to cut our trip short and not go to Capri after all (do not be sad for me, I was able to go at a later date!). We spent a few hours wandering around Naples, and then finally got back on the train to Rome and Florence. When the conductor on the second train asked for our passports, we had to beg him to not throw us off.
When we returned to school, the director helped Melinda get a new passport (he had a Xerox of everyone’s passport, which made it somewhat easier with the American embassy). She had a new passport within three days.
Which was just enough time for us to plan a trip to Prague.
We enjoyed traveling all over Italy for four months, but we wanted even more stamps on our passports (and let’s face it: Melinda wanted one stamp).
We took the overnight train. It was me, Melinda, Michelle, and Becca in a compartment that held six people. We were hoping that they would not fill up the train so we’d have the extra space to stretch out for the long journey. Our wish came true. We changed trains the next morning in Vienna (passport stamp number one for Melinda!) and settled in for the long ride to Prague. We were thrilled when, just minutes after getting our seats on the sold-out train, we heard American accents.
Two good-looking college-age guys plunked down next to us. They both had a sharp Texas twang.
A strange thing happens when you travel far from home for a few months. You are no longer “Texan,” you are “American.” And, in a pinch, you can even bond with someone who is Canadian because it is practically the same thing.
“You’re from Texas!” I blurted out. “Me, too! Well, California!”
Let the flirtfest begin. No matter that we had not had a decent night’s sleep nor brushed our teeth in 10 hours, we were not going to waste this opportunity to chat with handsome guys from North America.
We chatted merrily for a good half an hour. Then, talk turned, as often does, to Where To Go Next. Becca was complimenting Lake Como, as her Italian host family had taken her there for a long weekend. Michelle and I were enamored with Orvieto, while Melinda was more adamant (for obvious reasons) about where not to go: Naples.
“I would never go back to Naples,” she said with stern conviction, “I had my purse stolen there.” She clung tightly to her new purse as she said this.
“Really? That’s so strange, because—” said Texan #1 before I cut him off.
“It was filthy city. I hated Naples. And the drivers! Terrible! They practically run you off the sidewalk! I would never go back. I had the worst time of my life there,” I scowled.
My friends nodded in solidarity.
“But—” began Texan #2, trying to get in a word edgewise.
“Never! Never go!” I continued my rant. “You will hate it! The people are mean! The place is disgusting! They live like cannibals!” My lack of sleep was clearly showing at this point.
“You know, MOV, we are going to Naples next week because—”
Melinda shook her head. Michelle and Becca laughed. I said what we all were thinking:
“Change your ticket now!”
“My dad’s family lives there, my dad is Italian,” replied the very tall, blond, blue-eyed, now half-Italian Texan, “we go to Napoli every summer. It's my favorite place in the whole world.”
I could feel the color drain from my face. “Oh, well, uh, I'm sure that once you get to know Naples, it must be really great. Soooo great. Really molto bella mucha. Huh. Yeah, our bad experience is not indicative of anything. Or nothing. Niente. Niente bella molto. Wow. I would mostly likely love to go back to Naples, to, uh, you know, give it another chance. Because we did not give it a chance! We only gave it, like, half a chance, and clearly that's not enough!”
It was no use. We stared out the window in stony silence for the remainder of the four and a half hour journey.
I no longer strike up conversations with strangers on a train.
(“Me, Overseas: Vienna”)