I love traveling abroad. When you’re living daily life back home, it all becomes so rote, so predictable. It’s easy to stagnate and go on autopilot. But when you’re traveling abroad, nothing can be taken for granted. The area is new; you don’t know where anything is. The language is new; you don’t know what anyone’s saying or what any of the signs mean. The rules are new; you don’t know what is and isn’t ok to do. The people are new; new faces, new personalities, new stories. The food and drinks are new; delicious and sometimes disgusting, and you never really know what you’re going to get.
It may seem overwhelming, but it lights up every sense and synapses. Living in the moment is easy when you’re navigating a completely new culture. And it’s wonderful. It forces your brain to adapt and think of creative new solutions. And it makes you feel alive in a way unrivaled by more common existence.
And it all stems from not knowing what the hell is going on.
I think that’s why I’m so fascinated by the great explorers. They lived their lives in a more or less constant state of exploration, driven by their curiosity and desire to experience, accomplish and understand – and every step of the way they had to figure out what the hell was going on. What a phenomenal way to live.
I’ve had plenty of experience not knowing what the hell is going on during our travels. Now that we live in Italy, I get to enjoy the feeling pretty much full-time. Here are three recent examples:
My husband and I went on a lunch date to an incredibly quaint little osteria up north. When we arrived, I ordered fish and he ordered the restaurant’s baked spaghetti. He LOVES spaghetti, lasagna and pasta of all kinds, so was very excited for this authentic treat.
When the meal was ready, the waitress brought out my dish and placed it on the table. She placed an empty plate in front of my husband. Then, she wheeled over a little cart with a large baking tray wrapped in foil. The formality of the baked spaghetti unveiling made us giddy with anticipation. Carefully, she unwrapped the foil like a ceremony.
I saw it before my husband did, just long enough to think “Is that a tentacle?”
My husband hates seafood. Like, hates it.
It wasn’t just a tentacle. It was all the tentacles – and claws and shells, and everything. Oh and there were spaghetti noodles too. Just that – just spaghetti noodles and seafood (mostly octopi).
I have never seen anyone’s face turn so quickly from joyful anticipation to abject horror. But my husband is a trooper. So he ate the plain noodles and I performed an Oscar-worthy two-dish seafood massacre.
In the Mountains
Last week, my husband and I were driving through the Alps. The roads were windy and a bit confusing, but we were holding our own. We took an interstate exit onto a road that coiled up around a mountain, two lanes, one lane in each direction, 70 kilometers per hour. And then we saw it, a left turn arrow painted on the ground, in our lane, pointing directly at us. We stopped breathing simultaneously.
No one was coming at us yet, but we had accidentally turned onto a one-way highway, going the wrong direction.
Except, signs were facing us. And as we rounded the curve, up ahead we could see another car going the same direction. Turns out, it used to be a one-way, two-lane road. Then they turned it into a two-way, two-lane road … and just never bothered to scrub that arrow off the pavement.
The highways near our home in Italy are pretty similar to the ones back in Washington State. The only difference is that the on and off ramps are much shorter. So, when you’re getting ready to hop on the highway from an onramp, you really need to be ready and aware of where all the traffic is. Just like in the US, onramps yield to traffic already on the road way. And just like in the US, timing can be tricky. It’s like double dutch; you’ve got to know when to jump in.
So the other day, I go speeding up an onramp, trying to see the upcoming traffic and get my speed up to merge. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it: a stop sign. On the onramp. I almost didn’t stop, but then I saw the word “STOP” with a line painted across the ground.
I stopped. Hard.
Turns out, there’s one onramp – just the one – that has a stop sign on it.
The next time I found myself at this particular onramp, I was prepared. I stopped. The guy behind me accelerated and flew around me on the shoulder. So did the next person. And I had to figure out how to merge into the traffic, merging into the traffic. Turns out, no one stops at that stop sign. It’s a real stop sign, but there are no cameras there, so why bother?
I spend great chunks of my time now just trying to figure out what’s going on. And, slowly, I’m getting it. Kind of. Maybe. But the not knowing, when it’s not flooding me with abject terror, is invigorating. There’s nothing to do but live in the moment and figure it out as you go. I’ve never felt so alive.