Every time I return to Italy feels like I’m coming home. There’s this surge of familiarity that hits me as soon as I step onto Italian soil and I suddenly feel comfortable in what other people might call a foreign land. Do I know any family members that are still living in Italy? Unfortunately no. Are my Italian language skills exemplary? Not by a long shot. But, still, I think there’s something in the air here that takes away the “stranger”-ness in me and allows me to really bask in the culture of the country of my ancestors.
Since it is currently prime tourist season in Italy, the streets are a sea of strangers, all coming from different places speaking in different languages, but all trying to find those major spots like the Piazza Colonna in Rome, the Duomo in Milan, the Ponte Rialto in Venice, or the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I am at the present moment on spring break, backpacking around Italy and Greece with some friends and, in the midst of running to those big sites, there are those quiet moments sitting along the Venetian docks or just meandering around the streets of Milan that allow us to really feel at one with the city; that we somehow belong, at least for the few days that we’re there.
So, needless to say, we’ve interacted with a lot of fellow travelers in the past couple of days, but I wouldn’t exactly call all of them “strangers”. Simmel talks about that weird sense of openness and intimacy that comes with these kind of on-the-spot relationships, the freedom of sharing what would usually be considered secrets between only the closest of friends. I have actually lost count of how many “fast friends” I’ve made during this trip. I’m a very bubbly extrovert (I have the Myers-Briggs test results to prove it), and, for me, when I feel at all uncomfortable or if things get too quiet, I’ll usually just chat up the person nearest to me- even if I have never met them before in my life.
Because of this weird quirk I possess, I’ve had some pretty unusual experiences involving these quote-unquote strangers within my current travels. In Venice, my friends and I ended up sharing a gondola ride with a super-friendly family from Hong Kong with whom we took many group photos and then asked for our Facebook information so we could try to meet up when they’re next in New York. During our first meal in Athens, these UMass Amherst boys who sat behind us began asking us questions about what to do in the city, and, not only did we spent the entire lunch trading college tales, but we also traded Facebooks and we hung out later that day. Athens also featured new companions like the nice jewelry store owner whose shop we visited every day and who gave us cheaper prices each time we came back, as well as the aunt who ran up to me in front of the Parthenon to say that she has the same Target skirt that I was wearing.
In Florence, we had the most amount of these instant relationships. For example, while taking a cooking class on a Tuscan villa, my one friend and I became close with three newly engaged couples- one of the wives was very eager to have her husband learn all of the tricks in order for him to share in the kitchen duties. We also met a woman who has been backpacking around the world for five months, a man who was supposed to go to a wedding in Rome but it was cancelled so now he’s just on an impromptu holiday, a group of college girls desperate for the unlimited wine, and a group of middle-aged women who shared that same sentiment. We particularly bonded with a couple from New Hope, Alabama; the husband, William, owns his own American grill there and he and his wife were taking the class to help improve the menu at his place.
Our fondest memory of William and his wife, and perhaps the highlight of our entire trip as well, was during the meal when William announced that he wanted to tell all of us college kids something very important, something that he said “would probably save our lives one day”. We immediately stopped talking and attentively listened to what he had to say, thinking he was going to tell us how to fix a flat tire or hot-wire a car in case of emergencies or some other useful life lesson. Instead, he tells us about the time he and his college buddy turned his car into a moving keg by filling the anti-freeze container with grain alcohol and then rerouting the hose to pour the alcohol directly into a flask in the passenger seat (please don’t ask me to explain the mechanics behind this).
The moral of the story: talk to strangers. You’ll learn a lot of weird things and have some pretty amazing experiences.