Until recently, I would have vehemently claimed to be a planner, a lover of research and details. I’m not sure when or why that changed – possibly, it had something to do with moving to Florida as a college freshman with very little information other than “I’ll be working for Disney” – but I’m so glad that I have become a more laid-back, spontaneous person. I actually prefer not researching my destinations very much in advance because I don’t want to build up specific expectations and then find something different. You know – making it to that gorgeous landscape you saw on Pinterest and then realizing they photoshopped all the green in the photo to that ridiculously luscious brightness. I want to be delightfully surprised with every new thing that crosses my path, rather than constantly trying to imitate the images or experiences I’ve researched, so I have almost no set plans.
Still, “winging it” can be pretty terrifying. Not knowing how long I will be abroad, where I am going next, when I will run out of funds, or if I will even have a bed to sleep in creates a lot of mini panic sessions (which I am getting better at laughing off). I have found that the best way to offset this natural anxiety is to throw my bucket list out the window. We all have one – for wanna-be travelers, there are long lists of countries we want to visit, sites we want to see, foods we want to try. Focusing on checking things off a list is a little crippling to successful long-term travel though. Strike that. It’s VERY crippling.
Prime example: while living in Italy for a month, I visited both Rome and Venice. Two days in Roma, one day in Venezia. Ask me how I liked those two cities, and I will still tell you I am not fond of Rome, but love Venice. This has less to do with the cities themselves, and more to do with how I visited them. I ran around Rome trying to see everything that gorgeous and historical city has to offer in 48 hours, as though it was my only chance to be there for the rest of my life. It was exhausting. In contrast, I spent three hours wandering around Venice without a map, completely and willingly lost in a maze of canals and streets, and simply taking in the beauty of it all. And yes – Venice is much quieter and calmer and cooler anyway, but still, if I had relaxed a bit in Rome instead of trying to do it all, I would probably have more pleasant and lasting memories of that city. As it is, I can barely even remember what I did manage to see there. Lesson learned? Heck yes.
I would rather spend a whole day sitting in front of one beautiful piece of art or scenery and just taking it in than running around to ten different top tourist spots, waiting in lines, pushing through crowds, and never getting to stop and really enjoy the moment. This is inevitable when it comes to amazing places that are extreme tourist attractions – for example, the Sistine Chapel. I would have loved to lay down on the floor for three hours and stare at the ceiling until I had memorized every bit of it (especially considering you aren’t allowed to take pictures). However, the room is so crowded that even though everyone was being respectfully hushed and still, I wanted to escape from the crush of bodies within fifteen minutes. This is the benefit of natural wonders. Several hundred tourists could all gather around a geyser or a canyon, and you would still probably be able to find a solitary place to observe it.
I regret that I didn’t enjoy Rome much, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Being a tourist will drain you. Trying to see all of Rome – and the Vatican to boot – in two days was too much. There are really two solutions for stress-free traveling: either plan out everything so specifically that your day runs like clockwork (and don’t go in the height of tourist season), or narrow down your top priorities to a few things and let your day go how it wants to go. Though I can certainly understand the appeal in a thorough and detailed plan, I much prefer the latter. You can find lists everywhere of “The Top 100 Things to Do and See in Such-and-Such Place.” They are super helpful lists. But trying to knock out a whole list in one trip is going to end up knocking you out. Even if I stay three months in Iceland, I don’t expect to complete the Top 10 list of things to see there, much less the Top 100. What I will get to do is eat home cooked meals on Icelandic farms, take leisurely hikes through the countryside, and visit small towns with names too long and confusing for Americans to pronounce. And those memories will stay with me longer than a jumble of history and culture crammed in a short space just for the sake of checking it off my list.
Of course, I have a checklist of places I have been and want to go. Of course, I will gleefully check Iceland off as soon as I arrive. But that list will never mean “been there, done that, never going back.” I can’t wait to revisit Italy, especially Rome, and take it slower, see more, learn more. The first time going somewhere new is like a taste of a delicious dish. If you never make it back, at least you will always have that taste, but hopefully, you will get the chance to return and enjoy the whole thing. The world is a banquet, so let’s eat.