Part of the Fabric
Sometimes when travelling, seeing spectacular attractions is not as important as experiencing and appreciating normal everyday local life.
I am currently in Italy, a country that holds a special place in my life. It was here, 21-years ago, that I jumped into the great unknown and visited my first non-English speaking country, cementing my road to The Experience Junkie and kick-starting my travel career.
Without communication skills I was immediately taken out of my comfort zone. It was sink or swim – and I remember how proud I was when, at the end of my three weeks in Italy, I was able to not only ask how much something cost but more importantly understand the corresponding answer /the numbers enough to handover over the correct change for my purchase – and this was in the days of the lire, when even a basic sandwich was priced in the complicated-sounding 1000s.
With this simple exchange, I felt that I was part of the fabric. A lot less tourist and a little more local.
I remember a time in Paris when I went and bought a bottle of red wine, some cheese and most importantly a baguette for my Parisian dinner. Upon leaving the supermarket I promptly stuck the baguette under my arm as I had seen so many Parisians do. I immediately felt part of the fabric. The only problem was that I was staying in an apartment right next to the supermarket, so to prolong the feeling of belonging I walked around the block a couple times to savour life in the City of Lights – yes, it’s true, I saw the city differently with a baguette under my arm and I’m sure Paris saw me differently as well! And if it didn’t? If it was all in my head – well that didn’t matter, it was my head and that’s all that mattered.
There are other examples of course: riding a bicycle in Beijing; hopping on the back of a motorbike in Hanoi; jumping in baths in Bali and following the local bathing rituals; relinquishing my self-consciousness in Rio to wander away from the beach in my swimsuit ….
Of course it’s great to get out and see the sights and soak up a town’s attractions but sometimes the simplest experiences and most memorable come from being part of the fabric. Slipping into someone’s shoes, gaining insight into someone’s daily life for a greater understanding and appreciation.
I remember another time when I went to visit a friend in Melbourne. She was at home with her two children and while I had come to see and spend time with her, she was so glad for an extra person in the house she asked if I wouldn’t mind watching the children while she went to run errands. A freedom she rarely had. So, instead of seeing anything of the city that visit I babysat. Oddly enough, it remains one of my most memorable times in Melbourne.
I’ve been in Italy a few days now. I haven’t seen any of the sights. In some ways, I could be anywhere but I’m not. I’m in a house, integrating with a friend’s family. My friend is concerned that I haven’t seen anything of his town but I couldn’t be happier. I’m busy listening to the impassioned way his family speaks. The spirited way they interact over the dining table. Everything seems to have such weight and passion … even if they’re simply saying “Please pass the bread.”. I’m learning Italian words. I’m sampling local dishes. I’m marvelling how we can eat delicious pastas with great breads everyday and yet no one is overweight; I’m learning traditions – two kisses, one each side when greeting another man, only one when greeting a woman. I beginning to feel part of the fabric and that’s more valuable to me than any tourist attraction that I could take a snapshot of.