Question of the Quest – Florence, Italy

Question of the Quest
Florence, Italy

It’s five in the morning on a cold winter morning in Florence. I’m barefoot, having woken up to the disconcerting sight of the stark letters of my destination outside the train window. My trusty alarm didn’t go off.

With shoes in hand and my bag in disarray (not to mention my hair which I haven’t washed in five days), I race off the train, slamming my half-open backpack rudely through the door (why don’t they ever make train doors that fit backpacks). I’m grumpy. I’m tired. I’m cold. I have almost missed my stop. Even McDonalds isn’t open. On top of this, I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here.

Sound familiar? It happens to every traveler. I call it the “Question of the Quest.” Here I am, experiencing the wonders of the world. Returning home empty-handed will seem fruitless. Maybe it’s that stolen photograph of Stonehenge I obtained by lacing the guard’s coffee with Exlax. Or the poetic journal entry I wrote while lounging on the bonny banks of Dover. Maybe it’s even that chunk of the Berlin Wall that my friend, Jeff, attacked with a chainsaw.

Perhaps the mission is even broader. I am young. There is nothing holding me back. If I’m destined to run off with a French clown from the circus, I want to meet my fate head on. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to discover on this grand adventure across Europe, but I have figured out a few things – train rides can get boring, asking strangers every day where they’re from is tedious. Even going clubbing every night is dull.

It seems terrible to feel boredom creeping on while traveling because the fear of wasted opportunities is constantly hovering on the horizon. After all the time and money invested, I am determined to squeeze every second out of this trip. Here I am, taking the year off, thrown into a world with no structure, Eurail pass in hand and the freedom to do and see whatever I want.

Due to this lack of structure, I panic. The desire for guidance from some greater agenda kicks in. I have to see EVERY SINGLE country in Europe, even if it’s only a day in each place. Chalk it up to another patch for the pack so I can display my worldliness for all to see. It’s good to have travel plans, but sometimes this type of rigidity causes the return trip to feel rather empty. The worst part is when the adventure is over and the reminiscences with other travelers begin.

The best thing that happened was when I missed my train to Rome and I couldn’t renew my reservation at the hostel. I ended up spending the rest of my vacation with a wonderful family in Bavaria. I don’t regret a second of it. It was the most genuine, cultural experience of my life thus far.

If you’re like me and feel a pang of jealousy when fellow travelers extol such sentiments, then you need to slow down. My bad traveling habits revealed themselves after I aborted an attempted mission to Sicily right as I was nearing the cusp, the ferry ride to Messina. I had been traveling rigorously from Greece, for over 24 hours, braving various rural ferries and trains. I was anxious to “check one more item off the list, one more place on the agenda.”

I knew I had to meet my host family in Florence in just a few, short days. Another semester abroad awaited. In short, I would barely have time to get all the way to Sicily, see the sights and come back before starting my new semester – not to mention time to relax and process my experience thus far. Stressful!

To top it off, I overshot my destination (let’s blame it on bad directions in the guidebook). I needed to get back on the train I had just gotten off, going in the opposite direction. Well, fate handed me a train that also happened to be headed overnight to Florence. It was late. I was tired. I realized that I had sacrificed my enjoyment of the moment for just another checkmark on a pad of paper. I wanted to sleep. I ended up skipping Sicily and heading to Florence early.

Now, here I am, in the dead of morning, regretting my decision when my shoelace gets caught on the cobblestones and I sprawl headlong into someone. “Scusi,” I gasp, disentangling myself from the unsuspecting victim of my clumsiness. An incredulous voice replies, “Colleen?” I look up to see that the woman I bumped into is actually a good friend of mine from high school.

Both of us had no idea the other was living in Florence. We catch up on old times and spend a wonderful day together. She is leaving the next day to embark on her own sojourn across Europe. I share my expertise on traveling. She teaches me the ropes of the city, shows me all the hot spots and instructs me in pertinent Italian phrases, thus easing my transition into a semester in Florence.

Had I not given up my ridiculous agenda, I never would’ve bumped into her. Take that agenda you’ve been penciling in, toss it out the window and follow your whims. It may be one of the only times in your life you’re allowed to do just that.