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Around the World

26 August 2017

I had previously known many of the people I stayed with throughout the last few weeks in Europe, however, all of these people were in a place I had never visited before.

Italy was the one exception, in which I knew both place and people. Because of this, Impruneta became the destination I was most looking forward to while in Europe.

Two years ago after walking through Spain, I continued my unconventional adventures by farming with a family in Impruneta, Italy, a small town twenty minutes south of Florence. I contacted the host a day before arriving in Florence. On their WWOOF profile page, they mentioned they didn’t speak any English but were willing to try. So I sent them an email in English and Italian, and let them know I was looking for immediate placement.

By the way, when one is tired, hungry, and uncertain of the immediate future, there are few greater feelings than correctly guessing a random wifi password on your first try, then receiving an email of your acceptance to work on a farm in Tuscany (written in Italian). Thus began the beautiful relationships I made with my friends in Impruneta.

Fast forward to July 2017 and I’m finally back. The bus from Florence dropped me off in the town square, and I tentatively began making my way through the town to where I thought their apartment was. Fifteen minutes later, my memory was rewarded when I was greeted by the family dog and many happy, human embraces.

I have no reservations about using the word “home” while traveling. If life is lived wherever you find yourself, then one’s home should carry a similar transitory quality, especially when the home involves feeling loved. And this place feels like home. Reunions bring a sweetness to the soul.

After a night of reminiscing and impromptu language practice life on the farm resumed as normal. The days start early, and by 7:30 am we’re off to take care of the chickens and the sheep. I’m here during a different season than two years ago, and that means different duties. One of which was milking the sheep and cheese making!

This was Carlotta’s daily job, but she allowed me to make a fool of myself and pretend like I knew what I was doing. It seemed her milk bucket collected a cup for every successful squirt I could manage. But our combined efforts proved sufficient to begin making the next batch of cheese.

The farm, Santa Cristina a Pancole, consists of both a vineyard and olive grove, but this isn’t the time of harvesting grapes nor olives. So after a brief lesson in cheese making, the farm owner, Stefano had to find something else for me to work on. After showing him pictures of the stone wall I rebuilt in France, he had an idea.

You could say I’ve gained quite a lesson in stonework this summer. We began laying down an extension of an existing patio framed just off of the main house. The plan was to add a semi-circle big enough to provide a comfortable sitting area for the dinner table. I love this kind of work.

Unlike my stay two years ago, when olive-picking dominated the days, the pace of the day had greatly relaxed and I found myself with way more free time than expected. It was also apparent I was visiting more as a friend than a volunteer, and this was a very good feeling.

So during my very brief week in the country, I took the opportunity to take a day trip up north to the Floating City. I had planned to go alone, but the family helped twist Carlotta’s arm and I ended up with a travel buddy! Travel is always better with friends.

The Grand Canal

Venice, Italy

She hadn’t been to the city in eleven years or some similar length of too many years, and I was happy to help end that drought. After a two-hour train ride, we had a beautiful day to wander the streets and fill ourselves with coffee and gelato and overly priced ravioli (five ravioli, fifteen euros.. outrageous). But no matter, satisfaction was found after a successful hunt for the cheaper eats: pizza and pastries galore.

I could continue with the mundane exploits of how we spent our day, but there isn’t much else to say. We had a fun, carefree day in the city without cars or scooters. It was pleasantly quiet despite the scores of people found on the streets.

But what I want to focus on is how this opportunity even came about. It exemplifies every reason I love to travel and it all boils down to relationships.

Let me remind you, Stefano and Giovanna don’t really speak English (her kids did and often helped translate). Stefano can pick up a lot of the English cognates and speaks some French. So French proved to be the biggest bridge of our conversational divide. As it was back on the Mas de Jammes, I often found myself mixing sentences of English, Italian, and French. Sometimes Stefano would tell me something and I thought, “wow, I understand, I’m learning Italian!” Only to realize a moment later he was speaking French.

The Grand Canal

Venice, Italy

• • •

Back to my point, even with a relatively large disconnect in language, we still call each other friends.

At the end of the day, how much of your friendship needs to be spoken anyway? I think we find ourselves connecting most deeply with others based on personality, and personality doesn’t need words to clearly represent itself.

When it comes to traveling, the realm of possibility is largely dependent upon the network of your relationships and not the size of your pocketbook. Sure, money can buy you a luxury hotel suite for a weekend in Paris, but that doesn’t come with friends, and as a solo traveler, friends are exactly what I’m looking for.

I’d argue my experiences have been richer, more engaging, and more fulfilling than the average tourist who strolls across the London Bridge to snap a selfie. The more I travel, the longer my list of world neighbors grows. An international coffee date is a text away. And it’s this exact principle which I wish was more embraced.

When I go home my world is not America, my world is Earth. I’m lounging in my hotel room in Nepal when I read a headline on BBC of a terrorist attack in Barcelona where a van drove across Las Ramblas killing fifteen. That headline gets a lot more real when you know you were just there walking with friends not even a month ago.

It goes beyond, “what a tragedy,” to “that could have been me.” If we all live in our own bubbles of selfishness, I believe traveling lengthens the diameter a bit. An earthquake killing a million people on the other side of the world is one thing. An earthquake killing a dozen people in your neighborhood is life-altering. You won’t forget those images.

The more you travel, the more your neighborhood grows. The bubble of your concern (or selfishness) grows to encompass more and more people.

Other thoughts to ponder: How negatively would diplomacy change if politicians were forbidden to travel outside the United States?

How positively would our nation’s perceptions change if American students had one free roundtrip ticket to travel abroad after high school? Considering our children will be the future diplomats, I think it’d be a good idea to give them a headstart.

I’ve heard less than 40% of Americans own a passport. Upon fact checking this I discovered some interesting things. 1) This number is incorrect and about 42% of Americans own a passport, and 2) Regardless of the number of passport holders, an average of 3.5% of Americans travel abroad outside North America for a stay of seven or more days per year. That is a very small number.

• • •

You could say we’ve taken a lengthy tangent from the canals of Venice and Tuscan hills, but this is largely what I think about on my wanderings. How do you make the world a better place? Language doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Culture doesn’t matter. Whether at home or abroad, offer a handshake and turn strangers into friends. Usually, just a smile will do the trick.

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