Italy is a country that means more to me than many others. Like Ireland and Croatia, Italy is part of who I am. My father’s mother, Evelyn, was born in Avellino in 1920, and later moved to the States with her family when she was twelve years old, so Italian culture has always been alive and well in our family.
But, it wasn’t until 2005, the Spring Semester of my sophomore year in college, that I took my first trip to Italy. My dear friend, Sara, was studying abroad in Rome for the semester, and extended the invitation for me to head over to visit her. I jumped at the opportunity to visit my friend and explore the city of Rome.
Sara had been in Italy for two months before my arrival, which meant she was pretty acclimated to life in another country. She was able to speak Italian, had several favorite restaurants and bars, and was able to navigate the neighborhood with ease. Sara was the perfect person to experience Rome with.
From her apartment in Trastevere, I was able to live like an Italian for a week. To me, this made all the difference in my experience. Staying in a residential area helped make the experience more authentic; we went food shopping, watched television, tried to read the Italian newspapers. This trip was not just about seeing the sites, it was about exploring the ancient city and getting a good feel for the culture and Italian lifestyle.
And, while I haven’t always had an apartment to stay in while abroad, I have always tried to make the experience in a country more authentic and less about just visiting tourist attractions. For me, it’s about experiencing culture through food and drink, people, and the every day life of a country. I try to eat at restaurants a few blocks away from tourist attractions, where the food is always better and usually cheaper. I always visit a grocery store and explore the different products, often stocking up on a few of my favorites. I make friends with people who are from the country and try to learn their language. I take public transportation to get a real feel for everyday life. I also try to stay in more residential neighborhoods and assimilate into the culture, sometimes even pretending I’m from the country for a few days or weeks.
While visiting the major attractions is also important, especially in a place as full of history as Italy is, it’s equally important to step back and remember to experience not just the history, but also the current culture of the country. This can be difficult when you have a list of places to see and things to do, but if you can’t take a few minutes to sit and have a cappuccino or gelato while watching life go by, you are seriously missing out..
By making a small effort to experience a country in a different way, it’s quite easy to get off the beaten track. And, let’s be honest, travel isn’t just about what you’ve seen, it’s about what you’ve experienced and how you’ve grown and changed throughout the journey.
This post is part of BootsnAll’s Indie Travel Challenge 2012.
Week nine’s topic: There’s plenty for travelers to love in Italy, but it can definitely be more challenging to get off the proverbial beaten path. What do you do when you visit popular places in order to have an indie travel experience?