Life, I have observed, never works like you were expecting. Among the events in my life that I would at one point have thought impossible are going to Tech, actually graduating from Tech, going to Tech for grad school, becoming the editor of the Technique—by now you may get the picture that I tend to fly by the seat of my pants through life.
This is the approach I advocate for vacationing as well and I recently put it to the test. As part of a research project I’m involved with I just spent 12 days in Italy. While much of that time was spent working, I was able to precede that with two days on my own in Sicily. Why Sicily? It’s the land of part of my ancestry—including my surname. I had never left North America in my 23 years of life and I’m not sure if I’ll get the chance to do it again anytime soon with my student loan debt soaring to new orders of magnitude, so I needed to take advantage of this special opportunity.
The conventional approach would probably have been to buy a travel guide and make an itinerary of destinations. With only a couple of days, you need to be efficient and effective, right? To the contrary, I decided it was hopeless to try to cover all the so-called essentials in that little bit of time.
So rather than just hitting a fraction of the sights, I needed to immerse myself and experience the place in the most genuine way—by detaching myself and abandoning any sense of comfort and familiarity. Some use vacations to relax; I prefer to use them as a chance to learn things that won’t be found in any reference book.
To be fair, I didn’t go over completely unprepared. I did read the Wikipedia pages for the places I was going to. However, I stuck to my plan. With my only navigational assistance being a crude map I sketched while looking at the city of Palermo on Google Maps, I arrived by train from the airport to the center of the city and attempted to find my hotel.
Everything was going great until I spotted the bicycle capital of Palermo—a side street filled with hundreds of bicycles hanging up on display for sale and dozens of bicycle repairmen. Being kind of a bike nut I had no choice but to walk over. Thus marked the beginning of a several hour long journey of being lost in a new land, by the midst of which I couldn’t have told you where I was in relation to anything else if my life depended on it. Of course, it all worked out in the end when I stumbled upon my destination, but simply wandering was more interesting than paying an entrance fee to walk through some historic building.
The next day I took a train to a city called Enna 100 miles away in the center of the island. This, my relatives told me, was where the original Tabitas came from, so of course I needed to give it a look.
I arrived at the Enna train station where I was greeted by the exciting news that the train station is several miles outside the actual city, which itself is up a mountain. After a few moments of panic I deciphered a bus schedule posted on a window and managed to make it onto a bus and communicate to the driver, who spoke approximately two words of English, that I just wanted to be dropped in the city someplace. After successfully getting lost there, as well as seeing and climbing the castle which is the main landmark of the city, I embarked on a quest to get back to the train station.
I found a sign indicating a taxi stand, which surely means that all I need to do is stand there and transportation will magically manifest itself, right? Apparently not. With thirty minutes until my train was scheduled to leave, the consequences of not being on board were that I would be stranded in this strange town, 100 miles from my hotel which I needed to check out of the following morning, and with no chance of making my flight the following afternoon to meet the rest of my group and actually work.
Feeling as desperate as I have ever felt in my life, I enlisted the help of some Carabinieri who summoned a taxi that took me to the station thirty seconds before my train left. My desperation was replaced with the greatest sense of relief I have ever felt in my life.
Since I made it back to Palermo I was able to make it onto my flight to northern Italy, meet up with my group, and do our work while seeing beautiful cities like Florence and Venice that are more typically associated with Italian vacations. But the most memorable part of my trip will be my aimless exploration of side streets in Sicily that will never be found in a travel guide.