venice

TRAVEL WITH ME | Venice to Milan

I had a lot of anxiety leading up to this trip.

I had traveled by myself before, but not like this.  Not a full two weeks of backpacking, checking into hostels, and planning out train tickets.

But when I had gotten to Rome to study abroad, I had already made up my mind that Prague had to be on the top of my list of places to visit.  And after having flown to London earlier that semester for another break, I had also decided that if I was going to go it solo, I wanted to travel by train.  In a lot of ways, I found it simpler, more relaxing, and more grounded.

My railway trip to Prague was, in most way, none of those things.

My first impression of Venice was that it was overcrowded, over-saturated with tourists, and absolutely stunning.  Like most of Italy.  After wandering around for a day, stepping into the overpriced shops and perusing the menus of expensive restaurants, I was glad to have arranged my stay for only two nights at the hostel - which, as it turned out, offered no WiFi or towels for the duration of my stay.

I think I could have lived with all of these things, if it weren't for the fact that, by nature, I am an introvert.  I do not energize myself from interactions with new people, places, and things, but instead lose energy from such interactions, and rapidly.  It's a good thing to know about yourself.  But certainly not the temperament required for extensive travel.

As such, I probably spent a considerable chunk of time inside the hostel, more than the average traveler might have.  I didn't stay out long after dusk, and slept in during the mornings.  I spent a lot of my stay at the Ca Venezia Hostel in my bunk, reading John Green's Looking for Alaska on my Kindle, and watching old movies on my laptop.

Yet it was to my surprise, as much to probably anybody else's, that the first revelation or "moment" I had while backpacking Europe all by myself was not as I was sitting by the canals, painting the boats in my sketchbook.  It wasn't when I boarded the train to Milan and saw the snowy caps of the Swiss Alps in the distance for the very first time.  It wasn't when I spotted the Bridge of Sorrows, or the Duomo up close.

It was when I was re-watching The Lego Movie for the umpteenth time, slouched on the top bunk of the hostel bed late at night.

I couldn't tell you how many times I had seen this movie before - it's my favorite pick-me-up film - but this time, something resonated with me.  Something about where I was, and everything that had happened to me between this viewing and the last had changed what I was watching, and suddenly I was able to personalize the film's feel-good message in a way I hadn't been before.

I wrote about it in my journal that night, but it stuck with me long after, as I embarked to my second destination: Milan.

This is what I wrote in my journal on the train ride there:

"Just simply existing and drifting was not the worst case scenario here - and it wasn't a scenario I'd even considered.  That I'd simply be me, and the greatest change that could ever happen while I was travelling abroad would not come in a flash, like lightning.  The greatest thing that could ever happen to me wouldn't be falling in love, or finding a friend for life, or going on a dangerous adventure, or being saved.  The best thing that could happen is that I'd be okay with that.  That's enough.  To be me."

I wish I could tell you I went on this journey and had an Eat Pray Love experience, and that you should totally go backpacking across Europe too if you have the chance, because you'll have that same experience.  Truth is:  I sat on the steps of the Duomo and ate McDonald's chicken nuggets and fries because it was what was easiest, and made me happy.  I sat in bed at the Venice hostel while my roommates went out for drinks, and cried as I finished reading Looking for Alaska because I felt those characters' loss.  I went to the Milan train station four hours early, and sat on a bench that smelled of piss while I read a book, because I felt more comfortable getting my ticket early than lugging my bags around to museums in the few remaining hours I had left before the train came in that day.

And those are the moments I remember, when I look back on the trip now.  And they are neither glamorous, nor transforming.  They are the same sorts of things I would have done if I was travelling back in the States.

But they're enough.  For me, simply learning to live my life according to myself, rather than seeking out the experiences I had always been told would change my life for the better, was more than enough.  And more than I could have ever asked for.

Have you traveled by yourself before?  What was your experience like?  Leave your stories down in the comments below!

Shai Cotten

TRAVEL WITH ME | Rome to Venice

With Spring Break almost upon us college students, I finally got around to editing the footage from my Easter Break trip last spring.  It only took me - what - a little over a year to edit?

All jokes aside, this is the fourth vlog I've released onto my Youtube channel from the analogs of footage I shot over my semester abroad.  I had pretty high hopes of producing a travel vlog series onto my channel when I originally signed up for the program.  I've always wanted to do something with my channel, and study abroad seemed like the perfect excuse to produce content without completely boring an audience.

A lot of things got in my way.  Bad WiFi.  Corrupted graphics cards.  Editing programs which I couldn't translate from Italian.  But for the first time since I've begun uploading these vlog segments onto my channel, I want to be upfront with you about the main reason why it took me a year to edit any of my trips.

I needed the distance.

It's difficult to own up to.  It was an incredible privilege to be able to study abroad, one that a lot of people don't get.  But after five months of living in Rome, and weeks of travelling across Europe on my own, I quickly began to realize that there is an enormous difference that arises from visiting a place versus living in a place.

And after returning to the States, facing the barrage of ecstatic questions about how my trip was, it was difficult to explain to people why I couldn't match their level of excitement.  But the truth was, and is, that I wasn't excited most of the time I spent abroad.  That fervor and thrill that overwhelms a traveler upon first arriving to a new place quickly reveals itself to be only a honeymoon phase after the first two weeks.  The truth is, most of the time I spent abroad I was uncomfortable.  I was stressed.  I was confused and fatigued.

I felt pretty bad about that - not just when I got back to the States - but while I was abroad too.  I knew that I should be enjoying myself more, and I felt irrepressibly guilty that I wasn't happier.  I bore that guilt for a while, really.  That didn't start to change until I came across this quote from Anthony Bourdain:

"Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."

Now, I'm not a big Bourdain fan.  He's funny, though a bit of an asshole.  But when you've been wading through a flood of cutesy Pinterest quotes about travel with loopy fonts and faded pastel sunsets in the background for the past several months, the bluntness of this quote is incredibly appealing.  It's nice and all to motivate yourself with quotes about adventure, or how "you only live once" so you should get out there because you'll regret it later.  But that's only one side to travel.  And I suppose that's the fundamental difference between "travel" and "journey".

When you travel to a place - for the first time, or the millionth - you don't necessarily experience the set backs, pitfalls, or obstacles intrinsic to that place.  You don't have an arc.  There's no suffering, so there's no change.  It's just an experience.  When you live in a place - when you embark on a journey across a part of this world - your travels become life.  And life is messy.  It's stressful, uncomfortable, and often devastating and miserable.

It's those small, sparse moments, in between the struggles, that give life meaning.  The book you read on your train ride.  The smell of the sea as you sit on the edge of a cliff.  The children that stand around, watching you paint, calling out compliments in their native language.

Those memories wouldn't mean as much to me if I hadn't suffered through the miserable ones.

So, if you have to ask about how my time abroad went, this vlog is only a snapshot of that journey, and to be honest it better resembles a pastel Pinterest quote than an Anthony Bourdain snippet, because at the time I was filming it, I thought that was what people wanted to see.

But there is a whole journey laying beneath the visuals of this video diary, and in the interest of transparency, I'd like to share that with you now, bit by bit.

Stay tuned for next week, when I'll post the second part of the TRAVEL WITH ME vlog series, accompanied by a blog post telling the full story of my first solo trip: pastel sunsets, broken hearts and all.

Shai Cotten