Like many others, I have found myself with two things during this time of sheltering in place: a hulk of unstructured free time and an uncontrollable urge to travel and see the world. Since the latter is impossible at the moment, the next best thing I can do is reminisce on recent trips and fantasize about my next great adventure whenever that might happen. Don’t worry, I’m not going to wax poetic to you about my dreams of seeing the tea gardens of Kyoto or having one more cappuccino at my relatives’ bar in Valtellina; I’ll save that for my dating app matches. Instead, I want to address a phenomenon I hear often in conversations about traveling that I find troubling.
Let me first set the stage for you. You’re traveling with a small group of friends in Europe and land in Rome (yes, I know I talk about Rome too often, but in this case it is a perfect example for the burnout to be described) with only three days allotted to explore a city with millennia of history. You have all the classic monuments on your list: theColosseum, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona just to name a few.
Fast-forward to the afternoon of your second day there, and you’re in the Vatican Museums trying to glean some sort of cultural enlightenment from a Titian painting you’ve been staring at for three minutes through bleary eyes. Someone in your group snaps you out of your claustrophobia-and-heat-induced stupor by tugging on your shirt to follow them to the next room, because the unstated but obviously understood sentiment is that you are all pretty done with this charade of caring about what year Michelangelo actually carved La Pietà and all you’ve had to eat today was espresso and gelato.
“But I have to go through all of the museums and sneak a picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling like everybody else! How am I able to say I’ve been to Rome?” And here is where I take issue. Does the scenario I just described above really sound like your idea of a pleasant traveling experience? Is that the heart of the reason why you travel? I fully recognize that everyone travels for their own reason, and the last thing I want to do is admonish people for seeing the world, even if it might be mainly just to get a cute picture for the ‘Gram or sound interesting to strangers at the bar back home.
The only thing I want to do here is caution everyone against feeling unconsciously obligated to submit to torturous situations like this – which are happily provided by tourist traps across the globe – solely because everyone else that goes there does it and you feel like you will not be getting the “full experience” if you do not. I like to call this “say you’ve seen it” traveling. How many times have you heard someone say something like, “The line at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa was ridiculous, but we decided to wait it out just to say we’ve seen it.“ Congrats on their determination, but what did they really gain? Has it always been a dream of theirs to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece in person? Or did they just feel compelled by collective peer pressure to want the bragging rights? (hint: you can always just lie if you really think it matters to the person you’re trying to impress, but that’s a whole other can of psychological worms to open) Well, I say peer pressure be damned; this is YOUR trip and you should be optimizing it to maximize YOUR own enjoyment and satisfaction. And all it really takes is a bit of forethought and intention.
Is art history one of your main areas of interest or even your major and you want totruly appreciate some of the magnum opuses of Renaissance art? Then sure, something like the Vatican Museums would probably be worth your time and the discomforts that might come with it. However, if you can’t even name all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (had to throw that reference in when talking about Renaissance art), then maybe a quick pic in front of St. Peter’s Basilica would suffice, and you could instead spend that time focusing on the things that genuinely interest you, like shopping or food (coincidentally, Via Cola di Rienzo is perpendicular to the Vatican State and offers plenty of both). This same approach applies to taking a full Colosseum tour as a history buff verses taking a few moments to marvel at its architectural genius from the outside as a layperson and then promptly grabbing an aperitivo before it gets too crowded.
Heat stroke-inducing lines of tourists aside, one of the biggest pitfalls plaguing this mentality of “say you’ve seen it” traveling is the opportunity cost of having experiences that are more novel or culturally enriching. During the entirety of my semester in Rome, my favorite memories were far from the typical “Day in Rome Tourist Blitz” activities. I went to a beer tasting festival that was only happening one weekend in the year, my friend Angela took me to a language-exchange bar full of Italian students our age eager to learn English and help us with our Italian (which was so fun and helpful I went back twice), and on our last night, we all went out with bottles of wine and just sat in all the major piazzas of the city, taking in their character with no one else there to block our view. Yes, many of these might require a bit of local knowledge, but technology has made it easier than ever to find great sources of inside information for virtually any place in the world, so you can tailor your trip to your own goals and interests.
I don’t want to get too sanctimonious as I try to tie this all back together. However, it should be very apparent to anyone not living under a rock that traveling is not going to be the same in the wake of this pandemic. I cannot begin to predict how it will change, nor do I care to imagine how long it will take for us to feel at ease on a 13-hour flight again. All I can say is it will be that much more important to travel for yourself! Try new things, see new places, and meet new people, all as long as they truly appeal to YOU. I hope everyone reading this is staying safe and hopeful, and that the next time you see me in person I will already be prepping for my next trip, no matter how small and socially distant it might be!