In April, I went on a 3 week Europe trip with my mum. We visited Amsterdam, Switzerland, Lisbon and Italy. I was looking forward to Italy the most – I imagined exotic accents, rich history, art, beautiful food and culture. Although that was there, throughout Italy I was also exposed to a few unexpected turns which turned to lessons I’d like to share.
Lesson One: You can’t get lost if you intend to have no idea where you’re going
Before I arrived at every city, I would read up on the TripAdvisor recommendations, Lonely Planet tips, scoured through various travel blogs to be as prepared as possible. Initially, I was so stuck in the “I want to make the most of our time in Europe” mind frame that I would stress to make sure we ticked off as many attractions as we could, because it is such a rare opportunity.
Searching up the directions from one church to the next museum to that other historical monument got a bit overwhelming. I got tired of doing all of that two weeks into the trip, so in Venice, I decided- forget it, let’s just wander and see where we end up. Everyone says that it is impossible not to get lost in Venice because it is full of small obscure alleyways. Maps are sometimes inaccurate and the GPS location service gets confused by the poor service.
The most liberating thing was when I realised that these churches and museum on a “must-see” list have literally been there for more than hundreds of years and will continue to exist years after I leave. It is completely okay not to do everything on the arbitrary list that a stranger recommended for the typical traveller! What’s the point of ticking off items on someone else’s list just because I feel like I should? Chances are, they’re still going to be there the next time I come.
I’m not “missing out”. I will be missing out if I didn’t properly enjoy the experience of exploring and spending time with my mum because that is something truly precious; the time we have together is irreplaceable.
Smelling the tulips with mum
Once my priorities were set straight, I felt so light. I loved having no idea where I was going, having no agenda, just walking in the general right direction pointing out interesting things with mum and laughing together. We didn’t get lost in Venice because we didn’t have anywhere we needed to go.
As a medical student, I am shown the well trodden path of student–> house officer–> registrar–> fellow –> consultant. These are the “Must See” attractions. However, often people can feel unsatisfied and ask what the point of going through all this is. We know that we are working for something, we’re ticking off items on a check list to a career goal but the day to day mundane things can sometimes seem pointless.
Venturing off the beaten path can be scary but many people I look up to have told me that looking back, it was the sidesteps in life that actually were highlights of their career. It can seem like you’re “losing your spot”, or that you’re falling behind, but that is when they had the freedom to experiment and try new things which lead to new ideas, innovations and new people.
I became less afraid of the road less travelled. I don’t have to be doing the same things as everyone else to be assured that I’m on the right track. No one else’s version of a good life will ever feel completely right for me- so I need to make my own. I only need to head in a direction that feels right, and enjoy the adventures that come with it. Who knows what might happen?
Lesson Two: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
I learnt this the hard way. Mum and I came across a pretty nice looking restaurant advertising 9 euro spaghetti with lobster. I thought it would be a few shredded pieces of lobster at best for 9 euros, but to our pleasant surprise, it was a whole big plate with lots of other seafood too. We were delighted. We ate to our heart’s content, but when we asked for the cheque, we were shocked to be presented with a 50 euro bill.Turns out the 9 euro lobster was “seasonal”. When we asked our waiter why he didn’t tell us it was seasonal (there was NO mention of it on the menu), he said “I don’t know what you don’t know!”
Note to self: Have a healthy degree of suspicion for things that seem too good to be true.
At least it was delicious.
Lesson Three: Living in the most beautiful cities of the world doesn’t necessarily mean you live a beautiful life
Rome, Venice, Paris, New York… these are postcard-worthy cities that people flock to from all over the world. I’ve always thought.. wow, the citizens are so lucky to live in such historical and famous places. Having visited these cities, I feel that often people can live difficult lives.
There are many buskers near tourist attractions. In Venice, on the way home, I saw an accordion player I walked past earlier in the day slumped over his accordion on a crowded bus. It was then that I started thinking about what my life would be like if I lived here as a local. This guy has to go and sit by the famous square every day, rain or shine, to collect coins from tourists all day, and then bus back home to do whatever he does. It can be a hard life. It struck me that although tourists only visit the highlights of each place, for locals, this is their home and they have to somehow make a living in a competitive and often crowded place.
People move to New York (or their nearest big city) to prove something to themselves- “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”. I think back to Auckland and feel so lucky that I don’t live in a shoebox-sized apartment with a dim light and tap water that leaves a white residue floating in the pot after you boil it (water is weird in Italy). Auckland isn’t in the same league as Paris, London, Rome and New York… but I can finally see why we are always in lists like “the most liveable cities in the world” or “the happiest cities in the world” and so on. I get it now. I would rather live in a less famous city and lead a more autonomous life, than to live in a over-glamorized city fighting to live.
There are a lot of things that people complain about in Auckland- the traffic, the house prices, politics… but compared to a lot of other places in the world, this really is a haven. I get a little emotional every time I drive over the Harbour Bridge early in the morning where the light from the sunrise just brushes over the sailing boats; or late at night with our version of a concrete jungle and all the pretty lights. I took it for granted that I could walk around at night by myself in Auckland; whereas I felt unsafe walking in Naples in broad daylight with my mum. I took it for granted that there is so much greenery here; I could go for a run anywhere and know that I wouldn’t feel out of place. The living conditions I thought were ‘normal’ really aren’t the norm elsewhere in the world. Every time I find myself getting annoyed at little things like the bus being late… I think back to my experiences overseas and the perspective shifts. It could be a lot worse.
Lesson Four: When humanity lets you down, remember that nobody owes you anything. Don’t take it personally.
I really, really wanted to love Florence. Everybody loves Florence. There is no denying that it is a beautiful and cultured city and I think I would’ve said it was my favourite place in Italy.
Mum and I knew that there were many pickpockets in Italy, so we always bring only the cash we think we will need on the day, and leave all our credit cards and passports at our accommodation. We spent a wonderful day out exploring Florence, we went out for dinner, and then we were looking forward to relaxing at our accommodation when two bus ticket inspectors comes on the bus, one comes in the front door and one comes in the rear door.
We hand him our bus tickets that we had just bought before we got on the bus (in Italy, bus tickets are sold in ‘Tabac’ stalls – kind of like the dairy in New Zealand). The man takes a look at our ticket and basically says “you haven’t validated your ticket”.
What does that mean?
He pointed to an inconspicuous machine behind him. Nothing about validating a ticket there was on the sign. He scribbled some notes on his pad and gave us a loud lecture in mixed Italian and English and hand gestures on the bus with everyone staring.
We explained to him that this was our first day in Florence. We only just bought the ticket before we boarded the bus, and when we got on the bus we showed our tickets to the bus driver and tried to tag on the bus but didn’t realise that there was a second machine we needed to put our tickets into. We were very sorry, etc etc. He pointed to a tiny line on the bottom of our ticket that said “tickets must be validated” and refused to budge. He scribbled more on his pad. 50 euro instant fine, he said, and handed us the piece of paper.
I explained that I don’t have 50 euros left. Mum and I literally only had 20 euros left between us and a few coins in my wallet since we were on our way home, finished for the day. Then he asked for our credit card. No luck. He then asked for my documents. We also did not have any on us. “Big problem, big problem”, he repeated in a thick unfriendly Italian accent.
At this point, a nun who was sitting opposite to my mum and I defended our innocence and said gave her validated ticket to us, because she still had her bus card. The ticket inspector said it wasn’t about a ticket or not, it was because of the fact we hadn’t validated our ticket and nothing could change that.
He started talking to his colleague who also found another unfortunate tourist in a similar situation to fine. They mentioned something about going to the police station at “San Marco square“. They motioned for us to leave the bus with them, as if we were criminals.
The other tourist had a credit card on him, the other ticket inspector took him to an ATM and got the money off him. Well, mum and I were apparently in big trouble over a measly 1.5 euro bus ticket. We tried to explain to him back and forth, none of us could understand the other very well. I felt exasperated, although I knew that deep down, he knew we made an honest mistake. We wouldn’t be the first tourists in this situation and we certainly wouldn’t be the last. Eventually, after over half an hour of talking, he took our remaining 20 euros and said the matter was finished if we just pay up, handing us the receipt. I shoved over my remaining 20 euros and mum and I walked home in gloom, never looking back at him.
On the way home, what had just happened slowly sank in and I felt so miserable and sorry for myself. It was the most humiliated and degraded I have ever felt. I was so angry. It wasn’t the money he took away from me- it was the whole idea where the purpose is to pick on tourists who honestly don’t know any better. Where is the humanity? How could he sell his soul to a bus company? It felt like no amount of reason could sway the stench of bureaucracy that came along with his uniform. I still had hope that maybe kindness and understanding would seep through somewhere, but it was no where to be seen. He was cold and unforgiving.
Usually when something bad happens to me, I’m able to learn something from the experience and see something positive out of it. On my sad walk home, I felt that there was absolutely nothing to be gained out of this whole experience. There was no reason for this suffering.
When I talked to friends about this incident when I got back home, people have said “maybe he’s a crook”, “maybe he was just really into his job”, “maybe you were just unlucky”. No matter what it was, this guy had his own reasons for doing what he did. Maybe I will never understand, but I refuse to be the victim. I have learnt so much from this experience.
Firstly, I think it could’ve been a lot worse. I could’ve met him at the beginning of the day when I had enough cash. It could have been a real crook who have properly mugged us for money instead of doing it this way. Mum and I were physically unharmed. Who’s ever heard of getting a discounted fine?
What mum and I experienced was a breeze compared to other citizens of the world who face corrupt officials on a daily basis. In real life, the weak get preyed upon; this is a fact of nature. Respect and dignity is paved by money. I’ve been living in my sheltered bubble for too long, because I’m constantly surrounded by kind people. A fan-favourite phrase from Game of Thrones is “You know nothing, Jon Snow”. I would like to join your club, Jon Snow, for I also know nothing. I actually know absolutely nothing about the world. I’ve got so much to learn. Mum was fully composed after this happened and she said it was “normal”. People face unfairness all the time and this is a small deal compared to the storm that life can throw at you. I hope one day I can deal with situations like my calm, wise mother instead of feeling like an idealistic fool most of the time.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but going through all of this made me so appreciative of the times when people did show humanity and kindness to me. In Amsterdam, mum and I bought the wrong type of tram ticket accidentally but the tram driver still waved us through. In Switzerland, the automatic train machines didn’t accept my note because it was too large and there were no staff around to help. So a lady placed her own money in the coin slot and helped us buy our ticket, and wouldn’t accept any payment in return.
Good things happen on a daily basis, but so do the bad. What I learnt was to not take the times where people have helped me for granted. It isn’t personal; it is because they were virtuous rather than anything I did. When I feel let down, I re-check my privilege and realise that nobody owes me anything in this world. They can be mean if they want to, they can be nice if they want to, and I have absolutely no control over that. What I do have control over is how I react to these situations. I’ve learnt to toughen up, and use it to widen my perspectives. I could either be bitter or I could use this experience to benefit others in the future. It is a lesson that I can’t learn from anywhere else.
I’ve changed a lot since returning home. My experiences abroad that have caused a huge attitude shift and everyday I realise how lucky I am to live in this place. The things that used to bother me don’t have the same affect anymore because I’ve developed more mature ways of dealing with them. It is subtle but things have definitely changed within me. I appreciate the little things more than I did before, and I feel that peaceful sort of happiness because I’m acutely aware of how things could be so much worse.