The education we began with Wijnand Boon (see last post) continued recently with the visit of our grand-niece Katie and her friend Molly. We were their last stop on a three-month tour of Eastern Europe (Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Turkey). Like Boon they are back-packers, but unlike him they use public transportation, having been on boats, planes, trains, buses and one hot-air balloon in the course of their journey. They looked like giant turtles when they arrived, with large packs on their backs and small packs on their fronts. I felt we were their half-way house between the uncertainties of a foot-loose life and the restrictions of life and work back in the States.
There is a saying here that Americans live to work, but Italians work to live. We felt that Katie and Molly exemplify the Italian approach to life. They love to travel (this was not their first long-distance odyssey), but they need cash to do so. Katie is a physical therapist and works short-term contracts to support her travel habit. Molly left her former job in PR just before this long trip, and will shortly be taking a position teaching English in South Korea for a year.
What astonishes me, certified old fart that I am, is the flexiblility, openness and trust with which these young women approach life. Certainly they both come from great privilege, having grown up in the U.S., been carefully cared for and educated (albeit with wretched student loans outstanding), as I assume Boon was in the Netherlands. It gives them a passport to satisfy their curiosity, a passport not held by others less fortunate. They also have the advantage of being English-speakers. Is it not wonderful that they not only throw open their arms and embrace whatever comes their way but also go out of their way to seek the unknown?
Like anyone living in Italy we have our share of visitors (and very welcome they all are). Frequently they arrive with various requirements – can’t eat this or that, don’t like this or that, must see this or that – and that’s no problem. Our recent vagabonds, though, took what came their way, eating anything, were up for any activity suggested, but not asking for any in particular. I suppose it’s an easiness that can come only with a lot of time. If someone is traveling for two weeks he might not want to spend five days sitting on the terrace of Casa della Palma!
Speedy and I were interested in their approach to travel. Rather than going to places to ‘see the sights,’ they planned part of their itinerary around good hostels. Once in situ they were still not eager to wear out their shoes visiting all the must-see places noted in the tour books. Instead they enjoyed hiking in the countryside, watching the daily life around them and meeting new people. (Speedy mentioned that in the days of the Grand Tour one traveled to see art, monuments and so forth and tried very hard not to interact with people other than of one’s own nationality or class. They’ve turned this notion on its head.) In every port of call Katie and Molly made new friends. They received extraordinary generosity in London and in Bosnia. And having found new friends they keep in touch with them on their miraculous iPhones (they do everything on those phones. Molly, from a hostel corridor, even had a job interview with someone in South Korea on her iPhone.)
Perhaps it’s the interconnectedness that makes the world seem so much more approachable. Boon could couch-surf using the wi-fi at the Frigidarium ice cream shop in Rapallo to find a bed 100 km away; my niece could chat with her parents in the States, buy her train tickets (no need to pick them up, just show the ticket-taker the phone screen), and arrange a hostel stay, all from her little iPhone.
Suddenly these young people have showed us a very different world than the one in which we’ve lived, a world in which connecting to strangers is common currency, in which strangers are met with interest and curiosity rather than caution. I asked if there were lots and lots of people hopping around the globe the way they are. “Yes!” they said, “and most of them are Australian.” The part about the Australians might not be strictly true, but it does seem that young people are no longer as constrained as earlier generations have been. Jobs are more flexible (if harder to find), travel is easier, staying in touch a cinch.
Not that traveling the world is new; it probably began about the time we traded in our fins for feet. Nomads do it to find food, some religious persons do it to spread their word and as a form of praise, gypsies do it as a matter of course, hobos do it of necessity. (Even Speedy took a two-month vacation trip when he was in college, touring Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland on a motorcycle and making new friends. Then he took his wanderlust as an occupation.) What is wonderfully new to me is that a pair of ‘unaccompanied’ young women can safely travel to unknown places. This was rarely done in times past, I believe.
There is something very special about a wanderer, something that speaks to the unheeded wanderer in each of us. It’s the feeling that Chico, of the aforementioned Frigidarium, had when he met Boon and felt he was in the presence of someone of immense calm, someone fascinating, someone whom he actively wished to help. These young people are answering a call we must all feel at some level at some point in our lives, but which most of us have learned to ignore. (We like our couches! ) Because they are answering the call for us, we want to help in any way we can.
Still, even our vagabonds have to go ‘home’ to roost from time to time (and how nice for them that home awaits). What a joy it was for us to be the Half Way House for a few days, and to continue our own education into the ways of this new, smaller world.