A Simple Way Travel Humbles You

You never forget your firsts.

The first time I stood beneath the Eiffel Tower I was almost two weeks into living in Paris. I’d spent those two weeks getting settled into my neighbourhood (14eme arrondissement), figuring out the metro, getting terribly lost on the metro (several times), trying to get ahead on upcoming classes, and moving into my apartment. A lot was happening, and with all of it came stress. The final hump to settling into my home of four months was getting a French bank account. I walked into a nearby Societe Generale, nervously clutching my proof of residence form and passport, hoping that I knew enough French banking vocabulary to get through this step. My final step. To my own surprise, I did and as I headed towards my bus home, full of pride, I saw another bus stop sign with the words Tour Eiffel printed on it. In that moment it occurred to me that in all my stress and worry, I’d failed to stop and take a look around. I was in Paris. So, I waited the five minutes it took for the bus to reach me, and, if I’m honest, prepared to be underwhelmed. As the bus approached her, and she grew so high that her apex seemed to almost reach up into the heavens, I instantly felt anchored. It was the most peculiar feeling. For a moment, after the confused, anxious haze those first two weeks had been, I knew where I was and felt the true weight of what that meant. But this post isn’t so much about Paris, but instead, about Rome.

My arrival to Rome was bumpy. In an attempt to save money, I’d booked a ticket with a 18 hour layover in Lisbon, which after a five hour flight (which I did not sleep on) and jet lag,  left me exhausted. The following day, I boarded a 6am flight to Rome from Lisbon, sensing the achy beginnings of the flu spreading throughout my body. Getting into the city from the airport and to my hotel seemed like another feat, marked by the inconvenience of a closed metro station (due to a worker’s strike), and two men following me as I frantically searched for a cheaper way to get to my hotel without needing to speak any Italian (which I speak zilch of). As I settled into my queen-sized bed, I immediately felt my body clinging to the clean sheets, begging for rest. And this time, my body won. I spent the first day, of a four-day trip, sleeping.

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Planning out how to get around on foot.

The following day, determined to keep the cold creeping up in my throat at bay, I walked out onto Roman streets with my camera and cough drops in reach. Now I’ve trekked through my fair share of cities, but never have I explored any city like I did Rome. I walked everywhere. I walked past everything, to everything and encountered beauty on several turns. But you never forget your real firsts.

The first time I saw the Colosseum was by accident. I was trying to find it, looking for signs, with only a weak cellphone signal, a vague idea where it might be and how I might get to it. In all my confusion (and hunger—I’d skipped lunch) I’d almost missed it. I was stopped at a red light of a random intersection and looked to my left and there it was.

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Caught by surprise.

The moment felt all too familiar. Suddenly, after the drama that it was to get to Rome, to my hotel, and all, I finally felt like I was there, in Rome. My frustration quickly turned into excitement. I walked to him, and well, it’s hard to put into words. Many people go to  popular cities and look for the “insider” experience, trying to find where the locals are and trying to do what the locals do. They steer clear of what’s touristy and too commercialized. I get it. I’m mostly the same way. But there’s something about seeing for yourself the iconic symbols you’ve only seen in magazines or in film. Famous images of tall buildings with all that history you’ve only read and wondered about. No matter how riddled with tourists those places are, when you finally reach them, they pull you in.

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It’s like for so long the most you could do was touch the waxy coating of the image, and then suddenly there you are. Not only are you the one taking the picture, you’re inside of it, interacting with it and then it’s not image at all. It’s real and so are you. It grounds you. That’s what it felt like seeing the Colosseum, like my feet were on the ground after a day of feeling like I was still stuck in the air. I love so many things about cities like Paris and Rome, things that are less well known, the people, the art, but, the things I appreciate most are those big, famed buildings. They are a sign that you’ve arrived to your destination. They’re a sign that you’re not alone in this world. People, hundreds or thousands of years ago, built those places. Those buildings have been pillaged and broken and worn with time, yet still they stand as they stood before you were ever anything and they’ll continue to exist when you are once again nothing. It’s truly the most humbling experience. A unique experience I can say I’ve only gotten from going out and seeing the world.

So, here’s to firsts! And to Rome. And I suppose to Paris. And to all that grounds you.

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Happy traveling!

-Afia

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