|be smart | July 2016
A smart destination:
Don't just travel, learn
by Sara Volk
Three days before my sophomore year of college began, I stood in my bedroom over a new set of luggage, trying to figure out how I was going to pack both a coat and my textbooks into the bright blue bag without going over the 70 pound weight limit. I had three days before I would be leaving behind sleepy Bismarck, North Dakota, for a country halfway around the world, where I'd live in a city with 2.9 million people and thousands of years of history. It was the first time I'd ever been out of the country (unless drifting around the boundary waters of Minnesota and Canada counts), and I would be doing it by myself.
It was daunting, to say the very least, but also an exciting opportunity. It was an adventure waiting for me to turn the first page. I did what I could to prepare for the trip. I took a semester's worth of Italian (and discovered I'm far quicker at learning to read a Romance language than I am to speak it); I read up on travel to Europe and other global destinations; I made an exhaustive list of all the things I could possibly need on my trip.
My classmates and I arrived in Rome in late August at eight o'clock in the morning, exhausted from a turbulent flight and little sleep. We dropped our bags off at the convent that was to be our home for the next five months, and attempted to catch some z's until -- of course -- our professors decided to help us experience the city first-hand. Which was how we were split up into groups, dropped off in downtown Rome, and were told to not only find our way to different landmarks for a scavenger hunt, but to find our own way back to the monastery.
If you ever want to pick up a language quickly, being dropped in the middle of the country with no resources is probably the quickest way to do so. Very few people outside of the tourist districts spoke English, so it was sink or swim. And my semester's worth of Italian came in far more handy than I thought it would.
But what my experience in Italy truly taught me was that there is a whole different side to travel that I hadn't thought about before: education. You can learn so much while you travel. Different foods, culture, stories, architecture, art, music -- the list is absolutely endless. I'd never thought of travel as a learning opportunity. It was something you did for fun, to see the sights. See the Colosseum? Check. Walk up the Spanish Steps? Done. Visited Versailles during the week-long stint in France? Of course. But there is an entire layer of history, art and culture beneath these tourist destinations that most of the tourists I spoke with didn't even think about. They were taking the time to visit these places, often without bothering to stop and learn why they were there -- or what role these once-famous landmarks once played.
About two blocks from the Colosseum in Rome is the Wedding Cake (officially known as the Altare della Patria or the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II); it's a large building set up on a small hill, packed with statues and columns, and was probably one of the most ugly while still endearing buildings in the entire city. On the northwest side of the building is the bus stop recommended by every single travel brochure when you look at "how to get to the Colosseum". The problem? The Wedding Cake is in the way. You literally can't see the Colosseum.
I tended to run into lost tourists on this exact little stretch of road, struggling to find the Colosseum to check that particular item off their list. In particular, I remember coming across a small group of three English women who were perhaps in their early sixties, completely at a loss on what to do and attempting to find someone who spoke English to give them directions. Since I was on my way to the Colosseum anyways (the subway station lets out right in front of it), I simply walked up to them, smiled, and said, "Looking for the Colosseum? Follow me -- I'll take you."
During the fifteen minute walk to the Colosseum, I took to talking to these ladies about what was around us. I briefly summed up what the ruins were on either side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, answering questions as best I could about the history of the area and what the buildings had likely looked at when they'd been built. The large building they could see to the right Basilica of Maxentius, and had been the largest building in the Roman Forum; they could visit the Roman Forum if they followed another road across from the Colosseum, and see the remains of several temples, including the Temple of Vesta; there were several good shops nearby to get lunch at, and if they wanted to pick up gelato, I warned them to stay away from the street vendors since they hiked up the prices and over-mixed it until it became more frost than gelato.
When we parted ways, these women thanked me for telling them about the area -- because they hadn't even thought to look into the history of the area they were visiting. They'd wanted to check off the bucket list item, and move on to the next "must see" tourist destination. But slowing down a little and learning about where these destinations came from, and taking the time to notice some of the smaller details was enough to make their trip even more meaningful.
That experience stuck with me -- and ever since then, I've made a promise to myself. When I travel to a new destination, it is my goal to learn at least three new things I didn't know every day I'm there. And so far, I've been able to keep up with that challenge. And I have to admit... It makes travel into a whole new experience.
Sara Volk is a Bismarck native and the current Special Sections editor at The Bismarck Tribune. When she isn't working to give her cat a better life, she dabbles in baking, sewing, and anything nerdy.