In early March 2020, I found myself unwittingly in Milan as the pandemic lockdowns began there. I completed a three-week adventure through southern Italy, and Milan was the last stop on my way back to Japan. My former beau and I flew from Sicily to Milan on a Saturday, the last day domestic flights were allowed into Milan. Two days later, we were meant to fly to Tokyo. Those strange and glorious days left a memorable impression. Many other tourists had left Milan when the city-wide lockdown took effect. As we toured the city on bikes, Milan felt quiet and subdued. At that time, I had no idea that cross-border travel would become much more difficult. Three weeks after I arrived in Tokyo, the U.S. Embassy there sent out an ominous message asking Americans to either leave Japan or plan on staying in Japan indefinitely.
During this pandemic, then, I have been doing less suitcase packing and a bit more contemplation. I am grateful for my past adventures within this window of less moving. I mindfully re-live and rejoice in old travels. I am convinced that this capacity to feel gratitude is directly related to our ability to enjoy life in general. After my most meaningful trips, I am grateful for new experiences, intriguing trinkets, new human connections, and the chance to learn a new perspective. For me, this is the third way to enjoy travel fully. As I reflect and reminisce on travels past, I appreciate: (1) moments of surprise, (2) physical mementos, (3) human connections, and (4) perspectives gleaned. This after-adventure pause, with mindful gratitude, is a life-affirming practice.
Shortly after I returned to Tokyo from Italy, the Japanese began to take the pandemic seriously. I was asked to work from home. Social events went on hiatus. Restaurants closed early. Bars were completely shuttered; music venues went mute. With nowhere to go for a while, I reflected on my glorious Italian experience. I had planned well and found flow in my time in Italy. Now, I was in my third phase of travel joy: the remembrances.
1. Cherish Moments of Surprise
On this trip to Italy, I traveled with my British beau (the first boyfriend to join me abroad). On a few occasions, I observed our styles were different. I could eat at any time; he seemed never to get hungry. Eventually, Italian food broke his restraint. But our first (and only) spat during dating was based very squarely on the capacity to enjoy the moment.
After insisting that we should watch the sunset from the island of Syracuse (as opposed to returning to our Airbnb so he could send emails), a tense yelling match ensued. Finally, we agreed. We would NOT leave before the sunset. After this, he bought me a truce-gelato, and we walked along an ancient bridge toward a marina in the old town. By pure luck, my eye caught a boat captain rigging a small vessel to take out into the water. I inadvertently smiled at the captain, and he smiled back. Then, he signaled us over to join his voyage. In retrospect, this unplanned boat ride was one of the highlights of our trip. After our domestic tension, a boat ride was just the salve we needed. The captain was taking another couple around the island and into a few caves. We luckily tagged along. This memory ended up being one of our favorite moments. It reminded us how important it is to keep the eyes and the heart open during travel (and also in life).
2. Momentos & Knick-Knacks
Over the years, I have moved between many homes and apartments. Carrying about your things is an excellent reminder that less is more. When I travel, I tend to pack light. As a minimalist, I have become much more selective about the trinkets I bring home. From significant to small, my main criterion is that the item is relevant to the local culture. Eiffel tower key chains do not meet my definition. In some places, a sticker feels more appropriate than a knick-knack!
Naples Takes Art Seriously
One of my favorite things to pick up is local art. In Italy, there is no shortage of local arts and crafts. In Naples, hip street art adorns dilapidated buildings. Along a pedestrian path, we saw an artist selling her watercolor paintings. Both my boyfriend and I loved the style of her work. He purchased an image for each of us. Her work was unique, and I began to follow the artist on Instagram. This way, I could see the artist’s progression and keep a loose connection with our chance encounter.
On the day before our return to Japan, I also picked up a pair of suede boots in Milan. Each time I wore them in Tokyo. I was grateful for the small splurge. Now that I am in Atlanta, I have framed my Napoli mermaid with blue and gold. In this small way, I remember my adventures. Both the boots and the art were chance purchases. Still, they have now morphed with meaning. It reminded me how lovely it was to prance around Italy before the pandemic changed our world.
3. Human Connections
“Do not talk to strangers” is easily the worst advice I have ever heard. Whether traveling, at a networking event or doing mundane errands, I love chatting with people. Many former strangers are now my friends. I believe each individual holds some unique perspective within them; it is a matter of talking through their reservations. Thus, when I travel, I become slightly more extroverted. I want to connect with locals and hear the inside scoop. In some instances, even after I have left a place, some of those human connections keep me in touch with an adventure.
A caring stranger met us at lunch on our last full day in Milan. For our final restaurant meal in Italy, we went to a back-to-basics lunch café. Handmade pasta and simple ingredients with a classic feel were on the menu. As we chatted with the waitress, we learned we were her only foreign tourists in the last two weeks. We expressed our surprise about the lockdown and learned from her that restaurants in Milan would be closed after that afternoon. Our waitress inquired about the amenities at our hotel. She was genuinely worried about what we would have for dinner. On our way out, she gifted us dinner to go. She separately packed a container of pasta, marinara sauce, and fresh basil to prepare at our Airbnb. Her kindness and dedication left a warm glow. I followed her restaurant on Facebook afterward. Unfortunately, the café ended up closing down during the pandemic. But her act of kindness left long reverberations.
4. The Exchange of Ideas
The most important reason I love to travel is that I return to my `default` life with a changed perspective. For example, I learned a whole new way to live in Tokyo. For the first time ever, I found city living enjoyable! My quality of life was enhanced by being car-free. My lifestyle with a smaller home and more recycling was more sustainable. I left Japan eager to reform American car bloat and with a desire to promote pluralism through better design.
While my visit to Italy was much shorter, I still left with new ideas about thoroughly enjoying life. Naples, for example, was war-torn after WW2 and yet, it still holds on to the pride of its days of glory. Buildings partially destroyed stand tall. Graffiti, murals, and posters decorate and scream with fight and spirit. In the small town of Sapri, I noticed how couples walked the promenade in the late afternoon. They elevated the act of watching the sky change colors dressed in their Sunday best. In Milan, though restaurants were closed, Italians could not be separated from their pizza. A line of cyclists’ couriers waited for takeout orders in front of pizzerias.
This practice of keeping good memories in the front of our minds is a key to getting through tough times. Nostalgia, recollection, and appreciation can be a nourishing afterglow of travel. I have often noticed that good memories are essential for keeping us upbeat. In many moments, my moods ebb and flow. Having pleasant and meaningful travel memories makes looking forward to better days easier. Between frequently depressed people and those more resilient to the changing tides, I notice this capacity to reflect and enjoy the past. It is a practice I have keyed into and one I aim to hone.
Thank you for reading. May your travels also bring you sweet recollections.