(Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on March 10th, 2016. We’re republishing it today because, well, it’s awesome.)
“I can see you have excellent taste,” said the woman behind the counter, her Italian accent gliding across the room like silk over skin.
She was tall with an olive tan, dark, cascading hair and violently black eyes. Her dress was blue, her lipstick was red, and her voice carried evidence of years spent chain-smoking in an unventilated Cadillac. She was in her mid-40s and, like all things in Italy, she had aged well. “Don’t sound like an asshole,” I thought, as the flutter in my chest moved up my throat and turned into words.
“…I like…records,” I said.
I was in Florence, Italy. It was 2006, I was 19, and it was my first trip outside the U.S. The group I was traveling with had decided to go shopping for the day, which didn’t interest me because 1) I have no taste for Italian fashion and 2) I was 100 percent broke.
I have to admit, at first I was scared to walk around by myself. I don’t speak Italian, and at the time I couldn’t read a map. I thought about spending the day in the hotel, but — after watching a series of inspiring Nike commercials — I rallied and decided to just do it. I left the hotel and wandered alone through the back alleys and alcoves of Florence, eventually finding my way to a small record store. As an aspiring hipster, I figured I’d go inside to have a look.
“Music is life,” said the woman. “But those records are not special.” She curled her finger as if to say “come hither,” then led me around a corner, through a narrow hallway, and downstairs to the record store’s musty basement. With each step, my thoughts grew muddled. Her very way of existing in the world had made me drunk.
The basement was lined with shelves of records, not unlike the first floor of the shop. “These are not for sale,” she said. “They were my father’s private collection.”
I flipped through the records and let out a knowing “hmm,” or “oh” every now and then, to cultivate the illusion that I recognized any of the albums. The cardboard sleeves smelled of dust and tobacco, like an old book.
The woman handed me a glass of wine and offered me a cigarette. “No thanks,” I said, waving off the cigarette and taking the glass.
“You are American, yes?”
I nodded, sipping my glass of wine — my very first glass of wine, to be exact. “Mmm, this is good wine,” I lied, trying desperately to not do anything stupid.
“Eh?” she said, with a shrug and a drag of her cigarette. “What are you studying?”
“Art,” I said. “Paintings and sculptures, mostly.”
She asked me if my girlfriend was traveling with me, and I told her that I’d never had a girlfriend. She gasped, theatrically, in shock and threw her wrist against her forehead, rattling off a long string of impassioned Italian sentences that probably related to how we should have an immediate romantic coupling because she found me irresistible. In English, she told me that one day I’d make some girl very happy.
“More wine?” she asked after I’d browsed for a few more minutes.
“No, thank you,” I said.
She poured more wine into my glass anyway.
I finished my drink and left the record store, intoxicated in more ways than one. I had no idea what had actually happened. Who was watching the store while we were in the basement? Why did she show me her father’s record collection? Was she just bored? Maybe she was just being nice to a lonely tourist. I’ll never know. Either way, it was an experience.
When I got back to the hotel, I found the other students in a common area. They were showing off the overpriced shirts and dresses and sunglasses they’d bought. They’d spent their one day of solo-travel in Italy in department stores, shopping centers, and tourist traps. As we all sat around and talked about our day, I realized with no small bit of pride that the clothes they bought only made them look different — the experience I’d had actually made me different.
It’s been over a decade and I’m sure the things they bought are long gone or worn out, but for me, whenever I smell cigarette smoke on a hot afternoon, I think of a small record store in Florence. The memory is priceless.
When I came back from Italy, I was filled with an insatiable hunger to see the world — a condition which I still suffer from and hope to always suffer from. But then I made a series of life-long mistakes, mistakes that many of us make, like taking on massive amounts of debt. Traveling became prohibitively expensive, as it is for many people.
There are dozens of articles about the value of spending your money on experiences instead of things, on the importance of travel, on the importance of seizing the day. What they don’t tell you is that seizing the day costs a lot of money. Carpe diem is expensive as hell.
Most people don’t believe that they can just jump on a plane and go to Kathmandu. It takes a special breed to quit the 9-5 and fly to India or Thailand or anywhere else. Have you seen the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? It’s the story of a man stuck at a dead-end job who decides to take control of his destiny by going on an adventure that spans the globe, ultimately leading him to find the secret of true happiness.
Now, I’m not going to say that movie is a flat-out lie (there are people out there quitting their jobs to travel the world as we speak), but I will say that the dream of dropping it all to vagabond around the world feels inaccessible to LOTS of people in this country. What if you have kids? Or a mortgage? Or crushing debt?
It’s like my father always says: money can’t buy happiness, but poverty can’t buy sh*t.
I was able to go to Italy and Chile because I attended a small liberal-arts college in East Tennessee called Lee University. They have one of the most amazing travel abroad programs in the country, easily one of the most affordable for students, and even require that every student has a cross-cultural experience before graduation. I lucked out and I want to cop to that privilege.
So, I won’t go so far as to claim that everyone can travel. But if you can somehow beg, steal, or borrow to make it happen, I think you should.
Mark Twain once said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.”
That’s a good quote, right? But it’s not a good quote because it’s aspirational, or because it’s inspiring, or because it makes you want to pull a “Walter Mitty” and hop on a helicopter and fly to India (even though people actually do just that). Twain was speaking from a time when there were no tropical resorts or all-inclusive hotels. He was speaking at a time when travel — real travel — meant meeting and interacting with new people, whose ideas and experiences are far different from your own.
So, if you do get to travel, know this: You’re not going to grow as a person by vacationing in Cabo Wabo, or Cancun, or any location where they filmed MTV Spring Break. Spend your money going to rural areas, to Southeast Asia, to the American Midwest, to Appalachia or anywhere where you’ll find new and interesting people. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot in my life, and the most valuable lesson I’ve learned — by far — doesn’t have sh*t to do with seeing things. It’s all about experiences, and that starts, invariably, with meeting new people.
Going to Italy, in the sense that I went from one physical place to the next, did little to help me grow as a person. It was the experiences I had with people and the new ideas that I was exposed to that affected me the most. I don’t remember what it felt like to see “The Last Supper” or how it smelled inside the Sistine Chapel, but I remember the taste of the wine that I drank in the back room of a record store in Florence.
It was a chianti, if you were wondering, and it was the best wine I’ve ever had… not because of the vintage.
Yes, traveling is expensive, but, if you’re reading this, then you have the ability to seek out new ideas and discover new ways of thinking. You have the capacity to develop empathy, to understand diverse perspectives, and to meet and learn from people with backgrounds different than your own. Take a road trip. Hitchhike. Eat in a new neighborhood in your home city.
You don’t have to go around the world to travel. But you can find a way to make it happen.
Cancel your cable package. Buy your next couch at a thrift shop. Downgrade your car (or, hell, sell your car and buy a bike). Get on the road, somehow. Because you will always be half a person as long as you vegetate in your little corner of the world. Travel, however you can, wherever you can, in whatever sense of the word works best for you.
And when you’re out there, spend your money on experiences — experiences that connect you to people. You’ll never find an adventure more thrilling, a destination more exotic, and an investment more valuable than that.