I recently travelled to Europe, and if hearing about that sounds like something you’d be interested in, read on. I’ll tell you about the many highs and a handful of lows. If you don’t have time to read but are still interested, check out episode 25 of my podcast, I Think I Can.

Let’s just begin with the fact that I can get on a plane again and go across to Europe is something to celebrate. I began my travels in Italy – Tuscany, to be specific. I am not quite sure why I am so fond of Italy. My father is from the Netherlands, so you might think that I would be in love with Holland, but I actually prefer Italy. I was introduced to Europe at the age of 14 when I travelled with my sister to visit our Dutch cousins. I spent a good part of my summer there and had a wonderful time. Thinking back now, it was incredibly generous of our parents to send us abroad, not just in terms of the financial cost, but also because my sister and I helped out a lot at home. We lived on a farm and had two younger brothers who needed looking after, so, as you can imagine, there was always plenty of work for us to do.

As the daughter of a Dutch immigrant, I grew up surrounded by European culture. We often had relatives visiting from overseas, and thanks to them and my father I was immersed in the Dutch language. I loved hearing my parents’ stories about travelling abroad. And, of course, there were my own trips. I was 18 years old when I had a chance to visit Europe again, this time with my parents and a few siblings. We went to see my eldest brother, John, who was posted in Rome with the Canadian Foreign Service. Then, when I was 22 years old, I had the opportunity to work and live in Brussels, Belgium. Finally, when I was 30, I went to Europe with my husband, visiting Italy, The Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland.

This year, I returned to Europe for the first time in almost 22 years travelling alone. What sparked this journey? In part, it was the fact that COVID restrictions were finally ending, and I had the freedom to fly again. Many restrictions have been loosened, and the only time I needed to wear a mask was while in transit (on a plane, metro, train, metro, or bus) I also wanted to visit my brother. He’s retired from the Foreign Service now and has purchased land in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany. I was one of the few remaining siblings that had not yet seen his place. So, that was a big draw as well.

So why did I chose to travel alone?

There are a few reasons. One is that when you enter the second season of your life, something weird happens to you. You realize that life is passing you by and if you don’t start doing the things you have talked about doing, all those dreams and longings that you’ve been holding onto may not happen. I did consider going to Italy later in the year, when my husband would be able to join me, but after such a horrible winter in Manitoba I just couldn’t wait any longer. As well, something that I have on my radar is that eventually I’d like to be able to winter away from Manitoba. Thus, I need to start some early scoping out of different places that I could call my second home. Tuscany seemed to be a good one to add to that list.

I was also haunted by the idea of challenging myself. I knew my life had become too routine, too easy, and lacking the excitement it had in my youth. I hadn’t travelled alone for at least five years and, honestly, the idea of going to Europe by myself and navigating everything in a foreign language kind of scared me.. But as mentioned, my life was in somewhat in a rut. It was Groundhog Day every day – wash, rinse, repeat. I needed to bust out of the cycle, because I knew from experience that it leads to a dead end. I needed a change. I wanted to become a kid again and walk around gazing in awe at everything around me. And that’s exactly what I did.

I spent almost seven days in Tuscany with my brother and his partner. I was spoiled with beautiful walks, beautiful sunsets, fresh delicious food that awoke my taste buds from the boredom of my usual diet. My alarm clock every morning was birdsong. I heard a nightingale sing; I think for the first time in my life. I also met my brother’s neighbours, who soon became friends, and I was able to see what it would be like to live and work in a small Tuscan town.

“I wanted to become a kid again and walk around gazing in awe at everything around me. And that’s exactly what I did.”

via @luellajonk

After leaving my brother I headed back to Rome to rediscover what the capital of Italy had to offer. I was reminded of how ancient it is and saw what city life is like in Italy. I was able to see the Pope for the second time in my life at St. Peter’s Square (the first time when I was 18 at a Christmas Eve blessing). What I enjoyed the most was a tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, places where I could easily spend a week viewing the art and curiosities. On other days I also visited many other churches, as well as all main attractions in the city centre. I left no stone unturned during my four days in The Eternal City.

During the flight from Rome to Lisbon, I took the time to reflect on my 10 days in Italy. I realized that I’d learned the following about Italian culture: These people love, love, love connection. I often thought how difficult it must have been for them during the Covid 19 restrictions. Their culture is one of connection. Also, they were very kind and helpful in stores, even though many of them did not know the English language very well.

I will never forget visiting Monte San Savino, which is near my brother’s house. We parked in a small piazza near the centre of the town, and before you knew it, my brother was trading familiar greetings with what seemed to be a massive number of locals. The local butcher and I are now best buds – he loved telling me all about his cows! All the meat is exceptionally fresh.

And, of course, I love their coffee culture, which, again, is highly associated with connecting with others and enjoying the moment instead of feeling rushed. Whether they are meeting a friend for their morning cappuccino or just chatting with the barista while sipping on a caffè lungo macchiato on a sunny afternoon, it is all so nice.. I did not see ONE Starbucks my whole time in Italy! What a breath of fresh air that was. You would NEVER see anyone walking around with a gigantic coffee cup or a travel mug, the Italians would rather sit and enjoy the pleasure of drinking coffee. Another thing to note is the pricing. It doesn’t matter if you get a coffee or sandwich near the centre square or in the suburbs beside a metro station. It is all priced the same and very reasonable. I am sure some shops do a better job than others making that cappuccino, but they all tasted great to me.

The fact that prices for food, drink and many goods are similar across the country feels like an important observation. It doesn’t matter whether you are shopping at a tiny old store on a hidden street or a big supermarket, it is basically all the same prices for food. This is even true of wine, and a $6 bottle is just as delicious as a $15 bottle. Italians believe everyone deserves fresh food of high quality. There is a huge middle class in Italy, and even if you are on the lower range of this middle class, they prove that it doesn’t take a lot of money to look clean and in vogue. It might not be Prada, but I bet it is still leather and not polyester. Their shoes still shine, and they are well groomed. Put it this way, they don’t leave the house wearing pajama pants and slippers. They have a lot of pride in themselves and in their shops as well. You always see shopkeepers sweeping their floors and steps and shining the counters.

It took me a few days to get used to eating as late as the Italians do. Dinner is typically served sometime between 8 and 8:30 pm. However, after I got into the groove of it, I started to really like this routine. It seemed to make sense to me in some ways. People have time to finish their workday, come home, unwind, cook, talk about the day, and share the beautiful food together. It often starts off with antipasti – ‘anti’ meaning ‘before’ ‘anti’ and ‘pasti’ meaning ‘pasta,’ so “food that comes before the pasta”. I enjoyed this as much as I did the actual meal. It usually consisted of salami, prosciutto, olives, artichokes, sometimes cheese, crusty rustic bread, and lots of olive oil. I haven’t yet mentioned the beautiful wines, but that is not hard to guess. I must admit, I very rarely drink, but when I do it is wine, and I did not deny myself of any on this trip. I will also miss the pizzas found on every street corner and in every restaurant. They were all delicious with their thin crispy crust and dollops of bufala cheese (so light and delicious) and perfectly herbed sauces and meats. I miss it all already {sigh}

There were a few things I could have done without while travelling. One of them was waiting, which is something that I always find challenging (but always worth it). This includes waiting at the airport to board the plane, waiting in traffic (only in large cities), waiting to eat, waiting for the seatbelt sign to be taken off so I can go to the washroom. Speaking of washrooms, mama mia, to be a tourist in Rome and need to use a public washroom is mission impossible. There are very few public washrooms (if any) so if you want to use one while out and about, you likely need to step into a shop and pay £1. Another less than fond memory would be the traffic noises, like garbage trucks early in the morning. There is always garbage around the streets. The trash cans are small and coming upon one is infrequent. I should note that I stayed right in the centre of Rome, so of course the noise would simply be expected in order to have a great location near all the attractions.

Okay now on to Portugal. Lisbon is an exceptionally beautiful modern European city. I am not going to act like a tour guide here, as I am not worldly at all. But I wonder if being the host site for the 1998 World Exposition led to huge improvements in infrastructure. The city streets, bike paths, sidewalks, metro system, and parks were exceptionally well maintained. It is a very artful city, with beautifully painted buildings done so tastefully. It is very different from Rome. Rome is ancient and thus many buildings are still crumbling… but that is also what allows for its charm.

As I said, you cannot really compare the two. The weather was exceptional in Lisbon – beautiful warm days in the high 20’s which they tell me is uncommon. Mid-low 20s is more normal. The people were incredibly friendly and helpful. The food was amazing – especially if you are a fish lover. Had my best tuna tartar ever. I tried the fried sardines and, well, it’s not likely that I’ll ever have that on my plate again. It was not that it tasted awful, it was just very different than tinned sardines – which I love!!

I could go on – but this is already a lengthy post so I will stop. However, if anyone reading this wants to know more in order to plan their own trip to a European destination, I would be more than happy to provide tips and suggestions.

And perhaps… I will be writing to you again within the next 6- 8 months documenting yet my next trip? One needs to follow their dreams…. until then arrivederci!