Three Kind People Who Changed My Impression of Italy
Travel experiences tend to be extremely polarized, ranging across all manner of praises and criticisms. There's a natural tendency for people to form opinions about topics, places, and each other rather quickly, often much too quickly. It's unsurprising then to have such differing impressions of countries or their people, which are every bit as diverse as opinions, and not something that can be thoroughly sussed out in a week or two of pleasure travel. This is something I try to keep in mind, and it's one of the reasons that I prefer slower travel occupying several weeks or months.
Still, it has happened at times that a series of experiences left a bad taste in my mouth. One such time was during a few weeks in Italy, when a series of rude encounters, scams, and attempted thefts left me finding it difficult to extend my love of Italian history, art, and food to Italian people as well. However, I also realized that I was binging on tourist sites, hardly the essence of Italy. I, too, might not be the most welcoming person if my life and job was dependant on daily airliners and cruise ships vomiting out wave after wave of ravenous tourists.
So, I decided to hop on a random bus out of Rome in search of a different sample of the country. I didn't own a smartphone at the time and the bus stop names were all foreign to me, so I could only guess where I was. I knew I was heading further and further away from the city, however, as the buildings slowly gave way to open countryside and isolated farmhouses.
My plan was to ride the bus until I found a stop that felt like a good place to hop off and explore by foot, and then return to the city in the evening by using the same bus I arrived on. I assumed the bus ran a loop. I assumed wrong. Coming to a stop in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere, the driver shut off the engine and hopped out. I remained seated in the empty bus, thinking it was a pit stop or driver change. Nope. A gesture was made for me to disembark, along with what was probably an explanation that I didn't understand a word of. The driver disappeared into a nearby building and didn't return, forcing me to eventually conclude that he was either off duty or taking the longest poop of his life.
None of the other buses at the stop featured names that looked familiar to me. I suppose "Rome" would be much too general of a destination. The middle of nowhere looked like a pretty good place to explore though, so I began walking. After two hours of footing it under the baking sun and passing many more unfamiliar names on street signs and bus signs, the paved road was replaced by dirt and the views became exceptionally pretty. The people, too, were beautiful. Suddenly I was getting smiles and waves from locals who definitely weren't accustomed to backpackers passing by.
I was more than a little lost, and it wouldn't be until years later that I finally located on a map where I was that day. My stomach was negotiating a return for food and water but losing the battle to the beautiful sights that lured me further along, camera in hand.
While I stopped for a moment to photograph an olive grove and buttercups along the roadside, a man eagerly greeted me from across the road. I understood that his name was Fabio, but not much else. Presuming him to be the owner of the land, and not knowing what else to say, I complimented him on the beautiful grove, which was probably the only time in my life that I've complimented someone on their trees. Next thing I knew he was introducing me to his friend, asking me to take a photo of the two of them, and sharing his email address. He seemed genuinely happy and keen on sharing it with others, to the point of welcoming me into his home for a brief tour and another greeting from his wife. It was an inviting and breezy home, with open windows and unobstructed doorways pulling fresh spring air into the house. It seemed like an appropriate match for Fabio's inviting personality.
On parting ways, I continued further in my wandering for some time, heading into a sparser and sparser landscape dominated by wildflowers and a sprinkling of saplings. Suddenly I was surrounded by crowds, but of the four-legged variety. An orderly flock of at least 200 sheep were grazing their way through a meadow, seemingly unattended. No fence stood between me and the animals, so I moved closer for some photos. A moment later I noticed a man approaching me. As I learned from studying my photos later, he had been tending a garden some distance away.
I wondered if I had trespassed onto private property, and fully anticipated that I would be asked to leave. Instead, I was greeted with a smile. Remzi, as he introduced himself, seemed to understand as much English as I do Italian, which is to say almost none, but that didn't deter him from trying his best to communicate with me. Soon he was reaching for his wallet to share photos of his family and daughter, and introducing me to his two loyal sheep dogs. He seemed interested in where I was from and what I was doing so far from the city.
I tried my best to communicate that I wanted to see the countryside and that I was enjoying watching the sheep, to which he was delighted to offer me a ride on his motorbike to round the sheep up, as they had become spread out.
Before it was time to go, I showed Remzi a few of my photos and snapped one of him at his request, but ran into difficulty trying to figure out how to give it to him. Best I could understand, he had a phone but no email, and I had email but no phone. In the end I asked for his physical address and promised to send him some photos when I returned home.
Finding a route back to the city proved difficult but ultimately accomplishable through a series of wild guesses and hours of riding random buses. Armed with a Roma Pass that guaranteed 3 days of free unlimited rides on public transport, I essentially treated it as a tour bus experience and an opportunity to see more of the countryside. As experiences go, I'd do it again. The pass definitely paid for itself.
One week later, I found myself sitting at the end of a jetty on the Lido in Venice. I was preparing my camera for something good as the wispy clouds forming on the horizon hinted that an amazing sunset was imminent. Just as traces of evening color began to appear, I saw an Indian man enter the jetty and head in my direction. Having been the target of multiple pickpocket and theft attempts by Indians in recent weeks, I immediately put my camera away and kept my bag close to my side. However, the only thing the man was interested in stealing was a bit of my time. He was a fellow traveler, and also hoping for a good sunset.
With no language barrier to overcome, we enjoyed talking at length about life, camera gear, Italy, and the joys and struggles of travel, during which I learned that he had visited almost every country in the world, some many times each. I was strongly encouraged to visit Austria, and I assured him I would. As the sun sank, the evening did not disappoint. An unbelievable sunset was the crowning moment of the day, with the conversation a close second.
Negative experiences can happen anywhere, and they have a habit of disproportionately representing our impression of things. So try not to write off a place too quickly based on a relatively short visit. Countries and people are too diverse to be summed up in a few experiences, especially if you never leave the hustle of the tourist route.