“Sometimes on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one”

When anyone asks me if they should apply for Bus2alps, to begin the process of trying to take flight and become a traveler, adventurer, and tour guide, the first sentence out of my mouth is always the same:

You are an idiot if you don’t at least apply.

I was stuck. Sitting in a glass cubicle in an office that I hated. My headset clamped onto my temples too hard. My eyes strained from looking at a computer program built in the 90’s (don’t ask…the company had many problems. Being computer unintelligent was one of them). I had been out of college for almost a year and I had an hour-long commute to a dreary, cement building by a decaying harbor in the horrible town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On my lunch breaks in early spring, I would launch out of my seat, grab my sandwich and run out the door and down the street to the sand. The beach was the only comfort in that place. I would roll up the legs of my ugly office pants and stand in the numbing water, watching the planes take off from Logan Airport, and wishing I was on one of them. If I had a really horrible day, I’d let my hair down and jump on the swing-set, pointing my feet to the sky, wishing I was looking down instead of up.

And then I was; peering out of the little oval window down onto the same exact beach I had paced for months. The nose of the plane was pointed toward Rome.

I had thrown myself into a life-changing opportunity that began with a delayed flight and a last-minute solo trip through multiple countries. Which was appropriate, according to my track record of travel previously. And then it began. Life as Bus2alps knows it. And it was beautiful, and I learned. 

In the past year and a half, I have accumulated so much knowledge, experience, stress, life lessons, and happiness. I conquered public speaking. Give me a microphone and I can ramble for hours. ( I can even tell people to “PLEASE LISTEN BECAUSE THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT” without sounding like an incredible snot). I have learned to navigate cities I haven’t even been to. I have more patience with people than I ever thought possible. I have learned the art of persuasive speaking – in ways that can make a rainy day seem like just the waiting time for a rainbow. I can communicate in languages you have never even heard of. Not fluently, but, you know, like hand signals and stuff. Try asking for a fork in Croatian and see how far you get…I got salad tongs on my first try. I can also actually communicate in Italian, though it’s broken, and I sound like a two-year old. But I can understand almost everything, and if a bus driver comes at me in rapid Napolitano dialect, I can get the gist of it enough for me to know if I should duck and cover, or simply nod in agreement.

I can stomp up to a hotel manager and demand that his night staff treats my students more professionally, and he actually listens to me.  Like, he actually takes me seriously. I can discover alleyways that lead to perfect views of perfect historical monuments that allow travelers with me to take perfect pictures that make their trips perfect. I am proud of my fun facts and secrets too. I can work my way through the Constant Contact program with ease and send out mass emails like it’s my job. I can give a walking tour of Venice, Milan, Verona, and Florence. (And piece one together in Rome if need be) I can use Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, every major social media program in ways that help build a company, instead of just ways to pass around cute cat videos. (Though I can do that well too) I can make friends in any country, in any language, but I can also make business contacts as well. I can suck it up even when I’m having a bad day – because I have to – because my happiness is the key to others. I can sell you something without coming off as a pushy sales person. That may not mean that I am a salesperson or make millions, but if I am telling you to buy something, it means that I believe that you are perfect for this product and this product is perfect for you. (Sorry I’m not sorry.) I can now explain to you in great detail about international immigration laws. I can find beauty in even the most desolate parts of a town. I can be planning on leaving for Oktoberfest one minute, and be absolutely (ok not right away but I got there) ok with going to Croatia instead. I can navigate the Rome bus and subway system, the Venice vaporetti system, the Milan Subway, and the Vienna subway with ease. I can multitask like a mofo.  I can live out of a suitcase every weekend and be organized enough that I have everything I really need. I have learned how to look completely (ok not completely but close) calm when going through passport checkpoints.  I can pick a movie for a group of fifty individuals and have the majority like it (most of the time). I can give a pretty kick-ass boat tour around the isle of Capri. I can say I have grown to be more confident in myself with asking for directions when needed. I can say that I have matured more in a year than in all of high school and college put together. I can dress so that I look European enough that I don’t get questioned on the streets. I can find cheap flights easier than most.

I have learned so much (that list is only what comes to mind right now but it is so so so much longer than that)  and have been able to experience so much: Flying off into narrow canyons in the shadows of the Alps, diving into the crystal-blue waters off of Capri, making friends in Sorrento, eating too much chocolate in Perugia while winding down its narrow cobblestone alleyways, parading up the same church isle as Julie Andrews, skiing the Jungfrau area until my legs gave out and my eyes hurt from the greatness of the ice, snow, and rock of the Eiger looming above, eating fish off the bone on an island hopping cruise that took us to the tiny towns of Croatia boardered with colorful, worn, wooden boats, falling asleep while looking at the white-washed world under feet while heading to the top of Mt. Solaro, having a humbling conversation with a weathered Roman man on the bus to the Vatican, diving through canyons full of glacier runoff, discovering secret gardens, making gelato, finding the closest thing to Belle’s library and dancing around in it almost alone, seeing the Lippizaner Stallions breathe white puffs of air as they rest in their stalls in the center of Vienna, sledding at night under the biggest sky with the brightest stars I have ever seen, walking the halls of an emperor’s summer home as the moonlight glints on the marble floors – still in tact after centuries.  I’ve hiked up mountains as I listened to the sound of Swiss cowbells, swam through caves trying to avoid the sting of jellyfish – pink against the green water, glowing and reflecting on the rocks above.

I’ve listened to so many stories, of old men when they were young and fit, diving into the water from the nearby rooftops, I’ve met aspirational rappers, and mothers missing their children as they study in other parts of Europe. I’ve met butchers, farmers, and jewelry designers. I’ve met American students that fit the stereotypes so perfectly, I have to apologize for them, and others that have baffled me as to how inquisitive, smart, and kind they are – and how willing they are to learn about the world. I have met bearded guys on the train that kept me company, I’ve met pilots with daughters my age that are working in South America, I’ve met crazy, crazy people who like to base jump on their days off (and secretly wish I could go with them). I’ve met people who have followed their hearts across oceans, and now live completely different lives than they thought they would – simply because of love. I’ve  met many that have felt unwanted and discriminated by the United States, and because of this, I have learned even more than if I had just stayed home. I have met many, learned so much, but there is one that I have met and learned from that is above all of this: Rami.

Before Bus2alps had an office, our hours of internet were to be held in Astor Cafe – left side of the Duomo, you can’t miss it. And if you know me, you know the story. But Rami Saltagi was different and because of him I survived and thrived in this past year. I met him early, but soon was in love with him and soon my dream of living and working here with Bus2alps, coincided with living and working on my relationship with him.

Maybe that was my downfall, because I wanted to spend time with my boyfriend and my company. For, truthfully, Bus2alps is a lifestyle, not a job – and having anything else is definitely difficult. Maybe it was because I didn’t entirely “fit in” with the group of people who were my co-workers. Maybe it was because of mistakes I made early on in my life with Bus2alps that I couldn’t fix or make up. Maybe it was simply because I could not be a salesperson.

But recently, Bus2alps told me that I had to make a decision. One way, I would salvage my history with them and maintain my position in the company so I could travel with them and do what I love for at least another semester – but I would be making a conscious decision that may put my relationship in more legal trouble than it already is in. In the past year, I had given the company my everything. I had worked my ass off. I had done everything they asked of me legally to do to the point where I had nothing else to give. But this was asking too much.

The other option? Quit.

Sometimes, on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one. I got lost. Lost in the foam of a perfectly created cappuccino, lost in the echo of “BUONGIORNORAGAZZE” every morning, lost in the shadow of the Duomo, and lost in the brown eyes of a European.

Bus2alps was my dream, and I lived it for a year and a half. But now, I’m sitting in Florence, jobless, but completely satisfied knowing that I have found so much of a better dream than what I had in my head when I flew over that beach.

Maybe the second sentence about Bus2alps will be filled with painful truths and some warnings, but I shake them when I say the first. I make it stick, because flying here on that first plane, was the best decision I have ever made.

So, though I never was given a thank you, I will give one to them.

Thank you, Bus2alps, for allowing me to learn, to grow, to see Europe. Thank you for the opportunities, the lessons learned, the tough skin, the lows and the highs. Thank you for the stress – it only made me learn to deal with it better. Thank you for the demotions. It only made me work harder. Thank you for the days at the lake, the nights on the mountains, the dinners under the Tuscan sun and the toasts of Champagne to being young, wild, and free. And thank you, more than anything, for putting me in Florence, when I asked to be in Rome. And for having office hours at Astor every morning at 10 am.

Thank you, so.incredibly.much, for that.

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Behind the Mainstream Study Abroad – Moments that are worth Duplicating

Sitting in my apartment, I can hear tourists pass by on the Florentine street outside my window. Some complain about the rain, others comment on how beautiful the Duomo is. Some girls pass talking about day trips they’ll do while they study here, while others scoff at the fact that there’s a Subway Sandwich shop across the street. “Are you kidding?! When there’s an amazing Panini place right around the corner?!” All the conversations are varied, yet so much the same – living or visiting this beautiful city and looking at it through the eyes of a foreigner. But sometimes, I wish I could tell them that they need to stop and step off the main path. Adventure. I wish I could share some experiences that are my favorite – but if you’re reading this – maybe you can recreate these moments.

 

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Sunrise somewhere: Before the tour groups step off their busses, before the restaurants open up their doors and unfurl their tablecloths out into the summer air, stroll the streets of dawn.

We woke when it was dark out and crawled out of bed, fumbling in the unfamiliar hotel room – donning jeans, a sweater, boots that I thought would make me fit in while I was in Italia. Caitlyn looked at me and questioned this decision, is it worth it? I responded with a resounding yes. I had done this before. We stepped outside our hotel – a small canal silently greeting us, a red rowboat sleeping peacefully in off-season air. And then we began, a walk through twisting and turning streets of dormant shops and ornate doors to come up upon the Grand Canal of Venice – just in time to see the golden sunset begin to shed light on the City of Bridges. Below us, the only boats were of the Venetians – Gondoliers uncovering their golden gilded boats, their striped shirts contrasting upon the rose and faded walls of an exhausted city. But in this moment, senza touristi, it became alive again. The real Venice; radiant in life instead of a travel book.

Conversation without Social Media: Turn off your phone when you travel. The person next to you could change your life.

I was lost in Rome, again, but managed to find a bus stop that seemed to point me in the right direction of the Vatican, I hoped. It wasn’t too crowded – not like rush hour when you are pressed up against other bodies, all just desperately clinging onto the bars and handles available. Now, in the evening chill, I stepped lightly into the orange bus and faced forward, beginning to search for signs that confirmed my arrival at the heart of Catholicism. He was quiet at first, and maybe it was my outfit that gave me away, but when the bus came to a stop at the next station, he patted my wrist. “Due piu” he smiled at me behind thick-rimmed glasses. Two more stops until the Vatican. When he realized I could speak minimal Italian, his face brightened, his brown eyes swam and he began teaching me the landmarks that were passing by the window. He spoke about the beauty of women when they don’t wear makeup: “that is when they look most beautiful, when they first wake up in the morning,” and as the Vatican came into view, he grinned, told me to drink the water from the fountains in the square and sent me off. A true Roman, he will be in my memory forever.

Adrenaline: Do something that scares you:

“I can’t wait,” I had boasted as we rode through the Swiss Alps. I saw the guide’s eyes flicker to my face in the rear-view mirror. I loved heights and adrenaline. I had seen my friends jump before, but canyon jumping was new to me – and as we pulled up to the bottom and saw another jumper fall gracefully into the crevice with a loud WHOOP, I was terrifyingly ecstatic. And the higher we climbed up to the platform, the more nerves began to creep into my system. The tremors in my legs began as I was fixed into the harness. I stepped out onto the metal grate with the guide. His smile was trumped by the sheer drop off behind him. “Are you ready?” he asked, and as I turned to face forward, I looked around. The Eiger was to my right – in the setting sun, in all of its glory – a Swiss Alp towered above us. Below, so, so far below, the river crashed over the rocks, daring me to jump, daring me to try and fly. Split second decision, my muscles moved, my feet left solid ground and I was falling, falling so fast, so far, my stomach clenched, my heart raced, it was too far, too fast, a free-fall like a bird soaring, and then the rope caught – swung me through past those that had already jumped, and back again. I could breathe, and as I looked up from where I had just come, I gave a “whoop” of my own. No roller coaster will ever compare.

Delve into other cultures: Break out of your comfort zone to begin to understand others.

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and glances at me and then back to the water, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No…you are too strong….paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

“Stand up!” he calls under his French/Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide to the shore with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him.

Run, hike, bike, climb – while you are still young enough:

“You won’t last in jeans,” I tell the guys as they stand in front of me. It’s autumn in the Swiss Alps, about fifty degrees, and I’m in a tank top and shorts. “It’s too rough and you’ll be sweating in about fifteen minutes.” But they were stubborn and came anyway, and as we started our ascent, the hike grew steep and they started stripping layers. I hated to say I told them so. But it didn’t matter – because they were doing it. We talked as we hiked, getting glimpses of the snow-covered alps on the other side of the valley – with the town of Interlaken nestled before us. I learned about the group, their time abroad, their home life, what sports they played, and we stopped to take pictures along the way. It grew steeper, and sweat started pouring, the banter stopped, for we needed to breathe and muscles ached. We climbed up into the mountain pastures, collected water from a hollowed out log used as a basin for the spring water used to satisfy the thirst of the cows that grazed there in the summer – their bells chiming in an unorganized harmony. When we reached the summit, I turned to the group and was met with smiles and astonishment as they looked out over the lakes and mountains. “Thank God I did this and have the ability to do this,” one said to me. Take care of yourself and challenge yourself – for sometimes the best views are at the other end of a climb.

Surfing in Morocco

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and glances at me and then back to the water, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No…you are too strong….paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

“Stand up!” he calls under his French/Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide to the shore with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him. I push my board out into the waves again, pulling against the surge. He smiles as I paddle to him, and shakes his head.

“You could never be Muslim, but it is possible for you to be Moroccan.”

Sitting, and hoping…

Fans aren’t enough right now. The heat radiates from the floors and the walls, wafts through the windows and clings to every inch of exposed skin. Florence in August is brutal, but relief of September is around the corner. The shops are opening back up from the holiday, and, most importantly, the students are arriving soon. 

It was a lonely August, roaming the closed off streets, but now the fall begins, though the ninety degree temperatures determine otherwise. With dreams of walking the streets of Istanbul and the souks of Morocco, skiing the alps and diving into the waterfalls of Croatia, I can sleep peacefully. Another group of wide eyed adventurers await! I can’t even express my excitement to be able to help make their dreams come true.