Solo Travel: You Don’t Have to Love It to Do It


saralogoC-4My faithful readers will know that awhile back, I published a post outlining a travel goal of mine: 30 Before 30.

Yes, I want to visit (and no, airport connections don’t count) 30 countries before my 30th birthday. Luckily I’m approximately 27 years close and yet still 27 months away from that milestone. My tally? I’ve visited 25 countries thus far, with the 26th (Hungary) scheduled for later this month. I’m fairly confident I’ll get there, and that’s a pretty good feeling. (By “get there” I mean achieve my goal. I have complete faith that Ryanair will get me to Hungary).

And like any good goal, setting this one for myself has caused me to step outside my comfort zone in a couple of ways.

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Eel in Poland. They told me we were getting cod.

30 Before 30 hasn’t just challenged me with regards to where I travel, but also how I travel. My earliest international travel was done within the warm and protective folds of my family. From there, my travel experiences grew gradually to include more and more independence, between school trips, study abroad programs, and trips with friends, both within organized groups and self-directed. It’s all been wonderful.

Then, around age 25, I got on to this 30 before 30 kick and had to up my country intake per year if I wanted to make my goal. This meant a bit more planning had to go into my overall travel strategy. Namely, I had to start visiting new places, not just my old favourites. As I talked about all this with friends and family, I realized that not many of the people in my life had the same goal as me.

More precisely, none of them did.

Sure, I have friends and family members who have already surpassed the 30 country mark, and they’re inspiring. I have friends who like to travel, but are eager to visit places that stamped my passport long ago, which doesn’t really help me with my goal. I have friends who don’t have the desire to travel at all, and that’s just fine too – no judgement here. I have certain friends with whom I’ve traveled before and who are always up for a trip, but the logistics of life sometimes get in the way of making more travel together a reality.

That leaves me, myself, and I.

Now please, hold your pity. That’s not what this post is about.

30 Before 30 has propelled me into the world in general, but also into the world of solo travel. I think the first new country I visited solo was Singapore, although I did meet up with an acquaintance for dinner while I was there. Then came a trip to Switzerland, and although it was a work trip, I didn’t go with anyone. Last month, I made a solo sortie to Romania, where I knew and met up with no one, and then Malta, where I did exactly the same thing. Next up is Hungary, where yet again I’ll only have my iPod and my Kobo for travel companions.

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Enjoying Malta.

People comment all the time about my solo travel, remarking that I must be really fearless or adventurous to do it. And while fearless and adventurous both seem like really good qualities, I don’t think I quite possess them to the degree people might think.

“Fearless” would mean having no fear. Well, let me tell you about the terrifying (but amazing) hot air balloon ride I took in Turkey, or the two nights I spent (not) sleeping under the stars in the Australian Outback because of the sheer terror I felt about potentially being eaten by a snake. (You read that right: not just bitten. Eaten.)

“Adventurous” to me means a thrill seeker. Sure, I went white-water rafting in New Zealand, but only because I didn’t want to be the odd one out in my group of travel companions. I quickly opted out of the bungee jumping and skydiving though.

Otherwise, people think that I just really like spending time alone. You read articles and blog posts about other solo travelers who love to meet new people at hostels and who are great at making friends on the road. I’m not necessarily one of them. Sure, I’m chatty. I’ll talk to strangers, share a meal, be friendly – whatever – but I don’t love being alone and putting myself out there. It takes effort, and frankly, sometimes I’m just not into it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, right there, is the point of this post. I’ll say it here for the entire Internet to see: I don’t particularly love solo travel.

But I do it anyways.

Because when weighing my travel options, I realized that if I had to wait for my friends/family/boyfriend to be in the right economic/career/personal situation to do all my country hopping with me, I could end up waiting forever. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to lots of “mainstream” destinations, but now I’m on to some obscure ones that don’t quite tickle other people’s fancy. (I mean, Romania? Really?) I also figured that I couldn’t reasonably expect other people to take responsibility for helping me meet a goal I had set for myself.

And, most importantly, I knew I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror on my 30th birthday and expect my future self to accept that I hadn’t visited my 30 countries because “I had no one to go with.”

Yes, I get lonely sometimes. Yes, I’ve been uncomfortable. Yes, I’d love to have someone else to blame or lean on when I take a wrong turn, or don’t get to that museum before it closes, or end up eating rabbit gizzards instead of chicken wings.

But the positives I get from visiting new places and getting closer to my goal far outweigh the negatives of going solo.

The moral of the story is this, and I wish I’d realized sooner: You don’t have to be some fiercely independent and fearless travel adventurer to have a worthwhile solo travel experience. You don’t even have to love the idea of solo travel to make a good go of it. But if you’re toying with the idea, try it once. It only gets easier from there.

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Yes, that really is me.

[Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on solo travel. Please comment below!]

An Italian-Canadian Identity Crisis


saralogoC-4Canadian. Italian. Canadese. Italiana. Italo-canadese. Italian-Canadian.

Almost every day in my life here in Italy, I’m forced to explain my cultural identity. Sometimes I seem too foreign to be Italian. More often, I seem too Italian to be foreign. Sometimes people say I speak Italian too well to be a native English speaker. Sometimes – and this is my favourite – people marvel at my excellent English skills, of all things.

So what am I?

The Preamble

Growing up in Canada, my last name stuck out like a sore thumb. I mean, you can spot its Italian-ness a mile away: Mastroianni. I’ve had to spell it for people almost as many times as I’ve said it, and I’ve had to endure every butchered pronunciation of it you can think of, and then some.

But my first name is not typically Italian. At least, not the way it’s spelled. Sara (pronounced Sah-rah) exists in Italian, but Sarah (my name, pronounced Sair-uh) boggles the Italian mind. What is that h doing there, anyways? For Italians, it’s strange. For Canadians, not so much. In Italy, for simplicity’s sake, I go by Sarah, pronounced the Italian way, with the rolled r and all.

Just when you think the confusion’s over, people discover I have a middle name: Ashley. In Canada it’s quite normal to have one, two or even three middle names. In Italy, the fact that I have “two first names” but I only use one as an actual name, incites gear-mashing of biblical proportions in Italian cervelli (brains) because of the incomprehensibility totale of the situation.

So why did I end up with this disaster?

The blame lies squarely at the feet of my parents, of course.

I was born in Canada to a mainly Canadian Mom (with German and British heritage) and an Italian-born, Canadian-raised Dad. Hence the Canadian – Italian name.

Throughout my life growing up in Canada I identified quite a bit with my Italian side. Not that I didn’t identify with my Canadian side, no no. But I just have always felt Italian-Canadian, probably largely due to my last name.

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The Crisis

As my more faithful readers know, this Italian-Canadian, who doesn’t have the right to Italian citizenship because her father had renounced his to become a Canadian before she was born, recently fought tooth-and-nail to get a visto and move to Italy. And eccomi. Here I am.

When one moves to another country, especially Italy, there’s an amazing amount of bureaucracy to go through to become a registered person in that country. And at every step along the way here, people have called my identity into question because somehow, I seem to boggle their minds.

I was fine before. Completely, totally fine. But all this questioning has brought about an Italian-Canadian crisi d’identità (identity crisis).

Take, for instance, my recent quest for an Italian carta d’identità (identity card – how fitting). I go to Siena’s Comune (City Hall, featured in this blog’s logo), and wait for my number to be called.

I eventually get an audience with the man in charge of identity cards. He asks for a piece of ID, so I give him my Canadian passport. A passport which people who are not Canadian citizens cannot possess. A passport in which it clearly states that I was born in Canada, and that my citizenship is Canadian.

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Having thoroughly studied the information page, he proceeds to ask me, in Italian, the most natural series of questions that comes when one is handed a Canadian passport. He opens with a doozy:

“Signorina, you mean to tell me you’re Canadian?” he asks incredulously. “Canadian Canadian?”

“…Sì,” I reply, and look around to see if it was someone else’s Canadian-ness that was being called into question.

Just mine, apparently.

“You’re not an Italian citizen? Don’t have another passport around somewhere?” He gestures absently around his office and I wonder just how many other people’s imaginary second passports he thinks are lying around.

“No,” I shake my head.

“But your last name-?”

“My dad is Italian.”

“But he’s not Tuscan,” the guy counters quickly. “Mastroianni isn’t a Tuscan name. I mean, it’s a famous name, a nice name. But it’s not Tuscan.”

And he’s right – famous it is, Tuscan it’s not. In a country that thrives on campanilismo (allegiance to one’s own town bell tower) this is an identity-defining detail.

“No, my Dad’s ciociaro,” I respond, using the adjective for people who come from my Dad’s part of  Lazio.

“But you live here.” “Yes.” “In Siena.” “Yes.” “Not in Canada.” “No.” “And not in your dad’s town.” “No.” “In Siena.” “That’s why I’m applying for an identity card here.”

After hearing me utter a full sentence, his eyes snap open wide and he recoils in his chair.

“You speak Tuscan!” he exclaims. “Listen to that accent!” Suddenly, he’s suspicious. “How can that be?”

I smile, because I know it’s true. Italians –  Tuscans and non –  comment on my Tuscan accent all the time. While at first I couldn’t understand a word that came out of any Tuscan mouth, I view my unconscious adoption of the accent over the years as an accomplishment in my language learning journey. It makes me oddly proud.

And since this guy, keeper of the identity cards, has obviously made it his mission to thoroughly vet me, given all the seemingly incongruous details I’m feeding him, he sits back in his chair looking smug, as if he’s somehow tripped me up with his questions. With a grand sweep of his hand, he invites me to continue my likely story.

When I shrug, he forges ahead with the intensity of a lawyer during a cross-examination.

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“You have a heavier Tuscan accent than me and I’m Chiantigiano. From Chianti. A real Tuscan. You must have moved here a long time ago,” he surmises, satisfied that he’s solved the mystery that is Sarah Ashley Mastroianni: Canadian citizen, Tuscan talker with Ciociaro origins.

“No, actually. I’ve come to Siena every year for the past six, but I’ve only really been living here since June.” I let that hang for a second, then I add, “that’s why I need the identity card.”

“Are you here to study?” “No, I work.”

“Nooo, dai.” Come on. He draws out his words in the theatrical way typical of Italian speakers and starts to laugh. The ice has broken, now he’s getting a kick out of this conversation.

“A Ciociara-Canadian who speaks Tuscan like you and who’s come from Canada with all the jobs, to Italy with no jobs, to workNon esiste!” (That doesn’t exist!)

I laugh and smile, “And yet here I am, asking you gentilmente (kindly) for an identity card.”

“Of course, of course.” He smiles and busies himself with my passport and various papers on the desk in front of him. He taps away at his keyboard for a minute before he looks up and asks me the question of all questions.

Statura?”

His voice brings me back from la-la land and I raise an eyebrow in response, having not quite caught what he asked.

He rephrases. “Altezza?” Height?

“175 centimetres,” I respond.

A slow smile spreads across his face. “Ahhh, ecco! There it is.”

“There what is?” I ask, playing along, even though I know from previous experience exactly what’s coming.

“Signorina, I can give you an identity card that says you live in Siena, and you can talk like you talk, but you’re much too tall to be Tuscan.”

Canadian Mentality vs. Italian Reality: An Overview


Not Just Another Although my tongue-twister of a last name and love for all things Italian maybe make me not quite as “purely Canadian” as they come, I’m still very, very, very Canadian. And happy to be so. If you missed this about me, go back and read here and here and here to get a feel for my particular type of patriotism.

Me, decked out in my completely

Me, decked out in my completely “Canadian” garb visiting the Canadian WW1 Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

You won’t often hear me say a word against Canada. Although I’m currently living in Italy after working hard to get here, I have no problem publishing here on the Internet that, all things considered and in my humble opinion, Canada is the best country in the world. There.

But I will say, Canada, that you have recently let me down.

Before all my fellow Canucks get up in arms, per favore (please) let me explain.

I grew up in the suburbs of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) surrounded by a loving family. I attended public schools, was heavily involved with Air Cadets (an amazing youth organization with a large focus on leadership and good citizenship), had a great university education and had a pretty happy/normal Canadian-kid upbringing, complete with Tim Horton’s, ice skating, camping trips and the odd sighting of the Northern Lights. So far, so good.

All this was done in Canadian society. Where people are generally humble, polite and helpful. Where things generally work the way they should. Where information is given freely, and where a definitive answer usually does exist. Where laws and rules are understandable, and are generally respected. Where we are taught to be open-minded and accepting. Where we are generally trusting. Where multiculturalism and diversity are generally praised. Where navigating life is, for so many of us, generally fairly easy.

I say generally because we certainly can’t paint every person and every situation with the same brush (even if it is a good one) and there are always exceptions. I don’t want to say that life is all flowers and rainbows in Canada but, it really is a great country to live in, on many levels and for many reasons that most of us probably take for granted. I know I certainly did.

And while I wouldn’t trade my Canadian upbringing for anything, I can say that it did not, however, stand me in good stead to deal with the realities of living in Italy.

Because all those things I listed, those underlying currents in Canadian society, (the multiculturalism and whatnot, not the Tim Horton’s and ice skating, etc.) are not always present to the same degree in Italian society. Ask almost any North-American expat who lives in Italy and they’ll probably agree with me. Life here is harder. It just is. And the same default settings you use for navigating life in Canada won’t get you very far here.

So, like a sailor getting my sea legs, I’ve been wobbling around Italy bashing into things as the country pitches and rolls, while in Canada I manage a pretty bump-free existence. (And no, the bumping and bashing cannot be attributed to my much higher Prosecco intake over here).

When I think about the bureaucracy and red tape I had to wade through just to get my Permesso di Soggiorno (Permit to Stay) it makes me more than cringe. I get the sweats. The Permesso di Soggiorno sweats. Yes, other expats in Italy, you know what I’m talking about!

Ridiculously happy to finally have my Permesso di Soggiorno (Permit to Stay).

Ridiculously happy to finally have my Permesso di Soggiorno (Permit to Stay). That’s my permesso on the left. And my celebratory millefoglie on the right!

The more I think about this topic, the more I feel like I can’t express everything I want to in one simple blog post, so this may turn into a bit of a series. It’ll be entertaining, I promise.

Attenzione, però! (Watch out!) Although it may sound like I’m doing a hearty amount of complaining (or any amount of complaining, because on here I’m usually pretty upbeat) I’m still very happy with my choice to move to Italy. Extolling the virtues of life in lo stivale (The Boot a.k.a. Italy) will once again become the main focus of this blog after I get these comparative cultural musings out.