Travel jobs require you to be outgoing, friendly, always positive and welcoming, resourceful and flexible. Plus speak foreign languages, know ALL THE FACTS and a bunch of other wild skills. It can be challenging. For me, the toughest part is that I am shy. Really shy. You may not notice it, but come on, I’m a writer. All of us writers are introverts of one kind or another.
I mention this because introverts may not have as much fun traveling as extroverts. The ability to engage others, not even considering people in a foreign place, can be intimidating. My dad drives Uber and chats up every passenger, making friends in 10 minutes or less. He’s from Ireland, they’re just kind of like that. I, on the other hand, have taken years to screw up the courage to talk to staff at hotels I’ve stayed at many times.
I mention this because I have noticed it. The people who engage other people just have more fun, they get much more out of their travels. In true introvert style, I have studied these strange creatures, these extroverts. I’ve dissected what it is that they do, how they integrate themselves into any situation. Ok, that’s not exactly true, I’m too lazy for that. What I have decided, though, is that talking to strangers is not as scary as my mom told me it would be. Sometimes it’s kind of neat.
In the spirit of that discovery, I have been making strides in meeting new people in my travels. This past year was a good one in that respect. I have met some interesting new friends that I am looking forward to seeing again, and I thought I’d tell you about some of them.
Some of my new friends are pretty darned cool, but really, the point is, I want you to meet people when you travel too. It is more fun. So, if you’re the kind of traveler that avoids eye contact at all costs, I hope you know that I feel ya, but you need to try harder. It’s ok to meet new people. Look who I met! Your tribe is out there too.
One day in March, I was wandering around La Spezia, Italy working on updating the Rick Steves guidebook. There was a note that I should contact someone named Ruth if I needed anything. I didn’t need anything, I was fine thanks, says the shy girl. Walking out of a hotel, I hear someone call my name, who then motions for me to get in her car. This isn’t actually unusual when I do book research, local people find out that I’m there and want to bend my ear. Sounds weird, but let’s face it, I’m not hard to notice.
I get in the car and meet this Ruth person from my notes. She’s really friendly. She has a hotel she wants to show me (ugh, red flag). But something about her seems familiar and trustworthy, and she also comes recommended by a colleague I respect, so I go. The hotel is great, a winner for the book. We chat in the car, she offers me help, local knowledge, invites me over to her house.
It’s Good Friday, there’s a procession in her village and I should come. Heck, why not. She seems really nice, actually.
Turns out, Ruth is an American woman with an impossibly romantic story. She was backpacking in the Cinque Terre in the 90’s and missed the last train of the night. Stranded in Vernazza, she was trying to figure out what to do when a local guy started chatting her up. They didn’t really speak each other’s language, but she figured out that he had volunteered his mom’s house for her to stay at. You can see where this is going…she stayed longer than planned, he was cute after all. They married and she stayed in Vernazza, raising two kids and adopting Italian ways.
I’ve corresponded with Ruth over the months for help with the books and tours, since she’s got the inside knowledge of the area and connections to people who know stuff. But really, I just like hanging out with her and her family. Those of us who choose to live a partially American, partially Italian existence have a special understanding that is so lovely. Conversations float in and out of languages, and there are some things you just don’t understand unless you’ve lived between cultures this way. She’s also got the most adorable family and a sparkling laugh. I look forward to my visits to the Cinque Terre, she’s up for anything and I’m happy to have a new adventure buddy.
The moral of the story? You should get into strange people’s cars! (Kidding)
I’ve been working to wrap my mind around Instagram. I like looking at pretty pictures, I like to take pretty pictures, so it should be my thing, right? But I didn’t really get the point of it until I got a random message one day from a guy named Mountain.
So this guy says he’s been following me on Instagram and sees that I’m in Rome. He asks if I want to go out for a drink, we may have some things in common. This seems to be the beginning of the story of how a girl gets abducted and ends up in the trunk of a car, I know. His photos were intriguing, but stranger danger and all, so no, grazie. He counter offers dinner…with his wife and daughters. Ah! Ok, I can do that.
Mountain turns out to be kind of a THING on the internet. He’s the Catholic Traveler, people know about him and stuff. Oops, I am a little stupid about who else lives on the internet. He has made a fascinating little zone for himself, putting together small “day pilgrimages” for vacationing Catholics in Rome. It’s a cool concept. He also has integrated himself into the unlikeliest of places, becoming part of the Vatican community by sheer force of will and persistence. That is no easy task. He pretty much always knows where the Pope is, how to best see him, and what’s up at the Vatican.
We’ve been getting together, plotting on how we can collaborate, but really it’s been fun to get to know him and his family. His ridiculously cute daughters are the same age as my sons, and I swear our older children are destined to marry each other. I seem to bump into him everywhere and everyone seems to know him. He’s taken me on one of his day pilgrimages, and I was impressed by how he saw something nobody else has, that there is a real need for conscientious, thoughtful Catholic-angled tourism.
We made a couple of little videos, here is one. A YouTube buddy! Cool.
Similar to my story with Mountain (and actually they know each other), I noticed a woman following me on Instagram with the most intriguing handle- Swiss Guards Wife. That can’t be real, can it? I followed her back, and indeed, she’s married to a Swiss Guard and lives in the Vatican.
In June, I got a message out of the blue asking if I’d like to meet. I said, um YEAH, that would be COOL. But it didn’t work out. In September, I recalled that invitation and sent her a message to see if she was around when I was in Rome. Perfect timing, we were able to meet and I just happened to have my friend Trish, The Travelphile, along with me that day. She’s one of my favorite adventure buddies and is always up for anything.
After a lovely evening of champagne and oysters at a cafe near the Vatican, I felt like we’d know each other forever. We chatted about all sorts of ideas. She is an entrepreneur and a smart cookie, and I love getting to know other women that have big ideas. She invited Trish and I to visit her at HOME, for a behind the cathedra tour of Vatican City! I couldn’t go, but Trish did and wrote about it.
I can’t wait to visit with Joanne again, she’s inspiring and has got all sorts of new projects going, including her own blog, TravelAngel. I have a feeling we will brew up some trouble together one day soon.
Brittany and Ben
I’ve been hanging around Sicily a lot lately…working on….stuff. Sicily is a bit of a closed place in a way, families and friends go back generations and making new friends can be challenging. I’ve met some cool people recently, though, while drinking wine, obviously.
While visiting a winery on the Sicily tour, Brittany, a new sommelier I hadn’t met, was presenting the tour. She was American, so I started chatting with her a bit. You can see a pattern here, I like Americans that live in Italy. She moved to Italy to follow her Italian roots and has never looked back. I think it’s because those roots lead straight to the best wine in Italy, but idk. I was telling her about a project I was working on and that I had a few days off. Without hesitation, she invited me on an adventure. Really? Uh….OK!
At the same moment, the manager of the winery introduced me to a local wine expert (also American) named Ben. He runs the Etna Wine School and also made the bold move to Italy, living on the sunny Sicilian Coast. After some chatting, he invited me on an adventure too, exploring Mt. Etna and the wine areas nearby. Did I want to learn more about Etna wines and the unique way they have been produced? Who am I to turn down such good offers?
Brittany reserved an agriturismo, or farmhouse hotel, near her house on the north slope of Etna for me. That area is one of the premier wine regions of Europe at the moment and I was excited to have a local show me around. Have I mentioned that I like wine?
I picked her up and we went to visit a friend of hers. He bought a farm and has turned it into a permaculture farm. Permaculture is a fascinating idea, using natural methods for pest prevention and fertilization. We toured the farm, ate homemade treats and wine and I got a cool lesson in microfarming. She took me out to a fantastic restaurant for dinner, something I’d have never found in a million years, and I got the princess treatment. Well, that may have more to do with her, she’s a beauty.
The next day, we met Ben and his friends at Etna Finder for a day on Mount Etna. We drove through lava fields, bouncing along in a 4×4 vehicle and hiking through remote craters. They took us for a beautiful drive around the mountain, finishing with a wine tasting. It was a spectacular day, and I promise to write more about it soon, too much to tell right now.
It was splendid timing and sort of meant to be. Neither Brittany or Ben are normally at the winery where I met them. But that’s kind of what travel means, taking advantage of good luck and timing.
And then there was that one time…
Weird and fantastic things can happen if you talk to random people, even if you don’t become friends for life. My last example was hilarious.
I was walking down a pier in Favignana, and island in Sicily, when some dude on a boat tried to get my attention. Sheesh, Italian men, I thought, and walked on by. On my way back past, the same guy tried to get my attention, but this time he had about 8 other people on his boat.
I spoke back to him this time, in Italian, and he was surprised I could speak it. That’s pretty normal, it’s kind of entertaining to see the look on people’s faces when a 6’2 blonde busts out with Italian. So he asked if I was hungry. Uh, I guess? He hands me bruschetta. And then wine. And olives from his farm. And, oh, heck, just get on the boat and eat lunch with these strangers.
It was a boat excursion from Marsala. Two crew and 6 tourists from around the world. They were so funny and kind. I ate lunch with them and they invited me to continue on with them to the next island and back to Marsala. If only! It was a beautiful day and they were going swimming and cave exploring. But I had plans with a friend later that night and no swimsuit, so I declined.
I saw the boat crew later that afternoon in town, they waved at me and we exchanged greetings like old friends. Like I was a local. Winning!
Introverts, You Can Do It!
I have met friends in my travels, but it has taken me years to befriend them because of timidity. Throwing caution to the wind and being open to new people is good for the soul.
Above all, not a single one of these new friends would be known to me if I hadn’t been brave enough to take a chance. As I met each one, there was a moment where I could have chickened out and let my inner shyness take the wheel. But that, I have decided, is a boring way to live. Connecting to others when the universe presents them to you is one of the greatest travel gifts of all. Even for introverts.