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Snapping a Pic Vs. Savoring the Moment

Learning to be present for the little moments abroad.

By Emma Hagert

I had one week in two different countries, and in two completely different places: London and Tuscany. I had my summertime European getaway all planned out. While I was enamored with both countries for their culturally robust, vibrant, and intoxicating atmospheres, I gleaned two completely different lessons about traveling from the bustling historic spectacle of London and the quaint romantic villa in Ansedonia.

To the naked eye, London is an enormous urban hub for tourists to navigate. There is no ‘downtown,’ — it’s a city that circles the infamous Thames River, with clusters of various neighborhoods that run up and down the prized canal. During one of the hottest weeks of the summer, with fears that the Tube would be unusable and the tracks would literally melt, I chose to walk, bear-hugged by the heat, trying to see as much as I could in a day.

In my head was a list, and with each tourist attraction I visited, an item got crossed off. I saw Buckingham Palace, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Primrose Hill and, on an especially hot day, Harry Potter at Warner Bros Studio.

I took pictures of the day’s events and considered whether I would post any of them. At the end of the day, I had the creeping sense of feeling unfulfilled.

I was not gaining a full understanding of and appreciation for the city, the routines of the people, and the things I’d experienced. I needed a moment away from the instantaneous gratification I’m so accustomed to seeking with a post and ever-searching viral moment.

In essence, satisfying myself only with a glance upon the late queen’s quarters and a picture in front of its wrought iron fences would not tell me London’s story.

At the time, the UEFA Women’s Euros were going on, and I hadn’t been to a pub to cheer on the beloved English soccer team — who ended up winning the tournament. I was not getting lost in the midnight swell of crowds as they eagerly watched street performers in the theater district, or striking up unlikely conversations with the Pearl Jam enthusiasts behind the bar while they filled their glasses with Guinness.

I wasn’t witnessing what made the city tick—how it functioned like an organ in a body. What brought, and continues to, bring London to life was the ebb and flow of people going about their daily lives.

While I was cautionary about my traveling habits in London, I decided to ditch my plans of how I would spend my time in Tuscany.

In the weeks leading up to my stay, I wanted to visit Florence and Venice, which would mean long car rides and very little time spent in the actual cities. In my mind, I thought I had to see the beloved art galleries and ride a gondola in the sinking city.

All are still attractions and places I hope to be fortunate enough to visit again, but when I dropped the agenda, relaxed, and truly experienced Orbetello—a coastal town with vast green landscapes scattered with olive groves—and Capalbio, a picturesque village with an old, medieval fortress, I felt a priceless sensation:

I felt like a local.

While there, I learned old Italian superstitions, like to never hand someone the salt or pepper when asked from across the dinner table. Instead, I was taught to set it down in front of them. Cappuccinos were only a morning drink, and espressos were a nighttime cap. Also—if the mozzarella was fresh, it doesn’t need to be doused in salt and pepper.

I indulged in the best Italian tradition: aperitivos. If siestas are your thing, try exchanging a midday nap for an end-of-workday drink at the beach.

“Italians do it better,” said my mother’s best friend from college, who now lives in Italy.

She’s right. In fact, Italians work to live, something never to be mistaken. In comparison, Americans live to work.

As a student, it seems silly to heed such a remark with deadlines looming in the distance, but as a healthy reminder to myself, I don’t have to go abroad just to make connections with new people and places.

For me, this trip was about reconnecting with my family and old friends. If I had let myself be distracted and consumed with how I presented this trip on social media, I would’ve missed out on a truly beautiful experience.

Learning to be present is such a simple, yet significant life lesson. Traveling, above all else, has helped me learn how to understand and incorporate this in my own life. It challenges me to be aware and appreciative of the environments that I exist in, and to enjoy them unapologetically.

By the end of a trip, it felt as though it happened all in the blink of an eye. While I’ve done my fair share of fretting over lost photographs from the trip, I’m reminded that this is yet another opportunity to go back and recreate those experiences all over again.

While each experience will be different from the last, and it will never be exactly as you remember, traveling will open your eyes to a whole new world with infinite possibilities.


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