10 things I miss about travel — as Italy’s lockdown ends

Me marveling at Kulikalon lake in Tajikistan’s Fan Mountains.

Italy’s second lockdown ends today. It’s a day all of us here have circled as if it was our retirement date or vacation to the Caribbean. Our restaurants and bars have been closed, except for takeaway and delivery, since March 15. We couldn’t cross regional borders except for “essential reasons.” During some periods in the red, or highest, level of Covid-19 restrictions, we couldn’t leave our house without a form stating everything from our home address to what the hell we are doing out of our home.

But today we can travel in Italy. We can eat, albeit only outside. Today, Marina and I are having lunch at Angelina, one of our favorite restaurants with some of the best rooftop seating in Rome. 

Tuesday I travel.

I’m not going to the Caribbean but since I’ve left Lazio only once since August, my train trip to Piedmont will feel like a space shuttle to Neptune. Then I’m meeting Marina in Venice to see the most romantic city in the world before, hopefully, the tourist hordes return.

Covid-19 has poleaxed all our lives. Granted, I have suffered less than the 3 million who have died, including 119,000 in Italy. I am forever grateful for never waking up with a cough, shortness of breath and the ensuing panic attack thinking, Is it my turn?

However, where I’ve suffered bores into my soul. I’m a travel writer who hasn’t traveled. I haven’t left Italy in 14 months. I’ve left Lazio three times. I want to feel sand between my toes, hike mountains I’ve never seen, eat food I can’t pronounce.

I always tell people my secret to happiness: Find the one thing in your life that makes you happy — that you can control. It could be a hobby, religion, sports, work. They’re all valid.

Mine is travel.

I’m still happy. I’m retired in Rome. How could I not be happy? But something is missing. There’s a void inside I intend to fill in 2021, starting Tuesday. Beyond Piedmont and Venice, there is Mallorca in November and undated trips planned to Asturias in Spain; the Black Forest in Germany; Skopelos, Greece; the Maldives and Kyoto.

It’s more than destinations that I’m missing. It’s the delicious ingredients of travel, the elements that make every place so special. Waking up and knowing you’ll see or experience something you never have before. Anticipating the slow boat trip through a jungle. Remembering the exotic meal you had the night before or the conversation in the bar with people from five different countries. That’s what travel is.

So, to ignite your inner explorer, here are the 10 things I miss about travel:

With Bounnakh, a young Buddhist monk outside his temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Meeting the locals    

This is the goal of any seasoned traveler. Travel is more than beaches and sunsets, beers and sightseeing. You best know a country by talking to the people. You can’t do that by staying in a tourist bubble.

I remember sitting in the home of a woman in Havana who told me the horrors of living under the Castro regime. I once sat outside a Buddhist temple in Laos and talked to a 19-year-old monk about how Buddhism was an escape from a life of family labor in his village. I remember sitting in a rough-and-tumble bar in Sokcho, a fishing village in South Korea, where I showed a group of rowdy Korean marines how to straight shoot tequila. (Did you know every bar in the world has a bottle of Cuervo? It’s true. At least, it seems like it.)

I once read a story about a man who raved about the bus tour he took through Germany. He talked about the wonderful food, the beautiful scenery, the interesting castles. The writer asked him what he thought of the German people. The man thought for a second and said, “Hmm. I don’t think we met one.”

A waterfall Marina and I stumbled upon outside Sefrou, Morocco.

The unknown

I don’t do bus tours. I don’t do cruises. I don’t like plans or itineraries. I always say that you don’t know what freedom is until you wake up and decide what Greek island you want to go to on the way to a boat dock. 

It’s not just the destination. It’s the journey. Whatever unexpected wrench in your plans can produce the best time of your life. I once took a train through Denmark and was engaged in deep conversation with two Danes. So enthralled with the subject matter, I missed my stop. Instead of backtracking, I took their invitation and we wound sneaking into the Ringe Beat Festival. I’m not into music, but it was a straight shot into the heart of Danish summer culture.

Once hitchhiking in Taiwan, a man picked me up and took me to his small town where he owned its biggest restaurant. He brought me inside before it opened and served me a spectacular seven-course meal. I pantomimed that I couldn’t afford it. He pulled out his wallet showing a stack of bills an inch thick and waved off my worry. Afterward, he took me to the train station and bought me a ticket to Taipei, the capital and my final destination. 

We didn’t speak a word of each other’s language, but we communicated better than my own aunt who, on my ensuing trip up the West Coast, made me sleep at the airport rather than stay one extra night in her home in Redwood City, Calif. When I returned home to Eugene, Ore., I found a Chinese professor at my university who translated my thank you letter I wrote to the man in Taiwan.

That can’t happen on a bus tour.

Escargot in Paris.

Food

I grew up a very picky eater. I blame my mom, who was the worst vegetable cook in the history of mankind. Travel broadened not just my mind but my taste buds. I learned to love vegetables in rural Malaysia, where they stir fry them in delicate spices and serve them in a banana leaf. I tried yoghurt for the first time in Sweden, escargot in Paris, goulash in Hungary. Those remain some of my favorite foods.

I had delicious dishes that sound like a dare: water buffalo brains sandwich in Egypt, ram cheese omelette in Nepal, BBQ zebra in Kenya.

You can tell a lot about a country’s culture by its food. Whether it’s the insects Cambodians still eat after Pol Pot’s nation-building-through-starvation plan or Italians’ four-hour meals, observing while tasting enriches our understanding.

Plus it takes good, fried tarantulas notwithstanding.

Me and Marina at 2be Beer Wall in Bruges, Belgium.

Booze

Hey, you need something to wash down the food, right? One of my dirty little secrets is I love to drink. I don’t abuse it. I never drive on it. But I love the social aspects of it and the variety of alcohol around the world. Every country has a drinking culture, sans Saudi Arabia where I survived 12 days last year without a drop and one local told me, “It’s kind of a treatment.”

When I travel, I only drink local. The first bar I enter I’ll ask the bartender to give me the country’s most popular beer. Here in Italy, every region I visit I’ll drink the wine that’s identified with the area. Barolo in Piedmont. Chianti in Tuscany. Negroamaro in Puglia. Going local also has its downside. I insisted on trying the local wine in Estonia despite the bartender’s warning that it’s a vile swill. He was right. Always trust bartenders. Kava, the homemade brew in Fiji, is flat-out gross.

But in the Caribbean, every island has its own rum. Each one is so good, it’s ruined with Coke. Each one makes the sunset that much more beautiful. And Chinggis Khan vodka — seriously, that’s what it’s called — makes the cold nights on the Mongolian steppe just a little warmer.

What did I get out of all this alcohol? Lots of laughs and the ability to say “Cheers!” in 13 languages. 

On the Greek ferry between Skiathos and Skopelos.

Public transport

I avoid renting cars. I want to see the scenery and I can’t if I’m circling around and around a roundabout trying to guess which exit to take. I get tired of getting lost. While covering the Tour de France, before GPS became standard, I learned the French phrases for: left, right, “I am lost” and “Shoot me now.”

I love watching the scenery go by from the window seat of a comfy train. The air seems fresher, the sun seems brighter, from the back of a ferry boat. In Thailand you get around by tuk tuk, these three-wheeled, open-air taxis that whip in and out of traffic while the warm wind flies through your hair.

It’s where you meet locals such as the man sitting next to me on a Tunisian bus where we had a learned discussion about American-Israel relations. I observed the tranquil pace of village life in Vietnam from the slow boat that took me from Ho Chi Minh City into Cambodia. One highlight was the huge ship plying the Helsinki-Stockholm route that was part of my Eurail Pass and included an endless Scandinavian buffet.

Even riding in the back of uncomfortable open-air bush taxis in Indonesia for seven hours has its charm. However, I could’ve done without the woman across the aisle from me vomiting for 10 minutes as soon as our bus pulled out of the station in Laos.

Trains are expensive in Italy, but I can’t wait for my 4 ½-hour trip Tuesday.

White Sands Beach outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Beaches

Who doesn’t get tired at work, lean back, close their eyes and think of that perfect white-sand beach with a good book in your lap, a cold beer at your side and a turquoise sea 10 meters away? I do. I’m very active when I travel. I hike. I scuba dive. I explore villages. I shop. However, I love sitting on an exotic beach and doing absolutely nothing.

Travelers checking off all the places they absolutely, positively have to see sometimes miss a major point of travel: Relax. If you try to see too much you wind up not seeing anything. Recharge your batteries. As we say in Italy: Tranquillo. 

Something can be said for the biggest decision one makes on a trip is whether to lay by the pool or the beach. I’ve been to too many beautiful ones to count: Mahe in Seychelles Islands, Englishman’s Bay on Tobago, Goyambokka on Sri Lanka, to name a few. Remember: Tanning doesn’t hurt your skin; burning does. Get brown. Look young. Feel younger.

A lone hiker high above Trinity Church in the Republic of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains.

Natural beauty

The world is screwed up but it’s still beautiful. At least, it is for now. Until mankind further destroys the only planet we have, the natural marvels remain for travelers to adore. Some places are too beautiful for pictures, let alone words.

Much of what you seek will surprise you. Yes, it’s even better than you thought. I had no idea the Caucasus Mountains in the Republic of Georgia were prettier than the Alps. The South Pacific around French Polynesia is so turquoise you can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins. Seeing the sunrise over Africa from atop Mt. Kilimanjaro remains the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.

You can’t experience them without going to them. I miss staring at natural beauty, frozen in slack-jawed awe for minutes before snapping endless photos. I have a bedroom wall to prove it.

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of division and now one of unification. Photo by Marina Pascucci

History

I wish I’d traveled before I nodded off in my Western Civ classes at the University of Oregon. It means more when you visit the sites where history happened. In Rome I’m surrounded by it. Ancient Rome, in its own way, helped shape modern Rome, even 2,000 years later.

But that holds true for every country. It’s why I love Eastern Europe. You see ugly, Soviet-era apartment buildings next to modern Michelin-star restaurants. In St. Petersburg, I visited islands in the archipelago reserved entirely for one czar’s family. Then I read where the city had no pets because the starving populace ate them. I tell people to go to St. Petersburg to see why communism happened and then go to Moscow to see why communism failed.

I miss going to national museums to see the ways of life of the locals’ descendants and seeing artifacts and weapons from major battles that shaped their modern society. If history bores you, it won’t once you travel.

Pigeons’ Rock neighborhood in Beirut which has transformed so many times. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Politics

This goes hand in hand with history but my favorite politics are what is happening now. It’s why I like capitals. It’s where you find the pulse of the nation. It’s where people are more aware. And they love to talk, especially to complain.

When I meet locals I always ask them: What’s the biggest problem facing your country? In Beirut, the civil war is over and Muslims and Christians have made peace. They’ve also joined forces in their hatred for the local government. As one Beiruti told me when I said the country cleaned up its garbage problem, “That’s better, but we have a lot of garbage in politics you can have.”

Then again, when I asked that question to a local in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics, he had to think about it. Then he gave me some obscure zoning controversy that seemed like it would be a footnote in an American newspaper. But the point is, the Aussie had to think of a problem. That’s the sign of a great nation.

I’m a journalist. I miss asking questions.

Spice shop in Dubai. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Shopping

Yeah, I love to shop. I shop in vegetable markets, historical centers, public markets and the occasional mall. And I buy: a carpet in Turkey, a shirt in Spain, a necklace in St. Lucia. And art. Lots and lots of art. Every major city has an art colony where local artists sell their paintings of various quality to locals and tourists alike. I buy a piece depicting a place that means something to me — maybe a sunset in Morocco or a bar in Buenos Aires — and talk to the artist. I’ll ask about the city’s art scene and his inspiration, whatever he can tell me.

The Montmartre section of Paris is famous for it. I direct visitors to Piazza Navona here in Rome. Put the art on your wall. Throw the rug on your floor. They’ll always remind you of the wonderful time in that country and the nice talk with the artist you didn’t know you’d ever meet.

The last souvenir I bought was an incense burner in Saudi Arabia 14 months ago. I am dreaming of wine in Piedmont and Oriental tapestries in Kyoto and thundu kunaa mats in Maldives.

I miss travel like a lifelong love who went away for more than a year. Tomorrow I begin my love affair again.