One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to travel after college instead of going straight to work.  I received a masters degree in computer science and art but knew that spending the rest of my time in employment toil wasn’t what I wanted.

The first trip was to the western part of the United States for four months where the focus was on bike riding in the deserts and mountains.  We’re talking about all day riding, day after day.  I usually slept under the stars without using a tent and one night outside of Gunnison, Colorado, the Milky Way was so clear when I woke up at 3 a.m.  I looked up at the stars and said, “I’ve never seen a cathedral.  I’m going to Europe.”  When I got back from the trip, my parents asked, “Ready for a job?”  I replied, “Nope, I’m going to Europe.” And so it was.

Torre del MangiaTorre del MangiaMy background in art really was the main motivator to go.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the cultural aspects but knew that would be figured out in due time.  Upon arriving in Rome and taking a taxi from the airport and seeing all sorts of places that were recognizable from books, I was impressed.  I rode my bike around Rome, including to the piazza in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.  Again, impressive.  The next morning, as soon as St. Peter’s opened, I was there.  There is a barrel vault over the entrance and the impression was, “That’s really big.”  Upon entering, I was overwhelmed by the colors and looked at the main barrel vault in the nave and thought, “Oh my, that’s bigger yet.”  Down the nave was Bernini’s Baldacchino over the altar and in the first chapel to the right was Michelangelo’s Pieta.  Wow!  It was really something to have taken art history classes and studied the works at length and there you are, they are right in front of you.  When in the Vatican, I made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel and got there before anyone else and had it to myself for several minutes.

There was also just the fun times to be had when traveling.  Meeting people from all over and just daily life too; that was a blast.  One other thing was just the daily culture of the places.  I was knowledgeable about countries in terms of their history and other aspects but this was the first time outside of my home country and experiencing the general atmosphere.  It was a great revelation just to learn how peoples’ lives are different than mine on a daily basis.  It really wasn’t the large differences that was so informative, but rather the smaller things.  Most of all, it wasn’t my home.  This was a life changing experience.

For the next months, the art, architecture, and overall atmosphere was overwhelming.  I spent a lot of time in Italy, but also went to Greece, Poland, Germany and other countries; the proverbial grand tour for which I was gone a total of nine months.  There were experiences that I never imagined.  From the highs of summer days in the Alps to the lows of seeing Auschwitz.

I had a suspicion that I would really like Italy but didn’t realize how much  and spent more time there than any country.  One city I really liked was Siena and was there three times over the trip.  I was even there for Il Palio, a horse race that has been held since the middle ages that is considered a highlight of the year in Siena.  It’s a medieval town that no matter where you look, has a beauty that few other places have.

Eventually, in November and December, I returned to Italy and wandered back to Siena.

I was still having a lot of fun but at this time of the year, many of the hostels were closed and the days were quite short; the nature of the experience was changing.  Not in a bad way, but certainly different from the days of April and August.  I started to realize that my time in Europe was coming to a close, not sure when, but knew that it wouldn’t be another eight or nine months and besides, my money wasn’t endless.

I called a good friend, Renato who lived in Milan, and discussed some travel issues.  We talked for a while and he finally said, “What will you do in the next three months that will be really different from what you’ve already done?”  I thought for a moment, as he had posed a good question.  I said with a heavy heart, “Could you schedule a flight home for next week?” and shortly afterwards, hung up.

It was like being hit by a ton of bricks.  I walked all the way across Siena, this beautiful city of red stone, and was hardly aware of the surroundings, experiencing a deep sadness.  I found myself in Il Campo, Siena’s main piazza, only vaguely aware of how I reached it, harboring a terrible feeling of “Oh my, what have I just done?”

ToscanaThere is a tower over Il Campo called Torre del Mangia (Tower of the Glutton) named after a really fat guard in the Renaissance times.  It’s 102 meters tall and very slender in proportions.  It was right at the time that the tower was opening and since it was low season, I was the only one there.  I started to climb, still not feeling very good at all.  Given the narrow proportions, you climb a few steps then have to turn 90 degrees, climb a few more, turn again, etc.  Higher up, the steps were even fewer before having to turn.  I finally reached the top and came out into the open.  It was a pleasant winter day in Toscana with nary a breeze and given that I was from Minnesota at the time, meant I only had to wear a sweatshirt.

The first thing I noticed was how overwhelmingly red the city was, oh it’s a pretty place.  The ever so green, rolling hills of Tuscany continued forever, and beyond that were the snow covered Apennine mountains.  Above it all was a cloudless, blue, blue, blue sky.  The colors were overwhelming, an experience that was so pleasant, it was just too much to believe.  I looked near and far.  The mountains would have my attention, then the nearby hills, and then a person walking below in the piazza.  Then, it would be back to the mountains and the sky.  Wow!  The bad feelings melted away.

I took it all in and thought, “It’s been a great trip.”