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2010

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The simplest, best expression of love.

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What makes a trip successful? Is it the fantastic sights seen, the friends made, the food consumed?  Or is it the mountains climbed, the challenges conquered, the definition of oneself in the midst of the unknown?

Could living in a place like this ever bore you?

I ask these questions not because I have an answer, but because I have experienced a certain disappointment in my travels this time around, which I mentioned earlier, and which still baffles me. My time in London and Edinburgh was phenomenal, and Switzerland is as lovely as ever, so why am I disappointed?

My first international experience was the absolute opposite; despite my horrific journey, I experienced highs higher than I knew existed. I felt like I was upside down half the time, and was baffled by everything around me, from the different languages, accents, and food, to the method of hand-drying. Despite the fact that I was utterly solo, had not a friend to my name on the continent, I never felt alone, fell tragically in love, and made friends in every hostel and city I visited. Now, now that I know all of those I am working with and am only staying with friends, I feel more isolated than ever. Is this simply the result of 20/20 hindsight? Am I seeing the perfections of my first trip, when at the time I felt the sweat of the Milan heat and the blisters from lugging my bag from hostel to hostel? Or, do I simply feel complacent, and disappointed in myself that I am so within my comfort zone?

This brings me to one of my favorite theories in economics: the idea of diminishing marginal returns. Basically, once supply and demand meet, demand falls off. This is because you get fewer returns per extra unit consumed once you pass a certain threshold (on a graph, that point where price demanded meets quantity demanded). This makes sense; while eating, for instance, the pleasure you get per bite decreases dramatically once you are already satisfied. But, does this theory apply to traveling? Do we get bored once we have already seen something of the world? Does the wonder ever cease?

I think that, perhaps, it does, though I am not saying that you should only ever travel once and then become housebound. Yes, the Alps are just as beautiful as they were my first time here, but I come with the expectation of being awed, because I have been. My first time here, I had no expectations, and so was struck as by a tidal wave with the beauty surrounding me. If I come with those expectations, the impact will, naturally, be less.

A competing theory comes from psychology: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance essentially says that we look back on something, and if the outcome doesn’t match our expectations, we feel discomfort- embarrassment, shame, regret—and therefore change the way we feel about it, or our expectations, in order to reduce those feelings. One example from a psych class I took said that students were more likely to say that they liked a class after they had enrolled in it and began it than beforehand, because they don’t like the idea that they are wasting their precious time or that they guessed wrong when registering for the course. Essentially, pride.

So, my question is this—was my first trip really the incredible experience that I remembered it being, (was I perhaps suffering from cognitive dissonance that attempted to make up for my horrific voyage?) or do we experience diminishing marginal returns while traveling? Truthfully, I would really hate it if I needed a bigger and bigger adrenaline rush every time I went somewhere new. I want to experience awe and wonder the same way I did that first time that I crossed the Atlantic, but if I need to experience something comparatively incredible, I’m going to have to find Mt. Olympus by the time I’m 30.

My answer to both questions is, yes, but not all is lost. I think that I do tend to remember the rosy memories, and to forget the exhaustion that I felt after spending three nights in an airport, and that I made friends because I was desperate and miserable, not because I was surrounded by beautiful, amazing people. I made the experience that I wanted to have. Because of this, I expect every experience to be incredible, and forget the hard work that I put into it to make it incredible.

Thus, I have vowed that I will make this trip just as incredible as that first one. I will push my comfort zones, and I will make new friends, and I will find that adrenaline rush, hopefully all without missing three flights in a row and losing all my luggage. The experience was of my own creation two summers ago, and it will be of my own creation this year, as well.

Winetasting is one of my favorite activities. Perhaps this is because I grew up with wine- my father works for a wine distribution company and my childhood was peppered with his tastings and winery visits. Wine is an art, an expression of culture and agriculture, the past and the present, the land and the winemaker.

Two summers ago, my high school best friend and I backpacked through Italy. We did not have a plan, but met in Rome with the vague intention of working our way either north, to Cinque Terre, or south, to the Amalfi Coast. Since Cinque Terre offered more stopping points along the way, we took that route, and only realized that we were in Chianti after a few days in Siena. Since both of us are lovers of vino, we decided that we should make an effort to taste. I emailed my dad, with the hope that he would respond with a list of winemakers who would love to take us on a tour, but was met with the sad response that all of his connections were at the beach, as it was August after all, and really, isn’t that where we should be?

On a whim, I emailed a woman I’d worked for the previous summer, one of the Senior VPs of the company (and also, coincidentally, a Wellesley woman!), and we found this approach far more successful. On our last night in Siena, I got a call with details of what bus to take from Florence, and the promise that he, Tim, the winemaker, would be there to pick us up.

We made our way north to Florence, and then hopped on a local bus. Although the bus was filled with the sort of local color you expect, and stopped every five minutes, the hour-long journey itself was so beautiful, it seemed photoshopped.

The winemaker was indeed there to pick us up, and he was the sort of big-hearted, fatherly American that any travel-weary 21-year old would be thrilled to see. He drove us to the winery, Il Molino di Grace, (which literally means “Windmill of Grace”), regaling us with tales of living in Panzano as a transplant American, the history of the hundreds-year old vines, the Etruscan paths that run through the property.

We finally reached the winery, full of the sort of rustic beauty that you expect in Tuscany, and began our tour, including the barrel and tasting rooms. I’ve always loved barrel rooms, but this one was truly fantastic, long and dark, reminiscent of the history that Tim had told us about.

I’m not sure how many wines we opened that day, but the Sangioveses and Chianti Classicos flowed freely. Tim took us back to the bus stop, where we wandered the tiny village, and wondered what other gems we were missing out on because they were not large enough to have their own hostel, for Greve in Chianti was truly one of the most charming towns I have ever visited.

There are many ways to travel; from the five-star hotel to the inter-city campsite, every person has their own style. While I don’t mind sharing a room with five or six relative strangers, I found out very quickly that the rating and cleanliness of a hostel say very little about the hostel experience.

I won’t begin with the bad stories (not that I have any horror stories- just that I’ll save some of the spicier for later) but rather with my favorite hostel, Ivan Hoe. Hostel Ivan Hoe is located right in the middle of Rome, squirreled away in a typical cobble-stoned alleyway, a few blocks away from the Coliseum, and a two minute walk from the metro stop. The funny thing about this hostel is that it has few of the qualities that comprise a “good” hostel experience; there were a very few, very insecure personal lockers, the beds were almost certainly infested with bed bugs, the breakfast was not free, and there was a five-hour lock-out, from 11 am to 4 pm (the hottest, most miserable part of the day in a Roman summer), every day.

However, for some odd reason, this hostel was the highlight of our trip. Maybe the brightly colored walls made the hostel more homey than the white-wall-and-linoleum sterility that you find elsewhere. Perhaps because of the lockout we were forced to explore (and enjoy) the city more, and because of the tiny, cramped bedrooms, everyone congregated in the kitchen and living room areas, sharing in the preparation and enjoyment of food, because hiding in your room simply wasn’t an option. (Or it certainly was not an enjoyable one)

While I was there, I made friends from all over the globe, discovered that I love cornichons, and learned how to make chicken marsala and use an Italian espresso maker. We wandered the city by night, taking in monuments and statues over wine or gelato, joining the other young people in the Trastevere, and generally, wreaking as much havoc as possible. Although Hostel Ivan Hoe was not sterile, was hardly even trustworthy, it set my standards for the hosteling experience.

Lessons learned: pay attention to ratings when booking your trip, but, more importantly, read the reviews, because amenities account for a minuscule part of the journey.

I distinctly remember my first international trip. This is, perhaps, because it was only two years ago. However, those first few days will be imprinted on my memory, probably forever.

I’m pretty sure that my shouts of excitement upon being accepted as a Caux intern shook my house; I studied International Relations at Wellesley, yet had never actually done anything international (though any Californian who goes to college in Massachusetts might tell you that the east coast is basically a different world). This was my chance. This was it. It was the only internship that I’d applied to the Spring semester of my Junior year, and I still think it’s pretty cosmic that it worked out. The rest of that semester passed in a blaze of excitement and sunshine. As my start date loomed nearer, however, I began to develop nerves. I didn’t want to leave California for July and August! Why would I leave my family, my job lifeguarding, my friends who I only saw during the summers, to pursue some internship that sounded less and less legitimate the more I tried to research it? Seven weeks out of the country, and no promise that I’d have a friend?

My nerves had reached an all-time high the night before I was due to leave. What if I got lost? What if there wasn’t actually an internship waiting? What if I lost my bag?? What if it was some weird cult trying to abduct me?? I met a friend of a friend for a glass of wine my last night in California, and his insistence upon the glory of travel, the amazing sights I had in store, the wonders of Switzerland, Italy, and London quelled my anxiety. I took this as a good omen, and awoke the morning of my flight excited, exhilarated. I arrived at LAX hours early. The line for security did take an hour, but the good signs continued, as I made friends in line with two middle-aged women, one of which, it turns out, was actually an actress. Only in LA, I thought.

Everything was going to well; I got through security without being searched or interrogated, and arrived at my gate. The time for my flight came and went; apparently, the plane bound for Atlanta wasn’t leaving, after all. I was worried but not panicked, and Delta sent me to AirFrance. I exited security, walked all the way across LAX, and arrived at AirFrance, only to be told that they had just closed the door, and didn’t Delta know that you had to be on board at least an hour early for an international flight?

They sent me back to Delta. After an hour of talking to an idiotic customer service representative, and repeatedly bursting into tears, I came across a woman who finally got me on a flight to Geneva, via Paris. At this point, it was 4 in the afternoon. I’d been at LAX since 9 am, had been awake since 5, and my flight wasn’t due to leave until midnight. Midnight came and went, and there was no plane. Finally, at 1.30, never feeling so exhausted in my life, I boarded my flight to Atlanta. Since my first flight was late, every subsequent flight was late, and I ended up spending nearly three days and two nights in airports and on planes. I left on a Friday and was supposed to spend Saturday night in Geneva, arriving in Caux on Sunday. Instead, I barely made it to Caux by Sunday afternoon. My bag was lost, of course. I missed every single flight that had been booked, and was thankful that I’d remembered to pack a spare dress, pajamas and deodorant in my carry-on.

When I finally arrived in Switzerland, I thought I surely must be delirious from exhaustion. The train that took me from Geneva to Montreux, and then on to Caux, passed the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Alps reared almost directly from the lake, covered in terraced, mountain vineyards. Colors that I did not know occurred in nature surrounded me, the pure blue of the sky, the amazing teal of the lake, the bright green and purple of the Alps. And the buildings, the architecture — I felt like I was in Disneyland, but suddenly, I knew that I was seeing what all our architecture attempts to re-create, for these Swiss buildings had an air of authenticity that I hadn’t even noticed was missing in California. Flags of different countries waved out of windows and on balconies, showing support for the teams of the world cup.

The final train ride to Caux was probably the most exhilarating, and terrifying, of all. The tiny train, multi-colored and open-windowed, like one of those kiddy rollercoasters at Disneyland, snaked its way up the mountain, stopping at tiny villages, crossing wooded waterfalls, revealing the cow-dotted landscape that one sees on advertisements for cheese, milk, chocolate. In my exhaustion and jetlag, I thought the altitude would make me sick, turning my stomach, making me dizzy.

Finally, after three flights, one lakeside train ride, and twenty-two minutes of heart-stopping, stomach-churning mountain train, I arrived at my destination. Undoubtedly the exhaustion intensified the reception, but to this day, I am certain that Caux, Switzerland, is one of the most beautiful and magical places on this earth. As one of the coordinators showed me to my room (which, incidentally, was in an 8th floor tower, from which I could see two castles, Lake Geneva, and the mountains on the Evian label), I realized that I was living my dream. I’d finally gotten here. My luggage arrived the next day, and the rest of my travels that summer went off without a hitch. The horror of those first few days quickly wore off as the excitement of the adventures ahead took over.

Lessons learned: arrive well-rested, pack necessities in your carry-on, and always know the next address where you are staying!