In all honesty, I have never considered myself to be much of a traveler. Growing up, it was not something that was all that accentuated. Instead, the emphasis revolved around appreciating what you had locally. It was all about community. Because of this, I never really had a travel/destination bucket list.
During my college days, I founded a local non-profit that focused on the promotion of Italian American heritage and culture. This combined with being an elected official, it was a common for me to serve on a variety of Italian themed committees. One day, to my surprise, my university’s foreign affairs office asked me to sign-up for a three-week educational trip across Italy. Not only would I receive college credits, but I would first handily be promoting the exchange program that my committee oversees and funds. This was an incredible opportunity in so many ways, but most importantly as an Italian American, it allowed me to experience my heritage and culture like never before. Needless to say, I happily accepted this opportunity as this was really a no brainer!
As I previously mentioned, the thought of traveling did not bring me glee. To be honest, I had was petrified of winding up framed like Amanda Knox!
Fast forward to the day of departure, to help calm myself I arrived early to the international airport in Chicago. Nope. Right away, my hesitation to travel proved to be alive and well. Due to a mechanical issue, our plane was delayed. Being that we had to transfer in New York onto an Air Italia plane in just a few hours, things started to look grim. And to be honest, I was secretly relieved.
However, the airline (and I must give a shout out to United Airlines staff here) found a solution: Half of our group would take a short flight to Detroit, transfer somewhere else (I cannot remember the exact location), and then arrive in Rome only two hours after originally scheduled to. The other half (my group) would be able to just squeeze into a plane immediately and make it to JFK in New York as originally planned.
In an instant I went from relief to sprinting through the airport, sweating so much that I triggered the TSA alarm, had to be hand-checked, and patted down. Thankfully, the departing plane was aware of the situation so, they held the plane for us. Buckle up, the flight is just getting started. There was a slight catch to this wonderful last-minute arrangement: Between the expected arrival time in New York and the departure time for Rome, we would have less than 30 minutes to switch planes.
Thankfully, the airline staff (another shoutout to United’s stewardesses) were aware of the situation and let us deboard first, security officers were waiting to escort us via golf cart-like carts through the inside of the airport, outside the airport, and then directly to the TSA check. After explaining the situation, much to my surprise, our group was directed to the front of the TSA line - with no complaints from the other travelers.
Thankfully, I was not too sweaty this time, we cleared security, and started another mad dash to the gate. Arriving fashionably late (15 minutes past last call) to boarding we were feeling uneasy. To our surprise, not only we were greeted warmly by the waiting airline staff, but when we walked onto the plane, we actually received an applause from the passengers! Not sure about the rest of the group, but I was stunned and slightly embarrassed.
Shortly after getting settled into our seats we found out that the pilot or stewardesses announced the situation to all the waiting passengers. Since, we were students going on an educational trip, the passengers were more than understanding. What Air Italia lacks in food quality, they make up for in service!
It sure was a wild time getting there, but we eventually landed safely in Rome. Even this non-traveler could not help but lose his breath and marvel at where I was. Funny enough, the other group ended up arriving early and were waiting for us, baggage collected and all. As we were waiting for our luggage, we all caught up and laughed over journey thus far. There was so much laughing, we hardly notice that 20 minutes had passed by. Then 30 minutes and 40 minutes. Suddenly, it became apparent that we were the only ones left. Yup, that is right. After several phone calls it was confirmed to us that our luggage was safe and sound - in New York City! That is when the laughing stopped.
Fast forward again. This story is not one about touring Italy. Yes, it was beyond magnificent. Yes, the food was magical. Yes, I scratched my history-buff itch. Yes, many more laughs were had and even our luggage arrived slightly earlier than we were told on the second day there. And yes, we made it home safe and sound with absolutely no more airport drama or surprise hurdles (and I did not wind up like Amanda Knox!).
Instead, I wanted to share the impact it has had on me. In addition to the obvious special experience, educational benefits, and life-time friends made, it also carved countless new and forever memories in my heart. I will never forget the kindness of the United Airlines Staff. The shared excitement the Air Italia and fellow Rome travelers felt for us students. The hospitality of the hotel staff, transporters, and native Italian citizens. The pure warmth and generosity of a random receptionist named Lorrena at some business just outside of Rome, who let me use her personal cell phone when mine was not working to call home and check on a sick loved one. All of this, the purity of fellow man - albeit thousands of miles away and being complete strangers - to this day tickles my heart and brings a bright smile to my face. And yes, plenty of laughs.
Ultimately, this crazy trip that I didn’t even want to go on in the first place engraved in me a reminder to appreciate the little things, embrace adversity, and to always strive to be as kind, generous, and welcoming to others - just like all of those random strangers along the way were to us.
Beyond glad to have gone on this trip. I am eternally grateful to those that worked so hard to convince me to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and since then this newfound travel enthusiast has crossed a few places off of his travel “bucket list” and cannot wait until his next one!