I recently watched Life Is Beautiful again. This Italian movie won an Oscar some years back – and watching it took me back to my first real overseas trip. In 1997, at the tender age of 14, I got the opportunity to visit Italy. Those days there was no TripAdvisor or Google to rely on and no Instagram account to follow. All I really had as a reference were some outdated encyclopedias, Italian restaurants and pizza shops. Travelling was also very different in the ’90s. Unlike today, going overseas was an event.
My whole extended family came to the airport dressed to the nines. Photos were taken. Spending-money was passed on. I was hugged and kissed so tight you’d swear I was never coming back. Forget Emirates and Etihad, back in the 90s people flew direct. So there I was on my Alitalia flight, Walkman and tapes in hand.
Watching movies was an experience because you often had to strain your neck to look at the solitary three screens that dropped from the plane roof and were meant for the whole aisle to watch. Movies were scheduled; you couldn’t just pick and choose. I was horrified to find my only entertainment was three films I had seen before.
There is a certain feeling that all travellers will connect with: that feeling when you land in a different country for the first time and all your blinkers fall off. You realise there is a whole new world out there and how vast the world actually is. I mean, you know it’s there but it’s different when you actually arrive. Taking a train and a bus were new experiences for me.
Seeing Italians looking sharp and chic and vigorously communicating with their hands as much as their mouths was something to behold. I consider it just my luck that I happened to visit before the advent of the euro. The lira was a charming little currency that was only three times stronger than the rand. Very manageable indeed. What followed the next few weeks was like a vivid dream. Seeing all the ancient Roman monuments, the cobbled streets, the fountains and the culture made me realise that the TV wasn’t actually lying.
These things were real! The pope was real too. I saw him at an audience in Vatican City – a city that is actually its own separate country. I also saw too much breathtaking art to mention. The Ninja Turtles were actual human artists. They were really good, too. To describe each place in detail would need a month’s worth of columns on their own. I ate the pizza. I ate the ice cream (gelato). I saw the people zipping past on their Vespas and engaging in conversations with each other while driving. I took photos at all those fashion houses.
You took pictures, praying they would come out alright when you had them developed at the photo shop back home. And then it was all over. With a suitcase full of souvenirs for everyone back home I knew one thing for sure: I couldn’t wait to travel … again!