Exploring Italy on Two Wheels: My Study Abroad Adventure Part 6
Once I completed my incredible time-consuming detour, I continued my journey towards Amalfi with the sun rapidly setting in the distance (much to my disdain). I passed some street food that smelled mouth-watering, so I grabbed a bite too.
I prepared to bike the remainder of the journey along tiny roads nestled in cliffs on the water. Part of me felt terrified because, by reputation, I knew that these roads would be full of blind spots that could lead to fatal collisions with cars. Except, well, I guess I’ll never know. As I was biking on the notoriously awful roads, a momentary lapse of attention sent me into the mother of all potholes, and I immediately got two flat tires.
That was an odd moment. I realized that, as much as I wanted to complete the final leg of my biking abroad adventure, it just wasn’t a realistic option. I was tired and repairing my tires would take an extremely long amount of time. This was the end of my journey, just not where I expected it to be. Defeated, I plodded towards the nearest taxi stand to get the first available ride to the Amalfi Coast. Looking back at it now, though, I'm honestly not disappointed. If I had a choice to either do the ride as planned or get to bike up Mount Vesuvius, I’d choose Vesuvius again without a doubt. Plus, I ended up biking the same amount I planned on doing anyway, so the result was the same, maybe even harder.
When I stepped into that air-conditioned taxi, the sense of relief I experienced overshadowed any grief over my ride’s premature end. It almost felt like purgatory. Sitting in this dark, comfortable box, I found this deep catharsis debriefing both myself and my taxi driver and his son on the scale of what I just accomplished. His son repeatedly expressed how insane I was for having biked from Florence to there (and staying with strangers). I remember he asked me what I thought about Northern Italy compared to Southern Italy. (Of course) I said I liked Southern Italy better which spurred a monologue about how Northern Italians were more stuck up and didn’t have as much life and energy. Based on my experience comparing the two, there was some merit to this, but Northern Italy also seemed more developed and manicured. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
But, at last, after purgatory there are two destinations: heaven or hell. Needless to say, I had arrived at the former. That night, I sat at a restaurant with a cliff view of the Mediterranean. The real relief was who I met up with at dinner - my friends Aly, Kristen, Lara, Myles, Ryan, and Wes. For as much as I loved riding around Europe, that’s not all I did when I studied abroad. Through my CEA CAPA program I got paired up with some of the most interesting, down-to-Earth, but starkly different people I ever met in my entire life. Our friend group came from different backgrounds, parts of the U.S., and we all wanted different things in life. But even though under normal circumstances some of us never would’ve interacted or been friends. But during our semester studying abroad, our desire to see the world overshadowed any differences that would’ve separated us back home. After an unparalleled level of suffering, it was difficult to truly describe what it meant to me when I saw my big, breakfast club family again.
Since then, my life has winded down quite a bit, which is both refreshing and at times, a little sad. I’m cycling competitively for my school, focusing on my grades and jobs, and the friends I made through my program are scattered all over the U.S. At times it almost feels like it never happened, that it was a brief dream before transplanting back into the life that had hardly changed in my absence. Yet, the months I’ve spent reflecting on this trip slowly elucidated why this felt so significant for me.
Obviously, I love to bike, I wouldn’t be competing now if I didn’t. But more than that, biking was a vehicle for travel, and I don’t mean just getting from point A to B. Travel isn’t just eating gelato as the sun sets over Florence, gawking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or riding around the Amalfi Coast on a boat. Those memories are all great, but they can’t be overshadowed by those moments in the middle of nowhere where the light was just perfect, and you saw something few people have the privilege of experiencing—which could just as likely be due to familiarity as unfamiliarity. On the other hand, travel can be inherently stressful: missed trains, fatigue, unexpected housing changes, dicey detours, or flat tires.
But no matter who you are, travel, in its essence, is about connection. Physically, you’re connecting yourself to a whole new location, whether that be by bike, train, or plane. Mentally, you’re connecting your experiences and values to a place and people that could be drastically different. But the most significant, and least expected, connection I felt was the emotional one. From Adolfo to Cem, to the waiters that stayed up to feed me after my first ride, I remember all of them and am grateful for their kindness and their stories.
What sticks with me to this day, more than the pictures I took or the fading images of Italian countryside in my memory, was the feeling of genuine, unbridled joy I experienced when I finally saw my friends in Amalfi. After days of ups and downs, beauty and pain, the true satisfaction of finishing my ride was enjoying a beautiful place with the people I’d been lucky enough to befriend over the course of months of unforgettable memories. When I sat at a table surrounded by all of them, I experienced love in a pure and novel way. It was something missing in my life that I didn’t know I needed.
This trip was my favorite experience because it gave me confidence, but not just in my ability to weather an unmatched journey of twists and turns. I gained confidence that no matter where I was in the world, that I could build these relationships with people that truly loved me the same way I loved them. And after days of solitary struggle, I can’t think of a better sight than them at a table around me. Travel connects you to a place, its residents, but, somehow, I find that the most potent connection is the one with the friends and family sharing the experience with you.
Drew Laird studied abroad with CEA CAPA in Amsterdam in Spring '22.
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