My first “major” trip abroad was to Italy. I say “major” because even though I had been to Maldives and Sri Lanka before but visiting Italy was the first time I actually went through the visa application process. And believe me when I say getting a Schengen visa on a (blank) Indian passport does require you to jump through some hoops in terms of paperwork and planning. More on that in a later post…
My sister and I have an annual “sisters-only” trip custom and the decision to travel to Italy was born out of this yearly tradition. Why did we choose Italy is something that I have been penning since a year now and the post lies forgotten somewhere in my drafts but I have been itching to complete it soon and publish it – One Day!
Before we embarked on our trip, I read umpteen travel blogs and articles on Italy, watched numerous YouTube videos but nothing prepared us for what was to follow. *DRAMATIC BACKGROUND SCORE*
1. The visa application process is very intrusive & tedious
The first time was a shocker – no exaggeration and when I first read the list of “required” documents I actually called up my sister and asked her if we really wanted to do this! I am not kidding. If you are applying for a Schengen visa (visa for the EU) on an Indian passport or have done so in the past then you know what I am talking about.
Proof of return flights and accommodation is fathomable (though creates an unnecessary burden) but Letter of Leave from your employer, bank account statements etc are simply invasive.
And if that was not enough, the Italian Consulate General actually gave a call to my HR and my sister’s workplace to “confirm” if we really were their employees and if they knew about our travel plans *epic facepalm moment*
I promise it gets easier once you have at least one (used) Schengen visa on you Passport but the first experience is really a shocker! My husband’s first Schengen visa process (for Greece) was even more hilarious. He was asked to attend a Skype (one way video) interview with a Greek lady from the consulate general and he was asked questions like why did your wife travel to Italy the previous year without you *LOL*
2. The lack of English hit us
This was an issue and trust me when I say this will be an issue if you are traveling international for the first time and that too to a non-English speaking country like Italy or Greece. I did prepare myself with basic and common Italian words like Buongiorno, Ciao, Scusi, Mozzafiato, grazie etc but seriously nothing prepares you for the sudden bolt of loneliness when you alight from your flight and realise that you do not understand any conversation that’s happening around you. It also becomes difficult to navigate maps and public transport.
On the bright side it does get better in a couple of days for sure and you start to understand many words just from the context (human brain is wonderful!) but what really struck me was how I had started depending a lot on people’s expressions and body language to help me understand what was being spoken.
Personal Anecdote – We had just deplaned at Rome and were ushered to the immigration “area”. The queue was long, it was close to midnight and after a 14 hour journey we were exhausted and mentally not very alert when an immigration staff member said to me “Preggo“. I looked at her dumbfounded. She again repeated the word and I again just simply looked at her… She then lost her patience with me and started using a high pitch voice to keep saying “Preggo preggo preggo preggo” while wildly making hand gestures. In high school we used the word preggo as an abbreviation for pregnant and that should explain my dumbfoundedness. After a Google search (3 hours later), we realised “prego” is Italian for many things but in this context it meant – This way please!
3. We were not ready for the “lack” of population
Having lived all my life in India population has always been a constant. We are so used to seeing people (a lot of people) everywhere that when we first got off the Leonardo Express from Fiumicino airport to Roma Termini, the train station seemed deserted. It was literally as if there were just my sister and I and a couple of other people at the station and that’s it. All kinds of warning bells and articles and blog posts came to my mind that kept iterating that Italy has a high rate of petty crime involving tourists. We were scared shit but trying to keep a brave face. Any drunk person who crossed us (yes there a lots of drunks in Italy roaming about the train station), we would clutch at our handbags and peer at the person with so much hate and suspicion that I am sure many thought us to be paranoid and crazy!
It took us a few days to get used to the sparseness of the population but it really does hit you at first especially if you are from India or China 😛
This works inversely too. After a trip to Europe when you land back in Mumbai, everything feels chaotic and everyone seems to be too close to you, to be comfortable. The feeling wanes away in a day but it always happens!
4. Traffic rules even for pedestrians!
Ha ha! This is my favorite! When we crossed the street for the very first time in Rome, it was an experience! Watching people patiently wait for the pedestrian light to go green was so fascinating! Dashing across the road whenever a window of opportunity presented itself however small is what is a part of my being and now when they expect me to actually wait for a light to tell me when to cross a street, it just did not “feel” natural.
We literally had to consciously make an effort to look for the pedestrian crossing and wait with a flock of people. It happened so a couple of times when I was walking lost in thought and crossed the road the “Indian way”! Wow! The number of honks aimed at me was just downright embarrassing!
5. Water in restaurants is *not* free
This one is still baffling to me and this is something that I have witnessed not just in Italy but all over Europe! Water is not free in restaurants and it is not something that is offered unless you specifically ask for it! In India the first thing that happens when you seat yourself at a place to eat – be it a posh restaurant at a 5 star hotel or a roadside ‘dhaaba’ or even at a busy udupi restaurant, is that a server comes in with glasses and pours out free water for you even before he offers you the menu card. The flow of activities however is different in Europe.
My sister who needs water every minute of the day was baffled how people just don’t drink any water! It takes a little getting used to and now whenever I am traveling in Europe I make sure to carry my own bottle of water everywhere I go. I don’t what it is, maybe its the Indian in me but shelling out precious Euros for water is not something I can digest easily *shrugs*
Personal Anecdote – Picture this… My sister and I are seated at a gorgeous little restaurant in Florence and we order some spinach and ricotta ravioli and a pappa al pomodoro. The server asks if we’d like some wine and say yes. We also ask for some still water. After the delicious meal, we ask for the bill… Food is billed, the water is billed and the wine is free. Enough said!
6. Pets especially dogs are welcome EVERYWHERE
I love this about Europe. Man’s best friend is welcome anywhere and everywhere and it’s truly a delight to meet so many of them. My first tryst with a Bolognese was at Kiko Milano store in Florence. Imagine my delight when I realised that the cute little doggy was as interested in a mascara as I was! Dogs are everywhere in Europe – in restaurants, cafes, trains and even supermarkets.
What was your first experience like when visiting a country or a region very different from where you live?