Over a decade ago, I first visited Italy. Besides the number of famous brands at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, what left a deep impression on me was the number of groups crowding around a small triangular flag each. The people carrying multiple bags with brands splattered on the sides, waiting to board coaches. After all, what could I expect? I was one of those waiting for a coach too.
On Tuesday, I saw a very different Milan. With 2 hours to spare before my train departed for Florence, I idled around Milano Centrale. There were no tour groups, or people with hands full of shopping bags. Instead, there were soldiers with their armored vehicle guarding the open area outside the station, businessmen wearing suits heading to a meeting in another city, families with children going for a trip, travelers, usually in pairs or trios, rushing for their train, and locals waiting at the station for friends, families or lovers.
I doubt Milan had changed that much. Rather, it was how I travelled that changed. In the past, I used to join tours, visiting the popular places that have been heard of internationally and often ending up with lots of free time in the shopping districts or city centers. While I was a tourist, I was not an explorer. I was comfortable with seeing what I already knew exist, experiencing it, and striking it off my bucket list. I never gained anything beyond an experience of the senses.
Nowadays, one of my favorite parts of my travels is taking the local public transport. On buses and subways, there are locals from so many walks of life. From a student going home after school to a grandmother bringing her grandson to get lunch. Each of them embodying the culture and identity of the country. Sitting in the same vehicle or carriage as these people, they are no longer just humans who happen to populate the country you are visiting, but are the physical manifestations of the culture, people who are the country. While not all encounters on public transport are pleasant, they nonetheless provide a raw, honest insight into the locals, their thoughts and lifestyle.
Yesterday, the professors brought the class for a walking tour of Florence. We took the bus to and fro Fiesole to Florence city, visiting the Santa Croce and Palazzo Vecchio. While the church and town hall were undoubtedly enthralling, the bus rides were as interesting. Cramped in a bus with locals, we were able to hear some local views of American tourists and help a local get her ticket stamped. Simply putting yourself in such a space can be fascinating.