Cutting back on my itinerary during my Italian vacation showed me that doing less is better. But it didn’t stop there: Venice taught me the importance of abandoning old roles and just being myself.
It’s ironic that a city synonymous with overtourism and excess gave me a fresh understanding of minimalism and travel.
But sometimes you’ve got to experience such excess to realize you’ve had enough. And that no sweeping views of the Canal Grande are worth pushing through the selfie stick crowds and stalls of plastic Venetian masks.
Somewhere on a rain-drenched railway station, after I’d run to a nearby shop to get change for the ticket machine and missed my train into Venice anyways, I realize I don’t want the whirlwind Italian vacation to impress friends back home.
I just want a break. Maybe I’m getting old? I’ve already seen Florence and Rome, and I mostly remember many cold churches and one very persistent male harasser.
Though Venice isn’t an obvious choice for a quiet getaway. But I arrive on a business trip and decide to extend my stay for a few days. And I decide to stay put.
Minimalism and travel
Inescapable crowds fill the city even in the gloomy days of November, when heavy rainfall at night blurs the line between solid ground and the dark waters of the Adriatic.
The crowds set out in the early mornings pumping tirelessly into Piazza San Marco, past pizzarias and ominous cruise ships that loom stories high.
I join them on my first day. But claustrophobia soon has me looking for a side street to catch my breath. I sit in a small courtyard and have some soda, spotting some local graffiti saying “No Grandi Navi” and a man coming home with groceries.
Once recovered, I re-join the crowds with renewed enthusiasm. But my breaks on the side streets grow more frequent. Eventually I decide to stay off the main streets entirely.
Because even a block away from the Canal Grande, the city is so quiet it feels like you’re trespassing.
I see a woman having a conversation with her neighbor from across their balconies as they hang laundry. I see two couples walking together pushing two strollers. All of this against a backdrop of terracotta plant pots spilling from tiny balconies, and streets where the sidewalk cuts off abruptly at a line of sea water.
I begin to think I’ve discovered a secret. And I wonder why so few tourists are around while the majority keep heaving towards the piazza.
But sometimes crowds aren’t a good indication of anything besides more crowds – or a good marketing strategy.
This rings true whether you’re exploring a major Italian tourist attraction, buying your next smart phone or questioning your ultimate purpose in life.
It must be human instinct to be drawn to that warm humanity of crowds – and they are hard to resist. Walk through an old market in Cairo and you can’t help wandering over to the stall with the longest line. Surely that spice vendor must have something worth the hype.
But if you take a few steps off that main road, you’ll be dumbfounded at how beautiful it is to carve out your own itinerary.
When I return from Venice back home to Cairo, I begin to question what else I don’t need – and I begin to draw links between minimalism and travel.
I decide to clean my room, as I often do after returning home from a long trip. It’s when things fall into perspective and I can view my surroundings more objectively.
I donate a pile of cardigans I’d never worn, and a few books I had no intention of reading.
I gain some extra storage space. But my biggest gain is freedom.
I no longer play the role of a stylish dresser. I no longer play the role of an eclectic reader of thick non-fiction books.
I’m making peace with who I am – no longer defined by what I own or where I’ve been.
One night over cocktails, a friend asks why I’d spent my entire vacation in Venice without going into Rome (but the pizza!) or Florence. I’d been looking forward to sharing my trip but instead she changes the subject, disappointed in my lack of a good yarn.