I remember when I first learned the meaning of the word community. My grade school teacher instructed the class to draw a circle on a piece of paper. Then she told us that our neighborhood was our community, our circle. We each belonged to our own community, while other people belonged to different ones. When I asked the teacher if I could belong to more than one community, she said no, I could not. My friends and I looked at each other sadly. Not one of us lived in the same neighborhood and according to our teacher that meant we didn’t belong to the same community.
Today, I doubt if anyone would define the word community in such narrow terms. We may have a community that looks much more like a Jackson Pollock painting, with dots and splashes of color all over the globe rather than a simple, isolated circle on a child’s paper.
So when I set out with my daughter on a European trip, I wanted her to experience what dedicated, globetrotters already know: our community is as big as we want it to be, and we really can belong anywhere. Staying at airbnb’s seemed like a natural fit.
“Aren’t you nervous about staying with strangers?” my friends asked me. I had to admit that I was and I scoured the airbnb website looking for places that came highly recommended by others who had already been there. I chose locations that were close to the sights we wanted to see. I also looked for amenities like kitchens, washing machines and WiFi.
When I finally made my choices and requested bookings, the hosts and I emailed back and forth several times. Some of them asked me questions about who I was and why I was traveling and I had lots of questions for them too.
Our first stop was Vancouver and we spent one night in Chan’s Richmond home with its immaculate en suite rooms. Chan was a charming host and we enjoyed several conversations with him at his kitchen table. Pleasant encounters like this one were repeated many times with other hosts.
In Dubrovnik, our host, Maro came to meet us at the Pile gate and helped us carry our luggage. We stayed in his ‘sweet, modern studio’ in what had been his grandmother’s home in the center of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It turned out to be a perfect location to explore the city and Maro and his sister, Kate were the perfect hosts, giving us great advice on restaurants and sightseeing.
In Venice we stayed at ‘BnB Vale’. This bnb is one of my favorites as it is located in a Venetian palace right on the Grand Canal and is close to all the sights. The palace is an elegant building with marble staircases and fresco paintings on the walls. We even had our own terrace and boat landing right on the canal. Valeria, our host was a wonderful person with a generous, lovely spirit. She served us a delicious breakfast each morning and when we lost a passport she helped us fill out the police report. We couldn’t have done it without her!
Our pleasant, two-bedroom apartment in Verona was the largest bnb we stayed in. Our host, Andrea calls his bnb, ‘Maria Callas’ in honor of the opera festival where Maria Callas made her debut. It’s a five-minute walk to the Roman arena where the festival is held each summer. It’s also an easy walk to Juliet’s House and other sights in Verona.
Next we stayed in Marco’s ‘comfy flat in the center of Milan’. Marco even came to get us at the subway stop when we got lost and he helped us with our bags. The apartment was very comfortable and within walking distance of Milan’s Gothic Cathedral and city center. It also had something that I quickly learned was a novelty, an elevator!
Silvia’s ‘Da Baranin BnB’ in Cinque Terre was worth the climb, but then everything in Cinque Terre is uphill! Da Baranin BnB has lovely views, private patios, nice rooms and a fantastic breakfast with homemade cakes and excellent coffee. Top it all off with a helpful staff and it made for a wonderful stay.
The most adventurous place we rented was in Florence. It was Noel’s artist studio with a beautiful, rooftop view of the Duomo. The studio is in a five-hundred-year-old building that must have been newly constructed when Leonardo was painting his masterpieces. This bnb is not for the faint-hearted, (think camping in the middle of Florence). The studio is up six flights of stairs, the floors are dusty from the plaster walls and the bathroom is tiny. It is however, very charming and historic (the kitchen sink is a roughed-out stone slab) and the view is breathtaking. Oh yes, remember to bring your own towels.
In Paris we stayed in Gilles’ ‘flat in the heart of Le Marais’. This location could not be more picturesque and convenient. We loved Gilles’ compact and efficient studio with its exposed beams and winding staircase. Our window looked down on the cobblestone courtyard with its wide doors leading out to the street. Originally the doors were built large enough to allow for the carriages of the aristocratic noblemen who lived in this neighborhood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In London we stayed in two different places and the experiences were completely different. Manthe’s Chelsea studio was much nicer but Glenn’s private room with a shared bath in Soho was a better location. The Book of Mormon was at the Prince of Wales Theater just around the corner and it was a two-minute walk to Piccadilly Station. I was initially nervous about sharing a bathroom with strangers but it turned out fine. Be forewarned, the water didn’t always work well in the mornings.
At the end of the day, did we have any negative experiences or safety issues with airbnb? Not one. Would I stay with airbnb again? Absolutely. What I learned was that while the locations and amenities of airbnbs are important, the most important thing by far are the people, the hosts who made us feel right at home. We experienced firsthand that we weren’t just renting a room. We were making local connections, making true friends and expanding our community one bnb at a time.
After many years of dreaming about it, my daughter and I finally take a summer trip to Europe together. For months, this trip has been all I could think about. Along with trying to stuff as many things as possible into a tiny suitcase, I try to cram as many cities and events into our schedule as possible. At some point though, I did stop and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we travel? Why pull ourselves away from the comforts of home and familiar habits and allow ourselves to be thrown happily and sometimes recklessly into the unknown?’ On this trip, I hope to find an answer.
In Italy we are charmed by romantic Venice and we spend a lazy morning feeding the pigeons in the Piazza San Marcos. As I watch the birds surround my daughter, I can’t help but wonder how much history the thousands of generations of pigeons have witnessed. Maybe they saw Casanova escape through the roof of his prison cell or witnessed Lord Byron swim the length of the Grand Canal. They must have seen Marco Polo’s ship sail into the harbor, bringing his exotic tales from the east. Maybe they witnessed Michelangelo’s disappointment as he lost the contest to design the famous Rialto Bridge. They may have even caught a glimpse of Hemingway as he sat writing or drinking whiskey at one of the glossy, walnut tables in Harry’s Bar.
In Verona, the city that inspired Romeo and Juliet, stands a Roman Arena once used for gladiator fights and for throwing Christians to the lions. Walking down the darkened stone corridors into the belly of the Arena we can still feel the overwhelming power that was Rome. We enter the Arena in our finest clothes, just as the Romans must have done to watch their entertainments, but instead of bloody combat, we are here to watch a lavish production of the opera, Aida. Everything is larger than life here: massive, glistening, gold pyramids, blue and gold sphinxes and giant pharaohs tower over the stage with the arches of the arena lit up against the night sky. Despite the sweltering heat of summer, the emotion-filled voices singing of love and despair give me chills and bring me to tears.
Milan is a peaceful, pleasant city. Here, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is housed in what was once the Dominican monk’s dining hall of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. The price of our ticket allows us fifteen minutes. I envy the monks who saw Leonardo’s masterpiece at every meal. The painting is serene and resilient but doesn’t give up its secrets easily. As we are leaving, we learn that Leonardo da Vinci had a house and garden just next door and he lived there for twenty-three years. Now on the site of his garden, they are cultivating the variety of grapes he grew five hundred years ago. They hope to produce the very wine Leonardo drank. ‘A good reason to return to Milan,’ I think.
On our way to Florence, we find the five tiny, fishing villages known as Cinque Terre. The houses are built into the sheer rocks and cliffs with thousands of terraces of grapes and olives beyond. It’s a magical, colorful place, a good place to rest.
Finally in Florence, the rooftop terrace of our five hundred year old building, now an airbnb, offers an incredible view of Brunelleschi’s dome. The seven flights of stairs are worth the climb and I sit on the terrace at night with a bottle of wine. I’m even serenaded from the street below. One night it was carnival music, another night it was classical from a nearby concert, and on the last night it was drunken love songs sung in Italian accompanied by an equally drunk accordion player. Beyond Florence, we love Tuscany with its fields of sunflowers, rolling hills, wine tasting and food. Despite being certain that we will tire of pasta, we never do.
We take a side trip to visit beautiful Dubrovnik in Croatia. How surprised the medieval builders would be to learn that the city with its massive, sea wall and splendid views has been turned into a giant stage for the filming of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. From the battles of Blackwater Bay to Queen Cersei’s walk of atonement, the fantasies of today and the historical events of the city sometimes mirror each other. At the end of the day, there’s even a chance to sit on the Iron Throne.
From this point on our trip is mostly about art (and occasionally shopping).
We try to see it all: from Leonardo’s lovely faces to Botticelli’s fantasies, from Monet’s gardens to Cezanne’s oranges, and from Picasso’s experiments to street artists hoping someone will discover them.
In Paris we visit the rock star of the art world, Mona Lisa. After hurrying down a long corridor of ignored masterpieces, we find her surrounded by an international mob. Some tourists stand and stare at her. Others push and shove to get to the front of the crowd and take obnoxious selfies. A few pull back and look at the painting from afar. I work my way through the crowd and have a brief moment at the front before the overworked security guards, who look more like bouncers at a posh, European nightclub than museum guards, make everyone move. Some visitors refuse to budge. I can’t blame them. After all, Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s beloved creation with a thousand secrets and he carried her with him until the day he died. My daughter and I give up fighting the crowd and move to the side. Reluctantly, after an hour in her benevolent gaze, we leave.
Our trip is nearing an end and I’m beginning to understand why we travel. After five weeks on the road, we are not the same people we were when we left. Travel allows us to fill our lives with adventure. It gives us unlimited opportunities to experience a dream. We have a chance to reap the world’s riches for inspiration and return home to create something wildly different and new. We take the kindness, charm and humor of the people we meet along the way and bring the memories home with us. We leave some of ourselves behind too. And despite the money we spend, we are far richer towards the end of our travels than we were at the beginning.
We still have a few days left, so after leaving Paris, we head to London. We take in everything we can, from a five-hundred-year-old comedy at Shakespeare’s Globe to Sherlock’s fictional haunts, from the gold-encrusted gates of Buckingham Palace to Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs. And London serves to remind us that sometimes, travel is just about having as much fun as possible.