One of the most important things I’ve learned the hard way about traveling is the importance of packing light. This doesn’t have to mean being a “minimalist;” it’s just about knowing yourself and your goals. After lugging a 50 lb suitcase, carry-on, and large backpack up several flights of steps in a crowded subway and wiping sweat and tears off my face, I’ve decided to put an end to it. Yes, I’m materialistic, and I love the comfort my stuff brings me, but what I’m beginning to love even more is the freedom of not having to deal with the weight of all the little trinkets and items I deemed necessary to pack. I like the excitement of discovering alternatives and solutions that another country has to the things I need. With enough foresight, I can leave something at home to give me a lighter pack or make space for something new.
On my first solo trips, I had the mentality that I wanted to bring my life from home to the place I was traveling out of anxiety for the unknown – so naturally, I thought it would be better to pack more than less. This ended up being a hindrance to me because I brought too many things I didn’t even use, I didn’t have enough space to take home all the things I bought while there, and it stopped me from learning about and enjoying unique aspects of the culture. For example, Italy uses grams as a measurement for cooking and has slightly different food options in the grocery store compared to what you might find in the U.S. As someone who enjoys cooking, I thought it would be smart to bring my own measuring cups, since I thought it would be easier for me when making my favorite recipes. But bringing my own system of doing things into a country that had another, ended up being a waste of time and space. Italy doesn’t have all the same exact food stocked in stores, so I had to let go of some of the recipes I had planned to look for alternatives. Most of the recipes I found online were in grams anyway, as the searches were based in Italy, and it took a while to translate grams to cups. Not to mention the fact that Italy is known for its cooking, so it’s only natural they would have everything needed to make a tasty dish. In the end, I almost never used the cup measurers, and when packing my bags to come home I had to leave them in Italy to make room for some other things I bought.
Still, it’s important when in an unfamiliar place to have things that remind you of yourself and where you come from to help cope with homesickness. The first thing I like to think about when packing is my values: which parts of my daily routine and activities are most important to me? Running, cooking, photography? Which ones am I planning to continue pursuing while I’m there? As someone who enjoys cooking as a way to take off stress, something I can do is research regional recipes typical in my host city, or the plants and food native and offered in the country, thus allowing me a much easier and stress-free time in the grocery store. On days when I really need a pick-me-up, perhaps there’s a Castroni, or international food market that might have the food I’m craving.
It’s important to research how I can continue those daily routines, and favorite activities in the place I’m staying. Likely most if not all of them can still be achievable, since Italy is, after all, a Western country that shares many of the same viewpoints and values that I am used to. Yet every place is unique, so some aspects of the culture may still feel different. I like to look into the specific city or area I’ll be staying in: Is it known for its fashion houses and boutiques? Maybe it’s known for its panoramic views and trails that are perfect for runners and nature lovers. Maybe it has places to develop film and photography stores. Once I have a general understanding of what’s there, I can start mapping out my stay, planning activities, and making a list of things I can do there to help me feel a part of that culture, yet still grounded in my own.
When packing it’s important to be intentional about bringing the things I need to succeed and have an enjoyable time. Understand what the country has to offer, and double-check things like medications and equipment. In the end, even with all the planning that will go into preparing for my program, things will still go unexpectedly at times as I make room for the new experiences I want to remember and carry with me.