Back in the last century, I loved camping; I loved the economy of it. Being a minimalist is a welcome lifestyle, even if only temporary. I never went camping for a full month until I came to Italy.
Picking a Site
“Let’s go camping!” a friend would say, and I’d be ready. Once we’d picked the target location for a camping adventure, the exciting inevitability of my trip would set in. For the specific campsite, I’d choose a place as far away from others as I could get, even if it meant I was far away from helpful facilities. Back then, my efficient housing was a cozy but comfortable tent, and I mastered the 3-4 minute shower as well as meal preparation with very little equipment. I simply didn’t need a larger home or a fully functional kitchen, and I usually couldn’t spring for a hotel room. The campsite was only the place for eating and sleeping anyway; each day, I’d hike for miles and miles, thoroughly celebrating each day’s mileage long before any devices tracked my steps, and I’d crash at the end of the long day
Last fall, my boss and the EKU Education Abroad folks asked, “Do you want to teach a class abroad?” No brainer! Within weeks, I started looking for an apartment in Florence in eager anticipation of teaching abroad. I looked at a few possibilities on AirBnB but returned to the first hit in the search results as my choice. My studio is about 185 square feet—small house living, for sure—and is in Oltrarno—the “other” side of the river, quite a way from the school for introversion’s sake. The other benefit to my location is the exercise: my FitBit usually hits 12K steps/day, with some days well over 20K.
I loved the preparation of camping, including packing a minimal amount of strategically selected, comfortable clothing along with a few toiletries and a liberal collection of bug spray, band-aids, sunscreen, and baby wipes. Showering was rare unless I’d resorted to an official campground with a facility where showers cost a few dollars and lasted maybe five minutes. If a piece of necessary clothing got especially dirty, I’d soak it in a sink or a pot, then hang it to dry outside; I never minded the stiffness of clothesline-dried fabric.
Since my daily schedule is usually 8:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m., I don’t need many creature comforts. My studio has no air conditioning, no kitchen, no laundry facilities. I do have an espresso maker, a toaster, and a cup-sized hot plate along with a refrigerator that ismore like an electric cooler. Three weeks in, after fighting vicious zanzari every night, I’ve had to replenish my supply of bug spray, and I brought just enough sunscreen and baby wipes. The hot water in the studio shower typically lasts for the length of one song on my phone’s music app, and because of my body’s lasting memory of camping, I remembered my showering method: turn on the water long enough to get wet, then turn it off, lather, and turn the water back on to rinse. I’ve washed my clothes in the tiny bathroom sink and hung them to dry on thick clothesline cables under my window, though last weekend I gave in and trekked to a laundromat.
Unless I was doing true wilderness camping, I’d hear the other campers—often drunk and boisterous—until long after midnight. Sometimes I’d hear an acoustic guitar or a harmonica. 1970s harmony rock seemed the campfire playlist of acoustic musicians in the southeast, or if my temporary neighbors brought their chunky “boom boxes,” I’d cram my earplugs into my ears and rely on my dog to alert me to any intruders. I could far more easily tolerate loud children in the daylight hours than their adult counterparts late into the evening.
In Florence, I can hear the lively locals from my second-floor studio, usually playing 1970s disco or country and loudly talking to each other in fast, slurred Italian. The bells of Santo Spirito ring me alert in the mornings. When I’m out and about, I hear street musicians on various instruments, ranging from the frequent accordion to trumpets to flutes. Nearing the month’s end, I have used my earplugs only once; I delight in the sounds of this culture.
While camping, I was unreachable; it would be a decade until I had my first cell phone. And Internet? Even when I had access to the web at home, it was via my clunky desktop Mac (then quite state of the art) and a telephone cord. Blissfully disconnected from the world!
In my studio, the Internet, on its better days, holds a weak signal, never enough to upload a photo or a video or to watch anything streaming. After racking up data overages on my phone plan and learning my way around Florence, I rely on wifi in cafes or at the school. I am celebrating the lack of connectivity.
Dog Is Love
When I travel, a dog (or three) is with me. When I camped, I brought my beloved Daphne, who loved me almost as much as she loved the woods.
I didn’t bring Scout on the plane with me and can’t fathom the idea of putting her in a plane’s underbelly surrounded by darkness and scary luggage, but I miss all three of my canine pack members. However, dogs are everywhere in Florence! I see the big dogs out with their humans in the mornings, while mostly Pugs, Corgis, and purse dogs prance around in the afternoons and evenings. Dogs go into stores and sit under the table while their humans dine. All of them bark in Italian.
Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Camping, even when it’s in a familiar or repeated location, is never the same as a previous trip. Even when I went too far off the trail and got lost, camping was always a treat for me, an escape from the ordinary stress and demands of life.
I am hoping Florence is a return location for me, despite the number of times my map has misled me—or, more truthfully, when a beautiful sculpture or a market or a store window distracts me away from my route. Upon returning from this most extraordinary camping trip to the ordinary States–that is, after I’ve taken a luxurious shower, cooked a meal with more pots and pans that will fit on my stove, washed AND dried my travel clothing, and slept in air-conditioned silence for a bit, my goal is to do some gardening: specifically, to plant a seed in my family for a new zip code on the other side of the river and world.