eavesdropping in Italian cafes

Sometimes I imagine I am someone else.

This is why we travel, isn’t it? Or, one of the reasons, I suppose. To see what it would be like to have been born some place other, to imagine how our lives would have unfolded had our parents not shared an elevator in their college dorm that night or worked that one odd job that brought the peripheries of their lives together.

This is not the kind of travel where you clamber, shuffling behind sunburned men in Hawaiian shirts and Crocs, onto a tour bus to listen to some bored lady with plastic red lipstick repeat the same list of fifteen “fun facts” about a place.

This is not the kind of travel where you spend hours in your hotel flipping through room service menus, or the type where you have a checklist of must-sees informed by Yelp reviews.

This is the kind of travel that changes you.

This is the kind of travel that is described as an adventure rather than a vacation. The kind that breaks your heart and rebuilds it, the kind that leaves you reluctant to return to your day-to-day because you realize how much there is yet to explore, how deep the veins of a culture run that you might follow and learn from.

This is the kind of travel with one rule: you must become the observer. The eavesdropper, if you will. The listener.

When you travel of course there are the experiences you will have with others, the people you will meet who will shuffle your thoughts and shift your perspectives. There are people who will bring out sides of you that you weren’t even aware of, people who will teach you about yourself and the world in ways you will not be able to imagine until you’ve arrived in that moment.

But I want to talk about the privilege you have as a traveler to become an observer. It’s as close as you will ever be to knowing what it would be like to live as someone else, to catch a glimpse of that parallel life that might have existed for you had a certain set of circumstances not occurred.

There is freedom in travel because no one knows you here. Your name, your face are nothing here, unrecognized. You are anonymous and in anonymity there is freedom. This is the perfect chance to step into someone else’s shoes. I’m not suggesting you go and steal someone’s identity, obviously but- imagine you are here forever, that this is your life now, starting over. Who would you be?

In Rome I wake early on a weekday and wander out to an espresso bar around the corner. I walk more slowly than the locals, still dazzled by the shades of color that shape this city, painted an eternal sunset. I gaze at rows of colorful Vespas lined up on the edge of the pavement, imagine what it would be like to fly around the city on one to get to work. People hurry past me and I wonder how it feels to live somewhere so beautiful yet to have been there so long you hardly notice.

When I open the door to the espresso bar I am instantly buried in a throng of shouting men in suits, alongside a few sharply dressed women. There are a handful of men at the bar juggling espresso machines, dirty dishes, clean ones. They are shouting words in Italian I don’t know, they are laughing as they toss espresso after espresso into white porcelain and casually fling them onto saucers, send them whisking across the counter towards their new owners and in the same motion pocket the coins they earn from each transaction.

It’s a madhouse, and I love it. In this moment I become one of them, I become another local on the way to work, I am pausing in the same place I always do in the process of starting my day, to be energized by this experience. Maybe after here I will head to my office as the editor of some fashion magazine- my surroundings make me feel like wherever I’m going, it should be glamorous and visual. Maybe after work I will go for drinks with the man who is slightly dangerous, because in this life in my head it seems I should be a bit rebellious as well.

There is an older couple standing at the bar sipping from larger coffee cups, using two forks to enjoy some kind of pastry. I cannot tell if they are locals unperturbed by the rush, or tourists like me who are used to a different kind of morning.

I see it all again at the train station, even crazier this time because everyone seems to be running late for their train. I learn that, like ordering a drink at a crowded nightclub, to get an espresso one must elbow their way to the front and shout orders at a random person holding a portafilter. You must be aggressive, you must be unafraid to ask for what you want, so in the moment I become this person, the confident traveler shouting what I think is Italian across fake marble counters in the hope that I am understood.

Later, finally, a reprieve in the form of a cafe on the ground floor of an art museum. Here I am seated next to a group of women speaking English, accented British and French but I can understand them. They discuss a friend’s marriage, their recent travels through Europe, some mutual friend they have, their careers. I want to be like these women, traveling with my friends in my thirties, forties. Working somewhere that enables me to do so. Here I imagine not myself in someone else’s shoes but myself in the future.

Maybe my life will become like the lives of these women. Maybe I will make choices that bring me around the world and back again.

Maybe, as I sit outside my favorite local coffee shop, writing on a laptop cluttered with stickers from different running companies and cities I’ve visited, there is someone walking by who is not from here, who sees me or hears me and for a moment imagines what it’s like to live where I do, in this heat and humid summer, to write and to run fast.

Eavesdropping is not a word with positive connotations. But when you travel, becoming a fly on the wall is easily one of the most intriguing ways to explore a new culture. I sit in cafes to watch and listen because coffee houses are places people tend to gather, congregate, catch up on life. I want to know what other people’s lives are like, I want to know what they discuss and think about. I want to understand how life is lived somewhere else.

Next time you find yourself overseas, listen in. You never know how the experience will change you.

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