The Wisdom of Ferris Bueller

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Life moves pretty fast.
If you don’t stop and
look around once in a while,
you could miss it.
— Ferris Bueller

I had a Ferris Bueller moment sitting on the steps of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. It was a sunny Sunday morning and I was on my way to the Galileo Museum. There were church bells ringing everywhere, and I had a takeout latte and pastry in my hands. As my backside touched down on the ancient stone steps, all I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Part of that luck was the fact that I’d stopped whizzing around for a moment and actually thought about where I was. By nature, I’m a frugal traveller, and so I’ll pack as much as I can into a trip, especially in a place like Florence. I’d arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities on a Friday night, and had to leave again less than 48 hours later. There wasn’t a moment to waste! Except … there was. There were lots of moments.

So I stayed on the steps a little longer than I needed to. Florentine life swirled around me: families heading to church, tourists getting lost, and itinerant street vendors laying out fake Louis Vuitton bags on blankets. It was marvellous to be a speck in that busy summertime universe.

And then I picked myself up and headed off to behold  a telescope that had once lived in the mighty hands of Galileo Galilei (known to us as Galileo). As well as having an interesting name that sounds like the Renaissance equivalent of “Obla di Obla da”, Galileo brought us the concept that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. For this groundbreaking thinking, he ended up spending nine years under house arrest, accused of heresy. La la, how the life goes on.

A sparrow in Florence helps out with my pie crumbs. Il bel far niente at its finest.

A sparrow in Florence
helps out with my pie crumbs.
Il bel far niente at its finest.

A week later, I had another Ferris Bueller moment, this time in Rome. I’d gone to see a Caravaggio painting at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo on a Saturday night. Not just any Caravaggio painting, but “The Conversion of St. Paul”. I’d fallen in love with St. Paul in 1986, in a first-year Art History class. 28 years later, we finally got to meet face to face.

When I was done, I sat down on the church steps and tapped out “I just saw the painting” to one of my nearest and dearest back in Canada. The man at the other end of the phone would squint at the incoming message and then slowly smile. He alone knew that this Caravaggio masterpiece was my single most important quest in Italy.

And then I cast my gaze over to the square that adjoins the church, called the Piazza del Popolo. It was about 7:30 PM, and the sun was starting to go down, drenching the square in beautiful golden light. Someone was playing an accordion and I could see a man making long trails of huge transparent bubbles. Small children laughed and danced around him, like he was the Pied Piper of Dish Soap. All I could think was “This is completely perfect and I am insanely lucky.”

Italians use the phrase il bel far niente to describe Ferris Bueller moments. In her landmark travel memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about il bel far niente:

This is a sweet expression. Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing.’ … even against that backdrop of heard work, il bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement.

I think Mr. Bueller was right. Life does move pretty fast. You don’t want to miss those moments. Take a picture with your heart — and tell them that Ferris sent you.

There’s No Friend Like An Old Friend

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I made my first trip to Europe. My destination was Greece. I’d pulled $100 out of every paycheque for a year, scrimped and saved, and on July 19 in the year 1989, I put myself on an Air Canada flight to Athens. Twenty-five years ago, I also met my good friend Kieran from Birmingham.

As well as my initial foray into Europe, Greece was my first encounter with the vaguely criminal nature of taxi drivers. I stumbled off the plane in Athens and into the clutches of a cabbie who charged me $50 CDN to be dropped off at a place that was nowhere near my hotel. This is a story for another time, but it’s the early catalyst for this post’s travel hacking tips.

Oh Greece, How I Loved You
Given that my introduction to Greece was taxi-generated robbery followed by culture shock (I’d never been in a non-English-speaking country), I spent the first 48 hours thinking I’d made a serious mistake.

But it got better. Much better. I had booked myself on a tour called the “Greek Island Wanderer” with a British company called Explore (they actually still run this tour) and I consider this to be — quite literally — the best money I’ve ever spent.

Once my roommate arrived, I had someone to share my culture shock with, which helped immensely. And two days later, we were on our way to the Cycladic Islands. I remember stepping off the ferry onto Syros, looking around, and thinking “Aha! Here you are!” Here, indeed, was the idyllic travel-agency-poster version of Greece that I’d been dreaming about every night for the past six months.

The Explore tour took us to all kinds of off-the-beaten-path places and left us plenty of time to roam around on our own. And even though our group spanned a very broad range of ages (and levels of sanity), we had an enormous amount of fun together. I stayed in touch with several of the wanderers, including Kieran from Birmingham, who I swapped letters and parcels with for years afterward.

Sadly, I am as good at losing contact information as I am at losing bread recipes and I fell out of touch with Kieran just before the ten-year mark. Our last contact was 1998, not long after he’d gotten married and had a little girl.

And then one morning in 2011, I opened a Facebook message that started with “Hi! You don’t know me but you know my Dad ….” It was Kieran’s daughter, now an internet-savvy teenager, and she’d located me on behalf of her father. Seriously, how cool is that?

When I planned this summer’s epic voyage to Europe, I made sure to include a side trip to Birmingham, where I got to have a joyful reunion with my old friend, and meet his wonderful wife and daughter for the first time.

Their hospitality was legendary. They let me stay with them, took me out for dinner, and didn’t worry when my still-jetlagged self slept until mid-morning. Then they showed me around Birmingham and made sure that I tasted the best sausage rolls in England. When we went to the airport, I extracted a promise from my lovely friends that they would seriously consider visiting Canada before too long.

The Lesser-Known Rewards of Travel
Travel writers will talk a lot about expanding your horizons, feeding your soul and so on. But it’s not often that travel writers talk about the friendships we make when travelling. Kieran had kept all of his photos and memorabilia from our trip around the islands, and we spent several hours roaming through the pictures, laughing, trying to remember names and dredging kooky stories out of our dusty memories.

There was Irish Michael, Crazy Joe and a couple we had nicknamed Flora and Fauna. And there was me, so hung over one morning that I forced my roommate to have breakfast on a seawall (in case I threw up), and Kieran, who’d had a sweet travel romance with a quiet girl named Mary.

Tours form themselves into a sort of temporary mini-society. You might not like everyone, but if you’re lucky (and I always have been), you’ll leave your tour with warm, heartfelt memories of most everybody. Such is the case with Kieran. I’m exceptionally blessed to have had the opportunity to recapture my friendship with him, and in the same space, to have had his help to reach back into a couple of weeks in my life that were absolutely magical.

Taxicab 101
And … now that I’ve made you sit through another chatty, rambling story, let’s talk taxi.

Although I’m sure they aren’t all bad people, cab drivers have a universally bad reputation. In general, I’m pretty cautious with them and these are my tips for handling taxis when you’re travelling:

  • The first rule of Taxi Club is don’t take taxis. Seriously. You learn a lot about a city when you’re walking through it, or using its public transit system. Save your money for exotic local food, exotic local drinks and wacky souvenirs.
  • And if you have to take a taxi, ask. If you’re going to or coming from a hotel or a hostel, ask about fares before you flag down or call the taxi. Staff will usually know the rough fare between their location and common destinations like airports and train stations.
  • The second rule of Taxi Club: when your cab arrives, ask what the fare will be before you get into the car. If there’s a discrepancy, point out that your hotel says that the fare should only be “X” dollars. The cab driver will always argue, but my experience is that this exchange alone seems to curb the impulse to run up the meter.
  • Unless you’re hauling huge suitcases, keep your luggage with you and get into the back seat of the cab.
  • And if there’s a serious dispute, have the driver stop the car. Then get out with your bags and tell the driver to wait while you find a police officer.
    (***Note that this is a very drastic move, and one that I recommend only be undertaken in broad daylight and a well-populated area, only if the driver is attempting an extreme rip-off, and only if you feel that you can do it safely.)
  • Make sure that you’re being dropped off at your actual destination before you pay (see the introduction to this post).
  • And finally, just accept that a less-than-honest taxi trip will happen from time to time. This summer, I think I got slightly ripped off by a Roman cab driver. However, it was a fare of 10 euros including tip, and it bought me enough time to see three lesser-known Caravaggio paintings. 10 euros is about 15 dollars CDN. That’s $5 per Caravaggio. Worth it? Totally.