It’s the tagline for this blog and quickly becoming the tagline for my life: Getting lost is not a waste of time.
It’s a simple thought, really. But it goes against what most people operate by. A lot of us are in a hurry. Or even if we’re not in a hurry per se, we’re on a set timeline. We have a list of things we need to see or do and an idea of when they need to be done by.
We do this without really thinking about it. Maybe we’re concerned about making a deadline or not missing the train and subconsciously checking everything off our list. And this isn’t always a bad thing — this can promote productivity, keep us focused on a goal, or help us find order in all the chaos of a busy schedule.
But sometimes we’re trying so hard to get everything finished that we forget to pay attention to what we’re actually doing.
Case in point: in the summer of 2013, I was backpacking through Europe with two relatively new friends. Prior to the trip, I wasn’t really sure how it was all going to work out.
Would we compliment each other in our habits and desires on what to do? Or would we all have different preferences of an ideal trip and bicker most of the time?
Luckily, our instincts seemed to be right about each other and we all got along just fine the majority of the time. We wanted to see the major sights but at the same time wanted an authentic, off-the-beaten-path type of experience in each city if we could manage it. But there was one day of our travels in particular which didn’t run so smoothly.
We were in Rome at the time and were set to leave the next morning for Florence. We had been there for a day and a half already but, let’s be honest, it’s actually really difficult to see all the things there are to see in Rome in two and half days. We had seen the big attractions — the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Capitoline Hill, the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums — along with other, less-common spots thanks to research and the experience Drew (one of our party) had from living abroad there in college.
But the only thing on my list, perhaps cheesy and a little predictable I know, was the Trevi Fountain. I fault Hilary Duff in the Lizzie McGuire Movie for an unrealistic expectation of what would happen after I cast my wish (Just kidding, but there is probably some truth there. I blame my ingrained ’90s kid’ tendencies).
But regardless of my reasons, that’s all I wanted to see. As long as that was checked off, everything else would be icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, it felt like fate just did not want me to go there. We had planned on going there the first day, but because of our tour time of the Sistine Chapel, we didn’t have time to stop there. Then, for one reason or another, it kept getting bumped by something else on our list. It was too far of a walk, or we needed to eat first, or this, or that.
But finally, finally, it was the nearing the end of our full second day there and it was finally decided that that’s where we were headed. It was going to be easy, too — we had been walking almost everywhere, but due to the time and being 5mi away, we were going to take a bus.
So we waited. And waited… and waited. Four buses came and went, but not ours. We waited until it had been half an hour before deciding something wasn’t right. Eventually, from talking broken Italian to a woman at the stop, we deduced that a few of the buses, including ours, weren’t running due to engine problems. She wasn’t surprised; apparently it happens a lot.
But I was determined. I resolved to walk. I didn’t care how far we had already walked that day or how hungry I already was. I was going to make it there, plain and simple.
Drew didn’t feel so inclined, so it was just Jessica and I. Our hostel was close, so he was going to go clean up and take a nap before dinner. We were going to walk there, have our moment, and try to catch a different bus back to the hostel.
But once again, fate intervened. There was a marathon or parade or something big happening on one of the major roads we had to cross in order to get there (I didn’t pay attention to what it was in my utter frustration). This added an extra mile to go around to where the Polizia said we could cross.
We walked faster — and keep in mind we were close-to-broke college students, so spending money on a cab was avoided at all costs except emergencies — until we were almost there. We had made decent time despite the setback and had just under a mile to go.
Jessica, however, needed to sit. This was the absolute last thing I was inclined to do, but I was grateful she hadn’t left me to my lonesome and tagged along, so I begrudgingly agreed. We needed to find a spot though, because we didn’t want to pay to sit at a café. On a whim, we veered off course and onto a smaller side street in the hopes there’d be some sort of wall we could hop up and rest on.
And then I saw it. A rather small and somewhat dingy sign bearing the name of a saint in front of large but modest double doors. I glanced overhead to check for a steeple (and that’s when I learned that looking up is just as important as looking around). And that told me all I needed to know. It was a church.
Jessica didn’t hesitate, scrambling in to her sanctuary to rest her aching feet. I followed more slowly behind, having just noticed something for the first time. We were completely alone.
Which, if you’ve been there, you know doesn’t happen. Especially in the middle of the summer in primetime tourist season. But yet here we were, on a little side street about to walk into what looked like a forgotten church with no one else in sight. It hit me so forcefully that I felt nervous for a moment. Were we supposed to be here? Was this allowed?
I decided to walk in.
It wasn’t the most beautiful church I had seen in Europe, or even in Rome, but it had a modest beauty that I hadn’t seen in any church in my lifetime, and haven’t encountered since.
The ceiling was covered in slightly chipped murals, there were three columns lining the far sides of the pews, the altar and tabernacle in front were unassuming but well-kept and recently polished. It was relatively small for a catholic church, about the square footage of a three bedroom apartment in total, and we were the only two people in there that I could see, apart from one elderly Italian woman sitting in one of the pews.
I took a breath. I had been so preoccupied over the last hour about getting to the Trevi Fountain that the entire time we had been walking I hadn’t been appreciating the beauty of the ancient city. And here I was, not exactly lost but not precisely sure where I was either, standing in the middle of what felt like an existential scene crossed between Roman Holiday and The Bicycle Thieves.
I sat down and for as long as I needed to collect my thoughts, we sat there. It didn’t matter so much anymore whether I saw the Trevi Fountain or not, because what was the point if I was just going to be miserable or in a hurry the entire time anyway?
It’s a lesson that still resonates with me today. Getting lost is not a waste of time when you take a step back and get some perspective. You might not see everything you intended to see, but some of the best experiences in life are the ones we don’t expect.
Like that little church, forever stuck in that moment. Its name and location shall remain anonymous — for one, this way it still feels precious and all mine in some capacity — but mostly because two, it leaves the mystery open for you and others out there. I wish for you to stumble into your own little sanctuary and have an unexpectedly profound experience.
And for what it’s worth, Jessica and I did make it to the Trevi Fountain afterwards. Although it was by accident, after taking a narrow alley shortcut that wasn’t marked on our map.
It’s funny how you find things when you stop looking for them.