“I know nothing about Portugal other than I’m standing in its airport,” my friend said on the first day of our vacation this past summer.
Despite the way it sounded, this was not ignorance; this was a promise perfected. We were about to spend one week in Italy, a place we’d each previously visited and one in Portugal, where everything was as foreign as it could possibly be. We had agreed to learn everything about Portugal from the country itself, not dictionaries and Rick Steves.
“We’re so lucky,” she continued, “to just land in a European country like newborns.”
I gushed and agreed, stepping carelessly on the back of a stranger’s shoe.
“Sorry,” I mumbled in English to the woman, who held me in an icy stare that lasted the duration of our escalator ride. She reeled not so much because of what I’d done, but because of the apology I was unable to offer.
We quickly discovered that traveling in ignorance meant clumsiness at first: There was plenty of tripping over words and luggage, misreadings of maps and mannerisms. It was clear that our Portuguese phrase books definitely could’ve been put to better use.
But I must admit, there was something genius about this plan.
Everything we did, ate and saw was a marvel and a half. We rhapsodized over the simple egg pastries that Lisbon is famous for, and I’ll be honest: If we had seen pictures of them beforehand, we probably wouldn’t have even stopped in the bakery.
It was the endless surprise of our trip, not the thousands of miles we traveled, that made it the ultimate vacation.
While I was away, I realized just how much I depend on my expectations of people, places and things, and how that interferes with my ability to appreciate what’s in front of my face. One of my most time-consuming hobbies has always been the research and preparation I put into various activities, not the activities themselves.
I’d look at a person’s Facebook and expect to learn everything I needed to know. I’d ask my friends who else was going to the party I was about to walk into. My friend asked me to join his six-person baseball team and I had to Google it before giving my answer.
Spontaneity was lacking in my life, and I decided to rectify that. After all, if I can tour one of the most gorgeous countries in the world with zero expectations, I could probably manage to keep an open mind in my one-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee.
I’ve spent my first three years of college convinced that I know it all, but this year I’m going to speak the truth to myself and everyone else: I’m not even close.
This year, I’d like to take a different approach. I would like to meet more people and have fewer preconceived notions of them. I’d like to sign up for clubs I know nothing about. I’d like to order entrees I can barely pronounce and buy concert tickets for bands I barely know. I’d like to look at surprises more as gems and less as anxiety attacks.
I should warn that if you’re going to share my approach, it will be less than smooth. But we’re here to make every day an adventure, not a predictable picture of perfection.
So let’s take a vacation from our expectations, and make room for the surprises that will transform our stories.