It wasn't by design, but Italy is the country I'll forever associate with my birth as an independent traveler.
I'd arrived in Europe with my best friends from college on one last adventure before we'd have to face the real world.
After brief stays in Paris, Amsterdam, and Prague, we arrived in Venice, a city I fell in love with upon exiting the train station onto the Grand Canal.
My friends didn't share my enthusiasm, and we left a few days later.
Tension in the group had been growing from the moment we'd arrived in Europe.
I knew what I wanted to see and do in every city and was baffled by friends who didn't share those same interests.
The breaking point came in Florence, where my friends decided to return to the United States more than a month early.
I chose to stay — an empowering decision in my early twenties that has continued to help shape life in my thirties.
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Once I'd say goodbye to my friends, and they departed the hostel to make their way back to Paris for their return flights, I was left alone to take stock of the situation. But not for long.
Another backpacker arrived in my room, and before I knew it, we were talking about music.
I realized I wasn't going to be alone after all. As long as I continued to stay in hostels, I'd encounter a neverending stream of young travelers out discovering the world like me.
Under my newfound freedom to do whatever I wanted, my first order of business was to hop a train back to Venice.
Any city that inspires me to call my mom from a payphone and proclaim I want to live there deserved more of my time.
Upon my return, I took a dorm bed under the rafters of a pension, where I met other travelers with whom to drink cheap wine and soak up the old-world charms of Venice's canals and hidden alleyways.
I left Venice for Rome a few nights later, followed by Nice, Paris, Dover, London, and two weeks tooling around Ireland in a clockwise direction.
I returned home from my two months in Europe, a changed man.
I'd tasted the exhilaration of traveling to foreign lands with nothing but a backpack and a bank balance to deplete.
Four years later, with a few more trips to my name, I lost my job at a dot-com company due to a massive layoff.
I used the resulting four months of unemployment to reflect on how little travel I'd done given my penchant for it after that first summer in Europe.
I decided it was time to prioritize travel, and everything else would feed into taking more trips abroad.
Twelve years and more than fifty countries later, I can look back with great clarity and say it was my decision to first take a risk and head to Europe with my friends, and second, stay there when they decided to return home, that has made all the difference in my life.
In 2012, while traveling Eastern Europe by rail, I made it a point to return to Venice for a few nights.
For a city whose architecture and way of life on the water hadn't changed much in 1,000 years, it was safe to say I noticed few changes in the 14 years since I'd been gone.
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