I should be working on senior seminar right now. But instead I decided to upload some pictures from my camera onto Facebook. And while looking at the album I uploaded, another album caught my eye. I titled it “Nutella for Breakfast, Gelato for Lunch.” If you can’t guess, it’s my album from my week of backpacking through Italy. If I remember correctly, I didn’t exactly finish telling my stories from Italy, although there are certainly plenty.

I realized that almost a year later, so many of the pictures have become simply that: pictures. Half of my pictures from the Vatican are just pictures of paintings, or ceilings, or statues. I can’t begin to tell you which hallway they were found in, let alone their names. I realized that as tedious as it was, one of the best ideas I had in Europe was to take a picture of every description plate that I could find. It allowed me to look back on my trip to Europe and remember what I found interesting, or beautiful, or fascinating, and most importantly why.

But there are many pictures that don’t need words to bring back nostalgia. Seeing the beautiful images of the streets and canals of Venice bring a smile to my face. I may not immediately remember the name of every fountain that I photographed in Rome, but I remember that someone once said, “A trip to Rome is worth it simply to see the fountains and piazzas.” Which is true. There are fountains everywhere, and all of them are beautiful. Or I may not remember the name of the beautiful building that I photographed in Florence, but I remember the beauty of Florence. Despite the rain.

I may not have many pictures from museums that banned photography (like the Uffizi Gallery in Florence), but the few illegal pictures that I do have are ones of utmost importance. Florence was a turning point in the trip for me. It was the day where we got lost, and it rained all day, and we couldn’t decide where we wanted to visit. It was a day filled with frustration, and I struggled to see the famous beauty and wonder of Florence through my own frustrations. So for a few hours, my traveling buddy and I split up. Perhaps that wasn’t the smartest idea, to be alone in a foreign city that barely spoke English, in a museum with hardly any cell phone reception, but it was the day that reminded me why I had wanted to travel in the first place. In the Uffizi gallery, after getting lunch and a glass of wine (which made the day just that much better), I stumbled upon two great works of art: the famous statue David by Michelangelo, and the original painting of “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli. Seeing these famous works of art made me feel suddenly small and insignificant in the grand scheme of history. When we had planned our trip, I marked down the Uffizi gallery as a place of importance because the guidebooks said there were important works of art there, but after going in and out of museums I couldn’t remember which museum held works by whom. They all run together after a while. So when I found these two works of art, which were instantly recognizable, it reminded me of the great history of Europe that I had come to explore. Then in a random room on the top floor of the gallery, I found this beautiful work.
It caught my eye from across the room, not in the way that “The Birth of Venus” had because I recognized it, but because it was the exact view I’d had seen just a few days earlier. It is the image of San Marco Square in Venice, as seen across the canal. I remember my first view of the square from our little vaporetti boat-bus and how beautiful it was, and this painting captured it exactly. There was just one small difference: the painting was 300 years old. I was struck by how little the square had changed in 300 years, that after all the wars and turmoil that the centuries had seen, that little piazza looked untouched. Yes, the clocktower had been restored, as had various buildings I’m sure, but somehow it looked untouched by time. I knew in that moment that this was why I had made this incredibly daunting journey. I knew that in years to come, I would see paintings like this, and instead of marveling at it and saying, “What a beautiful view,” I would instead be able to say, “I saw that view once.” I knew that images of Europe would bring back memories, not wishful thoughts or unseized opportunities. Somehow that single painting of Venice put the entire trip in perspective, and made all the frustration of traveling worth it.

It’s amazing how a single picture in a photo album has the ability to trigger such emotion-filled memories. Tourists are often criticized for taking too many pictures, and not actually stopping to enjoy the sights around them. And I’m certainly guilty of that, especially in the beginning of my trip. But I think I learned to tailor my picture-taking to only things that I absolutely wanted to remember forever. And as a result, my pictures from Italy remind me of what an incredible journey it was. I remember the awe I felt in the Vatican, the sheer beauty of the landscape (and the weather!), the wonder of the ancient buildings and ruins, the simple joy that came with a cup of gelato, and the beauty of wandering and discovering places like a hilltop park. I am reminded of the beauty of the “eternal city” of Rome, the art of Florence, the surreal canals of Venice, and the feeling of “home” that accompanied Bologna. Perhaps the greatest moment of the journey came when we stepped off the train in Bologna after that frustrating day in Venice, an hour later than expected—which is typical of the Italian trains—and were greeted by two familiar faces. Two friends who were studying abroad in Bologna had walked all the way to the train station, hoping that they could meet us there. We hadn’t told them to do so, we had only mentioned when she should be arriving, and yet there they were. It’s the small memories like these that remind me of how great of a journey that was.

Looking through my pictures is like remembering a dream. It feels so long ago and far away, and there are some images that I just can’t remember. But others come back with intense clarity, and other memories almost make me doubt that they could have happened. Did I really walk the ruins of the coliseum? Or survive being lost in Venice and Florence? Or see the Pope at his window? These are the stories that other people tell, but they can’t possibly have happened to me. And yet they did. And I am eternally grateful. Even if I never make it back, the photographs that I took will always have the power to transport me back to those places and moments in time. I suppose it’s true, a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Or perhaps more accurately, a picture can tell a thousand memories.