My junior year of college, I lived in Dijon, France. What started as a semester abroad turned into a year abroad, thanks to supportive parents and a very indulgent college who agreed to accept credits earned from the local French university towards my degree back home.
This was in 1990-1991, at a time when the best way to discover a new place was to get your hands on one of these:
My first semester in Dijon was part of a program organized by Lafayette College; I stayed behind for the spring semester and was on my own. Armed with a Eurail pass and copies of “Let’s Go Europe” and “Frommer’s Europe”, most weekends I would walk to the train station, pick a destination, and hope for the best.
By the third or fourth trip, I found a routine that worked: on arrival in a new city, I’d review both books. The next morning, I’d tear the city’s pages out of each book (lugging both around was bulky, and made it painfully obvious I was a tourist), stuff them in a pocket, and with only a loose sense of where I was going, would head out.
I had Easter week off, and wanted to visit Italy. The sleeper train from Dijon took me to Venice; after a day walking through Venice, I was in Rome on Saturday evening. Easter morning, I attended mass at the Vatican (!), and took the remainder of the day to explore Rome. I’d noticed nearly every street corner had helpful signs that told you where you could find the most popular tourist destinations:
I quickly figured out that the more corners where you saw a name, the more important that spot seemed to be. I spent most of the day letting those signs be my guide, with an occasional reference check to the pages in my pocket. It was a great afternoon.
As I started angling back to my hostel, I saw a sign I hadn’t noticed before: “Senso Unico”. I checked both books: nothing on this mysterious place. I walked another block or two, and saw it again. Another block, there it was again! (Were they pointing in slightly different directions? No matter: whatever it is, must be big!) I started following the signs, as much out of curiosity how something that was clearly so meaningful could be left out of both guidebooks.
It took a while to realize that from corner to corner, I didn’t seem to be going in a straight line; in fact, the “route” to Senso Unico, whatever it was, seemed to be entirely haphazard. I don’t remember exactly how many signs I followed; I do, however, vividly remember the moment I realized that the reason these signs were different from the other signs was because these were traffic signs. “Senso Unico” = “One Way”. I’d like to think I laughed out loud once I figured it out.
To this day, it’s one of my favorite memories from that semester of travel. And whenever someone says that “all roads lead to Rome”, I can’t help but smile and think, “you have no idea.”