Ver­nazza, Italy is one of the five fishing vil­lages on the Cinque Terre. Courtesy | Russell Richardson

As I entered a crowded train in Genoa, Italy this August, I briefly met a pair of dark eyes. In a sea of huge suit­cases and bulging duffel bags, this girl was only car­rying a small, stuffed draw­string backpack.

My friend Aaron and I had already spent two weeks in Spain and Italy. We were flying to Greece that day — the last leg of our European grand tour. 

That day had started well. Since we had hiked through the country’s most famous national park, the Cinque Terre, the day before, we took it easy — strolling through the town on sore legs and shopping for food and post­cards before catching a series of trains to the airport.

Ours was the last train of the day and it was delayed.

There was standing room only in every train car by the time we got on, so we squeezed into the un-air-con­di­tioned rubber floating platform between the last and second-to-last train car. Already, the dark-eyed girl and four others were crammed on the platform.

She looked up from her feet at us, moved over, then returned her gaze down­wards.

It wasn’t easy to coax her into con­ver­sation. Her English was decent; we stumbled through a polite con­ver­sation with the occa­sional help of Google translate. She was returning from a weekend trip to the beach. No, she had never been down this way before. Yes, she took weekend trips alone often. Yes, she had only brought a small backpack with her.

As a first-born with an inde­pendent streak, I under­stood her desire to be free and roam. Yet, she had an inde­pen­dence in her that seemed deeper than my own. She told me that she worked at a car deal­ership while she was saving the money to go to flight school. She had always wanted to be a pilot, she told me, because she wanted to travel the world. 

Unlike most of the locals we had met during our travels, who were inter­ested in who we were and why we were trav­eling, I had to instigate most of the con­ver­sation with this girl. With effort, I learned that she was Albanian and had moved to Italy with her father after her mother died. She still lived at home with her three sisters and her cat, Crystal. She enjoyed camping, hiking, and mountain biking. She was three years younger than me and she owned a sports car because she liked to drive fast. She had never been to America but somehow, she pos­sessed the same American grit and spirit­edness.

Com­pletely engrossed by her story and her fierce inde­pen­dence, despite our dif­fi­culty in com­mu­ni­cating, I hardly noticed when we pulled into our station.

As the train stopped, I snapped back to reality.

“It was nice meeting you,” I said and she nodded and gave me half of a smile. 

I lugged my 40-liter, 30-pound backpack off the floor. Aaron and I darted out of the train and zig-zagged through the station to our gate.

We had met many other fas­ci­nating people on our trip. Late nights in hostels offered us con­ver­sa­tions with trav­elers from all over the world, people of every race, religion, and back­ground. None of those encounters, however, are etched in my memory like the girl on the train with her small, stuffed backpack.

While sep­a­rated from family and friends throughout our trip I had often reflected on the oppor­tunity-cost of trav­eling abroad. A lengthy trip through Europe sat­isfied my adven­turous itch but left other desires unre­alized, namely time at home with my family after a summer away from them. That cost is missing from the lure of travel mag­a­zines and exotic Instagram pic­tures.

As our plane left for Greece, my mind was spinning. In a few days, I would be returning to the sta­bility and famil­iarity of my life in the United States. For me, family and com­munity is the norm and travel is the exception. 

The girl I met on the train chose to live dif­fer­ently. 

Travel, and all the uncer­tainty that goes with it, was her norm.