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I was reminded recently of a trip gone afoul back in September by someone who read a review I wrote of a cooking school I attended. Not that the experience was easy to forget; I still wince when I think of where else $3000 could have gone. Then again, that money might have disappeared like ashes strewn in the wind on nothing significant.

I won’t go into the gory details. Because in the end details don’t matter as much as we think they do. When we focus on the details, we miss what really matters. And sometimes we use the details to avoid looking at what really matters.

But a couple details for context. I’d been dumped via email when I got to Italy, which I guess is better than being dumped via a post-it. I was far better off without the relationship, but it was still lame and cowardly. I was alone thousands of miles away and watching randy Italians nuzzling each other on every street corner. They do that…a lot…everywhere.

I set my sights on the cooking adventure I was about to embark on. But because of sloppy handling of details on the cooking school owner’s part (enough to justify a refund I was too chicken to ask for), and a rather morose personality to boot, I found myself in place that should have otherwise been pretty blissful. In light of my recent cyber dumping, exhaustion from travel, speaking in my non-native tongue, and a nasty cold coming on, I was in a pretty fragile state.

Here I was doing something I love—cooking—and seeing the joy sucked out of it. And I was pissed off that I was letting someone suck my joy.

Is there anything good in this story, you might be wondering right about now?

Well, yes, I did enjoy a lot of good food and wine. It all sounds pretty privileged to have this opportunity, which was one reason I had to get hold of myself. I reminded myself that travel isn’t supposed to be all fun. I thought about how it would sound when I returned home. Friends and family would want to hear about my amazing week cooking in southern Italy. And how much of an ungrateful jerk I’d sound like if I told them I’d been pretty miserable.

Jonah Lehrer talks about the cognitive benefits of travel, which you can read here. In it, he says “…if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d’ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café.”

We travel, I decided, to go up to and beyond the edges of our comfort zones. We don’t envision missed trains, hotel rooms that smell funny or someone stealing our credit card information to charge $777 worth of WalMart goods. (There went my never-shopped-at-WallMart streak.) We want not to bawl on a sidewalk at 6:00 in the morning in a town in the middle of nowhere because we’re exhausted, confused and missed the only bus of the day. But bawl we do (or at least I do). But then angels with packages of tissue swoop down from above and you have no choice but to embrace your sloppy mess of humanity right then and there.

It doesn’t traveling to force us to embrace the uncomfortable. But when we travel, we’re not at the top of our game like we are when we know our surroundings. We take this familiarity for granted. Familiarity is great. But it doesn’t push us.

We’re more alive when we’ve gone to, and beyond, our edges even if what’s happening sucks by most travel standards. We look back months or years later and forget the mishaps. That’s all well and good. But there’s gold in these mishaps. Mining it in the moment, instead of looking back much later on the good stuff, makes us learn more about ourselves and what we’re made of. Those necessary evils of deciphering train schedules, avoiding cultural gaffes, and calculating tips in a foreign currency are when the brain synapses really get going. This is the gold.

The same gold is found in other discomfort zones when we learn to paint, swing a racquet, utter foreign words, play the guitar—and stink at it. We’re too eager to make the uncomfortable part to go away. Embracing our fumbling is what they mean by Beginner’s Mind.

One night at the cooking school, we had dinner guests. A kind, soft-spoken man named Alessandro sat next to me. A writer and an olive oil producer, he and I talked in half English-half Italian most of the evening. I sensed he was a kindred spirit, and when we were alone I asked how I could travel halfway around the world to find myself in a kitchen with this guy (reliving experiences with my father). He told me three things. As soon as he said them, I knew I had gold. I was thankful for the presence of mind to know I had gold despite my pounding head and stuffy nose. (He was the second angel.)

One of them was this: “Perhaps you had to travel all this way to figure out something important. And you must write about it.”

I’m not sure yet what I figured out. But I do know it’s perfectly normal to come back from a vacation feeling like you’d wandered into a war zone.

Got a travel-weary story and a lesson learned? Share it!