In Rome one night, I decided to take a bus back to the hotel by myself. It was simple—I’d get on the 160 bus, sit quietly, and get off at Via Veneto. There was just one tiny detail I didn’t know about.
There are two 160 buses in Rome.
I became uneasy when we drove straight out of the city in a direction I didn’t recall. I thought something was probably wrong when we started dropping off individuals at their apartments. And I was working hard to reign in my panic when the bus headed down a road that had a steep stone wall on one side and a field of grass on the other.
Making a strained but successful effort to remain calm, I scooted to the front of the (now almost empty) bus and asked the driver, “Via Veneto?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head darkly. “Other line. Other side of the city.”
Other side of the city. Terrific.
After confirming that the bus would, indeed, circle back to where I’d picked it up, I sat down and tried to decide what to do with myself. Going back to the hotel was part of an agenda. I had pastries to buy, postcards to mail, and Ibuprofen to take—and travel companions to meet at 6:30 at the now-faraway Vatican.
But instead, I was on a bus that was slowly making its way through the grubby outskirts of Rome, on the complete wrong side of the city.
And I discovered, then, that I could only do one thing: look out the window.
I saw parts of Rome I never expected, intended, or necessarily wanted to see. Apartment buildings of various qualities, large parking lots full of tiny cars, Italian gas stations, Italian grocery stores, an Italian sofa store, rows upon rows of dumpsters… That ride made Rome real for me. Not every inch of it is beautiful, historical, and breath-taking. Parts of Rome are ordinary, too.
We also passed some magnificent ruins that made me want to jump out the bus window for a better look—just in case I was getting too caught up in the normality of Rome’s nitty-gritty outskirts. But I was still on the wrong side of the city. I caught a cab (once I got back to a part of the city where there were cabs) and arrived at the Vatican to meet the others at precisely 6:30, but I hadn’t accomplished a single thing I’d set out to do.
I tried to decide if I should be disappointed or upset about getting sidetracked. That bus took me everywhere I didn’t want to go. My valuable time slipped out of my grasp as it poked along the southern edge of the city.
But what could I have done? Looking back, I think my time was not wasted as I sat back, experienced the ride, and maybe passed a small test of my composure while I was at it.
It can be hard for me to let go of my plans, both in life and in writing. But sometimes we have to recognize what is out of our control and forfeit our plans to the churning gears of the world. Sometimes all we can do is sit back, take a deep breath, and embrace the detour.