I caught the travel bug early. For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have been constantly gallivanting around the world, and I grew up both fascinated and frustrated by their tales from foreign lands. I sat in their darkened living room as the hundreds of picture slides flicked in front of my eyes, almost as excited about the next round of images as I was about the souvenirs I knew were camping out in the bedroom. As the top shelf of my bookcase amassed dolls from Russia, peacock feather fans from India, clogs from Holland, masks from Japan, wooden giraffes from Kenya and jeweled elephants from Thailand, my desire to see the original birthplaces of my acquired belongings grew stronger and stronger. Sure, showing my friends my unique purses and jewelry boxes was cool, but I wanted to be the storyteller, not the recipient or middleman.

My first abroad experience was a struggle. I had the opportunity to serve as a youth ambassador to Bulgaria when I was 17. In my mind, this was the chance of a lifetime. To my parents, it was sheer absurdity that must be immediately vetoed. I fought and screamed and cried and begged and probably threw articles of clothing their way in my attempt to make it to Europe.

Moral of the story? Despite what your elementary teachers spent so many hours pounding into your brain, sometimes yelling and screaming and violence really is the perfect combination for success. I got to go to Bulgaria, and what was meant to be a simple 10-day exploration of another culture ended up being only the beginning of a long tumble down the rabbit hole.

My brother never studied abroad. Never really had a desire to. College was great, his friends were awesome and why go halfway across the world to enjoy the same drinking and debauchery that could be had on the comfort of his own campus? I was younger than him, but knew this was the absolute stupidest decision anyone could ever make. Who the hell would choose to NOT spend four months traveling through Europe and living in an international city (and on your parents’ dime no less)? I love my brother, but what an idiot. You have four years to enjoy your college campus, bars and friends. Is taking a measly semester’s worth of time to go see the world really a big deal?

Turns out, yes, it IS a big deal. What masquerades as nothing more than a few months of adventurous fun is actually the start of a lifelong love affair with discovering the globe’s greatest treasures. As the summer of 2007 came to a close, I packed my bags and headed to the rolling Tuscan hills and charming corner cafes of Florence, Italy. I had always wanted to study abroad in Italy. Something about just saying the name “Italy” was magical. The food, the language, the history, the people, the clothing, the decadence of the culture and the appreciation for life … I wanted it all. Italy seemed both romantic and industrial, traditional and trendy, enchanting and gritty. It was everything in one, and even though I had never been there before, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

And it didn’t. Italy really was the fairytale fantasyland everyone makes it out to be. While my friends were reliving for the umpteenth time fall formals, tailgates and homecoming parades, I was living blocks away from Piazza Santa Croce, walking along the Arno to get to school each day, enjoying a full-bodied Chianti with my freshly made pasta and grabbing a panino and stracciatella gelato on my way to wander through a new part of town.

Florence is that place that is small enough to make it your own (there’s no underground transport) but jam-packed with sights that could take you forever to see. It’s that place that you can seemingly get through in a day, but that you suddenly find yourself happily lost in while strolling down a new enchanting alleyway or taking in an unimaginable breathtaking view. It’s that place that markets itself as nothing more than a charming and historical Renaissance city but steals your heart while you’re snapping a picture and never leaves you the same again. It’s that place that boasts some of the world’s greatest masterpieces but is both beautiful and remarkable even without a single piece of art to its name. Truth be told, I didn’t even make it to most of the major museums until my last week there, but then again, studying abroad isn’t about seeing the tourist sites or power walking through the museums. That’s for the visitors who are in and out in a week.

To be a local is not to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the art or history of the place. I lived in Philadelphia for 18 years and saw the Liberty Bell once. I can’t tell you about Betsy Ross’ house, but ask me about the best place to get a cheese steak or where to go shopping, and I’m your girl.

My philosophy: Save the tourist crap for when you’re a 55-year-old empty nester. And when you do return to your foreign once-upon-a-time home in your ripe middle age, stop in that tiny hole-in-the-wall panini place for an order of the same prosciutto mozzarella pomodoro sandwich and cioccolata calda you ate everyday for lunch when you were 20. Then wonder how you could have been such a stupid kid to have not seen these famous sites, and then laugh because those famous old sites are still there for your enjoyment along with the spectacular memories of your fully lived youth.

I did have my regrets. I soaked up as much Italy as I could and have the fondest memories of my time there. I still listen to the music and try to speak the language in the hope that someday I can fool somebody into thinking I’m fluent. On occasion I’ll spend hours in the kitchen making that homemade lasagna from scratch or twirling the little doughy bits around my pinkie finger into fresh tortellini. But I still wish I could have done more. With four months to do everything, it’s hard to figure out what exactly you want to get out of your experience before that experience comes to an end.

While abroad, I hiked Cinque Terre, threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, sipped on a Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice, stood on tables amid sloshing rounds of beer at Oktoberfest, partied with Australian sailors in a yacht on the French Riviera, stayed out all hours of the night in Barcelona, jumped out of a helicopter at 14,000 feet above the Swiss Alps, experienced the bizarre world that is Amsterdam and took in a show in London’s West End. Hardly adventures I could ever say I regret. But with a limited amount of time in Florence, these escapades add up, and I do seriously regret the lack of time I spent soaking up my host city. I came back to the States happy with the time I spent in Europe, but with the undeniable lament for the Italian friends I didn’t make and the Florentine lifestyle to which I never fully acclimated.

And so, because the rabbit hole only burrows deeper and deeper into the Earth, I set sail again. Just 21 months after returning from Italy, I found myself once again in the Mediterranean, this time to teach English literature for a year in Greece. I was determined to right my wrongs and redo my regrets. I made it my mission to understand the Greek lifestyle, learn the Greek language and make Greek friends.

With a year to immerse myself in Greek culture, I was able to see a side of Greece that most outsiders will never be able to witness. And with a year in one place, I was able to enjoy a wealth of time in Athens while also having the pleasure of exploring the rest of the country and sightseeing throughout the continent. I traveled to Dublin, Galway, Edinburgh, Brussels, Bruges, Stockholm, Istanbul, Berlin, Milan and Paris in addition to the many Greek towns, villages and islands just waiting to be adored. I have trips planned to Croatia and the Northern French countryside and a few weekends left in Athens to enjoy the life I have created here.

But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the more time I spend here, the more quickly time slips away. The regrets never stop; they simply grow greater and grander. This world is a big place, and no matter where you go or how long you stay there, there’s always something that you won’t be able to see. But I’ve learned that that’s OK. Because for every inch of land you didn’t see, there are those 10 others you’ll never forget. And while I may not have gotten to truly become Italian or learn the gibberish that is Greek, the one thing that I’ve forever created for myself is the life of the storyteller, not the listener. And at 23, I can’t wait for all the stories I have yet to live.