Have you ever tried to dry a full load of laundry, in humidity, with no space in between each item? Because I have. Have you ever tried to find your way to a certain place with no map, place of reference, or common tongue? Because I have. We live in a world that is so heavily polluted with convenience that sometimes it is nearly impossible to see how helpless we would be without it. For every problem we can easily turn to Google, Siri, or our parents. There is no problem that is unsolvable. Italy on the other hand... (queue uncomfortable laugh) does not believe in convenience.
Being in Italy is like being a character in a Looney Tunes episode. You can be running as fast as you can and when you happen to look down you realize you've left the cliff and begin to fall. If cartoons have taught us anything it’s that this experience wont actually kill you. After some recovery, you dust yourself off and head back to your layer of dynamite. Planning your next attack.
Being in a foreign country is kind of like that. Our apartments are our layers. We have plans and goals each day, and as we try to lay them out somehow we continue to miss the damn road runner. With each attempt at doing laundry or ordering food we get a little closer to our goal, but without the comforts of home it is hard to be completely successful. Why is that do you think? Is it saying that we are helpless without help or that we are just relearning how to help ourselves? Either way it can be quite the challenge.
Traveling changes everything you think you know. Water is not free, and air conditioning is not a given. Even getting places is difficult. In America everything is easy, like disgustingly easy. If you want a Starbucks you get in your car, crank the AC, drive 1/2 a mile down the road only to use the drive through, and then mildly complain about the drive back as you sip you’re iced-Venti-soy-hazelnut-upside-down-macchiato. If you want Starbucks in Italy, people look at you like you are crazy. The hardest thing though hasn’t been the lack of material convenience, but the lack of communicative convenience. Even though I’m trying to learn Italian, it is so hard to communicate with those who solely speak Italian. Too often you ask something in broken Italian, they look at you like you are a moron. They reply in full Italian, and you stare desperately trying to process what they said before they decide that you are mentally challenged. Who knew trying to get stamps would be so hard?
Do you remember in school how some teachers would put a “brain teaser” on the board, a question or a riddle that really made you think? They would use these to start the day or take a break from a subject to help us turn our minds back on use our brains. Traveling somewhere new is one non stop brain teaser.
I’ve always been a very aware person. I watch people in airports. I notice the cars around me. If an object has been moved in my kitchen, it takes all of two seconds for me to realize that something is different and needs to be fixed. Though at home this constant observance can be incredibly distracting, here it has been kind of a gift. As I’ve traveled and stayed in different places it has helped me to categorize things here too. That ugly graffiti art that says fanculo is the metro stop to the Spanish Steps. That’s the palazzo near my favorite restaurant where the mimes make themselves look 10 feet tall. The reason I love where I’m from is because I know every corner of it. It is familiar. It is safe. Being able to mentally document these places and things allows me to feel a little more in control.
As I’ve mentioned in other works I very seriously struggle with anxiety. I don’t mean I get nervous anxiety. I mean ugly, crying, hyperventilating, can’t breathe, can’t see, the world is coming to an end panic attacks. Sounds fun right? Overall I’ve been very lucky in not having them here. I had one minor one, but was able to remove myself from the situation before it got out of hand. We were touring the underground caves and tunnels of Orvieto, and one look at the pitch black abyss confirmed that this was not something I was about to do. I forced my way back to the entrance and found the closest place to sit. I sat on a bench that looked out over the edge of this city on a hill. Tears in my eyes, I began to calm myself down. I looked around and saw the rolling hills of Umbria, the vineyards and the farms. What was wrong with me? I began to realize how desperately I had clung to what was convenient and easy. Back home when I would panic I would have my collection of herbal pharmaceuticals, baths, and music to calm me down. I could call my parents, call a friend. So easily I could jump in my car and go get a pile of comfort food. In Italy though I had to figure it out all by myself. I looked over the city, took some deep breaths and walked home. Anxiety was not going to win over this trip.
I got to my apartment and got into bed, needing desperately to relax and sleep off that last ounce of panic. In doing so I began to think about my family. My great grandfather and great grandmother were from Lucca, a village in northern Tuscany. They, like so many others in the early 1900’s, caught the fever of the American dream. Nono would take a boat to New York, where he spoke very little English, work for a year or two and then return to Italy and his wife. This repeated for a few years before Noni and my great aunt Tati decided to go back with him. Over the years they lost all contact with their family back in Italy. It was too hard to try to communicate in those days. How did they do things without calling their parents for advice? How did they raise their kids without siblings and cousins to celebrate birthdays and graduations? Even without all of that they managed to have a family, buy a home, and live in comfort. Whining about studying abroad began to seem very silly.
Thinking about this really makes you wonder about how we live our lives. American society is all about instant gratification. We want something, therefore we deserve it, therefore we take it. It doesn’t matter if we earned it or of someone was waiting patiently for it, it’s ours. We as a culture work ourselves into the ground for the ability to live in ease. Growing up my father would often work 90+ hours a week to pay for the house, cars, air conditioning, cable, wifi, clothes, and the list goes on. But for what? Working those kinds of hours he was rarely around to actually enjoy them. Even with all we had it was never enough. His grandfather wanted better for his children, and so he left his home and worked. My grandmother wanted a better life for her children, and so she worked to put food on the table for 4 kids. My father wanted us to never have to want and slaved over work for his whole life, and still does just to make sure I can have a college education.
In Italy people do more than just work for a living, they live their lives. They are connected to life in a way that is lost to us back home. Where we live to work, they work to live. Since I arrived here I've learned to experience my days, not just stress over them. Yes I have a lot on my plate. Yes there is a lot to get done. But you can feel down to your bones that there will be time to take care of it. There will be time to enjoy, and time to live. If living in Italy has taught me anything, it is to slow down, breath deep, and enjoy the view. The other stuff can wait. It’s like Billy Joel says, Vienna Waits for You.