“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” – Anna Akhmatova
Whenever something stressful is going on in life, my mom and I have this running quip, usually in the form of a random text message on a Thursday afternoon, to communicate our grievances…”Italy…” Sometimes, it is injected into the middle of a difficult conversation about friends or family (or, in my case, recently lost jobs). Whenever either of us texts or speaks this word, the other knows that we are beyond the point of frustration, and only one word will do to adequately describe our fatigue. One word to indicate that one of us is dealing with relationship issues, sick pets, a terrible boss (also in my case), an inconsiderate friend, or just some general malady. One word to describe the dream of a daring escape to a place we both cherish. A place that we both hope to return to one day and, upon return, we never want to leave again.
Nearly a decade has passed, but I still distinctly recall the first moment that my train stopped in Ventimiglia, on the way to Firenze from Nice. As I stepped onto Italian soil for the first time for a quick bite to eat before switching train lines, I observed a man jump off his scooter well before it was stopped and parked it haphazardly in a row of scooters in which it appeared that other drivers had done the same. This lack of regard for any system or order challenged every Type-A fiber of my being. I began to experience a bit of an ODC twitch, so I quickly gathered my lunch and found my connection. Five hours later, we pulled into the Santa Maria Novella station, in the heart of Firenze, where the chaos grew even more intense. Cars driving every which way, people yelling at one another, rushing from one place to the next…these are things that one comes to expect from living in larger cities…all spoken in a language I could not understand, yet deeply romanticized.
By the time I reached Florence, I had already traveled through Madrid, Lisbon, Barcellona, Marseilles, and Nice. Over the past month or so, I had developed a routine upon reaching each new destination. Without a phone or GPS, I navigated my way through each city using a good old-fashioned map, procured from the visitor’s office, plus any handwritten directions I’d gathered that would help guide me from each train station to the hotel (that I had likely booked a few hours prior, just before leaving my previous destination). Since these cities are hundreds of years old, Europe’s streets are laid out differently than in the States, often in circular patterns because they were once surrounded by walls to protect their citizens from foreign intruders and keep their people from leaving. I frequently got lost and would have to make a couple of passes before finding the hotel, which allowed me to see more of each city. Despite the absence of logic to the numbering system for building addresses, I walked straight from the Novella station to my hotel. It was the first time, during this journey, that I found anything on the first pass, and I immediately knew this city had special plans for me,
In Italy, one building might share several different hotels (or hostels), one per floor. My hotel was on the third floor of a building near the train station, not far from the city center, run by a brother and sister who had just re-opened after a few months of renovations. The previous few weeks were spent fighting with the front desk people, maintenance people, or hotel management over various issues, so it was so refreshing to be welcomed in a place where the owners were just happy to have their first customer. During my two-week stay, they couldn’t have been more accommodating to my need for solitude and solace, offering ideas for food and local sights to see when requested, knowing when not to intrude upon the moments of sadness that pervaded my journey (and we all had a bit of a cry when I left for Rome because it felt more like I had been staying with family than hoteliers for the past two weeks),
When staying solo at a hostel, you tend to sleep on what should be considered cots, but the (now debunk) Stefania Rooms offered me a queen-size bed at a fair price, with two nights free if I prepaid my entire stay, and I took it. And the first thing I did after check-in? I luxuriated in that bed, in a room larger than a jail cell, for two hours before it was time to hunt down dinner. Around the corner, I found a trattoria, family-owned since 1943, with an open kitchen where I watched the chefs slice meat and prepare food while talking and laughing with one another, tempting me to own a restaurant of my own one day. The owner sat at the first table just inside the door to welcome guests and observe everything happening in the establishment. I ordered fettuccine with a black truffle cream sauce and “table wine” (which, in Italy, is far and away better than even some of the more expensive bottles we get in the States). In the first few bites, I discovered a few things:
1.) I knew at that moment I was “home,” and there was no place else that could ever compare.
2.) Elizabeth Gilbert was right. With food like this, you can eat your way out of a broken heart.
3.) Even though I had considered myself adventurous when it came to food, I now fully comprehend the difference good ingredients can make in the flavor of a dish, and I have so much more to learn.
4.) There is time to appreciate the beauty of chaos.
After the events of this past year, we all deserve to dash to somewhere that makes us fall in love all over again, not just with people but with life itself. For me, Italy is just about the most perfect place anyone could ever want to flee to when one is feeling downhearted. I dream of her often, praying that we heal from the plagues of ignorance and injustice so that I may one day return to her soon.