Leveling Out

Last week, everything changed.

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In the hills near our home in Sicily, where I found my stability once again.

I walked out of my apartment with confidence, even though the neighbor ladies were watching me through parted curtains, as always. I stopped at an ATM and withdrew Euros that I had earned from an Italian bank account with my name on it and didn’t pay extra transaction fees. I got on the bus to Milano and didn’t need to fumble with a one-way ticket in the machine: I had a combined bus, metro and train pass. On the bus I ran into a friend, and we chatted in Italian for 45 minutes about her daughter, my upcoming wedding in Minnesota and I promised to send her my recipe for red lentil and coconut milk soup. While waiting for the writers I’d be doing a workshop with, I ran into another friend, who just got back from spending a month visiting her family in Mexico. We hugged excitedly and made plans to catch up soon over an aperitivo. After the workshop, I went to work, stopping at a new favorite coffee shop where a bearded hipster from Vancouver made me a huge (by Italian standards) Americano to go. I carried that warm, cardboard cup to work, where I felt a level of confidence and growing competence in wrangling a group of 3 year-olds and getting them to use English words like “Happy” and “Big”. I came home, cooked some meatballs from scratch and kissed my husband goodnight.

I moved through my day with a sense of calm security that I haven’t experienced in years. All these little things have added up to me knowing that I live here.  Not in a halfway, day-by-day way, shouting “I live here!” like it would make it true.

Not only am I in the system, so to speak, but more importantly, in all of these normal, real moments I can see myself here: the real Katy From the Woods, even though she’s carrying a leather purse, riding the Metro and speaking Italian. I am known, greeted with hugs.

It’s finally coming together.


Two years ago – nearly to the day – I realized that I needed to quit my day job. It was as if it had been divined to happen: I was driving from that desk job to the restaurant for a dinner shift in the rain, stuck in traffic, exhausted and sobbing when my mom called and asked if I wanted to come to dinner with her and my uncle. I told her I couldn’t but when I slogged into the restaurant, the manager asked if I wanted to take the night off: with the rain they weren’t expecting much of a dinner rush.

Two hours later, over a glass of wine and a bowl of mac and cheese, my mom did the math for me: if I worked 40 hours a week at the restaurant, I’d make more than I was making now, working 8 hours a day at a desk and stealing two and a half hours of the night shift a few nights a week before going home late. If I was going to move to Italy, on the timeline Gabri and I were planning for, what I needed was money.

“But, my career.” I begged, through the renewed threat of tears. “I already have at least one big hole in my resume. How will I ever find work again?”

My uncle, who has spent his life working in business, shook his head. “Katy,” He told me firmly, “If what you want is to preserve your career, you cannot move to Italy.”

Well, that was simply unacceptable.

That night, I wrote a letter giving my day job two weeks notice. I framed it as freeing, a rebellion against expectations: burning my resume with the same flourish one would burn her bra.

In truth, that night began the most terrifying years of my life.


When I count up the months I’ve spent in Italy, spread out over three years like pocket change – three weeks here, 10 days there, five months in that pile – it adds up to somewhere around 11 months. I can now passably have a conversation in Italian, though I need a lot more practice with reflexive verbs, the conditional tense and all those crazy articles that need to align with gender, quantity and other conditions I don’t quite understand. I can now stand at my window and look out on the street at all the other (much older) women looking down at me without flinching. I am slowly getting used to answering the phone whenever someone calls, even if I don’t know the number, because people simply refuse to leave a voicemail in this country.

The most difficult thing about the last few years was that I never knew. I never knew how much money I’d make in a shift at the restaurant. I never knew if I had the right documents for an appointment before I arrived. I never knew if my visa would ultimately be approved. I never knew how long it would take me to find a job once I legally could start looking. With a bank account slowly dripping away, the edge of the cliff loomed closer and closer every day. It wouldn’t take much to push me right off.

But all I could do was move forward and trust my gut. I was careful but didn’t hold back from things I wanted to do. And in August, after going back to the immigration office three times, I was finally given the piece of paper that says I can live and work in Italy for at least the next five years, just in time to leave the country to celebrate my Grandma’s 90th birthday. With my permesso di sojorno in hand, I have been able to change my residency, get a job, open a bank account, enter the health care system (another set of meetings and waiting rooms and frustrations, but we can talk about that later). I am finally legal, living here, not just passing time, pretending I am a part of the system. I had no idea how much of a difference it would make to have those documents in my hands.

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Do I look strung out here? I felt it.

In the end, I had the surprise privilege of turning down jobs. In July, I was offered a contract for teaching at 40 hours a week, with benefits like sick time, payment to my Italian pension and the miraculous 13th salary Italian contract holders get around the Christmas holidays. But the job was an hour and a half commute away, and I wouldn’t be leaving until 8 or 9 at night, getting me home after 10 pm. Oh, and my working hours included Saturdays.

It looked so goddamn good, after so many months (years, in fact) of feeling the wind blowing against me while I got ever closer to the edge of that cliff. With a salary, I would be able to plan, to put some space between me and that drop off. But, I didn’t take the job. It was far sooner than we anticipated an offer might come in. The payment, no matter how stable, wasn’t worth the headache (I moved here to see my husband from time to time, not just fall asleep next to him). If I could get that job, one with better conditions would surely come.

It was like fate wanted to show me that though I felt desperate, I wasn’t desperate yet.

Days later, another offer came in, one that I took confidently. I’ve been working 10 hours a week for an after-school program in Milano where I teach English to children from 1 to 6 years old for a month now. They give me a pre-designed curriculum and I do exactly as they say. It’s perfect for a first Teaching English as a Foreign Language job. I have the contract with the benefits. I get out of the house.

But it’s not quite enough money to put solid space between me and that cliff. And I’d like to be working more than 10 hours a week. È un inizio, I kept saying. It’s a start. It’s a start. Piano, piano. Slowly, slowly, as all the Italians are constantly reminding me.

More, small jobs popped up. Will you come to our school once a week and create a conversation class with the students prepping for their English exams? Will you speak with me and my children in English on Thursday nights? Sure, I could string together a list of weekly appointments across the metro of Milan, but my heart wasn’t singing when I thought of these tasks. My heart was actually backing away nervously, a reaction even stronger than when I wrote the letter of resignation two years ago. Even if I’m terrified of what lies on the other side of “no”, I’ve learned better than to move toward something that brings up that kind of reaction in me.

While we were in Sicily this August, I was able to move away from the anxieties that coil around me at night and keep my teeth gnashing. I got off the grid, laughed, wrote by hand, swam in the sea, explored new cities and hiked with my husband as we returned to some of our favorite spots in his ancestral home. I was able to rise about my fears and see the bigger picture. For three weeks, I felt powerful certainty about being on the right path, and every morning, with utter conviction, I told myself, looking out into our garden of citrus trees and jasmine flowers, “My perfect job is coming. My perfect community is forming. Everything is as it is meant to be. I am so grateful.” This mantra was both a conviction and a prayer, and it trusted it.

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The first sunset of the trip, in Umbria.

I came back to the grid to a message from a college friend: “Hey, I saw this job and thought of you.” A virtual administrative assistant for the Europe team of a nonprofit started in the US, preferably based in the Mediterranean time zone with fluent English skills. Like a lot of other jobs in the last few months, I wrote up a cover letter, tidied up my resume and sent it off. But this time was different: I heard back. It took a little while and quite a few interviews (I suppose that might be a pitfall of an entirely virtual, international team) but I have signed the contract and will begin this job this week. It’s 60% time, working from home with a comparable salary to that first teaching job. It’s a continuation of that career I was so sure I was walking away from forever that rainy night in St. Paul. It’s my prefect job, aligning with the path I had already begun. I am so grateful it came, and in such a surprising way.

Cue one huge leap away from the approaching cliff.

In retrospect, two years of moving through this deeply unsettling period of not knowing seems like both far longer and much shorter than I might have anticipated as I wrote my resignation letter. I cried when I gave it to my boss, not because I was attached to the job, but because I was terrified. At least, my head was terrified but my heart stood firm: this was the way to go. The last two years have been difficult in ways I did not anticipate, but the feeling of stability I have now as I see my new life fall into place around me – a life better and more rich than I could have possibly imagined when I began this journey – is deeply satisfying.

I belong here. I am known. I am legal. I am contributing. I am loving and growing.

It’s just the beginning.

On Mountain Climbing

It’s been just about two months since I re-landed in Italy, and as I pack my bags, clean the house and get ready to join the annual migration of Southern Europeans to the beach, I’ve been taking stock. I had such big plans for this summer: dreams of idle, yet focused writing, flow-filled productivity and disciplined creativity. From my seat on the airplane, crossing the Atlantic, I imagined myself hitting the ground running again and transforming my life in Italy, making it something even more amazing and bigger than last time.

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From the beginning of a hike we took together in July, looking up to the mountain we’d summit the next morning.

This is not how my summer has been. Instead, I am weary. Wrung out.

As I’ve already written about a bit, this summer has been humbling, worrying and stressful. I have been frustrated with a system I can’t quite understand and caught up between the conflicting stories of how those around me have found their way through this mess. I have grown tired as I try to speak a new language, stuck in the consistent loop of realizing with each layer I break through in comprehension how far I still have to go. Gabriele and I – now legally married, yay!, and planning two more ceremonies and parties to celebrate this family we’re creating – have felt the swelling waves of stress pass between us, like tides on opposing shores; one of us standing strong and certain while the other crumbles and flounders. Back and forth as the to-do list grows. I am almost always the blubbering, floundering one, he the reasonable rock that tethers me to the big picture.

And nothing has made me feel so vulnerable than sitting next to my freshly-minted brother in law (bless his heart) in the immigration office, finally before the officer of the state who could process the paperwork I need. In that critical moment, my growing understanding of Italian failed me, was drowned out by anxiety and the pressure of the moment. I clung desperately to the papers that we had been told were enough on the phone, understanding clearly without knowing the exact words being said that they were, in fact, not right. Not enough. Every time we thought we’d done everything, it seemed we were always missing one more thing. One more thing that required another visit to City Hall, or 20 more euros or another official seal from a different official.

I have waited in many muggy, anxiety-filled rooms this summer, trying to piece together what exactly I need to prove who I, my new husband and his family are, and that we intend to be family here. I’ve struggled to comprehend the staticy voices on intercoms, joined the rush of bodies who all but mob the stressed immigration officers when they emerge from their office to call the next person into their appointment.

Never did we get a straight answer. One person told us we needed this on the phone, so we showed up with two copies of this, only to find out what we needed was that. I rushed back to Legnano, got to an office that I was told would help me before they closed, waited in line, presented them with the paperwork, and they handed me a piece of paper with a website scrawled on it.

This summer has been late nights filled with chamomile tea and copying documents. Moving forward, preparing my resume, purchasing plane tickets, putting down deposits on reception venues like we know what the next year will hold, with faith that things will come together as they always have. Because that’s how my husband and I have always operated: made plans, decided on dates, chosen the outcome we need and worked toward it. Things have always changed (often times pretty dramatically) between where we started and how it came together, but we’ve always come to the place we intended. And this time won’t be different.

I feel like over the course of the last two months – and let’s be honest, the years of back and forth and false starts leading up to this – I’ve been stripped bear. I’ve waited in so many lines, cried so many kinds of tears, gnashed my teeth in the night and lost myself between so many versions of what I think life should be right now.

I have been torn between myself as I am and my vision of my greatest self. What I tell myself I should be doing and what I actually can do on any given day. The challenge to be my best self and to listen to my true self.

Gabriele and I have climbed a few physical and metaphorical mountains over the last three years. In early July we went together to Monviso, in Piedmonte, for a surprise birthday weekend away he planned for me. (A fine example of why, a life with this man is worth all the stress.) Some of the mountains, like this one, we’ve prepared for, thought about and scouted before we started, and some we just found ourselves climbing because the trail looked interesting, like last fall in Valle D’Aosta.

The problem with climbing mountains is that you never can be sure where exactly the summit is. You think you might see it above you, where the rocks give way to sky. One should never assume, and definitely never say aloud “I think we’re nearly there!”, though. First of all, space is deceptive at such a great height, and you probably have farther to go than you anticipated. Secondly, the peak that you currently see is not necessarily the final one: you could easily summit this, only to see one more, with the possibility of other, even steeper peaks waiting behind that. The higher you go, the thinner the air gets. The bigger the fall is you lose your footing.

But we climb mountains anyway, even though we sometimes run out of breath, even though we never know where the top is, even though those enjoying a cocktail at sea level may find it crazy. We climb these mountains for the ever-changing view, for the challenge. Because the accomplishment of summiting even one peak is beautiful and worth it, even if just to the two of us who have done the work. It has brought my new husband and I us closer together, this practice of mountain summiting, especially this summer, when the peaks and surprising steepness have been difficult in ways we didn’t anticipate (because, yes, before you say it we knew this wasn’t going to be easy).

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Looking up to Monviso in early July, from the summit of the much shorter, opposing mountain.

And now, in this last week of July, I think I can say we’re at least reaching a plateau and will be able to walk without too much of an incline for a while. We can just enjoy the view and catch our breath. Have a conversation without panting and breaking down in tears (though, let’s be honest, I’m always liable to do that…).

I don’t know if my visa will work out the way we hope. But I can’t do anything about that now. It’s processing. The stressed out immigration officer finally told me we’d given him enough evidence, put the stamp on the paper, ran my fingerprints and told me to come back in a month.

So we’re waiting. And while we wait, we’re going on vacation. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to take a vacation more: to get off the grid, away from even the possibility of accomplishing anything besides several good books and enjoying time as newlyweds. We’re going back to Sicily, the hot, magical island where I knew, when we were there together two years ago, that I wanted to marry this man and create my life and dreams alongside his more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. And now, as legally-bound newly weds, we’re going to take the opportunity to daydream some more about this life we’re creating, and plot out our path to the next summit we want to reach.

Close to the Edge

I love the edge of things. My mother – and now my fiance – will tell you that I tend to be drawn recklessly close to ledges and cliff sides. Ever since I was a child, those around me have grasped my hand tightly, tugging on my fearlessness as I scoot a little closer to gaze down, relishing the flow of wind on my skin. Vertigo is an adaptation I apparently did not receive.

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Maybe it just goes to follow, then, that I love taking risks and jumping off the proverbial cliffs that life offers me. I have come to think of the last ten years as a series of escalating dares between myself and Life. The Universe has offered me a chance to go off the beaten path, and I have consistently agreed, reminding myself how good it felt last time. It started small: I went a on a graduation road trip with my friends, no parents involved. I lived and worked in Yellowstone for a summer. I said yes when my friend asked if I wanted to go to San Francisco “just because”. I got the travel bug and it intensified: I studied abroad in Venezuela, a place very few people would even consider traveling to. I moved to Los Angeles and built a home, community and career. I danced on rooftops and snuck into swimming pools at night and had a winery where the owners knew my name. Then, I left a growing career and a truly amazing community behind to travel the world, just because a little voice inside kept telling me to. I not only kissed a stranger on a beach, but I opened my heart and fell in love with that stranger and decided that I was absolutely alright with moving across the world, learning his language and making a home with him.

Sometimes I need to remind myself of all the awesomeness I’ve already lived when I look at my life today: a week shy of 28 years old. I’ve been working at a restaurant for the last year and a half, sleeping on my friend’s guest bed, biding my time until I could “move on”.  And now here I am: sharing an apartment in Italy with the man I’ll be marrying. I’m living a life that three years ago, I was certainly day dreaming about while stuffing envelopes at work, but I never believed all this could actually come to be.

I’ll be honest: this isn’t what I imagined 28 would look like. Not in any way, shape or form. In many ways it’s more magical than I could have hoped. My god: Look what I created just by getting off the beaten path and trusting my gut! But, I’ll admit, some life assurances that I assumed I’d have locked in by now (a career?) are simply not a part of this picture.

For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about what scares me most. That’s what all the info graphics tell us to do, right? “If you’re not scared, your dream isn’t big enough!” and “Find the thing that scares you the most and do it!” we’re told. Certainly, I’ve felt nervous over the last ten years as I’ve progressively jumped off higher and higher cliffs, but that fear has always been overshadowed by a deep sense of excitement which carried me into the next adventure with boldness. Once I start moving – actually doing the thing – I forget to be afraid in the action.

Well, here’s the thing: I’m terrified right now.

It’s like I’m waiting at the cliff’s edge, looking down into a sea of unknowns – a fog of possible joys and sorrows and difficulties and opportunities for growth – waiting till I can just take the leap. Because if I know one thing about myself, it’s that when I’m falling, I get things done.

I’ve been standing here so long, an old companion who I have managed to outrun for the last few years has caught up to me. My anxiety has found me at the edge of this cliff and stands next to me now, wringing its hands, constricting my lungs and reminding me of all the fears, doubts and insecurities I’ve ever carried. It’s not insisting that I stop or turn back – if I humor anxiety and we turn back together, the pathway back down this mountain is more dangerous than the free fall before me. It just won’t stop talking to me. Look at your resume full of holes. Look at how high the unemployment rate in this country is. Look at your student loans, why did you go to college anyway? Look at the novel you could be writing in all this free time! Why don’t you have more friends yet? How will you ever stay close to the people you love back home when you’re always gone and then sweep back into town and keep bragging about your amazing life in Italy, which, obviously, isn’t that amazing now, is it? How will you ever learn Italian: it’s not like you’ve ever been able to learn a language before. 

I could go on.

I want to yell and shout at the anxieties, try drown them out with constant podcasts. This ultimately doesn’t help, though, because once things get a little quiet, they’re louder than before.

These days are so long. There is so much I could be doing. There is so much I am doing. It simply feels arbitrary sometimes. Language learning is a long process. I have a baby, baby freelance career and my longest-standing project is mind-numbing, while putting myself out there for new clients is exhausting. I cannot yet legally work in Italy, and the job market doesn’t pick up till September anyway.

Ultimately, I feel stagnant. Like I’m just visiting Italy still, like I’m grazing the surface of what a life here could be like, but not really participating. And I know I only have a few months left until I’ll probably be so busy that I’ll dream of these free and listless days, but I’ve had years of days like this, and I’m frankly bored. But I’m in Italy. I live in this beautiful, historic, interesting country. Every day should be an amazing, romantic adventure. How can I be letting myself down by not being amazed by something new every second? The cycle continues.

I know how to outrun fear. I know how to ignore it. Or how to listen to it, cry with it for a minute, then run off the cliff and do the crazy thing anyway. Every time I’ve done the crazy thing, I’ve figured myself out along in the way, no matter what anxiety said would go wrong at the outset. And every time I’ve jumped off a cliff, I’ve transformed my life into something progressively more amazing, bigger and magical than I could have dreamed before I took that leap.

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I realize that in many ways I’ve already jumped off the cliff. I mean, I’m here, right? But lately I feel like I’m still waiting for things to really start here.

I say all of that, but I’m really, really fine. I’m used to sitting with anxiety, even if I don’t like it. And here’s the thing I know deep down that’s actually making the anxiety quiet down for a minute: I followed my gut this far, and because of that I know that I am in the right place. That this is going to work out. The time is right. The journey has a purpose.

I am learning Italian. I am building community here. I do have creative and paid work to do. The days are long, but the process is longer, and even if there are snags and big, uncomfortable emotions to work through, I know, deep down and with a ferocity strong enough to fight away the insecurities and worries, that I am moving in the right direction. There have been times when anxieties and doubts have been signals to rethink the plan, to consider a change of course. Twenty eight years have taught me how to read the signals, and this is not one of those times.

It’s all leading to something more grand than I dare to imagine from this vantage point, at the edge of the highest apex I’ve been able to summit thus far. And, I’m ready and waiting to see how it all works out.

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On Legalities

My mom called me the week before I came back to Italy and asked, tenderly “So, how are things going with the bureaucracy?” What a delicate question this has been: in the month before I got on the plane, one couldn’t be sure if it would make me burst into tears, growl with frustration or giggle with glee. (Insert blanket apology to all well-meaning coworkers who were probably just being polite and didn’t know what they were stepping into here.)

One day, I would be delighted, finally feeling the glee of getting to be with my fiance again in just a few days, knowing that our wedding was fast approaching (though we still don’t have a date). The next, after another seemingly insurmountable hurdle showed up – how in the world am I supposed to get a codice fiscale before the atto notorio if a codice fiscale is one of the benefits of getting legally married, which I need an atto notoiro to do? – I’d be anxious and broken down.

The ever-changing nature of our knowledge of the process we’ve been wading through and my rapidly-pivoting moods made my mom joke that I “need a Caring Bridge website for the current status of the situation.”

But that’s what I have a blog for, right? Too bad I’ve been pretty bad at updating for the last few months.

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Back home in Italy, exploring yet another angle of Lago di Como from Bellagio.

I’ve been using the word “move” loosely over the last year. It’s been a fun flag to wave: “Ciao tutti! I’m moving to Italy now!” I did come to Italy for 5 months last year, did leave most of my things in the closet when I left. Facebook even says I live here, not there. The plan has always been to return and make this my permanent home with Gabri. But until we are legally married, I cannot get permission to stay or work or receive healthcare. I cannot stay more than 90 cumulative days in any 180 day period. In short, I can’t technically move here.

So, we need to get legally married. We are also absolutely committed to one another already, love our current life together and feel so ready to continue to work towards our shared goals, and are utterly clear that we would marry one another and spend out lives together regardless of my legal status.

But there’s nothing like having to grapple with frustrating bureaucratic hurdles to ensure you’re really, actually, positively serious about this relationship and life choice.

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My final toast to Minnesota over Memorial Day Weekend.

People often ask why we chose Italy. Only recently I realized that for the average person saying “why not choose Italy?” is enough.

I kept saying “Immigration-wise, things are easier in Italy” or “There are more roadblocks and legal battles to fight in the States”. I keep telling myself that we’ve chosen the easier path, listing the reasons that we chose Italy over the United States to strangers who’s curiosity is genuine but it’s probably not their business.

I’ve watched friends marry non-Americans in the United States, seen the binders of plane tickets, Skype call logs, personal photos, Christmas letters addressed to both of them, private love letters between the two of them; all submitted to the US Government to prove that their relationship was real. I’ve helped them turn the affidavit of their love story into a cute “How We Met” section on their wedding website. I’ve heard how much money they paid not just the government, but the lawyers, and the lawyer’s printer. Held the bride while she cried a month before the wedding when, though her fiance was given a visa, the Department of State wasn’t processing any visas worldwide due to a glitch and she had to leave him in his home country and hope he made it to the wedding.

I didn’t want to have to do anything like that.

And, for all intents and purposes, it DOES appear to be easier here. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees (though free it is not), and once you get to the point of being legally married, you don’t need to wait 6+ months for the right to work legally. You can also leave the country within the first year of your marriage (something you have to petition the US government for with a Fiance Visa) and there’s the whole public health insurance thing. All in all, once you’re legally married (and in a heterosexual relationship), you’re set up pretty darn well here.

For all of that, though, “easy” isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe the process, thus far. There is a set of regulations you must move through in order to marry an Italian as a straniera. But, that’s fine: give me a list of documents to prepare and the address of the offices I have to go and and I’ll gladly wait in those lines, pay the fees and sort it out so we can say “lo voglio” and sign the paperwork. The real annoyances have hinged upon the slight variations in the ways each municipal office you interact with may or may not read these rules. No one has a straight answer. There wasn’t a single clear person to call, and sometimes when we did get someone on the phone, it was with a strict warning there was only time for three questions and and abrupt end to the call when that number was reached.

And even if we ultimately have it easier and cheaper than if we had decided to start our lives stateside, the nagging doubts, the skype calls which turned into tearful worry sessions as a new issue was put before us, my inability to do anything to help sort this out given my language abilities and distance, the ultimate fear that in the end, something’s inevitably going to come up and we’ll be back at square one: me on my way back to Minnesota at the end of August for 90 more days of waitressing, have all been pretty exhausting to bear. All things considered, the process of leaving again, along with all this extra worry has been a real bummer.

But here I am: time passed, as it always does. I’ve been back in Italy for just over a week. I didn’t forget as much Italian as I was afraid I would. I got the chance to attend a friend’s wedding, which was really wonderful (and insightful, as I begin to plan my own Catholic Italian wedding).

Here’s the thing I’m reminding myself again and again in this process, when I start to loose heart in things coming together the way we’re hoping (and there are plenty more big questions after we get this phase sorted out): You have no idea what the inbetween will look like, or how long it will take to arrive at the goal. But so far, no matter what has changed in the details in the last three years, the goal of being together has remained the same, and we’ve found our way here. Some research, preparation and patience is half the battle. A lot of faith in the journey that seems mad, a willingness to follow the dream that just won’t let go and a deep trust that if things have worked out so far, they’ll keep coming together has gotten me this far, and I’m planning on following it through.

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What it Actually Means to Date a Foreigner

It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also full of unexpected difficulties and complex relationship dynamics you might not encounter in a “normal” relationship. Here are some of the harder truths about what might look like a fairy tale from the outside.

“Have an amazing time, but whatever you do don’t fall in love!” My friend laughed at me over the glass of wine she was sipping, looking meaningfully to her boyfriend.

It was the eve of my 25th birthday, the night before I left for a six-month solo backpacking trip across Europe, and I was having drinks to celebrate. The couple advising me to be careful with my heart abroad had good reason to do so: He is Canadian and she is American. They had met several summers before on an archaeological dig in Greece, and had spent the ensuing years straddled between two countries, their lives semi on-hold while they battled immigration systems, time differences and family health crises, trying to find a way to just live in the same place. As a friend, I had an up close look at how taxing the situation could be.

“Don’t worry,” I assured them. “This trip is not about falling in love!”

Well, to make a long story short, it ended up kind of being about falling in love. Two months later, I sat down on a Greek beach (what’s up with Greece and my friends, by the way?) next to a handsome stranger. We got to talking, and my life utterly changed. Right now, I live in Italy with that handsome stranger, and we also happen to be engaged.

And, yes, it is gloriously romantic, and yes, I can’t believe it happened to me either. (And no, it was not a nude beach.)

I love my love story. I’m a sucker for romance and I love that it is so over the top. I love that nearly three years later, in so many ways, the epic-ness of our beginning has not lead to disappointments in daily realities. I cannot believe how much I love this man, and how close I came to never meeting someone so incredible.

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No matter how much I love juicing all the beautiful details of the most beautiful moments in our relationship (have I mentioned the moonlit moped ride across the Greek island after our first kiss?), it’s obviously not all rainbows and butterflies. We all know (at least logically) that an amazing meet-cute can only sustain a relationship for so long. Luckily, we’ve found ways to make the complexities and intensity work.

Here are a few of the harsher realities we’ve come up against over the years.

It’s LONG distance

Right, this is the obvious one. People are always asking me how we make it work, how in the world we can withstand the distance of 4,400+ miles, not to mention the 7 time zones. I guess the short answer is, for the right person, you’d do it too. Because I’ve tried in the past, and I’ve sworn long distance off as hopeless and unworkable for someone “like me”. But then, with The Fiancé, when there was no choice but the distance for long stretches of time, it was the easiest choice I’ve ever made.

Of course, even with a great person on the other side of the space, the distance is still there, and the distance SUCKS. It can feel like you’re living a half life, like your heart and soul are on another continent entirely. And for all the coordinating you’ll do to cross time zones and catch each other on Skype, video chatting can be devastatingly unsatisfying.

On the flip side, a lot of talking is great way to get to know someone really well. You’re forced to ensure that you can keep up a conversation. But the missing physical intimacy is a real issue.

No, you don’t just move to a new country

So, the distance is one thing. But if you’re not just dating someone who lives across a state line or on a different coast, you also need to deal with immigration, tourist visas, and if you decide to make the move to where your honey is, residency.

One of the questions I’ll admit annoys me the most is “You mean you can’t just move to Italy?”

No, despite all the people who threaten to move to Canada when an election doesn’t go their way, you cannot just pack up and start looking for work in a new country. Frustratingly, as an US citizen, a lot of short term work visas EU and Commonwealth citizens enjoy are just not available. If you do find a path, there’s always a process (ie tons of time and possibly lots of money in legal fees/trips to consulates), and you have to meet a very specific set of requirements to get through the red tape. For some, it’s just not possible.

The harsh truth: I spent more than half of 2016 working two waitressing jobs, sometimes +15 hours a day, often 50-70 hours a week (and on the opposite schedule as most of my friends) in order to save enough money to be in Italy for 4.5 months on combined tourist visas. I cannot work legally in Italy while I am there, and I have bills to pay back home. I had to return home in early 2017 for more than 4 months to wait out my expired tourist visa, and save money again. Eventually, I’ll have residency, but that will come from a legal, lifelong commitment (one which I am completely ready to make, even under the circumstances which compel us to sign on the dotted line faster than me we may otherwise) and even then, there are no guarantees about when I’ll find work and what I’ll be doing.

It sucks.

I have put my professional career on hold and feel like I’m living two half lives in order to cobble together tourist visas so that I can stay in Italy for chunks of time, jump to another continent for a few days to gain a few more days here, and transition from one country to the other again and again. It’s been fun and exciting, but I’m frankly done.

It can be really awkward

In a relationship like this, there is a lot of intimacy really fast. Maybe in a “normal” relationship, you go on a date once, then twice a week, which escalates to sleep overs, and traveling together and eventually living in the same place. You get some reflection time in those first few weeks, time to think about the person, to miss them, to continue to live your life and integrate the new partner at a natural pace.

But when you’re living on difference continents, getting the chance to be together means you’re TOGETHER ALL THE TIME. You don’t want to give up one second of that hard-fought, precious time in the same city or apartment. But even if you’re not both introverts, even five days (not to mention weeks) of nonstop togetherness is really overwhelming. That much togetherness sometimes doesn’t give you the chance to present your best self to one another (not that there isn’t a time and a place for being authentically, messily you in a committed relationship – I just know personally, I get unnecessarily grouchy when not given adequate time to zone out all alone, no matter how much I love the person I’m with). You need breaks, or at least the semblance of being alone. That can be hard to learn to ask for, when all you’ve wanted for months is to be close to your sweetheart.

Additionally you also need to rely on each other to a huge extent when you are in each other’s countries. There’s no neutral ground. Which can be a part of the fun and romance, of course, but it’s also really taxing for both the person experiencing culture shock and the person explaining the cultural nuances and translating everything for their partner. Think about it: any time you go to see your significant other, you’re either totally immersed in their home, their element, their family, their language and their culture (all the while trying to put your best foot forward, of course) OR they are in yours (trying to do the same). There’s no coffee shop in the city you both live in where you can just go and talk. Everything is loaded with newness for at least one person, and the other is supporting the newbie through it.

The first time I came to Italy, The Fiancé was my tour guide and my translator, he was introducing me to his family and friends AND we were still getting to know each other. It was an incredible tour of the country, but so much more was happening for both of us. Even today, when I’m in Italy I rely on him for rides, about half of my social interactions and language help, no matter how independent I am when I live in the States.

Alternatively, when you opt to both travel and meet one another in a new country, you’re not only together 24-7, you’re also together on vacation. Everyone says to travel with someone before you agree to marry them, but I’m not sure they mean on your third date, which was effectively what we did. The first time The Fiancé and I met up after the three days we spent on the Greek island where we met, it was for a 5-day road trip in Ireland. We had to learn about each other, negotiate where to eat (meaning figuring out what each other LIKED to eat while still being polite and deferential to a new person we both really liked), build a routine, do all the normal first date activities, AND learn how to be on vacation together.

I kind of can’t believe we survived it. As romantic as it sounds, it can be a awkward to be that intimate with someone that rapidly. Luckily, no one got food poisoning!

And then you have the emotional whiplash of transitioning from seeing each other 24-7 for a few weeks to long distance exile once again. I have found myself reduced to a weeping mess, curled up on a friend’s couch drinking wine and watching Making a Murderer for days after The Fiance’s time in Minnesota (bless her husband for letting me do that). It was in the style of the most devastating of break ups, but I was still very much dating the man: he was just on a plane back to Italy. It was more difficult than I ever imagined to be the one left behind.

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All of that said, beginning and maintaining this relationship is the most incredible choice I have made in my life. It has torn my world opened in the most lovely way, challenged me and given me the opportunity and travel and live abroad. I’ve had to peel back and walk away from a lot of the parts of myself I clung to as a part of my identity, and relearn how to exist in a whole new culture and country. It’s hard, and the process isn’t over, but the growth and life experiences are worth it for me. I am excited beyond words for what lays ahead for The Fiancé and I.

Traveler’s Notebook: Jordan

December 31st, 2016

Writen in Madaba, Jordan

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The view from Mount Nebo, looking north towards the Jordan River Valley.

Yesterday afternoon, after standing on the edge of Mt. Nebo – where Moses is said to have finally seen the promised land before dying – we set off across the neighboring hills to find the ruins of a cluster of pilgrimage churches. We were quiet and introspective; I don’t think we had anticipated the effect that hillside would have on us as we curiously walked up the cement pathway, past a few monks, past commemorative signs, a declaration from the Pope that this was, in fact, Holy Ground.

I can’t say I know what it takes for a place to become spiritual and meditative. Is it the other tourists (or lack thereof) around you feeling the same thing, a sort of collective rising of consciousness? Is it the centuries of pilgrims who have walked and prayed before you, filling the air and ground with an intrinsic sense of stillness? Or has it always been there, drawing people in, silencing their hearts and minds, inspiring them to build churches and way-side rests in this place?

Perhaps, it was just this evening in particular, settling in early and chilled: golden pink sunlight softening the desert hills, glittering off the Dead Sea below and shadowing the hills of Israel and Palestine beyond.

Even living in Italy, even traversing the grandness of that epic Roman empire, we have been realizing that we are in the face of something more ancient to humanity than those columned temples and marble-paved roads. These hills have seen, cultivated and given more than we can contend with or imagine today. Life, crops, religions. Inevitably, war and grief. Perhaps this is what stuns and silences us, as well.

Before the sun fully set, as as the tour groups cluster along the cliff side which makes “Mount” Nebo a mountain rather than a quick fall to hundreds of meters below sea level, we leave to seek out one more nearby ruin that we’ve read about. The area surrounding Madaba is known for incredible, Byzantine-era mosaic floors which used to decorate homes and churches alike, remains of which are hidden throughout the hills and still being discovered. True, we’ve seen a lot of them in the last few hours, but nights are long this time of the year, and we want to experience as much as possible before dark.

We take a right off the main road – a two-lane paved street laced with potholes and with herds of goats and sheep grazing dangerously close to moving cars without a guardrail – and drive a few kilometers along a single-lane drive tracing its way across the top of the hillsides. We pass by a group of teenage boys setting themselves up to watch the sunset along a line of tall pines, a hookah and pot of tea balanced between them all. They wave as enthusiastically as little children, shouting greetings. We have been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming hospitality of the people we meet here: the men who pull over on the highway and offer to take our photo as we appreciate a great view, the passersby who rush to assure us that the sounds we hear are not bombs, but fireworks celebrating the New Year, the many conversations about European football my fiance has with taxi drivers. There is a genuineness to the people here, an ease and openness that goes beyond the service industry standards which I do not often find when traveling. Probably, it comes with a culture sitting at the crossroads of the earth: nomadic desert folk who need to be opened to strangers in order to survive as a species. It has taken work for me to fight against an intrinsic fear I’ve been taught when the images of men in the traditional clothing of the Middle East are standing before me, going about their lives. There are constant reminders that this is just not a given, that taught fear wont serve me here or anywhere.

As we pull up to the farm at the end of the road, a Bedouin groundskeeper and his son appear, waving to us, then telling us he had closed for the day. We apologize and move to get back into the car, but he shakes his head and assures us “You are welcome, you are most welcome,” shaking my fiances hand.

He leads us to a covered cement structure, unlocking the heavy, bolted door. In the dim light, we can make out the mosaic patterns of what used to be the floor of a church. In the center, the colors are scared by burn marks, and he tells us that before the priests came and discovered the ancient workmanship, his family had used the convenient (and beautiful) flat surface as the floor of their tents when they arrived in the area. When the priests came to inspect the work, the paid for a proper home to be built for the family, as well as this structure over the mosaic to protect it.

After we leave the artwork, our guide catches my wandering eye and leads us to the crest of the hill to show us the neighboring ridges spotted with tents and ruins, even a sliver view of the Dead Sea, still reflecting the deepening sunset. Through broken English, he offers us each a cup of sugary tea which his son had already brought, then instructs us to sit down cross-legged together on the hilltop.

“Breathe.” He mimics slow, long intakes of breath with a pause between inhale and exhale. We all follow suit, in the same meditative silence we found on the top of Mount Nebo. The sounds of sheep bleating in the distance are drowned out as the final Call to Prayer of the day echoing through the hills. Our host mutters a few Arabic prayers as the sun slips below the horizon, the clouds become rosy and brilliant for a moment longer, and darkness starts to truly descend. The air becomes chilly, delicate.

We’ve finished our tea. We stand and his son takes our cups. As we linger a moment longer on the way to the car, the father stops, looks us in the eye and tells us that the real Muslims of the world are nothing like DASH (a regional name for ISIS). They are peaceful, welcoming and should not wish for warfare. My fiance and I nod. Syria and all the horrors being experienced there, is less than 75 kilometers away. It is strangely always the darkest, stormiest spot on the horizon: the north. It is a world away, yet always present. We don’t have enough shared language to discuss this, to speak to nuance. But we nod. We heard him, and will tell others. I think this is what he needs from us tonight.

As we drive back to the main road, the teenage boys are still sitting, smoking at the line of trees. When they see us approaching, they jump up, wave again, signalling us to stop and join them for a cup of tea. We smile and wave but keep driving: we’ve already learned that here in Jordan, if you stop for every cup of tea you’re offered, you probably won’t make it anywhere.

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For more reading on our trip to Jordan this winter, check out the full itinerary here, and tips for winter travel in the Middle East here.

Jordan in the Winter? The Pros and Cons

You’ve decided to travel to Jordan, but you’ve only got vacation time in the middle of winter. Here’s what you can expect, and what to consider.

Jordan is in the Middle East – that means a super hot desert all the time, right? But, wait – deserts get really really cold, too, don’t they? Is it even worth it to go in the winter?

After spending two weeks traveling Jordan at the end of December and beginning of January, here’s my personal experience of how the winter can affect your trip through this unique, beautiful country. (Spoiler: it’s not all bad.)

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Our desert camp in Wadi Rum, January

First, a Breakdown

We spent two full weeks in Jordan, from December 26th, 2016 to January 8th, 2017. Our full itinerary can be found here. We had one rainy day (in Amman), and lots of sunny days. The average daytime temp was around 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) and night times would dance around freezing. The warmest place we visited was the Dead Sea, thanks to the hills all around and low elevation.

Pros:

It’s off season: aka other travelers are relatively light. We’ve all experienced it: the most-anticipated ruin, the million-dollar photo-op, the supposedly-magical religious site; aka the top of your bucket list just not being as magical as you anticipated because there are just too many darn people mulling around. Not to say we never had a moment like this in Jordan, but traveling during the winter helped to thin out the crowds. Granted, I’ve been fighting my way through the hordes of tourists in Europe for the last few years, and this region is relatively less traveled, but there is nothing like actually walking alone down an ancient road in the city of Jerash, or Petra. You get one step closer to imagining life there thousands of years ago when you don’t need to try to ignore hundreds of other tourists taking selfies.

You don’t need to overthink modesty in chilly weather. When traveling in the Middle East, or any country where Islam is the main local religion, it’s important to consider your clothing choices. Out of respect for local customs and to avoid potentially marking yourself as a tourist and putting yourself at risk, covering shoulders, cleavage and legs (yes, that includes you too, men) is important. And in my experience, a heck of a lot more comfortable to pull off in January in Jordan than in October in Marrakesh! The sun shone nearly every day of our trip, and once it was in full force, it was comfortable enough to be in long sleeved shirts, but I never felt like a tank top or sun dress would be more comfortable. Layers will be your friend for early morning hikes into Petra, or an evening sampling some of the best food in Madaba, but not having to sweat it out while  respecting local customs was a plus.

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Early morning layers as we arrived at the Treasury in Petra. (Yes, we’re each wearing 2 jackets and long underwear.)

Cons:

Short days. We decided that we didn’t want to be driving at night – partly for safety and partly because we didn’t want to miss any incredible landscapes – so we made an effort to always arrive at our hotel by/within a half hour of sunset every day. Which happened to be around 4:30 in the afternoon when we were there. This left us having to plan our days carefully and rush through some things to ensure we made it back to home base each day. It also gave us long (and cold – see below) nights. Ultimately, it forced us to get really good night’s sleep and relax more, but it was a divergence from the daily routine of summer vacations.

Cold Nights. Now, the cooler days were manageable (and kind of refreshing with all the hiking and exploration we were doing) but the nights did get chilly (around the freezing point). And by chilly I really do mean there was an entire evening in a heat-less countryside hotel room spent in bed, cuddled up against each other, reading and waiting to be tired enough to fall asleep. In general, we found our accommodation comfortable, but it’s worth considering that in more budget-friendly hotels, heat may not be available (or work well) and the showers might be especially uncomfortable if it’s chilly in the room. If it’s really important to have these creature comforts, you might want to book something more expensive in the winter months.

This is especially important to consider in Wadi Rum. We got lucky on our overnight in the desert, but the extremes of the this ecosystem can swing to very cold during the winter. After we watched the sunset with our tour guides, we spent a lot of time in the communal tent drinking tea around the fire, which was cozy enough. But all meals on the tour were served outside, and the goat hair tent we slept in was so well insulated (and it had been so cold on recent nights) that it felt warmer OUTSIDE than in. Bring your long underwear!

The beach wont be the same. And I suppose this one is up for interpretation: from our balcony in Tala Bay on the Red Sea, we watched several newly-arrived Russians go for a sunrise swim while we shivered in sweaters and drank our coffee. In general, though, I’d say for most people in the world it wasn’t exactly lounging on the beach weather. A pesky north wind blew down on us the whole time we were at the Red Sea, making sun bathing less than optimal and forced us to rent wet suits for snorkeling. I’ve read, too, that in late January through February the Red Sea can get even cooler, so beware the dead of winter. The Dead Sea was more comfortable: even on a windy day, with the low elevation and hills all around, we were comfortable in our bathing suits by the water – though the heavy waves made bobbing in the water a little harder. (Also remember rules/customs governing modesty exist outside of tourist-heavy resorts: ie on public beaches.)

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Even if the weather wasn’t optimal for sun bathing at the Red Sea, there’s something pretty unique about sleeping in Jordan and being able to see both Egypt and Israel from your balcony.

All in all, I would say choosing to visit Jordan in the winter was a good decision for us and the season didn’t dampen out experience. It definitely beats going in the hottest months of the year, when the heat can be dangerously oppressive in Petra and Wadi Rum – though the beach relaxation might be more comfortable!

Jordan Itinerary (1)