August 30th

It is two years to the day since I spent a beautiful, sunny morning on the porch of a farm house on the Greek Island Lipsi. I had a hearty breakfast, sipped my coffee slowly and spent hours breathing deeply, looking out over the vineyards, fig trees and white church roofs, towards the looming hill in the distance: a place legendary for being the home of Calypso and the castle where she kept Odysseus hostage for 7 years.

I was incredibly peaceful, hopeful.

It had been nearly two months since I started my solo backpacking trip across Europe, and I had done a lot of work to weed out and process a lot of things which had been bogging my mind down for some time. I had truly hit my stride. I was centered, focused and happy in so many ways. I had confidence in myself as a woman and my dreams as achievable. For the first time, I felt I could truly articulate  what I wanted in my life, and as such, I had a newfound clarity in what I needed in a life partner. I meditated on this. Let the things I knew and understood soak into my core. Believed so deeply that I would find who I was meant to find when the time was right. And for the first time in my life, I had overwhelming patience, reverence for the journey, and certainty that he would show up eventually. No sooner than I needed him to.

This trip was most certainly not about love, I had decided long before.

Lipsi Island, Greece, in the Eastern Aegean is a quiet, agricultural community where one will find a plethora of vacationing Italians during the month of August.

It was my day off from working out on the farm, so I proceeded to pack up my towel and Kindle, and walked across the island to Platis Galios beach, and happened to sit down next to the love of my life.

Two years to the day later, I’m sitting in the living room of our new home, listening to the voices of Italians rushing just outside the window. I am continually surprised by which things catch me off guard when it comes to the move,  and the proximity of our windows to the street is one of those things. I mean, I’ve lived in BIG cities before, it’s not like I need exorbitant amounts of privacy. But people’s faces just below the window sill, with no grass to speak up separating us from the sidewalk are still a little jarring. Not to mention every time I go to look out the window, I meet the eyes of about 12 old Italian ladies who are looking out their own windows in the surrounding apartments, which makes me quickly retreat. I am not ready, somehow, to stand among their numbers. Partly because let me tell you – eye contact really happens in Italy, in a way that is pretty jarring to me and my Midwestern lookawayquickly habits.

I’ve been here a week. I’ve walked around Legnano, I’ve walked around Milan. I’ve done some nesting, but am anxious to actually hang the art and maps on the walls. I’ve adapted to the time zone. I’ve established that I can, in fact, find the ingredients to cook some of my favorite dishes here. I’ve swam in Alpine lakes with the boyfriend’s friends at a birthday party. I’ve “settled in”, as people keep inquiring, pretty quickly and adequately. It’s kind of a specialty of mine after so many moves.

                                                  Streets of Legnano, the newest home.

Physically being somewhere, and mentally feeling at home, are obviously two different things, though. And I ache for routine. In fact, I’ve ached for routine for the last year and a half. Waitressing at two different restaurants for seven months certainly filled my savings account, but all of the last minute “Hey, do you think you can open tomorrow,” texts, and having to choose between making up to $800 in a crazy, double shift studded weekend or spending time with friends took it’s toll on me. Plus, I’m almost scared to admit it, but 27 doesn’t feel as young as I thought it would at 17, and those profound Monday morning aches in the soles of my feet after three 12-14 hours days? Brutal.

I have found myself needing to gently remind myself that no matter what, I’ve only been here a week. And next week I start Italian classes, which will give me at least some of that routine. I know logically that no matter what, no matter where one moves, it’s always a little awkward and strange to get barrings and find meaning. The waking hours of a day can feel unreasonably long in the right circumstances, and having no actual purpose, persay, but my own goals and images of life here over the next 5 months, exacerbates this.

Perhaps what’s hardest is that I’ve been holding out for this moment for SO long. A year only seems long when you stand at the front end, I kept telling myself. It is a long time to build towards something, though. And when you’ve held out that long for some version of a Big Thing, the Thing actually arriving and not being immediately transcendent can be a let down, no matter how many times you remind yourself in the lead up that these things take time. I know this. I’ve moved before. Not to mention this move is bigger and badder than any in the past.

And it is utterly worth it. The awkwardness, the spaces I’m growing into, the challenge of language learning is nothing compared to the ease with which the central part of this move, my relationship and our shared life, wraps me up and brings me certainty in the meaning of this. It is OK – even necessary – to face challenges, even in the most beautiful story. These things do not discount the truth of the incredible journey we are on and the heart of this move or the “rightness” of my path.

At some moments, it doesn’t seem like much has happened in the last two years, or like the real journey is only just beginning. Then the other part of me, the woman who sat centered and focused in Greece and called forth exactly what she wanted most, steps up and reminds me of all we’ve created, all the work I’ve done and the fact that this journey has chosen me – both of these truths at once. It is both the most incredible and the most natural place in the world to be in today, this Italian apartment.

Love May Know No Boundaries, but Immigration Laws Certainly Do

Just the other day, the boyfriend and I tacked another item to the ever-multiplying list of “Things We Will One Day Need to Deal With”. The potential issue this time? Can I even legally drive in Italy? The short answer: Yes. The long answer: A year after I finally gain residency in Italy, I’ll need to take the exam and get my EU licence (that is, if the EU is still standing and thriving, given the last few weeks of craziness. But this is at least one thing that falls into the category of “Not In My Control”, which is where we will be solidly leaving it for now.)

From cell phone plans, to bank accounts, to insurance, to all the random crap I own which is taking up a whole room of my empty-nested parent’s home, there are a million and one bureaucratic and adult-like things which I am in the process of dismantling here in the States and need to square away to make this new life work. Some things I can start working on now, many will have to wait until I am an actual resident, which won’t be within the next few months, at least. It is amazing how quickly this can get overwhelming.

It is true, that love may know none of the artificial boundaries modern society has created. Despite all odds, the most incredible love can grow in the most unexpected and beautiful places. But, damn, politics and immigration don’t have much appreciation for even the most romantic of stories. And I have a feeling that my lover and I have not yet even dropped below sea level to take in the whole iceberg of what we are up against.

If one more person gives me a sweet, doe-eyed look as I lay out the most basic of these complications and says “But – I just don’t get it. Why is it that hard? Why can’t you just move? Why do the governments make it so hard?!” I might just put my fist through the nearest wall. I don’t mean to be dismissive of other’s first time around the expatriation merry-go-round, but I’ve moved so far beyond being surprised at the road blocks, the stary-eyed vision of opened borders and good, smart, hardworking people being able to just move where they want to drives me mad. (There is something at the heart of this about a common cultural assumption that there are easy and legal ways for someone who is not incredibly specialized in a skill or incredibly wealthy or incredibly lucky to just move wherever they want to in the world, and those who sneak through borders illegally are just not trying hard enough, but that’s a different conversation.)

It’s not my first time contending with Schengen Zone tourist visa time restrictions, of making sure to fly through the right airports to get the proper stamps and leave a trail in my passport, of carrying with me copies of outbound flight tickets and deciding whether to keep paying for health insurance I’m not using for 6 months or pay the penalty next year.

I wasn’t green coming into this either. I have some very dear friends who have brought their foreign lovers into the USA on K-1 Fiance Visas, something much more difficult and expensive than what we are embarking upon. I have seen how painstaking, stressful and long it can be to get even a Canadian into the country (a Canadian – someone who arguably has more in common culturally with us Minnesotans than a Texan!), I’ve known people who have been separated for much longer times than the boyfriend and I. Who have had worse Skype connections. Whose flights cost more.

And yet.

Sure, there are exciting things about planning weekend trips to Morocco in order to restart my Schengen Zone Tourist Visa and allow me to stay legally with my boyfriend for 90 more days. (Another legal math equation I’ve explained to so many people who grow cross-eyed at the repetition of “90 days every 180 days” I’m nearly batty.) Sure, he and I are freakishly good at planning, and take an equally freakish delight in it, so maybe we are uniquely qualified for this sort of lifestyle for a while. We are both willing enough to uproot, to take huge romantic risks, to see each other through the good and bad over a shitty internet video in a way I’m not sure most people are brave enough to do. And here we are, planning it all and growing closer to one another with each problem we collectively solve. We’ve accepted that for a long long time, possibly forever, our lives will be filled with strategizing, coordinating, seeing new issues and redirecting to better align with the vision we’re creating.

About a month ago, a coworker came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said sadly, meaningfully “I just heard from a friend that it can be really hard to move to another country. Like, you can’t just arrive, get a job and start living. Did you know that? I hope this doesn’t derail you’re plans for the fall.” It took all I had not to laugh in his face. Have we considered the complications? Oh, how I do appreciate thoughts like this, when people are horrified that I can’t just go live with the man I’m in love with even though he’s from a different country. If only, as so many people immediately assume, my biggest problem in all of this was the process of mastering Italian.

Never have I done something with more preparation, planning, figuring, anxiety and, most of all, anticipation. With seven weeks left, I finally feel like time might be slipping through my fingers faster than I realized, and boy is it a good feeling. I’ve been waiting, working, saving and dreaming for what feels like a long, long, time. Others may have waited more, but it doesn’t discount the things last two years have meant for us. We may be up against a lot, but it’s an important life lesson – and growth opportunity for our relationship – to deal with each issue as it comes, compartmentalize it into “Now”, “Later” or “Out of Our Control”, and make decisions as a team.

Even- and especially – when we’re 4,500 miles away from each other.

At the Bottom of the Well: On Language Learning

I have never, never been good at learning languages. Nothing, besides perhaps math, would fill me with so much stress as the struggle to put together even the most simple sentence for French or Spanish class. I remember years of staring down into the abyss of a homework assignment, trying to deal with the multiple problems of congregation, structure, vocabulary and accent marks, in utter desperation. As soon as I thought I had a handle on it, I’d get an assignment back, covered in red marks, question marks and notes reminding me that in Spanish, you use el, not le, like French.

I used to chalk it up to just having a poor French teacher in Middle and High School, those poor formative experiences with learning how to learn a language. But I’ve had a lot of teachers since those first classes, and there is no reason to blame my difficulties on all those people who tried their best to do what I was paying them to do.

Ultimately, it’s never mattered so much that I don’t speak the local language. Though I’d like to be a more polite traveler, keeping English in your back pocket as your native language sets you up pretty well in this world.

Here, though, I sit in the central square of Legnano, appreciating the spring sunlight as perhaps only a Minnesotan at the end of winter can, watching children laugh in the fountains and old men walk in circles, when someone walks up to me and says “Scusami,” and begins speaking rapid Italian. Caught off guard, I completely butcher the sentence I’ve been repeating under my breath as I walk through the streets, preparing for this moment of truth, “Mi scusi, non parlo italino molto bene” and he nods and walks away, surprised that a tourist has wandered this far away from the center of Milan, perhaps. I’m left to wonder for the next hour what he could possibly be saying – do I look like I’m getting sunburned? Lots of people like to politely warn me of this while I’m traveling. Or did he need something? I’ve seen enough beggars and know enough compliments in Italian to know it wasn’t the two most common reasons Italian men walk up to strangers. Worst of all, am I doing something wrong? Am I offending the whole town somehow, by sitting and reading here in my t-shirt on a beautiful spring day?

I didn’t appreciate until now that even though I’ve now spent more than a cumulative month and a half in Italy, I’ve been well taken care of by my native tour guide.

In this way, I feel hopeless and exposed. I am at the beginning stages of my move to this country, utterly overwhelmed by the most stressful and arguably most important piece of this puzzle: la lingua Italiana. And now that I’m here, dipping my toes into what my life will be like in August when I move into my new home by learning how to take the bus to Milano and the proper etiquette to order a coffee on my own, I am finding myself at the bottom of a desperate well of language. From this vantage point the light at the top of this tunnel feels dreadfully, hopeless, unreachable.

Free apps (seriously though, DuoLingo is damn good for a free program) and my basic grasp of Spanish have gotten me part of the way there: I can sit at the dinner table and impress my hosts with my ability to spout the words for most of the objects in front of me: Piatti! Tavola! Bottiglie! Cucchiaio! But beyond the most simple sentences, I am utterly useless. All of which makes me feel like a goofy toddler, which I resent in myself.

Listening to those around me speak Italian – and trying to follow the conversation, which I am decent at – is like swimming in a sea of exaggerated and lyrical pronunciations and watching passionate hand gestures, waiting for a significant word that I know, which I cling to like a bouy. Once I catch that word or phrase I’m suddenly doggy-paddling at the surface of conversation, following a story I’ve already heard, or grasping at the idea of what’s being said, while bracing myself for the next wave of impenetrable language which will eventually drag me down again. Until that happens, I nod excitedly, maybe drop in a “Sì” or “esatto” for good measure.  Then on the walk home from dinner an aunt or uncle’s house I’m asking Gabri to explain to me “So there was a story which made everyone laugh for several minutes that I understood was about a scientist dissecting fish and crustaceans, but why was it funny?”

We’re still going on amazing weekend trips, like Lago d’Orta, northwest of Milano.

Admittedly, things have gotten slightly better in my first nine days here, and that’s not to go unnoticed. I have celebrated the small victory of asking the cashier at the local bar if they sell bus tickets, then proceeding to purchase those tickets. I have ordered myself some food without the waiter interrupting me to inform me that he does speak English, if I’d like. I’ve ventured a few simple sentences during meals or in the car. Certainly, the hardest part of all of this is those family dinners, the many broken conversations, which Gabri so dutifully translates, when no one is sure who to look at, where I try to keep my focus going, even when the conversations moves far beyond my grasp. There is so much to connect to, so much I’d love to be able to say and talk about, questions to ask and stories to tell, but I’m trapped and limited for now, and it’s hard.

People keep apologizing to me for not speaking better English, which is crazy. I just want to shout back to them: I’m here, I’m the foreigner, and I will learn how to talk to you in your own, beautiful, song-like language, damn it.

Perhaps with a bout of unexplainable intuition, I apparently told my mom when I was younger that the language I wanted to learn most was Italian. (Maybe I just was just thinking about how much I loved spaghetti, and recognized the usefulness of Italian for getting more pasta in my life, though). It’s a long road ahead of me, trying to get out from the bottom of this well and into even passable language skills, much less fluency. And it’s possibly one of the more difficult things I’ve ever needed to do. But, my god, I’m going to make it happen.