Leveling Out

Last week, everything changed.

DSC01745 - Copy
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.

21150250_10209948113201137_4075493493903433365_n
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.

DSC01550
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.

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.

dsc00524-2

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.

unnamed

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

DSC00898
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.

DSC00858

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.