Expanding outward: the beautiful danger of getting off the beaten path

Two months and some change since I arrived. My consciousness seems to pulse in and out: from the sharp pinpoint of a long evening when I ache and ache for routine, to the strange sensation of looking backwards at the week on Friday afternoon and realizing five days somehow slipped through my fingers. I’ve gone from grasping at anything that will make this place feel real – like my life, like my home – to suddenly realizing time has spun out around me and become what I hoped for. I am here. I live here. With a man. It is at once the most natural and strangest thing in the world for me. Suffice to say that all is well. Between the inter-continental move, living situation changes and even the job hunt, I’m making this new path clearer and clearer each day.

The Italian language has suddenly become exhausting to me. It’s as if one day, I went one toe farther than where I could reach the bottom of this ocean and slipped into the water. My head went under and I feel as overwhelmed and lost as I ever do in language class. But even as I struggle, I’ve come to realize that I’m actually conversing, albeit simply. I see my own progress stacking up around me, count each small victory as I integrate a new word effortlessly into my vocabulary. One day, just a few weeks ago I walked with a friend for nearly and hour and we spoke Italian the whole time. We talked about travel, living abroad, her 9 month old daughter who slept on her chest while we walked and her work for an NGO. I heard myself do the thing that a million people have done to me while on the road: “Scusa per il mio Italiano…” And just like I always have always said when others apologize to me for their English skills, she politely smiled and assured me that I’m doing just fine.

It has been interesting, as someone who has always found a home and played confidently with language, to return to the base of it. The place where a simple intonation or mispronounced sound can change the meaning of the whole sentence, where tense and conjugation is still drilling their way into the grey matter of my brain. To be rendered helpless, but to slowly pick myself up, to watch myself string each sliver of a rule together and make something whole is incredible.

And after two months, my time in the little Italian class has come to an end. This was always the plan – in fact, I ended up buying more weeks than originally planned because it was going so well. But between the cost of the class, some opportunities pick up some freelance work (thereby stop dipping so deeply into my savings account) and my own developing abilities, I’m branching out on my own now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got to this place, how my decisions and happenstance has brought me to this couch in a suburb of Milano. Another city (much like Los Angeles) that I never imagined even going out of my way to visit but where I am now living. In many ways, this little life I’m building up for myself is astoundingly close to the quiet dream I’ve always harbored but never actually believed could come to be. I’m living in Italy, I have found an incredible partner, I seem to be pulling things I need to make a life out of thin air once again: friends, routine, jobs. How does that happen, I ask the wish fairies, or The Universe or the God and army of saints I was raised to believe in…

How did I pull this off?

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An utterly spectacular weekend spent in Valle d’Aosta – Italy’s tiniest region which includes clusters of castles, the tallest mountain in Western Europe and lots of stunning side valleys to explore.

It’s true that I’ve ridden the coat tails of a fair amount of luck to get myself here, and I’ve also got a deep love for planning and goal setting that I know bewilders some. But I’ve come to think there is a missing step that especially as we get older, more and more people skip (and for many good reasons: I can certainly see why some people find this lifestyle utterly irresponsible and terrifying). But if I’ve learned anything, it’s this:

You need to show up in the first place.

The whole story of my life so far seems to be some version of showing up where I’m being quietly asked to. For example, I was living in California. Everything was, honestly, amazing. I was happy. So utterly happy. But I knew that my time was coming. Every time I met someone who would say “Oh, I used to think I’d leave LA at some point too. But that was 35 years ago” or when I would look at the actual cost of living (buying a house, sending children to school) in the long run, how most of my friends appeared to not have long-term plans in the city… I could go on with the logical lists but in the end the real truth is: I was being called away. Something in my heart was pulling me towards the Next Big Thing, and while it praised my ability to live my life in SoCal to the fullest, I felt constantly reminded of the other things I wanted to do in this one, precious little life of mine.

So I left, I went away with an opened heart, followed the call to the Next Big Thing. I walked through a door that lead to hundreds of other doors and suddenly found myself sitting on a beach next to a man that would open the next set of doors and change my world completely.

Now, I’m not suggesting that fate or the universe is required to provide a Handsome Italian to everyone who would like to move to Europe, or that the doors which open on the other end of a big risk are going to have sunny, comfortable endings. (Nor do I want to insinuate that every day or everything about my life right now is sunny and comfortable). I recently heard someone say that if you’re going to jump off a cliff, you should do it because you like the fall, not because of what you hope to find at the bottom. And let’s face it, even if I had returned to Minnesota in early 2015 and restarted my life there without an Italian boyfriend waiting for me back in Europe, that wouldn’t have made my trip any less worth it. Even if something horrible had happened to me, if I’d have “failed miserably”, broken every figurative bone in my body landing on the hard ground at the bottom of a steep, steep cliff, I wouldn’t give up the fall I’d taken to reach that ending.

And who knows guys, I could still “fail” in someway. In fact, I’m sure I will, as we all do once or twice throughout life, in a dramatic and difficult way. We are not guaranteed happiness, only constant change.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: no matter what, when you step off the beaten path you are in danger, but not in the way that you think. You’re in danger of being pulled even farther away from the norm. Of realizing there are millions of ways of making life work. Of realizing that you can, in fact, start over again and again in life. Of a door opening before you in the most beautiful way that you cannot refuse and changing everything.

Or not. Maybe you come back home and have some incredible stories and memories instead. But every time I’ve followed a call and jumped off a cliff, the circle of my life has widened, some sort of updraft has caught me and pulled me somewhere else that I never, ever expected.

The heart doesn’t shout, but it has always served me well to hush up and listen when it starts whispering. I think it might just be tapped into something bigger than I could ever really know.

Building A New Life: A Primer

It’s been just over a month now since I arrived in Italy. Officially, the boyfriend and I have now occupied the same space for longer than ever before. Good news: we still like each other. In fact, every time we’ve been able to be together in the last two years, it has seemed to me that just as we’re getting comfortable, just as we’re hitting our stride together, just when things feel real and easy, that’s when the hourglass dries out. That’s when we’re once again separated by far too much space and I find myself at a friend’s place on the couch, binge watching Making a Murderer and eating ice cream. Because yeah, every time he leaves it feels astoundingly like a break up.

Once again, now that a month has passed, I feel like we’ve really hit a good stride. The first few days and weeks after such separation – when you are forced by pure emotional necessity to develop a fiercely independent lifestyle and mindset – can be harder than you’d expect. Emotions and expectations are so high, and there’s always jet lag and making space for one another when you’re so used to connectivity for only a few hours at a time.

Now, though, we get to reap the benefits of the distance we’ve held for the last two years: even this far into the relationship, even though we know each other so well, it all feels fresh and new. Tenderness sweeps our house, romantic and exciting as we relish in the extended honeymoon phase of something we’ve been building for so long.

Of course, we live in the real world, too. One where we have bills and want to travel and therefore need money. I spent the last 8 months working at two different restaurants, often back to back from 5:45 am to 11ish pm with maybe an hour off in between, padding the heck out of my bank account to make this happen, so I’ve been doing a little recuperating in the last month. But I’ve never been very good at sitting still for long. While my boyfriend is hard at work, with “real” aka salaried work, I also have created work for myself. Some of these things are actual needs (learn Italian, for example) others are more about keeping my brain busy and focused on goals that may or may not be “real” but are essential to my own mental health nonetheless.

Because this is what I’ve learned about moving and building a new life: having tasks, goals and routine are the keys to settling in. And in those first weeks, the first month, when you are still trying to find your place – literally and figuratively – when you’re watching all your friends at home celebrate weddings and drink beer in canoes on your favorite lakes via social media, when you’re aching for something beyond the overwhelming newness that can suck you down, it can be the accomplishment of a goal – even a simple, arbitrary goal – that let you catch your breath.

I’ve speculated that perhaps I’m uniquely qualified to have moved across the world to be with my boyfriend and develop my own life alongside his. Since I graduated from high school, I’ve moved at least 7 times and had the opportunity to practice my process of developing a new life and finding community and could argue that I’ve almost made a science out of it. So, for those of your setting off onto your next adventure, or if you’re struggling to feel at home in a new place, here’s my 2 cents. For what its worth.

Five Tips for Finding Yourself in Your New Home

1. Expect the Ups and Downs. Transitions suck. You’ve pulled back and cut off the fatty layers of life which on the one hand are the things making you busy and keeping you up at night, but can also be the richest parts of your routine. You also are left with a lot of time. Even if you have a job or school to fill your days, in a new place you are exposed to so much emptiness even a few hours can simply be overwhelming.

At the same time, remind yourself that there’s a great reason for the move. Work, school, adventure, whatever it is, you chose this new place and there’s an excitement in the new place you’ve found yourself in. Some days you’ll find yourself riding high on that emotion that brought you here to begin with. Sometimes, though within even just a few hours you can go from feeling amazement and wonder at how much  you love a place,  to the loneliest evening of you life, where you’d give anything to just grab dinner with friends. And sometimes those roller coaster feelings last more than a few hours. There can be really really crappy weeks or months in the heart of a move. Especially when you’re out of your element, you can feel like it was all a mistake, this place is not your new home, never will be.

Honestly, I’ve moved to places that have turned out to be great homes for me, and places that turned out to not fit me so well. For example, I was fundamentally unhappy in Boulder, Colorado and after 9 months there, I knew without a second of hesitation that it was time to pull the ripcord and get my ass out of there. The thing is, I don’t think anyone really knows how the wild ups and downs will ultimately level out on the good/bad scale for at least 5 or 6 months. Give yourself a chance to really meet some people. Give yourself a chance to get comfortable. To be a master of even a small something in the new place. Then make the call. And even if it’s not a great fit for you, there is something to be learned from being in the wrong place at the right time too.

2. Develop a Routine: The best way to keep your mind occupied on those bad days is to create routine and tasks for yourself. No matter how much I love the idea of limitless open days, I simply cannot function in them. My brain melts fast and the sort of jumbled listlessness of a mild depression quickly takes over. So I make myself get out of bed at a certain time every day (8:10), I make myself do a few Sun Salutations, then I have a pattern of work and house care until I leave for class. If I don’t have class, I go to the library to write for a few hours in the afternoon. Lately I’ve been really leaning into the domestics (meal planning, for example) because not only is it something that’s helpful to our relationship when the boyfriend works all day,  I can also focus on and complete these tasks, which is key. Don’t set yourself up for failure because god knows that won’t help.

3. Get out of the House: It’s amazing how much of a relief it can be to simply get yourself outside. I’m the sort of person that struggles to even spend a whole sick day cooped up at home, much less a healthy, empty day. Changing location is really good for my brain especially when I want to get writing doe. But even more so when I’m new to a place, there are the added benefits of getting to know the neighborhood and simply breaking up the day. You head out and exist in this new home of yours, with your new neighbors, be a part of thins. Even if you don’t meet or talk to anyone, you get the chance to join the ranks. Even though it’s awkward at first – especially in a new county, I know – I always feel better for it.

Luckily in Europe, every village has a gathering spot, a central square in front of the church, a park. I can plant myself in the central square of Legnano for as long as I want and spend my time people watching, reading or writing. And if there is a festival or market or something happening, even better. Go to a class, visit a museum, walk around the downtown area. Even if you don’t do much other than look at people and things that you’ve seen before, it’s like you trick your brain into thinking you participated in something, and as social creatures, feeling like we’re a part of a community is really important to happiness.

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The town center of Legnano

4. Meet Up Speaking of social community, my new favorite way to feel like I’m in fact a part of the community is to go onto the MeetUp website and hang out with some new people. I’m lucky that in Milano there are a lot of expats and English speakers hanging out (doing everything, from yoga to book clubs to happy hours) almost any day of the week. In most major cities though, you’ll find some assemblage of MeetUps happening, and you can filter based on your interests, therefore honing in on your tribe. Spending a few hours chatting with people who want to meet other new people is awesome, and can really make all the difference in feeling like you’re building the threads that will begin to bind and tie you to a place, in that complex, essential blanket called community.

Then, this is the hard part but I mean it, ask people out on friend dates. If you meet someone cool, especially if the MeetUp isn’t regular or the situation isn’t coordinated, find a way to ask that cool person out for coffee or a drink sometime. I made a pretty strong effort of doing this when I moved to California, since I knew if I was going to last there I needed to make friends outside my circle of other interns, and it felt super awkward, but it worked. I found my way into the circle of some of my best friends ever by asking a quiet astronomer/writer out to coffee after a free writing class, in fact.

And really, most people are looking to hang out with other cool interesting people like yourself too. If you feel a connection with someone, it’s hard to imagine the other person is faking it.

5. Give Yourself Some Grace. It’s OK. Lean into the rough nights and wake up the next day fresh and ready to start over. This time sucks and it sucks for everyone who goes through it in some way, whether it looks like it on facebook or not. Call your friends from home, tell them you love them and miss them and I’m sure they’ll say the same to you. Then step out of your comfort zone and walk around the neighborhood.

Remember to give yourself those 5-6 months for those feelings to level off a bit before you declare how awful the decision was and head home, and enjoy the ride, wherever it leads you. You’re growing from this experience, I promise!

On Learning Italian (for real this time) and Working Towards Balance

The Guest House

Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


There is something particular (magical?) about transitions and the art of uprooting one’s life which I believes lends itself towards profound clarity. Outside the protection of routine, light shines in on every part of your life and self, and choices you’ve made or did not make step froward. Relationships that have fallen away, habits you relied on, hopes dreams and fears you’ve been able to ignore all stand before you in the new light of creating rhythm. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s tedious, but I think there is a place for it in our lives from time to time.

I say that uprooting one’s life is an art because like art, it takes practice and you are bound to fail and flail, and then suddenly you look around and see something at the center of it all that you can expand upon, take with you to the next step of the journey.

I started Italian courses this week. Beyond the basics of the language, I learned a lot of things, including that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter how old you become, every language class is essentially the same. The same cast of characters is in the room: the people muttering words under their breath, the eager, the distracted, the utterly lost. They just happen to come from all over the world – Brazil, Nepal, Hong Kong, Yemen.  Even here my classmates lift their feet a few inches off the ground, legs straight out before them when they know the answer but have not been called upon. It is a relief to find myself (after nearly 2 years of beat bopping around with DuoLingo and spending about 2 months combined in Italy before this) squarely in the middle of the beginners class, which is better than I’ve ever found myself in a language class.

I also came to quickly learn that my story – the one I could hardly believe happened in real life, it seemed so unreal and magical – is utterly repetitious. In the class of 9, at least 7 of us are here because we have fallen in love with an Italian. I asked the teacher at the end of the class if this was a common percentage (in all the broken Italian I could muster) and he nodded in a way which I couldn’t  quite read: was it exasperation for the obnoxiousness of all this amore, relief for job security or the normal emphatic nature of the Italian language? The proper pronunciation of these words themselves, I’ve learned, leads to waving your hands around, making dramatic faces. It feels emotional. It feels dramatic. I like it more and more.

Even just four days into the class, I’m anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when I suddenly stop being able to understand the teacher and loose the basic concepts we’re covering and fall behind forever, which is my typical modus operandi in language courses. Before I arrived I kept telling people (and therefore myself) that what I needed to actually start speaking the Italian I basically understood was this class. I needed to be able to get used to speaking, to be able to make mistakes without my wonderful, handsome boyfriend or his lovely, eager family watching me excitedly. The stakes always feel so high and my fumblings so much more embarrassing. And, as if I called it forth by magic, this class has been exactly what I needed.

More than just the language (though many people, including the boyfriend and the elderly neighbor who always seems to be walking out his door at the same time as me, have told me that I am speaking better and with more confidence in just four days), when I arrived in that first day of class I felt really purposeful for the first time in the two weeks that I’ve been here. I have routine. I have a goal.  And I have 8 other people in this huge city who not only know me – if even just a little bit – they are in the same boat as me. We’re doing this thing together. I found my newest version of my tribe, for this very particular moment in my life. In that knowledge there is such relief, I walked away from the first class electric.

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I kept saying, in those final long weeks before my plane finally took off, that once I got my feet on the ground here, I’d start walking. I always have. It’s always served me well. And both metaphorically and physically, I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately. Passing time, gaining my footing on the roads through Milan and Legnano, revisiting places that I had been in April.

 This spring, I stood in the courtyard of the Basilica de San’Ambrogio in Milano, an incredible example of Romanesque architecture, one morning and found myself weeping. I had been visiting Milan, staying with my boyfriend at his mom’s house for two and a half weeks, trying desperately to peer forward into my life to come. I felt as though I was looking up a mountain, imagining what the apartment we were moving into would look like completed, envisioning myself walking these streets every day, speaking Italian with confidence. I could see it, but barely.

That morning I was overcome with emotions, and I wept openly. Not entirely good emotions, not entirely bad. The thing about transitions is they are full of emotions, no matter how much you prep yourself for the onslaught. They are like riptides, pulling me under one day and warm waves I can rest upon the next. One minute, the move is the best decision you’ve made in your life, and you can see the community you’ll have, the home you’ll make clearly. The next, you’ve never felt so alone and you can’t believe you gave up the life you just walked away from. There has never been a question for me, from the moment I turned around and really looked this kind, wonderful man in the eyes, that this is my path. But that does not mean it’s not emotional and overwhelming sometimes. The best thing to do, I know, is give into the waves and currents, let them come and go and see where you end up, what the view is when it all calms down. As Rumi says, “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Today I’m a little bit farther down the road, a few switchbacks up the mountain. Not where I imagine myself to be, certainly (for godsakes it’s been two weeks!), but being here now is entirely different from my visit in April. Today I walked to San’Ambrogio again and stood in the courtyard again. I felt emotional again, but in a different way. Still not entirely good, or entirely bad. Whatever it is, I am relishing it, and walking, if not running, towards it.

 I am here. Sono qui.

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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.

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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.

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                                                  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.

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?”

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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.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Maybe it’s the new year, maybe it’s just about time. I’m going out on a limb here. I’ve decided to own the thing I want more than anything else in the world: I am an artist.

I’m also willing to admit that I’m terrified to admit this so bluntly.

In 2014 I quit my job and spend six months backpacking across Europe, staying in hostels and working on farms and meeting new people every day. I decided early on in the trip that when people asked what I did for a living, I would tell them that I am a writer. And for the first time in my adult life, I was choosing to be a writer: I was working creatively every day, and pulled together a second draft of my first novel. I felt more in tune with myself, more productive and more fulfilled than I had in years. It was really good.

Calling myself an artist is scary. Can you say that you are a writer if you have never had anything published? If only your friends – and mom’s friends – read and like your blog? If one of my friends asked me these questions, I would tell them that yes, yes of course you can call yourself a writer under these conditions. You are who you say you are. But giving myself this same permission is a whole different story. Once I started owning it, though, telling people that I’m a writer and answering questions about the current manuscript, I found that people were not laughing in my face or demanding to see a published hardcover. Instead, they were supportive and excited. Sure, a few people would clearly be thinking something about me saying I’m a writer when I’m only working on the first novel, but that’s feedback anyone receives from some people about any gig or passion, right?

Here’s the thing I realized recently about being an artist: there is going to be a point where you have the put the cart before the horse, be a little presumptuous and do what it is you want to do, even if there are not publishers clambering at the door or an agent asking how the latest draft is going. Yes, the chances of “making it” are slim, but sitting at home, writing away but not sharing with gumption certainly won’t get me any father along this road.

No one gives you permission to be a writer, to travel, or to pursue any of your dreams. These things you have to take for yourself, and prove to others that you deserve them. I’m finally ready to do that.

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One of the many cafes where I found inspiration during my trip.

Sometimes I feel as though my personality is a balance of being at once an audacious risk taker a well as a careful Minnesotan who wouldn’t bother anyone by tooting her own horn. Day by day, both these women wake up, have a cup of coffee then begin arguing about which one I will embody that day. It’s a fight, but we deserve the things we work for, not only those we desire.

Never before have I been so scared to claim anything, but it’s right there in front of me, mine to have if I reach out my hand and grab it.

All of these things that we do in life are risks. Hopefully calculated risks, but risks all the same. And I’d like to think of myself as the sort of woman who takes audacious risks, who quits her job and buys a one way ticket to Europe, who opens up her heart to the handsome stranger on the beach, who is owning who she truly wants to me and building her life up around that.

Now, just watch me.