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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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.

What I had all wrong about Italian food

Mention Italy to just about anyone in the world and if the first thing they’re thinking about isn’t food, it’s probably a close second. At least in the western world (and possibly all around the world), I would venture to guess that Italian food may be some of the most recognizable and most replicated. And all of the hype is utterly merited. Not only are meals, and thereby the food consumed, cherished and celebrated here, one will find a rich historic culture of craft behind the myriad of foods, wines and espresso enjoyed up and down the boot-shaped peninsula. Exploring Italy through your taste buds is one of the many highlights of la dolce vita.

I speak as someone who has held a life-long passion for pasta in it’s many forms. When I was around 5 years old I told my parents that when I grew up I was only going to eat spaghetti, screw them and their chicken breasts and hamburgers and vegetables. I believe my mom said “Fine. When you grow up you can do that if you want, but for now you need to eat chicken.”

Well, challenge accepted. How do you like me now, Mama? (For the record, I also eat chicken from time to time as an adult.)

It’s par for the course that America has, well, American-ized Italian food and in my first days here I realized that many of the things I assumed about my favorite food genre were a little off base.

I’m actually a little terrified to make any claims when it comes to Italian food, since it’s so important culturally, and I’ve probably managed to misinterpret something. I truly hope not to offed any Italians in the writing of this post, I’m still just learning after all.

What I didn’t know about Italian Food

(note: this list continues to grow)

The pasta is just the beginning. Literally. Though I imagined huge dishes of spaghetti, lasagna or risotto being the highlight of the Italian meal – perhaps with a side of vegetables or a salad course to start – it turns out this is misguided. In fact, the primo or first course is the starchy pasta dish, which may mean any of the above variations or a million others. (Probably, you’e already had the antipasto, or appetizer, of course.) The primo may be about as much as I would normally eat for an entire dinner back home, but don’t get carried away and accept too many of the extra helpings which will certainly be offered. You’ve got a lot more food on it’s way.

Next comes a secondo, which will feature meat or fish and usually a side of vegetables and that salad Americans tend to eat first. This is the main course or highlight of the meal (though I’ll admit I still relish the pastas the most). Once you’ve managed to clear that plate – which by now is feeling like a bit of an achievement of willpower, no matter how good it all tastes – the fruit, cheese and nut course comes around, followed by (if you’re lucky) desert before coffee or limoncello or other late evening top-offs to aid in digestion.

Also, don’t embarrass yourself and order a cappuccino after lunch! If you prefer a little milk in your espresso, get yourself a caffè macchiato.

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I didn’t think to snap a photo before I started, but join me in relishing the aftermath of true traditional ragu sauce in Bologna.

Nearly everyone who is lucky enough to be a guest in an Italian home has their own version of the story where they are increasingly shocked as each continuous course arrives before them. Mine includes actually drifting off to sleep at the dinner table after being overloaded following a long hot day of Sicilian tourism. There’s no way to prepare for it, and nothing to do but embrace and relish it all, because it is truly a gift from whoever your chef may be.

Everything is hyper-localized, and you’re best off sticking to what’s regionally made. I’ll admit I was a little scoffish when my boyfriend was surprised that I said I might want to try a carbonara at the osteria in Monreale, Sicily. “But,” He said, “We are nowhere near Rome…” (which is where carbonara is traditionally made.) “Well, we’re a lot closer to Rome here than Minneapolis is!” I argued back and went ahead and ordered it.

It wasn’t very good. Nothing compared to the delicious Sicilian dishes I’d been enjoying for the last week, and nothing compared to the carbonara I ate 7 months later when we visited Rome. Because down to the village or neighborhood, there’s a local kind of pasta, a different way of preparing the sauce, a very specific specialty that you really should try because they’ve been perfecting it there for centuries. Even when we were in Trapani, on the western side of Sicily, the boyfriend hesitated to order pasta alla norma, an eggplant based dish originating in Catania on the eastern side of the island. Instead we opted for a noodle very specific to the city we were in, with a fish sauce. And it was fantastic.

So, though you can find pesto (typical of Genoa) or tagliatelle al ragù (kind of what we call spaghetti Bolognese in the states) basically anywhere in Italy, when in doubt, go for the most localized specialty and you won’t be disappointed.

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From January 2015, my first trip here. At the time, I labeled this photo “that one night in Tuscany”

Your meatballs don’t belong on top of the spaghetti! This one kind of disappointed me, because, oh, how I love a good, cheesy spaghetti and meatball dish. But as described above, you’ll find your pasta serving first, then the meatballs will be served with sauce and a side of veggies, but without the bed of starch. (Though if I’m home alone at lunch time and the boyfriend’s mom has left a dish of her incredible meatballs in our fridge, I will admit to cheating and putting them right on top of my spaghetti.)

Speaking of meatballs, I read in the wonderful travel log and cultural exploration Seeking Sicily a fantastic description the Sicilian meatball and the many reasons you won’t find them in a restaurant, paramount among them being Sicilian’s general distrust. When I asked the boyfriend if this is true, he said “Well, of course.” But why, I wanted to know. “Because they can put anything in a meatball, all the bad meats and horrible things.” But, why would they? They want their food to be good, I argued. “Oh, but they probably could do this,” he said. “It’s better just to eat my mom’s meatballs. I will ask that she makes you some.”

Can’t argue with that.

“Alfredo” sauce isn’t a thing here. I’ve enjoyed watching many Italians gasp and ask me to repeat myself when I tell them about it. “A sauce? No, Alfredo is my uncle!”

And while we’re talking sauces, many of the top American brand names make no sense; Prego means “you’re welcome” and Ragu is a meaty tomato sauce typical of the city of Bologna.

The street vendor pizza tastes exactly the same: greasy. Better just make your way to Napoli and get the real thing rather than expecting to find incredible pizza on every corner.

You can put tuna on a pizza! And, provided you are a tuna fan, a tonno alla cipolla (tuna and onion) pizza is actually super delicious.  (These are once again things I found first in Sicily. Have I mentioned the boyfriend’s family origins are Sicilian?”)

Most amazing of all: I have yet to gain a million pounds. I remember when a good friend of mine was on her honeymoon in Italy and she sent me a message one afternoon describing the tiny Italian woman she sat across from in a trattoria in Milan. She watched in wonder as this woman ate a plate of risotto, then a veal milanese with potatoes, as well as three glasses of wine, for lunch. “How do they stay so skinny?!” She implored, as if the boyfriend had let me in on the secret.

I have no real answers for this, though I have some theories. The food is all incredibly fresh, and I’d venture to guess filled with a lot fewer preservatives and gunk that you find in American food. I tend to get very upset stomachs when I eat out in the USA, but have yet to have a similar reaction in Italy, even to things which set me off at home. I also walk everywhere when I’m here, averaging about 6-15 kilometers per day.

Whatever the reason, I’ll go with it and relish all of the incredible gusti until my body tells me otherwise.

 

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Don’t be fooled by any stuffed cannolo (the singular of cannoli) that’s in a display fridge: the real treasures will be filled with the ricotta and sweets after you order them. 

Even if expectations are not entirely what you get, sometimes is a good thing to be surprised, even culinarily.  It probably goes without saying I’d recommend Italy, and Italian food to anyone. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand this place without relishing in the food.

Chin Chin!

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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Second Impressions: Springtime in Milan

I can’t be sure if it’s the spring time, the daylight or the fact that I have not been visiting other European cities for the last six months and over-saturated myself, but I am finding that I like Milan a lot better the second time around. The first time I was here, it was January 2015 and The Boyfriend and I spent just a few hours one dark evening in the Piazza del Duomo and surrounding streets. I wasn’t expecting much, and left without much of an impression, headed toward grand sunsets over the Dolomites, extravagant Venician bridges and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

For a while now, in fact, I’ve felt pretty meh about Milan, without being entirely sure why. Probably the amount of Italians and other travelers shrugging when mentioning the industrial and fashion powerhouse in the flat, fertile flat lands below the Alps has damped my expectations. And it’s true, Milan doesn’t have the picturesque, colorful houses, the seasides, the vineyards, the hilltop charms most people jump to when they think of Italy. When I think about moving here in August, I’ve been reminding myself of how central to the rest of Europe the city is, how comparatively easy it is to fly into from the states. I think about the multi-national nature of the city, the large University and the language schools which will provide me a place to begin looking for a community. I’ve been optimistic, though cautiously so.

But it would be hard not to find delight in any city within the first weeks of spring, especially coming off a Minnesotan Winter, which drags it’s heals and throws last fistfuls of snow at you throughout March and April. And spending the last two weeks roaming around the different parts of the historic center of Milan has proven to be much more fruitful than expected.

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Side street near the fashion district

I can’t put a pin into what makes Milan Milano yet, in the way other cities’ essences have planted themselves immediately into my consciousness. It stands apart from all the other spectacular Italian villages and cities I’ve wandered through in the last year, feels foreign and outside of my experiences in this country. At one moment I feel as though I’m in New York City, then Madrid, then London. Then I turn another corner and of course I’m in Italy: look at the scooters, look at the laundry and flowers hanging from balconies, smell the espresso!

There is, of course, the spectacular Gothic Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world, dripping upwards with hundreds of spires holding saints who peer down, and more than 3,000 statues along the naves and every level of the church to admire. There is the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive fortress which is perhaps the closest thing to the image I had of a castle before I came to Europe. There is the fashion district, which houses all of the stores you imagine it does, has tuxedo-wearing doormen and possibly too-artsy window displays (shoes and handbags in a fake crate of raw fish, Dolce and Gabbana? Really?). Given a few more days to take my time in the city, I’ve appreciated more and more details of Milan. Wandering through the many grey, slightly grungy metropolitan side streets, suddenly one find’s herself  upon an elegant, tree-lined  boulevard, filled with cafes flowing out onto the sidewalks, flower shops and newsstands. In the distance, you can see the sun glinting off the sleek skyscrapers rising above the historic old town. As you pass under the slightly parted curtains of luxurious flats, suddenly you get a glimpse through an opened garage door into a spectacular garden, tucked within the courtyard of one of these finely detailed buildings. Here are ancient canals, certainly no Venice, but surrounded by bars and buzzing with night life. And hidden behind the most bland exteriors are spectacularly painted churches, chapels made with the bones of pauper graves and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, if you know where to look.

Milan is a city of smells, but not the typical, deeply human stenches of other major cities. No, Milan is scented in the most spectacularly fabricated way: everyone who walks by you is wearing their own perfume or cologne, while cigarette and cigar smoke floats from every corner and doorway. It’s not exactly a food haven, like so many other Italian regions, but you can’t go wrong with risotto, and, heck: it’s still Italy.

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From the spectacular terraces on the roof of the Duomo, you can get a Saint’s-eye view of Milan.

Maybe the reason I cannot put a finger on the essence of Milan is that it is so different than my assumptions and predictions. Just like the first time I showed up on Hollywood Boulevard, wandering the streets of this metropolis did not turn out to be the overwhelmingly glamorous, opulent stroll through gold and diamond encrusted streets (in a manner of speaking) that I imagined would make me feel exposed as a kitschy, silly Midwestern American girl. Rather, it is a city, like any other, with normal cement side walks, stupendously fancy Italians and everyday people going about their lives, dodging tourists with selfie sticks. At the same time, it is robustly elegant, glamours and perhaps in need of a good wash down in some corners. It doesn’t have all of the sorts of charms one expects from Italy, but entirely it’s own.

Like Los Angeles, Milan is one of the last places in the world I ever thought I would be living – even visiting. But that last twist in the road I thought I was walking lead to three of the best years of my life in Southern California, and I am optimistic about the way home will continue to shift and change as I settle in here.

And luckily, by the looks of things, I have a lot of time to try to nail this city down.

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The opulent galleria just beyond the Piazza del Duomo.
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Castello Sforzesco is an impressive fortress, leading into generous public gardens.

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.