Leveling Out

Last week, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

It’s finally coming together.


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

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

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

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

Well, that was simply unacceptable.

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

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


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

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

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

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Do I look strung out here? I felt it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first sunset of the trip, in Umbria.

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

Cue one huge leap away from the approaching cliff.

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

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

It’s just the beginning.

On Mountain Climbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close to the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What it Actually Means to Date a Foreigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s LONG distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sucks.

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

It can be really awkward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

Aosta

The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

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The Bernina Express: An Alpine Rail Adventure

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For many travelers, the daydream of a European adventure is not complete without the image of themselves relaxing on a train, looking out across rolling vineyards, church steeples on the horizon and Alpine cliffs shinning in the background. Especially if you grew up in the USA, where those brave enough to embark upon an Amtrak adventure might easily end up stuck on the tracks outside of Albany, New York on a freezing December day for 7 hours while a raging, redheaded conductor from Boston reminds them that she has no idea when we’ll be able to get a move on because the freight trains get preference on the tracks, OK? (Yes, I am speaking from experience here).

Since my first trip though Europe, this image of adventure while riding the rails has intrigued and excited me, though with the realities of real life travel (and admittedly, the notorious difficulties of the Italian train system), some of the romanticism has worn away.

It was on a chilly, Thanksgiving holiday to visit friends in Switzerland that I found myself swooning for rail travel once again.

Through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Bernina Express train through southeastern Switzerland is not just an example of incredible engineering, it is the highest rail crossing in Europe, traveling through magnificent Alpine scenery the entire way. It’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Express” is a bit of a misnomer: this bright red train moves leisurely, twisting and turning up mountainous switchbacks, crossing through tunnels from an incredible vista on one side of the mountain to another. You don’t want it to go any faster though: there is so much to look at as the train sways and whistles, traveling from quaint Swiss villages to glacial valleys.

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Looking down over Poschiavo on the train down from St. Moritz

From Milan, it’s easy to catch the hourly train from Centrale station to Tirano: a 2.5 hour trip along the eastern shore of Lake Como (grab a window seat on the west side of the train if you can!) In Tirano, exit the train station and take an immediate right into the other station in the square: towards the red trains.

Ascending quickly up the narrow, village-lined Poschiavo Valley, you spin around the famous viaduct of Brusio before going up the mountain side, above the tree line and to the sweeping vista over Alp Grüm, where you can stop and eat at the restaurant overlooking a magnificent panorama. From here, it’s a glacier spotting adventure, past the grand Lake Bianco, ringed by snow-capped mountains and through the high Bernina peaks.

After about 2 hours of breathtaking travel, the train pulls into St. Moritz, an elegant ski resort city in the heart of the Alps. From here you can continue north on the Bernina Express towards Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, crossing the 90m high Solis viaduct and through the area with Europe’s highest density of castles. Alternatively, you can head east or west from St. Moritz along the Glacier Express and glimpse the Matterhorn and Rhine Gorge.

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St. Moritz in the off season: mid November and it’s still lovely.

In the summer, the area is full of hiking excursions and in the winter some of the best alpine skiing in the world can be found throughout the region. And it bears mentioning that on a Wednesday afternoon in November, I found myself completely alone on the train, allowing me to unabashedly rush from one side of the car to the other in order to take in the best views as they shifted.

It was on my way home, back down to Italy and near the village of Poschiavo, that I realized I had found my childlike love of riding train all over again. I wasn’t checking my watch, or even getting lost in a podcast. I was present, watching the scenery go by and feeling the movement of travel. I felt adventurous, cosmopolitan and amazed all at once, like I always dreamed I would when I was a little girl, pining away for Old World adventures.

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Find more information about the Bernina Express, as well as schedules and prices, by clicking here.

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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.