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.

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!

Building A New Life: A Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Tips for Finding Yourself in Your New Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The town center of Legnano

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guest House

Rumi

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I am here. Sono qui.

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