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.

Traveler’s Notebook: Home

After bouncing back and forth between two continents for nearly 3 years, I – and lots of people around me – have a lot of questions about what “home” even means any more.

I bought another one-way plane ticket (the fourth in three years). I’m going “home” again. May 29th, at 9:00 pm, I fly out. For “good” this time. Well, for residency (and hopefully work), at least.

I haven’t written about it much – I like to pretend it isn’t happening, to put my nose down, work as much as possible and try to squeeze in significant conversations with all of my friends in between – but I’m not actually in Italy these days.

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The central square in Legnano, the city in Italy I’ve been calling “home”.

I’m “at home”. Which is to say I’m in St. Paul, Minnesota. Living in the country which issues my passport, where I am a legal resident and currently allowed to work, and to whom I will always pay taxes, apparently. Living in the house I’ve lived in before (shout out to friends who have their lives together, have bought houses and offer me affordable rent without a long-term contract!), working at the restaurant I worked at before and waiting for my time on my tourist visa to renew again, as well as saving money for my wedding and the first few months in Italy when I’ll be job hunting.

This time, though, most of (or at least half of) my stuff is officially in a closet in Italy. My backup jeans. My favorite shoes. My camera (that one was actually an accident, but whatever). This, time, when I go back to Italy, I’ll be becoming a permanent resident, really living in Europe. Expatriating. Or immigrating? Which am I doing? What do they each mean? Semantics matter.

Which is making me consider my language a lot. There are a lot of subtleties that mean a whole lot to me right now, and which no one seems to notice but me. All of my coworkers asking me how my “trip” to Italy was when I got home in January, for example. (Not a trip! I wanted to shout: I lived there. I celebrated Christmas with a family that is becoming my own, I took the same bus every day! I’m going back! Life! Not vacation!) And I just don’t know what to say about the many meanings of “home” in my life. I can already hear my Papa, assuring me that he will always keep the fire lit in my childhood home in the forest of Northern Minnesota when I need it. And, of course, as anyone who had a beautiful and fulfilling childhood, I will to some extent always need it. But I’m also an adult woman who recently promised to marry and redefine family with another adult man, and home is shifting and changing yet again because of it.

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The yard of my parent’s house, January

This last week I went to visit friends who just bought a house in Fargo, North Dakota. While going around the table, trading stores over coffee, I was asked the question I’m getting asked over and over again lately: “What are you most excited about for going back to Italy?!” (Besides the obvious answer of seeing my fiance, everyone quickly giggles.)

I looked around at my friends who are truly doing amazing things. Buying homes. Starting graduate degrees. One has begun an impressive and essential career which involves trying to bring biodiversity back the prairies of North America in the face of climate change and invasive species. It’s so hard for me to grit my teeth and tell them that I am a waitress right now. OK, some days it’s great and I make amazing money. I appreciate the restaurant I work for, and with my current lifestyle – zipping in and out of the country for months at a time – I couldn’t be doing that much to build what I had of a career anyway, given my life choices. But most days (I should say nights), I’m working when my friends are free. I’m feeling physically tired, degraded and ready to do something bigger with my life.

I feel like I’ve watched my career, a career I was proud of and excited to see continue to grow, fizzle and slowly die out in the corner. Yes, yes I know: left. I quit and walked away, and chose to keep dating the handsome foreigner, which ultimately lead me to all of this. I’ve had agency all along. And I know there are flames I can coax back to life there. After all: I grew up in a house in northern Minnesota without an automated central heating system. I’m really good at building fires (aka finding a way to make the next step work), but for the moment, this is what I must keep doing. This is how I make my next step work.

And I get to say it: this part of the process really sucks.

The answer to the question my friend’s asked really is: I’m most ready to feel like my life is starting again. After the transition between place to place. The inability to fully commit to anything (besides a marriage) for the last three years. I’m ready to have routine and new purpose. To know how much money I’ll make in a given month and budget. All those boring things I had at 24, the things I walked away from and let slowly die and which I am now craving at 27.

Maybe all of that is what home means.

One reason travel works for me is that I’m good at adaptation. I’m good at nesting, getting comfortable, building routine and making myself “at home.” This is both beautiful and confusing to myself and those around me.

So, is home where I grew up, or where I most currently live? Is home where your blood flows through the people around you or where the love of your life sleeps at night? Is home where my Facebook profile tells you I live? Where most of my stuff is? Do I have to speak the language fluently to say it’s my home? Can I call the airplane seat or hostel bed I’m trying to fall asleep in a home?

I guess the simple answer is that lately it’s been all of that.

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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!