I had a dream I went to Italy and I lived there for a year. I left behind my city and everyone I knew, looking a change in a life that felt the same. I landed in Bologna: a new place with an old university, full of foreign friends to meet and a maze of narrow streets that felt like mine to explore. Officially I studied journalism, Italian communications law, art theory, art history, film and neofascism, but I learned more outside the classroom than I had ever expected. It took me months to speak Italian, but I learned to communicate with body language, eye contact and an empathy that goes unspoken. If you approach the world with smile and a handshake you will be rewarded with a lifetime of friends. But I met myself as well, formed a fuller understanding of who I am when I’m on my own in the world. I look back at what I’ve done, and I know better what I can do. The only thing I wonder is what else there is to learn.
I dreamed I made a million friends that I may never see again, but each of them was there when they were there and together we were able to share a memory, a thought, a meal or just a short conversation over a cigarette. Everyone I met knew something that I didn’t, each a new perspective formed by a unique upbringing. Everyone is different, but everyone is basically the same. If you talk for long enough with anyone you will find something in common, and the quest to find these commonalties kept me up until 3am talking hip hop with homeless migrants and woke me at 8 to discuss abstract expressionism over cappuccini with women from my art class. I grew more cultured from both. I learned to live on little sleep, learned how to eat for cheap; learned to go almost anywhere without paying for the train and I learned a lot of little things I lack the words to explain.
Hemmingway said at the end of A Farewell to Arms, my favorite book, that Italy is a good country for any man to fall in love with. I came back a hundred years after him and found that still to be true. There is something beautiful about all of Italy, an aesthetic that runs deep into the past. There is a thoughtfulness, a hospitality, a common care and respect that you find in the people. Italians are generous by nature; they love to talk and talk and talk, which is good if you’re trying to learn the language. If you want to learn about their culture, they will go out of their way to show you. My curiosity has been rewarded time and again with new foods, words, places, people and ideas. Italy is a country that burns slowly like a cigarette and you must take your time to learn it as well I have. By now seen more of Italy than most Italians. I fell into the River Adige in Verona and washed ashore in the Amalfi Coast. I watched the sunrise in Sicily, hiked through mountains in Abruzzo. I drove from the flat olive groves of southern Puglia to the mountain forests in Gargano. I looked out over the Gulf of Naples from the top of Ischia; I saw Lago Maggiore in October and Lago di Garda one hot day in June. The beach in Liguria is rocky, the Adriatic Coast is sand. In le Marche there are castles on sunflowered hills by the sea, and Tuscan horses graze on patchworked fields of grain.
I had a dream I lived in Italy. Bologna was my heart and soul; Milano was my ego. Venezia and Firenze were nice, but I’d avoid them during tourist season. I loved Roma like a wife, but had an affair with Napoli, the most beautiful of them all. I had a dream I went to Italy and explored it for a year. Each day was a new adventure. I lost myself to find myself to lose myself again. But every dream has a dawn, every story has an end.
It’s 3:30am and I write to you from Rome. I’m on the balcony of my family’s Airbnb, from where I sit I can see the very top of the Colosseum over darkened rooftops and the Forum is around the corner. Now the streets are quiet and my family is asleep. We’ve been on vacation driving through the south for two weeks but it’s all come down to this moment. Our bags are packed and by the door. In an hour they will wake up and we will scramble to the subway to the train station to the airport to home. This is the end of my story.
I won’t let myself fall asleep, exhausted as I am. There’s more I ought to say. I won’t let these last moments slip sleepily away. Besides, I’ve learned it’s best to pull an all-nighter before an early flight. If I’d done this when I was in Amsterdam, I would’ve saved 200 euros but also missed out on a great story of the time I took a 30-hour bus all the way across Europe. Swiss border patrol officers are polite but will do a thorough search if they must. Word to the wise.
I’m getting off topic… by now you must be tired of reading these roaming rambles of my adventures in Italy. And I’m not sure if anyone out there is reading this other than Gammy- my grandma and most faithful commenter- but if you’ve been following along with me for the past year or just occasionally checking up on my shenanigans (which is a great word with no Italian equivalent), I appreciate every reader and I hope that you’ve enjoyed it or learned something or were able to distract yourself at work or whatever you’re doing on that side of the computer screen. To me it’s strange to think about other people reading this because right now it’s just me under the moon over a silent Roma and I didn’t write this blog for anyone other than my future self who is probably still procrastinating his studies or maybe is bored at work and wants to remember what he was thinking at this moment on his last night in Italy. Writing is a beautiful thing. I will cherish this blog forever; it is one of my proudest accomplishments. But someday, I hope to look back and think it’s all poorly written because it will mean I’ve improved as a writer. More roaming rambles to come, stay tuned.
It’s 4:45 now and Mom just woke everyone up in the bleary, frantic hurry that accompanies an early-morning flight, so I guess it’s really time to go. With each second that pulls me towards the end, I find it more difficult to believe it’s over. This is harder than I thought it would be.
It felt like a broken heart when I watched the sun rise that morning over the Italian countryside from the window of the train to the airport from Roma. I thought about the friends I’d made, now scattered throughout the world. Moments turned to memories, locked away in my mind and lost in translation. I spent a year on my own speaking a different language, learned more than I could explain. At the end of it I felt like a new person. I was worried how the ‘new me’ would translate in my old city and life. I was scared to go home and find it different, but more scared to go home and find it the same. It was the first time in my life I didn’t want to get on the plane. I watched the countryside stretch further below me as the plane turned over the sea. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I guess you never do.
I woke the next morning in my room at home in Oregon, Wisconsin. It was 5:30am but in Bologna it was past noon. I woke with a sense of urgency, like there was somewhere I had to be. But there wasn’t; the adventure was over. I couldn’t tell if I had been dreaming for the past year. I was in my most familiar place but somehow everything felt strange. The coffee was thinner than I remembered, and the cabinets were filled with food. I was not used to such comfort and company. I felt like I wanted to run away.
I pumped up the tires of my Dad’s Cervelo and pedaled south on familiar roads, my first ride in over a year. I met Dan and Elliot on the corner of Judd Road and Highway D and together we biked fifty miles of my favorite hills: west on Frenchtown Road, looping around Paoli- past the graveyard where we buried Dad and Grandpa, then cut north through Fitchburg on the bike path, road it east until Lake Farm Park. We cruised downtown on John Nolan Drive, between Lake Monona and the Bay. By the time I reached the Capitol it felt less like the end of the story and more like the start of a new one. It was good to be home.
I’ve been home for a month now, and I find it hard to believe. I’m back working on the farm six days a week, doing whatever I can to chip away at the mountain of debt that hit me the moment I stepped onto US soil. I’m back in America where it’s nothing special to be an American, slowly adjusting to a routine and a schedule that I haven’t had for a year. I’m surprised to be surprised that no one speaks Italian and I have less time to read and write. A lot of people ask me about what I’ve been up to the past year, but I never know where to start, and they don’t know what to imagine anyways. I cringe when people say eye-talian, but I try to be calm and remember that not everyone gets the opportunity that I’ve had to experience another culture.
I moved back downtown to a spot near James Madison park and they tell me classes start again next week, but I find that hard to believe also. I’m not sure I remember how to study. Campus seems different too. There’s a concert hall and they’re building a new SERF. State Street is selling CBD now and everyone’s vaping and drinking White Claws as if they’re being healthy. I find my perspective has changed on the life at an American university, and some things I used to enjoy are no longer that fun to me.
It really is the start of a new story, but it feels like one I’ve read before. I’m more inside my head and I fight the urge to run away, held back by money and impending obligations. I took a bite out of the big world and now I’m hungry for more. But I find reassurance in the thought that all my favorite places are still out there, my friends are somewhere, waiting for me to find them again. There’s a bigger world out there that needs exploring, I feel it calling. The adventure never ends.
Sometimes while I’m working or about to go to sleep, my mind will wander back down the streets of Bologna. I stroll across Piazza Maggiore, see the old man who sat there every day, singing off-pitch to no audience. Sometimes I walk to my favorite cafè and stand at the bar, listening to the barman talk about nothing with the regulars that remove their hats at the door. Sometimes my mind takes me down via Zamboni, where students spill into the street smoking cigarettes, politicking between classes. I find my friend Remo, who lives on the street and knows I have no money but will still buy him a beer. Sometimes I sit in the park and wait a friend to pass by, sometimes I wander to the station and catch the next train to somewhere new.
Sometimes I wonder what was the point of it all. Why adjust to the open world if only to feel like a stranger in my own city? Why learn a language that my family doesn’t understand? Sometimes I get cynical and bored of America. Sometimes I get anxious if I stay too long in one place. Sometimes I wish I was back on my own in a foreign land. Sometimes I worry I’ll forget what Italy is like, what I learned and who I became when I lived there.
Sometimes I dream in Italian.