Friday, April 11, 2008

A Year in my Life- Italy 2004

When people ask me what my first job experience out of college was like, they don’t expect to hear what I have to say. I’ve always wanted to live fully- to make every moment count – to live an extraordinary life. Unfortunately, I felt as though I was on the path to ordinary. It was the culmination of my senior year, 2003, I had taken the LSAT’s, applied to law schools, sent my deposits in, and was gearing up for another three years of higher education. A week before my departure for New York, I freaked out. I packed my bags, bought a one way ticket to Italy, and hopped on a plane to fly across the ocean. I was completely alone. My parents scoffed at my imprudence, my friends admired my courage, and I closed my eyes and blindly walked into the unknown. Eight hours later, I found myself, a 22 year old graduate of the George Washington University, at Milano Malpensa airport with a couple thousand dollars to my name and an Italian phone book flipped to the “English Language Schools” section.
Amidst my hunt, I stumbled across “British Institutes” who boasted a 2-week TEFL certification course and guaranteed placement in one of their 230 schools anywhere in Italy. After a quick nap at “Albergo Imperial” in central Milan, a much needed and deserved glass of Barolo, and a quick peek at the famed Duomo, I made my way to the British Institutes offices. Lucky me, the course was to start the next day in Saronno, a small rural village 30 minutes south of Milan.
Two weeks later, along with 15 other “lost souls,” I had earned a Teaching English as a foreign language certificate and was placed in a school. I had made a friend in the program. Marissa, from Chicago. Luckily enough, after much pleading, we were placed together in the town of Lodi. Lodi, was yet another desolate town in Northern Italy. The next four months of my life were as follows; Marissa and I had horrific hours Monday through Saturday, our students hated us for speaking American English. Hence the name; “British Institutes,” and we had made no friends. Our tiny apartment was constantly freezing despite our attempts at rigging the heater, and about a 45 minute walk outside the city center. We had no mode of transportation save our feet. We were living on 800 Euro a month sans benefits and were, for all intents and purposes, miserable. When I had studied abroad in Florence two years prior, I had created this idealistic view of what the country should be like. I was madly in love with Italy and held it as my utopia. Lodi had ruined that fantasy for me. I had ruined that fantasy for myself. At that point, I had a choice. I could give up and quit- return to America- defeated. Or I could persevere and accomplish what I had originally intended.
I was a dreamer. I had always been a dreamer. I’m still a dreamer. And when I look back on those days of my life, I can’t help but feel that it was a dream. I don’t know if this is a result of my wanderlust or my insatiable appetite for life. I grew up with a sign over my door saying “Carpe Diem” and every morning, regardless or where I was going or what I was doing, I made a promise to myself to do exactly that- Seize the Day. So in turn, I seized my luggage and stored it in the Milan train station. I then embarked on a one month solo backpacking stint through Eastern Europe to clear my head and get my priorities in order. Somewhere between Vienna and Budapest and amongst my new motley crew of travelers and the consumption of legalized absinthe, I made the decision to move to Rome. Italy had failed me once; I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me.
Through the right contacts (i.e. cute Italian stallions who had crushes on me) and sheer luck, I found a headhunter in Rome. Within a few days of being back in Italy, I had a job and apartment set up in this ancient city. I had been offered a position translating web copies from Italian to English at a small graphic design firm in Piazza Cavour. The company wanted me to speak fluent business Italian and therefore enrolled me in courses at a local language school. Fortunately for me, the language school was host to many expatriates and consequently worked with their students to find them housing. I arrived in Rome on January 5, 2004. The train ride down was exciting and sad all at the same time. It was a new beginning but I was fearful of what was to come. I hated the thought that my initial attempt at life in Italy was unsuccessful, which put even more pressure on me this time around. It was now or never.
I got to a potential apartment in Piazza Bologna by metro at about midnight. Giorgio, my new Greek roommate opened the door for me and thus began my new life.
The two of us sat down in the kitchen and I lit a cigarette as Giorgio made espresso with a caffeteria, the little silver kettle-type contraption used for centuries in the Mediterranean to brew espresso. We chatted about his experiences as a med. student in Rome and I described the past year to him as best I could in my intermediate Italian. I didn’t know Greek and Giorgio didn’t know English, so we settled on Italian even though I was at a disadvantage. Before we knew it, three hours had past and with an empty bottle of Chianti and a full ash tray to boot; I got up, bid my new friend farewell, and went back to my hotel. We decide that I will move in the following Friday.
I finally felt as if my experience in Italy- the Italy that I had known and loved- had begun. I was living in a charming little apartment in a central Piazza in Rome with a tremendous roommate. I was attending a school with language and culture classes full of students who spoke all different languages and came from diverse cultures. Every so often in the middle of the days I tried to take a step back and really appreciate the whimsical quality of my life. The weeks flew by and moment by moment, I let my former self go and becoming the "doer," and not the talker. I found myself sitting in Piazza Navona with Sandra from Spain and Vlatka from Croatia. We walked to the famous square with Bernini fountains and the enshrined shrunken head of Saint Agnes to grow drunk in gelato and caffe macchiatto’s. After watching a finger puppet show by the same man that mesmerized my history class 3 years ago in the same piazza, we walked over to watch an old man with shaky hands render an oil on canvas of the famous fountain of the four rivers. At sunset, we find ourselves on the Vittorio Emmanuelle bridge and my breath left me- it was that sensation when you are about to cry and you are trying to hold it in yet at the same time, you know how good it would feel to simply let it all out. Excitement and sadness were caught in my throat and I was choking on all the life filling up inside of me. I don’t really know how these two emotions exist at the same time but there is something about the enigma that felt warm- like I should have been feeling that right then. I was facing (south?) and the top of Michelangelo’s masterful dome on St. Peters was lit with the last of the day’s sun. The Tiber was a purple and orange reflection of the sky and the relief sculpture on the bridge reflected my mood perfectly. It was obscure yet calm- like it was sculpted specifically for me on that January evening. It was then that I learn the Italian word for sunset- Tramonto. I will never forget it.
I was ready for whatever life had in store for me and I was facing the world head on. Classes were going well. I was meeting some interesting people and learning a fair amount of business grammar. My job was interesting. I was gaining experience in web design, corporate ID, and marketing while improving my language skills. I was living in Rome. The days were flying by and before I knew it- I had a life, I had friends, I had my favorite restaurant where the waiters knew me, I had my local bar where the server didn’t have to ask what kind of beer I preferred. I had actually done it and I was happy. Happier than I thought I could be. Che bella vita che stavo vivendo.
My days were light and happy and every so often I would have to remind myself that I had actually done it. Despite the obstacles and inner doubt, I had made it. I had passed. I took the metro with the rest of the Romans to work in the mornings; I would lunch with my coworkers at Napolitano pizzerias and little out of the way trattorias while sipping Proseco. I would sometimes walk home through the forum or pass by the coliseum before returning home where if we didn’t go out, Giorgio and I would spend the evening cooking (yes, I had learned to cook!) and listening to music, drinking Chianti and playing backgammon. We were great friends with the girls next door and would frequently have parties with them that involved excessive tiramisu and tequila.
I spent my 23rd birthday at four in the morning at the Trevi Fountain. Two of Giorgio’s friends came over after my party and brought me presents, got me drunk, and took me to the fontanta. It was amazing. I had been to the Trevi fountain multiple times and although each time is as incredible as the last, it is constantly filled with tourists, gypsies, and street vendors. Generally, it was hard to walk through and damn near impossible to appreciate to its full capacity. That time it was different. It was four in the morning- virtually empty and the lights behind the splashing water seemed to be the only lights in the world- as if all life started there- with us. It was the best present ever. Giorgio then took me by himself to Gianicolo, a point at the top of Rome where the entire city shines beneath you. He kissed me. And that was when I fell in love with him.
Life was progressing as normal until my career stumbled upon a change in direction. I, before I had any time to process the events at hand, was a translator for one of the largest and most prominent secret societies in the world. This is how it went down; Giorgio’s father was a Knight of Malta. One of the top members of the Knights lived in Rome and therefore, when Giorgio left Greece for university in Rome, his father called upon the Count to watch after him. At one of our typical weekly dinners with the Count- amidst royalty, the rich and famous of Italy, and abundant, delectable cuisine, the Count offered me a job. That was when I became a personal assistant to royalty as well as a translator for the Knights of Malta.
The next year of my life was a whirlwind of events once can only hope to experience. I was flying through Europe, attending conventions of Knights in the most paradisiacal of destinations, and cavorting with dignitaries and celebrities from all over the world. As I stated before, I am a dreamer. Looking back on my life at that point, I feel like it was a dream. Sometimes it is hard for me to grasp the fact that it was all a reality- my reality. I was in a relationship with the most wonderful man I had ever met- my sweet and gentle Giorgio. I had a job most people train their entire lives to take on. And I had seen and done things I only thought happened in the movies.
Unfortunately, as abruptly as it had started- Rome came to a screeching halt. My castle in the sky crumbled away right under my feet and there was nothing I could do to stop the demise of the life I had always dreamed of living. I’m going to leave out the details of the multiple reasons it was decided that it was in my best interests to leave Italy, but suffice it to say that I wasn’t ready for the departure.
Shortly after I packed my bags, I was back at home. Sitting amongst my family, on American soil, and completely alone. I don’t think I spoke a word for a good week. I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the idea of even attempting to put into words how broken and lost I felt. There was nothing to say. Life, as I had known it, ended abruptly and without warning. I had lost a great love. To this day, it is hard to look back with fondness on that full year and a half of my life. I believe that my subconscious partially turned it into a story. Simply a story to be told- not a real part of my life. I had lost everything- at least everything and anything that meant something to me back then.
The concept of “home” had always intrigued me. I was always testing the limits as to what I could make my home and what I couldn’t. I don’t think for my four years at college, I ever felt like I was at home. However- I was at home in my little apartment off of Via Sambuccucio d’Alando in Rome with Giorgio. The smell of that place was home, the curves of Giorgio’s face were home. I even had a turtle; Tarti. Back in America, I was essentially homeless. I had to start over. And that’s what I did.
Life is filled with inconsequential moments that we let pass us by without notice. Once in a while- a certain person and experience come together and there is this magical connection where everything makes sense- where there is a concrete purpose to it all. My time in Italy was exactly that. I didn’t know who I was to become, what I was to do, or where I would be- but I knew it would be something spectacular. That was ultimately what that year had shown me- my life can be spectacular. Every moment can be meaningful and every moment can be life-altering. It is what we make of it.
This is all we have. This one short life. The fleeting moment in which we can decide whether to simply exist or to grab it by the horns and ride. I want to ride it until I expire. Most people tire out, fall off, or never get on in the first place. I plan to ride it forever. Otherwise, what’s it all for? I feel lucky. I can go back to any experience in Italy and desire to do it all over again. The thing that makes me different is that I wouldn’t change a thing. I would take everyday- the happiness, the misery- and do it all again if given the change. No hindsight, no knowledge in piu. Just as it was. And I am excited to do the same with the rest of my life. I know some of what is out there now... It’s like listening to your favorite song with the ocean at your feet, the infinite stars above, and your best friend holding your hand. It can’t get any better. That’s what the future is to me. The more I live, the more I grow and the better each day gets. Of course we all have our weak moments but what’s the light without the dark?
Everything in life is cyclical. What has a beginning, must have an end. That which lives, will inevitably die. These are the only universal truths that continue to not only plague me, but have a recurring theme in my daily life. Looking back, over four years later, I know that my experience then formed part of who I am now, like everything else we do in life. I accomplished what I went there to do and in later months and years, had full faith in myself and anything I chose to do. I had loved deeply, failed undertakings, succeeded in enterprises, met some of the most fantastic and interesting characters I would never have known existed, and opened my eyes to boundless possibilities. I didn’t know what the next step was to be or where I would end up once back in the states but there was one fact I understood that I still hold true; whatever Italy meant to me and however short lived it was- it wasn’t the end of my voyage; it was merely a piece of the magnificent puzzle that one day, a long time from then and a long time from now, I would proudly call my life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"it's better to burn out, than to fade away."