Sunday, November 28, 2010

A bottle of wine every day takes the doctor away...

“A bottle of wine every day, takes the doctor away,” says a bold voice behind the counter of a tiny wine shop located at the bottom of a giant vineyard in the middle of Chianti. “Shame for you,” on not being a drinker, she adds, when she learns that I am not one for drinking. “Shame for you, again,” she adds, when she learns that I don’t eat meat. Meet Roberta. A loving, passionate, vino-knowing gal, who allowed us to sample not only the vineyard’s best wines and biscotti, but also the kind and loving atmosphere of Chianti.

Hiking up a mountain was not how any of us had planned to spend our day, but it ended up setting the pace for the entire day trip out of Florence and into the vineyards of Tuscany. Striding less than elegantly to the top of the mountain, we huffed and we puffed, wondering if we would ever reach the vineyard that we had made reservations at.

Turning around, at about the halfway mark, we realized that we didn’t care how big this mountain was, how tired our legs were, or how out of shape we truly were, this view was absolutely stunning. Suddenly, making it to the top in time wasn’t as important as taking in the moment. Suddenly, reaching the vineyard was less of a mission than just basking in the idea that we were standing in the middle of Tuscany without a care in the world. “I could stand here all day,” said Matt. Looking out over the landscape, and all I could think to myself was, 'Me too, my gosh...Me too’

As we got closer to the top of the mountain, I called the vineyard to let them know we were running a few minutes late. A woman answered and spoke only Italian. She told me, “We are closed today.” Looking at my friends, I repeated what the woman said, but we still continued to venture. Once reaching the top of the vineyard, we realized, they were indeed closed and our reservation for a two hour tour and tasting must have never gone through (Thank goodness we didn’t pay ahead). A bit urgently, two of us tried to find someone to explain our problem, but all we got was a sorry, no reservations today, we are closed. Looking at eachother, it didn’t take long to realize that it really didn’t matter. What we were looking at, a castle in the sky, fields of grapes, and a beautiful view, were all just worth taking in for a bit. We climbed the steps of the castle, ducked into arches, tasted fruits hanging from vines, and just sat staring out at the world…staring out at our current world…staring out at a world just asking us to explore it.

“Something good is going to happen,” I whispered to one of my friends… but ‘Something great’ is what I was really thinking. While a few of us stared out at the blue sky, one of our five had made his way back to the woman who told us they were closed. As he fetched water from her sink, he explained to her what had happened, and she suddenly felt bad, and went onto immediately call one of the men who worked there…Not before long, we were on our own private tour, learning the history of the Verrezano Vineyard…looking at dusty bottles of wine from 1924, looking at rooms over 1,000 years old, just again, basking in the wonderfulness that the day was suddenly bringing to us.

It had felt like we were in the movie Alice in Wonderland…with big barrels of wine, larger than ourselves, a garden that would have made perfect for the Queen’s croquet match, and our “Mad Winer”, the tour guide who was taking us through the history of the vineyard. Only this wasn’t, a movie, this was real life…this was our day Under the Tuscan Sun.

Moments after the tour ended, we stuffed 6 people into a smart car, so as not to have to walk down the mountain that we had first climbed up. Upon arriving at the bottom, we were greeted by the wonderfully stunning Roberta who took time out of her day to allow us to sample wines and dessert drinks. As we took our last sips, Roberta laughed, “Okay, now you pay,” asking for just 14 Euro each, on a day that we should have originally paid 28 euro each.

I smiled at my friends, and they each smiled back, knowing exactly what I was thinking. “This day was incredible…this town was incredible…this experience…was simply incredible.” Walking out of the hut, I stared at the road ahead, and thought to myself, “I never want to leave this country…I never want to leave this state of mind.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ten Americans and six foreigners sit in a circle...I swear it's not a support group

“It feels like we are in a movie,” said Alessandro across the living room as he stabbed his fork into a giant piece of turkey. “We see this in the movies, but we never experience it. This is my first Thanksgiving.”

Alessandro is an Italian man that one of our classmates, in Italy, took time to make friends with over the last three weeks. He is sitting across the room from me. To my left, a woman from Israel is laughing. Next to her is an Englishman, and another Italian. Just past a light shade, that obstructs my view, is a German. If you take another look around our room, you might not only notice the foreign differences but also the age differences as well. A retired woman, born in America, who grew up in Canada, is sitting three spaces to my left while others in the room have just nearly hit 23. You might think we are sitting in a support group for diversity, but this is far from what is happening. This is our Thanksgiving—ten Americans, and five, eventually six people who have never celebrated the giant turkey in the middle of the table, the green bean casserole, or cranberry sauce (which go for 3.90 Euro each at the International Ingredient store) before.

Here we were, ten Americans, and six foreigners, doing exactly what our ancestors did when they first celebrated Thanksgiving: sharing a meal, sharing our thanks, and sharing our happiness. To continue a game of tag here: The wonderful Hannah wrote a piece about what Thanksgiving is truly about and what home is all about on her blog just a few days ago at just about the same time as a home piece I wrote (hence the game of tag we are playing via cyberworld). And this piece she wrote helped me to solidify the fact that everything she wrote is exactly true.

Thanksgiving is about the giving. As we all went around the room, sharing what we were thankful for, a common theme began to develop. “I am thankful for the fact that I am not homesick right now,” said a new good friend of mine. Another said, “I am thankful for the fact that we can all come together to do this…” and “I am thankful for L and J welcoming us into their home for this.” The women from Israel added “I am thankful for all the beautiful Italian men here,” and we all had a great laugh.

Thanksgiving is not always about being with family, but sometimes rather, about being with people who you never imagined your life with, but who have made it better in some way, shape, or form. As a few of us fell into a conversation, a good friend started to say, “I couldn’t imagine my life without you guys in it…Like it’s weirder to think of not knowing you than to think about not getting married.”

And he is right—it would be weird. It would be weird not to be sitting with all these people, taking in the moment, tearing up at the thought of how happy you are, and getting a clear picture of what thankfulness and happiness are all about. This year Thanksgiving wasn’t about how many servings you ate at dinner. It was about how many diverse people you could bring together in one room and turn into a family…a wonderful new and accepting family who may lose the ability to see one another each and every day next week: but who will always have this one memory—this one “Grazieful” memory.

In the word of the Italians: Salute!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Di Dove Sei? (Where are you from?

“The city of big buildings and bright lights. The city that never sleeps. Good Old New York City,” I say cheerfully to the paper boy who has just asked me the most asked question of all, here in Italy, “Di dove sei,” (where are you from?).

I suddenly want to retract my statements, and put a “But I grew up in Pennsylvania, and lived there for a majority of my life.” But somehow saying New York City seems so much more fun and interesting, and it rolls off my tongue much more quickly and simply. I think deep inside, I truly believe I was meant to be a New Yorker my whole life, to be someone full of adventure and attitude, to be someone who could get through a crowded Times Square without slamming into a single person, to be someone who could walk from Astoria, Queens to lower Manhattan without wincing, to be a true city girl. I think I knew this the first time I came to Italy, when I realized how much I loved Rome and the big, nonstop city atmosphere. As an overwhelming person myself, an overwhelming place to live seems to be a perfect match. “I am from New York City,” I continue to think to myself.

But I am not, and it is crazy to me how nine months in New York City can make me believe I am. In four years of living in Rhode Island, I never once referred to it as my home, and I never once believed it was where I was from. And it never was where I was from.

I deserve a slap on my wrist for forgetting my roots when I told Giuseppe, my new favorite paper boy, who stands in Piazza Della Repubblica every morning, that I was from New York City.

I am a Pennsylvanian. I live near the Amish. I live an hour north of the cheese steak capital of the world. And I couldn’t be more proud of my family or friends that have come from there. But when you start traveling as many times as you buy new shoes, it gets more difficult to remember the last place you occupied, the last place that was your true home

So what makes somewhere HOME? Is it your family? Is it your friends? Is it where you grew up most of your life? Is it where you went to high school? Is it where you went to college? Is it your address? Is it where you have your bank statements set? Or is it where you feel most comfortable, most happy, most lovely, most simple. I want to believe that it’s where you feel most happy, most lovely, most simple. I want to believe that home is what you make it. I want to believe that when I am telling someone I am from New York City, that I am telling them really where I am from.

But I think New York City will soon be just a memory of where I am from. Because if home is really where the heart is, then I am starting to believe that Italy is my home—because I don’t think my heart will ever leave. So when the next Giuseppe asks where I am from, well I think I have a new answer. I am from Italy…and when that next Giuseppe looks at me like I have ten heads, I think I’ll laugh to myself and say, “I just need to say that in Italian next time.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"These tears are just a disguise for happiness"

His story lingers in my mind, his tears the dessert to our meal that had just ended. His words echo. His story is strong…his tears are stronger—they are for joy, not sadness. His tears are for the past, the future, and the present. And just a week ago he was a stranger to me, to all of us here in Italy. Just a week ago, I would have never known him, or this story, the one of the love he had for his grandfather, the one of the last record he played by his grandfather’s bedside, the one of strength and what it truly means.

Strength in tears.

As I sat and watched my new friend shed tears about the past, over a final glass of wine with six of us sitting at the table, I thought to myself, how strong of a person to let the tears just roll out, to just let us all the way in, to let us learn a bit more about him and his past—to let us know him.

I often cry, but most times the tears are hidden in embarrassment, because they tend to be tears for nothing, sadness, or emptiness. But I realized recently how much I actually enjoy crying, letting it all just flow out, letting the droplets just drip down my cheek.

My friend Hannah has pointed out the importance of gaping wallows in the past, and it is in this moment, at dinner, that I see the gaping wallow in progress. Though his stream of tears doesn’t fill the restaurant like a bathtub, it does offer a release, an escape. It is in these moments that I realize the importance of our tears and the importance of sharing those tears with or without stories. It is in this moment I realize the importance of letting people in—the importance of letting ourselves out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Come Se Dice Ti Amo in Inglese?

“I love you” Three simple words in English that mean so many complex things. Eight letters that we Americans piece together.

I. Love. You.

And in America, we take those eight letters more seriously than many people have taken the many letters and words in our declarations and our commandments that represent our beliefs in our country and our religions. These eight letters can move mountains for us Americans, they can break a person’s heart, and they can be engraved on one’s soul forever. Eight letters…three words…that take on so much more meaning than the one thousand something words in the Declaration of Independence. (Man if Benjamin Franklin knew he only needed eight letters to change the world, imagine what he’d come up with…. “Peace Man.” Franklin and the delegates definitely got it wrong in the book of ways to change America).

After my second day in Florence, I got to thinking about those three small words comprised of eight letters. I had made a new friend earlier in the day who only spoke Italian. He was from Kosovo and had been living here in Italy for six years. After speaking earlier in the day at the Duomo, we made plans to meet up later for a short bit, because I wanted to learn Italian and he wanted to learn English. For a few hours, we walked, talking in broken Italian. For the most part I said, “No lo so” and he giggled at my stupidity. It reminded me of my nights in Rome trying to talk to my good friend Nino when he went off on Italian rants. It was quite amusing to hear me try to speak perfect Italian. But with my attempts to speak Italian and my new friend’s, who we will call F, attempts to learn English, (which made me hopeful as he learned quickly from my teaching) we were able to both laugh. But I definitely got the last one when he asked me one last question in Italian. “Come se dice ti amo in inglese?” I laughed and told him that “ti amo in inglese e “I love you.” He then spoke those eight letters, those three complex American words to me…”I love you.”

I always thought that the first time a guy said “I love you to me” he would understand all the complexities that came with it and the strength that those words have to take a girls heart twist it into a million un-fixable knots, but this was not the case.

Those eight letters…those three words…now took on a completely different meaning. They were not his way of expressing his deepest most sincere feelings. They were his way of expressing our new found friendship on the streets of Florence. As I tried to explain in rough Italian what I Love you meant in America, I realized that it was much more easy believing what F thought I love you meant, much less complex—so I let it go and gave him a giant Italian hug goodnight.

It was in that moment, that suddenly “I love you” went from being complicated to being completely platonically simple—From a mess of meaning to a perfect lovely moment—a lovely moment where I realized that there was love in the air in Tuscany—a whole lot of simple, delightful, wonderful love. So much that I think tomorrow I’ll spread some more...and then the next day as well, and the day after that--until Tuscany is smothered in it and covered like grafitti with those three perfectly lovely simple words… I. and Love. and You.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"OH! The people you will meet!

"Ohhhhh The places you'll go!
You'll be on your way up!
You'll be seeing great sights!
You'll join the high fliers who soar to high heights"

One of my best friends handed me the famous "Oh! The Places You'll Go" as we said goodbye on my final night in Bethlehem, prior to my leaving the states, prior to my new journey. I always wanted to rewrite this book and title it "Oh! The people you will meet!"

I think of this over and over again each time I meet a new person, each time I hear a new story, each time I hear a new name. I think of writing it today as I have made my trek across the Atlantic and have introduced myself to numbers and numbers of people: from the airport security men, to the young man who sat next to me in the terminal patiently awaiting the flight to see his girlfriend to my new roommates. Most of these people are people that I will only have met for a few minutes, a brief instance of mutual exchange, a valuable moment. I'll normally take the moments after to create more of a story for that person. I'll pretend that the airport security man has had to tackle a terrorist or that the boy waiting to see his girlfriend has not told her that he is coming, that he is surprising her, and that their world is going to be perfect. I love people. I love stories. So when I come across someone and I get to hear their story...I can't help but smile over that moment--that perfect moment where one of us felt comfortable enough with the other to share a brief valuable time in our lives.

I got to hear a few of these stories yesterday.

Let's face it, my Italian is molto brutto (very ugly---for now), so when I entered a cab in Florence and tried to speak Italian to my driver, it was a relief to hear him know English. This first ride would not be a quiet one. We spoke back and forth to one another, me desperately trying to speak Italian and him fixing my every error. And then with ten minutes left in our drive, he reminded me why I loved Italy so much, why I love Italians so much. It is not because of the food (though my first slice of pizza yesterday was phenomenal), and it isn't because of their leather (though I did feel like I fit in, in my black fake leather jacket), no, it is because of their love for talking, their love for stories.

And as I exchanged life stories with Stefano, I wondered if I would ever find the same happiness as him, if I would ever be perfectly content never marrying someone the way he has (my mother would never approve), if I would ever be content dedicating my life to one thing like he has (he rowed in the 1996 Olympics and considers himself marries to his boat), and if I would ever just be simply happy. He clearly knew happiness, as he dropped me off at my apartment refusing tip money and wishing me the best of luck in my time in Florence.

But he was just the first of many that I exchanged stories with on my first day--in my first hours. As I sat down for my first cappuccino, a young man sat to my left with his own. I turned with a smile on my face and exclaimed, MI PIACE CAPPUCCINO!. And he turned, and smiled, a big wide grin, and said, "ANCHE IO!" I soon discovered that he was from Africa, but knew no English. Fortunately, he bared with me and my wonderful (ahem) Italian. We ended up going on to speak in fragments for nearly forty minutes exchanging names and numbers and an arrangement for a future coffee date. And as he walked away, to return to work, I just kept thinking about all the people I will meet...and all the stories that I will hear.

As I continued to sit alone at my table, I looked around me and just felt happiness--like Stefano, and I just smiled--a lot. It may become a very lasting habit...In the words of Elf--Smiling may just become "my favorite."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Like a Forever Stamp...

I wish suitcases were expandable. I wish that inside the pockets of each pair of pants that I have packed I could shrink a friend s mall enough to fit within. I wish that when I pulled out my shoes on the other side of the Atlantic that there’d be a little Jack in the shoe popping out, a friend who would say “Surprise, bet you didn’t know I could sulk up like a slinky.”

But I know that in this year, this decade, possibly this century, and most definitely this lifetime, that will not ever be possible. This is something I have to do on my own—this is something I want to do on my own.

In just a few hours, I will arrive at JFK, swipe my Passport through the scanner, drop my luggage onto the conveyor belt, brace myself for body scanners, sit in a terminal alone, and board a plane across the Atlantic. I will say goodbye to large sized coffees, most of my wardrobe, and all the best of friends. Ten hours later, I will walk off a plane into a land where the exit signs read “Uschita” and where Dunkin Donuts are replaced with local hole-in-the-wall shops. I will say hello to cappuccino con chocolate, beautiful romance languages, a months worth of wrinkled clothes, and a world filled with wonderful people that have stories to share. I will be home…I will be in Italy.

I use the word home to describe a place that I once lived for three months, a place that welcomed me with open arms, a place that granted me safety and security, a place that provided me with happiness.

Like a forever stamp placed carefully on the corner of a fresh letter to be mailed, the value of my love for Italy never seems to change. I have not gone a day since leaving Italy without thinking of the kindness of strangers, without dreaming of the cobblestone roads, without imagining the scent of the steam radiating from the wood burning ovens. I have not gone a day without missing Italy. I have not gone a day without missing home.

Returning to Italy means seeing old friends and making new ones. It means rediscovering nooks and crannies placed all over the wonderful cities that I once conquered. Most of all, it means returning to my significant other…that’s right…Italy and I are in a serious relationship, and while I have had my serious love affair with New York City, I think that Italy will forgive me. No—I know that Italy will forgive me. Despite my heart and mind wreaking of city subways and alleyways, Italy will embrace me the instant that I return, it will grasp me so hard that I will find it so very difficult to release myself from it’s pull 6, 7, 8 months down the line.

And while I’ll still carry a long distance relationship with New York City, I know that Italy will completely have my heart. I won’t look back—I’ll never look back.

I’ve talked of going back to Italy since December of 2008—when I first returned to the states—when I first forgot how to say “Thank You” and “Hello” and instead belted out “GRAZIE…” and “CIAO!”

And while this week has offered me some difficult challenges to overcome in the days leading up to my travels…I know that they were not meant to deter me. Rather, I believe they may have occurred in order to keep me busy—to keep my mind from questioning the next eight months of my life, to keep me from even thinking about cold feet.

But I almost broke down twice…I almost lost all hope for today coming and myself being prepared. But I am ready—I am ready….I am SOO ready. I’ll see you on the other side folks. I can’t fit you in my pockets…But won’t you join me?

I’ll take a cappuccino… how about you?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just not a material girl in a material world...

When I was younger, I was terrified of the dark. Two or three nights a week I would sleep with the lights on, the door open, and a big old blanket wrapped around my body. I’d wait for my parents to go to sleep and I’d slowly get up from my bed and creep out of my room to make sure nothing was in the hallway. Some nights I’d go downstairs and turn on the television for a bit until I felt really safe, and some nights I just fell asleep. If I had a bad dream, and the lights were off, I would cover my face, remain motionless, and silently listen to the things that went bump in the night.

When I did convince myself that it was okay to turn off the light during the night, I’d imagine shadows on the wall were people sneaking into my house to kidnap me or my family or steal all of my belongings. For me a shadow on a white wall was like a cloud in the sky—it had the ability to deceive me into thinking it was something else. The shadows would take the forms of creatures in the night haunting me until my eyes got too tired to recognize their shapes anymore—or until 4:00am.

4:00am is what I call the safe zone. It’s the time when I have convinced myself that bad guys don’t prowl the streets and the time that the world—in my time zone—is in a safety bubble.

So when I woke up at 5am on my final morning in New York City, I was ready to walk out to my car to embark on my new journey. I headed down the third floor walk up of an apartment I had slept at in the Bronx, opened the door laughing as I said goodbye to a friend and slowly realized that things from my car were sitting on the ground. It was past 4am and I suddenly felt as if the safe bubble had popped and covered me in a terribly gewy mess. My car had been broken into via a back smashed passenger window.

I stood there trying to take in that most of my belongings, except my clothes, were stolen, and nearly fell over in disbelief.

I walked back into the apartment, unready and unwilling to face the fact that my car had just been ransacked for everything that had some significant money value to it. As my friend woke my best friend up to come down to me, all I could think was that I was stuck in a bad dream. I attempted to use the power of Inception (Gosh LEO you made it seem like it was so easy to do in the movie) to stop the terrible nightmare and make the shadows of broken glass and unlocked doors disappear. I stood motionless, wishing I had a blanket to cover my face so I could take in all the bumps in the night around me. Only I wasn’t stuck in my 10 foot by 10 foot room imagining that terrible things were happening in the darkness—terrible things DID happen in the darkness.

Now a little less groggy, I was slowly putting together that my external hard drive, my flip camera, my camera memory cards, and my iPod had been stolen, on top of a number of other things.

As I wrote down the list of items I was missing, I stared at them thinking: “This could be a hell of a lot worse.” All I could say to myself and to my friends were “They are just replaceable accessories Libs—just disposable items, just things that I really wanted—but never really NEEDED. After forty-five minutes to an hour of putting myself back together and forcing through strong reluctant feelings of guilt, I motivated myself to get back into my car and drive home—the final trip I was supposed to make from New York City to Pennsylvania for the next eight months.

I kept repeating to myself “They are just accessories Libs…just accessories.” And while it’s hard for me to imagine the fact that I will never get my videos, pictures, or songs back—there’s something even more valuable to me that this person took…something so precious that annoys me more than someone taking the last cookie from the jar…and that’s time.

Time to prepare for Italy, time to relax with my family, time to cuddle with my cat, time to work on various projects that I have in the works, and time to just get the things done that I absolutely need to get done. Time—something that I could not physically hold in my hands…something more valuable than any of the things in my car…something that isn’t buyable—that isn’t replaceable. And then I started remembering other things that were important to me that weren't in that car--like my memories, and my passions, and my hopes, and my love for the city of New York.

My epiphany came sometime around the moment the sunrise was sitting perfectly in my rear view mirror, almost like a cleverly plotted detail in a film. It was in that moment that I realized that the items we can hold are seldom the items that truly matter the most in the end. If it fits in the palms of our hands—then it can probably never truly fit in our hearts.

Often times we give in easily to the material things around us: the iPods, the Nooks, the makeup, the ugz, the smart phones, the cameras, the stiletto heels, the perfect Halloween costume, and the many other individual things that we always think we need.

But maybe it takes someone stealing your “valuables” to truly see what is of value in your life…to really understand how material you may have become, and how immaterial you wish you could be. You may have taken my hard-drive Mr. Bronx Robber, but you didn’t steal my heart—in fact, I think you may have just made it a little bigger.