My Relationship with Italy
Lately I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Italy. For me, it was not a case of love at first sight. In fact, it’s often seemed more of a wary acceptance that has more or less developed into a comfortable coexistence. As I try to piece together my complicated relationship with this beautiful, complex, exasperating country, I wanted to share a piece that I wrote for a travel writing class I took several years ago.
This was something I wrote back before I launched this blog, and although I have traveled quite a bit in Italy, I’ve kept rather quiet about it. The reasons for my reluctance to write about Italy are two-fold. One is I find Italy very difficult to capture in words. The other is that I’ve found that people have very strong opinions about Italy, even within the class, reaction to my less than positive initial views of Italy were not well received by the Italophiles among my classmates.
Since then, I’m reluctant to share my honest thoughts and reflections on the country I call home for now, which has created a self-imposed chilling effect. I’ve found that I’ve become more focused on photos and travel, and less willing to share my reality.
So, here it goes. I’d like to share the first day of my very first visit to Italy. I had extremely high expectations of what I would find there, I’d seen movies, I’d read novels, non-fictions, and guidebooks, and I had come up with a picture in my head of what I thought I would find. I had reduced Italy down from a nation of complex character and history, to an oversimplified picture postcard. In my mind it was a place of sun and ease and laughter. Reality, of course, is a bit more complicated. So here’s what happened on my first trip to Italy, when I decided to let go of what I thought Italy was supposed to be.
Spring Break, 2011
Have you ever found that your experience just doesn’t live up to the dream? As a child, my travel dreams were modest. I never wanted to travel the world. I wanted to visit Ireland, Italy, and India. I have no idea where my dreams of visiting a trio of countries beginning with the letter I originated from, but they formed the base of the itinerary of my dream travels.
Here were then on our first visit to Italy, a fulfilment of a childhood dream.
Unfortunately, thus far, Italy not lived up to my expectations. Before we arrived, I had romanticized vision of Italy. It was the land I had seen in postcards, and paintings, and romantic films. The part of Italy we were in wasn’t quite the same.
We were staying on the American Army base of Camp Darby, outside of Livorno. We had taken a main highway down, and those views I’d seen in photos and films they just weren’t visible from the road. Aside from a fleeting glimpse of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the highway, I had seen nothing that made me fall in love with Italy. It was dirty. It was run-down. The area we were in was by and large, quite nondescript. When we finally exited the highway, we passed a stretch of road full of transvestite hookers. La Dolce Vita indeed.
That first day we continued to explore the area we were staying in I was just not impressed. Tirrenia in the early spring is grey and cold. The waterfront vistas could have just as easily been in the New York City area. Perhaps it was because it was off-season, but the restaurant we chose was merely mediocre.
My initial impressions of one area of the country were beginning to color my view of the whole country, and they were about to intrude on my vacation as well.
Still, I was looking forward to our trip to Lucca the following day. Once I read that it was possible to ride your bikes on top of the ancient walls of the city, I knew that we had to do it. This was going to be our magical Italian experience. The guidebook all but guaranteed it.
We got off to a rocky start, as the gas station we needed to use literally ran out of gas. To top it off, they had no idea when they would have more, and there was not another station nearby. I was really having trouble figuring out why people love Italy so much.
The trip to Lucca proved a bit more scenic that the trip down from Germany. We were off the main highways and seeing a bit more of the countryside. The day before was all grey skies and rain, but it was promising to be a beautiful spring day.
That morning we even achieved the holy grail of Italian travel – a convenient parking spot, but as we unpacked, we were far from joyful. Our increasingly dark moods stood in direct contrast to the brilliant blue skies above. Today, the cracks in our perfectly planned vacation began to show. Today our family of four had a grand total of two bicycle tires for two bikes and a trailer. Things were not looking good.
Somehow, as we were packing up the car, ensuring that we had two bicycles, one trailer, two diaper bags, every possible contingency item you could conceivably use in a day out with a two-year-old and a three-year-old, we left the front tires of our bicycles propped up against the side of our vacation home. There was no way we were going to bike today. The morning’s fiasco had soured our desire to even explore the walls on foot. No, it was time for the contingency plan.
The problem was, we had no other plan for the day. We had toted our bikes across three countries to get here. We were definitely not loving our Italian vacation. We very nearly got back into the car and ended our day here. But, we did have to eat, so we decided to set off on foot to find a restaurant somewhere within the walled city.
While my husband and I attempted to orient ourselves to the map in the guidebook, the children found a grassy corner in the shadow of the walls. They were happy to be out enjoying the pleasant weather in an area they could explore on foot.
Children seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to finding playgrounds, and ours are no different. While we stood with our heads buried in the guidebooks trying to salvage our plan, the children began to form a plan of their own. Impatient hands tugged at our pant legs and impatient voices begged to join the other children at play. We reluctantly followed the children, who had long since forgotten their initial disappointment, and watched as they immediately immersed themselves in the local playground scene.
It was nearly lunchtime, and the playground was bursting at the seams with Italian children scampering from this activity to that. It wasn’t long amid the laughter, and Italian chatter that our mood began to lighten as well.
After an hour on the playground, we were ready to take a walk on the wall. It was more like a stroll on a tree-lined boulevard in the sky than a hike on a medieval rampart. But we only made it a hundred yards or so before our grumbling stomachs called us back to the task of finding lunch.
Thus far in our trip, food had been just one more disappointment. In all the books I’d read, and movies I’d seen, no one ever had a bad meal in Italy. In a country where culture and food are so conjoined, I had imagined more.
Following the disappointing meals we’d had so far, I was really not expecting much.
It was a lovely afternoon, and we soon found a restaurant that the guidebook highly recommended, with plenty of outdoor seating. It was still rather early, but the restaurant was already out of nearly everything on the menu. The only thing they had left was pasta, either with meatballs, clams, or sausages. The food was not terrible, but it wasn’t memorable either. The setting more than made up for the forgettable food. Sitting in the street side café, with its chairs precariously balanced on the cobblestones, was relaxing. It was closer to the Italy of my imagination. We enjoyed our meal, and then the owner’s eight-year-old son decided that we were in desperate need of entertainment, which he provided until we left.
After lunch, we decided to give the city another try. We thumbed through the guidebook for ideas. First we set off on a search for Puccini’s birthplace. We walked around the square, past the large statue of the composer, but we were unable to align the map with the reality. We gave up and moved on.
Next in the guidebook was the site of the former amphitheater, the Piazza del Mercato. We searched in vain for this grand piazza that the guidebook assured us we couldn’t miss. We passed through the area probably three times before we realized that we were walking directly through the piazza. Since this too was less than spectacular, we decided to chuck the guidebook, and wing it from here.
It was then, without the guidebook, that we began to enjoy and appreciate not only Lucca, but Italy.
As soon as we let go of our expectations and just let the day unfold, things changed. We stopped looking for we should see. We stopped acting like tourists and started acting like explorers.
Lucca slowly began to open up to us. We wandered in and out of the small shops lining the ancient cobblestone streets, without a plan. In each shop we took some time to talk with people in them. We asked questions, we struggled to speak Italian, and rather than reading suggestions from people who don’t live there, we listened to what the locals had to say. We learned the history of a family run porcelain business, we learned where to purchase the best limoncello and vin Santo in the region.
We left Lucca with a greater appreciation for the country. In the process of letting go of the plan, we finally discovered the Italy that had eluded us. We realized that sometimes it’s best to give up the plan and just let the adventure happen.
This vacation was one of the first ones we had taken outside of Germany. Our visit to Lucca was in the early part of my first visit to Italy. This vacation changed a lot about the way I approached travel.
Before that vacation, I religiously followed what the guidebooks said I should see. I never strayed from the safety of the pages.
I found that I wasn’t always enjoying our explorations, but I never knew what was missing. I was seeing everything that I was supposed to see, but I only felt like I was constantly trying to complete a never-ending checklist of must see sights. I felt as though I was never really appreciating the place I was in.
This trip helped me to become much more relaxed in my approach to vacation planning. Probably a bit too relaxed, as there are times I travel now without much more than a hotel reservation. I learned to let go of the preconceived notions I had of what I thought a place should be. I learned to allow myself to get to know a place slowly – in a more personal way.
This first vacation to Italy was followed by five more over the coming years. Although eventually, we did bike on the walls of Lucca (and it was well worth it), often times we wouldn’t have much more than the name of the city we wanted to explore that day. Most of the time it worked out better than we thought it would. Most of the time the food was spectacular. We met up with new friends and old friends and grew to look forward to our time in Italy.
Each trip we took added just a little bit more to the depth of my understanding and appreciation for the country, the people and the culture of Italy.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, four years later we would be living in this perplexing country. My relationship with Italy is still a complicated one. There are days I love it and marvel at it. There are also bad Italian days, where I just don’t get it, and I just don’t like it. I think though, you don’t really appreciate the good parts as much if you don’t have the vexing ones alongside it.
I have found that this is a place that causes me to continually reflect on my beliefs, on myself, on my ability to handle intercultural interactions, on my views. In Italy, nearly as much has been revealed to me about myself as it has about the place I call home.
I still don’t subscribe to the view of the Italian Dolce Vita. Here, as everywhere else, there is the bitter along with the sweet. But for me anyway, Italy has revealed something of Vita Vera – true life. In a place where the contrasts are so remarkable, it’s difficult not to leave untouched by them.
So perhaps it wasn’t love at first sight. Maybe, just maybe, I am on the course of something just a bit deeper. I saw the flaws, and I didn’t turn away. I came back to discover that there was an indescribable charm there as well.