My first trip to Italy was like falling in love. I was besotted. Like an all-consuming crush, I only focused on the things that I wanted to love.
In a way, I wish I could to go back in time and experience Italy for the first time. To feel the same intense wonder, joy and excitement. Because this time it was different. After all, a 2 week trip doesn’t quite match a 3 month journey.
In May this year, I embarked on a 3 month trip to Italy with my husband. With all our belongings packed into storage, it was my bucket list trip, all our savings from the past year poured into this one experience. It felt a little indulgent. But also courageous. Who spends all their earnings on a trip that will be over in 3 months, without a solid job or home to return to? Or is that just crazy? Irresponsible? I’ll let you decide.
My first trip to Italy was like falling in love. I was besotted. Like an all-consuming crush, I only focused on the things that I wanted to love. I chose to delight in what I wanted Italy to be. I fell in love with the way the light played on her ancient buildings, the lilting sounds of her foreign language, washing over me as I took the passeggiata. I bathed in the newness of her and I didn’t want to wash her off. I was utterly in love. And she felt like home. She felt like the part of me that I always wanted to be.
But this time, this trip, the sheen got a little tarnished. Cracks emerged in that all too perfect bronzed skin. Her little quirks become less quaint and I began seeing Italia for who she was. Real. Complex. Full of contrasts. The shadowy sides I refused to see before. My school-girl crush began to fade. Yet I still craved the nostalgia of our summertime love. My lover welcomed me back, but this time, it was warts and all and unapologetically on her terms. Italia showed me her true nature and I had to decide if I wanted this love or not.
So why did this trip become so different? For a start, I stayed longer. I went deeper, I heard stories: a country suffering; a lack of opportunities; the oppression of the youth; corruption; the infuriating bureaucracy; the struggles of immigration; poverty; homelessness; the unfair taxation; a country overpopulated and the relentlessness of tourism. I witnessed, observed. I felt responsible. I soaked up this truth, like an accident you can’t turn away from.
I slowed down. I lingered in cities, stuck around instead of passing through. I refused to follow a tourist’s bloated itinerary. I tried to live like a local, which, of course, is impossible. Because of our budget, we travelled slow. We didn’t take all the tours and had to be choosy when we dined out. I shopped at markets, cooked mostly in our apartment, worked on projects, studied language online. We stayed with family, gathered a deeper awareness. Met new friends, strangers and had insightful conversations about a complex country. We caught trains and buses. Found the dirty and grimy. We followed a humble routine, rather than the highlight reel of holidaymakers.
All through this, and because of this, I became aware of my expectations versus an undeniable reality. I felt the weight of not speaking the language as much as I’d hoped. And always, that desperate hope of wanting to be a part of the country I had fallen in love with.
I haven’t written this to elevate my experience, to paint a picture of myself as a seasoned Italian traveller, with a deeper knowledge than the reader. No, I write to make sense of this experience, to explore expectations in relation to reality. To share the truth of what happens when you take a dream and bring it into existence. Because I bet you’ve once held a belief: that you will be much happier and satisfied in the future – once you’ve reached that dream goal. That external place. That everything will be better. So much better than where you are now. And truth be told, that’s what I wanted Italy to be for me.
But instead, I got so much more. I got an unapologetic, cheeky smack in the face. Italian style. ‘Wake up,’ Italy seemed to tell me. Look in the mirror. It’s you. You are there, at the centre of everything you do. With your thoughts, emotions, stories, hopes, fears – the whole lot. You can’t travel to any place without taking yourself along for the ride. Travel brings out who you are.
If you’re unhappy in your life, you’ll take the unhappiness with you. If you have insecurities, you’ll be the baggage you’ll carry around. Anything external to your soul: a city, a country, a partner, a child, a job, a new outfit, a snazzy haircut, a slimmer figure, societal admiration, a promotion, a bigger bank balance – all these things won’t be the ultimate source for your joy. It might for a little while. But that newness soon fades and you’ll be left with YOU – who you are, your perspective, your journey, your state of mind. And the good news is, if you can be okay with where you currently are, you’re going to find all those expectations melt away. You can start soaking up the experience exactly as it is - no more, no less.
Italy is no longer a fantasy, a dream, or an expectation. Each time I return, I’ll bring my full self and meet with her on equal terms. Both real and open. Both exactly where we’re meant to be.