Category Archives: older, wiser?

being an american in italy

I dreamt of Vermont, of skiing and boots crunching in snow, a real serious cold in the air, but the hot chocolate warming you up, even the cheap watery stuff that tastes like ice-skating as a kid, when I was still waist-height, out of some big metal tureen.

Why are we always wanting to be somewhere else?

Maybe I’ve had the dreams because it’s cold here now, snow flurries all day yesterday even though it’s mid-March, but they don’t know how to heat things properly here so the chill is always there, under your skin. It’s actually warmer to go outside, bundled up, and work up your own warm by walking around, window shopping, treating yourself to a cappuccino.

My friend Marco says that nobody is ever content with where they are from, and by that logic maybe we’re never really content with where we are. I don’t really agree, it’s just people like us that aren’t content; there are plenty who are fine never moving far away from home, who are already looking to buy their own place in their early twenties. I just don’t understand people like that, I don’t think I’ll ever be one.

I dreamt of homemade donuts from the farm, when we drive all the way up to Brewster past the horse farms to get them, still hot, with the cinnamon sugar getting all over your hands.

Today I wanted to just be totally American, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, nice and comfy, pancakes for breakfast and teaching my new British and Italian friends what the hell s’mores are. There’s one place I’ve found in the city where I can get maple syrup, but I don’t think you can get marshmallows anywhere. It’s those little things that add up, and add up to you missing home.

Someone asked me the other day if I’m proud to be American, and I’m not really, I’ve never been that flag-waving type, I just wasn’t raised that way. But I’m not in that cliched phase of the America-hating ex-pat either. Maybe I was the last time I was living in Europe, during the Bush years, when a lot of us liberals were quite cynical, and it was fashionable.

Now things are different, not that our problems have been solved, but even if I complain now that not much seems to have changed, Marco tells me we just have to give him more time. I see Italian teenagers who wrote “yes we can” on their back-packs. People always ask me who I voted for last time around, when I tell them where I’m from. All these things make me smile in a funny sort of way, because it’s strange how things change, in the world and also in us. Things are a little bit different now, and I can notice that there are some things Europe does better, but there are some things America does better too. It’s nice to be able to see both sides, and not have to choose. But not being so starry-eyed, or black-and-white, this time in Europe, those little things that do bother me here make me miss home much more. Overt racism, stereotyping of different nationalities and even just people from different parts of Italy. My British friends like to make fun of how politically correct we Americans can be, but then sometimes all that just doesn’t look so bad. And I want to be here and there at the same time.

on advice

They tell us not to do things that we will – or may – regret, but what does that ever mean, in practice? Isn’t it suspect in general, all the advice that older and wiser people try to give us with the benefit of their hindsight?

A and J were telling me that, at my age, I shouldn’t be looking for anything serious, anything real, I shouldn’t have any criteria or checklist or even an expectation of “honorable intentions,” whatever those are at twenty-three. Not that I’m a checklist kind of person anyway when it comes to dating, but I do try to hang on to some standards, basic as they may be.

And though this was their advice, it is not at all what they were doing at this age themselves: one was being proposed to, and the other met the person they would eventually marry. So perhaps it is what they wish they would have done, to not have spun into the mistakes or crooked paths they ended up on, looking backwards – but when you’re actually at this age, coming from the other side forward, it’s not how you see things at all. I would be lying to myself if I tried to live and decide things based on their perspective now, even if they are right about what I should do. Even if it never goes anywhere, I’d still prefer to find the kind of boy now who might actually care what my favorite song was, who might one day surprise me with my favorite dessert. Tiny inconsequential things, but a lot more than most people are willing to offer. The tiny things that make even something that isn’t serious worthwhile.

You can never know what you’ll regret anyway, beforehand. You can only think it through and try to speculate honestly, weigh the options, think critically. But regret is something you can only feel after the fact, usually based on some factor you couldn’t even have seen coming.

I never thought about advice much, because it’s something we all love to give, even if we know it’s taken with a grain of salt or a laugh or an implied “in my humble opinion…” But I suppose the older I get, the more experience I have on my own, and the more I question others’ scraps of advice, I realize more and more that as adults nobody has the answers anymore. It’s not like when we were kids, when there were so many people we could look to, to tell us yes or no, with 100% certainty. We all have our own perspectives now, from our experience or our wisdom, but there really isn’t any more certainty. We take things with a whole lot more grains of salt, and maybe we learn to hold our own tongues with our advice. But even advice ignored comes from a place of love, of reaching out, of trying to be honest and expose a little bit of our lives that we wish we had done differently. So you smile, accept it politely, and then still try to figure it out for yourself. 

connectivity

The kind words of others were what reassured me that this was the right thing for me, and not insane after all. Their excitement for me. In the last day before I left, my aunt came over to visit, and I got phone calls from my uncle and all my closest cousins, wishing me well. A small gesture, since we’re in contact fairly frequently anyway, but it meant everything to me at such a vulnerable time.

So to answer my own question, I guess sometimes even when we’re adults, we don’t know what’s best for us, we just rely on others’ input. Nothing inside of me could have ever known all on my own whether it was right or not. But I really appreciate all the people who came out for me when I truly needed them.

Now that I’m here, the friends that I’m making, sometimes unexpectedly, are making all the difference. Most of the other teacher trainees on my course are much older than me, and the one girl my own age I didn’t immediately connect with. But there’s something sort of special about going out for pizza and a few bottles of wine with friends ranging in age from 23 to 61, and all getting along, and having a ton to talk about. We share something abstract in common, those of us drawn to this kind of international life, helping people in our small way, and helping ourselves to live whatever it is that we consider ‘the good life’ here. There’s something special in a new friend who’s married with kids inviting me over for a dinner party as if I were actually an adult, and the fact that we gossip as if we were both still in high school. All of these new friends are planning to stay in Milan for a while, so it’s no longer really an individual adventure, but a combined one, all of us coming from our different perspectives, for our different reasons.

Lastly the students we are teaching really help – seeing how nice they are, and how they can really like you and relate to you, and how they truly want to be there makes it feel worthwhile. Even though for them it’s a free course, putting up with a whole bunch of teachers still in training, all haphazard and flawed. Because teaching can be about theory and method and content all you want, but it’s also essentially about people, connecting, interacting. Like most things in my life right at this minute seem to be.

just briefly: tipsy at 7pm after happy hour

A couple of classmates and our teacher went to an English Pub in Milan after a long day... you know, for that authentic Italian experience...

I hate that: when a social situation you anticipated doesn’t go the way you planned. I hated seeing M, our teacher (meta-teacher, really) sitting there, coat still on, eyes roaming to the football on tv, barely talking, only there because it was “work.” I mean it’s nice that he came out at all as a friendly gesture, but I hate feigned affection, anything that isn’t genuine. I worry enough about how true friends are anyway. I hate it now when social situations feel awkward. Maybe because I was that shy link in the chain for so long, it makes me uncomfortable to see others acting that way; and I often can’t understand why people are still shy as adults since I have changed so much. I’ve felt I had to to function in the adult world. It’s funny how much I’ve changed, and I only notice in moments like this, when I can’t look back clearly.

Tommy told me, years ago now, that I was a little bit quiet when we went out with his friends, and I did always really have to make an effort to try to talk to them. Now there would still be the language barrier, losing me for long stretches of the conversation, but I think my natural inclination would be to be chatty with them, try to find things out, to try to be humorous or fun in any way, since sarcasm never works for me in a second language. Yet, as I’ve been discovering in different ways, again and again, being stripped of the comfort of that normal personality trait can actually make functioning easier. It makes it easier for my instinct to be getting involved rather than on the sidelines. Well I hope so anyway. I think so.

Yet the further I get away from shyness, do I sometimes feel like I’m losing something of myself? Particularly because with my new pseudo-confident, optimistic, at times bubbly self, I still don’t like to show my vulnerabilities to people. So they assume that I don’t need their help and support. But really I’m desperate for it. Any time I have to pretend everything’s fine and calm seas, if I have to put on a fake smile, any discomfort or sadness inside of me bubbles up. I barely make it until I’m alone again before tearing up. The highs and lows all at once, involuntary. I think this is the kind of vulnerability, living right on the surface, that we all try to avoid, but we also want.

green with it

They say that envy is an ugly emotion but I completely disagree. As long as you don’t act on it, I think that jealousy can be one of the most instructive emotions. Sometimes the things that twist your heart around come from left field, and they show you want you didn’t even realize you wanted.

When I can’t bear to hear your travel plans, it means that maybe my heart is just aching to get back on the road itself. When I’m pouting through the recounting of your ski vacation, I should really be asking myself why I’ve let years pass since organizing my last one. There’s nothing wrong with envy as long as I remember it’s not about them, it’s about me. Ok, I never said it wasn’t a selfish emotion.

Sometimes your conscious thoughts are leading you one way, but your heart pulls you towards something else. Even when you’re in the dark about what’s best, maybe your subconscious knows. To me that’s a very comforting thought, something you can rely on, because it can’t lie to you. The heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it just reminds us that we want it all, and I love that too. To want it all is to really appreciate all that’s out there for us, and to know that even though the choices and setbacks can be exhausting, it’s worth it. I should never doubt the power of the subconscious. It’s what makes us wake up on New Year’s Day already feeling different, feeling new possibility, a mind not weighed down by all those months past.

Green is envy, but it’s also new life. And isn’t that the way?

a little less conversation, a little more action

I don’t really like New Year’s resolutions because they’re such a ritual. As such, the same thing always happens: you make them, so earnestly, but don’t follow through past January 10th. If I make something as a resolution, it’s pretty much a death sentence to that idea — it will never happen. It’s a law of physics or something. So I’m not going to make any of those “exercise every day,” “make weekly lists of what I’m grateful for” kinds of resolutions this year.

Instead I’m going to focus on some of those little, silly things, the ones we mean to do but always slip through the cracks. Why do we make it so hard for ourselves to do those things we want most?

1. listen to more Elvis. Sinatra too. Everyone could use a little more of the classics in their life, I think. And I actually know a bit about Elvis, having researched him for various things back in college, but I never actually listened to much of his music. Talk about having things backwards — it’s time to get them right-side-out. I also recently found out I’m only 2 degrees of separation away from him, so like a moth to the flame of celebrity, here I go.

2. read the whole articles in magazines, instead of just skimming the pictures and saying I’ll come back to them. Because really that’s just laziness to the extreme.

3. research. I often come across things, reading or watching a film or in a museum, and I think to myself that I should really look into learning more about it. Well I really think I should write those things down and actually get to the reading up part. Because I can’t deny it, there is an insatiable geek inside of me that loves becoming quietly fascinated with new information.

4. learn graphic design. I’m not putting this on any kind of time-table, it’s just something I want to learn more about at some point, I think it could come in handy in anything I end up doing. I should probably start by having a notebook to collect examples of design that I like, so I can start to figure out what my style is.

5. sew, design, and make patterns more often. I think I put this off because I can get lost for hours in it, consumed by the mix of mathematics, precision and aesthetics. It keeps my mind sharp, my hands busy, and keeps me singing along to the old records I play as I work. They say that when you find something you love, it doesn’t feel like work; and that’s how I feel about this. And at the end of the afternoon you have something to show for it, even if it comes with pin-pricked fingers. Continue reading

decisions and pins in the map

I’ve never been good at making decisions. Big ones or small ones, though it’s the big ones that are more daunting. I never had that rebellious streak as a teenager; my mother came up with a lot of suggestions for how to spend my summers, and I usually took the advice. There were several trips, through my school and the Experiment in International Living to Mexico and Spain doing volunteer work, living with host families, and sometimes taking language classes. Not surprisingly, these trips changed my life, shaped the definition of who I am and how I see things. Just about anything you do at that age does, but especially when it’s something you really love. It got me interested in learning languages, travel in general, understanding and integrating into other cultures, and perhaps most importantly, social justice and my expectations for my life and myself. It set a standard somewhere in my subconscious, that work has to have some kind of purpose, whatever it may be. Maybe that’s why I’m so fickle with jobs and life plans and what I want to do now.

Perhaps it all started with her recommending those trips, but I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps in many ways, without ever consciously deciding to, or any pressure from her. I can only explain it as “the way things worked out.” She majored in French Literature and I in Spanish Literature, she spent a year abroad in southern France and I spent mine in Barcelona. Not everything has been the same: when she was my age my mother had already been married for two years (eek). Her next step was joining the Peace Corps with her first husband and teaching English in South America. And now here I am… contemplating moving back abroad to get a teaching certificate to do the same, possibly very soon. Continue reading