Monday, May 20, 2013

A Month in Italy

My first evening in Florence.

My son said something to me the other evening, shortly following my return home from a month in Italy. He said “Travelling doesn't really change people. It's a good experience to be able to travel but we're still who we are when we come home.” Since then, I have thought about what he said. When I travel, I'm open to new experiences; open to meeting strangers, open to trusting the world (otherwise, I would not be plunking myself down in a new country where I don't speak the language all on my own, would I?) Travel is a bit like putting myself in an altered state. The trick is to somehow, some way, keep the spirit of that altered state upon arrival home; to sustain the expansive feelings that come with travel. Sadly, the tendency is to come home and immediately pick up all the old habits of worrying and fretting.

Perhaps if I back track into the adventures of my travel in Italy, I will know what exactly it is that I want to preserve. I spent three weeks in a rented apartment in Florence. I didn't know a soul so I prompted myself to speak with strangers (usually people who were travellers though I also spoke to the locals whenever possible.) I met travellers who were open-minded, generous people and I also met travellers who were entitled and demanding. That was a surprise to me. I always had this idea that people who do a lot of travelling are somehow more enlightened that the rest of us poor souls slugging it out on home soil. Not so. However, I must say that the entitled and demanding sorts were definitely in the minority.

I took an Italian language course for two weeks, which prepared me for small exchanges with Italian people. I was thrilled when Italians responded by chattering away with me in Italian, perhaps knowing that I was catching their meaning only partially, but still allowing me that immersion experience. Once, while choosing produce at an outdoor market (ah, the glorious outdoors markets), an elderly woman enthusiastically began telling me something about the zucchini. I thought perhaps she was giving me lessons on how to cook the zucchini flowers but in time, I realized that she was warning me that the zucchini flowers were full of ants. Perhaps this was a good thing or perhaps this was a bad thing. I had no way of knowing. Either way, the conversation ended in a huge hug for reasons unknown to me.

For the entire time I lived in my apartment, I got to know my neighbourhood; the woman who practised opera arias every evening at the end of my street, the vegetarian restaurant that had an “organic” sign outside the door and just below the sign an ashtray full of cigarette butts, the bar in the Santa Spirito Piazza that had a salad to die for and a Calabrese owner who assumed that because I'm short and his manager was also short, we were destined to be together. (The fact that I'm happily married did not seem to phase his thinking on this matter.) The piazza was populated with the exact ingredients that every piazza should be populated with: the lovers who are smooching at the fountain, the Nonnas who are gossiping with their neighbours, the children who are chasing pigeons, the men who are whistling, the tourists who fill the seats of the outdoor patios and eat pizza, the lone Roma (gypsy) who hangs out at the church steps rattling a cup bothering no one, the church bells that toll every hour, the artist that sits on the grass sketching or painting. It's a place where everything changes but nothing changes.

Following my three weeks of living in the apartment, my daughter joined me and off we went on our travels. Perhaps in a different blog entry, I will write of our adventures in Rome, Pisa, Cinque Terre and Florence. (Finally, I became a tourist, visiting the sites and staying in guest houses and hostels.) My overall sense, from wearing the tourist hat for eight days is that the Italian people are perhaps less organized than Canadians. But whatever they lack in administrative ability, they far make up for it in sincerity. The Italians were friendly and helpful beyond the call of duty. Once, when my daughter and I were catching a train, she crouched down at the side of the train platform, trying to soak up the sun. An elderly man kept looking at her and walking back and forth. Finally, seeing that I was her mother, he approached me and told me in broken English that he was worried she was too close to the tracks and that it was dangerous. The same man also helped us haul our luggage onto the train. It was very sweet and I will always hold the memory of his protectiveness towards us.

While I was in Italy, there was beauty everywhere: Madonna shrines on every corner often with a jar of fresh flowers, buildings in pastel pinks and blues and yellows, churches that are designed to leave a person awestruck, wild poppies in bloom, art, art and more art. There was enough inspiration to last me a lifetime. This is what I want to preserve: a sense of beauty in the everyday. But the question is: will I be able to preserve that inspiration? bring it out of the closet on a grey day? draw from that well when I'm struggling to pay the bills? Will I be inspired to create art, without doubting or fretting? Will I be able to say that my travels altered me in some way? Or will I be the same person I was before I left? Only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, my month in Italy has left an impression; and hopefully a deep and lasting impression.