Walking in the rain carrying pizzas for hungry Italians on the uneven sidewalks of Rome is, well, intimidating. Squeezing in to the tiny elevator to take a ride six floors up isn’t any better. But that night we all gathered around the table and this American girl didn’t bother with eating slices. No, I finished the entire pizza and washed it down with a giant Peroni. This is how I vacation in Italy.
I got back just over two weeks ago and I’m already looking at the calendar to plan my return. Italy is now in my bones and doesn’t seem to be leaving my thoughts any time soon. I arrived on the morning of April 19th and walked in to the arms of welcoming friends, old and new. My fourth trip to the land of beautiful eyes and amazing food was, in some cases, my best yet. Since my dear friend Claudio always introduces me to so many people during my visits, I’ve doubled my friend basis in just a few short years. Italians make some of the best friends in the world. No matter how long I’ve been gone, be it a year or a day, I’m greeted with hugs, kisses and culinary offerings; the time passed never makes a difference. It is never too long or too short for a joyful embrace. And, when I visit, I’m a bit spoiled with adventure because I never know where the day will take me. We could be heading to someone’s home for a five-hour dinner or driving to the Amalfi coast to spend a few days in a village. As far as vacationing in Italy, I have the absolute best possible situation one can imagine-an Italian best friend and an open mind for whatever may happen.
Summing up this trip would be impossible in a short blog entry. In fact, when I got back to the U.S. I immediately started writing about my yearly trips as they have certainly changed my life. It is difficult to describe what I see and how I feel; the thoughts circling in my head. At times I become so overwhelmed with the beauty of the situation that I go completely silent, taking in every single moment of a life I have developed in a country half way on the other side of the world. And while some people would spend their days taking in every sight-seeing tour in Rome, I often find myself gathered around a table struggling my way through the language and laughing over another bottle of opened Chianti. La vita bella, indeed!
Italy in April has its own brand. The air hangs heavy like a ripe lemon ready to drop. The days are warm and nights are cool and there is a feeling of anticipation which lingers like a strong perfume. I enjoy being there in the spring on one part because it’s still comfortable enough to wear jeans and I don’t sweat like a spoiled American. Most of my days are spent walking around Rome, taking in the city and being a part of its heartbeat. There is always something to see and a conversation to be had with someone I’ve never met and may never see again. Being an American alone in a city like Rome is as terrifyingly charming as one can imagine. At first I feel scared to admit that I have a limited vocabulary, but inevitably a lovely stranger will struggle through a conversation and by the end we’re laughing and delighted by the chance encounter. This happens every time I travel to Italy and this time it was two girls working in a clothing shop on a tiny street near Via di Torre Argentina. I walked in because a linen blouse caught my eye with its extremely native style. The girls were busy helping other patrons as I skimmed the rack looking for the shirt in the window. First Giorgia approached me speaking intimidatingly fast. “Lentemente, per favore. Io capsica quando te parlo lentemente” I said. “Ahh. You are American? I speak some English”. She quickly motioned to her co-worker, Fabiana, and explained that I was on vacation shopping and needed help. Both girls loaded me up with blouses to try on and prepared a fitting room. I happily obliged when they asked me to model. The three of us chatted for a while and and Giorgia said “You are so funny. Funny American girl”. I didn’t leave the shop without all of us becoming Facebook friends, however. I mean, what’s the point of social media if I’m not using it to stay in touch with the characters in this beautiful story that seems to be writing itself? I walked out of the shop grinning ear to ear. I did it again. I made two new friends. This place is….magic.
We decided to get out of the city and go south to spend the night in one of my favorite places called Lancusi. The drive is about two hours and mostly highway, which looks like any highway across the U.S. Mostly. But when you get closer to the coast, the mountains start to appear and it will absolutely take your breath away. As we drove, Claudio insisted on playing traditional Napolitano music. This made the journey all the more beautiful. I mean the music, the view, the company. Nothing could have been more perfect and I may have even sobbed a little due to the realization of this beautiful life and how fortunate I was to be sitting in that moment in a place that holds me in its grips long after I’ve left. We arrived close to sundown and just in time to see a shepherd leading his goats across the road. Again, the perfect scene was unfolding before me. After settling in a bit we drove further down to Salerno and met with friends for a walk around the beautiful city and dinner in a pizzeria tucked in a beautiful piazza I’ve been to before. And, as per usual, I ate an entire pie and washed it down with a big beer. Satisfied and tired, we finished dinner and walked around before heading back to finish the night enjoying the pin-drop silence in the hills. Waking up in Lancusi the next morning was like starting the next ear-marked page in a book. The air was perfect even though it was cloudy. I didn’t mind the looming rain. It was a welcomed sight simply because it was new. Seeing rain made me feel a bit cozier. Like, this wasn’t a vacation, but a place I knew well. Somewhere I could relax and have no agendas, no deadlines, and no expectations.
When we returned to Rome, each day had its own theme. One day was super relaxed with a walk through the zoo and a cocktail at a cantina in the stunning Borghese Park. It was full of families riding bicycles and children playing in grass. It is the perfect setting to lounge and read a book or spend an afternoon on a blanket with someone. The trees were all budding and the air was filled with joyful chatter. It was perfect. Later that night we met up with more friends and decided to venture out for karaoke. Now, Claudio being the expert on all things Rome, decided to take us to Tam Tam. This place isn’t your traditional Italian bar. Instead it is a jungle themed night club and to enter, one must first take the journey down a slide where loud music and a giant gorilla meet you at the bottom. It was fake gorilla, of course. We sat at a long table and ordered drinks while everyone sang their hearts out to Italian pop songs which were unfamiliar to me. Everyone, and I mean everyone, sang as if nobody was listening. Instead of a karaoke bar, it felt a little more like someone mashed a family dinner with a soccer game. I wanted to sign up but felt slightly intimidated because nobody was singing American or English songs. I didn’t know how well received I’d be if I stood up and sang my heart out to and Etta James tune. However, looking back I don’t think it would have turned out badly. Everyone there was enjoying the music and the company and seemed to not be phased by anything other than a cold drink and a good time. The opportunity passed and instead of any of us debuting a roaring solo, we just had our cocktails and, as usual, laughed at one another.
One of the most holy moments of the vacation was Sunday, April 27th when we joined millions of people from all over the world to witness the canonization of two popes. Both John Paul II and John XXIII were made saints and I eagerly sat in a crowd and witnessed this historical event. Pilgrims came to the city and started to line the interior of Vatican City the day before, so our chances of getting close were unlikely. However, we did manage to get as close as possible and see the reverence in the people gathered throughout Rome. Several countries were represented and everyone came with a peaceful attitude making the morning a quiet, somber occasion. Here I stand again with my mind being blown. “Is this really happening, and am I really in Rome right this second?” Yes, Carrie. You are here. This is happening. And you have photos to prove it.
On my last full day in Italy, I felt heavy and on the verge of tears. Halfway between happy and sad weeping, I felt like yet again, my trip had changed me in some way. Lunch was at a small place somewhere near a friend’s house and I sipped my beer and laughed through broken languages and tried very hard not to let my disappointment in leaving show up on my face. And it didn’t seem like I was the only one feeling anxious about my departure. Federica, a girl I had only met a few days earlier, looked at me with a sort of sad grin. The entire time we had spent together was a linguistic struggle. She didn’t speak a dot of English and her dialect was hard for me to understand. But, through her striking brown eyes I felt a connection. Despite the barrier, this girl felt very familiar to me and I desperately wanted to communicate to her. So, we did what women do and hugged. A lot. It was the one way to say “I like your company, and I want to know you.” As we walked down the street she was talking to her brother and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. She suddenly stopped and waited for me, looped her arm in to mine and said “I want come to Tulsa”. I melted in to a tiny pool or sentimentality and mascara. “Of course! Any time you want to come, you are always welcome!” Her brother translated for me.
Later that night Claudio took me to a Frida Kahlo exhibit at a museum that used to be a horse stable. I’ve been a long time fan of Kahlo and him taking me there was better than anything that could be boxed, wrapped, and presented. Seeing her work in person, in Rome, with my friend started to encourage a waterfall of tears, but I toughed my way through it and decided it wasn’t exactly time to let go. When we were exiting the gallery, we happened upon the most amazing view of the city. A window on the exit stairs revealed a picturesque view that is indescribable. The sun was setting and the sky had a deep, rich blue hue, speckled with dropping clouds. As we stood there looking out at Rome, I thought to myself “Just be here.” I was, again, in
awe of the beauty of this place. And ancient city full of modern people with old religion and fresh appreciation. “Will I ever get tired of visiting?” No, I don’t think I will.
My last meal in Italy wasn’t at a friend’s house or at some local trattoria. We had been walking around all evening looking for a restaurant which was, apparently, the best place in Rome only to find it was closed. Disappointed and famished, Claudio took me to this…other place. I walked in to American music, bar style seating, and hamburgers on the menu. Seriously? He apologized several times and I had to play into it for a while. However, I wasn’t disappointed or mad. I was with my beautiful friend and this trip, after all, is about spending time with someone I love dearly. We ordered our food and watched Italians eating American cuisine and listened to one of our shared favorite songs on his iPhone. After 12 days in this place, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last night than with a best friend.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye for now and get ready for a long flight back to the U.S. I tried so hard to not fall apart. And for the most part I did okay, until rounding a corner on the highway, watching the glorious city disappear in the side mirror. “Why does the world have to be so big? Why do you have to be so far away? Why am I crying like I’ve never done this before?” I couldn’t answer any of these questions, instead I just welcomed the tears and allowed myself to be in the Italian way, emotional. And as I gave my sweetheart one final embrace, I cried some more. “Dear god this is a beautiful friendship,” I thought to myself. The man at the counter said, “Past this point is for travelers only, ma’am.” I know, I know. Hold on! And then another hug and kiss on the face. I have to go. With a puffy face and the clearest blue eyes I could possibly have, I turned and waved and made my way through security. “Ci vediamo presto. I love you!” This was a perfect vacation.
As I said before, so many wonderful things happened that it is impossible to sum up in one post. But, eventually I will make this in to one beautiful story. All true and all wonderful. And even though it was hard to say goodbye for now, that lovely country and its lovely people never leave me and has impacted the way I see my world. I’ve learned to show more affection, speak from my most honest place, and enjoy really good food regardless of any diet. Between Skype calls and shared photos, I know the friends who will welcome me back with open arms when I’m ready to return. That is just how they do it in Italy.