Note from Cher: Names have been shorted to protect the (not-so) innocent.
I did a lot of lying to myself while I lived in Italy – a lot of closing my eyes to situations or behaviors that I didn’t want to acknowledge existed.
“I’m not looking for anything serious.” I would say.
This is one of my favorites because despite having just ended an overdramatic affair where I had lost most of my trust in men & the majority of my naiveté, I still wanted things to work out between V and me.
I wanted the fantasy – the one where the girl falls in love and then finds herself navigating the kitchen, embracing la bella figura and becoming an Italian mamma.
I wanted it so badly that I ignored every single sign that knocked on my door soliciting me with vacuums and overpriced encyclopedias.
But as they say in Italian, la speranza è l’ultima a morire, meaning, hope is the last to die.
When I left Italy and moved back home, I took that experience as a teacher, did my best to forgive him and myself and then used the Italian language as a special form of emotional therapy.
A year and half later, I sat on the plane to Rome, clenching my jaw repeatedly while attempting to go to sleep.
Rome, V lives in Rome…but there’s no way I could run into him, right? Rome is a fairly big city, and it may even be that he’s traveling somewhere else right now. No, it’s not possible that I’ll see him.
My imagination, however, is much less rational.
As if on loop throughout the eleven-hour plane ride, I saw myself running into him on the metro (Italian book in hand and looking oh-so-intelligently-irresistible) or seeing him on the street as I went shopping.
But each scene where I imagined us running into each other ended with him looking at me with his signature scowl and brushing past me.
I was in Italy for two weeks before I heard from him.
After a walk in Viterbo, I opened up Facebook to see a message from him waiting for me.
“I know you’re in Italy, and I was wondering if we could meet for some drinks if you come to Rome.”
My eyes widened, my heart quickened and I tensed my shoulders.
How does he know that I’m in Italy? Did he see me somewhere? Why does he want to have drinks? What game is he playing now?
And, after my initial shock wore off, I found myself obliging voluntarily to his request all the while mentally preparing myself for his signature bad behavior and a night that would surely end in disappointment.
The night before I left Italy, I walked out of my apartment toward where he had said he was parked.
When I sat down in the passenger seat, I turned to face him and instead of him offering up a weak wave like I was accustomed to, he leaned in to kiss me on both cheeks — a gesture we had never done in our relationship.
As I sat next to him, I tried not to stare as he drove. He looked as confident as the day when I first met him and I was reminded of why I was attracted to him in the first place.
“So do you want to sit here and have a drink or take a walk?” he asked.
I tilted my head to the right.
“Either one is good with me,” I replied.
“We’ll walk. I remember you like to walk,” he said, smiling.
I scrunched my eyebrows together and then smiled back at him. In the past thirty minutes that we had been together, I had seen him smile more than I had throughout our entire relationship.
We grabbed a few beers and took a walk around the neighborhood in Rome where he grew up, past Palazzo Larento and down to the edges of the Coliseum, lit up at midnight.
And as he talked – about la sinistra vs la destra, Zoroastra, and the ACAB movimento – I found myself looking at him with a little less judgment.
Each time he taught me a new word – dentifricio, bambaccio, ambientalista, struzzo – I felt my heart beat faster.
(I’ve always been a sucker for a guy who can teach me languages.)
Toward the end of the night, he looked at me, smiled and asked, “How do you say in English sarebbe stato bello?”
I smiled, looped my arm in his, and replied, “It would’ve been great.”
“Yeah,” he replied, pulling me a little closer, “It would’ve been great.”
Our story ends here.
There is no scene where I decide not to get on the plane the next morning or where we passionately kiss before I leave.
There is no promise of tomorrow.
All we had was each moment, one passing after the other, and that broke my heart because like any other human in this world, I wanted it to last for as long as possible.
I wanted to capture the moments that made me feel in love and alive again – especially with someone who I had gone through so much pain with – and keep them at my side always.
But the problem with wanting things to last forever is that they don’t.
You keep moments at your side and instead of comforting you, they become prisoners.
Life is like that.
It gives us horrible and beautiful moments – sometimes all wrapped up into one – and we must continue to face them in each moment.
The truth is that love is only lost if you think it is.
What happened for me that night was a gift, and while I don’t get to tell people that I’m on my way to a Disney-esque happy ending with family pasta recipes and a luna di miele on the Amalfi Coast, I’ve gained something much richer than that.
Let me explain.
I think a tourist is someone who flits through a country.
They absorb the smells, the sounds, and they remember, with admiration, their personal experiences.
A resident is someone who has grown up in the country and who lives the culture.
But there’s a middle space between a tourist and a resident.
It’s someone who can’t skate along the surface because the ice has melted, and they can see this huge mass of iceberg beneath the water.
Smells, sounds and memories of beautiful sights aren’t enough anymore.
They’ve felt emotions that have super glued them to a place, experiences that have fundamentally changed who they are as a person, and love that has wrapped them up in ways they’ve never experienced before.
Once you see a country for what it really is – a country full of complex ideals made up by complex people – you develop something deeper than appreciation for it.
Maybe you can’t claim it as your native home, but your soul can’t tell the difference between where you were physically born and where you finally grew up.
Now, instead of seeing the picturesque olive groves and the piles of pasta, you see yourself reflected through each resident.
What happens when you let a culture stir you to your very core?
Learning a language like Italian can be complex.
It isn’t complex just because of the grammar rules, the vocabulary and the sentence structure.
It’s complex because there are humans involved, and since a language is made and cultivated by humans, there is no chance in Hell that grammar books are going to cut it.
How small would our world be – would our hearts be – if we could simply learn a language through grammar alone?
The bottom line is this: I searched, fought and cried for a love that broke me open inside. In the end, it was obvious that our relationship never existed for the purpose of adding romance into my life but was there to open up the parts of myself that I had been hiding, the parts that I had been too scared to explore, which turns out, were the exact pieces of me necessary to open myself up to everything that Italy had and still has to offer me.