Sitting next to the window on train from Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre to Siena, Italy you listen to Bob Marley and feel completely at ease in the crowded vessel. You realize in that moment that for you, Italy is peace and hope—much like the tunes that envelope your mind.
In Italy, men cry when their contrada is not chosen to participate in the annual Palio. Men cry when their contrada is chosen—emotion runs high and pours out shame-free in an otherwise machismo oriented culture. Men and women embrace in piazzas, kiss, eat gelato. Children kick around a futbol. American tourists gape, wondering how emotional ties could possibly be so freely expressed in public.
In Italy, I woke up. Not that I was completely asleep before, but a part of my mind was constantly on snooze and had been for the last year or more prior. I couldn’t see the beauty the world had to offer. I couldn’t look past the annoying sexist jokes new acquaintances made and focus instead on their actual being. I couldn’t approach the world except with utter caution.
But in Italy, that changed.
Italy has an obsession with beauty, though not the artificial kind. In Italy, your prime minister might be in big with the Mafiosi, and that’s a real concern, but if that plate of pici pasta is delicious and the architecture of Il Duomo di Siena still stands, then beauty can survive against the ebbs and flows of corrupt government.
Walking down the street in your recent purchase of Italian-made leather sandals, your feet unsure on the rough-hewn cobbles amidst a sudden downpour, you feel the crush of people as they crowd for umbrellas and your view is cut into a near mosaic of colorful umbrella tops and even though you’ve left yours at home, you benefit from the sea of people walking down Il Corso, dreading your departure onto a more lonely lane leading out of the city center. Your feet are wet and your books risk ruin in the rain, but still you laugh and smile. This downpour and river of water-resistant blobs is merely par for the course in this little Italian city.
Dogs are trained to relieve themselves on the edges of the streets, which are cleaned daily by mechanical street sweepers. In the event a new puppy goes in the middle of the street, the crowd merely parts, allowing the owner to clean up and further train the addition the community.
On some mornings, you visit a small bar on an empty side street to drink a cup of hot chocolate with a marmalade cornetto. As you eat, a group of old men gather outside with their mugs of coffee and espresso and commence to sing a morning tune in tantalizing Italian. They grasp each other’s shoulders as they sing. You don’t know what they’re saying, or how often this happens, but to your outside view it seems to be a settled in camaraderie borne through years of friendship. You wonder that such a reality exists and feel the emptiness of your own petty culture. As you think this, you recognize that even a culture that includes morning sing-ins has problems that you can’t see, and that your own culture isn’t all bad. Nonetheless, you long for a morning like this to be typical.
You sometimes have bad days—despite being in a new and wonderful place with people you genuinely admire, you still find yourself the odd person out and feel a bout of homesickness that leaves you in a bathroom stall at school one afternoon coming to grip with the tears. It’s Italy, so you let the tears fall. In Italy, tears are welcome. You cry, then gather your things and wander around the city, coming to the line of colorful homes you admire. You sit under a tree on a bench, exhausted from the heat and the weight of your bag heaving with a laptop—the laptop was a mistake that day.
On a different day, night has fallen and you make your way from your apartment in the outskirts of the city into the main vein—Il Corso. Seemingly out of nowhere, a brass jazz band appears and whilst playing, announce they will perform at a nearby club. You relish the sudden appearance of jazz music in the ancient streets. When multiple loves converge, you can’t help but wonder if it is all designed for you in a cosmic offering of peace.
Not all days are completely magical. One day after class, you go to your apartment to find your landlady lying in wait to yell at you for not having done the dishes in the sink. You had just returned from the market with dish soap—a supply absent until your arrival home—so you are miffed and also startled by her wrath. You are there with your roommate, but for reasons unknown to you, the landlady directs her frustration at you. You show her the dish soap and promise to maintain cleanliness for the duration of your stay at her property. You wonder if that’s typical for Italian land managers, and ask your program director about it. She says it’s not and that the school might not use that property for housing students in the future. From a distance of time, it seems amusing though you recall the otherworld fear and confusion of being a foreign visitor to someone else’s property.
By the time you’re ready to leave, you have shuffled off a hard, crusty exterior and are rubbed nearly raw with new insights and direction. You obsess over la contrada d’oca, the goose neighborhood, through which you walked daily on your way to school. A lover of fairy tales and thus aware of the frequent presence of this bird in stories, you take this walk and fall in love with the special inclusion of geese in your trip of healing. You look at the friends you made, some of whom you harshly judged upon meeting them, and cherish your acquaintance with them making a small pocket of love in your heart for them and your shared time in Siena.
You look towards America with longing for home, family, pets, and Mexican food but your heart breaks to leave the city and country and food and music and cobble stones and emotion and language and fountains and bookstores that were stronger than your resentment and hurt. Even before you leave, you miss your short-term home. Later, when you read Eat, Pray, Love and the author writes about a friend saying she wants to come back to Italy someday... as she’s standing in Italy, you think about your premature agony and wonder how to reconcile the pull to return to a beloved place with the awareness to embrace it completely while you’re there.
You cherish Siena. You write a paper on the city and its culture for a Symbolic Anthropology class. Your love overflows but is wasted on a guy who treats you like a throwaway camera you get rid of before you even develop the film and print the pictures. He doesn’t understand—you cherish life and experience, you don’t trample it. It’s hard. You lose friends over it, which stuns you to this day. But, you move on. You study. You remember Italy. You think about the people who enabled you to travel and love them for it. You associate love and beauty with Italy and wonder how you can return, and how you can repay the universe for that life-changing experience. You feel the word “life-changing” and inwardly mock its usage, while also recognizing that it is not a hyperbole.
One day, years later, you are tasked with writing a short biography for work and out spills this gushing of memories in Siena. You miss it. You love it. You left pieces of your soul there, but don’t know how to reunite them—after all you also have pieces of your soul in Paris, Southern Utah, Alaska. It is impossible to have them all together in one place. It’s the traveler’s burden, but ultimately a worthwhile one.
Frequently you wear the glass necklace your roommate (the absolute best roommate) bought you on her excursion to Venice. She went there for a weekend, while you went to Paris for a weekend. You wear it and think of her, think of Siena, think of being trapped in the Pisa airport for six hours because the train operators were on strike and you had to wait for the next bus. You wear it and trace its curved and smooth shape with your thumb, loving the colors as they meld into each other yet remain distinctly on their own. It’s the only piece of jewelry you have ever consistently worn. You hate to think what would happen if it ever broke.
Dreaming of Italy, you crave a cornetto. You want to smell the fresh summer rain and feel the cobbles beneath your feet. You long for the appearance of citizens in medieval garb as they beat drums and trumpet for their contrada. You rejoice, and you sigh.