I always think of Italy as “he”, probably because he is bold, soulful, passionate, and confident (just like I like my men). So it was serendipitous that my first time was Italy. I was nervous. I had never done anything like this before; I had never been so far away from the familiar. I had barely left the west coast up until that point. I had wanted to study abroad, but a semester was too big of a commitment. What if I hated it, what if I found everything to be too foreign, too different, what if..?
There was a little known Travel Study Program at UCLA (my alma mater) through the International Education Office, that would allow me to spend a few weeks of the summer in another country. The only reason I knew about it was because I was one of those nerds (said with affection) that read the course catalog cover to cover. I was fascinated by all that I could learn in those four short years, even though I pursued my major (Neuroscience…yeah, I know) with single minded focus. I was on a trajectory to finish school in four years (I still don’t know why I was in such a rush), so whatever I did with my summers I had to get course credit for it. This program was perfect; I was still getting credits for my degree, I was getting the opportunity to leave the country, and as an amazing bonus it was only 3 weeks long, which is a relatively small commitment. If I had known that Italy was going to be my first, and most enduring love I would have jumped in with eyes closed and both feet, learned Italian (which is laughable, because I am seriously linguistically challenged), and went for a year… at least.
I knew that Italy was incredible before i even arrived. I boarded my flight and sat next to two native Italians. I was in the dreaded middle seat…in coach…for a 12 hour flight! It sounds like the start to a horrible international experience, right? But it wasn’t… I like to sleep on any flight that is longer than 2 hours, which is impossible in the middle seat. But my mind is so well trained, that moments after take off I am nodding off and will not wake for hours. MY Italians noticed me nodding and indulged me by standing while I napped. I am not exaggerating when I say that I stretched out across those 3 seats and slept like a baby. My intention was to do a power nap, but ended up sleeping completely undisturbed for hours. They stood the entire time (watching me sleep – which would have been creepy if I wasn’t so grateful). We spent my waking hours in conversation and I got off the flight already thinking that Italy was amazing. After all, most experiences are great because of the people sharing them with you.
OMG, I was in Rome! I proceeded to fall in love anew every single day of my 3 weeks in Italy. Our coursework was 8 hours a day, of which we spent 90% of them walking the city. We went to archeological sites and learned about Roman history and ancient politics, while standing on the very spot where the events took place. Before that first day I would have told you that I HATED history, it seemed to be old guys (mostly) doing things that would never happen again. I never saw the appeal. But in Italy, history has breath and was alive.
I stood in the Roman Coloseum and my imagination ran wild. I could hear the crowds cheering, hear the clinking of the gladiators swords and the roaring of lions. I saw the chariot races and felt the adrenaline. For the first time I saw history and knew it’s appeal. Day after day, site after site, the professors lectures took on a living breathing presence and the city whispered its secrets to me. I could not believe what I had been missing, my mind was blown. I don’t even smoke and needed a cigarette…but instead I got a kiss, many kisses in fact.
Kiss in Italian is bacio, and it is the name that the gelaterias called their chocolate. What an absolutely perfect name to call something so passionate and sweet, that tickles your taste buds and tantalizes your senses. I don’t even like chocolate (no lie), but how could I resist the Italian bacio? That is the magic of Italy, to turn your indifference to a passionate inferno of desire. I burned to consume all that Italy offered and to drink deeply of that experience. And I Did!!!
For 3 solid weeks I lived in the moment. It was the first time I ever truly remember staying completely in the moment as an adult. I have vague recollections of being fully present as a child, as only children seem to be. I remember it taking all of my mental acuity to retain the ever changing rules of the games that we used to play; in this way children are always in the moment. As an adult, my mind is always looking to the future, always pursuing and maneuvering towards what comes next. But when I travel, there is no next more interesting than the now that I am in at that moment. I am present.This trip taught me many things. I learned that you could buy a beer in McDonald’s, that the budget hotels typically have twin beds (a full size is a major upgrade), and that the price doubles when you sit in the café and drink your cappuccino instead of taking it to go. I learned to appreciate history. I learned that a smile means the same thing in every language, and that shared laughter connects us all across any barriers that would separate us. But the lessons that I love are the ones I learned about myself. I learned that travel fills me when I am empty like nothing else. I learned how to be fully present. I learned about my bliss and what quenches my thirst. I learned to be a traveler. I did not know that my word was sojourner yet, but this trip put me on the path to that discovery. Travel itself is a journey.
This Italian summer was many years ago, there were no smart phones, no Instagram, no Twitter, yet I still remember all of it like it was last week. But I guess no one ever forgets their first time.