I was sitting in a cafe. Known for a menu that featured apple pie, ranch, and bagels with cream cheese, this cafe was out of the ordinary in Florence, Italy.
I wasn’t there because it was my favorite cafe, or because it had the best food. I was there to meet a deadline. It was the closest cafe from where I lived that had reliable wifi, functioning electrical sockets, and coffee in abundance. I was seeking an American workplace. I guess some cultural habits die-hard.
Taking a break from my fervent typing, I looked up and at every table sat a young, beautiful American woman. There were ample spaces for laptop outlets and each one had staked their claim. Not a single soul in this cafe was a man except for the teen behind the counter. They wore a splattering of colorful, fake pashmina scarves bought for five euros at the Mercato Nuovo. I couldn’t blame them, I owned five myself. They quizzed each other on their next Art History exam, discussed what European destination awaited them on the other side of their white knuckle Ryan Air flight. They spoke of Thanksgiving (the absence of it), musicians that were too cool for me to know, and new Italian boyfriends.
Ten years ago, I was one of these women. The first time I lived in Italy was in 2009, during a study abroad in Siena. Siena is a small Tuscan city, settled in 900–400 BC by the Etruscans. Later, in Medieval ages, the city was a prime pitstop on the “Via Francigena,” a road that led Northern pilgrims to Rome. It was a bustling walled city with 50,000 people at its height, rivaling nearby Florence. Unfortunately, the Black Death stormed through its fortress walls in 1348. After that disaster, it was never able to recover as Florence did. It remains a sleepy, charming town that holds precious to tradition — the Palio horse race, Contrada neighborhoods, and decadent but humble Ricciarelli cookies.
Under The Tuscan Sun
After exiting a movie theater showing of Under The Tuscan Sun in 2003, I knew I needed to get to Italy as soon as possible. The exquisite actress, Diane Lane, plays Frances — a woman in her 40s who decides to buy a villa in Italy after being dumped by her husband of over 20 years.
In the movie, Frances eats lots of good food and makes love to an unbelievably attractive Italian man from Positano with piercing blue eyes. I wanted to do those things.
Until I could figure out a way to get to Italy, my way of traveling there was via movie rentals. I checked out movies from the library or Blockbuster. Yes, that bygone establishment was only a bike ride away from my parents’ home. I could get to Italy on my bicycle. Before watching Italian films, I moved through English-speaking ones that were set in Italy: Roman Holiday, The English Patient, Stealing Beauty, and Three Coins in the Fountain. The common thread of all these movies was “women running away and finding themselves in Italy.” These women weren’t looking for something specific, but rather, for something they knew they needed but did not know what it was yet. Like a whisper of a dream.
I felt that way at 16. I didn’t need to marry an Italian man, like in Three Coins in the Fountain. That would be nice. I didn’t need to lose my virginity in Italy like Liv Tyler does in Stealing Beauty. I didn’t yet know if that would be nice. I didn’t need to buy an Italian villa, like Frances. But, I knew I needed to fling my body towards Italy. All my future choices needed to point me towards that country. It called me with its luscious gelato, its gratitude for everyday moments, its rich history, its cypress trees under the Tuscan sunset that stood on shadowy foothills.
How to Fling Your Body Across the Ocean
I proposed the idea of studying abroad to my parents in 2008. They would pay for my tuition. I would be responsible for room, board, food, and any extra travels around Europe I wanted to take. This was a good deal. But was I going to save $6,000 in 9 months?
Well, getting three jobs was going to help. One of these three jobs was a hostess at Macaroni Grill. Macaroni Grill is an American chain that wants to be Italian and sell Italian food in the form of watered-down, Americanized versions. They boil meals in bags. They have dishes named things that do not exist in Italy. “Try our Rollatini!”
At this point in my education, I was pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance after taking nearly ten years worth of voice lessons. My manager found out about this and swiftly assigned me to sing, “Happy Birthday” in Italian to customers. The waiters never wanted to sing so they got me whenever the Costco birthday cake was getting pulled from the fridge and promptly went out for their fifth smoke break.
At the time, my manager was Seth, a middle-aged queen who loved talking shit and loved theatrical drama taking place in real life. Like we were living in the show Glee. He loved the fact that I could sing operatically and that we could have a slice of dinner theater at our determinedly suburban restaurant.
Seth concocted a performance for me at the top of every hour. During my nine months there, it went like clockwork. He would ring the garish patinated Macaroni Grill dinner bell that sat by the front of the house. I would get up on a leather upholstered chair. He’d dim the cheap cafe lights of the restaurant. Most of the customers would silence or hush themselves. The lights would slowly reappear into a soft glow as I uttered my first note from “Il Mio Bel Foco/My Beautiful Fire.” I would hold certain notes for longer and emphasize others that would have had my voice teachers rolling their eyes in embarrassment. This was my Macaroni Grill Italian Opera, ok?
After the song was over, I would receive delirious applause from the entire restaurant and murmurs of oohs and ahhs. The same people who ate at Macaroni Grill loved American Idol. I had their level of taste on my side. Besotted people would come up and shower me with praise. I loved it because unlike my vocal professors at the time who’d rip me apart in my weekly “master classes,” these people praised me. That was all that mattered.
At least once a week, some sweet, older couple would approach me and ask me where I learned to sing. I would share that I’d been taking voice lessons since I was 12 years old. I would strategically mention that I was going to Italy next January for the first time. After this phrase left my mouth, the sweet old couple would immediately reach into their wallets and give me a twenty-dollar bill. I still don’t know why so many strangers were so generous. Maybe they had been to Italy and they really wanted me to go? Maybe they had never been but wanted me to go? Either way, they helped me get there.
The summer of 2008 came and went. I saved every penny and worked every day for three months. I don’t recommend doing that. The fall came and the whisper of the dream was growing louder. Now it sounded like a Rodgers & Hammerstein song played on a piano in the next room.
In January 2009, after traveling for 26 hours, I found myself dragging my big-ass rolly bag through the ancient medieval walled city of Siena. It was 7:00 pm and I was looking for the hotel the students in my program were to stay in the first night of our arrival.
80% of the students in my program were young women. Half of the young women in my program used their parent’s credit card to pay for things. The other half used whatever money they had fallen into or saved by the grace of the Universe.
A part of me envied those who had their parents’ credit cards. But mostly, I felt pride when buying my cappuccino, slowly sipping it while setting it on the marble cafe counter. I felt pride while eating every morning pastry knowing I was responsible for its purchase. I had realized this dream by hook or by crook, singing in a chain restaurant tucked between two Interstates. Oh, and those two other jobs. The act of realizing a dream is so powerful.
I found it odd how the same archetype of these young women would pop up in Rome or Paris while I was away from my classmates. I remember walking into the Louvre and one screaming with ecstasy, “Oh My God! They have a Starbucks here!” When I was in Italy, setting up a Starbucks was outlawed. I saw this as a welcome rule. Why would you drink Starbucks when you could have the experience of Italian coffee? It was like buying fake roses over real ones. You still got the look, but the smell and experience had been bleached out of it.
The same thing happened on the Champs Elysee when a group of women from my program decided to spend three hours at a Longchamp store. The other group went to Montmartre. It was then I learned not everyone has the same definition of adventure. And that’s ok.
Dolce Far Niente — The Sweetness of Doing Nothing
Living in Italy felt like being in love all the time. You woke up with the excitement of not knowing what was going to happen, but you had the strong tingly sensation that it was going to be good whatever it was. Like finding love notes in your fridge or sock drawer. Every object I saw on a daily basis was there for the sole purpose of being beautiful to stare at. The small altar to a blue veiled 18th century Mary, with dried oranges laid at her feet. A forlorn olive tree. The 15th-century fresco hiding behind a bank building. A royal green door with a gold knocker.
I sunk into this new pace and there was no reprimand. Hurtling through a crowd or wolfing down food in 15 seconds flat was as faux pas as wearing socks with sandals in the summertime. I was free from the American grind: moving as if we were all in a race, looking at a phone while “watching” a movie while also answering a text message from a friend.
Not everything is open in Italy 24/7. At first, I found this a nuisance, but then I grew to love my quiet time. The afternoons would hush themselves between 1-ish to 5-ish. The only thing to do was nap or make a homemade panini with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and pesto.
The Freedom I’d Yet To Hold
I think a part of me wanted to find love in Italy. I had a boyfriend back in Michigan. Halfway through my four-month program he suddenly dumped me over the phone right after Valentine’s Day. I saw him tagged in pictures with his ex a few days later on Facebook. I did the math.
This breakup made falling in love more of a possibility. But the farthest I got was getting drunk and making out while leaning against part of the ancient medieval walls of Siena. Chianti Classico and pasta on my lips. He was a nice boy from the program, with an Irish name that no one could pronounce nor spell. Our clumsy makeout session was nothing so significant that we’d talk about it again. It felt right in that moment to kiss in a corner of an ancient city with a mostly-stranger. They have lots of corners like that in Italy.
Looking back, what I wanted to find in Italy was a freedom I’d yet to hold. After getting the chance to grasp it for the first time, I wanted to feel comfortable holding it. Like a young queen learning how to hold her ceremonial scepter. Returning from Italy, I was less afraid of looking like an idiot, ask for directions, or going to eat dinner and watch a movie by myself. Going solo on adventures seemed beautiful and exciting — no longer something I’d write on a bucket list but never do.
Running Towards It
Women going to Italy are looking to hold the power of freedom. Being halfway across the world, no one knows you. There are no judgemental relatives, boring boyfriends, or angry bosses to answer to. Time in Italy is devoted to learning how to carry Italian cadence — how to order in Italian accurately enough that the waiter knows what you’re saying. If you mess up, you keep on going and the consequences are not dire. You got the carbonara instead of the ravioli. So what — you will still devour it up, walk home over cobblestoned streets slightly buzzed from the bottle of Chianti Classico.
When you return to wherever home used to be, you feel different. You feel like a Vogue model in a Target catalog. You know things. You can spot the difference between a Venetian Renaissance painting and Florentine one. You know how to seek out and burn out clandestine overseas affairs. You know what they are wearing in Europe and it is not the same as here. You know how to cook things without a microwave or toaster.
Which Leads Me Back To The Movies
When I’m not living in Italy, the movies are still my heavily discounted ticket back: Eat, Pray, Love, I Am Love, Letters to Juliet, Call Me By Your Name. I realize the last one is not women-centered. I no longer discriminate and am proud I’ve expanded my collection.
People go to Italy to be independent, indulge, escape, explore and adore their sexuality without judgment from others. People go to Italy to leave and never come back.
Italy is not the only place where we find our freedom. You don’t have to get on a plane to find the power of your freedom. But, you do need to go somewhere. The next town. The next state. The next country over.
You cannot test the power that freedom gives you unless you have some room to play and fall flat on your face. You must hold the scepter in front of a mirror before welding it over a thousand.
If you have the Buona Fortuna to experience the safety to lose yourself and find yourself again, grab your bags and go.