“I think I’m in love with her,” I tell my sister, out-of-the-blue, a few days after Christmas.
On my phone, a voice message: a song. An original composition. It’s about me. A dusky female voice sings about our days together, strolling up and down the Danube. I can see the city lights in your eyes, she sings, in the message.
“Yeah,” I say, listening to it again, grounding myself in the present, recognizing the feeling in my chest. “I am in love.”
We’re sitting in Shawn’s empty flat in Budapest, Hungary. Shawn and Dóra are off in the countryside, visiting family. My sister Christina and I are cooped up together in a claustrophobic studio flat, the ghost of a broken promise between us.
We were supposed to be off on a trip together; headed deep into the heart of Africa to find what there was to experience. Instead, we were in the middle of a bitter European winter. This situation was entirely my fault.
The girl had gone home to Italy. My sister had caught up with me for Christmas together in Budapest. Christmas had come and gone, and now, we had no reason to linger in Hungary.
I had a choice to make.
Play it safe, leave Budapest and travel on with Christina; or lay it all on the table in a high-stakes gamble for love?
You already know which choice I made.
I text her: “I can’t stop thinking about you. If I’d like to see you again (and I would), what would be the best way to do that?”
I smiled when I read that, she will tell me, months later.
“Well, I am kind of stuck,” she says, “applying for jobs and all. So why don’t you come to Italy?”
“You can stay with me,” she writes. “Hold on, lemme just ask my mom real quick.”
“Yeah, she’s cool with it.”
I plan to spend four or five days in Italy. I end up staying for 25.
I go straight from the airport to lunch with the nonni (the grandparents).
They don’t speak a lick of English. I am sleep-deprived from a red-eye flight, extremely anxious, and unable to communicate.
So I eat.
If I speak in Spanish and they speak in Italian we can approximate some sort of communication, but, in general, it’s not easy. It’s never easy, not a single day I am in Italy. I fight hard every single moment to be there, with C. I fight because it is worth it.
If the nonni have questions about who I am, where I’ve come from, and what my intentions with their granddaughter are, they are reserved about them. So are the parents, who even let us share a bed. In general, the Italian family experience is much less intense than I had expected.
C’s uncle asks her if I’m her boyfriend.
“Just a passatempo, I told him,” she relates back to me. “A thing to pass the time.” She laughs and smiles, as if this should comfort me.
As I eat dinner with her family, spend my days meeting her childhood friends, and going for aperitivo with an unending string of new people, an inescapable question hangs in the air:
what am I doing here?
I could tell the story of Italy many ways. Maybe, someday, with a bit more distance, I will be able to make it a movie, or a novel. I suspect I will be able to do that. For now though, still a little too close to things, wobbly, disoriented, and dazed, without that distance, I can only offer these moments of questioning.
They make a narrative, although maybe not a complete one.
In the Alps.
“What am I doing here?”
I ask this question to Maria, an alpinist, and a good person. One of C’s oldest friends.
Maria is great people. Simple, honest, proud and playful. I would be best friends with her, I know, given the chance. I could imagine myself climbing many mountains with her. It is hard not to, especially when we sit in the parking lot of a rock climbing crag, drinking wine and sharing stories of our past adventures. This is a scene I have played out many times in Colorado. This day, in the Italian Alps, I am at home.
I have been sent to go play in the mountains with Maria, while C does some tutoring. The mountains are incredible: jagged, pointy peaks, crisscrossed by narrow, winding roads. Maria slams the car through the gears expertly, taking turn after stomach-dropping turn at confident speeds. This is different from Colorado, where a modern super-highway cuts a straight, smooth path through our mountains. There are meters of snow all around us. This is different from Colorado, where we struggle for moisture every year.
We park the car, we put on our snowshoes. I wear my orange jacket — the one C had found so offensive in Budapest.
“The Gore-Tex!!” Maria says, excited. “I would like one like this. But they are so expensive…”
Maria and I tromp around the mountains, getting lost, finding huge avalanche paths. It is snowing, getting late in the morning, and warming up. We decide the avalanche danger is a bit high for our liking, and agree to spend a more casual day, eating, drinking, and exploring the valley.
Over a hot chocolate and a beer, somewhere in the stunningly beautiful Val d’Aosta, I ask:
“Why am I here, Maria?”
“You are here because you fell in love,” she says, simply. “This is good. C is always alone. Now, she is with you.”
In Arrenzano, on the coast.
C and I are visiting with her zia — extended family, on the Mediterranean coast. They have a free bed for us, and some home cooked meals.
This family is much nosier, much more intense than her immediate family. They speak in Italian, I speak in Spanish, and they conduct an interrogation. C clarifies, where necessary.
What are you doing here?
What are your intentions?
Are you her boyfriend?
Do you support yourself economically?
Do you have your master’s degree?
Where will you go after this? Back to America?
Another foreigner, C?
They are simple people; their house is modest, their conversation direct. I think they are some of the best people I meet in Italy. C, months later, when I tell her that her roommate in Lisbon reminds me of her family in Arenzanno, will say: “that’s the biggest insult I ever heard.”
This, perhaps, cuts to the heart of our problem.
After the dinner with her relatives, we retreat to their spare apartment. They have lent it to us for the night.
Italians, C says, are frugal people. But we’re rich in houses.
We watch an incredible sunset over the sea. The sky is on fire.
We lay down together on the sofa bed.
“As annoying as your relatives’ questions are,” I say, “they do raise a good point.”
“What are we doing here?” I ask.
“We’re traveling to Naples,” she says.
“You know what I mean,” I say. “What is this, between you and I. This isn’t a thing I usually do, you know. Travel to a foreign country and romance a woman.”
“No?” she says, joking. “Are you sure?”
“No, C,” I say. “It isn’t. And it isn’t a thing I did lightly.”
There’s some strained silence.
“I think…” she says, “I think we should just try and keep it light.”
We stop by for lunch with the zia once more, before we leave Arenzanno, headed further south, to Naples. C off in the bathroom or somewhere, the aunt approaches me. Again, she speaks in Italian, and I answer in Spanish. Despite the different languages, in this encounter, we understand each other perfectly.
“You’ll go back to America after this?” she asks.
“Si,” I answer. “On the 6th of February. Soon.” I have my tickets already.
“And C?” she asks.
“No lo so,” I answer, in Italian. I don’t know.
I try and give a careless smile, a devil-may-care shrug. I doubt it’s convincing.
The aunt looks at me with a sympathetic face.
“It’s a bit sad, no?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, feeling understood, completely. “It is sad.”
We look at each other, speechless.
C returns, looking not the least bit sad.
The zia gives us some food for the road. We say our goodbyes, and in parting, the aunt gives me a phrase I can’t make heads or tails of.
C translates it as: “If it’s roses, it will grow.”
Naples is chaotic, wild, and alive.
We eat pizza every day.
We fuck every night.
There are many, many good moments in Naples. The place pulses with life, with lawlessness, with absolute unbounded chaos and potential. We build many good memories here.
But they aren’t all good.
Naked, in bed, pizza boxes on the nightstand beside us, I again have to ask: what am I doing here? Why did you invite me here? Why have I met your family, your friends, why all this trouble? Why not find an Italian girl?
Probably, in reality, I am more subtle with my questions than that.
“At first it was just a distraction,” C says, with heartbreaking honesty. “Things weren’t going so great with my life, and you seemed both interested and interesting… But then I started to see something different in you. I saw the city lights reflected in your eyes…” she says.
“But I don’t know if I can jump again. I’ve done the long-distance relationship thing. I know what it means. It means late nights across timezones, it means Skype calls and never being touched and so much hurt… I don’t know if I could do it again. I risked so much on the last time; and it hurt so much.”
“What if I were to be the one who jumped?” I ask, staring into her eyes. I feel so much. The pulses of emotion in my chest come and go; as if I’ve had too much coffee and ridden a rollercoaster simultaneously.
“I could do it, you know. My work is remote, I have some money. I’ve been traveling for years now. I’m ready to settle down. I have nothing holding me to the United States.”
It’s a crazy thing to say to a woman you’ve only known for two months. But at the same time, it was the only thing to say. I wouldn’t have ever forgiven myself if I didn’t try for it.
“I could jump,” I say again. “I would jump, for you.”
She freezes up, quiets down, and we drift off into an indeterminate sleep, the issue unresolved.
The next morning, we speak nothing of jumping.
From Naples, C and I go to Rome.
Rome is more my speed. The chaos of Naples was a bit overwhelming.
Intoxicating, overwhelming; in travel and love, it’s all the same thing.
Rome is unending, ancient, and full of belleza. We stay with a friend of C’s, who speaks Spanish. She tells me all about her boy troubles. We go into town, we meet more of her friends. One is a guy who is studying to be a priest. His English is horrible; he hopes to continue his divinity studies in an English-speaking country, he says, so he can improve. “Hablas espanol?” I ask, and he relievedly switches to a much more fluent mode of conversation.
The Spanish, the thing to which I dedicated my 2017, has opened the door for a wonderful 2018.
I would not have been able to move in Italy without the Spanish.
I would not have made it to Rome.
I wonder, excitedly, what I will spend my 2018 on.
My Italian is coming along. I can understand a lot of what goes on around me, now. I do not think it would be a huge imposition to learn it, I tell C.
“Three, four months living in Italy,” she says. “You would speak Italian.”
“It’s hard for me to understand what is happening,” she says to me, our last night in Rome. “Because we are talking in English all the time, all day. I have to translate it into Italian in my head. It all feels like a dream,” she says. “I am saying things I have heard in movies and things I’ve read, you know? I do not know how to express myself as carefully as I would in Italian. In Italian I know exactly what I want to say to you,” she says.
“Say it in Italian then,” I urge. She gives me a sentence, maybe, and then gives up. I don’t think it’s the language.
Her last relationship was conducted all in English, too. How could there be a difference?
Still, I don’t voice this. I don’t want to challenge her. She has not reacted well to emotionally challenging situations, so far. This will be another choked, difficult night. We won’t reach any conclusion, laying there, listening to Spanish love songs. The only takeaway I get from Rome is: “This feels like a dream.”
When I leave Italy, I will write on Instagram: “This was a dream I never want to wake up from.”
Shawn will respond: “Always possible to make a dream a reality.” He has done it.
C will simply say: “Great photo selection.”
The day I leave Italy finds me sitting alone, on a hill above Rivoli, a quaint little town in Piemonte, near Torino. A castle looms above me; a picture-perfect Italian pueblo, below. Blue sky stretches endlessly in all directions. The spectacular snow-capped Alps wave me a distant goodbye.
C is off somewhere in town, tutoring French. She will finish, pick me up, then take me to the airport. We will say goodbye. I’ll fly to London for three days. And then I’ll go home.
In my head, I am already imagining it as simply a short stop: return home, sell my car, and come back to Europe. Give this all a real shot.
I sit on a bench, looking out over the town, and think. I will tell her I love her, I convince myself. I have to do it. I have a journal in my hand: “My Little Book of Memories”, I’ve written on the front. Inside, I’ve sketched a map of Italy. The first page reads:
“I come to Italy to see about a girl. C******* ********** — we met in Morocco in November, again in Budapest in December, and now she’s invited me to her home in Italy; January.
I fell a little bit in love with her the moment I met her, and each subsequent meeting, a little more.
I can’t know where life will take us – and neither can she – but I know that whatever happens, I’ll want to remember these days.
Each and every one.”
The diary ends at Arennzano.
There is no mention of “keeping it light” within those pages.
No discussion of jumping in Naples.
No dreamy night in Rome.
And none of the magic between those moments.
The communist squat we visited in Livorno isn’t in those pages. The attic of the old police station, reclaimed by the local anarchists; full of kids smoking weed, listening to live music. The cats roaming around; the feeling of stumbling on a secret place.
There is nothing on the pizza so rich that it almost killed me; no discussion of laying by the harbor in Naples, as dusk fell, discussing our pasts. The long day we spent in Piazza San Marino, lazing in the sun and telling the full stories of our past heartbreaks — that isn’t there. The passport stamp she drew me for Vatican City. That’s absent.
None of the rage of being ripped off for speaking English; none of our tense discussion in a Neapolitan church about the United States, and her refusal to give my home a fair shake the way I had given hers.
The train ride from Pisa back to Turin isn’t in those pages.
The tourists at the Leaning Tower.
Our bottle of Genepy, which I bought at a supermarket in the Alps, and traveled the length of the country with us, comforting us in the hard moments. That little bit of joy isn’t in there.
The endless gelaterias, where we ate, literally every day for a week straight.
Our celebratory luncheon in a park in Naples, where we drank a bottle of wine and ate a bar of Swiss chocolate and ran our hands all over each other in public, unable to resist the excitement.
The night before I left, when C had chugged 3/4 of a bottle of wine, faster than I’d ever seen her drink, and, when I asked if everything was ok, plaintively said: “No.”
That isn’t in there.
The moment in a Rome bar, late at night, where I had said: “I have a confession,” and placed the button from my pants on the table. Eating our way through Naples had caused it to pop off. C’s peals of laughter after the moment aren’t in there, either.
I sat on the side of that hill in Rivoli, C somewhere in the town below, the castle above me, airplanes drawing sharp lines through the impossibly crisp alpine sky, and wondered what would become of those moments.
What had I done here?
Was it something special? Or just an amusement; a passatempo? It had felt special, to me, I knew. It had felt like a movie. It had felt like a dream come true.
What had it been for C?
I would never know.
She drives me to the airport.
I hand her a single rose — I have paid 5 Euro for it, one final fuck-you for being a foreigner in Italy. I don’t mind though. I would have paid 50 Euros to give her a rose.
We kiss, lightly. The goodbye hangs between us.
I sense something strange in the air.
My resolve fails. I cannot tell her I love her.
Or rather, I sense: I should not.
She has nothing to say to me.
We part, simply, with words no heavier than a “ciao, tu.”
And that’s the end of the dream.