I will fake it until I make it!

All about the escapades and thoughts of a girl who thinks WAY too much for her own good!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Follow Your Destiny Wherever it Leads You

Sometimes in life you reach a crossroad, where there is no turning back and a new path has to be chosen. I was standing at this crossroad over a year ago, agonizing over which path to take. My sister, knowing I was at this intersection, gave me a card with an inspirational theme written by Vicki Silvers. I have retyped the inside of the card below.

I kept the card and brought it with me to Italy. In the past whenever I would re-read it it would bring me to tears. Today as I re-read it, it put a HUGE smile on my face. I have never felt more secure in myself and the path I have chosen. I know where I am now is where I am supposed to be in my life. I wish everyone the same peace for the New Year!

There comes a time in your life when you realize that if you stand still, you will remain at this point forever. You realize that if you fall and stay down, life will pass you by.

Life’s circumstances are not always what you might wish them to be. The pattern of life does not necessarily go as you plan. Beyond any understanding, you may at times be led in different directions that you never imagined, dreamed, or designed. Yet if you had never put any effort into choosing a path, or tried to carry out your dream, then perhaps you would have no direction at all.

Rather than wondering about or questioning the direction your life has taken, accept the fact that there is a path before you now. Shake off the “whys” and “what ifs,” and rid yourself of the confusion. Whatever was – is in the past. Whatever is – is what’s important. The past is a brief reflection. The future is yet to be realized. Today is here!

Walk your path one step at a time – with courage, faith, and determination. Keep your head up and cast your dreams to the stars. Soon your steps will become firm, and your footing will be solid again. A path that you never imagined will become the most comfortable direction you could have ever hoped to follow.

Keep your belief in yourself and walk into your new journey. You will find it magnificent, spectacular, and beyond your wildest imaginings.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Importance of a Job Well Done

Italy is facing an economic crisis. Work is not easy to come by. Many young people, those in their 20s to 30s cannot find any work at all.  This country does not have the expression “under employed.” Employed is employed. And being employed is considered a good thing. It’s not like it is in the U.S. where we won’t take a job at the grocery store or in a restaurant because those jobs are below us. Young people here would be happy to have “those” jobs. They’re just not available. Work is a privilege here.

Italians take great pride in their work. From the janitor at the airport, to the Barista at the café, to the gentleman working behind the register at the local clothing store; Italians dress in their Sunday best, consistently keep themselves busy with work, and truly seem to care about a job well done.

I respect this. It’s nice to see so many people take pride in a job well done. And it’s absolutely refreshing to be away from the constant size-you-up-to-see-if-I’m-doing-better-than-you-in-life questions that are so prevalent in the Washington, DC area. You know those subtle, but not so subtle questions like, “So Valerie, what do you do?” “Oh, really? How long have you worked there?” “My god! Did the stock market hit you like it hit us this year? I certainly hope not!”

Ugh! Spare me the pleasantries and just ask to see my bank statement already!

Witnessing the pride Italians put into their work, and not working for two months have actually restored my appreciation for my own job and reminded me how much personal value I derive from it. I can't believe it but I'm really am looking forward to working again! What a great thing to realize when you’re on vacation!

Woo hoo! Chalk up one more lesson to the “What Val learned when she left it all” list!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Staying True To Who You Are and What You Really Want

The first time I said aloud that I was moving to Italy, I was joking. Truly, I was being reactionary. The bloody Englishman (see “About Me” sidebar) and I had broken up just before a planned 2-week trip to Italy. Several years before this, my husband and I were supposed to travel to Italy for our five year wedding anniversary, but he changed his mind at the last minute. When I was talking with my friend, Nat, trying to figure out why all of my trips to Italy had been cancelled, I declared, “Fuck it! I’m just gonna move there!” As soon as I said it, it felt right. I can’t explain why. It just did.

After this declaration, I had several internal discussions trying to convince myself this idea was the stupidest one I had come up with yet, but I couldn’t get the wanderlust out of my heart. I knew I had to do this.

Several people asked me why I wanted to give up everything I worked for to move to Italy. “What?” they would ask. “Are you trying to find yourself?” Although a legitimate question, it was hard for me to answer. There was no one reason. It was more complicated than that.

I knew this trip was not about “finding” me. I’ve already spent most of my adult years doing that; trying to break free from the roles assigned to me by my family; trying to break free from my self-imposed insecurities and impossibly high standards; trying to forgive myself for my failed marriage; trying to be okay with who I really am.

Without a doubt, after quite a bit of effort, I have already “found” the new me. This trip was more about taking the new me out for a spin. I wanted to make sure the woman I thought I had become, was indeed the woman I was.

I’ve discussed in previous blogs that my strength had been tested several times since I landed in Italy. Over the past few weeks I’ve had some tests of a different nature that have challenged my old ways of thinking and reinforced my faith in who I have become.  However, for you to really understand my growth in this area you need to understand some of my old ways of thinking. Until not that long ago, I was in such a state that if a guy liked me, I might like him back simply because he showed interest in me. It’s not something I’m particularly proud to admit, but it’s the truth.

Yet on three separate occasions here I have chosen to not settle for, pursue, or accept that which is less than what I truly want in my love life. The choices I have made may sound like common sense, but in reality it’s not that easy to stay focused and do the right thing.

My first challenge was turning down an offer to be placed on lay away while the guy I had been dating tried on some other girls for size while I was in Italy. It may sound like a logical request to date other people given that I was in a different country, but it was not the relationship I wanted. This was a hard decision.  It’s not easy to tell a gorgeous, romantic, successful, and in most ways great guy, “Thanks, but no thanks,” when in the very back of your mind you think to yourself, “What if I never find anyone I connect with as much as this man.  What if this is the best I will ever find?”

The second example was choosing NOT to tell a married friend (who I have a close personal connection with) that I desperately wanted him to come to Italy to hold me, make me feel safe, and tell me I wasn’t going to be alone for the rest of my life.

The third test of strength was turning down an offer to have an affair with a very sexy, very successful, very charming, and very unavailable man who I felt an intense connection with the moment we were introduced at a party.

All of these tests have helped reinforce that the new me is built from a solid foundation.  I’m not embarrassed to share that I'm really proud of myself for doing the right thing, staying focused, and for holding out for what I really want in life.

Okay now, where is George Clooney these days?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Honoring the King of Pop and our King and Savior Jesus Christ

On the Eve of Christmas I was fortunate enough to attend two concerts. The Concerto Di Natale (Christmas Concert) started at 4 PM and consisted of a symphony playing music from the Grand Mass of Mozart. This included 2 female and 2 male opera performers singing gorgeous lyrics in Italian (or Latin I couldn’t really tell). The music and singing were phenomenal.

Apparently, because the concert was a "mass” (but not like a church mass) the entire concert is considered one song. Therefore, audience members do not clap between songs. They clap at the end of the hour long performance. And then they clap for a ridiculously long period of time. 

It was weird for me to hear complete silence between these really great pieces. Good thing I’m not the first person to start clapping at events, or that would have been very embarrassing.

The second concert I attended was in a small concert venue that holds about 2000 people. I’d say the concert was 90% sold out. This was a performance by the “World Famous Harlem Gospel Choir.” The concert started at 9:30 PM and went until about 11:30 PM.

The choir came out in a single file, mamba-style line, singing Hallelujah and asking the audience in English to put their hands together for the Lord. I could not help myself, I laughed aloud.  It sounds ridiculous now, but I wasn’t expecting gospel music. I was expecting Christmas music. I mean, it WAS Christmas Eve.

I don't think I have ever been so happy and so embarrassed at the same time as during the first ten minutes of this concert. How, I wondered, will this audience receive all this? How is this going to translate?

Oh they got it!

I think the turn in audience participation came when, after a ten minute tribute to the importance of praising our Lord Jesus Christ, the choir moved directly into the song Billy Jean by the recently departed Michael Jackson.  Just in case you're not getting the irony here, this is a song about a man denying he is the father of Billy Jean's illegitimate child.

"Huh, interesting song choice." I think to myself.  I was not quite sure what Billy Jean had to do with showing honor to the Lord, but it was soon revealed to me and my fellow audience members that the concert would be honoring the King of Pop AND our King Jesus Christ!

Okay… NOW I get it.

The next hour and a half consisted of all almost all Michael Jackson songs, where an occasional line was changed to accommodate a, “Praise the Lord,” or “In His name.”

Another of my favorite quotes from the evening included the ever so important audience participation chant. “I say Jesus, you say Christ.” So it went a little something like this…

Singer, “Jesus,”

Audience, “Christ.”

Singer, “JESUS!”

Audience, “CHRIST!”

Maybe it’s just me, but I was a little uncomfortable with this exchange. I don't know. Is it okay to yell, “CHRIST” back at someone yelling, “JESUS” at you? I’m still not quite sure.

Because it was Christmas Eve, we did receive a fantastic medley of Christmas songs which, along with the King of Pop tribute, made the evening just about perfect for me!

Think what you want, but those M.J. songs sure got those Italians on their feet and dancing in the isles with arms waving high. I have never seen anything like it. They loved it. Of course they did. It’s Michael Jackson for Christ’s sake! And I DO mean that literally.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Excuse me? What did you just say?

I was in the grocery store last night buying as much as I could in preparation for the long closures of almost all businesses over the holiday season. As I have learned, the “holiday season” varies from country to country. For instance, in the U.S., many retail shops close early on the Eve of Christmas and for the entirety of Christmas day. But come December 26th, commerce is back on in full swing.

In Italy, businesses (and I mean ALL businesses: gyms; retail stores; grocery stores; pharmacies; gas stations; nunneries… no wait, not nunneries) start to close their doors the day before, the day before Christmas and then reopen promptly on December 29th… only to close again on December 30th in preparation for the celebration of the new year.

But, I digress.

One might think the grocery store is simple enough to manage in any country. And, before I got here, I would have agreed with you. But then one of the cashiers asks you questions that you did not learn in Italian class and you cannot figure out by context.  Questions like, "Do you have a frequent shopper card?" or "How many bags would you like?"  How many bags do I want? Umm, I dunno.  How about as many as I need to fit all of my groceries?  I’m not really the expert in this area.

Cashiers get to sit in comfy desk chairs at their registers by the way, AND they make you pack your own stuff.

Seriously, who learns this stuff before they get here? No one, right? No one learns this stuff ahead of time. Surely, I cannot be the only one who did not?

I learn a lot by hanging back and watching what others do. The produce section of Italian supermarkets is much like those in the U.S. except they have more variety, you have to wear plastic gloves to pick up the fruit and veggies, and you need to weigh and print a price tag for your items before you get into the checkout line. A lot of U.S. markets are moving to the, “You weigh, you tag system,” so buying fruit seemed simple enough.

I also learned recently (after 5 minutes of walking back and forth from the stand where I selected my artichokes, to the scale where I could not find the weight code for the artichokes) that if the fruit or vegetable did not have a “weight code number” on the sign above you just paid the flat price that was associated with that item.  Apparently, someone finally noticed me walking back and forth like a wind-up doll stuck between two barriers and taught me how the system worked.

Last evening, when I could not find the weight code for a pineapple and just saw the flat price, I didn’t even hesitate. I plopped that pineapple in my cart, weighed my other fruit, and was on my way.

When I got to the checkout line, the cashier asked me in Italian if I had a frequent shopper card. Yep! Got that one covered; here’s the card. How many bags do I need? Zero thank you. I brought my backpack and my portable rolly cart. Then she asked me “Italian word, Italian word, Italian word, pineapple?”

Umm, what? I never heard that one before. I told her in Italian I didn’t understand. She said back to me, “Italian word repeated, Italian word repeated, Italian word repeated louder, pineapple?”

Nope, still didn’t understand what you said even though you were kind enough to repeat the exact same sentence, but louder this time.

I tried to explain that the pineapple didn’t have a weight price code so I didn’t weigh it, but I just didn’t have those words in Italian, so I said it in English.

The cashier was apparently not impressed and had some problems hiding her frustration as she said out loud (but not while actually looking at me) something that did not have a very pleasant tone to it. In all honesty, the only word I understood was, “Inglese” (English).

At this point, I had already apologized in Italian and gave her the universal hand symbol for just forget about the pineapple. But the cashier could not be consoled. She kept repeating herself in Italian as if by some miracle I would learn the language on the spot in the middle of the checkout line. I just stood there not knowing what to try next while the cashier continued to go on and on speaking to no one in particular.

So, I did what any red-blooded American would do; I mumbled under my breath that she could bite me. Yep, never underestimate the power of a well placed, albeit mumbled, bite me!

Actually, I have also found that singing quietly out loud (but to myself), “I don't underSTAND you” and “Ever heard of a single file line (pronounced la-hein),” are also quite helpful with maintaining one’s personal sanity.

I’m not sure what I finally said or did that registered with her, but she eventually understood that we could just put the pineapple aside and not worry about it at this time.

Okay then, international crisis averted!  Time for me to pack my own groceries!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The First Snow of the Season!

I had a childlike enthusiasm this morning as soon as I opened the shutters that shelter my window and saw the first snow of the season. It was 2 degrees Celsius today. Yes, as much as I hate to admit it I have learned to understand the temperature in Celsius without any ridiculous math calculations. Let’s just say 2 degrees is very cold, so the snow did not melt when the sun came out. I put on my plastic boots, grabbed my camera, and was off for what turned out to be a 7 hour walk across the city (la città).

Grammar school and university students are on winter break now, so they were out in full force scrapping snow off of cars to throw snowballs at their friends. Their enthusiasm was infectious and I couldn’t get the smile off my face watching it.  The whole city was alive with Florentines enjoying the reclaimation of their city center since the tourist season officially ended in November.

I thought I'd start taking picutures at the park near my house, but the park gates were locked, so I just took some shots at the entrance.

My next destination wasn’t really a destination at all, but a walk to get from one side of the city to the other. I included some pictures below of things that caught my eye on my walk from the park by my apartment to the Piazzale Michelangelo which is about a 40 minute walk from one side of the city to the other (if you walk directly and fast).

Piazzale Michelangelo is on the opposite side of the Arno River and has a fantastic view of Florence, the bridges over the Arno River, and the Tuscan Hills that shelter Florence.

After Piazzale Michelangelo, I headed to the German Christmas Market that has been set up temporarily at the Piazza Santa Croce and bought myself a Nutella crepe and a pair of shearling slippers. Yes, I am now officially 80 years old and sporting shearling slippers, but I don't care. My feet are ALWAYS cold on these tile floors and now my feet will be toasty warm!

After the Santa Croce market, I bought some turtle neck sweaters at the San Lorenzo market (they have the best quality stuff and the best prices around) and then headed to this great pizza place I've been wanting to try out for a while. I parked myself down, ordered a caprese pizza, and drank a wonderful glass of red wine while I waited for the cold sun to set. I wanted to make sure I was able to get some pictures of the street lights that have been put up in the City Center. My favorite street has a blanket of lights for several blocks. It's an absolute pleasure to walk up and down this street at night. I'll be a little sad when the holidays are over and they take down these amazing lights.

On Christmas Eve I will walk to the Piazza della Repubblica to hear an old fashioned Christmas Carol concert, and later that night I will attend a concert put on by the Harlem Gospel Choir, from New York City.

Christmas morning I will attend Christmas mass held at the Duomo (the Cathedral). Although I’m more spiritual than religious, I think this will be a special way to spend Christmas morning.

New Year’s Eve in Florence is supposed to be packed with activities the entire city can enjoy. A huge fireworks display is scheduled for over the Arno River and it looks like I will be with friends that evening, so I’m excited for the next few weeks ahead.

Buon Natale everyone!

Friday, December 18, 2009

OH MY GOD! My Spin Instructor is GORGEOUS!

I joined a gym my first week in Florence. The Italian word for gym is palestra. I wasn’t able to join a gym in Rome because Roman gyms only allow year-long memberships. In Florence you can go month by month. Have I mentioned how much I like Florence?

I am now a card carrying member of Palestra Ricciardi. Palestra Ricciardi is the equivalent of Gold’s Gym in the United States… well, the retarded cousin that no one ever talks about equivalent, but who am I to judge.

As a requirement of my membership I had to obtain a passport-sized photo of my head within 48 hours so that it could be stapled to my paper membership card and give me full access to the facility. Ah! Now I understand why there are so many individual photo booths located throughout Italian cities. Based on what I witnessed several times on my walk from Rome's Termini Station to my apartment, I thought they were provided as quick accommodation for random blow jobs. But, I suppose, I could have misinterpreted that one.

Anyway, even though I had to pay extra for the cycling classes at this gym, I knew it would be well worth it because running to keep in shape when I had no access to a palestra was KILLING my knees. Cycling classes provide me the cardio without the threat of being crippled in my old age.

Cycling classes are offered 4 times a week; Monday and Wednesday at 1:30 in the afternoon and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 in the evening. My first class was Monday at 1:30 PM. I got to class about 10 minutes early to warm up on the bike as it had been 2 months since my last cycling class. I fitted the bike to match my size and started a steady spin.

Apparently group exercise classes in Italy start promptly at whenever the instructor decides to get his or her ass into the class because, so far, no class I have attended in Italy has started on time. So there I was doing the self-induced warm up with the rest of the “dedicated” women in my class when the clock clicked to 1:40 PM and still no instructor. Jesus! I thought to myself, this is really annoy… and then the instructor walked in. 

OH HELLO! I think to myself. And there he was; my perfectly toned, perfectly chiseled, and perfectly HOT cycling instructor! YESSSS! I knew these cycling classes were going to be worth the extra money!  No wonder no one seemed to mind he was 10 minutes late. This guy was gorgeous! 

Of course I could not understand a word he was saying, but luckily cycling is an easily mimicked activity. The instructor (BLOG UPDATE: his name is Fabio) got off his bike several times to check the cadence of our peddling. His perfect butt was so distracting I silently prayed he would get back on his bike and stop tormenting me. I mean, really, what's a single girl to do?

After 55 minutes, I was completely drenched in sweat and I could feel my face was flush with exhaustion. And, of course, I was not wearing any make-up seeing as how the gym is the only public place it’s acceptable to be without professionally applied make up.

When class was over, I hung back a bit and watched what the other class participants were doing to clean up their bikes. After I felt like I knew what to do, I walked to the paper towel dispenser at the front of the class. That’s when Fabio came over to me with a cute smile and started speaking in Italian. “Shoot!” I didn’t understand what he said, and I didn’t want to wing this one with a guess at an answer.  I had to admit I didn’t speak Italian. “Oh, you’re American!” he replied in English. “YAY!” I think to myself, “He speaks English. This day just can’t get any better!”

Turns out he asked me if I liked the class.  By the looks of me, he probably thought I was going to have a heart attack because I was so spent by the end of class.  “Hmm, how did I like the class? How did I like the class?” The image of his perfect gluteus maximus ran through my head. “Yeah, I liked it a lot.” I replied with a slight smile at what I was really thinking. “See you at the next class then?” he inquired. “Certemente” (certainly) I offered.

Of course you know I’ll be at EVERY CYCLING CLASS THAT GYM HAS TO OFFER for as long as I am a member! Hey c’mon, I’m just rededicating myself to a healthy lifestyle.  Plus, I can't disappoint Fabio. There's nothing wrong with that, right?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Thing about Italian Men

WARNING, WARNING! This blog contains sexually related content. Do not read if you are one of my brothers, my nephew, or my Dad as it may embarrass you! The rest of you may proceed.

Before I came to Italy I was warned about Italian men. “Don’t look them in the eye and don't smile at them,” I was told repeatedly. “In Italian culture eye contact and smiling is a signal you are interested and it’s okay for them to approach you. Italian men are quite forward. And all they think about is sex.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient!” I thought to myself. In business and in self defense women are taught to walk with confidence and purpose, to keep our heads held high and look people directly in the eye. And how am I supposed to not smile? It’s all I do! “Okay, okay,” I told myself. “No looking at men in the eye.”

I was also warned that Italian women are very jealous and if they catch you looking at “their man,” be prepared because they will have words with you about it. “It’s best just to keep your head down when walking and if you bump into someone don't bother saying scuzi because no one does.” Great! I get to go to one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, never talk to anyone, and the only thing I’m going to see is the pavement!

For the first month and I half I followed this advice. I averted my eyes at all costs. I mostly kept my head down and walked the “city walk.” This is not easy to do by the way, when you have no idea where you are going and you have to look up to the side of a building to discover what street you are on! It’s definitely an acquired skill.

During the month of November, Rome experienced an indian summer. Winter coats were not necessary until the very end of the month. One night, when I was in a particularly good mood, I decided to head out to the City Center for dinner on my own. This required a 25 minute walk from my apartment. I was enjoying the warm Mediterranean air and had a bounce to my step. About 15 minutes into my walk I saw a gorgeous Italian man walking my way with a motorcycle helmet in his hand.

He was distinctively tall for an Italian (6 feet 2 inches) and had the quintessential thick, wavy brown hair and olive skin. He truly was the picture of male Italian beauty! I could not help myself. I did a double take when I passed him. That was when it happened. His eyes connected with mine and I held the gaze for only a second before remembering the rules of Italian mating.

“OH CRAP!” I thought to myself, and swiftly looked down and continued walking. But it was too late. The ritual had begun. He jumped on his motorcycle and followed me down the road. When I crossed the street he followed me. When I cut down to the next street he followed me. He parked his bike, took off his helmet, and signaled for me to come over. I did, and promptly said to him in Italian that I could not speak Italian. I asked him in Italian if he could speak English. He said he could… a little. He asked me for my number. “Why do you want my number if you cannot speak English?” I asked. “Language exchange,” He replied.

Language exchange is a pretty common thing in Italy. Many legitimate people are interested in meeting native English speakers to improve their English and learn the slang that is not taught in foreign language courses.

Naively, I gave him my number and we agreed to meet the next day at a public place and at an early hour to have a language exchange. Honestly, I knew it wasn’t all innocent, but I thought there may be some fun flirting and I’d get to hang around with a really good looking Italian guy for a while. To spare you all from the uncomfortable and (only after some time has passed) “funny” story of how I almost got date raped, let me just summarize it like this; apparently language exchange in Italian really means fluid exchange.

Even though I was warned about Italian men, I was really surprised about how aggressive this guy was. Did he really think I was going to sleep with him on the first night? I mean, you know, without him even buying me dinner! A girl's got to have her standards you know! ;-) Anyway, this event was a good reminder that I was in a different country and didn’t know the rules here.

Since then, I have been approached on the street several times without me accidentally initiating it. Italian men are definitely not shy about going after what they want!  Don't get me wrong, I don't have the “don't even try it” scowl on my face anymore like I did when I first got to Italy, but I am definitely not giving the, “Hey, come talk to me,” signal either. I’m just walking, head up, no smile. Just walking. 

Now that I am finally meeting some English speaking friends in Florence, I've been asking about this trait in Italian men. “Why are these guys so horney?” I inquired. The new group of girls I met last week had many thoughts on this topic and they were happy to share, as most of them have Italian boyfriends.

One woman shared something with us that her Italian boyfriend told her when she asked him the same question. What he explained was this. Look around Florence. Look around most of Italy. We are surrounded by beauty 24 hours a day; beauty in architecture; beauty in landscape; beauty in food and beauty in the human form. We are surrounded by naked statues or paintings of physical perfection. At every corner there is a scantily clad statue of some man or woman posing suggestively with an exposed breast or a perfectly proportioned penis proudly displayed for all see. Sensuality and sex are in the air here. It permeates our thoughts without us even realizing it. It is not shameful; it's beauty.

I thought about this explanation for a few days, and as I walked through the city and through the Uffizi Art Gallery, I realized this man was absolutely correct. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance; the time of reborn appreciation for beauty in all things. Sex and sensuality ARE everywhere in Italy. Without realizing it, being here heightens your sexual senses. It makes you see things in a different way. It helps you see beauty in all things; even in that which is not particularly beautiful.

It all makes perfect sense to me now!

Huh… Maybe this is why I keep having erotic dreams about a man named David.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Random Acts of Kindness

Blame it on the holidays, but I am feeling very sentimental these days. Throughout my time in Europe, random people have extended selfless acts of kindness. I want to share some of these experiences with you because they have restored my faith in the inherent goodness of people. I'll warn you, this is a long blog without any pictures, but it was important for me to share my appreciation for the kindness I have received since landing in Europe two months ago.

Natalie, a business consultant who sat next to me on the plane trip to Rome invited me to tag along with her from the airport to Rome's main train station Because she knew the train system quite well after several business trips to Italy. I do not know if Natalie sensed that I was close to vomiting on her because I was so shaken by what I had just left behind, but she sure did jump in and save the day! Natalie showed me how to maneuver through the confusing airport to the airport's train terminal. She showed me how to avoid lines at the ticket counter by using the self service ticket machines. She showed me which train to board, and she walked me to the taxi stand when we reached our final destination. Natalie also gave me her business card and told me to keep in touch. But more importantly, she offered herself as a local contact if I needed help. I might still be at the airport in Rome trying to figure it all out if it were not for her unsolicited help.

Brenda and Patrick, a married couple from Canada traveling in Italy for their yearly vacation (Brenda a business manager and Patrick an IT guru) sat next to me in a small cafe in the Tuscan village of Cortona. The three of us struck up a conversation. After discovering that I was traveling alone, Patrick and Brenda invited me to dinner that evening because, as Brenda put it, "Eating alone sucks!" We ended up having dinner for the next 3 nights (every night we were together in Cortona). These guys gave up their personal vacation time to make sure a perfect stranger did not have to eat alone. Who does that?  By the way, Brenda and I are talking about meeting in January to travel together in Prague.

I contacted Gio (pronounced Joe), through an international Website that connects those renting rooms with those searching for rooms to rent. Before I left for Italy, I made plans to meet with Gio on my first night in Rome to check out her room for rent. After 10 minutes of speaking with her, she invited me to dinner with her and a few of her friends.

Gio was born in Korea, but was adopted by Italian parents. Italian, of course, is her native tongue. She also speaks English very well thanks to a year-long study abroad program. Gio's exchange program took place in Pittsburgh, PA. I am originally from a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I met this woman over the Internet!

Gio spoke English to me the entire night and helped interpret for her friends who could not speak English. That night (October 11, 2009) I agreed to move in with her for 3 months. My lease with her would start on November 1. But, as I have said in other blogs, from the moment I arrived in Rome, I did not connect with the city. Which is to say, I hated it.

After a few days I regretted my decision to start my trip in Rome. But now, I had committed to 3 months there. Normally, I would just suck it up and say to myself, "Well, Valerie, this is what you said you were going to do, so just deal with it and make the best of it." But something inside me did not want to do that this time.

I took a chance and shared my feelings with Gio. I told her I wanted to travel to Florence to see if that area was a better fit. If it were a better fit, I would come back to Rome and rent for the month of November so that she would have time to find a new flat mate. Gio said that she would never get in the way of my dream. Although she could have been very unpleasant about loosing a flat mate, she was nothing but gracious and helpful.

Katrina is an Italian transplant. Originally from Scotland, she moved to Sorrento 13 years ago after coming here with her cousin for an impromptu week-long vacation. Sorrento is located by Naples in the South of the country. After the week-long vacation Katrina's cousin left. Katrina did not. Italy captured her soul. I can understand why. Italy gets into your blood. The lifestyle, the food, the cadence of the language, and, of course, the wine is intoxicating.

While in her mid-thirties, Katrina, an accomplished business woman went home to Scotland to sell her car, her house, her clothes, and give notice at her long-time employer so that she could move to a country where she knew no one, did not speak the language, and did not have a job. Sound familiar?

I used the same international apartment search to find the room that Katrina was renting in South Florence. We agreed that I would stay with her for 11 days. That would give me time to experience Florence and she and I could see if we were compatible to live together. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Katrina lived too far from the city center for me. When I explained to her that I wanted to live closer to the center, she could have done nothing to help me, but instead, she warned me about areas to avoid due to safety concerns.

Katrina is a travel tour manager. She knows all of the ins and outs of Florence (and most of Italy). Without having to ask, she took me into Florence several times to show me the typical sites that tourists should see, but added tons of places that only locals would know. It was awesome and dramatically reduced my learning curve of getting to know the city.

She helped me buy my first pair of amazing Italian leather riding boots (and later, my second pair of amazing Italian leather riding boots) which was extremely helpful because it's not easy to tell a sales person in a foreign language that you have "special needs" due to your enormous calfs!

Last Saturday, Katrina took me to the December meeting of a group called YAWN, short for Young Anglo Women's Network. This group is made up of native English speaking women who live in Florence. Within 2 hours I connected with several great women from different countries and backgrounds; Gabby from London, Nadia from Toronto, Christine from Atlanta, Michele from LA, and Jennifer from NYC. Each woman has her own distinct personality. I had a lot of fun. Okay, I admit it, I was in heaven! I love meeting and getting to know new people. It's one of my favorite things to do. We all already have plans to get together again this week.

Quick reminder here: I met Katrina on the Internet. I have known her for less than 2 months and she has already made a huge and positive impact on my experience in Italy.

Agnes is my new flat mate in Florence. Again, I met her over the Internet. Agnes is originally from Paris, but has lived in Florence for over 25 years. She teaches French at the University of Florence. She and I have shared several meals and long talks together. Agnes has a kind and giving heart. I sense a strength in her that I am not even sure she recognizes in herself.

Agnes hosted a small dinner party for me on my first night back in Florence.  She invited two of her American friends, Barbara and Henry who also live in Italy. The very next night, Barbara and Henry called to invite me to dinner so that I could meet one of their English speaking friends.  Barbara even contacted me to offer me work so that I could earn some extra spending money!  Perfect strangers have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome in Florence.

Agnes has also helped me learn the city and my new neighborhood. She showed me a charming park nestled in the hillside of Florence where one can see a phenominal panoramic view of the city from above! She took me to the best pastry shop in the area, (man those French know their pastries!) and she pointed out the one and only sushi restaurant I have seen in Florence. That reminds me. I'm really craving sushi!

On my second day here, Agnes took me to her gym to try out one of the classes and then helped me understand the contract details and membership dues. These things may seem small, but I assure you, there is nothing small about someone giving up large quantities of personal time to help a stranger in a foreign country.

Tuesday, December 15 marks the one year anniversary of the death of my former husband, Steve. Perhaps this is also why I'm feeling so sentimental. Although it will be a day of introspection, I have made plans to see some of the best works of art known to man. I will do this to remember the artist that Steve was, and to celebrate life, not mourn the loss of it. After all, his passing gave me more resolve to move my life toward something a little less ordinary. 

Thank you again everyone for your extraordinary acts of kindness!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reflection on my first two months in Italy

Today marks two months that I have been in Italy. About a month and a half of this time was spent in Rome. The other time was spent traveling to Florence or other towns throughout the Tuscany Region.

My days in Rome were filled with productive and non-productive activities. I slept 9 to 11 hours a day. I worked out when I could. I checked my email constantly. I explored Rome and took pictures when something moved me. I did quite a lot of nothing in particular. Sometimes I didn't even leave my apartment. I generally had things to do throughout the day, but nothing with any significance.

This was new for me. It’s not easy doing nothing when your last 18 years have been filled with almost constant activity. I like being alone, I honestly do. But alone in a different country is different from alone at home where you’re surrounded by your own things; when you can understand what everyone around you is saying; and when your friends are only 20 minutes away. For me, Rome was more about feeling isolated than feeling liberated.

I’ve always wanted to travel to Italy. I’ve only met one person in my life who didn’t always want to travel to Italy. The art; the architecture; the food; the wine; the pace and passion of the people all seemed so charming. Movies and books help promulgate this myth of course, and I wanted in. I wanted to live here; to experience the culture here; and maybe to start a new life here. Anything was possible in my mind. I wanted no restrictions and no safety net.

I had no expectations of Italy or what it might be. Actually, I never planned anything less in my life than this trip. I just wanted to get here. I felt that I needed to shake things up in my life. I wanted to have an incredible experience. I was not okay with having the typical Washington, DC life that is dedicated to work and the pursuit of career success.

Of course the time before my move was stressful. C'mon, I had to do a lot to get here. I sold my car. I gave away or sold most of my things. I rented my condo and moved in to a friend’s basement. I hired and trained my replacement at work. I moved away from the great guy I thought I could fall in love with.

To any normal person, these are big things. I put my entire life on hold to move to a country I had never even visited and where I didn’t speak the language.  As soon as the plane landed, I regretted my decision. I truly wanted to vomit. I immediately thought to myself, “What have I done? Why did I do this? Why do I always have to push? Why can’t good be good enough?”

I talk a lot with my friends about following gut instincts. I have said repeatedly that whenever I ignore my instinct, things don't work out. When I listen, they do. I came to Italy because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to test the strength of the woman I had become. I was not prepared to be so sad the moment we landed. I hated Rome almost immediately, and was never able to fully recover from my bad first impression of the city. Instantly my “strength” was tested.

Luckily, I understand that strength comes in many ways. Sometimes strength means reaching out when you need help. And, of course, a few of my good friends from home were able to give me encouragement when I was afraid; to make me laugh when I was sad; and to help me work things out in my own mind when the “great guy” I was dating before I left turned out to be the “not so great guy” I was no longer dating when I was here.

What I have realized over these last two months is that I had become so accustomed to moving my life forward and creating the life I wanted, I didn’t realize it was the life I already had. In the months leading up to my departure for Italy, I knew I was the happiest I had ever been, but I attributed much of the happiness to my upcoming adventure. In reality, I was happy because I actually love my life in Washington, DC. It's the life I’ve always wanted and I worked very hard to get. I have a beautiful condo. I have a wonderful and supportive circle of friends. I have the career balance I sacrificed quite a bit to obtain.

I have also learned to accept more things about myself. I always push and move myself forward because that is who I am.  It’s just the way I am made. Luckily, I also frequently do pulse checks to make sure where I am moving is where I want to be!  I don't settle. I don't accept things if they don’t feel right in my core. “Know thy self” my friend Mike always says to me, and then he usually adds, “And then accept it ‘cuz you’re pretty great!”

Yeah, I told you I had great friends.

I’m in Florence now for the next few months. As soon as I walked out of the train station here on December 5th I was reminded Florence is where I want to be. Although I love my life in Washington, DC and I do miss my friends, I’m not ready to come home yet. I still have a lot to do and a lot to discover.  And I’m really, really, REALLY looking forward to what my future brings. I’ll keep you posted!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Park at your own risk

Much has been said about the horrors of driving in Rome. Upon first blush the criticism is understandable. Driving in Rome is a fast paced melee of buses, cars, and motorcycles. Traffic seems to come from all directions with no rhyme or reason as to who has the right of way. Taxis unexpectedly cross over traffic from the left lane to take a street on the right. Motorcycles pass buses and cars from all sides, and most of Rome does not have stop signs. It’s not that the drivers don't abide by them. Rome doesn’t have them.

Parking here seems similarly chaotic. Sidewalks are used as parking lots. Motorcycles are jammed into long rows or huge clusters where it seems impossible to even find your bike let alone have the room to walk up to it, throw your leg over it and move it out of the jumble.

Double parking for hours and hours and blocking entrances to buildings and sidewalks is the norm. Put simply, cars, motorcycles and trucks park wherever and however they can. Roman neighborhoods have no provisions for those with handicaps. It must be terribly inconvenient, but the fact is Rome is just not designed for those with disabilities.

But unlike in Washington, DC where you’re never really sure what the yahoo behind you is doing or how he or she will respond, driving here is actually very predictable. It’s predictably crazy. There is no such thing as “unexpectedly crossing over traffic” because anything is expected; therefore drivers are always prepared.

Romans are practical and alert drivers who use foresight and prediction to their advantage. After a little over a month in Rome, and hours and hours of walking, I have never seen a traffic accident; not a fender bender, an overturned bike or any twisted wreckage at all. I just hear a lot of honking; lots and lots AND LOTS of honking. Romans have no patience for those who hesitate in traffic and they certainly don’t have time for those who don’t know where they are going!

Again, parking is similarly practical. Compact cars will park horizontally if it makes more sense to do so and drivers think ahead. They don't take space because it’s available; they pull up as far as possible to make room for the next driver who may come.

Italians don't mandate “no parking” near a curb or near the end of the block just because it is easier to see the other car coming from road. They believe it is the driver’s responsibility to pay attention and use the right amount of caution. I like the common sense in this. Things are not over mandated here and parking tickets are, to this day, unseen to me.

Although I sometimes have to go around 4 cars or so to have enough room to gain entrance to a sidewalk, I don't mind. The anticipation of the next crazy parking job that will give me a chuckle is well worth it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Un tavolo per uno

Tuesday, November 24

Today was a good day. I was feeling particularly empowered, spurred on perhaps by a great conversation with my friend from home, Sherrie and recent download of fantastic female artists like Adele, Meaghan Smith, and Duffy.

I cooked a meal from scratch this evening. I haven’t done that in quite a while. I love to cook, but cooking for one pretty much sucks. There’s always too much food left over and the same meal for several days gets old. Writing about cooking for one reminds me of a time I was waiting to order at the seafood counter in Washington, DC. When it was my turn I asked for one Tilapia. The fish monger asked, “Just one?” I looked at the substantial line of people waiting behind me and replied, “Yes, just one and thanks for the painful reminder!” The people behind me laughed. I’m sure they could relate at some point in their lives.

It is in no way an exaggeration to say that most Italians eat some form of pasta every day. Have you ever checked out the calories involved in a box of pasta? I did once and then immediately admonished myself for doing so. Pasta has never really been the same since. How do these people stay thin when they eat so many carbs? The bread here alone will wreck any sensible diet. Then add the fussily, the ravioli, the gnocchi. OH MY GOD, I NEED SOME VEGETABLES STAT!

And that’s what I did. I went to the market and purchased some fresh eggplant, potatoes, zucchini, and yellow peppers. I just wanted some sautéed veggies. No pasta. No risotto. No rice, just veggies; and lots and lots of wine. You know what they say, "When in Rome…"

Feeling inspired, I stopped into the large wine shop on the corner that I had wanted to try for a while but was hesitant to do so (yes, because of the language thing. WHY DON'T THESE PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH FOR GOD’S SAKE?).  I started by asking the shop keeper in Italian if she spoke English. When she said, “no” in her very matter of fact tone and stared at me defiantly, I was forced to pull the words I needed in Italian. If I were to translate in English literally, I asked her, “What is there of good from a bottle of red wine from Tuscany for around $10 Euros.” I used hand signals for “around.”  She smiled and more “empowerment” came my way from getting it right!  When, I wonder, will I learn to trust myself? Every time I do, it works out. When I don't, I’m a wreck. It’s really not that difficult, but I still trip on this one way more than I’d like to.

I had fun cooking for myself. I cracked open one of my new bottles of wine, roasted the yellow pepper on the flame of the gas range, chopped up the eggplant, potatoes and zucchini and cranked up some Joss Stone on the iPod. I even imitated the professional chefs and flipped the veggies in the pan instead of using a spatula! I lit some candles and set the table for one. It felt good and the veggies were yummy.

I’m learning quite a bit by being here. And being okay with being “me” is one of the most important lessons I want to leave with. Lessons may come later in life than you would like, but if you’re open to them they do come. Life is good. I am happy.