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!