ITALY, You take up a big spot in my heart.
My first real big trip abroad started in Italy. I was 22 and single, having just graduated college, and I wanted to spend the summer backpacking Europe. My friends called me crazy and my parents did NOT approve. But I was destined to go, so I packed my bag, did a little research, and set off with my college friend, Brett… we started our journey in Milan. The year was 2006- no smartphones, no wifi, no google translate or google maps or google anything for that matter. I remember arriving in Milan super late at night. It was dark and foreign as we tried to find our way to the hostel. We were exhausted and starving after a long flight, so we gave our best attempt at ordering beer and a Margherita Pizza from a local pizzeria. I think this was my very first time ever experiencing the language barrier of a foreign country. It was frustrating but we finally were able to convey our order after a lot of back-and-forth. We were served two bottles of Peroni and we waited and waited for the pizza, our hunger raging and the anticipation for our first real Italian pizza growing more intense by the minute! Finally, the server approached and laid the Margherita Pizza on the table before us. I was never more let down. It was a round pie crust with tomato sauce and basil- NO CHEESE. Wtf. Brett and I looked up and read each others minds. We were tired, we were famished, we didn’t want to go back to the counter and try to speak Italian. He asked, “Do you want to just eat it like this?” I blurted out “YES!” and we inhaled that pizza so fast, without leaving a single crumb behind. I went to bed with a full belly but that experience left me starving for more culture, more unknown, more Italy.
Our next stop was a town called Reggio Emilia where we planned to go skydiving. We arrived at the airstrip and were told it was too windy at the time but were given the option to stay and wait for the wind speed to die down and so we did. In the meantime I used the computer in the hangar to dial-up internet and email my mom and then they gave us the tutorial on the basics of what to do for the skydive. Again, the language was broken but I could determine by charades that the instructor was teaching us to make a cannonball shape when landing. I guess they want you butt-down hitting the ground to prevent a person from breaking a leg. No problem. Eventually, the wind lessened to just enough where it was safe to fly. For the tandem jump, I was paired up with an instructor named Edo, who was garbed in a full on Spider-Man suit. With my stomach in my throat, I JUMPED, the shoot deployed, and I gradually descended towards the ground. The landscape was beautiful and beaming farmlands for as far as the eye could see. It was surreal. Just before touching down, I proudly and perfectly executed my human “cannonball” and my bum gently skipped along the grass like a stone skipping on a lake. We landed. Spider-Man Edo started getting mad and yelling what I could tell was Italian curse words. What did I do wrong?! He screamed “It’s shit! Shit! Shit! Cow shit!” The wind blew us outside of the landing zone and into a cattle field. I had cannonballed my butt through a field full of freshly spread cow manure.
Next was Rome where I toured the Colosseum, threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, saw the Pantheon, and did a bar crawl that started from the Spanish Steps. These stops were iconic but bland in comparison to attending Sunday mass at St. Peter’s square. The square was packed solid with people from around the world all gathered there to hear the Pope speak. In a crowd that enormous I felt like Pope Benedict XVI was speaking directly to me.
The Amalfi Coast was gorgeous and I fell even more in love with Italy. Saw a wedding taking place at one of the churches, laid on the beaches, tried Lemoncello for the first time. I remember noticing how naked people were at the beaches and feeling like a prude American. ……Eventually, I took my top off.
In Venice, I enjoyed walking the canals. I could have walked along those canals for ages. I remember there was a Soccer Tournament (maybe the World Cup) taking place on every TV and groups of people were so enthusiastic, cheering on Team Italia at every bar and restaurant like we would cheer for an NFL Super Bowl back home. It was all so foreign to me and I loved it.
Cinque Terre was a favorite. It’s a group of 5 villages connected by a single trail. Ever see a photo of all those little bright pastel color apartments stacked on top of each other along the cliff side? That’s Cinque Terre. Hiking the trail was gorgeous. I remember passing through a lemon grove and a farmer trying to sell us lemons. We weren’t really in the predicament to be buying lemons as two backpackers. I didn’t feel like carrying them nor did I have a knife handy to slice them for my water bottle. The farmer said “No, to eat” He bit into the lemon like an apple and ate the whole thing. When in Rome, right? We ate the lemons. I still don’t know if that’s actually an Italian thing or if he was just trying to sell us his lemons. I like to think the former. My second vague memory of Cinque Terre: Brett and I were staying at a campground outside one of the villages. While doing my laundry, I walked by a big Italian family gathered around a picnic table with a feast before them. After a couple times passing them by while checking on my clothes, they motioned for me to come join them. Me?? I looked behind me to make sure. Ok! It was an experience I will never forget. Cheese being grated fresh off the wheel, homemade red wine, endless bowls of pasta and meats and cheeses. Amongst all of it, what stood out most to me, was the joy at that table. The family comradery between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids of all ages. The way they talked with one another and just relished in each other’s company. All the while indulging in food and wine… which they basically force fed me! LOL. I stayed so long it was almost getting dark. The older sister, Claudia, asked if I wanted to go out that night with her and her very handsome brother, Mateo. Of course! I set out for the Discoteca with them and quickly realized, wow, Italians know how to party! But what happens in Italy stays in Italy so I’ll just leave the rest of the night like that. The next morning I returned to the tent at the campground and Brett was like “Omg what happened to you last night? I was so worried” No big deal, I went to a club the next town over, a town called Genoa. We looked at the map and the town was actually like 100 miles away. This was probably my guardian angel’s first official save.
Anyway, with all the recent despair that’s happening in Italy right now, I decided to dig up my old pictures from that trip many many moons ago. So many memories and emotions flooded me. Italy is such an AMAZING place with some of the most BEAUTIFUL people in the world. My heart breaks to know the despair they are experiencing and as a nurse I try to wrap my head around all of it. I know first hand how contagious things can be in that country. After all, Italy was where I was bitten by the travel bug all those years ago. I became severely infected. I just wish Covid-19 would let up on them. I’m praying for them, their doctors and nurses, their healthcare system, and the many families affected by this horrible disease. Italy, you’re on my mind, in my prayers, and always and forever in my heart.
1 oz Aperol
3 oz Prosecco
Splash of club soda
Fill a glass with ice, add Aperol and Prosecco. Top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with orange slice.