“Friendship is the purest love. It is the highest form of Love where nothing is asked for, no condition, where one simply enjoys giving.”
“When it’s over, I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
– Mary Oliver
On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-November, I stood in my apartment in Bra, where I had lived for the past 12 months, looking at two suitcases and a box. The night before, I had spent hours looking at and touching the details of my home abroad: the brass door handles shaped like fish tails, the huge kitchen window with the thick wooden frame and no screen and the potted pink Julianas that decorated my small balcony. I had hoped to tattoo these items in my memory. Several times that day — moving day — I had said: “I don’t want to leave Italy.” Be careful what you wish for.
I had returned to Italy after living for six weeks in Bristol, United Kingdom, where I interned at Sustainable Food Trust, and worked to survive the cloudy disposition of both the weather and the city’s inhabitants. Had it not been for my friends Helena and Lorenzo, who were also interning in Bristol (Helena for Square Food Foundation and Lorenzo for Bristol Beer Factory), I might have jumped shipped. Yet together we filled our weeks venturing to Wales for a food festival and to London for the scene. We watched women in leopard suits perform The Lion King, stuffed ourselves with Chelsea Buns from Mark’s Bread and listened to many nights of live music on Stokes Croft.
But a weight lifted off my shoulders when I returned to Milan. That day, the sun was shining on the walls of the massive stone train station, and men and women were taking coffee outside at curly brass tables; they were talking loudly and laughing. Italy felt so good.
That evening, I sat on my bed with a glass of Barbera d’Alba and a bar of Swiss chocolate. I watched the sun set behind the Alps. A massive and profound appreciation saturated my body and continued through the next day when I rode to my favorite park to have a picnic of ricotta, spinach and bread. The warm sun nudged me into a nap. I hadn’t realized how influential this globe was to my happiness before I left it for a while, nor had I fully realized Italy’s charm until then, my last few weeks in Bra.
It is very possible that I would become jaded with Italy’s intricacies if I was staying indefinitely, but I didn’t because I wasn’t. My visa stated that I would no longer be a resident after November 16th, 2012 and so, for the next few weeks, I went right on appreciating the quality of life that made me so happy, the novelty that constantly stimulated me, the food that unabashedly brought me pleasure, the people that sang to me with their language, and the parks and architecture and statues and churches and cobblestones that set the stage of one of the most growth-provoking years of my life. I was certainly on a high. How else could I have felt a genuine appreciation for door knobs?
My mind was focused so intently on how much I would miss bella Italia that after I finally dragged myself to the airport on departure day, I missed my flight. It was the first time all year that I made a major travel mistake, but it bought (or cost, depending how you look at it) me one more night sipping red wine in Italy. The next morning, I finally felt like I could say goodbye, the memories were tattooed.
The thought of returning home to Pennsylvania felt simultaneously comforting and impossible. Going back to something familiar seemed ridiculous after living among the unfamiliar for so long. Knowing that I could survive, and even thrive, in a new environment is the biggest lesson I learned this year. As Maura’s theme for 2012 was “optimism”, mine was “transformation”. Right on, 2012.
With the gut rejection of returning to the familiar, I began the “Sweet Friend Tour”, graciously and enthusiastically visiting the homes of Esther in Amsterdam, Danielle in Los Angeles and Colleen in Seattle. Jobless but happy world traveler was a rolling stone…
My friend Colleen and I used to joke that the reason we couldn’t be world travelers was because we wouldn’t have health insurance. The fact that I was currently not a card-carrying member of any emergency medical insurance was in the front of my mind as I rode side-saddle on the back of Esther’s boyfriend Wouter’s bike through the streets of Amsterdam one chilly Friday night in November. After a few beers. And a café.
To get on the bike, I had followed Esther’s instructions and trotted beside it, in red wedge boots, putting out my hands and pulling them back as I squealed in resistance to hopping on the back of what is usually my favorite form of transportation, but now looked like a very bad idea.
“This can’t be safe!” I yelled over my shoulder to Esther as she rode behind me, laughing so hard that tears were coming down her cheeks. “Everyone does it!” she assured me. The bike only gave an incremental wobble as Wouter received my weight and dutifully peddled me through the brightly lit city and over the calm canals.
Indeed, Amsterdam’s bike culture was one of my favorite things about the city, and I was delighted to see vehicles with two wheels outnumber those with four. Bike lanes had a prominent place next to motor lanes. Esther lent me my own bike one day, and we rode over the quick, smooth, arched bridges, past exposed boat houses and Renaissance architecture — narrow but tall (often six stories!) houses that arm themselves with attic window hooks. The roofs looked like beautiful white layer cakes. Amsterdam is a delicate city. I felt like a human in a doll house when we had a lunch of nettle soup and sour dough bread in a pretty cafe.
One afternoon, Esther and Wouter took me to the fishing villages of Marken and Volendam, where we walked along the frigid water eating raw herring and pickles with toothpicks. We stopped in a fish shop where Esther bought the ugliest looking seafood I’ve ever seen — smoked eel (which ended up tasting delicious). Wouter shared his fried cod, which had crisped in the bubbly deep fryer in the back while money was exchanged for the ugly eel. The hot, salty, soft fish will forever be on my tongue, it was so delicious. We stood eating it in the middle of the fish shop as a song that will always remind me of Philadelphia played on the radio.
Like the Amsterdam canals, things like hearing a familiar song in a foreign country connected pieces of my old and new life together and made me feel like I was never far from home. Now, back in the US, three weeks after leaving Amsterdam, it’s funny to think that I’m using those bridges to go back the other way. A song, a photo, or even a train ticket stub can catapult me back to moments like dancing in Greece with with my classmates or laying on the beach in southern France with my friend Yahli. The blue pleather seats of the Italian trains are etched it my brain. Life has little tricks to make sure that once things and people are connected, they remain connected.
Proof of these long-term connections were displayed when I reunited with one of my college roomates, Danielle, whom I met almost ten years ago. She had since moved to southern California, and I visited her after returning from Amsterdam. D introduced me to the people and scenery that created the happiness she wore like a flattering dress. She lives in Newport Beach, the quintessential SoCal beach town, home to busy streets speckled with taquerías and gas stations, the ocean in the background serving as a steady clock. Her apartment is about 100 steps from the sea, in the middle of beach houses that were glowing with primary-colored Christmas bulbs. We ate fish and avocados all week and went on the hike I’ve been waiting for: Catalina Island with a 360 view of the Pacific Ocean. The mild weather only required long-sleeved shirts.
As far as transportation is concerned (actually, as far as many things are concerned), Los Angeles is a stark contrast to Amsterdam. No bikes in LA. Everyone drives. Without a car, I braved public transportation, primed by vexing train navigation from Bra to anywhere, and concluded that it isn’t all that bad. I enjoyed the diversity that LA provided, and listened to Mandarin, Spanish and the low, drawn out SoCal accents on the bus ride past tall, toothpick-thin palm trees and annoyed drivers.
Another link proved connected when I met Maria, one of my classmates and dearest friends in Italy, and her boyfriend (and LA native), Graham, in Chinatown for Sunday dim sum. “This is the first time we’re hanging out in America!” we realized, smiling and knowing that it wouldn’t be the last. The couple drove me through the ill-famed Downtown LA and the green, jungle-like streets of the Silver Lake neighborhood. Maria’s knack for knowing where to get the perfect food or beverage led us to Intelligencia, where I was schooled on “the slow drip” — water painstakingly finding its way through coffee grounds and a brown filter to make a pure cup of joe that is worth the 15 minute wait.
When I asked Maria and Graham why so many people move to LA, Maria paused and gave me the kind of thoughtful answer that only Maria can: “I think people feel a lot of hope here,” she said. Indeed, people come to LA to “make it” in show biz or otherwise, and there is a feeling of confidence and pride that is palpable to visitors. I also think the full-time sun doesn’t hurt…
It’s interesting that Maura and I both ended up in California. It’s one place in America that is seemingly most different from Philadelphia. Loving what “different” can evoke, that’s appealing.
Tucked away in the northwestern corner of the United States, Seattle prides itself on being different. Looking at a map, the city looks like it might jump into the Pacific, or be pushed in and forgotten. Yet journeying here pays you back in novelty and a defunct kind of friendliness. My dear friend Colleen, a children’s hospital colleague, moved here over a year ago to attend UW’s clinical psychology doctoral program. Seattle was the last place she ever thought she would end up, but the city’s insulation from fast food chains and malls, replaced with an inundation of flea markets and coffee shops (that moonlight as wine bars) are a good fit for my beautiful friend who has always decorated her life in vintage floral prints.
Seattle may be one of the few places that still has “Soul Night”, as Havana did one Thursday. The bar was packed with young people who knew how to shake it to Otis Redding and James Brown while clutching their whiskey sours. Seattle knows what’s good.
Now that I’ve completed a sampler platter of cities and lifestyles, I recognize that I truly could be comfortable just about anywhere. I started to realize at the beginning of this year’s journey, but now stand very strong in the conviction, that it’s not things that bring happiness. What brought me happiness this year were the experiences that shook me with their newness; the new friends who matched pieces of me that no one ever had before; and the old friends and family who welcomed me home as soon as I was ready. This year gave me a confidence that I will try to hold onto in order to seek out and face even more of the unknown.
Like Maura, I recognize the circularity of time. Life’s joys and challenges often repeat themselves disguised in different clothes. But sometimes, a new experience emerges, breaking the pattern and widening the circle. That’s growth; sometimes provoked by experiences and at other times people. Yet you’re always the one allowing (or not allowing) it in. I learned that from a few sweet friends.