The last time the weather changed from summer to fall, I was in Civita.
A year to the day, I remember what it felt like to wake up early in Il Nuovo and wish for a comforter. The small window in my upstairs bedroom was open and the sky was mauve outside of it. I pulled on my hooded sweatshirt and my pashmina, wrapped myself up like a bedouin, and walked down the back path so that I could watch the sun rise.
My heart was warm; my toes were chilly. The snail trails on the tufa glittered like pyrite.
Two years earlier, I arrived in Verona as the days became chillier, wishing for a pair of stylish leather boots as I was being whisked around town by Italian businessmen in a Maserati, discovering Juliette’s balcony and drinking spritz for the first time.
In October two years before that, it was Paris. I recall feeling misled upon landing, believing that my entry experience would be light and airy –something akin to U2’s “Beautiful Day” video– but discoveries like caffe creme, the loftiness of Sacre Coeur, and the quiet repose of Rodin’s garden transported me beyond that initial letdown.
Two years before that, it was Venice―only it was Venice for the first time.
My first words spoken in Italian happened to be, Parle inglese? (cringe) as I struggled to find the ticket booth for the Alilaguna line that ferries passengers from the airport to the islands. I remember feeling a flash of panic run through my stomach as the man replied, “No,” and looked away.
It was a small moment, but a significant one. It told me that I was on my own.
It was humid the first day we arrived, but that Sunday, the fall began to break. It was foggy early in the morning and utterly silent. While everyone was at mass, I drank my first espresso and wandered through Accademia, the beginning of what I would later call my 2004 Madonna-and-Child tour.
Every moment felt pregnant with importance: a monk in brown robes slipping past me, the way my feet sensed the difference between cobblestones and the concrete sidewalks I was accustomed to back home, the multi-dimensional flavor of homemade tomato sauce with basil, and the light of the setting sun turning yolky orange, then pink, red, purple, and indigo before it finally set.
That trip, which took me from Venice through the Cinque Terre, then to Florence, Rome, and Pompeii, fanned a flame that had been ignited five years before when I first flew overseas to Great Britain to get married. I’ll never forget the corpulent 55-pound suitcase that I dreaded owning each time we met a flight of stairs, or the ridiculous bulge that my money belt made under my clothing.
Apparently, I was convinced in those days that the locals would set upon robbing me once they realized that I was a tourist.
Since that initial foray into a larger world, thousands of significant moments have been born: in Montreal where my solo traveling abilities were tested when I realized that my luggage was stuck in Seattle; how beautifully insignificant I felt upon visiting Stonehenge, Pompeii, and the Roman ruins, especially when I rested my hands on the ancient stones; or the symphony of Dutch, German, French, Italian, Swedish, and Farsi spoken throughout Amsterdam’s Schipol airport.
In each of those experiences, I found a mixture of strangeness and familiarity, of feeling alone in a vast world, yet somehow connected as a human being, of experiencing a cycle of challenge and reward with each milestone, large or small. Moment to moment, each was an addictive test of intuition, common sense, initiative, and memory.
Those moments of significance have also helped me to identify my own dull spots ― the flabbiness of the brain and the spirit that accumulates when one stays at home too long. Complacency sets in quickly, and so far as yet, I have found no cure for it besides traveling.
When fall took hold two years ago, I began camping out in a coffee shop on nights and weekends to create my fellowship application for NIAUSI. It took two months to craft my proposal. When I finally handed it to Steve Day in early January 2010, I was less nervous than relieved; like traveling, I enjoyed the sense that things were out of my hands.
Looking back, I had no idea that two months in Civita would affect every part of my life, in spite of any potential outcomes that I might have listed in that application. In the end, my experience there not only gave me material for a book, it connected me to a new job, friendships, love, and a greater sense of self. It provided the reason and means to actually finish a creative project.
Most of all, it taught me how to drill down on moments of significance in ways that were previously inaccessible.
Two years later, there’s something familiar about sitting in a coffee shop writing a fellowship proposal for a project that involves travel and storytelling. Just when I think I might be leaning towards complacency, that feeling of been-there-done-that, I relish the tingle of my own naïveté: I can express what I hope to accomplish, but it’s impossible to foretell the impact of my project, or what each city has in store for me. Things will happen that I can’t possibly guess at today, and they’ll most likely be better than anything I could have planned or contrived to happen.
To me, the sense of not-knowing, of not being able to control the outcome, of having the patience to let something become what it’s meant to be (or not be) is the best part.
Considering who I was when the world opened up for me in 1999, that feeling ―and the moment in which it’s contained― is not at all insignificant.