Five days ago, we ordered our bed. It is the first piece of furniture we’ve ordered for the place, which for the days since we’ve moved back in, has lain stark and bare, like the dining room, like the foyer. We feel no rush. After all, while the renovations were being done, we lived out of suitcases for five months.
Five months is a long time to be living out of a suitcase, far from the house you love.
Five months is, paradoxically, not all that long for a home renovation in Italy, even during a pandemic. And who, of course, told me to start a home renovation one month before a pandemic?
Ten months ago was when we started the project. Ten months ago, we couldn’t have even imagined that today, after all the delays and secret trips across region lines to check on the workers who’d defied the DPCMs to blast through our walls and our floors, we’d be giving orders to workmen while wearing masks. “What’s a Lockdown? LOL!”, we’d have said – chortled. As we’re checking death counts daily and dodging assembramenti on the sidewalks, ten months ago now feels like a whole other life.
Speaking of a whole other life; ten years ago this July is when I moved to Italy.
Bear with me. Anniversaries are my crack. I open a browser and immediately forget why; forget to buy food for the cat; forget to blow out the candles before going to bed, but by golly, do I remember where I was sitting and what I was wearing that time five, six, fifteen years ago when that one thing happened that made an impact on my life.
Ten years ago, sitting in the empty room that would become my office/living room (and is now an empty shell waiting for a couch), I typed at this blog, high on the souls of my ancestors. I had arrived in Italy just a few hours before, fresh from a year in Dublin spent doing my dream Master’s in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. There was minimal furniture in the house then, just like now. I was barely 30 years old and didn’t know a soul in Italy, other than my uncle, my mother’s cousins, and Mario, the family administrator who, as we would come to learn in 2014, was busily stealing my mother’s and uncle’s inheritance. My future was a black void, blacker than the sea outside. I didn’t have air conditioning – and wouldn’t have it until 2020 – so my windows were open. Just then, I heard the droning strings of Il Mio Canto Libero by Lucio Battisti. Lucio Battisti was my family’s secret while I was growing up; only other Italians knew him. And now I was in a place where his music just floated through open windows. I thought: I’m home.
As the weeks wore on, I wrote blog post after blog post about my new life among the lemon trees, proudly referring to myself as an expat. One day, I got a comment from some dude: It seems that anyone who’s lived abroad for 6 months considers themselves an expat.
I grimly observed the comment flashing in my inbox. Was he saying that I didn’t understand Italian culture – or Irish culture, or Japanese culture – because I’d only lived there for a few months? What a sour douche, I thought, and put it out of my mind.
What do you know? Turns out the douche was right.
Being a tourist is different from being a traveler; being a traveler is different from being an expat; being an expat is different from settling in a country indefinitely and living there for many years. Long enough to get past the honeymoon phase, long enough to make roots, long enough to figure out how things work, long enough to see the bad as well as the good, long enough to realize that everything you thought those first 3, 5, 7 years was wrong.
I thought so many things in those first 10 years that I now know were wrong. I am amazed at how wrong. I like knowing stuff, but man, sometimes ignorance is bliss. I wish I had never set foot in an Italian courtroom and learned that, in Italy, a man can embezzle over a million euro from a woman and her disabled brother and absolutely nothing will happen to him. I wish I’d never realized that racism and bigotry are rampant here as well as back home; that my accent will forever make me a second-class citizen. I wish I hadn’t learned to have total distrust in the bureacratic system. I wish I hadn’t learned to automatically assume everyone is trying to cheat me (they usually are), and that I hadn’t come to accept that broken things will most likely stay broken. I wish I’d never seen past the postcard, dream Italy. I was not just younger 10 years ago; I was kinder and much more hopeful.
So why am I even still here? In the ten years since coming here, I’ve been asked that question so many times, and so much time has passed, and so much has happened in that time, that I’d even forgotten why I came in the first place. “I came for a vacation – that was X years ago” has become my standard reply. The answer is a light-hearted cover-up, code for “None of your business.” Because while the question amused me ten years ago, it now has the power to close me down like a porcupine, bristling with angry quills, anxious to protect my story and myself after having been judged by total strangers too many times. But the truth is, there is no such place as paradise. I repeat: there is no such place is paradise. I had problems in New York, too. It’s layered.
These days, in honor of my 10 year anniversary, I’ve been looking back at my blog posts and my journals from that time period, particularly the months leading up to my decision. Break up drama… break up drama… ah, there, the first mention of the town: “Thinking about Terracina, my future home,” and an uploaded photo from Wikipedia of the Maga Circe – the first time I ever saw that witchy mountain. My loneliness in Dublin. My angst about turning 30 (LOLZ). And there it is: the original reason I came to after finishing my master’s instead of going back home to the City.
Oh crap, that’s right. I came here to write a novel.
Terracina has changed a lot in the past ten years. My friends often complain about how backwards it is – and it is – but compared to when I first got here, it has become far more liveable. In July 2010, the area where I live was desolate; we had one restaurant, one crappy bar, one seedy supermarket, and old stabilimenti. Now this area – while far from booming – is home to a beautiful Conad Superstore and shopping plaza, a hip pizzeria, and a sushi restaurant where the seedy supermarket used to be. Sushi was only a dream here in 2010; now I have it within walking distance, as well as a sushi bar in the supermarket and at least three other places in town that make it. Some of the stabilimenti have gotten modern upgrades, as have the restaurant and bar. The bar – once so dingy that I only ever went to pay utility bills, holding my breath the entire time – is now a chic bar/cafe that serves whole wheat cornetti and fresh pressed juices; DJ sets on the weekend. The lungomare is still a mass of broken stones, but we got a bike lane in 2015, and we’ve had a sort-of-functional beach shuttle since 2012. Back in 2010, we didn’t yet have citywide recycling; we had to bring our trash sacks down to the communal bins at the end of the lungomare, which were often not picked up due to strikes. Orario continuato was only a dream; now both Conad and the bar are open all day long. My first months here, I remember being so horrified by the idea that if I wanted to buy a water or do my groceries I had to wait until 4pm. Now I do my shopping when I want. Our restaurant scene was always good, but is now outstanding, even in the winter, unlike the other towns in the area. One of our restaurants just got a Michelin star. In non-COVID times, our music scene rivals Rome.
It’s good to be back. It’s been a long ten months and now that I can smell the sea and see the pink sunsets descending on La Maga Circe, I feel more like myself again. We discuss where to hang things, what to do for Ferragosto in this crazy year where assembramenti are banned. We agree that we won’t be going to our friend’s stabilmento for the traditional cenone and decide on making a spaghettata at home, just the two of us. We walk through town and see familiar faces – masked – and wave, standing six feet away. Yes, we’re back, yes, our renovations are finally done, I’d kiss you but you know, haha. That sucks you’re not working. Hopefully this will all be over soon. *elbow bump* We pass by the bar, my writing “office” for the past ten years. The staff greets me with distant waves and ushers clients in and out for five-second espresso. I look yearningly at “my” table, where I wrote that novel that started it all. Yes, yes, that’s right – I’d just finished my master’s and was convinced that if I wasn’t working full-time I’d finish a perfect, sellable draft in three months tops (!!!) rite, hahaha. Then I was supposed to go home. Then I was supposed to find another job in publishing. But then I met the wrong man. And then I loved my house – built by my grandparents in 1975, my only tangible link to a heritage I never felt while growing up as a first-generation American. And then I couldn’t find a job back home. And then that novel took 2 years to write and kept getting one soul-crushing “yes, maybe, no” after another. And then I started getting paid to write about Italy. For so long, everything about this place made me high; swimming in the sea of my ancestors, my beautiful silly friends, our seafood lunches at the beach, our evening Spritzes in the piazza, the coriander-laced spicy sausage I couldn’t get enough of. And then I met another man, the right one, this time. I had good reasons for coming, and I had good reasons for staying. There’ve been so many ups and downs in between, that sometimes I forget. It’s been so long. Thirty seemed so monumental. I just turned 40.
My partner sees that I’m pensive. He thinks I miss seeing my friends properly – I really do – or that I’m missing going home to the States for my annual visit – I really, really am. Ten years and almost all of my friends back in New York have moved away, too. I see my perfect nephews over FaceTime and each time they look longer, and are less interested in talking to me. I was just supposed to leave New York for a year. If I’d known I was never coming back, would I have gotten on that plane?
Would any of us “lifer” expats?
He says, “Go swimming. We haven’t been able to go to the beach once yet this summer.”
So I get my things and park them on the free beach. The water is choppy today, and the sand is hot. I took picture after picture here in those first days – pictures of my shadow, pictures of the old men wearing Speedos. I used to feel scandalized by those spandex banana hammocks; ten years later, they’re just part of the wallpaper, flat and overlooked.
The water is gray and warm, and I swim out past the sandbar. There they are – the Maga Circe to the left of me, the Temple of Jove to the right of me. My twin anchors that kept me grounded any time I wondered, like everyone else, what the hell I’m doing here. Sea of my ancestors, sea of me.
When I look at my hands these days, all I see are veins.