For many people, Italy is the far-off land of fresh mozzarella and thin slices of perfectly pink prosciutto. Of tiny colorful towns perched precariously on top of steep rocky cliffs. Of crumbling ruins and café-lined cobblestone streets. Of tiny cups of espresso sipped under a large yellow umbrella on a sun drenched patio overlooking the Adriatic.
For me, Italy is home. But not that Italy.
In 2011, my husband, who is a professional hockey player, got an offer to play for a team in a small town in Northern Italy. It was an offer we couldn’t resist – a job, apartment and car all waiting for us in the most romantic country in the world. We packed up immediately and flew to eight heavenly months of traveling to new places, cooking fresh pasta, and learning about regional wines. And when we decided to come back for three more seasons, living in a “new” country became living in “another” country.
My Italy is a small town where all the locals welcome us back with open arms and huge smiles every September. My Italy is going to the grocery store every day because our refrigerator is so small that it only fits one day’s worth of food, plus essentials like half empty jars of pesto, mayonnaise and red wine. It’s shopping in stages: one shop for the olive bread, one for the right kind of wine, one for the freshest vegetables. It’s getting to know the checkout girls at the grocery store, the teller at the bank and the bartender at our favorite café. It’s sweeping the kitchen floor every morning, doing the dishes by hand and only doing laundry on sunny days because there is no dryer and the clothes have to dry outside.
For me, Italy isn’t learning about the ruins and the rulers, but it is about learning: how to make fresh pasta, what wines come from what regions, and how to eat your way through a real Italian lunch.
One Sunday our Italian friends invited us over for lunch at their house. We started with homemade crepes filled with cheese, spinach and ham, and glasses of my favorite red wine. I thought it was a perfect lunch but it turned out that lunch wasn’t over; next there was a rich and creamy spaghetti carbonara followed by a roast – the kind of roast that I would have made for Christmas dinner, except that this was lunch in October. There were also roasted potatoes and salad, then semi-freddo and homemade grappa for dessert. If you’re going to an Italian lunch on Sunday, you can stop eating the Wednesday before and save up.
My Italy is the joy in small victories, like finding the dry cleaners, correctly conjugating a verb, and understanding an entire Italian conversation from start to finish, hand gestures included.
My Italy isn’t a sunny beach, but it is a snowy mountain. At Christmas it’s a snow globe. Twinkling star lights are strung across the promenade and little huts are set up, selling things like lavender bouquets and cashmere hats. There’s a stand where you can buy a cup of vin brulee – a hot wine with spices – and another stand where you can buy fancy chocolates with pistachios in them.
It’s almost impossible to think of Italy as sad, but sometimes my Italy is. Instead of the joy of a family vacation, my Italy is guilt at missing Thanksgivings, Christmases, and birthdays. Instead of postcards sent home from Rome, it’s Skype sessions where we share news and funny stories from the week. It’s missing the people back home who have shaped our lives until now, and it’s meeting new people who are shaping our lives right now.
When we travel, Italy is the place we start from, not the place we go to.
My Italy is the place I want to come back to again and again. It’s a place that gives me comfort and joy and also provides a new adventure every day.
My Italy isn’t a vacation; it’s a home.
How has your host country become like home to you? What are some of the things you treasure about the country in which you currently live (or maybe even countries you’ve lived in previously)?
Photo credits: Sophie Dingle