The card that I wrote my husband for our one year anniversary said: “I love that we have adventures together.” Really, I was referring to our whole life as the adventure—three years ago, before Ryan was even my husband, we decided to move to Italy.
Ryan is a professional hockey player and in the summer of 2011, he got an offer to play for a team in northern Italy. The team would give us an apartment, a car, and a paycheck, and we would live in Cortina, Italy for seven months. Of course we said yes.
That first season was a blur of red wine, fresh spaghetti, Saturday night hockey games and long conversations with new friends over elaborate cheese plates. We learned our way around our new town, figured out how to order prosciutto at the deli counter, and took trips to Florence, Siena, and Venice. In the middle of it all, Ryan asked me to marry him. Of course I said yes.
Our adventure extended itself when the opportunity arose to return to Italy for a second season, and then a third. During our second year, Italy slowly began to feel less like a vacation and more like home.
Cortina is a small ski resort nestled in the Dolomite Mountains. We got to know the locals who welcomed us back year after year and we picked up on mundane everyday tasks that are huge accomplishments in a different country: taking a shirt to the dry cleaner, finding baking soda in the grocery store, and knowing which panificio has the best olive bread.
Every April we would fly home to Colorado and spend the summer months with our friends and families, regaling them with tales of gondola rides in Venice and sunset cocktails on Lake Como. Then, every September we would fly back to Italy, trying to leave our American ways and to-do lists behind.
As the days, months, and then years passed, we settled into our lives just the way any other engaged and then married couple would. Only, we weren’t putting away new wedding presents in our kitchen and kissing each other goodbye every morning before we left for work. Our wedding presents remained un-opened in our storage unit. We got married in Colorado last August after a blurry summer of wedding planning and flew back to Italy three weeks later.
Italy is lovely, of course, but it’s often hard, even for us, to picture it as “real life.” After all, we’re living in a place where people leave their jobs from 12:30 to 3:30 every day to drink wine at lunch and take naps. Finding our way around this new culture was difficult at times, and not without some tears.
“What do you DO all day?” our friends and families at home would ask. At first, this question offended me to no end. I was in ITALY! That’s what I did all day!
In truth, the days stretched before me, mostly empty, waiting for the American in me to fill them up with clutter and busy work. We were there for Ryan’s job, and while he had a strict schedule, I wasn’t working, which made it easy for me to flail around feeling un-purposeful. My days consisted of long walks on the bike path, trips to the grocery store, and hours spent sprawled out on the couch with a novel. It felt like a permanent vacation.
But I loved Italy, and I loved our lifestyle. I didn’t want to go back to America and get a desk job. I asked the question over and over in my head: how am I supposed to make Italy feel real? As it turned out, the answer was very Italian: wait and see.
Prior to moving to Cortina, I worked at a public relations firm, where my responsibilities included recording the morning shows every day on our office television, and taking copious notes at endless meetings. I was thrilled at the idea of moving to Italy where I wouldn’t be working, where I would have the time to learn to cook and to explore my new surroundings.
However, I began to realize that not having any responsibilities is one thing while on vacation and is a totally different feeling in real life. I often felt guilty about sleeping until 8:30 am, only to wake up and walk into town for a cappuccino and a trip to the grocery store with my husband. Couples just don’t get to do that kind of thing in America.
I needed something to give my days purpose. So I decided to start writing. I wrote a blog about our adventures in Italian living, our travels, what we learned, and what we ate. I drew up an editorial calendar and stuck to it, putting together two posts per week, writing recipes and editing pictures.
I took Italian classes with a friend a few mornings a week, appreciating the early morning fog rising up the mountain as I walked to our teacher’s house. I started working on a collection of essays about life in Italy. I got a huge break when I was asked to write a monthly food column for an Italian magazine.
Carving a few hours out of each day to work on these projects rejuvenated me, and finally I found myself able to enjoy all those moments throughout the day that I was feeling guilty about: the morning hour that I spent chatting in a café with a girlfriend, that glass of wine I enjoyed at lunch with my bowl of pasta, and the long afternoon I spent stretched out on the couch finishing my book.
Instead of secretly thinking it ridiculous to go to the store every single day, I relished walking through town with my grocery bags, stopping for an espresso on the way, and then picking out the ingredients for that night’s dinner. I took time to cook long meals, stirring pots of risotto for an hour with the kitchen window open to let the steam out. I finally embraced the riposo period from 12:30 to 3:30 every afternoon, and instead of wondering why the stores weren’t open, I would make big pots of soup for lunch, which we would eat before curling up on the couch for a nap.
In Italy, it is unacceptable to take a to-go cup of coffee, and to run frantically around town, to-do list in hand. When you finally slow down, you appreciate things you never thought possible: the clink of spoons against coffee cups at the café, the sun lowering behind the mountains on winter afternoons, and leisurely family meals around a splintery wooden table.
Learning to appreciate the small, quiet moments in life is difficult, but it’s so Italian. Living in Italy forced me to slow down, a lesson I’ve tried to take home to America with me every summer—but it’s hard. Why do we, as Americans, clutter our lives with busy work? Why do we feel that work has to justify our existence? And what would it mean if settling in quietly with a cup of coffee for the morning was enough?
As for me, I’m still practicing the art of slowing down—one cappuccino at a time.