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Ciao a tutti!!
This week, I’m coming to you from Italia! Or Rome, to be more specific!
As some of you may know, my late father-in-law, Roberto, was from Rome and therefore, Anthony still has a ton of family here. In fact, it was Anthony’s connection to this city, as well as my instant captivation with it that led us to get married here, back in 2018. We had the perfect wedding. Our ceremony took place in a deconsecrated church, followed by a reception on the rooftop of a beautiful hotel overlooking the domed expanse of the Pantheon.
Although Anthony and I did have a fairy tale wedding, the path to nuptial bliss was as uneven and unpredictable as the cobbled stoned roads of Rome. I thought I’d spend this week’s newsletter sharing with you a sliver from my very first trip here back in 2015, when Anthony and I had only just started dating. I wonder whether you all could have guessed that we’d end up back in this eternal city to exchange a promise of love.
Arriving in Italy.
I felt the “swoosh” of the sliding doors tickling the backs of my leggings as I finally left customs and entered the thronging “waiting area.” I congratulated myself on a positively seamless encounter with the passport controls agent, while anxious loved ones and handlers alike craned their necks to gain a better view of the mere trickle of tired travelers that managed to seep through the frosted doors every now and again. It was loud and incomprehensible and strangely thrilling to hear exactly zero words that I could translate, despite 13 weeks of nightly sessions and amassing a small fortune in “Lingots” on my Duolingo app. I scanned the faces quickly, as I turned my head to 11:00, where the “Meeting Point” would be, if the diagram of the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport that I’d Googled earlier that week could be believed.
And sure enough, there it was — a tall orange pole with the sign “MEETING ! POINT” painted conveniently in large print. It was unmistakable. As was the face that was standing right next to it — the one face I recognized. He was wearing his favorite t-shirt — a cornflower blue limited edition Prefontaine running shirt — and standing on his toes, sweeping his arms through the air above him as though he were directing traffic out on the tarmac, as opposed to merely waving “howdy” to his girlfriend as she set her very first foot in Rome.
It was my first time to Rome, my first time to Europe, my first time traveling out of the United States in over two decades. My boyfriend, on the other hand, had been back and forth to Italy — where much of his family still resided — since he was a toddler. Still, after 10 years of working as a lawyer, I was a seasoned traveler. I could pack a suitcase for a 10-day trip in under an hour, get through security in 7 minutes, and be seated in first class (upgraded, not purchased) on a plane Facebooking my destination while “Group 1” was just being called to the gate. I knew that the key to perfect traveling was perfect planning.
So, in the weeks leading up to my first ever trip to Europe, I scrolled through dozens of articles and blog posts purporting to contain invaluable travel tips to the uninitiated. I maintained an Excel spreadsheet of “Phrases for Rome” on GoogleDocs that I would add to and my boyfriend would help translate as I thought of things I might want to say, like “have you seen my phone?” or “I love your dress!” or “I met Anthony on OkCupid!” I Netflix’d a documentary on famous chefs in Italy so that I could scope out the “foodie” scene and arrive armed with recommendations for every meal. I lamented the fact that my bank did not yet offer the “chip and PIN” feature on my debit or credit cards, but immediately applied for a Visa after reading that my Amex card would be largely useless in Rome. I lauded my mobile service provider for having the most progressive “global” service plan, which allowed me to keep my cellphone number, text and make calls while traveling throughout Italy.
And, of course, I had a bag full of chargers for my laptop, my iPad, my iPhone, my Garmin, and my wireless headphones, as well as three adapters to ensure I was sufficiently juiced and could thus Instagram every cobblestoned footstep of my trip.
Needless to say, I was feeling quite satisfied with myself as I wheeled my luggage over to the predesignated Meeting Point and buried my face, flush with excitement, into the “font” of “Prefontaine.” This moment, too, had been planned, of course. He’d left for Rome 13 days before me, and in those 13 days, I’d considered all measures of appropriate reunions at the airport in the most romantic city on the planet, ranging from a “cool” high five to throwing my arms around him as we spun around like a pair of figure skaters. In the end, I’d concluded that a simple hug and kiss would do.
On the ride to our first stop — his Aunt’s beach house in Torvaianica — I checked my phone to make sure that T-Mobile had made good on its word. I logged onto Facebook without missing a beat and picked up an unread message from my mother. Omma, a North Korean refugee and first generation immigrant to the United States, had never been to Europe either. Her message was short:
“Stay safe and healthy. See you soon.
Until then, you and Anthony make many nice memories.”
We were standing in the very center of the Sistine Chapel. And all I could think about was how Michelangelo had nearly gone blind from the paint dripping into his eyes as he lay on his back for three straight years, as I wiped the sweat from my face while sneaking a pic of the ceiling with my phone. It was at least 100 degrees outside and 110 degrees inside the chapel —despite my efforts to coax some sort of proper reverence for the moment, it was simply too hot for the “chills” or “goosebumps” or other awe-induced physiological reactions to standing in the very same spot as one of the greatest artists who’d ever lived. At least, that’s what I told myself. I snapped one last crooked photo of The Creation of Adam and made a beeline for the “Uscita” (exit) before the snarling Vatican guard confiscated my phone.
At every corner, the art, the architecture, the food, the heaving monuments to human history sprawled out around me with all the in-your-face decadence of a glistening gelateria, but all I really wanted to do was hold my boyfriend’s hand while sitting in front of a very powerful fan. After all, I was in the centro d’amore! According to Hollywood, I was basically guaranteed excessive hand holding, canoodling at the Pantheon, long strolls down narrow moonlit streets, perhaps even a serenade or two by my real live Italian [American] boyfriend.
Everyone who had ever taken so much as a breath in any part of Europe offered me advice on what to expect. My 21 year old cousin, who studied in Spain for a summer in high school, predicted that I would be overwhelmed by how old everything was in Italy.
The day before visiting the Vatican, Anthony’s cousins took us to Tivoli, where we strolled through the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa.
After about a quarter mile up a dirt road, before entering the estate, visitors were invited to view a 3D rendering of the sprawling villa, which, at one point, consisted of 30 buildings (including several palaces, temples, libraries, and slave quarters) across more than 250 acres. Apparently, Emperor Hadrian didn’t like holding court in the capitol and preferred to govern from this once lavish and vibrant complex. Now, though, lonely columns sprouted from the ground to hold up nothing. Archways led to gaping holes in the dirt, providing just enough evidence from which one might grasp the fronds of nostalgia. Towards the back of the villa, we were both awestruck by the perfectly preserved pool, the phalanx of smooth marble deities reflected on its quiet surface, as though they were keeping the water from spilling all the untold secrets of this extraordinary place.
The remnants of a dome — a manmade grotto — hovered at the far end of the pool. I watched as Anthony picked through the ruins of his ancestors, wondered if he felt even a feather weight tether to his past. I thought about how I would feel clambering around the relics of my forefathers in Asia and determined that whether or not he chose to partake in some collective memory in this moment was irrelevant. The enormity of what hung in the emptiness around us obliterated any distinctions between the Italian and the Korean in us.
We were children, searching for ghosts among a quarry of silent stones.
I would soon discover that Italy wasn’t all about old buildings and statues and famous paintings. On a whim, after our trek through the Vatican, Anthony and I decided to take a mini vacation from our vacation to the island of Ponza. I’d never heard of the place before, which only reinforced what I read when I Googled it: “Italy’s Best Kept Island Secret!” Though often thought of as a close second behind Capri, for whatever reason, it wasn’t the tourist magnet that was the Amalfi Coast. It sounded perfect. The following morning, I scoured Tripadvisor for the best hotel, the best restaurants, the best way to get there, and put together a 24-hour itinerary for the two us, his cousin and her boyfriend.
After a short train ride to Anzio, we boarded a hydrofoil (which was blessedly air conditioned) that zipped us over to the island in just 70 minutes. Ponza was picturesque, almost fairy tale-ish, with its bright pink, yellow, blue buildings nestled between rolling green hills and craggy mountains. The water was so blue, that but for its impossible clarity (you could see straight through to the bottom), it could have been dyed.
The shuttle to our hotel was waiting for us at the port when we arrived. Carlos, a native of the island, drove up the menacingly narrow roads with the kind of expertise we would soon learn was the norm here in Ponza. As we would turn yet another sharp corner at an altitude I didn’t bother to check, we were abruptly greeted with a geological wonder of staggering beauty. Ponza was, indeed, a jewel, with its glittering seashore and the bone-white ivory glistening off its volcanic back.
That night, before dinner, we had front row seats to a sunset that put the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and all the frowning statues of Hadrian’s palace to shame.
We ordered a taxi to navigate the way to our restaurant. Our cab driver, who went by the name “Super Peppe,” was disturbingly cheerful and drove with a sort of mad-hatter zeal that I could have done without, particularly as visibility began to fade. I dug my fingers into Anthony’s thigh, reminding myself that I was, in no way, afraid of heights. About five minutes into our journey, we were stopped by a jeep that had stalled in the middle of the road. The perplexed driver and passengers stood around the vehicle, helpless and without a clue. Undeterred, Super Peppe hopped out of the taxi, and without a word to the four unhappy creatures who were now staring at him as if he’d grown a tail, climbed into the jeep, turned on the ignition, and gave the gas pedal a few pumps of the knee. Within seconds, he maneuvered the car off to the side of the road. He bounded out of the jeep while the engine was still rumbling, clapped his hands in the driver’s incredulous face, and leapt back into our taxi. “Viva La Ponza!!” he howled at us (or maybe at the moon), as he pumped his fist out the window.
Beneath us, the island had dimmed to a blue-grey mist, as if preparing to enter into — no, to assume the guise of some sort of dream. I leaned into Anthony, without apology or hesitation, wishing we could never wake.
At 36, I’ve often wondered whether there was something inappropriate with wanting the very same things I wanted when I was 16. They say you’re never too old for the butterflies, but butterflies are hard to snag between conference calls, business trips, long days at the office, at least 45 minutes of moderate to intense cardio, and the invisible yet constant “tug” from the cellphone. I was a self-professed “big shot” at a large law firm, and he was a concert pianist and a tenured professor. I lived in a high-rise apartment along the Lake and he owned a two bedroom condo in the South Loop. We both had schedules that required us to “play courtship by ear” more often than not. Anthony and I were one year into our budding romance, veritable newborns at love, but well into middle-agedom at life, with all the trappings of modern “adulthood” — cable bills and mortgages and hooking up my own damn wireless router — to make me slightly ashamed of how much I longed to hold his hand in public or hear him say the “L-word” out loud.
But, in Italy, I had license to want all those things without blushing.
Traveling (for leisure) has a tendency to bring out what I call our “true selves.” It was inhumanly hot and humid and we walked everywhere. We stopped at the Campo de’ Fiori so I could take pictures of layers upon layers of roses, peonies, hydrangeas stacked like rows of preening novels. Rather than booking reservations at Yelp’s most highly recommended restaurants, we ate at whatever caffe or ristorante happened to be around when we got hungry. Far from the five-starred lodgings I’d grown accustomed to, we were sleeping on the pull-out sofabed at his cousin’s tiny one-bedroom flat in the noisiest quarter of Trastevere. At night, the endless gurgle from the broken toilet lulled us to sleep, as lovers tendered secrets on the steps of Piazza Trilussa.
Somewhere along the way, I’d loosened my grip on the Perfect Trip to Rome and in return, love wandered beneath a grove of loyal stone pines in Tivoli, peered out a window at the Vatican, dove head first into a pool of clear turquoise in Ponza. It wasn’t the sights that would make my Roman holiday memorable — it was the guy I’d see them with that would allow me to take my mother’s advice. We walked across the Ponte Sisto, sat in cabs, and rode the hydrofoil while holding hands. There were too many kisses to remember but one in particular remains impressed on my mouth — the one he stole from me during our second trip to the beach house. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he whispered one night in Trastevere, as revelers caroused outside our window.
Our last night in Rome, all his cousins gathered at his Aunt’s condo for a homemade dinner — the best meal I had for the duration of our time in Italy. We stayed long after the streetlamps lit up our faces and our laughter, thick as eaves, kept our pending departure at bay. It was on this last night in Rome, catching the fireflies in Anthony’s eyes as he repeated “estate prossima” to his family, that I discovered precisely what “here” meant — not in Rome, but at his side. I couldn’t have Googled this or Yelp’d it or somehow mapped out the course to this destination any more than I could have guessed the shape of his Aunt’s eyes until I saw them, gazing at me with the same startling tenderness I’d fallen in love with back home in Chicago.
I always thought that the blow of leaving Rome would be softened by going home with Anthony. But the landing in Chicago was far more bruising than I could have imagined. The soft mist that covered us in Ponza, the seething heart that beat with us in Trastevere, even the hollow loveliness that bound us in Tivoli — I felt them trickling through my hands like the water at Torvaianica as soon as I stepped out of O’Hare, however hard I pressed them together. He had appointments to keep and emails to write. I had to head into the office the following morning, with over 100 unread messages saddling my inbox. We went our separate ways to unpack our bags, start our laundry, and file our memories away in order to make room for “daily life” once more.
Was it too much to hope that we had been altered, forever, by Roma?
Here, Lake Michigan is not nearly as blue nor as clear as the waters of Ponza. But it was along the shore of Lake Michigan where my mother learned to speak English and Anthony trains for the marathon each year. It’s the Lake I wake up to each morning, the Lake I stare into at night, when the burnished orange lights of the pier carry me off into sleep.
Anthony has just let himself into my apartment for dinner this evening. I wrap him up in my arms and think,
“I’m so glad you’re here.”