I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at My Boyfriend, Part 1 (Culture Shock: Food)

Overlooking the sea in Cinque Terre on my 21st birthday

 

Me in Florence, 2000

I studied abroad in Italy in the summer of 2000 to get back at my boyfriend. Yep. Besides shaving my head and getting a tattoo one time after a bad breakup, this was definitely the most un-me thing I ever did. Thank goodness. I changed during my three months there. I grew up. I got stronger physically and emotionally. My man actually didn’t recognize me when I came home. I learned to scream “Va via” (“go away”) at groping men. I learned that I was not a city girl after all. As every traveler learns on her first trip abroad, I learned what I loved about home.

My boyfriend in summer 2000 was future Mr. Okayest. What horrible thing do you think he did to make me leave the country out of spite? Forget my birthday? Ask to go on a “break”? Cheat on me? No, dear readers, it was nothing so lurid. He simply took an internship in another state. I thought he and I would come home from college that summer to be together, and, instead, he (smartly) got an excellent internship. So, out of spite, I thought, “Well, if he’s not coming home, then neither am I. He’s going to leave the state? I’m going to leave the country!” And that is how a ridiculous homebody like me leaves the country.

During the summer of 2000 (“estate duemila”), Italia was a place without air conditioning, computers, and cell phones. I lived in Florence (Firenze), which was a bustling city of nearly half a million, with Gucci, Prada, and Tiffany stores in between each ancient monument and art museum. This was a bustling metropolis, yet somehow it was stuck in time, too, in the most deliciously relaxed way. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Homeowners couldn’t even change the paint color on their shutters without permission from the town government. It was one of the fashion centers of the world, but I was just there in my Birkenstocks.

Me in Florence, 2000

My trip to Italy was only 14 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime ago. The summer of 2000 was before the Euro: Italy still used lire. It was before the smoking ban: everyone, from my bank teller to my ice cream man, dropped ashes into my money and food. It was before the iPod: I actually brought a walkman and cassette tapes with me. [Insert sheepish grin here. Embarrassment is not resulting from being so old that I had a walkman and cassette tapes. Instead, embarrassment is caused by being raised by a musician who listens only to quality vinyl.]

I didn’t read about anything before I left. I was a smart/dumb 20-year-old. What I knew about Florence was from my two art history classes. What I knew about Italy was from “The Godfather”. What little Italian language I knew was probably food words or things my future father-in-law had said. There was no Wikipedia to peruse before leaving. I got a travel guidebook at the used bookstore and that was that.

There was no cell phone to take with me. I bought phone cards at the corner markets and called my boyfriend from the nearest payphone. He said it sounded like I was at a racetrack, which was somewhat accurate, since the traffic was crazy enough to knock one of my friend’s shoes off her feet. There was not much internet either. My parents did not have email yet, but of course my boyfriend did. It didn’t matter much because there were only a couple of internet cafes I could use – at exorbitant rates. What I am trying to tell you young whipper-snappers is: back then, when you left, you were gone.

If I remember correctly, I spent a whole summer in Italy for less than three grand. That included airfare. My parents said they supported my decision (although they were completely shocked) if I would handle all the finances myself. I visited the student aid office about a hundred times, and worked out all the details and kinks. I always had a job during college. I had some savings. I borrowed some from a generous aunt and uncle, and I added the rest of the cost to my already-generous student loans. In the late 90s, student loan rates were at a Clinton-inspired record low, so I figured I wouldn’t mind paying for Italy when I was 34 years old. I was right.

Arriving in Italy was a complete shock for this Southern country girl. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by city life or by Italian life. Both were a major change for a girl who grew up on a mountain in Virginia and went to college in a rural town whose only claim to fame involved turkeys. Suddenly, I was breathing exhaust fumes and not understanding a word anyone said.

My bedroom in my homestay

My bedroom in my homestay

Our study abroad group was broken up into groups of twos and threes for homestays. I lived with a very formal family who had Sicilian accents that made their Italian even more impossible to understand. We were expected to dress for dinner, not ever be barefoot, and eat whatever was prepared, even if it was fried octopus. As a lactose-intolerant Mormon who doesn’t like chocolate, I will also add that I must have seemed very rude when I declined pretty much every coffee drink ever made.

A Room with a View - MY view

A Room with a View – MY view

Their fancy apartment was on the second floor, but, in Europe, that means about 300 steps. They did not have air conditioning, but neither did anyone else. Even the most famous of paintings were sweating in the Uffizi without air conditioning. We were there during the summer, in a major heat wave. The weather felt a lot like it did at home: hot and sticky. At least something felt like home!

Half our meals were at our homestay, and half our meals were on our own. I learned a few things very quickly about how Italians do food. First, they don’t hurry. The first phrase I had to learn and use was “Il conto, per favore” (“The check, please”). If you don’t ask for the check, the waiter will let you sit there all day. Does your American self bristle at the thought? Well, don’t, because Italians think it’s rude to bring you a check before you have finished relaxing. (I now bristle when American waiters shoo me away from their table with an early check. I mean, I felt that way before kids. Now I don’t really go to restaurants.)

Next, I learned that pasta is just a first course. And it’s not a big portion at all- maybe just a few bites of homemade noodles. Do you think those Italians stay slim with an Olive-Garden-situation? I don’t think so. Same with bread. I never saw a single breadbasket in all of Italy. If we got any bread at all, it would be a tiny hard-as-a-rock little thing sitting beside your plate.

Italy train0010 Oh, and then there’s the fruit. If you reach for a peach at the corner fruit stand, the grocer might actually smack your hand away. Only the seller selects and hands you your fruit. “Why would I want to sell dirty fruit?” Also, they only sell things in season, so you don’t need to worry about picking over the selection to be sure you get something ripe.

I also learned that Italians don’t drink. Water. Italians don’t drink water. We were always so thirsty – and everyone, from the shopkeeper to the homestay mama to the waiter, snickered and giggled about the amount of water we consumed. You don’t really see Italians carrying around a water bottle. And, if you don’t want sparkling water, you better be sure you specify that you want ”still” water. We thought we were in heaven when we found 1-liter bottles of “still” water in the grocery store, but we looked ridiculous carrying them around Italy. (They were maybe the size of a Big Gulp from home, so it didn’t seem weird to us.)

Typical tiny Italian breakfast

So, not only was I thirsty, but I was starving. I was starving in Italy! I was in one of the world’s most beloved culinary meccas, and I was starving all the time. I was used to big, American portions. I was used to a lot of fat and a lot of calories. I was a meat and potatoes girl who was completely out of her element in the world of fresh food. Besides, I was walking over eight miles a day to and from class and meals (and clubs), and burning more calories than I ever had. I lost quite a bit of weight that wasn’t mine to lose.

I was constantly in awe of the beauty of the colors, the food, the people, and the art. I felt alive with all that beauty. But I surprised myself by feeling a little deadened inside from being away from all that was familiar, and being away from the people who loved me. I realized that I was indeed an introvert. I was an introverted country girl in a big city in another country where no one knew me, and everything was so beautiful it hurt. My heart hurt to see all these beautiful things without the mother who used to tell me that “You’re my piece of blue Italian sky” because she never got to travel… and my heart hurt to see all those beautiful things without the man I was to marry. I wanted to go home, and come back with the people I loved.

 

My view, walking home over the Arno River

 

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will scare you with: I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at my Boyfriend, Part 2 (Culture Shock: Men).

Guest Post: Why I Choose to Remain Childless

This article is the third in a series of guest posts. I have invited a few select friends and family members to contribute to my blog. I have chosen them based on two things: 1) I personally go to them for help; and 2) I am fascinated by their unique parenting challenges, because I want to hear how they make “okayest” work for them.

 Allow me to introduce you to one of my best friends, Sarah. We met at the small (and I mean small) school where Mr. Okayest and I also met. She knows all the nitty-gritty details about me and still loves me. Our lives have taken different paths: she went for a career, and I went for, um, a career, and then infertility, and then dog-walking, and then adoption, and then IVF, and then being a stay-at-home mom. Anyway, I am excited to hear from Sarah, my first non-mother guest writer on a blog about motherhood.

 

Sarah borrows one of my sleepy twins for a cuddle by the fire.

Sarah borrows one of my sleepy twins for a cuddle by the fire.

“You’ll change your mind,” is the response I inevitably receive when I tell someone that I am not planning to have children.  Perhaps I will change my mind some day or perhaps a child will choose me. After all, unexpected pregnancies run in my family; that’s how I came into the world.  I’m pretty sure I would be a good mother. I think that I have what it takes to nurture a child. But the honest truth is that I do not want to. Being a mother is not the path that will lead to fulfillment for me. I turn 35 this year and I finally feel like I know myself pretty well.

I do not begrudge any woman for choosing motherhood. I have known Mr. and Mrs. Okayest since I was 15. In fact, I have known them as long as they have known each other. Mrs. Okayest has always wanted children. It is a fundamental part of who she is and she is an amazing mother. I frequently feel immense disappointment when my friends become parents. I know that parenthood will likely consume them. They will become Mommy and Daddy and that will define them completely. But Mr. and Mrs. Okayest are the rare breed of parent who still maintain their pre-children individuality. I know this because in a recent photo of Mrs. Okayest, she is wearing knee-high converse just like she would have when we were teenagers (had knee-high chuck taylors been around then – we had to settle for the traditional high tops).

Some parents like to pretend that parenthood is transcendent and perfect, but Mrs. Okayest is completely candid about how challenging and at times soul-sucking it can be (you’ve been reading her blog, right?). On a recent trip to Virginia, I spent the day with her. Late in the afternoon after the three children were down for naps, we went out for an hour to have some “adult” time. When we returned to her house, Mrs. Okayest didn’t get out of the car immediately. “I don’t want to go back inside,” she said. I loved her immensely in that moment.

I’ve encountered a lot of annoying parents. In fact, Facebook is rife with them. They are the Stepford parents who seem to believe that their children crap rainbows and are the center of the universe. Mrs. and Mr. Okayest are nothing like this.  They still prioritize each other over their children. They do not hover or fawn. They do not allow their children to run rampant. They do not brag about how much their kids like esoteric foods or are already fluent in French at 3 years old. Mrs. Okayest has never uttered to words “you wouldn’t understand, you aren’t a parent.” This phrase is up there with “you’ll change your mind” to someone who has made a conscious decision not to pursue parenthood.

If I were a parent, I would want to be like Mr. and Mrs. Okayest. But let me get back to why I do not want to be a parent.

Reason #1: I really like my life the way it is. I am unmarried and live alone with several cats. In popular culture, this is the trope for a sad pathetic unlovable woman and I am the first to make fun of myself for this. I joke that I’ll choke to death on a ravioli and my cats will eat me. But in reality, I’m perfectly happy with my life. I’m not sad or lonely. I have my friends and my family (and my cats). I have my career and my hobbies. I have a full life. I do not feel like there is something missing. There is no child-sized cavity that I crave to fill.

Reason #2: I’m a selfish introvert. I don’t even want another adult in my space, let alone a child who will destroy my things and torment my cats and be generally annoying. As an only child and an introvert, I need a lot of space. I mean A LOT. I joke that if I ever get married, my husband can live in the house next door. This goes back to the whole “knowing myself” thing. This need for space and alone time is an indelible part of my personality. It’s not going to change.

Reason #3: My career as a software engineer at a large tech company in Silicon Valley is highly demanding. It is also incredibly important to me. I do not believe that I could be a good mother and also adequately handle the demands of my job. Warning: I’m about to say some incredibly unpopular things about working mothers in the tech industry. Women are not super-frickin-human and, at least in tech, I don’t think we can “have it all”. I probably just had my feminist license revoked, but whatever. I do believe that woman are equal to men. I’ve spent my entire career in a male-dominated field trying to prove this.

I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In.” Many of the things she said about being a woman in tech really resonated with me. The part that didn’t resonate with me is her belief that you can be a good mother and have a high-powered career (she is COO of Facebook). I call BS. She posits that all you really need is to believe in yourself, be assertive in asking you employer for what you need as a parent, and have a partner who shares 50% of the parenting responsibilities.  To her credit, she openly admits that she enjoys a lot of privileges that many working mothers do not, but still, I think that she is describing a unicorn. An unrealistic myth. In tech, as in many other professions, hours are unpredictable, expectations are high and the pressure is unrelenting. It is sadly a young single person’s game. I’m not saying it’s right. Perhaps there is room for change. But in our highly competitive global economy, these types of jobs are demanding out of necessity. Asserting that a woman (or a man) can be fully present as a parent and also meet the demands of this kind of job is setting unrealistic expectations. Marissa Meyer (CEO of Yahoo!) was reportedly checking her work email just hours after giving birth. I completely get it, but I’m not sure this mentality is compatible with being a good parent.

As for a 50/50 partnership… Again, in most cases, I just don’t see this being a reality.  Fathers are more involved in child-rearing than ever before and this is awesome (Mr. Okayest is a prime example). But culturally, we’re just not there yet. I could espouse some more unpopular opinions on this topic, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll restrain myself.

Reason #4: My final reason for not wanting to be a parent is a very personal one and is difficult for me to talk about, but I want to be honest so here it goes. I have struggled with mental illness my entire life. In my late twenties, I was finally diagnosed as depressed and minorly bipolar (if I ever have a band, I’m totally calling it “minorly bipolar”). It is a physiological (and hereditary) chemical imbalance which I manage with a cocktail of mind-altering medications and bi-weekly therapy. If I were to get pregnant, I would have to stop taking my medication and I’m pretty sure that the combination of pregnancy hormones and no medication would be the end of me. Also, I would never want to expose a child to one of my depressive or manic episodes; I don’t think that a good mother should spend days in bed shutting out the world or indulging in self-destructive binges of bad behavior (I’ll leave that one to your imagination). Finally, I know that these illnesses are frequently passed on to the subsequent generation and I wouldn’t want anyone to struggle the way I have.

So this girl plans to stay child-free. My biological clock ain’t tickin’ and, to loosely quote a friend of mine, “this oven don’t bake no buns.”  Maybe I’ll change my mind. But more likely, I won’t. For now, I’ll just enjoy my friends’ children and admire my friends for taking the plunge I choose not to take.

***

Note from Mrs. Okayest: Sarah also showed up in my post about How a Good Girl Accidentally Got a Tattoo and Shaved Her Head One Time.

An Ode & a Plea to an Introverted Toddler

Sometimes I feel like the only mom on the planet who has a serious, introverted toddler. Allow me to say that I love him just the way he is, and I don’t want him to change. He is careful. He is a watcher. He is thoughtful. He doesn’t jump on things or climb on things or run away at the playground. He doesn’t beg for Happy Meals. He doesn’t like TV. He has a super-long attention span. He doesn’t ask strangers why they are fat.

reading rolling stone

He doesn’t like me to talk when he’s having a Really Good Time doing something from his bucket list (you know, little-boy-heaven-stuff like riding a tractor, watching Monster Trucks, or helping Dad use a butane torch). He wants to enjoy it seriously. He isn’t going to shout and do a jig about it just because he’s three. When he rode a pony one time (the Holy Grail of Toddlerhood), people were saying, “Smile, R, why don’t you smile? Aren’t you having fun?” I wanted to say, “Hey, he IS having fun. This frown IS his happy face. He’s concentrating on his fun.”

Ok, those are all wonderful, positive things. I am happy to have a toddler like that. However, ENOUGH WITH THE FREAKING TANTRUMS!

pregnancy tantrum(pregnancy tantrum)

church tantrum(church parking lot tantrum)

DCIM100GOPRO(christmas card photo tantrum)