February was a rough month for me. I’d placed in the Dell Awards, which I was really happy about, but I couldn’t go to ICFA because it would be too hard on Mopsy, which meant I couldn’t go home for a bit. I’d just finished revising a novel, which was also wonderful, but now what was I going to do? I was being rejected from one graduate school after another. A lot of my classes were being canceled because of festivals and work placements for the students, so I had way too much free time on my hands to dwell. And June just seemed so far away. I’d reached a point where I’d realized that I had gotten something out of this time in Italy, so now that I’d done that, could I go home? Well, no, I couldn’t. I’d started this, I was halfway through this, and I was going to finish it. So I sat down and said, “Okay, Jameyanne, if you’ve learned so much, then what did you learn?” And I wrote this post. It turned out pretty flippant, actually, and at the time it really helped me get some perspective on the first half of my time in Italy and face the second with more confidence.
I was also pretty sure, at the time, that I could just use this post wholesale when I was getting ready to finally leave in June. And I can, but I’m adding to it. Because now it’s June, and I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, and I am overwhelmed with all the feelings I did not expect I would have and all the things I have learned in these last months.
Last October, I arrived in Italy, filled with hope and shiny new dreams. I’d graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College with high honors in English. An agent was looking at my thesis novel. And I was going to Italy—a dream come true. I was going to revise my thesis novel and research another novel that I wanted to set in Assisi in the 1950s. I was going to make a ton of Italian friends, become fluent in Italian, maybe even fall in love (deep down, underneath all the horrible things I do to my characters, I’m a hopeless romantic, and there’s no getting around it). And, did I mention I was going to Italy?
Now, nine months later, I’m going home. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t even make that many friends my own age, really, though I was pretty much adopted by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I traveled all over Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Ancona, Bari, Matera, Gubbio, Narni, Spoleto, Spello, Canara, Montefalco, Bevagna, and Lake Trasimeno. I saw the big tourist spots, but also all the beautiful little towns around Assisi. And Assisi, too, of course. I taught English in two high schools, and I tried to organize a volunteer project with the school for the blind in Assisi that ultimately fell through.
Revising my honors thesis? Didn’t happen. Researching another novel set in Assisi in the 1950s? Maybe subconsciously, but I didn’t put real effort into it. And if anything, for a while I actually fell out of love—out of love with a country, out of love with a dream, out of love with some of my own goals and ideas. Looking back at myself boarding that plane in Boston, I’m not sure who I was then. I’m not sure who I am now, either, but I know I’m different. And I know what changed.
So here it is, what I’ve learned in Italy, the big things and the small, the flippant and the serious.
- Things like dryers, ziplock baggies, traffic laws that people follow, window screens, showers that stay hot for more than five minutes, grocery bags you don’t have to pay for, real wifi (not the kind on a stick), fresh milk that keeps more than four days, and salty snacks are glorious and should not be taken for granted. Ever. Ever!
2. It really is possible to have too much of a good thing. I might never eat pasta again.
3. Being an adult is hard.
4. Grammar is not as important as you might think. What matters is understanding, and if that means you’re speaking only in infinitives or playing charades while your jetlagged brain frantically tries to catch up, that’s okay.
5. I do not like boiled food. Potatoes, apples, greens, chicken, what have you. If it’s boiled and that’s it, I don’t like it. (Actually, I already knew this, but I thought it bore repeating.)
6. While there were definitely times when I really enjoyed teaching, there were also times when I honestly found it kind of boring, which sounds terrible, but I have to be honest here. And on the whole, I don’t think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.
7. I have fabulous family and friends. I definitely would have lost my mind a dozen times over this year if I didn’t know they were all standing behind me—six hours and several thousand miles behind me, to be precise, but ready to listen to me and be a virtual shoulder I could cry on and cheer me on. (Did I mention the internet should never be taken for granted?) My parents came to visit me at Christmas for a family vacation, and then they came back again in March, when it became clear how hard a time I was having. If they hadn’t come back, I would have given up and gone home, and if I’d done that, I would have missed so much. I couldn’t have done this without them.
8. I have an incredible Seeing Eye dog. I don’t know how many times Mopsy has literally saved my life (I lost count the first week), what with the traffic laws being only suggestions and the drivers who I swear are out for blood. But more than that, she stood by me this whole year, when I was excited and when I was miserable, when I was dancing around my apartment singing Disney songs at the top of my voice or when I was curled up in bed feeling like I would never be able to get up again. When I felt like it was all too much, like I just wasn’t brave enough to get up and keep going, like I just wanted to turn around and go home, Mopsy was the one who forced her head under my arm and wagged her tail: “Come on. We can do it. We’ve come this far.” She deserves a blog post all her own, and so much more.
9. I love writing. I always will love writing. But writing all the time can be very lonely. Maybe if I was in the same time zone as all my writing friends, it would be better. I don’t know. But I’m not sure being a full-time writer is what I want to do with my life either. Of course I’ll keep writing and keep trying to get published, but I’ve been doing that my whole life while I was in school, so why can’t I keep doing that while I’m doing something else too?
10. There is no shame in crying over Disney movies when you’re twenty-four. (I already knew this too, but again, I felt it deserved to be repeated.)
11. Things don’t always work out as you plan, but they do work out, and they might be just as good.
12. I want to go to law school and become a disabilities rights lawyer. I might have come to this decision without Italy. I wasn’t sure even before I graduated that I wanted to get a Ph.D in comparative literature. I loved Italian literature, but I could read it without a doctorate, couldn’t I? So I might have realized that I had something else I could give, that so many people had fought for me and my rights all my life, and I could give back by fighting for someone else. But without Italy, without having to really fight for myself and my rights, without feeling discriminated and judged, I don’t think I would have had the same compassion and empathy that I have now, not only for people with disabilities, but for other groups as well.
There’s more, so much more, but it’s harder to put into words. There were times when I didn’t feel like I was really independent, but in fact, I have been more independent this year than ever before. True, I couldn’t cook myself—you had to start the stove by turning on the gas and then using a lighter, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, I have no aim—and I couldn’t even get to the store by myself without risking getting squished because the cars in Assisi think the sidewalk is at best a parking lot and at worst an extra lane. But I was taking care of myself and my dog. I had my own apartment and my own finances to handle. I was traveling to and from work every day by myself—stay tuned for the “Whacky Adventures of Mopsy and Jameyanne Trying to Get to School Without Getting Killed.” And I wouldn’t trade the ability to go to the store and cook myself for all the wonderful meals I had with Stefania and Bruno—my landlady and landlord—and the friendship we formed over those meals.
Stefania and Bruno basically adopted me, and I cannot put into words what kind, caring, loving, wonderful people they are. They took me for who I was, from the minute I walked in the door. They didn’t help me because I was blind, but because I was a young girl far from home. They welcomed me with open arms and hearts, and the love and friendship they showed me, from the start, has changed my ideas about what is most important to me. Thanks to them, I value my friends and family—and I count them family now—more highly than ever. When I come back to Italy, I know that I always have a home.
And finally, I saw that I can make a difference, even if it is one person at a time. When I first arrived in Italy, people were always giving me strange, if not downright hostile, looks. I was told that it was practically taboo for someone with a disability to be living, working, and traveling independently. Most Italians have never seen a service dog. What I was doing, living and working by myself in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, was unheard of. When I proposed volunteering at the school for the blind in Assisi to teach the kids some basic independent living skills–tying their own shoes, pouring a drink without spilling, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush without making a mess, that sort of thing–I was told, “They can’t do that.” I was told I couldn’t enter stores. Bus drivers forgot I had asked them to tell me when we were at my stop or forgot to mention I was on the completely wrong bus (if the buses are color coded, why are three orange buses going three different places?). Once, a woman started yelling at me on the bus because she was afraid of dogs and what business did I have bringing such a fierce dog on a public bus? People applauded when I poured myself a glass of water, operated a vending machine, or cut up my own food. I was not allowed to climb the tower of Pisa with Mopsy, and they refused to refund my ticket. I had to fight for every inch I gained. But I gained a whole lot of inches. After a while, people started saying hello to me as I walked down the street. A waiter at my favorite café started asking me how I did things myself. The next time someone threw a fit about Mopsy being on the bus, the bus driver started yelling right back at them before I could. How did I do this? I pushed. Yes, I am legally allowed to enter your store. Yes, my dog is getting on this bus. People started recognizing me. People started respecting me.
I will tell one quick story to really illustrate this. A few weeks after I first arrived in Italy, I went to the supermarket with Stefania and Bruno to buy cereal and milk, and the cashier didn’t want to let me in with Mopsy. Stefania and Bruno offered to go buy my cereal and milk while I waited for them, but I insisted that I was going with them and that I was legally allowed to. The cashier gave in, possibly just to shut me up, but hey, whatever works. But nine months later, just two weeks ago, when we went to the hermitage where Saint Francis communed with the animals, a nun didn’t want to let me into the church with Mopsy, and before I could even object, Stefania said, “First, she’s a guide dog and she’s allowed everywhere. Second, think where we are. Would Saint Francis really not let such a beautiful, good dog come into his church?” (Only an Italian would talk back to a nun like that.) Stefania’s growth, from taking my inability to enter a store at face value, to facing down a nun on my behalf, really drove home to me not just how much I have changed, but how much I have changed others around me this year.
And so here I am. Tomorrow, I’m flying back to America. I’m really glad to be going home, but leaving all the wonderful people I have met, even leaving this country that sometimes seems like an alternate universe where things just aren’t quite right, is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I know that when I get home, everyone is going to ask me, “So, how was Italy?” And I’m not sure what to say. I’ve had better years, but I’ve also certainly had worse (the year of the exploding eye chief among them). At times, it was really hard. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad experience. In fact, looking back on it even now, it has been a pretty incredible year, in every sense of that word, and I’m sure that I’m going to look back on this year and everything that I learned as a difficult but also a wonderful time, and really, as the beginning of something new.
So, arrivederci Italia. Until we meet again. And grazie.