Monday, March 16, 2015

How I ended up in Italy

It occurs to me that not everyone knows the story of how I got from small town Minnesota (Ronneby pop.16) to Italy (Florence pop ~320,000) so here it is in gruesome detail.

2008 was the year that everything changed in my life. My husband of 18 years left...left me bankrupt, left me homeless...left. I got laid off in the collapse of the construction industry. I was starting from zero but with the love and support of my family and friends.

It's important to know what happened that year because those are the things that made me strong, fearless and open to every possibility that presented itself to me. Granted I wasn't all these things at first, but eventually I became these and so much more.

While all this was happening I was also finishing college, something I had put off when I had my children. I went to a small liberal arts college and it's not an exaggeration to say that being there at that time saved my life. In the interest of keeping this sort of short (I'll try!) I'll just say that I found some of the best friends I didn't know I needed there and through their love and butt kicking I never got to wallow in despair very long. For that I am eternally grateful.

And through the college (here's where the story really starts) I decided to participate in a three week study abroad program combining spirituality and art in Italy. My two favorite topics. Part of the course included a four day hike through the Tuscan hills following a pilgrimage trail.We had a guide for this part of the trip; a Swedish man named Leif.

Leif and me during the hike in the mountains.
Our group was small, only fifteen people, and we all became pretty close. When Leif joined us he became friendly with everyone (we are Minnesotans after all, everyone's our best friend) and as time went by he and I naturally gravitated toward each other because we were close in age. Naturally because except for one other student and the instructors everyone was under thirty years old, most under twenty-five. I had the teeniest crush on him. But after four days his time with us was over and we continued on to Asissi.

My instructors, both good friends, spent the days asking me questions. Sometimes really hard questions. They knew that this was the perfect opportunity for me to sort things out in my mind free from the routine and familiarity of life in Minnesota. As the days went by I found myself relaxing more and more fully into the rhythm of Italian life and discovered that this life felt right. I learned to live in the moment, something that absolutely flies in the face of my upbringing which focused on the need for planning and living for the future.

When I got back to Minnesota I felt strange. Sad. Blue. Lost. The first day I attributed it to jet lag.

The very next day I had lunch with a friend and his family and of all the places to go they chose The Rain Forest Cafe at the Mall of America. I spent the entire meal hugging my plate (the waitress kept trying to take it away from me. I don't know why) and jumping every time the weird mechanical monkeys started their thing or the fake thunderstorm started shaking the floor beneath my feet. I was practically crying from the stress of eating a simple meal.

Now I'll grant you that the restaurant choice was completely wrong for me, but it wasn't my choice and I'd never been there before and had no idea what I was in for. Take my advice and never eat there. I couldn't tell you a single thing about the food, I was so distracted by my environment. I don't think I even tasted what I was swallowing.

That's the event that triggered my decision to move to Italy.

The next day (once I'd recovered somewhat) I told a friend what had happened and said "I'm moving to Italy." This is a true friend. She didn't question my motivation or my decision she just said "That's a great idea!" At that moment I started planning my move here. I had about a year and a half to finish college and downsize my already severely shrunk life in preparation for moving.

I'll admit I went into this whole project rather blindly and without planning everything perfectly. I was immersed in enthusiasm but had a drought in the knowledge area. One thing I knew for sure was that I needed to know somebody. I mean know in the Italian network sense. You don't do anything here without a network. My network started with Leif.

We started emailing back and forth. The attraction we felt during our trip wasn't diminished by time or distance and in a short amount of time we graduated to regular Skype sessions too. He was a fountain of information as he moved here 6 years earlier and understood what I was trying to do. I also fell madly in love with him. I don't want to diminish the role that our romance played in all this. I may have given up at some point if it weren't for the fact that I had someone here I couldn't live without.

I know you're wondering what my friends and family thought about this. Look at the title of my blog. "Why?" was a question I was asked constantly, as if I was saying that life in Minnesota wasn't good and I was escaping to something better. That wasn't it at all. My life in Minnesota was good but I knew exactly what it would  be. Life in Italy would be a mystery and I was ready for a little less planning and a little more living by the seat of my pants.

I came to Italy first as a tourist....a three month try-on if you will. Those three months only confirmed for me that this is where I should be so I went back to Minnesota to do the paperwork for a study visa (a friend of Leif's has a language school).

Italians invented bureaucracy so I had a million hoops to jump through. My favorite one is when getting a visa you must purchase your ticket before you send your request for a visa to the consulate. Yes you have to buy a ticket not knowing for sure if they''ll even grant you the visa to live here. You must also provide documents showing you have a program you're enrolled in (already paid for), a place to live (already paid for), insurance (already paid for) and what assets you intend to live on while here because they don't hand out work permits often.

My first year here was wonderful. I learned so much. Some Italian, some Swedish, about wine and food and their place in daily life, about Italians. It wasn't always easy but I never thought about moving back to the States. I knew that this is where I wanted to be.

Now you have to understand something. Italy isn't thrilled to have a lot of foreigners living here. Their bureaucracy was built on the premise that if you make something hard enough most everyone will throw up their hands in exasperation and quit. Student visas are only issued for a year at a time. I couldn't afford another year of lessons and by the end of my year I was getting pretty stressed about how to stay. My hair was falling out. I lost my appetite. Because I'm not independently wealthy and simply didn't have the resources to live without working and without those the Italian gov't didn't want me. I had no idea what to do.

At Cinque Terre before I knew he was going to propose.
One month before I as scheduled to leave Leif and I took a trip to Cinque Terre to hike the coast and there on the Via dell Amore he asked me to marry him. I said yes. All that was left was to go back to the States (because my visa was up) and plan a wedding in two short months that included the Christmas holidays.

And that's how I got here. A semi-abbreviated but thorough telling of the story. We live in Italy, we visit Sweden for several months during the year and I Skype with Minnesota as often as I can. We are slowly building the kind of life we both dreamed about when we moved here. It's not always easy but it's always worth the effort.
Life is good. A cliche that works because it's true.