What I’ve learned from traveling to Italy

My 50th birthday coincided with my first visit to Italy a few months ago. I was a fan before, but when I lived in Seattle in the early ’90s, I never really had the chance to explore the country. A few international trips to Europe over the years just proved to be so time-consuming I never got to really take in the enchantment of the land of the rising sun.

I never imagined I’d have the chance to visit Italy, a place I’d always wanted to visit before. Traveling around the world, I’ve been blessed to have never experienced a culture shock, but there has been some brutal race against time. The amount of time I had to find the perfect friends was exhausting. But, thanks to my friends, Instagram and a quiet Facebook group of local friends, a whole new reality of traveling Italy opened up for me.

I started out very strongly drawn to Italy and Antica Comerica, a rare restaurant with a black-lacquered table and black tablecloths (especially on a Wednesday night). It’s operated by a group of Italians who live, eat and live off the land of Puglia. There was an unexpected juxtaposition in the dining room of the restaurant: at the end of the table was a whole rack of lamb, and the waitress was cooking large pots of pasta on the grill in front of my eyes. Each plate I took off was perfect — the salt crusts, the creamy sauces, the perfectly cooked meat — and cooked perfectly to my liking, even without an immersion circulator. For a country that isn’t terribly known for its meat-centric dishes, I was really impressed. And they had cooked this food with so much tenderness — literally.

After my meal, I was blown away by the depth of knowledge from the hotel staff about the area of Puglia and Italy itself. I just couldn’t believe I was at a place where locals were so welcoming. Here, I didn’t have to use technology to get around — locals are just that wonderful.

I also started to see the challenges of being self-reliant in Italy. I’m surrounded by wonderful things, beautiful architecture, and people from different cultures. With an Instagram account full of photos of gorgeous architecture, wonderful food and nice people, I’m always on the hunt for something, somewhere, that has meaning to me. And I felt very lost when I arrived in Positano for the first time in the southeastern part of Italy. Positano has a rich history dating back to the 14th century and I wondered if perhaps I’d found it without ever seeking it out.

What helped was the local server at the restaurant where I ate that day. Just as with my trip to Puglia, she recommended that I meet a man who has his own home and vineyard, and he happened to have his business and home nearby. It was very easy to join his growing community of friends and business associates.

The other day, I sat in a room full of strangers in Rome at a time when I was hurting because my grandfather had recently passed away. I knew I would be embraced with kindness, but it was still overwhelming.

And that’s something Italy does very well. Getting started and finding real friends, even in Rome, takes patience and effort. I’m still actively searching, and hoping I’ll be able to see more of the breathtaking Italian countryside.

On my last day in Italy, I was planning to go to an aria, a popular lunchtime opera at the Teatro dell’Opera, called Pavane. My companion, an Italian and now a wonderful friend, took me to the wrong venue. We ended up at an underground car park, parked in front of a crowded and strange concert by the brass players. We were so confused and disoriented at first.

It was amazing to see the mood shift completely. Our Italian guide, who could barely speak English, said with a pure smile, “Shmago.” “I’ll take you!”

After a few moments of confusion, the brass players started to play, and music seemed to move us all through our sorrow. Everyone was dressed up, very stylishly, for the summer on a beautiful day. As I watched them play, I felt a strong connection to this place, of a place of soul and unique beauty.

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