An Italian friend of mine is getting married next Saturday, September 11th and I’m in a bit of a weird situation. I’ve always thought of this person as my very first Italian friend, and we met in a rather fortuitous way. Here begins a long aside:
Just before leaving to begin my Master’s degree in Italy, in August of 2006, I was in New York City, where many of my closest friends and family members reside. I was drunk with excitement for my imminent departure and itching to speak Italian, so when I heard a couple speaking to one another in Italian on the train I could barely restrain myself from butting in. After a bit of hesitation I thought “what the hell” and went for it. I (politely) interrupted them and introduced myself as a student of Italian, very eager to practice; much to my dismay, the woman immediately began speaking to me in English! As it turned out, she was an American visiting the States with her Italian husband, and we ended up chatting for the duration of the train ride.
I don’t think I will ever forget that conversation. It was incredibly fascinating to speak to this woman about the 35 years she had spent living in Italy when I myself was at the very beginning of my Italian journey. She, like me, had studied in Italy when she was about 20 years old and had fallen in love – with the country, and with a man (also true for me, sans the part about the man). After finishing school she moved back and decided to marry in Italy – beautiful, right? Yet the story she told me was not a fairy tale. She was very blunt with me and advised me never to burn bridges with my life in America. “I fucked up” she told me – seriously, her exact words – “I lived my life in Italy like I was never going to come back, and now I don’t even have the option to come back.” She was referring to friends whom she lost contact with, but also her career, which in Italy never took off, and in America after being gone for so long she was no longer in a place to pursue. She had resigned herself to being an English teacher in Italy, which is what countless female ex-pats in this country have to do to pay the rent. It’s one of the downsides of the dream of living in this country, a very real reality; anyone looking to stay here long term has probably had to consider the possibility that, for many different reasons, they may never be able to get their foot in the door and have a satisfying profession. Being paid under the table and living from paycheck to paycheck can be an adventure if you’re 22 and taking a year off before starting a career, but it’s a whole different ball game if that becomes your everyday life.
I’ve often thought about this conversation and have tried to remember her very valid advice to me. But of course this doesn’t apply just to Italy. Your 20’s offer you a series of possibilities, which is obviously a part of what makes this such an exciting phase; however with those possibilities comes the responsibility of choices. Things are still coming together in your 20’s, so every choice you make has the potential to shape the outcome of your life for many years to come. Nowhere is this more evident than in the choices we make about our jobs and about our relationships, romantic or otherwise.
Straight out of college you might accept the first job offered to you, even if it’s not what you wanted – maybe because you’re broke, maybe because you’re desperate to do anything other than sit around and twiddle your thumbs all day. But deciding to accept the position is a responsibility, and at a certain point you are bound to ask yourself “how long should I stay here?” or “is this really what I want to be doing?” or “what is this leading to?” You have to be prepared to answer these questions and up for the challenge of searching for something better, if you conclude that you’re not happy, because the longer you stay, the less likely it is that you’ll ever change.
Similarly, relationships at this age can be so difficult. If you date and date seriously, you’re bound to be thinking about the future, but I wonder how many people think about the future realistically. What I mean is, yes, marriage and loving people is all well and good, but how many people really grasp that in your 20’s you’re making decisions that affect the rest of your life…how can a 25 year old have any concept of what that means? So many people I know come to neglect their friendships from high school and college in their 20’s, usually because they meet somebody and become busy with life as a couple. In choosing to pursue love, and marriage and family – all wonderful, beautiful things by the way – are you also leaving other things or other people behind in the process? Perhaps it’s inevitable, perhaps that’s just the way things go, but in any event these choices are big responsibilities! So, yeah, I’m afraid of “burning my bridges” in my 20’s and looking back in regret, as the woman I met on the train that day ultimately did.
This woman I met on the train ended up putting me in touch with a young Italian who was looking for a language partner, somebody to practice her English with. And so it went that just a few days into my new life in Italy, 4 years ago almost to this day, I met Valentina; Valentina, my first Italian friend, who is getting married next Saturday…
To be continued!