Sweden’s Disillusionment. My friend and colleague just wrote the previous post about life and travel in Italy vs. other, wealthier countries. I truly agree. It’s amazing how people ooh and ah at home about Italy and refuse to let me say a negative word, thinking that I’m doing some kind of Eat Pray Love La Dolce Vita who knows a whata experience all the time. One friend even said, “It’s a 2 year vacation with just enough work so you don’t feel lazy.” No, no, no. And . . .it’s work just to live here. There is a very high price for all this beauty. I’m happy to pay it . . . at least for a little while, but I do love the ahhhhh I feel when crossing the border into Switzerland, for example.
I’ve had many visitors since I arrived, and many were happy to take in the sights, but they also quickly grew to see the subtle annoyances of life here. “Where can I buy a razor?” Not at this hour. (8pm) “Why is the store closed?” Nap time, lunch time, holiday, because they don’t care. “Why is this post box shut?” They can’t be bothered. “Where can I buy bus tickets at this hour?” You can’t. Hop on and take a risk. “Why did they just charge us 13 euros for boxed pasta?” Where is the food I’ve heard about?” The food in Italy can be hit or miss, and actually, the best food’s at home. Pasta Fresca, 2 euros! “Where is the sun?” Uh, I have no idea, that’s supposed to be a given . . .
I know some of my visitors on their first visit to Italy may have been disappointed. I remember the feeling. In 1997, I signed up for a High School trip to Europe. That year, it was Paris, The Riviera and Rome. yay! I wasn’t too psyched about Paris, but with low expectations and it being my first European country, I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised. I remember gazing in awe at the canals, finding the people friendly and helpful, and just kept hugging my friends because I was so happy. When we arrived in Italy, it was nice — but we were starting to get tired as we visited Assisi and then we got lost in Florence where the ATM took my credit card and the bank was closed and . . . it was a lot of nonsense. By the time we got to Rome, it was pouring rain, we were exhausted, and I just wanted to go home. Italy and the food didn’t really impress me. Too many tourist traps? Package tour food? Whatever it was . . .I was ready to go. Perhaps extra disappointed because my expectations were too high.
Moving here, I was well-informed. I had been to Italy 5 other times. I enjoyed the summer days Under the Tuscan Sun; saw the gorgeous Cinque Terre through train windows and wanted more; studied a bit of Italian in college; and had an amazing week along Lake Como. But I had my share of cancelled or overcrowded trains, travel stress, disappointing and overpriced meals, tourist crowds, frightening travel chaos, and bad attitudes . . . to make me notice the reality. I came to the conclusion that Italy knows that tourists will visit anyway, so who cares? They are too busy enjoying life! I also devoured travel writing that made no secret about how complicated, bureaucratic, and often completely nonsensical life can be here sometimes. I was prepared. But it can still be hard.
This is further exacerbated when the weather does not cooperate. The weather and beauty soothe the soul and make the nonsense tolerable. But this year . . .is a bit different. For some reason, Europe has been plagued by very strange unseasonable weather. Dublin was getting snow into March. Genoa even had snow. My students and colleagues said the swimming season is definitely in full swing by the end of March . . . but this year, I STILL have not been in the sea, except for a brief wade up to my calves while visiting the Cinque Terre for four days. Yup, for the Festa della Liberazione (Italian holiday last Thursday and Friday) I thought for sure I would have the opportunity for sun-soaked days in the turquoise water. But we had mostly clouds, walked around in our jeans and jackets — and were even drenched in pouring rain one day. I had a friend visit for Easter break, and excitedly told him “pack your swimsuit.” That was the only item of clothing he did not use, and we spent quite a bit of time wandering around the soggy streets of Rome and Milan. I felt so bad.
We’ve all been waiting for the spring that was supposed to arrive a while ago, but . . .it’s just taking it’s time. I have my mother here these past two weeks, and then on Friday, two of my best friends from High School arrive for a girls’ weekend, where we head to the Cinque Terre again. Mom and I spent 4 days in Monterosso, and I’m heading to Vernazza with the girls. I hope we have sun! I’m sick of disappointing my visitors and myself.
I often think of Wordsworth who wrote a poem when climbing through the Alps. He was looking forward to his first view of Mont Blanc. All the others on the Grand Tour, the artists and poets, have explained the view — talked it up so much, that when he did see it, he was disappointed. He regretted choosing the wrong trail, the mountain revealing itself in a different way, not the way he pictured it. He couldn’t appreciate it for how beautiful it was because it didn’t match the image in his mind’s eye, didn’t live up to the hype he expected. He didn’t feel the sublime light of sense he craved. Expectations breed disappointment. That’s why, sometimes, a small unknown city can bring me so much more joy than a famous tourist destination — ESPECIALLY when I don’t know a thing about it.
Italy is so hyped up. People have been raving and talking and writing about it for years. In NYC, there are whole neighborhoods devoted to Italian culture and cuisine. Movies are filmed here, books written . . . I remember when I posted that I was moving to Italy, the response was absolutely overwhelming. I wondered if people would have been as excited if I accepted a job in Kiev or Oslo or Kuwait or Jakarta or even London. I made the choice. I wanted the weather, the language, the location, the comfortable familiar culture, but I also know that if I was in London or Switzerland or Germany I would have a better quality of life. But . . .hey, the grass is always greener. I currently have a friend in Switzerland who can’t wait to leave and feels it’s too Xenophobic and cold and harsh. These feelings are all a part of expat life.
In grad school, I wrote an upside-down sonnet inspired by Wordsworth’s disappointment. I remembered hiking in the Swiss alps, with the beautiful snow-capped peek of Jungfrau in the distance. I have included this poem now because I was thinking about it this weekend in the Cinque Terre when I was disappointed like Wordsworth. I wanted to show my mom how beautiful and lovely it was with crystal blue skies, igniting a bold turquoise sea and an unparalleled, sublime vibrant glow to all the scenery. I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy the beauty that was before me because it wasn’t matching what I had in my mind’s eye. My mom, however, was able to appreciate it for what it was — gorgeous and relaxing.
Shadowed by the image in my mind’s eye,
the crest thwarts my dream from across the vale.
Like Wordsworth climbing for the light of sense,
I grieve and regret choosing the wrong trail.
No sublime, no flash, can’t see — though high
struggling to comprehend the immense.
Soon I realize there’s no single right way
for in countless, varied directions lie
diverse perspectives of the same blue sky,
framing the same grand pinnacle. A gray
frosted mane of wisdom reflects each ray
as I snap breathless photographs and try
to explore every path, pretending to fly
soaring–arms spread– till the end of my day.