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Not all those who wander are lost. -J.R.R. Tolkien

Date: Saturday, November 25, 2023. Time: Approximately 8 a.m.

I didn't want to get out of bed. Like, really didn't want to get out. Not because I was tired, but because I knew the apartment would be cold. Like so many Italian buildings, the antique construction, old heating and cooling, and general lack of insulation don't lead to many "warm" spaces.

I know this from experience. In early 2023, after my first two months of living in Florence, I got my utility bill. The grand total? More than $600. Here I was, cranking up my heat every day, feeling frustrated because I didn't feel the heat, and then I got slammed by a high utility bill! Even though I paid every two months, it didn't hurt any less. I certainly didn't pay $300/month for heating in the U.S. -- and there, my apartment actually felt warm! Go figure.

But, I adjusted. After that first whopper of a bill, I wore multiple layers and multiple pairs of socks. Italians call it vestirsi a cipolla, dressing like an onion, which is so cute and also makes total sense.

So when I found myself lying in bed and scrolling on my phone, I was hesitant to leave my cocoon. There, it was warm. There, I was comfortable. I didn't have any plans until 2 p.m., so who cares, right?

Wrong. I knew I wouldn't be happy if I decided to do nothing. I had made a promise to myself to go for a walk. I had recently moved to a new neighborhood in Florence, San Frediano, that is right next to Bellosguardo, a neighborhood known for the beauty of its typically Tuscan hills. (Bello means beautiful, and sguardo can translate to an area that is known for its panoramic, natural beauty.)

A couple of months ago, when meeting my roommate for the first time, we went on a walk through Bellosguardo. We saw castles in the distance, Tuscan cypress trees, old churches, a lively soccer game in the park, and ended up making our way through a different part of Florence on the way home. It was a challenging, lively walk that I wanted to repeat.

Not wanting to procrastinate anymore, I jumped out of bed, checked the weather, put some workout clothes on, and grabbed my phone, earphones and keys. I was out the door.

Walking up the hill, I knew I was on the right track when I saw my favorite building on the street. On a daily basis, I marvel at the architecture that has stood the test of time. I always wonder if Italians appreciate old structures the way I do, or if they've just gotten used to them. Old sections of city walls that the Medici family built? I'm flabbergasted. Landmarks like the Porta Romana, which has been around since the 13th century? Amazed. Maybe these sorts of things become commonplace to the people who have lived here their whole lives, but not me. I'm like a living "heart eyes" emoji, fascinated by every detail.

I continued. The hill was pretty intense, and the reason it didn't feel that way the first time was likely because my roommate, Miriam, had brought her dog, Arthur. The fact that he stopped so frequently allowed us to take our time. This time, it was just me and my playlist, and unfortunately, The Jonas Brothers singing "Celebrate" couldn't take my mind off of my heavy breathing enough to actually celebrate my progress.

Nevertheless, I reached one of the first parking lots and looked around. Deep breath in, a few moments to appreciate the temperature, beautiful day, and casual castle in the distance, and I was off once again.

After passing the park that I remember walking through with Miriam and Arthur, the road split in two. To the right was a street I didn't quite remember. The last time we did this walk, a road to the right led to a church and courtyard that was a dead end, so I figured that wasn't the way to go.

I went straight, going back and forth between my music and various podcast episodes.

People passed me by, mostly runners. I passed by old villas and beautiful, ornate iron gates. They reminded me of the gate I'm still searching for to this day, hidden in the fields of Basiglio, where my sister and I would ride our bikes every chance we could. Details like those can teleport me back to our life here in the late 90s, and all of a sudden, I'm 13 again.

All of a sudden, in the middle of my reverie, the road changed. I went from smooth, paved asphalt to uneven cobblestones.

I don't remember this from last time. I heard a runner approaching me from behind, which startled me.

I'm alone and don't know where I am. It hit me like a ton of bricks but the sensation landed more in my gut. What if something happened to me?

Out of nowhere, I was swirling in deja vu. (It was a visceral, stops-you-in-your-tracks kind of sensation like I had forgotten how to breathe.) I've been "lost" in Italy before as a result of not knowing the way. And it's a memory that comes with mixed feelings.

The summer before my freshman year at the American School of Milan, my friend April asked me to join the cross-country team. I remember not being immediately enthusiastic but figured I could do something with a friend and take the summer to "get into shape." But while we visited family in the States that summer, I didn't do the best job at accomplishing that goal (I remember complaining to my dad pretty much the entire time he encouraged me to go for a run).

Some people are naturally active and sporty, but not me. For as much as I loved/love The Spice Girls, I never identified (and will never identify) with Sporty Spice. At all. Most of my ventures in the world of sports come with a funny story -- playing soccer as a kid and running down the field, laughing, because I found it funny to imagine people chasing me; one fortuitous catch as an outfielder in softball, when the bases were loaded, and being stunned when the ball landed smack dab in the middle of my mitt.

So when I joined cross country, I knew I wasn't destined to win any medals. I didn't dream of even placing. I just wanted to be with my friend and try to get through each competition. Please, just let me finish was pretty much the only thought ever going through my head.

We competed with various American and international schools around Italy. That season, we competed against the American School of Rome twice. Most people on the team had been there before and I remember our coach talking about the first race being a good opportunity to get to know the course for both meets. Except, I didn't go to the first race.

My parents, to their credit, took full advantage of the various opportunities to travel when we lived in Italy. They wanted to see everything, and my siblings and I were quite literally along for the ride. To take advantage, we traveled most weekends and went to various festivals around the country to get to know the Italian culture.

The weekend that ASM was supposed to travel to Rome for the first time, unfortunately, conflicted with a live, human chess game they wanted to see in Marostica. That chess game only happens every two years, so we couldn't simply postpone it. I went with my family on the trip (ironically, I believe it was cancelled due to rain) and remember finding some poem about tenacity that I gave my teammates in my absence. I wished them luck and they competed in Rome.

When I went to Rome with the team, their second time and my first, I was a ball of nerves. I had no idea what the course was like and felt the disadvantage of not having experienced it the first time.

My memory isn't great--some weeks can hardly remember what I wore the day before--but I remember that race. I wasn't fast. I remember struggling almost from the outset. And I certainly wasn't keeping up with most of the runners--for a short while, I could see their uniforms and numbers to get a feel for the course. Just not for long. Which meant I quickly had no one to follow and no idea where to go.

As I mentioned, I don't remember a lot. But I do remember being in a public park in Rome, out of breath and in tears, feeling completely and utterly lost. I didn't know what to do, and to make matters worse, at 14 I didn't speak Italian the way I do now. I recall trying to explain the situation to some concerned Italians and can only imagine their viewpoint.

What is this American girl doing in the middle of Rome, with running attire on, crying and speaking broken Italian? Now, I wonder if I told them I was lost, or if I said I had lost something. I laugh imagining them thinking that I had lost my dog.

It had to have been deep into the race when the organizers and coaches decided to send my teammates as my search party. I do remember feeling relief to see faces I knew, and I do remember finishing...very late and dead last, of course.

Fast forward back to the present. The beautiful thing about the happy mistake of being lost on my walk is that it made me stop and realize that it was the first time in a year of living abroad that I've felt lost in any sense of the word. As it turns out, it was only "lost" physically (and these days, the beauty of a cell phone is that it took 15 seconds to figure out how long it would take me to get home). No crying. No search party. And I now could explain to any Italian person how I got myself into that pickle, should it come up. No more struggling to find the right word.

No more struggle in a lot of ways. Things often feel a bit easier over here now, having the privilege of living in a foreign place the second time around. In this case, I course-corrected and headed back the same way I came. I even realized where I had made the wrong turn and finished the original path I wanted to take.

It made me reflect on the fact that I had gotten very used to feeling lost emotionally, spiritually, and professionally in my life in the States, especially during and after Covid, but I wasn't doing anything about it. That day in November, I realized that emotion hadn't come up once in ten months in Italy.

Not to say that life is perfect. But maybe I didn't feel so lost because I had something distinct to pursue. I chose to chase my dream--and it's changed everything.

When it came to the choice to move to Italy, I've never second-guessed it. There was never a pang of regret or "why did I do this" train of thought. I've always known why I did it--I was chasing a passion, the thing that makes me feel like I'm growing and learning and alive in every cell of my body. There have been a few moments of "what the heck am I doing?!" when days are hard. And of course, there are always going to be hard days. But, even then, it still always feels like the right thing to do.

That cross-country meet, back in the day, made me feel shame--how could I not keep up with my teammates? Why wasn't I gifted athletically? A short time later, it became funny and I laugh about it--hysterically--to this day. The best part of the story was that during our end-of-year awards banquet, through some strange turn of events, I won the Coach's Award for my tenacity and ability to encourage my teammates in my absence. Those qualities that lived in my 14-year-old body haven't gone away. I still love poetry and I still consider myself an encouraging person.

Getting lost this time made me feel proud, resourceful, and hopeful. If living abroad has taught me anything, it's how resourceful you can be (and have to be) as you're establishing your support network. Whether it's making my way home in a strange neighborhood or navigating the joys of Italian bureaucracy, I've tapped into the hope and strength to pick myself up many, many times.

In so many ways, this past year in Italy has reminded me of the person I was then and how grateful I am that, even after so many changes, it's possible to hold on to the best parts of ourselves. I learned that it's possible, even after 39 years of believing life was supposed to be a certain way, to change your mind and make a big leap. It's possible to return to yourself and remember the seemingly small things that light you up.

It's funny how you come to understand your life and its many lessons. That day I got so much more than I bargained for, just because I decided to go for a walk.

On my way back, I thought of how important it is to be aware of your surroundings at all times and know that there is always light waiting to find you. Sometimes it's just around the corner, peeking through the trees. You can get lost, stumble, make wrong decisions, be challenged, go outside of your comfort zone...but emerge as a better version of yourself. I know that whether I use my heart as my compass or occasionally have to check Google Maps, I won't ever feel "lost" the same way again.


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