10 life lessons from 14 months in Italy
Well, I’m back home in the U.S. after spending a little over a year in Florence, Italy, where I fulfilled my dream of going to culinary school in a foreign country.
The experience was such a varied set of adventures — nine whirlwind months of cooking classes, 57 transformative days of the strictest coronavirus lockdown in Europe, and a pinch-me summer spent on a farm in Tuscany and the beaches of southern Italy.
A lot of people ask me what I’ve learned about life, how the adventure affected me personally, or some other form of that big “How was it and how are you?” question. I’d like to be able to give an answer beyond “good,” so I did some thinking. These are the 10 best lessons I learned over the last year. I'll pack them along wherever life takes me next.
1. How to be more generous. The best thing about going to culinary school is meeting friends who all speak your same love language: food. Outside of the school kitchen, my favorite memories with my classmates took place in each other’s apartments, tables full of dishes from everyone’s home countries — one night, chicken biryani made by a friend from India, and another, tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes) cooked by friends from South Korea. I especially learned the power of sharing during the lockdown, when I comforted myself and my anxious roommates with desserts from my childhood (like chocolate soup and banana pudding), and it became clear that there is no expense more worthy than one that makes someone else happy.
2. How to find a sense of place through cooking. In Italy, where food traditions are perpetually discussed and ingredients are always celebrated with the arrival of a new season, it’s kind of impossible not to subconsciously catch on to your region’s eating habits. A mindless scroll through Instagram, for example, taught me that springtime in Florence means bruschetta with fresh fava beans, mint, and pecorino. Though my IKEA-stocked kitchen in Florence could have been anywhere in the world, I still felt connected to Italy when I used local ingredients, lessons from school, and guidance from Italians on the internet to make Tuscan specialties. This made me feel like a part of a cooking community even when I was alone, because I could easily imagine that somewhere nearby, an Italian grandmother was probably making the same thing as me.
3. How to connect to your community. Besides cooking its recipes, I learned that the best way to feel like a part of your community is to shop locally. In a city like Florence, where there are charming bakeries, wine shops, and butchers on every street, this isn’t so hard to do; I actually didn’t realize that my consistent cappuccino and parmesan purchases had made an impact until I found myself saying glum goodbyes to my favorite barista and cheese-shop owner on my last day in the city. Getting to know the people who work in your neighborhood makes all your little quotidian habits more enjoyable. It also makes you more likely to learn about special events, cool shops and restaurants, and local tips that will allow you to connect to your home more meaningfully.
4. How to fumble joyfully through a new language. Plenty of people learn languages out of pure necessity, so I recognize my luck in being able to practice Italian with leisure and low stakes. I didn’t become fluent, but I did build up enough conversational skills to make possible some of the fondest memories of my travels: little chats with strangers. In Bari, a fisherman named Gino told me about his take on a local dish called riso, patate, e cozze as he cleaned mussels and handed them to me to try raw. In Scicli, I met Gianni, who operates a cheesy tourist train there and made sure I’d have a free ride when I visited the next town over. My full-circle, wow-I-can-actually-understand-Italian moment happened in my second summer, when I chatted with a man named Franco on a park bench in Rome about spaghetti all’Amatriciana for 45 minutes. Learning a new language is one of the best things I’ve ever done; it has given me lots of humbling laughs, kept my brain cells young and spry, and totally opened up my world. That’s why I want to keep up my skills even while I am back in the U.S.
5. How to enjoy food without shame. My friends in Florence all came from different places — California, Thailand, Taiwan, and beyond — and we all agreed on one important thing: We felt so much more confident about our bodies in Italy than we did in our home countries. We had our own explanations for this, but for me, it can be summed up in one basic idea: In Italy, gelato doesn’t feel like a sinful treat to be worked off later on the treadmill. It’s just a delicious dessert, made with care and quality ingredients, that you should eat when you want it. In other words, good food isn’t a reward to be calculated into your daily calorie count; it’s something to be savored and appreciated. As soon as I adopted that mindset, intuitive eating became almost second-nature. I ate pasta when I wanted pasta and salad when I wanted salad, I rarely felt tempted to overeat, and my body looked the same as it did before — I just felt better inside of it.
6. How to live with less. I’ve listened to Marie Kondo’s teachings with an “amen,” purged my closet of excess, and vowed to limit purchases to necessities more times than I can count. Yet year after year, I’m astounded to have accrued new trash bags of unwanted clothes destined for Goodwill. Hopefully, a year of living out of two suitcases (and rolling them from train stations to Airbnbs on foot) will have finally taught me that life is better with less stuff. It was freeing to save money on clothes and time on getting dressed — and to relearn that no new outfit (no matter how snatched) can truly affect my enjoyment of any experience. While I definitely bought a few souvenirs from my travels, my most prized “possessions” are my photos, notes, and memories.
7. How to travel more slowly. There is some satisfaction in saying, “I went to Pisa for a few hours to see the leaning tower.” There is more satisfaction in saying, “I stayed near Pisa for a few days, and now I feel like I really have a sense of life on the Tuscan coast.” Even Italy’s most popular destinations, like Venice, Florence, and Rome, are not attractions; they are real cities where real people live, and that’s how they deserve to be experienced. As someone who has done rushed marathons of multi-city traveling, I now know that a week or more in one place — where you have a chance to try all the regional dishes, talk with locals, and walk without an itinerary — is much more relaxing, meaningful, and memorable. I know that it’s not always realistic to dedicate precious vacation time to one spot, but I do think that embracing a slower way of traveling is worthwhile — and probably necessary in our post-pandemic reality.
8. How to enjoy solitude. As an avid solo moviegoer, restaurant diner, and even traveler, I long ago became comfortable doing things on my own. But this year, I learned to embrace solitude rather than merely tolerate it. I did some of my best thinking while walking alone and eating gelato along rivers. Some of my most serendipitous discoveries happened because I wandered freely, my attention focused on my surroundings instead of a companion. And because I was often by myself, I talked more eagerly with strangers, resulting in lots of delightful Italian practice and a love story in Sicily that will always have a special place in my heart. Exploring a new place on your own has its challenges, but if you have an open mind, it can be anything but lonely.
9. How to empathize more deeply with the immigrant experience. It took living in a new country temporarily for me to even begin to consider the conflicting emotions that many immigrants must feel about home and identity when building a new life in a new place. I wanted to feel like I belonged in Italy so badly, but I realized that as much I learned the language, assimilated into the culture, and admired its beauty, I would always be an American, and people would always see me as one. Now, I was fortunate to experience very mild frustrations (mainly in the form of unimpressed Florentines responding to my imperfect Italian in perfect English) while voluntarily living in a foreign country for fun. Imagine constantly feeling like the odd one out in a country that you moved to out of necessity — and that could be your home for the rest of your life.
10. How to dream of a different life. Relocating to a new country can be expensive, complicated, and full of roadblocks and red tape. By no means has that killed my fantasies about one day, just maybe, settling down in Italy for good. I am so inspired by all the non-Italians I met in Florence who took a leap to change their lives, whether for a few years, forever, or with no timeline in mind at all. I often stress about the future and whether or not I’m making the right choices, but this year has reminded me that I am never trapped in any one path or place, and it will never be too late to make a big change for my happiness.