At this point my trip through Morocco would have been about halfway completed if not for a chance encounter with those strange pixy dust-covered moments in your life that stand out like a rogue cowlick among your obedient hair strands. I mean to say one of those moments that defies much of what the individual comes to expect from life. I always say that if you want things to happen in your life, you have to make ripples; and that if you want to make ripples, don’t throw something like a pebble into the lake of life but rather a cinder block. I went and threw a dirty great boulder into the lake and rode a very unexpected wave out of the dark continent and into the old country – into Italy. Arriving in Malpensa airport outside Milano, I’ve come to reside in the quaint mountain commune of Mercallo on the border between Lombardia and Piemonte. The area is surprising in that it looks very much like the woods and fields of parts of Northern Virginia, where I live in the United States. While a different more pine-heavy composition of trees line the forests, Lombardia does look a little bit like Appalachia. Even though my house on Via Cascina Pozzi is 52 kilometers from Milano, my family who live in Manassas Virginia will understand that things can become quite rural an hour away from even the largest cities. Frankly that suits me down to the ground, as growing up surrounded by nature forever disillusioned me to living in the midst of a metropolitan area. Near my house is the wildlife refuge of Parco del Ticino, where I’ve already seen an owl and a woodpecker.
But why, maybe some of you would ask, am I in Italy instead of Morocco as I had originally intended? The story begins with an entry in World at Large’s Dispatches from the Field section labeled By Our Very Nature, Dignity and the Human Being are Indivisible wherein I detail the interactions I had with a woman from Italy who had traveled to Namibia to take 3 children on vacation. As it just so happened, she and I decided over our two day interaction to start a relationship together. And all the way through Ghana we kept interested, before I finally arrived on the 15th of January. She and I met under extremely coincidental circumstances, developed feelings under extremely coincidental circumstances, and continue each and every day of our strange Italian/digital nomad life together in ways which never allow the spark of magnificent serendipity that characterized our meeting to diminish. In many ways, as unbelievable as the circumstances in which our association began and under which it continues, it exemplifies two things. First, that the ridiculousness of my life as engineered by my own will and work is now as firm a reality as anything I’ve ever managed, and two, that fairy tale moments like this can happen if you seek them out.
Now the angle of these dispatches will change. Italy, with all the orange tile roofs and quaintness and old beauty that has enchanted Americans for decades, is for all intents and purposes now my home. So what is it like to live in Italy? Let’s start with the basics. The language is probably harder than French and Spanish, but easier than German; mainly due to the grammar. I remembered the first person who explained to me that in Spanish adjectives come after the noun, using the example “instead of ‘my black dog’ it would be ‘my dog black’”. In Spanish this translates to Mi perro negro. Italian goes much further with their grammar rules. So for example, if you wanted to say “Our old black dogs” every part of this must “agree” with the noun. “I nostri cani vecchi neri”. All of the those words end in I because they must fit the gender (masculine) and the number (plural) of the noun they are attached to. It’s tedious and difficult and also the Italians speak so fast, obviously, so fairly challenging to get that right.
Up here in the north of Italy, people act much the same as what I’ve seen or heard of from the northern parts of most countries: i.e. the north of England, the north of France, the north of Westeros, meaning they are stern, walk about in dark, drab colors, and unless you strike up a conversation with them, don’t exude a tremendous degree of warmth towards others. I think of the north of the United States and I often think of warmth, for instance in Wisconsin where one half of my family is from, or Portland with all its positivity and progressivism, or Montana which I’ve heard is the best state you’ve never visited in your life. Even still, I’ve been treated very well by people more often than not, and now that my Italian is coming along, it’s becoming easier and easier. My girlfriends said it clear enough when she explained that if she was planning to visit Palermo, in Sicily, she would call her friend there and he would invite her to stay at his house. She added that if her friend called someone in Lombardia and said the same they would reply “Do you need help finding a hotel?”
The beauty of the north of Italy is obviously different than the south, with the south having a Mediterranean climate and the north a more arboreal, temperate one. Much like Ireland there’s a harsher beauty, a more rugged mountaineering sort of, ‘hunting lodge nights of stoking fires and dressing in wool and leather’ sort of tone to the region. My girlfriend’s family are hunters and one of our first meals together was fagiano (pheasant) which was out of this world. The alps are in the distance, just far enough away so that an ounce of fog will obscure them but a clear day will reveal their snow capped glory. One group of larger more majestic peaks in particular – Monte Rosa, (Pink Mountains) are bathed in pink light at sunup and sundown, earning their name. On the topic of the sky, what a pallet. I’ve never been in a place where the sky is colored more beautifully on average than the north of Italy. Bob Ross would never leave, or over the course of his program even make it down to the happy little bushes; the sky commands such attention. Many lakes dot the landscape and they exude their beauty onto the charming little towns and hamlets which always excircle them. Lago Maggiore in particular is as handsome a body of water as I’ve laid eyes on, and the towns of Arona, Ranco, and Angera which occupy its banks are the most charming and Euro-classique little zip codes I’ve ever seen. I’m certain that will change whenever I make it over to Lake Como, merely 40 kilometers from my house.
Italy as you might imagine is perfectly modern, with one roundabout a short distance from my house sporting three supermarkets, in which I can buy nearly everything that I routinely eat at home, with the exception of uber specialty health foods like raw maca, cacao, and matcha powders. It’s interesting to see the reflection of cultural value on cuisine in the supermarkets, with large amounts of great italian cheese and cured hams and salamis right next to the fresh fruits and vegetables for the same price as mozzarella or cheddar in the United States. Things like pecorino noci, pecorino sardo, toma, fiore sardo, and more are always available in my Italian refrigerator, and I’m already on the lookout for more locally-sourced ingredients and markets where I can up the freshness/nutrient-density ante. Cheaper likely than Germany, Belgium, or parts of France, Northern Italy is a fantastic place for an expat or digital nomad looking to explore the region. I’m staying at a brilliantly furnished AirBnB for a very manageable monthly cost split between two people.
The contrasts between the two worlds of the last two months that I’ve experienced are clear and powerful, but more powerful is the contrast between the two lives I’ve lived over two separate years. 2019 with all its work and 2020 in all its grandness and vicissitudes. For most of us, this life is actually an incredible journey, but the human spirit may at the same time attempt to make for itself a hedge against it and the rest of the world. As Wolfgang Van Goethe wrote: “The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it”. I’ve demonstrated to myself that not only is life’s journey an amazing adventure, but that it’s actually a much greater adventure than any conjured from the power of imagination we possess. I might be justified here in simply continuing to post quotes – the Mark Twain quote about travel being a vaccination against ignorance if I remember it rightly, or something from the Hobbit maybe… Instead I’ll just say that a grand fairy tale and adventure await whomever is willing to toss a cinder block into the lake of life and plow onward, main sails down, a weather eye on the horizon, into the unknown of once upon a time.