Updated: Jun 18
In 2015, my husband, Judah, and I took an epic, 33-day vacation to Europe and Ireland to celebrate ten years of marriage.
The vision for the trip began while I was on the road for work. Judah was at home with our cats, bored and desiring some excitement in his life, while I was on the road, touring the country.
What if we took a backpacking trip across Europe? That would be exciting.
We spent the next five years saving money so we could afford such a trip.
When all was said and done, we spent the first ten days in Carrara, Italy, home of the marble used to sculpt the statue David. For these ten days, we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast, and Judah took a stone sculpting class that was taught by a teacher he had worked with in NYC. We also took a day trip to Florence.
From there, we took a train to Rome where we spent a day walking around the beautiful, ancient city and spent a night in a hostel. The next afternoon, we met up with a travel tour group of around thirty people. We spent the next fourteen days on a camping excursion with these people. The tour company provided our tents and sleeping bags and drove us from city to city in a huge bus.
We visited Venice, Austria, Prague (home of the previously written about torture museum), Berlin, and Amsterdam, spending a little over half of the nights in the tent provided and the rest of the nights in hostels.
From Amsterdam, we flew to Ireland where we would spend 7 days before flying home. We flew into Dublin, rented a car, and drove to Tipperary where we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast for three nights. We were so exhausted from the two weeks of sleeping in a tent, we slept thirteen hours before our impatient host woke us up to eat the incredible Irish breakfast she had prepared for us hours earlier. From there, we went to County Clare, Ireland for four nights in another Bed and Breakfast. And then back home.
In preparation for this epic adventure, we went to marital counseling.
I am a planner and Judah is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants-er.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, we found ourselves shoving one another into very confining stereotypes that got smaller by the day.
By the time we sat down with a counselor, I was dramatically noting that Judah viewed me as having to have every moment of the trip planned, including breathing. I viewed Judah as wanting to board the plane with no luggage or plan in place, not even a spare pair of underwear.
While neither of us intellectually viewed the other quite this intensely, emotionally we were pretty close. Almost every conversation we had, in an effort to plan some part of the trip, ended in an argument and no decision made. I would get mad because of course Judah didn’t mind that a decision hadn’t been made; he was fine arriving knowing nothing.
Thankfully, the counselor we met with was amazing. We have continued to see her over the years, and we credit her with some of the biggest “aha” moments in our marriage and with helping us see and appreciate our differences.
In all the hubbub around what to plan and what to “wing”, I can’t remember if we even discussed language. When I talked with people about our trip, they always said, “Everyone over there knows English. You’ll be fine.”
I didn’t want to be “that American” who goes to another country and expects them to cater to me, but I also didn’t have the time or ability to learn the language of every country we would be visiting.
I relied on the wisdom of my friends. The places we were going were touristy and would be able to speak English.
As I’m writing this, I find myself feeling the need to list all the things I took in my backpack that we ended up using. Judah and I each took one large pack for the entire trip.
As you might imagine, there were many things he thought were unnecessary that I chose to take anyway. In fact, it was such a sore point that I kept a list of things I was glad I’d brought with me.
I am aware that I have the desire to share this as a means of proving that I was prepared in so many ways. The item I was most proud of was the reusable utensils. And yes, I took a photo of Judah using them (with a bandaid on his finger that I also brought).
It’s been six years, and I clearly still have some feelings about all of this.
Okay, Jill, get on with it.
When we arrived in Carrara, Italy, we met up with the other six-to-eight people who were there to take the stone sculpting class with Judah, as well as the teacher and his assistant. I was the only “plus one” in the group. This meant that while everyone else was off sculpting for the day, I was alone.
I had looked at Carrara on a map and had seen that our Bed and Breakfast was within walking distance of a beach of some sort. That was good news since we would not have a car.
The most wonderful things I discovered during my first day in Carrara were soft-boiled eggs and blood orange juice.
The most dreadful thing I discovered during my first day in Carrara was that it is a small blue-collar town in which no one needs to know English.
My friend’s advice had misled me.
Enter shame and self-criticism.
How had I planned so well for this trip and not learned one word in Italian?
Ciao doesn’t count.
I went for a walk in the neighborhood and found my way down to the beach. I sat for half an hour or so. It was absolutely beautiful.
Back in my room, I cried. I felt so isolated and alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone. And it was my fault.
I ate something for lunch and took a nap. Food is stressful for me because I have food allergies. Gluten and dairy being the big ones. And here I was in Italy, home of pasta, bread, and cheese! There was no grocery store where I could quietly pick out my own food. How was I supposed to eat when I couldn’t talk to anyone?
I wanted to hide in my room, but I forced myself back out for an afternoon stroll. The least I could do was walk around the neighborhood and get a lay of the land.
As I walked the neighboring streets, I was mostly alone. I discovered the most amazing smell. Jasmine. I decided this is what heaven smells like.
I also discovered some friendly Italian people who were also walking.
A friendly smile.
The tightness in my chest eased.
We’re all just people, living our lives.
Another smile with an accompanying, “Ciao.”
All I could manage was a smile.
I have dark hair. And olive skin. What if these people assumed I was Italian and could speak to them?!
“Ch” was all I could manage with a little exhalation after. The person hearing it likely had no idea I was choking on the word, but I couldn’t get it out.
I was out of my comfort zone. My voice was stuck in my throat. I couldn’t speak.
What if they said something more to me? I would be exposed!
Less than twenty minutes later, I passed a friendly Italian woman who smiled and tried to make conversation. Thankfully, we were both still walking as she spoke. She added a little laugh in whatever she was saying, so I found a laugh sound to share.
It wasn’t so bad. I wish I knew what she was saying. Wish I could connect with her. But sharing a laugh was nice.
That evening, Judah and I went to a local bodega. It was a small place with meats, cheeses, and pre-made items as well as some shelf-stable foods. Unfortunately, I couldn’t read any of the labels. Fruit and vegetables were safe, so I grabbed a variety.
Judah asked me a question, and my butt scrinched. What was he doing? If he spoke to me in English, he would blow our cover. They would know we were frauds.
He couldn’t care less.
A few moments later, another woman who was shopping came up to us. “Do you speak English?”
Cover = blown.
She was a kind, Italian woman who had grown up in the area. She had lived in the UK for several years and had moved back home a few years earlier. She was so excited to have someone to speak English with as no one there did. She was able to tell me which of the pre-made foods had gluten and dairy in them as well as what some of the words for certain foods I could eat were.
It was such a gift. For her and for me.
As Judah and I navigated the area together, I watched him navigate the language barrier. He would ask if the person spoke English. As he learned Italian words, he would incorporate them where he could. He had no shame over not being fluent in a language he’d never encountered. I think he, unlike me, had learned a handful of words ahead of time.
With each passing day, I knew more and more Italian words. I would take pictures of menus or signs in windows while out for a walk. Then, I would go back to my room and use the wi-fi and Google Translate to find out what the words meant.
I found that as I did my best to use Italian words, the people I talked with did their best to use the bits of English they knew. We met one another in the middle.
By day eleven, when we traveled to Rome and on to the next leg of our trip, I was so used to speaking as much Italian as I could. In Rome, everyone actually did speak English. Even when I spoke broken Italian, they responded in English, seeming to have no interest in my attempts.
I felt a little sad. It had been such a sweet point of connection in Carrara, to work together to communicate. For the rest of our trip, my friends had been right, everyone spoke English. Sure, we learned a few words here and there, but we were in each location for such a short period of time, we never really settled in.
What had started as a pain point had become one of my most precious memories.
The pieces of the puzzle are many. My expectations of knowing things I couldn’t possibly know, like the Italian language. My fear of being exposed as a fraud or, worse, as a selfish American. My deep desire to connect with people wherever I go, to meet them on their terms.
And the beauty of how Judah and I are different. His lack of shame and self-criticism allowed him to expose his shortcomings. To not even see them as shortcomings! To simply show up exactly as he was. And that gave me the confidence to do the same.
I may have choked trying to extend a seemingly simple “ciao”, but beyond that, I found a little more freedom to be me, warts and all.