Travel Essay: Changing my address will change my life.
It’s not like I didn’t have a perfectly great existence here in Manhattan. But living in New York with two young children right after 9/11 heightened the anxiety of an already stressful life. When I envisioned myself in an ancient warren tucked in the eaves of a crumbling palazzo on a quaint piazza somewhere in the Trastavere section of Roma, I pictured myself as Sophia Loren. Dressed in pencil skirts with blouse-y shirts cinched at my somehow shrunken waist by a thick leather belt, my luxurious hair held off my face by chic Chanel sunglasses, I would stroll through antiquated alleyways to the market where I would barter for the freshest vegetables brought into town that very morning from nearby family farms. I would sip cappuccino standing at a counter with fellow Romanos and relish homemade pasta spooled so skillfully around my fork that its tangy blanket of red sauce wouldn’t splatter my shirt. Never mind how I’d negotiate with savvy paisanos in my halting Italian or navigate the cobblestones in my stilettos while carrying string bags bursting with breads and produce and not end up with one of my all-too-frequent migraine headaches. In my fantasy, all would be wrinkle-free because I’d be in Italy, far from Food Emporiums, subways and shiny steel buildings that constrict you with their towering expanse. My voice would lose its annoying whine, dropping several octaves to a throaty purr, thanks to a smooth chianti that would complement my mellow mood as I blithely prepared dinner for my family. Yes, that was exactly how I envisioned my life abroad. Sexy, sultry…and migraine-free.
The apartment we found online sat on a tree-lined viale that was more boulevard than lane. But it was only a block away from the bus that would take our children to school everyday. Spacious, with large rooms, enormous windows and lofty ceilings, it was decorated in the 50’s style of “late great aunt.” The conveniences and appliances were from a similar era. A tiny washing machine could handle only mini loads and the dryer was a clothing rack set up on one of our concrete balconies. Because the hot water heater needed to be turned on twenty minutes before one needed it, washing dishes and taking showers could not be spontaneous. The deep porcelain tub mocked me as it beckoned, because even if I waited the appropriate length of time for the water to heat, one tankful only filled several short inches and, by the time, a second tank could be employed, the previous shallow pool had cooled.
The local—as opposed to International—school in which we’d enrolled our children because we wanted the real experience, had undergone a huge altercation during the intervening summer, leaving a gaping cavity where half of the teachers and families had jumped ship. The skeletal remains presented a myriad of reasons why our children shouldn’t attend. But we had paid for the apartment because of its proximity to this school. So we closed our eyes and ventured forth.
Once the term began, and Michael and Larissa began to scuffle their way through truncated classes and language barriers, Michael injured himself playing baseball, of all sports. Knee surgery was required. Should we abort our adventure and return home—as a family, or in parts—to avail ourselves of American Medicine, not to mention our insurance coverage? Or experience life abroad more fully by groping our way through a maze of foreign possibilities? Because we were not Italian residents, public assistance was not an option. And because we’d come abroad under our own steam—as opposed to with corporate assistance—we had no umbrella of protection. A series of interviews with doctors recommended by new acquaintances from the children’s school led to our decision to go with a local specialist who, though a noted sports surgeon, spoke little English. Weeks of indecision, nail biting and appointments followed by surgery and a brief stay in a private clinic marked the first trimester of our stay. So much for weekend excursions to neighboring villages and evenings in outdoor cafes.
By Christmastime, things began to look up. Michael’s knee was healing and he’d be able to return to school after the new year. The language which had mangled the children’s tongues and frustrated them at every turn was finally seeping into their brains and burbling to the surface in full-formed, perfectly accented phrases that astonished us all. The children now scorned my bold but garbled attempts at foreign navigation and their embarrassed intolerance silenced me in their presence.
My mother flew over from the States for the holidays. We rented a car and left town for a two-week jaunt up the Italian coast, to Provence, France. On the drive out of Rome, not even an hour away from our new “home,” a car commandeered by tourists consulting a roadmap intercepted us. We swerved off the narrow highway, barely missing a steep drop…and certain death. Our car was totaled, my shoulder broken. All of us were extremely shaken. We slunk back to Rome to spend a dreary holiday in the cold confines of our minimally decorated flat. I was in a half body cast and nobody felt very festive. But we were alive and we were together.
Mom returned to America on New Year’s Day with plans to meet up with us in Morocco over Easter. After all, why not take advantage of our proximity to so many exotic regions? In the meantime, as I plotted our upcoming Saharan trek, we took a side trip to Sicily during Winter Break. Though known for its temperate climate, our visit there was punctuated with forceful winds, heavy rain and even a hailstorm. Undeterred, we trudged through ancient ruins as we evaded lightning bolts. Then, Larissa broke out in spots. It was deemed a sun rash by the pediatrician we met at one of our lodgings. Sun, I thought. There hadn’t been any sun.
In fact, it was German Measles and the blotches and discomfort spread from Larissa to me the week after our return to Rome. Though Michael and David hadn’t contracted the disease, my mother was fearful to join us the following month in case we were contagious. It turned out Michael was harboring antibodies and they emerged the day our flight to Rabat had been scheduled. Lucky that we hadn’t been in the desert on camels, as planned, or quarantined upon arrival when the tell-tale abrasions decided to make their appearance.
Other snags marred the weave of our year away. As foreigners, we were allowed neither a credit nor debit card at our Italian Bank. The descending exchange rate doubled the price of every purchase we made during our stay, crippling my compulsion to buy, buy, buy. The authorities discovered that we were living in Rome without a foreign visa. With only two months before our planned departure, we chose to ignore their warnings. But these glitches paled in comparison with our physical maladies. Of course, the frequency of my migraines increased rather than subsided as I worried, from afar, how my mother was faring at home, alone, and whether the immigration police were going to show up at our door one day and deport—or imprison—me while my children were in school.
The ultimate goal of our relocation—to lead a calmer, more elegant and leisurely life—wasn’t exactly achieved. Weighed down by anxiety and casts, sneakers turned out to be a much more practical mode of transport than stilettos. Pencil skirts and blouses never materialized either. Baggy jeans and sweatshirts were the comfort food of my closet. We did concoct the most amazing meals from the fresh food purchased daily at local markets. Pork loins roasted with leeks, carrots and fennel and breaded chicken cutlets with butter smothered Roman broccoli were our favorites. And I didn’t experience a single bitter espresso all year. The gelato was as intense as it was yummy! We met families who’d never traveled further than the outskirts of Rome and whose idea of dinner together always meant In whose house? not At which restaurant? Macy’s and Lincoln Center were as foreign to these people as they were far away to us. But we made new friends. We learned a beautiful language. We survived; in the end, we even thrived.
Sexy and sultry are not how I’d describe my year away. Still, it was an experience I’ll never forget, nor regret. It wasn’t until we returned to the comfort of our cozy, overstuffed Manhattan apartment with my mother down the hall and my routine of supermarket shopping and teacher conferences in a language I could actually understand that I began to realize, If I was going to shed my migraines, I’d have to first face my fears. Getting sick, getting fat, getting hurt or bored or old could happen anywhere. These insecurities and stresses were tucked into every pore and pocket of my psyche. How could I have thought that I would like myself better just because I’d changed my address?
BIO: KYRA ROBINOV
A Manhattan based writer, she works in several genres. Her recent historical novel, RED WINTER, was inspired by the true story of her family and is currently working on a memoir, THE URGE TO ROME, based on the year lived with her family in Italy. kyrarobinov.com