A few months ago, I liked to joke that one’s existence and relevance in New York could be whittled down to a simple set of coordinates: job, apartment. “What do you do?” “What neighborhood are you in?” can fill in a lot of blanks about a person before you decide to dig deeper.
By my own standards, I had my New York longitude and latitude down to a perfect science at the moment I left the city. I absolutely loved where I lived, and I was super proud of where I was able to intern that year.
Leaving for Italy would change everything. I knew that. When my dad and I parted ways in the airport, I wept uncontrollably in public (without sunglasses on, mind you) for 20 minutes straight, something New York professional Emily would not be caught dead doing.
I wept because I knew that leaving meant everything would change. I wouldn’t return as the same person I was when I left.
I was right.
I haven’t written anything for four months beyond academic papers because I wanted to allow myself to fully experience every minute of my time away. I told myself I’d spend a lot of time journaling, reading, and walking the streets of Florence pondering life. Really, none of that happened.
What I learned unintentionally was how to love.
I arrived in Italy to an apartment filled with 4 women: 1 I thought I knew well, 3 I hardly knew at all. They, along with 3 other boys, became my family.
In New York, relationships can feel like they’re all about convenience. You don’t often go over to a friend’s apartment “just because.” When you hang out with someone, it’s almost always an occasion: a birthday, a PR event, a going away party, etc. You may see someone you consider your best friend once a month. You do a lot of things on your own. You learn to become okay with that.
In Florence, I spent every waking moment with my 7 friends, often doing nothing at all. I laughed harder than I ever have. I didn’t have a care in the world.
When my longitude and latitude became irrelevant, I was given the gift of figuring out who I was without constraints.
I ate everything I wanted to without a care of gaining weight. I tried my very hardest to speak Italian, even though I got loads of crap because I’m not good at it. I failed a lot and succeeded some. I somehow navigated public transportation and basic survival in 10 countries. I did everything I dreamt of, and woke up every day looking forward to spending it with my closest friends. I let go of stupid judgments and grudges. I lived.
Another thing I observed was the European way of loving others.
In America, PDA is discouraged. If someone offers you candy, you don’t take it in case it’s poisoned. You don’t smile at people on the subway. Tourists are frowned upon.
Europeans kiss in the street. They invite strangers from their hostel to grab a drink and chat until 3am. They tell you it’s okay that you don’t have cash; you can pay tomorrow. They spend the day showing you around their city patiently, just because. They have dinners spanning 3 hours and don’t check their watches once. They forgive. They take life a little less seriously. They’re not afraid to trust.
I’ve taken that all to heart. I’m learning and trying to be a little more open and giving of myself, and a lot more patient.
I’ve learned who Emily is, beyond her longitude and latitude. She’s humorous, with a deeply-rooted introspective side. She notices the little things. She cares for her friends above all else. She likes to comfort others and find points of similarity. She doesn’t really sweat the small stuff anymore. She’s learning, bit by bit, not to care what people think. She’s done with listing her negative traits, because that’s always come too easily to her.
I’m pretty proud of who she’s become.
I got a little tattoo. It’s a 5. 5 months in Italy, 5 best friends, living at Via Sant’Elisabetta, #5.
It’s tiny. It’s probably stupid to some. But it will remind me when I’m 25 or 45 or 95 that I’m more than my latitude and longitude, that people love me no matter my place in life, and that there’s a whole world out there to go explore. And for 5 amazing months at one point in my life, that’s all I knew.
5 months from now, I’ll be a college graduate. Everything will change all over again.