Twice over the course of a few weeks this fall, I found myself entertaining guests from the States. It had been a long eighteen months of settling in and finally feeling comfortable as an expat in Italy rather than a visitor. So, while I was delighted at the prospect of seeing old friends and happy to serve as their tour guide, I had to admit I dreaded the prospect of navigating the crowds in Tuscany’s busy tourist centers.
When Deb and Anna arrived in September, the weather was still warm, but not unbearably hot and humid as it had been over the summer. But it was still tourist season, and the hordes were unavoidable. Naturally, when visitors come to town, they want to see the hot spots, museums, and famous attractions. You may want to show off all your favorite off-the-beaten-path haunts, but that’s not what they came for.
Taking it to the streets
So, I bit the bullet, donned my Chuck Taylors and spent days on end pounding the pavement and showing off Il Duomo, the Galleries Uffizi and Accademia, the Ponte Vecchio and as many of Florence’s best restaurants and cafes as possible.
And then my head exploded.
I was shocked to discover how much I actually enjoyed stopping and exploring these amazing sights again, rather than just hurrying past them as I usually did.
And I was gratified that I could provide insight and context that would help my guests appreciate the wonders of Tuscany and Italy. As an old Renaissance buff, it had always been frustrating trying to explain my great affinity for this region to those who’d never experienced it. But now, as I gazed once again at the bulging vein in David’s arm as he gripped the stone that would take Goliath’s life, my friends could actually share in my awe.
This was at least my fifth time exploring Galleria dell’Accademia; I’d lost count, but it had been a long time since my last visit. Upon seeing the masterpieces with fresh eyes, I found that my anticipation for the upcoming new Michelangelo exhibit was suddenly through the roof. (As of this month, the Medici Chapels in Florence have opened “Michelangelo’s Secret Room,” where the artist was believed to be in hiding for two months in 1530. During that time, he etched charcoal drawings on the walls of his small hiding space beneath the chapel, which the world can now see for the first time.)
Even during Ellena’s visit in October, while repeating several of the same tours, I was still giddy with excitement. And when we ventured into the Tuscan countryside to visit wineries in Lucca and Chianti, the beauty of those rolling hills and vineyards seemed more breathtaking than ever.
Sharing the experience with a friend from home made it that much more meaningful. All over again, I found myself simply thankful that I get to live in this place.
While I didn’t accompany my friends on their adventures to Venice, Rome and Naples, I was once again able to provide insights and suggestions for the best tours and prime locations and activities; and, of course, warnings against the ever-present grifters and scammers in those cities’ tourist centers (Admittedly, the realization that I was now an “old pro” felt pretty good.)
Remembering why we’re expats
A brief trip to the United States over the summer had reminded me of the many reasons I’d left in the first place. Primarily socio-political and health-care related, that list of reasons has grown exponentially. Now, I was also being refreshed in so much of what had attracted me to Italy – and the things I’d probably been taking for granted.
My big takeaway from those dreaded tourism experiences was clear. I still love my new country.
Like most expats, I spend my fair share of time belly-aching about bureaucracy, taxes, etc. Of course, many are dealing with employment, housing and other very real challenges. But some of us even have the nerve to complain about tourists (a right that I’m pretty sure is afforded only to nationals).
Let’s not forget that there will always be pros and cons, no matter where we choose to call home. And, let’s not forget why we became expats in the first place.
If the pros in your new country outweigh the cons of the country you left, then you win.
See more about Italy here in Dispatches’ archives.