Ever since I was a little girl I’ve felt the pull of Italy. It may have had something to do with my best friend at the age of seven being half Italian and spending many a evenings at her place, being treated to authentic Italian food that her dad would slave away in the kitchen to make us each night. I definitely didn’t realize back then how incredibly lucky I was to be getting home made Italian food. I even recall the first time he offered me prosciutto (okay, in an Italian household it’s less of an offer and more of a loving, yet forceful ‘eat this! you’ll love it!’). I bit my tongue and swallowed the salty gob down doing my best not to gag. The second he looked away, I held my hand under the table so that their labrador Moses could snatch it from my hands, helping us both out. I feigned fullness when he saw how quickly I had eaten it as he thought I must have loved it and wanted more. I’m happy to say my pallet has improved and I now do enjoy prosciutto!
The fresh pastas, the simple olive oil, pepper and parmesan dressing for them, fresh, hot focaccia, and the always fresh ingredients (well, as fresh as you can get them when you live in the far north, thousands of miles from where anything grows!). I was spoiled. Perhaps it was those heavenly meals, and stories we would hear at the table from Frank’s youth in Italy, or perhaps it was Diana’s speech in grade five about her visit to Italy that sparked the flame of desire to see this magnificent country at such a young age. Perhaps it was when I saw Under the Tuscan sun or Life is Beautiful. Whatever it was, it was like a low, slow heat that simmered for over 20 years, growing gradually with each passing year.
When my boyfriend Travis and I had to pick a place to meet up on my journey, I knew it had to be Italy. Not only is it terribly romantic, but I knew the food would be outstanding, and both being foodies (and Travis’s all time favourites being pizza and pasta!) there wasn’t a moments hesitation in deciding on Italy. I was over the moon to be reuniting with my love at long last. After some troubled times in our relationship, we decided to separate over a year ago. But, after 6 months apart and a lot of healing, talking and growing, we decided to work things out and remain in an open relationship together during my travels. The next eight months were undoubtedly difficult to be apart, but we were stronger than ever, spoke every day, and respected each other deeply, taking our relationship to a whole new level.
And suddenly the day was upon us! The day we both landed in Italy to begin a two week whirlwind adventure through paradise. As much as I would love to say he met me at the airport with flowers in hand and I jumped into his arms and we kissed passionately…it was more a bit of a bumpy start. As I boarded my plane excitedly from Greece, I thought ‘Shit… Did Travis and I even look at what airports each of us is arriving to? What if we are arriving at different airports…’. And I had a sinking feeling we were. My fear was confirmed when I arrived at the smaller Ciampino airport. Thankfully they had internet and I logged on to try and get ahold of Travis. After a little while I got an email from him with the subject line “lost my phone”. Oh no… He was supposed to grab me with the rental car, but not having his phone, he didn’t have GPS to find me, so I took a cab to the hotel which wasn’t too far from me (but cost a staggering 40 euro!). It took him quite a while longer to get there since he was getting a little lost in the crazy Italian traffic without a map to guide him, but he eventually made it. I was so nervous! My heart was pounding so hard, I was sure it would leap out of my chest and beat me to the door as he knocked on it. I adjusted my hair, tried to take a deep breath, but instead excitedly gasped and ran to the door and flung it open.
“Baby!” I squealed.
He stood there, handsome as ever, if a little disheveled, with his backpack on, and a large duffle bag in one hand. He dropped the bag as the door swung open and practically fell into my arms. I hugged him desperately. How had I gone the last 8 months without these arms around me? I inhaled him deeply. Even after a long day of travel across the ocean and without sleep, he still looked and smelled like the most wonderful thing in the world to me – like home. We pulled the bags into the room, shut the door and threw ourselves on the bed, wrapped around each other. “What happened?!” I asked, half concerned, half bemused at our turn of bad luck before our journey even began. He explained that when he went to pick up the rental car he realized too late that he must have left his phone on the seat of the bus in all the excitement and lack of sleep. He spent the next hour calling and running around to try and track it down, but the shuttle was long gone and it wasn’t looking good. Luckily he had his iPad so began the wild drive back to the airport to pick me up, only to open my email and see that I wasn’t even at that airport. And then he had to get from the airport to our hotel which took well over an hour in the insane traffic and with only a half loaded google map of where he was supposed to go. He was frazzled; it was a hell of chaotic start to our trip, but the thing was, none of it mattered. We were together at long last and no matter how shitty the circumstances were leading up to that moment, it all dissipated the second we were in each others arms again. We laughed at our bad luck, smiling widely while we hugged. And just like that the bad start was forgotten and the excitement kicked in.
“Look at this VIEW!” I exclaimed as I pulled him off the bed and flung the wide windows open. The serene lake Albano shimmered blue far below us, the green mountainside climbing up on all sides like a crater lake. Birds flittered about, and the twinkling lights of the town perched up high across the way winked at us in the fading daylight. We stood, arms around each other, staring out into the fast approaching night over the lake. It was beautiful. After a quick shower to wash off a long day of travelling, we went down for dinner. It was our first Italian dinner experience and it was unlike anything I’d been used to on my travels. Our hotel, Castel Vecchio, was also much more high class than I was used to with my backpacking habits of cheap hostels. The staff were dressed finely in tuxedos, the table draped with thick white lace table cloths, the chairs with matching chair slips. The soft yellow light of the room lent a romantic feeling, complimented by the huge bay windows overlooking the lake below.
There were so many utensils set out that I adopted the basic rule I learned in Titanic – start from the outside and work your way in! Most meals in Italy come in the form of a first course, which is usually a pizza, pasta or a risotto dish, followed by a main dish which is fish or meat, and then dessert, of course. Our meal started with a glass of wine and a glass of prosecco, and Travis, forgetting he would be drinking my wine and prosecco, also ordered a beer – he now had 5 glasses of alcohol in front of him at once! We each ordered a pasta dish to start and the serving size was so large I couldn’t fathom being able to eat a second meat dish, but it was already on its way. The chicken was moist and tender, served simply with beans, but the pasta was incredible. It was served perfectly al dente, with olive oil, seasoning, some pamigiano reggiano and tiny deshelled oysters. Dessert was ice cream served with melon. We were uncomfortably full and thankful we only had to walk up three flights of stairs to reach our room where we could relax.
We slept in late, both needing the sleep, especially Travis to adjust to the time change and jet lag, and took our time getting ready. We went down for a delicious breakfast that was included with out hotel, of breads, fresh tomatoes, cheeses, fruit salad, sliced salamis, and an assortment of breakfast pastries. It was decided the best course of action for our first day would be to drive the car to the nearest metro station, park it for cheap, and use the metro to get around Rome, as the driving, traffic and parking rates were ludicrous. We had a few house keeping things to take care of – mainly me getting to the Canadian embassy to submit my vote for the Canadian Federal Elections. Travis had brought the voting package from home for me, and it was the first time in my entire life that I cast a vote for any election. The state of my beloved Canada had drastically declined in that last ten years with our Conservative government and it was the catalyst I needed to get interested in politics. I was realizing for the first time that every vote truly does count and can make a difference. While the party I voted for didn’t win, I was prepared to vote strategically if need be – my ultimate goal was like that of most of our country – to remove the Harper conservative government at all costs. It was a proud moment, checking off that box and handing it to the embassy to send off in air courier that afternoon. And a few weeks later as I lay awake unable to seep in my hostel bed, awaiting the results, it was another very proud moment to see how my country came together and had the highest voter turn out in over 20 years and removed the Harper Government loud and clear with the election of a new Liberal government.
Next up we headed down the metro to check out the Colosseum. The second you step out of the metro station the great, lumbering dilapidated walls of the coliseum, stained amber in the setting sun, greet you. We paid for our tickets and gave ourselves a tour, busting out the selfie stick for the first time, being real tourists and having fun with it. We spent a couple of hours walking through the corridors and marvelling at this colossal building, imagining it as it was in its heyday nearly 2,000 years ago with the Emperor watching, along with near 80,000 citizens, as the brutal games of the gladiatorial man and beast played out in bloody battles below, or as epic reenactments were dramatized to the delight of onlookers. With night falling, we made our way towards Trevi fountain only to be sorely disappointed to discover it was under renovation and therefore currently drained and half covered in scaffolding. The walk was still beautiful and as we entered a hot tourist spot, the streets were filled with outdoor cafes and ristorantes, shops and a gelateria (or four) on every corner. We were bombarded by East Indian and African men doing their best to sell their goods to the tourists with the scams of telling you it costs nothing for you, you’re from Canada? Oh why, that’s their favourite country! Free for you! Followed by, ‘whatever you can spare, just 5 euro’ HA!
Looking at menus along the way, we finally settled on one called La Laconda del Tempio, where I ordered a pizza and Travis went with his all time favourite of Fettuccine Alfredo. I took one bite of his when it arrived and begged him to trade me! It was without a doubt the best pasta I’d ever tasted! The white cream sauce began to thicken as it cooled, and we sprinkled a little extra parm atop the mountain of fettuccine. The sauce wasn’t overpowering, it was quite simple, something I found most food in Italy to be – simple ingredients but tantalizingly fresh, put together in a perfect harmony.
We shared our meals together; the pizza was delicious, but felt like a sad letdown compared to the pasta. Sitting under huge umbrellas in the narrow cobblestone alley, we watched the tourists buzz by, in search of their own place to eat, soft candle light on our table. I looked across the table from me at Travis as he sipped on his red wine. We both had food drunk smiles plastered on our faces. We held hands across the table and talked excitedly about how much we were already head over heels in love with Italy. Not being a lover of big cities, I was surprisingly irresistibly drawn to Rome. I think the food may have had something to do with it…! We walked home, hand in hand in the cooling evening and stopped at a gelateria. Travis chose cafe and pistachio together and it became the go to flavour for the entire trip.
Late nights led to late mornings and we savoured being able to sleep in until 9am. Today we were tackling Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was a journey to get in to Rome each day, taking near two hours to get to our first destination, after the car drive, finding parking in the metro, taking the metro and then walking to our site. We were a little unsure of whether we were heading to Saint Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel or Vatican museum, as there wasn’t much for signage and my map wasn’t helping either. We entered the Vatican city and found ourselves in Saint Peter’s Square, where the pope would address Rome from each Sunday. Huge pillars encircled the entire area and pious statues surrounded you every way you looked. It was a beautiful area and we admired it from the line we hopped into. Being a long line we assumed this is where we wanted to be. The line move remarkably fast and before we knew it we found ourselves walking through the massive doors of Saint Peter’s Basilica. I felt so lucky to have been able to see some of these great cathedrals and basilicas around Europe. Since reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and William Golding’s The Spire, I’d found I had developed a new fascination for churches and their architecture. The amount of detail, carving, history, thought and material that goes into these buildings is absolutely astonishing. Built in 1506 to replace the original from the 4th century AD, it took one hundred and twenty years to complete. It is Christian belief that Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples is buried in a tomb beneath the church.
Inside, we walked the length on each side admiring the art, the frescos and the ceilings. A crowd was cluttered together towards the back of the Basilica and we made our way over to see what was going on. I stood back and watched as people attempted to proceed and were stopped by guards (or perhaps clerical staff) asking where they were going. “To see the rest of the church” .“I’m sorry, you can’t enter, it is mass”. Shoulders slumped they walked away. Someone else approached and said in Italian that they were going for the mass and were immediately let to pass. A-ha! so the trick, if you want to see the rest of the church is you have to sit through the hour long mass! Not really wanting to, I just admired from afar what I could see and wandered at the marvel of this building some more.
By the time we were finished in the Basilica, the day had worn on, and it was too late to try and get into the vatican museum or to see the Sistine Chapel, so instead we headed back down Via di Pietra to pick out another restaurant for dinner. We saw one the night before on our way home that we wanted to try but all of a sudden found ourselves back in front of La Laconda del Tempio, where we ate the night before. And we realized, all we both had been thinking about all day was the Fettucini Alfredo – why would we risk trying another place, where the pasta probably wouldn’t have been the same and then left disappointed? We both excitedly sat down again, at the same table and ordered the pasta. I wasn’t messing around this time with no pizza! Instead we ordered garlic bruschetta (which I learned is basically just toasted bread, and then you add your topping, like tomatoes and oregano, olive oil and garlic etc. ).
The next day was kind of a big one for me. I was getting a tattoo. Several months ago I came across the Semi-Colon project. This is an awareness campaign started by a girl who lost her father to suicide. A Semi colon is used when a writer could end a sentence, but chooses instead to continue it, just as a person battling depression makes the same choice: to end their life or to continue it. The semi colon soon became a symbol of solidarity, awareness and hope for people everywhere who were either battling addictions, depression, and/or suicide themselves, or felt the affects of these illnesses through friends or family. People began getting the semi colon tattoo as a means of starting up a dialogue about a very taboo subject: mental illness. The biggest hurdle for progress with mental health today is the wall of stigma that surrounds it. People suffering from mental illness are too often embarrassed and deeply ashamed, and have been taught that they should be. It’s only recently that we are working at deconstructing that stigma and being taught to treat mental illness the same as any other illness. You would never be ashamed to tell someone that you are sick and have cancer, but for some reason the vast majority of mental illness sufferers are far too ashamed to say that they are sick and have depression. As if it were their own fault. The trouble with understanding mental illness for people is that they can’t see it, it’s not tangible for them. There are no outright, obvious physical symptoms in many cases. No bloodwork or tests that come back and say ‘positive’. This makes it difficult for people to grasp and understand, and so the best thing we can do to remove the taboo is to open up an honest conversation about mental illness, especially those who have or are currently suffering, or have been directly affected by it.
I first suffered from depression and self harm in the form of cutting at the young age of 11. I had good years and bad years until around the age of 18 when things really began to decline and my heavy drinking became a central issue. It wasn’t really regarded as heavy drinking because I was in college after all – in fact it was encouraged, in a rather appalling and unhealthy way by my peers. My depression deepened as did the cuts along my legs in my moments of darkest self hatred. My drinking got out of control and I would black out every single time I went out, four times a week. I was a complete mess, but somehow was able to keep it under cover and none of my friends or family could really tell that I was slowly dying inside. After three years of this, I finally reached my breaking point. After another bad night of blacking out, my friend dropped me off in the morning and we agreed to meet up later at the university. I was lying of course when I agreed to this, because I knew as soon as I walked in that door what I was going to do. I was going to hurt myself, to punish myself, because I was disgusted with myself. I hated myself so much; I was nothing but a disgusting monster in my own eyes, one that was a waste of space on this earth. I grabbed my extra strength tylenol (I had been abusing light pain killers more and more in the last few years as well) and took ten of them at once. I knew I needed a heavy dose to numb the hate and disgust I was feeling. Then I found my razor. I hadn’t cut for a while but it was still in its little box. I took ten more tylenol and began to cut. I took ten more. I cut more. With the bottle empty, I hobbled to the bathroom, with a bag around my leg to catch the blood- I didn’t want to get stains on my roommates carpet who I was renting from. I found my roommates bottle of extra strength Advil and hobbled back. I was dizzy and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I began throwing them back, five at a time as my cuts became sloppier and deeper, my motor functions beginning to fail me. The blood was now all over the carpet, but I was too tired to care.
What was happening? I didn’t plan this. All I was going to do was come home and take a handful of pills, cut, and then curl up in my bed for a few days like I always did. But I went too far. I couldn’t stop, part of me didn’t want to stop. Part of me wanted it to end forever. I no longer had the strength to even lift my arms to cut anymore. I couldn’t keep my head supported and my chin rested on my chest, my heavy eyes struggling to stay open the slightest bit. This was it I guess. It was just like falling asleep. Suddenly my phone rang, the vibrations reverberating off my desk until it fell to the floor. I knew from the Motley Crüe ring tone it was my ex. I contemplated not answering it, but suddenly I was so very afraid and I didn’t want this anymore. I picked up. He knew something was very wrong. He asked if I hurt myself again. He asked how many pills I took. He said he was calling me an ambulance. I said okay.
It’s been a long road to recovery from that awful day, but that was the day I quit drinking and began my healing. My depression deepened further than I thought imaginable after the hospital and the cutting became more frequent over the next two years. With trial after trail of antidepressants, moving back home and endless hours of counselling, I began to heal little bit by little bit. The cutting slowed down. It got to a point where I tried one day and I couldn’t. For the first time I was scared to cut myself and for the first time it really hurt. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I used to have so much pain inside my head, inside my heart, so much hate and disgust, that cutting was the only way to dull that emotional, mental pain. I hardly felt the cutting at all in those times, all I felt was incredible relief. It was merely a distraction, a way to ease the other, much more terrible pain. So when I tried to cut and could actually feel it, when it actually hurt, I knew I was done with this destructive coping mechanism once and for all. I moved to Regina to live with my mom for support while finishing my university degree which had been interrupted by my depression. A few months later I met Travis, the man who helped to show me for the first time in my life that I was worthy of love, not only from others, but from myself. I can’t tell you how much I owe my full recovery to that wonderful man.
And so it was only suiting that 5 years later he sat beside me, supporting me as I got my semi colon tattoo. This was a huge step in my recovery which is an ongoing process and will be for the rest of my life. It meant I was putting something on my body – an ‘open’ sign – an invitation for others to see it and ask what it meant, and an opportunity to open up an honest dialogue about mental illness, depression and self harm. My hope is that it will bring more awareness and encourage more people to talk about it instead of hide it like it’s something to be ashamed of. I was so excited for the first person to ask me about my tattoo! The truth is… I bore my scars of self harm with deep shame for years, constantly going out of my way to cover them up with any means possible, including wearing a sweat band on my one ankle and proclaiming it was a fashion statement. I still unconsciously cross my ankles when they are bare and hide my one leg under my bottom when sitting to hide them, habits I learned from years of practice. And so to add a new scar of sorts to my body, a much more visible and obvious one, was terrifying. It wasn’t long before someone asked me about it. A Brazilian guy at a hostel in Greece said, ‘Those tattoos are pretty popular now, hey?”
“Ya, they are, it’s great, isn’t it? The project is gaining momentum!”
“What it is?” asked a fellow Canadian beside me.
“It’s part of the semi colon project… A girl who’s father committed suicide began it to raise awareness about mental illness, depression and self harm in particular. It’s symbolic – writers use semi colons when they could have ended a sentence but chose to continue on instead”.
I was so nervous giving the explanation, I was sure my face with burning red and that I was speaking too fast. I felt the scars on my leg and arm burning and felt, though surely I was wrong, that they were all staring at and judging me.
“Oh, that’s really cool”, she said.
An unbearably long silence followed between the five of us who were sharing breakfast. I said something finally that changed the subject. And then felt like a failure. I failed my first test. But that was the old me thinking that way. I hadn’t failed. I explained to them the movement, what the tattoo meant and left the dialogue open but no one wished to pursue it. I am trying to remind myself that the first time will be the hardest and each time it will get easier and easier to talk about. Sometimes they will take the lead and other times, most likely more than not, I will have to take the lead. Hopefully, some day much of the world will come to know the significance of the semi colon’s symbolism, and when people see it they will know its significance and ask me about why I have the tattoo, what my story is, or if they don’t know what it means, ask so I can explain and teach one more person. My hope is that perhaps in one of the many conversations I have about my tattoo and mental illness, that I can somehow help someone who is also struggling, but is scared to talk about it.
That tattoo took hardly a minute and I didn’t feel it at all. We were back in the streets of Rome before I knew it, ready to tackle the city. We grabbed some teas, some dessert pastries, and headed into a little park to sit at a bench and people watch. The park cleared suddenly as the sky clouded over and drops of rain began to fall down. A rain storm broke out and boisterous thunder crashed all about us. We stayed on our little bench, sheltered by the tree somewhat, and enjoyed the beautiful storm as we had the park all to ourselves now. As the rain picked up and our tree now lacked sufficient shelter for the force of the storm, we took to the streets and bought a purple umbrella from a man selling them as he walked down the street. It was time to begin making out way to Termini metro station to meet with Travis’s cousin Paul, and his wife Patricia, who were on their honeymoon! After our hugs and hellos, we all made our way back to the car to start our road trip heading south together. We were off to the Amalfi Coast!