Thirty years ago I married a country. I was born in Brazil and, don’t get me wrong, I love my land and my culture, I never felt as an outsider there. But one day I found Italy and the Italian language and it was love at first sight, instant attraction with no logical explanation. It was an irresistible pull that made me want to speak the language and to be part of that world. Last week, while preparing a virtual conference about Italy and digging into my old travel photos, I realized that this year I celebrate the 30th anniversary of my first trip to Italy. A Pearl anniversary! Looking back, that’s a long journey: from a young journalist who sat foot in Turin in 1990 to today’s Italian teacher and writer.When I was small, all the kids my age wanted to go to Disneyland, but I wanted to go to Rome. No, I’m not first or second generation of Italian immigrants (Brazil has one of the largest population of Italian descendants in the world). I didn’t grow up listening to dialects or watching my grandmother preparing handmade tortellini in a kitchen covered in flour. All I knew from Italy as a kid came from books and from the strong Italian heritage that still exists in my hometown of São Paulo. According to 23andMe I’m only 4% Italian, amongst a wide variety of genes that had traveled from all over the world to made me what I am.
I started studying Italian at 17 because I loved the sound of the language, all those long open consonants that sparkled a happy, comforting feeling inside. I never stopped. So, in 1990, when I decided to go to Europe for the first time, Italy would be the highlight of my trip.The cheapest plane ticket from Brazil was from São Paulo to Madrid, so I went to Spain first and traveled by train to Italy, stopping here and there on the way. I finally boarded a train Barcelona to Turin with a change of cars in Perpignan, South of France, before we crossed the Alps towards Piedmont. The second train was crowded, there was a tired mother sitting with her teenager daughter right in front of me. Both had strawberry blonde hair and wore matching wool coats the color of chestnut. They talked all the time, and I eavesdropped every word with no guilt, it was the first time I could hear native Italian so close to the source.
In Turin I found a small hotel next to the Porta SUSA station and had dinner at an osteria close by. I can’t recall what I ate or the name of the hotel, and I don’t have any pictures of this leg of the trip. All I remember is that I couldn’t sleep out of pure excitement. I kept going to the window and looking at the city, not believing myself that I was finally in Italy.
Some vivid flashes of the following weeks: Sunday morning in a marzipan filled pasticceria in Lucca, Tuscany, watching families buying their dessert after mass; meeting Rachel, a future long-term friend on my first vaporetto ride in Venice, feeling that I was in a movie and not in a real city; the pain in the back of my legs climbing the 463 steps to the top of the Cupola in Florence’s cathedral (totally worth it); the thick coat of red dust glued to my sandals after climbing the Vesuvio up to the crater (the view of the bay of Naples is, again, worth every step); tears falling from my eyes as I left Rome, looking at the city from the cab that took me to Fiumicino airport on the last day of the trip.
It was hard to say goodbye to my love. Fortunately the separation was brief and I came back many times, I even lived in Umbria as a student for a while. I became an Italian teacher and I keep going back to my great Italian friends all the time. No divorce in sight.