Early on in the process of researching and prepping for traveling around the world long term, Nick and I decided that we would make a point to visit Italy first, and would plan to spend at least a month there. Being that we are both Italian Americans who have never been to Italy, it only felt right to explore the land of our ancestors first and foremost. In the months leading up to the August 1st departure date, I dedicated about 15-20 minutes each day to learning Italian through the app “Duolingo” on my phone. At my peak, Duolingo said that I was about 38% fluent in Italian, although it certainly felt like I was much less proficient than that. Learning Italian has been a goal of mine for a couple of years now. With a name like Vito Messina, I felt somewhat embarrassed that I could not speak the language so I made a point to learn as much as I could before the trip, while juggling everything else that was going on in my life at the time. I’ve always dreamed of exploring Italy slowly, and not just in a 10 day excursion. I wanted to see the ancient ruins in Rome and visit Naples where most of my family comes from. I wanted to soak in the beaches of Sicily, see the beautiful cities of Venice and Florence, and meet some locals who would teach me more about the culture of my ancestors. I also didn’t want to rely on only speaking English. I wanted to converse in Italian with the people. Now that my 42 days in Italy has come to a close, I’m lucky to say I’ve experienced all of the above, and much, much more.
Each place I’ve been to in Italy had its own unique feel. Rome was a tourist city for sure, but the history is difficult to match. Naples was by far one of my favorite places. It had an energy and vibe that was completely different than any other place in Italy I encountered. The city had a pulse to it, with vespas flying through the narrow alley ways with laundry drying above on the clotheslines. Scenes of locals eating on the streets while kids played foosball on a table outside of an old church. As I wandered through the alleyways and watched the people interact with each other, I realized that this is what I always imagined Italy to be like. I felt a deep connection to Naples, and I could close my eyes and envision my ancestors living here many years ago. It definitely will hold a special place in my heart and in my mind for many years to come.
Calabria was wonderful because we got a chance to stay with locals Maria and Papapino. My grandfather met them during his past travels and has managed to stay in touch with these wonderful people for over 10 years, with Maria also visiting my grandfather in New Jersey a few times and meeting a great deal of my family in New York. Maria was a gracious host who showed us around her neighborhood, took us to the beach, cooked for us, introduced us to her friends and most of all treated us like family. This has been a common theme we’ve seen from all of the locals that we came across in Italy. They are truly warm people who treat you as if you are their son, nephew, cousin, etc.
We saw more of the same when we arrived in Sicily and spent 11 days hanging out with a friend from back home and his family in Nicolosi, near Mount Etna. Our friend had rented a car and drove us around Sicily, where he and his family showed us many spots that they’ve come to know, love and appreciate over they 20 something years that they’ve been coming to Nicolosi as a family. We swam in the Mediterranean Sea and we jumped off cliffs into the crystal clear waters. We saw Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, up close and personal. I celebrated my birthday with his family, and even though of course it wasn’t the same, they did an amazing job of making me feel like I was with family…my Sicilian family.
We took a shared ride (BlaBlacar) from Reggio di Calabria all the way to Florence. It was about a 12 hour drive overnight in a tiny cramped car, but our driver and his wife were wonderful people. They were Christian missionaries returning from a trip spreading their message in the south of Italy. We had great conversation over the course of the road trip, and met with a few of their friends as well. When we arrived in Florence, we were blown away by the beauty and peacefulness of the city. The Duomo in Firenze was astonishing, as were the views of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo. But what I will remember the most about Florence is the close bonds we formed with a few people I now consider friends. Nick, Tyler and Michael from Australia; Angelica from Toronto, or Jamaica, or Paris…it’s a long story. And Davide, from a town called Torno, near Lake Como. We partied hard every night and had some awesome times laughing, dancing and hanging out. We went to bed no earlier than 4am every night. We had security knocking on our door telling us to be quiet quite a few times. As they say, it’s not always about the bucket list check marks of things you see when you travel. More often than not, it becomes about the people you meet, the bonds you create, and the experiences you share with complete strangers who feel like life long friends. We plan to meet with our friends again down the line, as they made Florence very memorable for us.
Next we headed to Venice, where we stayed outside the city in a tiny camper for a few days. We relaxed by the pool, and recharged our batteries a bit from all of the partying in Florence, at least for a day or two that is, because when you travel you tend to meet a lot of people and drink a lot with new friends. Venice was one of the most unique places I have ever been, and it’s easy to see why it is considered by many to be the most beautiful city in the world. Narrow alleys, canals, gondolas, wine, pizza, pasta, fish…what’s not to love? Pictures don’t do it justice and I don’t believe words can either. It’s simply a place you must see to appreciate.
After Venice we headed to Vaiano Cremasco, a small town about a half hour drive outside of Milan. Back in March I hosted Arianna, who hails from this town, when she visited NYC for the first time. We connected through Couchsurfing, and I consider myself very lucky to have met her. I showed her around NYC for a few days, taking her to many popular sites including the WTC, Rockefeller Center, McSorely’s Ale House and even a speakeasy. We talked a great deal about our lives, families and cultures and had an awesome time together. I told her I was coming to Italy and told her of my long term travel plans, but they were still in the early phases. Fast forward 6 months later, and she is picking us up from the Treviglio train station and showing us her neighborhood. We saw the ancient town of Bergamo, which offered spectacular views from the top of the mountain. We met her family and friends, all of who were amazing, friendly and fun people to be with. Her mother was a saint, cooking us amazing Italian meals almost exclusively with ingredients from the farm that they live on. Fresh tomatoes, fruits, meat from their cows, jams made from their fruit…the list can go on. Her father and brother provided endless laughs, especially her father who was one of the most curious people I have ever met, and his sense of humor and hospitality matched his curiosity. Arianna played tour guide, translator, but most of all, friend for us. I truly consider her a friend for life and hope to see her again sometime soon. We also went into Milan and saw her university among many other sites, including the world famous Duomo. We partied with her friends, ate at the restaurant that she works in, and saw fireworks at the yearly festival. I got to pop a bottle of champagne open with a sword. I continued to practice my Italian, as I have throughout my time in Italy, and it’s amazing to see how much it has improved each day.
After the amazing stay with Arianna and her family, we headed to Lake Como, where we linked up with our friend Davide who we met 2 weeks prior in Florence. Davide is a crazy character, full of energy at all times and a lot of fun to hang with. He works as a sailor on the boats that take you from town to town along Lake Como. Davide took us to his home, where he cooked his hometown dish of Pasta a Torno for us. He fed us well, gave us plenty of wine and amaro, and drove us around the villages surrounding Lake Como, showing us many things that only a local would know about. Waterfalls on the roadside, Villas where movies were filmed, George Clooney’s house of course, and much more. One day we went out on his boat, for free mind you, and took a 1 hour tour of Lake Como. What an experience that only happened because we became friends in Florence. In Como we also had a blast meeting travelers and locals alike at our hostel bar. I met a beautiful girl from Napoli who is living in Como and we had a great time over the course of a few days.
The past 6 weeks in Italy have been an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life. My experiences confirm what I already knew to be true…that leaving my job and everything familiar to travel the world and explore new lands, peoples, foods and cultures was the best decision I’ve made in my life. What’s at the top of my list of things I will cherish is speaking Italian with the people of Italy. From day 1, I made a point to try every single day…to ask for directions in Italian, to always greet people in Italian, and when they spoke to me in English, to try to translate what they said into Italian. I was amazed how much it progressively got better each day, and how many new words and phrases I learned while being here that I did not know beforehand. I’ve been able to navigate, entertain conversations with cab drivers, interpret someone’s Italian and translate to English for a French couple lost on a train. I’ve been confused as an Italian by locals, and have been complimented for my Italian speaking, even if I don’t believe it’s that good. On one of my last nights in Italy, I spoke for 2 hours exclusively in Italian with a woman who spoke little to no English. After I said goodnight to her and was walking back to the hostel room, I had a moment where I couldn’t believe what I just did. I was truly amazed and proud of myself. I’ve met Italians who wanted to see my passport as proof, since they didn’t believe I was from NY since “I spoke Italian well and had the face of an Italian.” In fact, one of these people was the girl that I met from Napoli and spent an amazing few days with in Como. It can all directly be attributed to me making the effort to learn a bit of Italian before leaving the US, and because I continued trying while in Italy, even if it was uncomfortable or nerve-wrecking at times. I now truly understand why people say that the only way to learn a language is to speak it and dive in head first. I have seen first hand how much my Italian has improved, and I’m sad to say goodbye to Italy and speaking the language as often as I have. I hope to complete my goal of becoming fluent in Italian in the future, and will have these experiences as a reminder as to why I want to achieve this goal. My new goal will be to return to Italy someday and be fluent in the language. The first major chapter of this journey is over, and it’s time to start exploring new countries and cultures. One never knows what to expect, but I know I’m blessed that I’m able to continue having these unique experiences on a daily basis. And I’m beyond excited to see what tomorrow brings.