My heart races as we turn corners going too fast, but I can’t tell the speed because my mind can’t calculate the difference between miles and kilometers quick enough.
“Daiiii!” Pleasseee! I playfully beg with the driver, an Italian with jet black hair and light blue eyes. My friends told me they think he could be dangerous. They said I should be careful, being in another country. All were worried, and stayed in our little apartment blasting American music and drinking too much cheap wine. None knew Italian. None wanted to know Italians. But I ran through the narrow alleys painted with graffiti to meet him anyway, and now he’s driving me towards a surprise. He laughs at my plea to slow him down and punches the little car up the hill faster. I am flying without wings.
Giacomo knows almost no English except for lyrics to his favorite American songs and the words “hello,” “washing machine” (because he thinks it’s amusing), and “girl”, my nickname. I speak to him in Italian, asking him again to tell me where we are going. “Aspetta, girl.” Wait, he tells me, and I pretend to pout as we climb the mountain side on the wheels of a dirty, white Italian Fiat. I close my eyes and listen to him changing gears, and feel the switchbacks on the narrow road we ascend. We had left the cobblestone roads of the city hours ago. Now the pavement is smooth, the air is colder. My heart races as adrenaline pumps through my body. I look down at my leather boots and skin tight jeans. This place has transformed me into an Italian-American hybrid. My instructors tell me I’m losing my American accent when I speak Italian. I wear too much eyeliner. I can maneuver my stilettos between the cracks of the cobblestones instead of falling into them. I want to smoke cigarettes.
Giacomo slows the car and maneuvers us onto the edge of the cliff at the top of the mountain and turns to me, anticipating my reaction.
I look out onto Ascoli, its medieval towers illuminated in the night; encircled with dark arms of the two rivers that kept the town safe from enemies in the centuries before. I look over to him and he smiles at me, knowing I approve. It is like constellations on the ground he says to me, it is like the stars have fallen from the sky and created a city. I agree with him. And this is my home for now; La citta delle stelle. The city of stars.
My time in Ascoli Piceno, Italy educated me in Italian culture far more outside of my classes than within them. I drove up to the rooftops of the world with Italians, not a tour bus. I had Italian friends. I shopped in their stores. I ate the local food, and ordered it in Italian. This is what is needed when traveling. Instead of sitting at the first restaurant you see, take a side road, take a back road, and ask the locals where to eat. You’d be surprised what you find. If you’re staying for a decent amount of time, live like them. Be a chameleon. Buy an outfit that you can fade into the background in. Watch the world around you go by without attracting attention to yourself as a tourist. If the women all wear heels simply to walk around their daily errands, you wear heels not flip flops. If the women are more covered in the culture, cover more. Learn enough of the language to get by, and don’t be afraid to use it. It is simple to ask how much something is, even if the person you’re talking to speaks English. Break down the tourist stereotypes and step into a world you aren’t comfortable in. Listen, learn, and love.
The world is different to the tourist and the traveler. Which one will you pick?