Italy, the first time around, broke me in; as a recent college graduate, and intern living in Piedmont, this place taught me to buck up, be brave, to try, to enjoy. Taught me that I was the type of person unafraid of languages I didn’t understand, getting lost, or eating something I couldn’t identify. And as such, it is and will always be one of my Most-Important-Places-In-the-World. 

That first time around, Italy invited me to dig into me. So it only seemed fitting that on this next trip, this second time around, that I would get to dig into IT. Three weeks of field work; researching, riding bikes, and reveling in all that the core of the country – Tuscany – has to offer, seemed like ample time. And so I packed some maps, notes about our trips in Italy, plenty of cycling clothing, more pairs of shoes and evening attire than seemed necessary, and set my sights on a home base just north of Chianti.  

When you are in possession of even one exotic passport stamp, flying to Italy seems almost pedestrian. But this doesn’t negate the amount of time it takes to get there. In fact, flying to Japan from San Francisco is closer than the halfway-around-the-world trek that took place for this journey to begin; over 24 hours of flights, trains and vehicles all in. By the time I found myself walking the main corso in town, hunting something to eat for lunch/dinner (or, actually, breakfast as far as my internal clock was concerned) I was a zombie. The rain had been falling and the streets were wet, but passegiata continued anyway with umbrellas and animated conversation, as if talking over the sounds of falling rain was the goal. Tired as I was, this sight, and the feel of these streets gave me a buzz — what a rush to be back in the country where it feels as if my life as a Traveler began.

Over the next weeks, there was much whirl-winding: driving routes, riding routes, supporting riders, running logistics, meeting with hoteliers, collaborating with colleagues, mapping outposts and photographs, and exploring out of my back pocket the vineyards, ristoranti, borgos, pizzarias, gelaterias, purveyors, and hideaways all over Chianti, into Florence, and down to Umbria. I am reminded that I have only started to scratch the surface of all the most amazing things that this part of the country has to offer. On paper, this list was what I had “accomplished” —  what I brought back to my office when I returned today to report on my experience (and, to justify all the pictures of fun that I was sharing over Instagram…) But, it was what lie between these lines that meant, that means, the most to me.

I carried my camera, yes, and the scenery struck me dumb –  frequently inspiring 20 minute intermissions on the side of the road to shoot this or that. I would be struck by this vineyard, rolling into that valley polka-dotted by the terracotta roofs of those villas in the middle of no where; this same sort of scene would be awaiting around each and every corner, and I never tired of seeing it, or found it commonplace. Unfortunately, or fortunately, in looking through all of these images, I realize that the most beautiful things I saw, and stole, from Tuscany over these past three weeks are things that I couldn’t have possibly photographed. Experiences had by a well-seasoned woman, perspective of a traveler, no longer a young tourist. 

It’s hard for me to say that the woman whom lived in Italy 8 years ago was so set in her ways and expectations that she found Italy to be confounding; she didn’t even know what her ways or expectations were yet. I explored all over Italy in those 10 months that I was an Italian resident with what I then considered to be reckless abandon. Retrospectively, this abandon was also little bit wary, certainly lonely, marginally frightened, slightly lost, and usually uncomfortable but ultimately determined. And so it was lots of fun to watch as my travels unfolded over these past weeks, colliding with my recollections, and basically re-writing my own memories of Italy as a place, and of me in it.

In my memory, Italy was hard for a woman like this, traveling alone; there never seemed to be a table for one at dinner, passegiata, siesta, and less-than-ample breakfast consistently threw me for loops, my brain constantly throbbed from translating and navigating language, and wherever I went I felt I had to pack a stiff upper lip to keep me out of trouble from cat callers, and unsavory folks whom lurked in the train stations late at night. 

On this trip, the announcement of sono solo (I am alone) to a maitre ‘d  inspired wide open arms and practical red carpets complete with special dishes from the kitchen, an extra listening ear pressed to my wine glass….for if you don’t have anyone to converse with over dinner, you must have double the wine (any good waiter knows so.)

The time schedule, and structure of meals works well if you’re a cyclist; you literally are creating excellent reasons to actually take siesta (to ride, or to actually nap,) you’ll be needing a passegiata and gelato since dinner isn’t until late, and you don’t mind eating only a little brioche and some caffe if it means that you’ll be having primi and secondi, or an entire pizza for lunch somewhere along your route.

And the language; I spent hours learning and practicing my Italian all those years ago — I needed to as a means of thriving and surviving. This time, words escaped me completely at times and were replaced with words in asian languages more recent in my memory, or hand motions, expressions, big smiles and gestures. Not for one minute did I feel these efforts went unnoticed, misunderstood, or un-appreciated.

There were still tiny shreds of my previously wary self; as a traveler learning to be alone all those years ago, I had a stiff upper lip, an urgency, and a cold way about me as I navigated late night walks home from the train station, and early morning runs along the river while the bar hoppers of Torino were still headed home.  I kept my cold shoulder when I was completely lost wearing heels in the labyrinth streets of Bevagna at 11pm last week, unable to find where I had parked my car (somewhere outside the city walls.) And I did so when I went for runs along the strade bianci in the Tuscan countryside early in the morning a couple of weeks ago; I met with two suspicious cars in the middle of a field at 5am amongst the poppy, each occupied with a pair of dark haired fellows wearing skeptical scowls. Decidedly, I ran faster home. 

Landing in San Francisco last night, I felt something strange — accompanying the pang of relief that you feel when you finally return home after a long time away, was a complimentary pang of contentment. Like the one you have when you recollect the smells and sounds of a good friends’ home, or when you pine for the cabin where you spent your summers growing up; its a feeling of joy knowing that you have a place that is part of you, a place that knows you without saying so. 

I already have another trip back to Tuscany in the works, and lots of fun artifacts to share from the trip in the coming weeks.  In the meantime will be savoring these photos of spring. Enjoy!