I couldn’t wait to get on the plane.
I knew I would not return to New York for a very long time – if ever. The moment I knew I was leaving for Italy, I made up my mind never to come back to New York. There were too many bad memories for me here. Too many ghosts. Every once in a while, even after the divorce and my bankruptcy were final, I still had that creeping feeling that The Ghost might find me or that our paths would cross. Then what? Leaving the country altogether would illiminate that possibility, even if it did seem extreme. I knew that I could be completely free and truly breathe and sleep easy once I got on that plane.
I announced my new job and plans to leave New York to the girls at work when I retuned from the job fair in May. They were all really supportive. Some were sad to see me go because we had formed friendships outside of work. Some were sad on a professional level, as I was, because our tight team would be broken up. And others, I suspected, were upset with me for “selling out” and leaving a system that desperately needed good teachers to continue the work we started. There were grade changes for some of the teachers that year and tensions were building among the staff because of governmental changes to the New York City Curriculum and State Standards. The New York City School System was in flux. Looking back, I think I may have gotten out just in time. There was a farewell dinner for me in June… lots of food and drink and laughter. The women who helped me become a teacher were so important to me; they nurtured me, befriended me and trained me to be a true professional. I felt like the baby leaving the nest, though I truly had earned my wings by then. I was ready to fly.
The movers came and packed my belongings in July. There were thirty boxes of books and teaching resources and clothes. I had no trouble deciding what to bring with me. In fact, I packed like I knew I would not be coming home. I packed old journals, pictures and books a plenty. The day I left for the airport in late August, I had only three suitcases which I bought on sale at T.J. Max for under four hundred dollars. I filled them with my top favorite outfits, readying myself for life in Milan. A few weeks earlier, I cashed in my teacher’s pension money, gave it all to my mother except for one thousand dollars which I took to hold me over until I received my first paycheck. Knowing that I signed a three year contract, I had to resign from the New York City teaching system as they only allowed a leave of absence for one year. I had received my permanent NY State teaching certificate a few years before, so I knew I could always teach again if I ever returned to The States. But that wasn’t my plan.
I remember the drive to the airport like it was yesterday. I remember saying goodbye to the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway, good bye Southern State Parkway, Goodbye asshole drivers, goodbye dumb people with obnoxious bumper stickers, goodbye bad Long Island and New York accents, goodbye, goodbye goodbye. Goodbye trees, goodbye humid New York air, goodbye mother who turned me away, goodbye brother who didn’t care, goodbye goodbye goodbye. Goodbye scary ex-husband, goodbye bankruptcy, goodbye bad credit, goodbye goodbye goodbye. And then the tears started to fall. I’ll miss my mother, and bad Long Island accents and the brother I wish I had and the lovers I never met and the life I didn’t have in my home town. I thought of Frank Sinatra singing “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere….” and the tears came some more. I hadn’t made it here – I had failed at marriage, at being a good daughter, good sister, good aunt, good friend. I had no talents to speak of and was incapable of exploring new relationships with men I was interested in. I know I projected an air of confidence and positivity but inside I felt a failure in so many ways. I knew with confidence that starting over in another country would give me the clean slate I so desperately wanted.
Pulling into the airport I remember the glow of it. The glow of the white beams above me, the light from the skylights above shining into the pristine cathedral-like terminal from clear blue skies and sunshine. I loved it. I loved being in the airport. I checked in for my flight with quivering hands and lips on the verge of tears. I checked my bags and found a big surprise waiting for me. Annie, MaryEllen and Gina, three of my closest friends from work waiting with hugs and kisses to say goodbye to me. I was so excited and beyond touched that they sneakily found out my flight and terminal number and met me there. We had our final laughs and hugs and said goodbye and I cried some more. I was moved, really moved that they came to see me off. Then off I went onto the security line, fitting in last waves and air-blown kisses. I placed my shoes, coin purse and cell phone in the tray on the belt, and crossed into the terminal. Alone. Waiting for my eight our flight to board and take me to my new life. My stomach was doing a dance and cramping up. I was getting nervous and excited all at once. What will it be like? What if no one is waiting for me at the airport? What if I hate it there? I signed a three year contract! Three years. What was I thinking! I want my mommy…. I went to the magazine shop in the Duty Free and bought some junk-food magazines, things like People and Us, just to get my mind off my anxiety. I was not going to let myself have an anxiety attack after having gotten over that years ago…
Then we boarded. The seatbelt safety speech. The low dings that happen on the plane to signal the crew to belt up themselves and prepare for takeoff. And the roar of the engines. My heart was pounding. I looked out the window. The sun had just sunk into the city and New York had that golden pink summertime night glow. The lights from the buildings were twinkling as the plane rushed up the tarmac. And finally…. lift… we were in the air, hovering above New York and I thought of the R.E.M song Leaving New York’s Never Easy…. and it wasn’t. It was hard. My heart hurt. I couldn’t understand that feeling because I wanted to leave so badly. But it was hurting now and I felt a tug that went from my heart to my throat to and way back down to my stomach, then straight down to my legs. And we were up in the air and New York was a tiny speck on the coast of a land mass. Then there was water, then clouds then darkness. I watched three movies in a row and ate horrible plane food and did not sleep. My eyes burned on the flight from being that dry after you cry dry, combined with the air conditioning that circulates on the plane. I wondered where all the people around me were going after they landed? To work, like me? On holiday? Back home? To visit family? Were they escaping something? Starting something? It was interesting to me and I made stories about the strange faces around me as I observed them.
I landed in Milan’s Linate Airport. It was a small 1950’s throwback airport located just outside the city’s center. I was greeted by Day Jones and was thrilled to see his familiar smile. He greeted me with the famous Italian kiss… two cheeks, two air kisses, and escorted me to the car where Claudio, the do everything guy from the school, drove me up to the school just south of the center of Milan. The school was literally located in the middle of riso (rice) fields. It was hot and humid. I checked in at the school, meeting the lovely secretary, Tina, who gave me my apartment keys and instructions for how to open the door. You might laugh while reading this, but the key was a skeleton key half the length of my forearm. The instruction was to turn the key three or four times before it would unlock. Well, I’ll spare you the details here… it took a lot more than three or four turns. In fact, one of the senior staff members on the orientation committee who delivered me to the Via Mose apartment even had trouble opening it. Anyway, I got in and was shocked at the size of the place. It was HUGE. It was dated- circa 1960’s grandmother’s apartment. It was a two bedroom, with a large common space and a big kitchen- bigger than the one in my mother’s house and a bathroom complete with bathtub/shower, toilet, bidet and a washing machine. The entire apartment had the same cold floor that was black, brown and white speckles. I’d come to find later that this was typical of older Italian apartments. No carpeting anywhere. It was spotless but the orange couch and green chair in the living room looked like they’d seen better days. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. Apparently, she was delayed because she was traveling from Hawaii. She missed one of her connections on the way and was expected later that evening. So I chose my room which had a large armoire and french doors leading to one of the two balconies in the apartment. The other was off the common area. The balcony was large enough to have at least two chairs but they were empty. So, I plopped myself on the squeaky thin mattress in my room and thought I’m home.
The plan was to allow new teachers to get settled and rest for a few hours then meet at the school later to go into Milan for our first Pizza Dinner. I was a vegan for three years before I arrived in Milan and was worried about the cheese. I figured I’d have a salad and not make a big deal about it. On the way out, I met my upstairs neighbor, Juliet, a smiley Pennsylvania native with very wholesome looks. She sounded smart when she spoke- you know, the way some people do- and I’d come to later learn she was a graduate of Yale. This impressed me. Everyone was smiles and big hellos when we arrived at the pizza place. It was a full- on restaurant complete with white table cloths and tables pushed together into u-shaped formation, set for some of the staff and all the new teachers at the school. I felt shy and a little nervous when we walked in… so many new faces… Everyone checked out the new people as they entered. It was obvious we were all sizing each other up- who would be cool to sit with, who looks friendly… such a strange set of circumstances! I felt intimidated and nervous and stayed close to Juliet who was pleasant and open and also thought the whole scene was slightly bizarre.
We were seated at the table and the smells were getting to me now. As soon as we entered the restaurant we were hit with the smell of pizzas being cooked in the wood-burning brick oven. There was wine on the table- red and white- not in bottles but in clear chubby glass pitchers. There were glass bottles of water being passed around and people were already passing around plates of grilled vegetables and olives drowning in glistening olive oil. Prego! the waiter announced stretching out his hand to show us to our seats. The social nervousness I was feeling was mixed with my breath being taken away by my surroundings. The waiters were dressed in black pants and crisp white shits with black vests and black ties. It wasn’t fancy – just the opposite- it all seemed very homey. Because we were such a large group, We were never handed menus. The antipasti, which included grilled eggplant, zucchini and roasted red peppers was accompanied by wine. There were prepackaged long, skinny breadsticks standing up in stout clear glasses at every third place setting. There was small talk in English filling the room mixed with the waitstaff calling out to each other in Italian which made me giggle. Little to myself. It sounded nothing like the Brooklyn Italian I’d heard spoken by friends family members in New York, that’s for sure. It was musical Italian. Delicious to my ears. Just as delicious as the simple glistening vegetables being served. When the pizzas came out my mouth immediately began to salivate. Little pizzas that looked nothing like New York pizza- it was smaller and paler in color and there were all kinds- pizza margherita which was what we would call a plain pizza, garnished with a sprig of fresh basil, pizza al funghi which was a mushroom pizza, pizza diavolo a spicy pepperoni pizza and pizza quatro formaggio a four cheese pizza, and finally pizza ortolana a vegetarian pizza with a few slices of the same thinly sliced zucchini and eggplant that we were served for antipasti. I took a slice of ortolana and bit into heaven. Goodbye veganism… And ciao Italia!!
Just as we were moving on to dessert, in walked Julie, my roommate and April, Juliet’s roommate. They had met at the job fair where they were hired and were happy to see each other. Juliet and I were sitting in an awkward spot, slightly too far away to say proper hellos, but we all waved and smiled cheerily at each other. Eventually the evening wound down and we carpooled back to our respective apartments. Julie and I spoke briefly when we got to the apartment. We caught up on all the basics- this wholesome cheery midwesterner with the big bright smile and bouncy blond hair and crystal blue eyes was from Minnesota. I’d never met anyone from Minnesota. I had no idea what to think. But she seemed nice enough.
I don’t remember much else about our first conversation that night but I remember very clearly what it was like going to bed that night. I remembered lying on the squeaky thin mattress trying to get comfortable. I was exhilarated by the discomfort and newness all at once. I looked out the open French doors, out over the balcony, and from my bed on that hot summer night I could see the ceramic roof tiles of the buildings out beyond our apartment building. The sky looked different to me. Italian. I could not believe I was in that little bed, with a girl from Minnesota in the next room in our Italian apartment. I was in Italy. Italia.
I was home.