It’s official. I have had my first European breakdown and survived. I have cried, screamed and pleaded for understanding and come out the other side. Apparently all I needed was a wife who had reached her wits end, a five-day trip to Paris and some modern art.
The slippery slope toward full out-of-body meltdown started almost immediately after touchdown in Italy. The torrential rains that lasted our entire first week in Tuscany brought not only water, but grey skies, sour expressions on the faces of town residents and lack of access to anything that might happen outside — like walking, or biking or breathing fresh air.
It was during this week of climate-caused imprisonment that the irrational fear and doubt about myself, and the world, crept in. The unrelenting rain on the terra cotta roof was the perfect soundtrack to the questions that had lingered just below the surface of my confidence. Questions like, Do you really think anyone is going to take you seriously as a freelancer? And what makes you think that you can make friends?
Now, fully actualized, the slow descent into irrational depression was on.
I thought I had the game face down pat: somewhat nondescript expression, not too happy as to arouse suspicion since nothing had really happened in our apartment prison. And certainly nothing negative which would certainly give away the constant feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. As it turned out all I had down pat was the look of “scared shitless” and “totally paralyzed with fear.”
On day eight my wife, who has been my wife for more than a decade, was ready to call my bluff.
“So Italy, eh?” she asked.
“It’s beautiful.” I replied, the words carefully selected and given as much sincerity as I could muster. “The town looks lovely from our kitchen window.”
And then I started leaking. Slowly from the right eye and then the left. Silent tears of exasperation and unhappiness ran down my cheeks as I turned away from her, hoping she would in that instant, lose her sight temporarily and be none the wiser.
“Yeah,” she replied, “but aren’t you tired of the rain already?”
Early on in our relationship we decided that if we wanted to stay together it was probably in our best interests to not lie to one another. I had no other choice but to be honest.
“I am so tired of the rain I could claw my eyes out. I am tired of dancing and trying to make the best of things. I am tired of Mediterranean décor and architecture that practically pre-dates man. I am exhausted every day by just trying to ask for bread at the bakery and if I see another church, cathedral, chapel or stained glass representation of the ‘stations of the cross’ I might puke.”
It was then that the weight of being out of my element under a blanket of grey skies in a language I didn’t know began to lift. I was determined not to be afraid. No Italian was out for my blood. They were not evil people by nature and there was no reason why I should be in a constant state of fear. I felt liberated.
The next day we left Tuscany.
We had planned before leaving Canada that we would meet our friend in Paris for her 40th-birthday as a surprise — fly from Lucca for a four-day weekend and then return to our rented apartment. It could not have come at a better time.
After arriving in Paris to an apartment with old friends, taking a much-needed trip to the hamam — a Turkish bath — where we spent the better part of the afternoon in the steam and a visit to the Centre Pompidou, one of Paris’s contemporary art museums, everything looked brighter. The gallery, with consistently inspired exhibits and a strong permanent collection, was, as my wife said, like breathing fresh mountain air. Apparently all I needed to make me feel normal was a shot of good design, contemporary art, flea market shopping and fur coats. Paris had it all.
I was ready to take on Italy for the remaining two weeks of February before heading off to Berlin. We would do everything. Go to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower (which we did, although there is not a whole lot else in Pisa to see besides, yes, another cathedral). Visit the Carnivale Parade in Viareggio. Hike the trails between the towns in the Cinque Terre. Walk up a tower in our very own town that had a little grove of trees growing out the top of it. It was going to be amazing!
Day two back in Tuscany with a new outlook and renewed resolve, we got sick. I’m taking it as a sign that maybe Italy and I were not meant to be, that even though the sun is finally shining it is my destiny to live February as the month was intended. No matter where in the world I am.