After four trains and a wrong turn in Florence, I was in Siena, Italy, carrying too much luggage and struggling for words I didn't know. It was November 1996, and I was going by myself to a city with tones so unusually rich, a color is named for it.
The family I was to stay with, a relatively elderly mother and her twice-my-age son, didn't speak a word of English and weren't expected to. I was the one who was supposed to learn a language; I was to go to Italian class three hours a day for the next month. But the day I got there, all I knew was "Non parlo italiano," and I said it all the time.
The family was short with me at first, and I understood enough to figure out the words for "that's the thing with Americans, they don't know how to speak." But it would be they who would teach me most of the Italian I learned there -- and a few added lessons along the way.
I went to Siena for a few good reasons. I left Chicago for a million more. I had just quit a job to go to graduate school, and the people there resented me for it. I had just quit a boyfriend. And I had quit an apartment where the landlord was a little too friendly. I was tired of quitting things; I was ready for big, shining starts.
I picked Italy for its art, and Siena was full of it. It was just so old. The town hall was built in the 12th century, and all the other buildings weren't much younger. Streets arched over each other in narrow brick streams, and a thick high wall circled the town as if the whole thing had been thrown like a discus into the Tuscan hills. The Duomo was made of ancient striped marble, and St. Catherine's skull was in a church named for her, where it's been for 600 years. Everything was medieval and preserved, and nothing was like where I came from.
The first morning of class, my host-mother, Signora Franci, escorted me on the bus so I wouldn't get lost. She was about 4-foot-11 to my 5-9 and she talked continually to me in Italian, though she knew I was still oblivious. She left me at the Dante Aleghieri language school with a tip-toed kiss and a "Ciao, bella." I could love a country where absolutely everyone called you beautiful.
My class was a stray collection of 21-year-old Australian girls. I took them on as my friends; we'd circle through the city after class every day, then sit in the town square, dodging pigeons and eating gelato.
But I suddenly wasn't good at having friends. Something from the month before had made me shy. I wasn't very happy about people in general and it showed with these women. I questioned when they were nice to me and bristled when they whispered about anything. I was sure I was just weird to them, some older, freaked-out American who trusted no one.
And my boyfriend had been tricky. Yes, we broke up before I left, but the actual night before I got on the plane, he gave me presents and talked about missing me. So now I missed him.
I went to Rome to look at the Sistine Chapel, and I called him from a pay phone in front of St. Peter's to describe every detail. He screamed things back to me: "What are you doing there without me?" "When are you coming home?" And it rained the whole time and some guy grabbed my butt right there in Vatican City, but I didn't care. I felt filled up with Michelangelo and a boy and bringing worlds together.
But all that rain wasn't good for me. Back in Siena, I woke up the next morning and I couldn't stand up. Being sick is the one thing that can make you feel completely alone; and that was a feeling I didn't need reinforced. When I wasn't up for school, Signora Franci came into my dark, blue room. "Io sento malo," I told her. I felt bad. She immediately started rushing around, yelling at her son to call the doctor. I understood that much, but events were out of my hands. I lay in bed and she brought things to me: a hot water bottle, tea, soup.
I wondered how she could be so concerned, not knowing me, not even knowing my words. But I was so far away from home, I never needed taking care of so badly. I stared at that ceiling, comforters dwarfing me, and thought about every friend, every boyfriend, I ever lost too soon. I could see all the people I missed now. The people who hurt me, the people I didn't understand, just drifted away.
Hours later, Signora Franci came in again, this time with green velvet slippers she had bought because I always walked around in socks. She said something I equated as: Of course you're going to get sick if you have cold feet all the time -- warm them. "Mille grazie," I said. But a day later, when I was feeling better much sooner than I thought I would, I wanted to thank her more.
It was three weeks into the trip, and she had made me realize why I came to Italy. It wasn't just to see art -- though I saw it, and it made me feel creative and part of history and enriched. And it wasn't just to get away. What I needed, and what I never got from sweet Australians or kind teachers, was the returned belief in basic human kindness. Signora Franci didn't take care of me because of anything else but basic human concern: Someone is sick, she's away from her home, make her better. I was 25 years old, I had just started seeing more bad in people than good -- and I needed to see that kindness in action.
In my last week in Siena, I just took in the medieval walls, the green narrow hills and the wet, wet air. My Italian class performed a terrible spoken version of "Don Giovanni" for the whole school. I rode to other hill towns on huge buses with my Aussie friends, and the last night we drank wine and wandered through the streets yelling phrase-book expressions at each other.
Days before I went home, I knew I'd be ready for it. There were people to get back to, and I knew who they were. People, in general, could be terrible and wonderful. Sad that I had to go to Italy to realize that. Amazing that I could.