I am sitting on the hardwood floor in my daughter’s room and we are doing one of the things I am least likely to say “yes” to most of the time: playing pretend. We are holding 3-inch high figures of animals in wild colors that wear hats. I am the cat, running the restaurant and she is bringing various customers in. It takes me a while to realize that she is recreating the same story we played the last time the most generous part of me gave in and sat down for this pretend play.

She directs me, “Now you be the mean dog that comes in and orders everything by yelling.” I recognize where we are in this repeated plot and shrug. At least it will be easy to move the plot forward today. I need easy. I am so so tired.

And then I remember why I am tired. I am not “tired”—it is much more exciting than that. Tired is for busy people who have been doing busy things in their busy lives. I am a thing that is so unusual for me, a thing I have only ever been 2 other times in my life, a thing I cannot wait to be again. (And for those of you who are thinking “pregnant,” you’d better check those crazy-person thoughts at the door…remember?) I am “jet lagged.”

I remind myself—you just returned from 12 days in Italy! You had the most amazing time and you want to be Italian! But, I think, how can it be that now I am here, that it is over?

I planned this trip so carefully. I planned it using a combination of tips from my friend who visited Italy last year, my aunt and uncle who have a place in a town of 179 people we’d be visiting in Umbria, and Rick Steves (who I’d start calling my good friend, Ricardo Stefanos, by the end of the trip). Before we left I’d tell people the itinerary: Florence, a Tuscany agriturismo, Rome, and then Compignano, my aunt and uncle’s town. I had a document I’d prepared that listed each leg, each hotel, what we’d do or what we might do each day. I had done the trip in my mind so many times that I was practically starting to create the memories before we left—I just had to go and fill in the details of what it would look like, what it would sound like, what it would smell like, and—the part I was looking forward to most—how it would taste.

italy-dinnerAnd so we went. We said goodbye to the children, who would be staying with grandparents and aunts and having the best time. We stood in line for our flight, and the journey began. We strolled, navigated, drove, hiked (and in one unfortunate mis-timed train situation we sprinted) through each leg exactly as I had planned. (Aside from the sprinting. I do not sprint. All the coughing I did on the train ride after the sprint is hereby presented as evidence.) We tried to stop as often as we could to be present, to mark the moment, to seize it, really. To stop time. But we couldn’t. The legs came and went, and now I am here, on my daughter’s floor, playing pretend and realizing—it happened. It’s over.

We did everything we set out to do. We filled in the blanks I had before the trip with the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes—oh the tastes. And if that had been it, would it have been enough? The first night at a restaurant my good friend Ricardo recommended, our waiter poured enough wine to take a bath in out of a barrel and set it on our table. As I took my first bite of pasta made in Italy, filled in Italy, sauced in Italy, I gushed to my husband, “If we had to fly home now, the first day, after this first meal—this would be enough.”

mollie-eatingI have filled in the blanks of my trip planning now. I can tell you what we did, where we went, what we saw. But as I sit here now, after the trip, wondering if it happened, those blank-fill-ins are not what makes it real for me. As we went through the trip checking off each leg of the journey, visiting the David, driving through the Tuscan countryside, exploring the Colosseum—I had the sense of checking items off a list. Now that this thing has happened—what’s next?

colloseumNo—what makes it real—is how it felt to be there. How it felt to be me, in Italy. How it feels to be me now that I am home. While we visited my aunt and uncle, they walked us right through the back door of Italy. After walking through Cortona, the hilltop town from Under the Tuscan Sun, we went to I went to a restaurant by a lake and ordered fried seafood. (I say that, and then I must confess that the previous sentence is killing me. “Restaurant” and “by a lake” and “fried seafood” does not do the experience justice. Instead, lets say we visited heaven with a great view of heaven and ate heaven.) While we were enjoying the heaven breeze and our sparkling, costs-less-than-water, lunch-serving of white wine, my aunt noticed my whole body smiling. “You’re radiating joy!” she said. “It’s all that dolce vita I’ve been drinking in,” I replied.

fish-placeSo as I sit on the floor of my house again after, doing the things I do (or try not to do) every day, the memory of how it felt to be in Italy is what makes it real. It’s the part I brought home with me. A plan before a trip is flat—black ink on a white page. The imagining and anticipation is maybe two dimensional. But the actual thing—the sensing—if you do it right and really allow yourself to sense it—that is so real you can pack it in your suitcase home and you will be surprised that it does not add weight.

This focus on feeling, on sensing, is actually so, so Italian. My good friend Ricardo says that Italians don’t pick apart the senses. They don’t say how something smelled, how it sounded, how it tasted. They use the word “sentire”—to sense. Instead of “Smell the flowers,” they’d say, “Sense the flowers.” Instead of, “How did it feel to fall down the Spanish Steps,” they’d say, “How did it sense to fall down the Spanish Steps.” (The answer—ouch. But at least from now on when someone says they visited the Spanish Steps in Rome, I can say, “Oh, I fell down those!”) Instead of, “Taste this chocolate molten lava cake,” they say, “Sense this chocolate molten lava cake.” Because it’s so much more than the chocolate flavor in your mouth. It’s the rich smell as it approaches your lips, and then the strange combination of soft cake and flaky top, the melting, the warmth, all working together to ruin you for chocolate forever. Nothing will ever again be this good. Are you listening to what I’m saying? Do you sense me?

us-river-italyAll of this talk about sensing brings me to one of my favorite moments of the trip. We ate at a nearby town’s sagra with my aunt and uncle, and then at around 10:30 pm we headed to another town’s Castle Jazz. This was a concert set up in the courtyard of a castle where area jazz bands perform and you sense the music (do you see what I did there?) and drink wine (because when, in Italy, do you not drink wine?). We pulled up, though, just as the concert was finished. Still, we decided to wander in to check out the scene. We walked through the concert area and into another courtyard that was surrounded by the 30 foot high brick walls of the building. The space was a perfect square, and as you glanced up the height of the walls you noticed the stunning open view of the black night sky and stars above. A young man saw us admiring the space and asked, “Did you do the music yet?” When we said no, he quickly wandered away into another room. A minute passed, and then we heard a voice singing from a speaker we hadn’t noticed in a corner of the room. Then more voices from the speakers in the other 3 corners of the room. It was an Italian aria, four voices, echoing around the room. It was a song, but it was more than a song. It was music designed to fill the space, to wrap itself around us, and then to pour down from the sky, to pour into us. I sensed it. It was all around me, but it was also reaching into me, filling me up, buzzing in my bones, dragging out my tears. So we missed the concert—and I am so, so glad. I will take the feeling of that music in that place with me through the end of my days.

italy-banksy-artistWhen we got home from Italy I started to do what I could to cling to the memories. I started a journal to make a record of the things we did each day. I shopped for ingredients to recreate the easiest of the foods we had while we were there. I tell people about what we did, what we saw. But these things feel flat—like something that could be done without even having gone. Every time I pay a bill, discipline my kids, check my email, I feel fear that Italy will slip away.

But then, as I sit playing critter restaurant, I remember that it happened. Italy happened. And I get to take my memories, my senses, the ways that it made me feel, the ways that it changed me, with me. I get to reimagine my life with the Italian perspective. I get to play with these strange animals with my daughter, and instead of wishing I was finishing up folding the laundry or wiping down the counters, an Italian phrase floats through my head, “Il dolce far niente,” or, “the sweetness of doing nothing.” I’m here, but it isn’t over. Italy isn’t going anywhere. I get to have Italy forever.

I can’t wait to go back.

mollie-door-italy