Nine Years Ago
A meet cute, in case you haven’t seen The Holiday (which means you should probably stop reading my book), is the moment when two fictional characters in a film meet for the first time in an adorable and serendipitous way leading to an inevitable romance and happily ever after. I met my fate one hot summer night almost nine years ago in Edmonton. I was nineteen, about to turn twenty, and obsessed with Europe. By obsessed with Europe, I mean that I had already done a couple summers of backpacking with a Eurail pass in one hand and either a) a bottle of wine or b) a baguette, in the other. Admittedly the only thing I brought back to Canada with me at the end of all these trips was an insatiable predilection for foreign accents and cheeses that I couldn’t pronounce. I was never biased to one accent in particular, nor was I impartial to a specific European look and I never set my sights on Italian boys. Italy was one of the countries I had skipped during my travels and as I’m writing this, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman comes to mind, chastising me with “Big mistake, big. Huge!”.
Heading back to the hot summer night, I remember everything in bits and pieces. This was due to the fact that the reason my girlfriends and I were out on the town in the first place was because it was the last “ladies’ night” at one of the more classy clubs in town, aptly called The Bank, which I would later find out was stolen from the official one in Las Vegas. A legislation had been passed which prohibited the selling of highballs for less than a certain amount when you could previously have had a lovely night by showing up with a loonie (our funnily-named one dollar coin in Canada), thank you very much. So we all gathered for this final send-off when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my future husband. He might have well been carrying a plate of pasta and gesticulating frantically, that’s how easy it was to pin-point his Italian-ness. I know that sounds highly stereotypical, but I’ll paint the picture: tall, skinny but in that perfect, muscular way that European men tend to prefer, long, dark hair pulled into a man-bun before it even existed in North America, white pants, and a black button-up shirt unbuttoned just enough to glimpse a gold cross on a chain. But what gives an Italian man away the most, is their inherent sense of self-confidence that radiates in a room. And of course, there’s a fine balance between confidence and arrogance. I perceived confidence and he essentially had me at the white pants. I watched him creepily in a bizarre change of roles- me, the local, and him, the intriguing foreigner. By sheer luck, my friends and I ended up asking one of his friends to take our picture and that resulted in our meet cute. We spent the rest of the night chatting innocently enough and exchanged numbers. I found out that his name was Massimiliano, which is quite amusing to attempt to pronounce for the first time while drunk on 25 cent cocktails. He was in my city doing research at the University of Alberta to complete his Master’s thesis and fortunately enough, that summer I was also on campus taking Stats. We agreed to meet for donairs the next day during lunch break and in looking back, that casual garlic-breath infused lunch date marked the beginning of the end. The end of the all-American dream.
“Signori e signore, benvenuti a Milano…” the sing-song of Italian blasted in my ears as I had fallen asleep for almost the entirety of my flight from London to Milan. I had so hoped to arrive fresh and bright-eyed but I could already tell that I had drooled the blush away on one side of my face and was probably more reminiscent of a racoon than my usual self. Luckily, my hair was intact after going through my dry shampoo routine in Heathrow. I had all the preconceived notions of passengers strutting off to baggage claim in Milan, looking like Armani models and I wanted to fit in. I was in Italy for the first time and meeting Massi after almost two months apart. He finished his thesis work in December and returned to Italy shortly before Christmas while I had to wait impatiently until Reading Week to reunite with this person that I had fallen hard and fast for. Up until now, I could define our relationship as a summer romance and I was taking this trip to answer the question “what if…?”. What if this was it, the so-called “uomo della mia vita”, the man of my life as the Italians say? This is a bit premature in my story to start rambling off with Italian phrases though, during this trip, I knew all of two words “ciao” and “grazie” and I was hoping it would suffice to at least get me through customs and into the arms of my unofficial translator and trans-Atlantic boyfriend. It wasn’t. Fifty minutes after getting off the plane and staring at the luggage belt, it became evident that somewhere between Canada and Italy, my beloved baggage had taken a detour. I couldn’t even pat myself on the back for being such a seasoned traveller because I had broke the cardinal jet-set rule of always pack a change of clothes in your carry-on. Conveniently, mine was packed with books and dry shampoo. So while I was underwear-less for the next ten days, at least my hair would be Pantene perfect! I hobbled over to the lost luggage claims area, clinging to the idealistic hope that English is known the world over, or at least in airports the world over. Let me tell you folks, it is not. But luckily the Italians speak two languages: Italian and hand gestures and we managed with the second just fine. I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown due to a combination of the anticipation of our reunion and my lost luggage catastrophe. I wouldn’t have defined it as catastrophic except that my visit happened to fall on Valentine’s Day and my red satin dress risked missing the curtain call.
Luggage-less, I walked up to the sliding doors and blinked as I felt the sudden whoosh of air against my face. When I opened them again, I was standing in front of this familiar stranger. A face and a smile that I knew from a different world, when our surroundings were my comfort zone and the language was my own. I kissed him which is always a bold move after you’ve been travelling for over 14 hours but seems almost obligatory at airport arrivals, if not for yourself, then to add to the romance of it all for everyone else. He tasted like beer, I remember it distinctly. Poor thing had been waiting for over an hour past my estimated arrival and he ended up passing the time by drinking. I still have the hunch that it was also partly to calm his nerves because if they were like mine, they were probably off the charts. My heart was beating out of my chest, the kind of beating where you become sub-conscious that the people around you can actually hear it. Unless you have been in my position, one-half of a long-distance relationship, it’s hard to describe the sensation of being in the presence of a person whose pixelated face you know like the back of your hand but that is completely foreign in flesh and blood. Our relationship the last few months was entirely reliant on Skype and emails and in this way, you form an exceptionally deep emotional connection but face-to-face, I could feel a disconnect between the physical and emotional. I needed to bridge that disconnect immediately, so I took my shaking hand and gripped his, and together we walked out of the airport and into the Italian night. It seems bizarre, but it felt like coming home. When I finally pulled back the covers to sleep that night, there was a handwritten note from Massi on the pillow:
Benvenuta a casa piccola. Welcome home little one.
I once read a survey that said after vacationing in Italy, 110% of people responded that they wanted to move there, myself included. I was seduced by Italy like so many young, single-ish girls are. I think I’ve also realized where the whole idea of the Latin lover comes from, why Italians are carriers of this stereotype. It’s because they have an asse nella manica, an ace up their sleeve, and her name is Italy. Italian men have to put in little to no work because the country does all the heavy lifting. They say you never forget your first time and boy is that the truth about Italy! Massi took me on a condensed tour around Northern Italy- Lake Como at sunset, Venice during Carnivale, Milan, and of course, Bergamo. It is highly likely that I consumed my weight in pasta that trip and couldn’t have been happier. I stayed with his parents, in his older sister’s room, and wore her entire wardrobe while waiting for my lost suitcase that eventually arrived when it was least needed. Massi’s mother, Paola, was the female version of him- tall, elegant, with hazel eyes and long lashes and mane of curly golden hair. She would smile at me constantly and we both looked at each other like complete wordless fools for ten days due to her lack of English and my lack of Italian. Massi’s father, Giovanni, is a typical bergamasco (the name for a native of Bergamo), on the stockier side with a square jaw and icy-blue eyes and a disposition to match. The only thing that gave away his softer side were the laugh lines that curved almost up to his forehead and all the way to his ears. I liked them immediately because they used food to convey love, just like my Chinese family does. However, I hated the fact that I couldn’t communicate with them.
What I felt during this initial stay in Italy was not shame or embarrassment or frustration even…no, it was a sense of wonderment and of curiosity. I wanted to know the people that had raised the one human being that I had fallen head over heels in love with. These two smiling strangers who brought up the person that I was already contemplating throwing it all away for- a life in Canada that my immigrant grandparents had worked so hard for, the familiar streets of my hometown, friends and family. Yet I wanted to know them, not superficially in the way you can through constant gestures, each time hoping that the integrity of your words and intentions come across by whomever was acting as translator at the moment. And so this hazel-eyed Italian and the quest to form a relationship with his parents is what spurred me on through what happened next. I was supposed to be starting my final year of my Biological Sciences Bachelor’s degree that autumn, but ten days in Italy had planted a whole new plan in my head.
...to be continued. Chapter 2 coming Thursday, April 16th, 2020.
This Sweet Life: Prologue