How the Pandemic Helped Me Fall Back in Love With Milan

W

e like to think we travel to experience new places and learn about different cultures, but sometimes, we simply leave because we don’t know how to stay. I left my hometown searching for a new identity, and most of all, somewhere I could belong. What I couldn’t have predicted was how the pandemic would lead me home.

I’m 17 and spending a month in Paris by myself for the first time. Carlota and I share room 1403 of a residence at the foot of the Sacré-Cœur, where we microwave terrible food and eat atop a white, crisp bed, leaving crumbs everywhere. As we giggle at our makeshift independence, we swap secrets, stories, and life plans. We bond over our mutual teenage distaste for our home country of Italy, making wistful promises to leave Italy for good as soon as we finish school. We’re so young and so hopeful.

I’m now 26 and saying goodbye to a small potted plant named Janice. It’s the only thing I am leaving behind in my London flat. In a few hours, I will be boarding a flight out of a country I’ve called home for over seven years, but unfortunately, Janice will have to stay behind. No airline will let me check in a plant. The rest of my belongings have already been shipped, which was no easy feat amidst a pandemic. I cried on the phone to the international shipping company, I cried on the phone to my storage unit management, I cried myself to sleep, and now it’s only myself and the plant left. Soon, it will only be me.

I didn’t know this when I left the United Kingdom—high on the optimism of the very first restrictions being lifted—but the pandemic was far from over. I arrived at my parents’ house in Milan, thinking I’d only stay a month or two to ride out the summer and then figure out what I would do with my life. Instead, I would end up spending a year and two months in their spare room, surrounded by pictures of myself as a child and brown boxes held together by tape and sheer stubbornness, serving as a dull pain in my peripheral vision and a constant reminder that everything about my life felt temporary and fragile.

Italy went through another two lockdowns when I was there. Three lockdowns, if we count those limbo winter months where movement was not technically restricted but staying home was highly encouraged. You see, I had nowhere to go, anyway. I’d stopped speaking to anyone I knew from high school about a year into my British stint, and making new friends was rendered slightly impractical by the fact that we were only allowed to meet people from our same household. While my dogs were ecstatic at my company, I felt stuck.

After quarantining in a London flatshare for three months at the start of 2020, moving home was necessary. So was reassessing a great deal of my life and, ultimately, searching for somewhere I could belong. I was sure Milan would not be that place. For all my teenage angst and eagerness to leave Italy, it seemed clear I did not feel at home there. As my world shrunk and the weight on my chest grew heavier, all I wanted was to leave the country again, but I was barely allowed to leave the house.

I put up a good fight, whining to my parents, partner, and therapist. I told anyone who would listen, I had it all figured out: as soon as I’d get on my next flight, everything would be fine, and I’d feel like myself again. I could begin rebuilding my life. When the pity in their eyes grew overwhelming, I put an end to my valiant speeches but maintained I knew what I was doing.

I don’t know when my burning desire to leave Italy changed. Perhaps it was in the spring when the warm weather made it easier to meet new friends for socially distanced walks. Maybe it was seeing my partner’s eyes light up anytime we mentioned his favorite pizza place around the corner because food truly tastes different here. Or perhaps it was the long aimless bike rides I started taking in the summer, using the broken fold-up bike I once rode at 15 to rediscover corners of the city I hadn’t seen in a decade.

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I spent a year with my parents, which was quite an emotional feat but also an incredible privilege. I knew they were safe, day-in and day-out, in the middle of the worst health emergency of our lifetime. If the uncertainty that ravaged every other aspect of my life got too much (which was often), my parents would be there to soothe my quarter-life-crisis-shaped wounds (which was sweet, considering how many times I yelled, “I’m an adult, I can take care of myself”).

I spent a year re-learning how to be Italian, which I’d tried so hard to forget while I was away. After a decade as a terrible home cook, I finally gathered the courage to ask my mother and grandmothers for recipes. After a decade spent perfecting my faux-English accent, I reverted to my natural cadence and started extending some letters à la it’s-a-me-Mario. I learned how to drive and got my first parking ticket, which is not necessarily an Italian thing but very much an adult one.

I spent long periods at the small town by the lake we’ve been going to since I was 16. If you squinted, you could see where George Clooney has his villa two villages over, which younger me always thought was impossibly cool. I used to dream of making it big in Hollywood and coming back to this very place as a changed woman, but I don’t anymore.

These days, the kind of change my heart longs for is slow and deliberate, not an overnight transformation. The type of love my lips are drawn to is kind, nurturing, and compassionate. I thought I’d find it in parties on the hills of Hollywood and in the validation of roaring applause, but I felt it in my own strength and in a man’s arms instead, in the worst times.

The home I dreamt up as I hopped from flatshare to flatshare in my early twenties, I found at the edge of the skyline I’ve known since I was a child. II found what I was looking for while teaching my boyfriend my mother tongue and while finally facing my fear that I wouldn’t be enough if I weren’t always running. Perhaps everything changed when my friends back in England started meeting up again after a long and lonely winter. My heart would clench as if watching an old lover with a new girlfriend; pain and loneliness overwhelming my senses. Then, a realization. Up until that point, I’d inadvertently stayed open to the possibility of returning to London and seeing the city open up again while I remained far away felt like a betrayal of everything I’d worked towards for so long. I felt almost guilty–knowing as I did, deep down, that I would not be going back.

I felt pangs of conscience at the thought of everything I was leaving behind but kept reminding myself of what I’d gained in the process: a steadfast sense of self and deep affection for the place that built the foundation of who I am. An intuition I could trust to let me know exactly when the time has come to get off the carousel and the good sense to listen to it. A decade ago, I left in search of somewhere I could belong. I came back because I’ve learned how to find that in myself, and now all I want is to stay. It took a while, but I’ve finished unpacking my boxes, I’ve moved out of my parents’ house, and learned to make a mean tiramisu. Finally, I am home.

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