The air smells like home the second the cabin door opens. Not the stale sterility of JFK or the slightly moldy aura of Newark and O’Hare. Fiumicino Airport smells like leather and plastic, like recycled air that’s somehow more sterile than stateside, more refined. The gentle burble of Italian conversations swirl through my ears like jacuzzi streams and my heart, my shoulders unclench, untying invisible knots on my spine that had tied so tight around my bones, I’d forgotten they were there.
The body can atrophy into its circumstances after long enough, like the spirit can.
I went home to Italy for the first time in high school. My school sponsored a Europe trip every few years, a rare privilege to explore the world with some of my closest friends and of course, my mom and godmother as chaperones. My memories of that time are esoteric snapshots. Eating nutella gelato in front of the Pantheon, sun reflected by uneven cobblestones at our feet baking our legs. Mom haggling down a vendor in the Florence street markets until they practically gave her a stack of pashmine. My spunky friend climbing an illicit ladder to the top of a duomo in Pisa and almost getting us kicked out, her twin sister brushing her hair at the table and my godmother dressing her down for poor manners.
But most of all, I remember that trip as an oasis of peace in a chaotic time. High school is frenetic for everyone, a pressure cooker of hormones and college essays, AP classes and first dates, discovering lust and cigarettes and alcohol and ourselves, not necessarily in that order. But for two weeks, we trouped around this foreign place that freed us from the expectations our status as American teenagers placed on us. If we chose, we could shed our peer imposed facades for awhile and just live in our own skins.
In Paris, I bought a white chiffon scarf stamped with “Paris” in black comic sans. I wrapped it around my neck almost every day forward, and it appears in many photos from that time, photos that live in a scrapbook because digital photography hadn’t happened, not yet. I thumb those prints every once in awhile and remember the awe, but also the contentment that settled in my stomach with so much pasta and bread. Europe felt right.
That trip wasn’t my first taste of travel. Throughout my childhood, our family packed ourselves like vagabond sardines into the family van first, then a tin can 1987 Winnebago we nicknamed “Rover” to explore our own country. We spent several weeks of every summer in campgrounds, eating Rice-A-Roni on the camp stove, lobsters boiled in a large electric kettle under pine trees grown fragrant in the steam, “camping eggs” fried in bacon grease, so named because we only made them that way on the road. Those trips weren’t always idyllic but in my memory, they’re rose colored. I think we tint the less traumatic aspects of our childhoods that way, like a salve against the horrors the world wreaks on us as we age.
I’ve recently started meditating on my “safe space” several times a day, a mental guard against the stress and anxiety of living as an adult in our world. At first, I set my parents’ backyard as that place, a quiet haven of green lawn framed by gardens so lush, you’d swear they weren’t real. In the autumn, the gentle giant old trees explode in scarlet and persimmon, the gardens bloom one last time and the light grows golden, especially as the sun sets. It smells like wood smoke and burning leaves and it’s quiet, except for the giggling girls next door, maybe a leaf blower down the block. Peace lives there, for sure.
But my safest spaces aren’t in the home where I was born. When I close my eyes and transport myself to safety, so often I feel cobblestones beneath my feet, smell the Italian city air that’s a potpourri of cigarette smoke, bread baking and leather. I can feel the particular golden sun that doesn’t exist anywhere else, glancing off stucco buildings painted coral and sunflower, imagine a Carabinieri smiling at a child, and hear vendors shouting to each other as they hock their wares in the market, glistening fish over melting ice and piles of lush, glowing fruit and vegetables. And I feel the peace that settles in my bones every time I step off that plane.
Right now, America feels like a fraud. With Donald Trump and his insane rhetoric rising to the top of the polls, gunmen shooting innocent people every week and empty promises to “destory ISIS” the only hope we have, it’s harder now than ever to identify with the country that birthed me. Scrolling through my social media feeds, there’s more hate, more carnage, more ignorance that thrums in my brain: “not my America.” So I take to my safe spaces, places far away from the hatred and hopelessness that seems to embody our “great nation.”
Travel is a privilege, one I’ve enjoyed my entire life. The magnitude of that does not escape my notice. Through that privilege, I’ve discovered my spirit doesn’t live under the red, white and blue. It beats in rhythm with La Vita Bella, with places where tragedy doesn’t make us turn against each other, diving down party lines and behind candidates, but unites us as a human race. Look at how Europe reacts to terrorism, and look at what happens on “our own soil.” And then ask me why I’m disgusted with our country, why I transport myself out of it when I need a rest from the hateful rhetoric that permeates every aspect of our lives these days.
For me this year, the holiday season feels empty in the midst of mass shootings, Trump’s American Takeover and daily reports of ISIS’s operations. It’s important to remember the “reason for the season,” sure, but it’s also important for me to have a place to go, even mentally, to escape the constant stream of negativity that pervades our media. Someday, maybe I’ll get the chance to physically live in my safe space again. But for now, daydreams will have to do.