The one day I spent in Fiumicino, Italy, feels like a dream now. It was 2016. I was on my way back from Malta, where my then-girlfriend (now wife) would be earning her master’s degree for the next nine months. I didn’t know what the future held. But during that one day in Fiumicino, the future didn’t matter. The only thing to do was hop on a bike and explore a quiet hamlet on the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The hosts of the AirBnB I was staying at supplied a free bicycle. And Fiumicino, it turns out, is perfect for biking. The streets are small and unhurried. It was a hot day in late summer and I stayed on that bike until the sun went down. My senses were heightened. The world floated. It felt like I was living in glass: I was transparen,t and spiraling upward. Mundane moments became surreal because I was alone in a foreign place I’d likely never visit again.
I rode down to a dockyard and listened to the wind knock around metal parts on ships. Click-clack, click-clack, like chimes. I was sweaty but didn’t care. Unlike Americans, Europeans embrace the smell of the human body. I discovered this while riding a train across the Italian countryside earlier in my journey. The entire cab smelled like body odor, not an unpleasant scent once you spend some time with it. It’s sweet and raw, like ramps. But Americans are conditioned from a young age to cover that smell with deodorant, perhaps because of a desire to keep up appearances. This says a lot about American culture: we want to mask, to repress, what has always been natural.
So there I was, covered in sweat down by the ships. I peddled to the Tyrrhenian Sea, where I removed my shoes and let the sand massage my feet. The beach was empty and quiet, like a bomb had gone off and wiped out the entire population. I was all alone on the beach when a group of kids jumped over the wall behind me and down onto the sand. They’d appeared out of the ether, laughing and shouting at each other in Italian. I stood on the cusp of the water as they skipped past, shirtless and in bathing suits, chests bony and arms dangling. They joked in a language I’d never understand. At that moment, the immensity of the world became clear. For me, Fiumicino was some strange place, and they were some strange children I’d never see again. But for them, this was life. I’m sure they’d have a similar experience if they found themselves standing on a beach in, say, Charleston, listening to unfamiliar people speak a language they would never know.
I stayed down by the beach for a long time because I had nowhere else to be. Every few minutes a low-flying plane soared overhead, either arriving or departing from the Fiumicino airport, the busiest airport in Italy. I considered how I’d be on one of those metal birds in less than 24 hours, jetting across the Atlantic Ocean back to my homeland. I had no desire to return. I felt in my bones that somehow I could stay in Italy forever, somehow I could make it work. But of course that didn’t happen. That belief was part of the fever dream.
I peddled away from the beach. Before long I found myself in a neighborhood half a mile from the waterfront. Tall grass swayed in the breeze as my soul spiraled upward. I laid the bike along the road and sat down in the grass to relax and absorb. Behind me, a man and a woman were arguing on a patio. The man was shouting in Italian and the woman was crying. The man went inside and slammed the door while the woman remained outside, sobbing to herself. It felt wrong, listening to this intimate moment, even if they couldn’t see me and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I understood the tears, though. Tears are universal. Out of respect, I hopped on my bike and rode into the town center. The sun was setting and I had to figure out dinner plans before everything shut down.
I felt in my bones that somehow I could stay in Italy forever, somehow I could make it work. But of course that didn’t happen. That belief was part of the fever dream.
This is where things became embarrassing. In Rome, most locals can speak at least a little English, because they have to deal with American tourists every day. I’d gotten used to being able to communicate the gist of what I wanted at a restaurant. But in rural Fiumicino, there was no motivation for locals to learn any language other than Italian. I walked into a small pizza shop, confident that through hand gestures and head nods, I’d be able to give the two dudes behind the counter my order. I hoped for pictures: if there were pictures, I could point to my order and that would be that. But there were no pictures. There were no menus, either. No help whatsoever.
The guys behind the counter, both wearing white aprons, stared at me with dead-eyed expressions. Nervous and unsure, I muttered “Pizza?” They looked at each other and laughed. One of the guys said something in Italian. His eyes cut into me. I nodded. The guys looked at each other again and laughed. Then the other guy said something in Italian. I was sweating, nervous and young. I muttered “pizza” again. The two dudes chuckled. Neither of them moved. By this point, I was red-faced and overwhelmed. I shook my head, said “no” and walked out. One of the guys shouted and I heard both of them laugh as the door shut.
Hungry and anxious, I scrapped the idea of eating at a restaurant. I walked into a grocery store, where I figured I could buy food without interacting with people and thus further embarrassing myself. After strolling through the aisles, reading the Italian labels and avoiding eye contact, I stumbled into the freezer section. Behind the glass was a pepperoni DiGiornio pizza. A little slice of Americana, of familiarity, in an otherwise incomprehensible land.
I’m not proud to say that I bought that DiGiornio pizza. But that’s what I did. I spent my last night in Italy eating a frozen pizza at a small table in a rustic cottage. Then I laid down in bed and stared at the ceiling for hours, stars ricocheting in my mind. I fell asleep around 2, woke up around 3 and caught a cab to the airport at 4. A couple hours later, I was flying back to America, where everything was straight-forward and familiar. Maybe a bit too familiar.
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
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