In the summer of 2007, I spent my evenings devouring the book that every other red-blooded American female was also reading: Eat, Pray, Love. Following Elizabeth Gilbert's exhilarating post-divorce adventures in Italy planted a tiny seed in my teenage brain that one day I too would go live in Milan or Rome or somewhere, eat all the pasta my belly could handle and then, I don't know, maybe fall in love with a cute Italian boy à la Paolo in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. I was 15 in 2007 when I was having those dreams: I was taking Italian classes at school, fell absolutely in love with the language, and fantasized about the day when I would make like a nomad and escape to the land of great wine, cheese, art, and desire.
However, in the 10 years that followed, my life took me in a direction that couldn't really accommodate dropping everything and moving to Italy. I entered a serious romantic relationship when I was 18, which led me to move to Los Angeles. I got a full-time job and two cats. I went vegan (not very pizza friendly). And for a long time, everything just seemed settled. Rigid. Secure. That stagnant attitude also fed into every corner of my lifestyle, from my exercise routine (Pilates two to three times a week) to my diet (strictly plant-based) to my general emotional state (content, but closed-off).
But then, in August of last year, everything turned upside down. It all started when I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to take six months off my job at Byrdie to write a book. Then, a few months after that, my boyfriend of over seven years and I parted ways. These two consecutive life events juxtaposed a skyscraping high with a fathomless low, but they had something important in common: They meant my life was now totally unencumbered. Without an office job or a relationship tying me to L.A., I could now go anywhere in the world I wanted. And the 15-year-old inside of me knew just where: Italia.
So I booked a ticket to Milan and an Airbnb in San Marino (a tiny, gorgeous microstate in north-central Italy with rolling green hills and a charming medieval town center) where I would be staying the whole month of January. I knew then, and I still very much appreciate now, that almost nobody gets the chance to drop their regular lives and go on an epic journey like that. So I resolved to make the most of it—to leave my repetitive lifestyle, orderly routines, and stiff disposition behind me and open myself up to adventure.
And you know what? Miraculously, I did. And by the time I got back from San Marino, I had gained a wealth of perspective of how I was taking care of my body and mind. As far as food, fitness, and mental health are concerned, Italy rubbed off on me big time. Here I'm sharing five of the priceless Italian wellness lessons I brought home to the States.
1. Not having cell phone service at all times is really good for the soul.
You never realise how much you lean on your phone as a social crutch until you go to a place without cell service. (I once had a cognitive neuroscientist tell me that 74% of American adults ages 18 to 24 reach for their phone the second they open their eyes in the morning—yikes.)
But I kept my phone on airplane mode for my entire month in Italy to avoid international charges, which meant that wherever I didn't have wifi (during my long walks to the city, train rides from town to town, in some restaurants), I had to find something else to do, like listen to music, write in my travel diary, read, or just daydream. Putting my phone on airplane mode not only allowed me to connect with my own thoughts (I sorted out a lot of emotional turmoil on those long walks), but it also opened me up to new people: Someone who isn't crouched over their phone is so much easier to talk to than someone who is. I met dozens of lovely Italians that month, made friendships I hope will last a very long time, and that's something I don't think would have happened if I'd been using my phone the normal way.
2. A little caffeine each morning and a little red wine each night can be a really good thing.
The American attitude toward "bad" substances like coffee and alcohol is so high-anxiety, it's no wonder that caffeine is our country's number one addiction and that one in every 13 adults here suffers from alcoholism. Before my trip to Italy, I had so many arbitrary, paranoid rules about caffeine and booze: only decaf coffee, never sweetener, only drink alcohol on days with an "r" in them, no hard liquor on weekdays, etc.
In Italy, however, a "coffee" is what we would call an espresso—a tiny shot of the black stuff, as opposed to the triple, venti, soy, no-foam lattes one might get at an American Starbucks, which really offer enough caffeine to feed a family of six. And wine is something you select with care and drink with food—it's a part of the meal. A part of the culture. I drank one cappuccino every morning and two glasses of red wine every night in Italy, and I never once felt tweaked out, too drunk, or hungover. The moderation came naturally, and it felt so healthy and freeing to let go of those tyrannical rules.
3. Taking a break from your rigid diet doesn't mean you've given up forever.
I made a change to my diet in Italy that I never thought I'd make: I started eating dairy. After two years of militant veganism, preaching the evils of the American dairy manufacturing industry, Italy gave me a chance to reevaluate exactly why I eat the way I do. For the whole month, as an experiment, I allowed myself all the cheese, buttery pastries, and milky cappuccinos my heart desired (almost every day, I would walk past the San Marino dairy cows that supplied these products and salute them for their services).
My tryst with dairy felt sort of like going on a break from a relationship to make sure it's really right. When I got back from Italy, my romantic relationship may not have revived, but my veganism did. And controversial as my experiment may sound to the vegan community, what it taught me is that you can stray from your diet and fitness routines without completely "falling off the wagon" forever, so to speak. It's not that black or white. In fact, sometimes a little break can strengthen your wellness habits even more, reminding you of the underlying intention.
4. Documenting your gratitude every day in writing will only fortify that gratitude.
Part of opening myself up to new experiences meant recording them in writing each day, so I brought along a travel diary to San Marino. By the end of the month, I'd filled up 75 pages of notes, scribbles, lists, stories, and recollections of my experiences there. Every time I sat down with my pen and paper, I made sure to explicitly express in writing how surreal and beautiful even the smallest details of my day were (a lovely sunset, a perfect croissant, a pleasant interaction with a shop owner) and how lucky I felt to have gotten to experience them. By the time I finished writing, I felt even more filled with gratitude, which is a really good vibe to carry with you throughout the day.
5. The moment you open yourself up to happiness, you will attract happy people.
Cheesy, yes, but hey, we are talking about Italy, after all. What I love and am so attracted to in Italian people is that they are so open-hearted—by and large, Italians wear their passion, joy, and sorrow on their sleeve. By contrast, I find that Americans are often stingy with their emotions, especially joy, as if it's cooler to seem jaded or polished than to seem too in love with life. But in Italy, I made a point to approach every situation from a place of openness and allow myself to feel and express happiness the second I felt it. That meant when sitting in a café alone, my body language was tall and alert, instead of closed off and hunched over a book or my phone. When I entered a shop, I started conversations with the owners. And when people asked me about myself, I didn't feed them small talk: I told them my true story. These little changes allowed me to make so many deep connections with people I met in San Marino—so deep, in fact, that I have plans to return in the spring. And in the meantime, a bit of Italy remains in me. Hopefully for life.