This day a year ago I boarded a sticky, crowded train in Vienna. We rattled through the night en route to Rome, but my stop was Florence. I didn't sleep.
Since our first hike in John Forrest National Park (‘she didn’t realise there’d be mud, but she did pretty well’ – he would say later), I thought there’d come a time where I would make this trip. For months it had been lingering in my mind. First as a sort of vague possibility while Nicola was on his 40,000+km odyssey around Australia: that quiet, vast, flat burnt land, full of snakes and sharks and spiders; concreted when he came back to Perth.
Tuscany was the first place my feet touched earth outside Australia (the airport at Rome, for the record, doesn’t count). This would be my third visit and, after all, non c'e due senza tre (there's no two without three).
I remember stepping onto the platform: I was overcome by the noise, the whizzing and whirring of people around me, looking up and seeing a green cross, lit up, signalling pharmacy. In the midst of chaos I had a strange and overwhelming sensation of being home. I was enchanted and soothed, fascinated and delighted, and I felt my feet root into the earth and my smile grow wide.
I was 16-and-a-half.
I never could have known that at double that age, just after my 33rd birthday, I would step onto that same platform to meet a man I’d known in person really, not very long at all, but who I’d been slowly dancing circles around for all that time. When I was 16 and sitting politely with my all-girl school group with our impeccably-groomed and super-organised teacher on the train to Viareggio, he was there too: long-haired and ripping up the backstreets on his scooter.
‘Are you sure?’ some of my friends said. What could I do except say ‘yes’? I didn't need to justify it.
I was leaving my job, my family, my friends; my security and my home.
What could I do though: not risk everything?
Play safe, play small, stay home? What would the point of any of it be if I did that?
I’d spent the better part of my life not listening to the little voice (you know the one). I’d done what I thought was right, what I thought might make me happy; I’d made some decisions that had set me apart from my peers, like quitting law, leaving journalism, starting a small business. But the safety net was always there. And I’d still ignored my gut instinct: the one that said be truly brave, then follow through; none of this matters anyway.
It was only when I lost everything that I started being honest about myself, to myself. And it took work. It still takes work. It’s like a fricking onion: you peel one layer of bullshit back, have an aha! moment, feel pretty good about yourself for five minutes then realise the next layer’s right there waiting for you to learn to let go of.
That I’d always wanted to live in Italy was true. That I met Nicola when I did was divinity.
You're supposed to sort your shit out then meet someone. You’re also supposed to be the hero of your own story. And don't get me wrong - I am. But like that wise man Thich Nhat Hahn said, no mud, no lotus, and I was definitely still standing in the mud (metaphorically, not just in John Forrest or Cape Le Grand National Park or anywhere else we went) when we crossed paths. But since then I've been hand-in-hand with a man who has been next to me all the while.
The girl seeking perfection, lacking self-compassion, expecting the world of myself; seeking out ways to berate myself for perceived failures while opting out of tapping into the ever-present joy in life (like focaccia), is mostly not present any more. She's fading out a bit, and that's a good thing.
It took a patient person to take my hand and stand with me. But every time I put myself on the line, he was there. If there is one thing underscoring our relationship, it's kindness and compassion. Especially when sometimes I think it would be better if we just used emojis to communicate, rather than words. As anyone who doesn't speak the same first language as their partner knows, the struggle is real! But it also means you learn (mostly) not to fuss or fight over semantics; rather to notice intentions and actions.
The Tuscany of previous visits, that first trip with school; then a return after university to go back to language school and live in Florence for a couple of months; that had been the warm up. This was the real thing.
It was the pace and rhythm of life that knocked me in the beginning. I felt like a pinball in a machine, banging and crashing from one corner to another. I was literally covered in bruises for the first few weeks because I kept misjudging the dimensions and furniture placement in our little place; or riding my pushbike into a fence (seriously), or, once I learned to ride the scooter, dropping it on my leg or foot because I hadn’t worked out how to use the stand properly. It was noisy! Everywhere! Frogs, dogs, kids, cars, radios, simple conversations that were so loud and enthusiastic I thought they were fights...I remember telling Nicola to stop yelling at me so many times in those first few weeks. I'm not yelling, I'm just talking, he'd say.
I didn’t understand how people could be so relaxed (hint: relax). I was confused about how to schedule my time (hint: stop scheduling). I wanted to know what the plan for the day was. Nobody thought about dinner until 7pm. This was flat out weird for me. I thought I’d ‘done the work’ to ‘let shit go’ in Australia: but this was like being hit over the head with a frying pan. I was dazed and baffled. My reactions were visceral, instinctive. Sometimes they were wild, sometimes they were poetic, sometimes they just came from a place of exhaustion or frustration.
All the while I was being supported and fed and welcomed and loved not just by Nicola's family but by everyone, everywhere. I had stepped instantly into a community of people who just said 'cool, you're here now. You're part of the gang.' All I had to do was learn to go with the flow. Anyone who knows me will appreciate the irony in that.
It took me ages to work out that it wasn’t that complicated at all. Things were pretty much what that seemed at face value. I know, right? Life was (and is) more honest, more simple, more community and family and socially-oriented. I’m melting right into it now. I’m learning how to be more of myself at the same time. I’m getting better at being peaceful. And that’s a good thing too. Nothing is rushed: every meal is communion, every coffee a moment to enjoy; every piece of work finished is celebrated and every conversation a genuine one. I am learning to express myself more, fight more, love more, feel more and be more.
I own close to nothing, compared with say five years ago. I don’t have a car. The food I eat is simple. Instead of constantly feeling a lack of enough and a paralysing fear that I would never do what I was meant to do; that I’d never fulfil my potential (whatever that means); that I couldn’t tick all the boxes and that there was always something lacking, something missing, something to be done, some chore or workout or project or other distraction to attend to, I have space.
It's the quiet and deliberate cultivation of a life that is of my creation. I'm going back to remembering what I wanted before I created the idea of the life I thought I should have. I have days in the mountains and days working and pottering around and I don’t always have a plan anymore. I have fun, I have laughter, I have adventures and an abundance of love.
And that’s everything.