Advertisement

I’m 24, American and in lockdown in Italy. I must decide: Stay here or go home

(Diego Cadena Bejarano / For The Times)

I’ve always been a planner, more cautious than spontaneous, better at strategies than surprises.

Eight months in Italy has changed that. The things I never expected have been the best highlights of my experience.

I never dreamed that soon after arriving for culinary school in Florence, I’d be thrown onto the front lines of its busy restaurant kitchen, frantically preparing prosciutto-wrapped chicken breasts for real, paying customers.

I didn’t know I’d be the only American among my classmates. Now I have friends not only in Italy but in Taiwan, South Korea, India, Thailand, Turkey, Botswana and Brazil.

Advertisement

And I certainly didn’t expect that two months before graduation, my life would be upended by COVID-19, forcing me to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

A little more than two weeks into a lockdown in Italy, where the crisis has grown more serious by the day, I have only a few days to decide whether I should weather this storm or return home to my family in Dallas.

For the first time since I landed in Europe, knowing what the future holds sounds so much better than welcoming the unexpected.

The fantasy that is Florence

Florence isn’t a bad place to be in isolation, mostly because of the food. My local outdoor market is open, and the produce is as gorgeous and as fresh as ever. The only difference now: Tape on the ground marks proper social distancing. My three roommates and I restock our provisions about once a week, then spend hours shelling fava beans, sautéing asparagus and turning our loot into luxurious pasta dishes.

Advertisement

The rest of the time, we do our online coursework (which involves more reading and writing than cooking), exercise to YouTube dance tutorials, and FaceTime with friends and family at home. The days go by so quickly it’s eerie.

Until recently, my life here has been a dream, which means doing and seeing everything I’ve wanted. I’ve thoroughly examined more than 25 gelaterias. I’ve climbed almost every hill and tower for the panoramic views that are to sigh for. I’ve had bucket-list experiences, including an internship at an inspiring restaurant called Essenziale (where I can understand the staff’s Italian) and a kiss along the Arno River. And I’m only 24.

When we arrived in China to pick up our adopted daughter, we found out she had chickenpox. The days of waiting were the most anxious of our lives.

I know I can return to Florence. But will it be the same, months or even years from now, when most of my friends are gone? What does the end of a lockdown look like anyway? Do things really go back to normal, or will the world slowly return to a stable but damaged version of itself?

Advertisement

If I stay, I’ll feel hopeful but anxious. How long will this last? Am I a month away from freedom? Or will I spend the summer locked up in a city I love but can’t enjoy? Am I right to persevere because the romantic way I’d like to finish this experience (with travels in Puglia, Sardinia and any place where there’s Italian food and a beach) is right around the corner? Or is that unrealistic?

If I go home, a weight is lifted from my shoulders because a decision has been made. Will that be a relief, or will I feel as though I gave up and abandoned my dream? Will it be better to be with my family? Or will I kick myself for putting them at risk after a transatlantic flight? Can I bear watching Italy celebrate the end of its lockdown, whenever that will happen, using the screen on my phone instead of being there in person?

I am lucky to be in Italy, unlike many others who are dealing with the far worse consequences of this virus. One day, I’ll tell my grandkids about my life here and these difficult days might feel like a tiny blemish on an idyllic eight months of eating, enjoying and learning.

Neither choice is wrong. I couldn’t have predicted any of this, just as I couldn’t have foreseen my favorite things about Florence — the blissful little bites of deep-fried bread dough called coccoli, the amusing way Italians pronounce “fruit” (froo-eet), the way the sky turns purple over the Arno River before sunset.

Advertisement

And that’s OK. I’ve learned to embrace the unexpected. That is Italy’s enduring gift to me — no matter what the future holds.


Advertisement