We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened. It’s like a book we read or a dream we had. Time feels distorted. I feel disconnected. It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight. Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there. But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes. Then there are phantom sounds. Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance. This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing. But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.
A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip. I think I understand. When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different. We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings. Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door. However, these little tasks can surprise me. My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning. When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all. My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home. And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me. And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there. I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.
I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives. I want to make the experience of our last year part of me. I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.
I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today. The first was with Sara. When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms. It was emotional and a little loud. It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year. It felt really good. Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian. So I quickly jumped in. I told them I had just returned from Italy. I asked where they were from. We talked about Sicily and Umbria. I helped them find the right cheese. Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour. We kept talking and talking. Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am! They are my new friends. When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.