"It felt like pieces of some puzzle had clicked into place, and music was the soul center of it all.”
About a month into my fall semester in Italy, I spent a weekend home alone while my roommates were traveling. They were on a trip I couldn’t justify dropping a few hundred dollars on—either it was Oktoberfest and I don’t like beer, or some sort of Croatian adventure and I really don’t like rigorous outdoor physical activity other than a good game of Fourth of July badminton—so I had three full days to myself. On Sunday, I walked to the only English bookstore in Florence that I knew of to buy Sara Bareilles’ new memoir, Sounds Like Me. When I asked the woman working at the bookstore if they had the book in stock, she said they didn’t, but she could order it for me for €32. When I responded, “Oh, never mind, that’s too much,” she agreed with a defeated, “Yes, it really is!”
So I headed back to my empty apartment and bought the digital version of Sounds Like Me on the iBooks app that’s impossible to delete from an iPhone. I’ve never done that before, because I guess I’m old fashioned in my loyalty to physical books (and CDs), but my immeasurable loyalty to Sara Bareilles outweighed my previous traditions. I downloaded the book, grabbed some pretzels, parked myself on the living room couch, and started reading it on my phone. I didn’t stand up for four hours. (Not uncharacteristic of me.) I read the entire book in one sitting, and it’s, like, 400 e-pages long. (Pretty uncharacteristic of me.) Here’s the plot twist: Sara Bareilles spent her junior year of college in Bologna, Italy.
Throughout the entire memoir but particularly in her essay “Red,” about her experience in Bologna, I found distinct similarities between Sara and myself. During my semester, I struggled to connect with the people around me and I often felt like I was worried or upset or anxious about individualized things that my friends and family, who were dispersed all over the world at the time, didn’t quite understand. In the same way that she has with lyrics for many years now, Sara understood exactly how I felt and said it in a much more poetic, expressive, and poignant way than I’ve ever been able to. She even shared my serious longing for Seinfeld reruns. Leave it to a songwriter to understand me—is anyone else noticing a trend here?
Sara tells her readers how she ended up in a small music school in Bologna called Merry Melodies, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “California” and using the Blue album to combat homesickness, loneliness, anxiety, and a marijuana-induced emotional breakdown. Michael Bruscia, the owner of Merry Melodies, introduced her to the one and only Joni Mitchell, and in doing so, he rescued her from her own thoughts. Sara Bareilles describes the effect that Mitchell’s “California” had on her: “I felt relieved listening to her capture the rapture and mystery of a foreign place and, in the same breath, ache for a sense of home.” On a rainy day in Merry Melodies, Joni Mitchell gave her the transcendent comfort of discovering a similar soul.
With her book, Sara Bareilles did the same for me.
Having the digital version of Sounds Like Me in my purse at all times allowed me to reread bits and pieces of the memoir regularly throughout the semester as my emotions and experiences ricocheted from euphoric to enervating. It became my own personal ally, confidant, and source of reassurance and general you’re-not-alone-ness. The semester was difficult in ways that I couldn’t have predicted. I expected to complain about petty or fleeting things, like getting lost, bad Wi-Fi, long train rides, missing my dog, language barriers, the intense heat, or culture shock. Instead, spending almost four months in Florence introduced more complex, more idiosyncratic challenges. In a nod to my favorite songwriters, I feel I ought to be honest about what went on behind my picture-perfect Instagrams.
Hanging over my head throughout the semester was a latent sense of guilt with which I arrived in Europe—I maintained my ingrained belief that I didn't deserve this trip and it would be better allocated to someone else: someone who’s studying renaissance art; someone who truly wants to be fluent in Italian; someone who isn’t free-falling toward a $100,000 student loan bill; someone who continued their studies of Latin in college; someone with rich parents; someone who's better at being happy than I am. I could think of about a million other candidates who should’ve taken my spot. I pictured an ameliorated version of myself: she was studying Vergil and Homer with a fierce concentration, sipping a glass of Chianti, switching seamlessly between English, Italian, Latin, and probably Spanish and French, too, surrounded by young Florentines, discussing ancient philosophy and literature and art, thinking often about the impact of Michelangelo's work, and wearing an impeccable peacoat. That girl deserved my semester. But she was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was my blue-collar mentality and the knowledge that I was a part of the first generation of Griffiths/Daleos to leave the United States that stopped me from effortlessly believing that I deserved this trip. I struggled to make the most out of every day in order to prove that I deserved it, but also to not go overboard, because that would be gratuitous and overindulgent and so not the way I was raised. Imbalanced was my middle name. There were several Tuesday afternoons when I sat in Piazza Santa Maria Novella and called my mom from my Italian phone on the verge of tears, charging her two cents a minute as I searched for the reasons why I was in Italy and she wasn't.
In addition to this, I questioned many of the choices that I made leading up to the trip: should I have taken an Italian class over the summer? How do I go about the infamous “cultural immersion” process when I live and go to school with a bunch of Americans? Should I be hanging out with locals more often? How do I meet locals when I don’t speak Italian? I guess I should have invested in Rosetta Stone? When I say buongiorno, why does my accent sound more French than Italian? Would I be better off in a studio apartment in Paris? Why didn’t I take an art history class while I was here? Why did I choose Florence over Rome? Do I even like smaller cities? Is it bad that I’m not making tons of international friends in my classes? Shouldn’t I be taking more classes toward my major? Am I wasting my time and money? Why haven't I read the entire Wikipedia page on Florence yet? I constantly wondered if I was any happier than I normally am in New York, and I tried every day to rid myself of my recurring idea that I was doing something wrong: am I an ingrate? Should I be traveling more? Why doesn’t this feel like the vacation I was expecting? Am I just not meant to go on long trips? Could it be that my maximum capacity for having a good time in another country is only a week? Should I be spending more money? Less money? Drinking more wine? Am I doing something wrong? I must be doing something wrong, but what exactly is it? Why am I here, anyway? What’s the goal? What am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong?
I heard in my head the voices of The Wise Ones Who Studied Abroad Before Me And Then Spoke On The Panels At School. I had heard tales of change and growth, so I sat back and braced myself for my True Coming Of Age. I spent much of the semester trying my absolute hardest to remember who I was within a clique of girlfriends while still expecting to leave as a new person entirely—preferably a more well-rounded, happy, and mentally balanced human being. I had been convinced that spending time overseas would make me leave as someone new. Much to my surprise, there was no Great Schism. No Big Change. No Major Maturation Process.
When I tried to talk to my roommates about all the thoughts running through my head, they dismissed them, saying I should simply let all that go and that I was "a negative person"—this feedback, of course, (in addition to hurting like hell) made me spiral further down into more worries about my attitude and if this neuroticism was all my fault after all.
I was told all summer that the best months of my entire life were about to begin. People said they were jealous of me and genuinely meant it. I was showered with envy and I didn't know how to handle it when things in Italy weren't perfect. I know my worries were still pretty first-world, and nothing serious on the intangible scale of real-world problems. I was incredibly blessed to worry about these things. I was aware of this then as well, and it contributed to my unrest. And at no point was I blind to the beautiful parts of my trip, I mean, I rode a gondola in Venice, ate a Caprese pizza (trust me it's life changing), spent most Saturday afternoons wandering around Florence on my own with my headphones in, went back in time in Pompeii, and visited Paris for the second time in my life. When I thought about everything good that was happening to me, I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to believe that my life was a dream come true—and I was damned to feelings of shame if I couldn't convince myself of this unreasonable idea.
I can see now that, despite what my roommates and the demons in my head were telling me, I wasn't being ungrateful or negative at all. On the contrary, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I couldn't process what was going on around me. In fact, I was happy on most days, but for much of the semester, all of my happiness was underscored by my unrealistic expectations and unanswerable questions. There were days that were ruined by my obsessive worrying and questioning, which I've been told (by not only the internet, but also my mother, my grandmother, and my sisters, all of whom seem to share this trait) is a side effect of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is a stubborn little bitch that can hop in your carry on and study abroad with you.
When I visited Bologna by myself on the morning of the attacks in Paris, I went to Merry Melodies. I looked in through the locked glass door and pictured Sara Bareilles at exactly my age, standing there with Michael Bruscia, feeling a hell of a lot like I was. But I finally found a sense of contentment looking through that glass door in mid-November, when I realized that I had done something right. Something clicked, and I was able to silence my thoughts for the first time in three months. I found peace that day when I realized where my heart was. Finding Sara Bareilles’ music school reminded me of who I was and what I wanted, which had been drowned out until then because of my search for the infamous Study Abroad-Induced Coming Of Age. Most importantly, it showed me that I could find remnants of the music that made me who I am in ancient orange cities filled with Vespas and porticoes and narrow cobblestone streets. When I saw my reflection in the door of Merry Melodies, I realized that I didn’t need to experience My Great Coming Of Age because it had already happened—gradually, throughout my life, without my knowing. I sat on the train back to Florence and thought about the girls in high school who became different people when they switched lunch tables each year, using the fall as a rebirth instead of the spring, and the boys who found themselves in college, who are better people now than they were back then. I have never felt any urgent need or desire to recreate my identity or to redefine how people think of me. I have only needed to redefine how I think of myself. For me, cross-Atlantic flights and classes on Italian culture and weekends in exotic hostels weren't necessary to learn who I was. Instead, I remembered who I was outside of a small music shop in Bologna.
There are things about myself that I only realized this semester, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist before. Concerning who I am as a confused twenty-something: I’m more controlling than I thought. But this I should’ve known—have you met my mother? I’m also much kinder than I thought, and I’ve realized the importance of remembering this fact about yourself even when the people around you forget. My jewelry making class taught me how to use a lighter without being afraid of the flame—a truly priceless skill, if you ask me, and I'm considering putting it on an updated resume. I know for sure now that my hair curls better when I keep my blow dryer on a lower setting (also priceless knowledge). I enjoy good food more than most other things in life and I like to cook but only delicious things and only in a clean kitchen and preferably on an electric stovetop (there was an incident with white wine and burnt mushrooms and a large gas flame and a lot of smoke). I know I experienced pure joy the night that Angela and I stopped while making dinner to dance to Fifth Harmony, but on the weekend I visited the Amalfi Coast, it was incredibly difficult to relax. My mom helped me realize, when she told me that I’m just like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, that the simplest things make me happy. I just have to look in my own back yard.
I will not return home from this trip as a new person, or even a more elegant, sophisticated, European-traveler version of my former self. You’ll still recognize me. I won’t even have a fresh, new hairstyle because my talented and generous cousin Cassidy isn’t here to trim my bangs or touch up my highlights. I won’t have suitcases full of stories about my brand new friends from all over the world. I didn’t get any impulsive tattoos or piercings. I won’t be fighting for my long-distance love affair with a tall, dark, handsome Lorenzo/Luca/Pietro (I promise I'm not just being stereotypical—I took all of those names from my Tinder matches). I won’t be taller, unfortunately, or hotter, or radiating pretentious intelligence (any more than I always have). Here is what I will leave with: one pair of black leather boots with a nice heel that when I get home will be wrapped up and given to me by Santa Claus; fond memories of Chiara and Arturo and all the other first graders whom I ate lunch with every Wednesday; bufala mozzarella, if there's a way to vacuum seal it, because I swear that cheese makes me believe in God again; many more pairs of earrings because I have no self control/took a jewelry making class/like to shop when I’m sad; an even more obnoxious loyalty to New York City; some random facts about the food in different regions of Italy that I’ll probably never need to know after I take my cooking final; my Uncle Bobby’s leather passport holder containing a passport with the same number of stamps as when I arrived because now airports use electronic stamps; an eternal craving for my mom's lasagna soup; the entire 46-song Hamilton soundtrack memorized; enough pictures, however mediocre they may be, to Instagram a #TBT every week for the rest of time; a burning desire to make Gnocchi alla Sorrentina (okay, in honor of being honest in this post, really just a desire to keep eating it regularly); a low-key obsession with Drake’s “Hotline Bling;” a new copy of The Bell Jar, my favorite book of all time, from Shakespeare and Company in Paris; the European copy of Fearless, my favorite album of all time, from a CD shop in Florence; about 45 postcards and not even an apartment to hang them in next semester; a newfound understanding of the essentiality of salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil; fingernails in desperate need of a gel manicure; and a playlist of Sara Bareilles and Joni Mitchell on repeat.
In 2001, Sara Bareilles wrote “Red” in her peach-colored bedroom in Bologna after being inspired by Joni Mitchell. Now, I am writing a blog post in my white-walled bedroom in Florence after being inspired by Sara Bareilles. I’m still consistently rereading my virtually highlighted sections of Sounds Like Me, including the lines, “I felt whole again when I wrote the lyric ‘How you love is who you are.’ It sounded like me,” and I often think about how I love and who I am.
If you ask me, I think I love like a girl in a sundress in mid-June. I love like a car ride home from the ocean with sand on the seats and the windows of the 1988 Isuzu Trooper rolled down. I love like the best friend who brings you red Gatorade when you’re hungover and ice cream when you’re heartbroken. I love like a girl at her first Taylor Swift concert. I love like a buongustaio. I love like a GPS that can’t for the life of it figure out where you are. I love like a brand new pair of handmade earrings. I love like a little sister. I love like a long text message to comfort you on a sleepless night. I love like hearing your favorite song on the radio for the first time. I love like a long black coat that protects your entire body from the bitter New York cold when you visit Manhattan during Christmastime. I love like the first one out on the dance floor. I love like a girl who is inspired by writers who came before her, writers who were inspired by writers who came before them, who are all connected in some sort of intangible, artistic way by their love of music.
I love like a girl who, on some level, has always known exactly who she is.
"By the sheer nature of the study program’s design, everything felt temporary. One year of all this craziness and then we’d all go back to our ‘real’ lives. I was living in a strange limbo world, not totally connecting to what was immediately around me, but still incredibly far from what I would be going home to. I couldn’t shake this feeling that we were all in suspended animation during our year in Italy. It didn’t matter what I did, because my actual life was waiting for me at home.”