The End of the Summer
And just like that, my summer is already over! For anyone ever considering a full summer somewhere, I highly recommended starting in May. Somehow I’ve lived out the equivalent of maybe six or seven lifetimes—one month in Naples, one month in Bologna, several stop-overs in Rome, a weekend wedding in Morocco, a beach weekend in Sardegna, a catch-up weekend in Prague, and a full week of visiting old friends and picking up the pieces of my previous life in Austria—and it’s not even August yet!
As I sit here at the airport gate before flying back to New York City, I’m struck by how difficult I am finding it to come up with some kind of summary structure to describe and explain this summer. It was so varied and filled with so many different people, places, languages, moments, and moods that it feels unfairly reductive to try to paint any kind of broad picture. This is certainly a failure of imagination and storytelling skill on my part, to some degree, but the summer really felt more like an impressionistic painting than a coherent photograph. It felt like the kind of thing where you could really take any square inch of the painting at random, stare at it for a while, and move on to the next. There’s plenty of interesting material there, it just doesn’t lend itself well to summarization. So if you see me in the coming weeks and want to hear more, your best approach is probably to ask me some kind of hyper-specific question about some arbitrary aspect of the trip. As with a painting, one detail will lead to the next, and maybe we’ll be able to extrapolate something from the sequence.
But just to give some light summarization a go, I’ll pose myself that classic end-of-summer question with which every grade-schooler learns to grapple come August: “What did you learn this summer?”
Well, Italian for one. By the time I left Bologna, I was just starting to enter that phase of learning a new language where you begin to feel comfortable enough to take risks. You don’t need to pre-script every interaction anymore. You start answering random phone calls from Italian numbers, not knowing what kind of vocabulary you’ll need when the voice on the other end begins to speak. You start daring to tell extended stories across dinner tables, hoping that your reflexive command of the grammar will lend coherence and hold attention. You make tons and tons of little mistakes, but you’re able to speak quickly and confidently enough that you know your audience will let them slide by.
I’ve now learned all of the formal grammar required to read and understand pretty much anything (as long as I have access to a dictionary), although listening to radio or watching film (without subtitles) is still very difficult. I’ve amassed enough of the basic daily vocabulary and practiced the usual conversational rhythms enough that I would feel comfortable making small talk with almost anyone for a few minutes, but I’m not holding any speeches or press conferences any time soon.
I also (re-)learned how much I love being a student. Everything from the structured approach to learning a new skill to the social dynamics of a classroom. Most people associate the classroom dynamic with childhood, and not infrequently is this association colored negatively because of its compulsive nature. As an adult, however, the classroom offers a social world of curious, motivated people who voluntarily assemble in the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and expertise. A little social bubble coalesces around this pursuit, providing a great medium for connecting with new people that you might not otherwise come across in your life.
This summer also finally confirmed a suspicion that I’ve long held about the nature of my relationship to exploration, social expansion, and work. The truth is, I’m just not able to harmoniously combine the three. At least not in a situation where I'm trying to do all three at the same time. I have dozens of projects (web, audio, writing, creative) that I want to work on, but I’m just not able to make the time for the kind of focused, steady work that those things require while I’m on the road and forming new relationships. The energy and effort it took to fully immerse myself in learning Italian and creating a social world for myself in each new city left little of the internal resources required to sit in front of a computer screen for hours each day. I sort of learned the inverse of this lesson during the Build Retreat when I saw how much could be accomplished in such periods of focus.
I’ll pick up on this last theme in my next post, in which I’ll describe my future plans for the coming months. I've found a place to settle-in and live for the next year.