Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alone for the holidays

It was December 23 of last year at about 10 p.m. I sat in an outside seat of a vaporetti boat on the Grand Canal, coughing from the engine fumes and wearing my hood in the chilly rain. I was alone, listening to an ill-timed Weepies ballad on my iPod shuffle. I'm only 23, I thought. How had my life already gone so wrong? I should be glitzed up for holiday parties with my friends or wrapping presents while watching Christmas movies with my mom. Instead I floated past glowing Venetian palaces in an empty, silent city that inspired romantic fantasies and ghost stories, hopelessly and utterly alone.

Nearly a year later, I’m far from empty piazzas shimmering in wet moonlight and hushed medieval allies. I’m home in West Virginia. I stir my multi-grain cereal with milled flaxseed and soy as it bubbles on the stove top. “Tastes like something they’d feed you in prison,” my mom says after I offer her a bite. After breakfast, I pop in a yoga DVD, trying to concentrate on broadening and lengthening as I stand in Proud Warrior. But while yogi Rodney Yee instructs me to empty my mind and be in the moment, I’m thinking about Thanksgiving next week. I resist the urge to press pause and light my new cinnamon apple candle. Bring on the tree trimming, pie baking, and carol singing, I think.

After last year's lonesome Christmas I’m determined to squeeze every drop of holiday warmth out of this year. Following my return from Europe and failure to support myself at a temporary job before the start of my one-year fellowship in South America, I’m living with my family for a few months. Today after a dentist appointment and the library I meet my dad at the pool for a swim. At home we grill hamburgers for dinner. Mom comes in after her weekly girl scout troop meeting, and the three of us sit in the living room. I read my homework, The New New Journalism, my mom flips through an Avon catalog, and my dad reads a Western novel. This is luxury, I think. Until my parents turn on a made-for-TV movie and ruin the bliss of silence. But I stay in the room because I like the warm lighting and the company.

A December night last year I entered a dark and empty hostel dorm in Florence after lugging my suitcase up three flights of stairs. I left my bag on a bunk and went outside in search of an Internet café so I could Skype my family. Soon I was cold and lost. My desperation to talk to someone I knew turned into a panic. An hour later I found an Internet café in the back of a convenience store. The aggressive fluorescent lighting made my head hurt. After I’d paid and sat down at my assigned computer, I realized the settings were in a language consisting of foreign symbols rather than Roman characters. I tried to explain to the Indian owner. He didn't understand but pointed to the other computer. I logged onto Skype and soon heard my mother’s voice in the headset. “Hello?” But she couldn’t hear me. My microphone didn’t work. "Hello?" she repeated. I could hear my brother laughing in the background. I hadn’t seen him in a year. Hearing the familiar voices but being unable to communicate was agonizing. Click, my mom hung up the phone. I rushed out so no one would see my tears.

When I moved to Barcelona to teach English after my college graduation, I’d known I wouldn’t be able to afford a flight home for Christmas. Instead I ended up booking a budget flight to Italy. After a few extended stints abroad I’d overestimated my immunity to homesickness.

These days I sigh with nostalgia when I see photographs of bridges I walked in Venice or paintings I admired in Rome. I wouldn’t trade the three weeks I spent exploring Tuscan countryside and wandering Veronese Christmas markets for anything.

So why now, as I curl up on the living room couch by with my cat at my feet and my parents on either side,  do I think of Italy and feel a pang of solitude?


  1. Hi Rachel,

    This post is beautiful, the transitions are seamless too. Most of us are usually torn between two ambitions/wishes. I really like the contrast you show and some of the images you have conjured up here: "floated past glowing Venetian palaces in an empty, silent city" etc.

  2. Rachel, some lovely writing here. Like Seja says, your transition rocks. Plus I dig the relationship you have with your family, so nice to read. Feeling a little homesick now!

  3. You sucked me in right away - I loved this piece!

  4. you have to leave home to understand what it is i guess...


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