What I left on a train in Italy

I’ve been lucky enough to spend a considerable amount of time overseas over the course of my 23 years. I grew up in a youth group that valued investing in our global community, so every summer I would pack my bags and get on a plane headed toward Mexico or Argentina, Tanzania or Wales.

When I was in college, I was able to study abroad in South Africa for four months. We spent the summery days hiking through the game reserve or lounging next to the waterfall in between (or instead of) study sessions. I go back to this season a lot in my mind. Different sensory experiences bring the clock back in time – I smell strong curry powder and I am in the Durban market, I taste certain teas and I am sitting in the grass above the waterfall, sipping on Roibus and snacking on pastries. If you’ve ever fallen in love with a specific place – be that a city or a field or a country or a house – you tend to find hints of it in the most random places, or at least I do. Every once in a while a townhouse or a skyscraper or a cafe will take me right back to the streets of Cape Town, and I am boldly setting one foot in front of the other, trying new foods and exploring new street corners and talking about culture and history and reconciliation with my best friends. I’ll whisper, mostly to myself, that this place reminds me of South Africa. I’ll say thank you for it, and I’ll move on, cherishing the unique experience that challenged me and changed me in a multitude of ways.

This travel bug journeyed with me into college. Throughout my undergraduate experience, my closest friends and I would dream of backpacking Europe after graduation as a way of celebrating our hard work and the friendships we’d made along the way. The dream lived in a shared Pinterest board and a few scattered conversations over the years. But in September of my senior year, the dream became a reality. Two of my roommates and I found cheap flights in and out of Stockholm Sweden, and without much cushion in our bank accounts, we pressed purchase. We didn’t know if we would have jobs. We didn’t know what we would be doing or what we would even want to do in the years immediately following our college graduation, but we knew that we wanted to travel and wander and celebrate and enjoy what the world had to offer, and this seemed to be one of the best ways that we could do it.

May 12. All things Europe pointed towards May 12. We would accept our diplomas on May 7, and we would have 5 days to say our goodbyes and pack our boxes and prepare to live out of a backpack for 5 weeks. Return flights were cheaper the longer we pushed back our timeline, and we figured we might as well try to see and do as much as possible with our impending unemployment and a general sense that our youth was coming to a close.

We spent the next eight months researching and planning and saving. We established a route that covered 7 countries in 5 weeks. We booked flights and hostels and made lists and pinched pennies. Many times when I went to make a purchase, I would ask myself if I needed it in light of Europe. Is this shirt something I could wear in Europe, or can I wait to buy it after? Do I really need this coffee right now as I drive to school, or would I prefer to sip it on the streets of Paris?

And then the day came.

May 12, 2016. I got on a plane to Europe. I squished everything I thought I might need and could manage to fit into a backpack and got on 2pm flight with two of my best friends. Destination: Stockholm, Sweden. It was a whirlwind. We ate fine foods and met some outlandish people and did some crazy things. We drove Vespas through Rome (10/10 only recommend if you want to see your life flash before your eyes), attended an Opera in Paris and lounged on a barge turned bar in Berlin. We cruised through the Fjord’s of Norway and sailed in the Mediterranean and jumped into the sea during twilight under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. We spent hours on planes and trains and we braved many an interesting hostel experience. We came home 5 weeks later with many stories to tell, but even more than that we came home with deeper relationships and greater compassion and hopefully a bit more wisdom about the world.

It’s funny to me that out of all the things we saw and experienced, tasted and tried, one particular experience stands out to me as one of the most sacred. It was on a train in Italy.

We had lost sweet Bonnie to the arms of the summer camp she was leading at (it sounds as dramatic as it felt), and she hopped on a flight back to LA just a few days prior. Katie and I had since worked our way by train up the coast from Rome to Cinque Terre, then to Milan, and now we were catching the last train ride that would cut up through northern Italy, wind through Austria, and drop us into the care of my cousin in the German countryside, roughly an hour outside of Munich.

Honestly, we were pretty exhausted. Weeks of constant stimuli – of constantly readjusting to a new language and transportation system and way of life – had left us pretty tired. Katie and I once again packed our bags, picked up a leftover bottle of wine from the hostel party the night before, and set out for McDonalds. (SIDEBAR: If you are traveling, and you either get lost or feel homesick or have to pee really bad, McDonalds has your back. You can find free Wifi and bathrooms and a general sense of home under those golden arches. Also, big LOL to the fact that McDonalds is a marker for Americans overseas, but I digress.) Armed with our chicken nuggets and french fries, we settled into our train cabin for the 6 hour ride.

With Andrew Belle’s Black Bear ringing in my ears, I watched out the window as cities turned to vineyards turned into some of the most majestic mountains I have ever seen. Rain clouds drizzled their contents onto the earth, washing the roads and factories clean of dirt, causing the green of the grass and the red of the farmhouses to pop against the grey sky.

I really think that coach was a sacred space, an in-between, a thin place. Not only because Katie finally beat 2048 on that train ride (if you play, you know how big of a deal that is), but because of the layer of my heart that I finally started to peel back as we raced through the Italian countryside.

I’ve been at war with myself for quite sometime. In some ways, I believe that battle is part of what college is for. It’s a time when young people take a serious look at who they have been and who they are and begin to determine who they want to become. For me, it felt like I was simultaneously looking at the world and my role in it under a microscope and shooting off into space for a bird’s eye view, desperately trying to reconcile what I saw. I was trying to be someone honorable and competent. I was trying to soak in the stories I learned about in classes and heard about through friends and reconcile those with mine. I was trying to grasp my unique identity in a world that screams for us to be so many different things: competent, witty, bold, beautiful, etc.

But actually, I think the struggle started long ago as a little girl. I thrive off the affirmation and acknowledgment of others. I’ve always been a producer, capable of delivering efficiently and effectively on a large scale. As long as the fuel of people’s approval was replenishing my tank, I could accomplish anything. Or so I thought. But that fuel does run out. That tank does turn up dry. At the end of the day I am the only one who lives and dies with my choices and investments. And when I only fuel my work with the praise of others, I run ragged. Exhausted. Depleted. Drained. Done.

This desire for affirmation is directly linked to the perfectionism that weasels its way into my work and my relationships; I’ve known that since I was in middle school, and I’ve been working at a healthier understanding of my worth ever since. Trust me, every round of counseling I’ve been through somehow loops back here, and I could write several posts about the cause and effect of my perfectionism. But another shadow side of my striving for approval that I have become progressively aware of in the last few years is nestled deep in my understanding of self as it relates to personality and identity.

I am highly adaptable by nature, so that makes it difficult for me to grasp what is inherently of my nature and what is of the nature that I have conformed to. Am I the nice, sensitive, compassionate girl who is loyal and forgiving and sweet? Or am I the bold, confident, loud girl who goes after what she wants and knows what she deserves and refuses to settle for less? Somewhere along the way, and I really don’t know where, I got the message that I couldn’t be both. I couldn’t be bold and sensitive. I couldn’t be tough and kind. It was always “either/or” not “both/and.” Black or white, never grey.

At some point in the first half of our European adventure, I came across an article posted by Darling Magazine titled The Identity ‘Rules’ You Unknowingly Conform To. The author starts off saying this:

I recently read a quote that said, “Not all girls are sugar and spice and everything nice; some girls are adventure and beer and brains with no fear.” It bothered me. Can we be both? The statement suggests that one type is better, and that the attributes listed simply cannot co-exist.

Culture pressures us to choose which type of girl we are. But what if we like both beer and sugar? Can we be both adventurous and nice? Am I allowed to identify with both? The statement implies that certain attributes are mutually exclusive; we either fall into one category or the other. Typically, once we’ve identified our category, we start behaving how our type is supposed to.

I was floored. I’ve been living in that exact reality: one where I had to choose between beer and sugar, brain and heart, adventure and kindness. I’ve been at war with myself – trying to figure out who Jacova Kathleen is in this sometimes intimidating and overwhelming world that demands much of us.

And I felt that tension in Europe. I would generally identify myself as an adventurer. I love new experiences and deeply value challenge, and yet I’ve never been the “fearless” type (is anyone?!). I’m a worrier, anxious by nature. A deep fear of failure inevitably presses into my chest when I step into something new. When I am out of my comfort zone, I feel the most alive, the most conscious, the most open to what life could bring. And I also feel terrified. As an achiever, so much of my self worth is tied to my performance, or more specifically, my perceived performance, and I can’t control the outcome as much when I’m trying something new (or really ever, but its easier for me to think I’m in control). I was STOKED to be in Europe. I mean, it was the perfect fodder for an adventure, and also the perfect fodder for a pretty sweet post grad story. I mean, if you read any of the above, you know it sounds great. It’s the perfect narrative of youth: I saved and then squandered basically everything I had on a whirlwind 5 week trip through Europe with my best friends. It’s the dream, right?

Yes. And no. It absolutely was. The memories and lessons are invaluable. I wouldn’t change a thing. But it was hard. And for me it was scary. This achiever did not graduate with a job or any means of income in the foreseeable future. I sent all my stuff home to Arizona when I had said for years that I wanted to stay in LA after graduation. I wanted to have a grand adventure, but I was also soul weary from a hard year, and I craved rest and time and space to grieve the loss that college grads sometimes feel at the end of the undergraduate season. I felt the pressure to make this the BEST TRIP EVER, when there were many moments that I just wanted to sleep all day in our hostel. You get to a point, probably around country 3, where you couldn’t care less if you saw another castle because you’re tired of shoving your way through crowds of people and seas of selfie sticks just to look at some old brick that you have to pay $30 bucks to go inside of. And then I would feel guilty for thinking things like the previous thought because what ungrateful person complains about CASTLES for crying out loud in freaking EUROPE. And as dramatic as it might seem, I would fall asleep allowing these competing emotions to be another reason for my confusion about who I am. Traveler or homebody? Brave or fearful?

Nothing that special happened on that train in Italy, honestly. I just sat staring out the window of a train for 6 hours, pen in hand, occasionally scribbling little notes and lists that came into my mind. I made a list of things that I genuinely like. That Jacova genuinely likes. I made a list of things I wanted to do and enjoy when I came home with no job (lol) and had time to enjoy a short in-between before moving forward to the next thing.

At some point in the stillness, I once again gave myself permission to be in process. To be unsure, and to be confident about being unsure. I felt a kind of peace with myself on that train. A peace that said it was worth it to discover who I am – a passionate, sensitive, loud, soft, combination of brain and heart and body called Coves. I felt peace that it was ok to identity as a fighter and lover. It was acceptable to be the girl who liked sweet just as much as she enjoyed savory. I could love the European adventure I was on through and through, and I could also crave stability and stillness and a sense of home.

On that train in Italy, I had the overwhelming sense that it would be ok. I would come home and I would be ridiculously broke and I wouldn’t have a job and I wouldn’t live near most of my friends and I would have a lot of sorting to do, but it would be ok. I would be just fine.

I am just fine.

I still feel generally confused about who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing in this world, but I am figuring it out, and I am just fine. Post grad is hard. I miss my friends and cubicle life can be monotonous and I don’t know what to do with all my free time now that homework doesn’t fill that time, but I’m figuring it out. I’m learning to cook and I’m going on walks and I’m getting up early before work to write. I’m trying to invest in a church and I’m seeing my family more and I’m trying to learn what rest really truly looks like.

And I am just fine.

I think about that train in Italy, and I am thankful for a 6 hour sacred space of peace, where I allowed what I thought were two different parts of me begin to merge into one, the one I’ve probably been this whole time. I am thankful that I left these identity “rules”and a whole big chunk of fear behind on that train along with some french fry wrappers and an empty wine bottle. I am thankful for the radical adventure that helped me begin to sort through the intricacies of my heart even as I made memories that are bound to last a lifetime.

And when I feel really overwhelmed, be that in my cubicle at work or lying awake in bed at night or sitting in rush hour traffic, I can take a deep breathe, close my eyes, and for a brief second be back on that train in Italy, feeling the peace that comes with realizing that who I am in all my oddities is enough.

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  1. I loved this, Jacova!!! You’re an awesome writer!! Please share more!!!! I have always dreamed of traveling and am a bit jealous of your adventures, but I am so glad that you have had the opportunities that you have had!! I am very proud of you and am proud to be your aunt!! You need to plan a trip to the great state of Tennessee!!! We’re all so “crazy” here, that, I promise you, that you will have a lot to write about afterwards!!!! Love you, dearly!!!

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