Updated: Feb 10
View from Hotel Acquamarina in Portoferraio, Elba Island, Italy.
I had always dreamed of living abroad somewhere in Europe, waking up and going to some picturesque café for my morning coffee and travelling with my camera on weekends to collect photographs for my eventual coffee table book. Growing up shy, my imagination had often taken me on similarly unrealistic adventures.
So, it wasn’t until I was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way ticket flight to Italy, translating to the impatient flight attendants that the elderly Polish woman beside me wanted apple juice – not orange – that I fully processed what was happening.
View of Follonica and Follonica Bay (Tyrrhenian Sea) at sunset.
I cried my first night there. After thirty-six hours of travel, I had nearly missed my flight from Frankfurt to Florence, suffered an ill-timed albeit temporary loss of hearing in my right ear from all the changes in air pressure, and almost ended up stranded two hours away from my destination when I couldn’t find the right bus (and then the train station).
Cityscape of Follonica, Tuscany, Italy.
Until then, I had never so much as travelled alone. But eventually, I found myself in Follonica: a small, Tuscan town on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I would be living above a pizzeria; there was also one around the corner, one across the street, and yet another just a little down the road. I was thrilled. My apartment was seconds from the beach, so close I could hear the waves lapping at the sand.
A pizza and wine dinner with friends at Follonica's Limonaia Pizzeria e Trattoria Toscana.
In a place where everything was new and unknown, routine was the only aspect that remained familiar. Almost every morning, I walked down Via Roma – the no-cars-allowed main street of the town – to Caffetteria Parigi for a cappuccino and, when I wanted to treat myself, a delicious, custard-filled bombolone. The quaint cafe had a red awning and a few tables and chairs set outside on the cobblestone, beckoning locals and tourists alike.
Though the owner didn’t speak English and my knowledge of Italian didn’t extend beyond ciao, we communicated with understanding smiles, hand gestures, and nods; when I pointed to something, she would tell me its Italian name and I would butcher the pronunciation as I attempted to repeat it back.
An array of cappuccini and pastries from La Compagnia del Dolce Siciliano, a sicilian bakery in Follonica, Italy.
Sometimes, I bought different pastries just to learn their names.
Whenever I passed her café, she would wave and call out a friendly ciao. I would occasionally attempt to tell her where I was from or where I was going that weekend and she would reply, until I was finally able to understand her without much difficulty. I started to recognize the other regulars, and they recognized me too, smiling and saying hello when I came in.
As I became increasingly comfortable tossing around buongiorno and a domani, I felt like I was finally finding my footing. Being unable to speak to anyone had been incredibly isolating. When I began to learn, understand, and speak, I was able to fully appreciate the way that language connects people.
A portrait of Erin Spiller designed by the owner of Caffetteria Parigi, a coffee bar on Follonica's main street.
When it wasn’t too busy, the café owner would twirl a toothpick around the cappuccino foam and create a portrait of my face, singing and smiling as she went along. I took my mom and youngest brother to the coffee bar when they came for a visit, and I stumbled through an explanation about who they were, a few sentences that I had memorized from the Google Translate app on my phone. She gave them an espresso cup with the caffetteria’s logo on it and wished them a safe journey back.
Most mornings, I would make time to sit on the concrete benches and red-brick ledges, warm from the sun, and listen to the waves. I wanted to embrace the warmth – so wonderfully different from the -40 degrees Celsius Canadian winter that I had left behind – and enjoy the act of doing nothing. I watched pigeons. I bought gelato whenever I felt like it. It was a stark contrast to the hectic, nonstop, often anxiety-riddled North American culture I had grown up in. It was peaceful.
A view overlooking Follonica Bay, and in the distance, the silhouette of Elba Island.
On weekends, I travelled to other towns and cities with my camera. In an attempt to find other travellers who wanted to join me in Venice for the Carnevale, I ended up planning a group trip with ten people. At the hostel, I befriended a Milanese girl who offered me a stay in her apartment whenever I wanted – despite us being complete strangers. I drank wine with a girl from Spain and danced at the hostel’s carnival party, complete with a DJ who showered the crowd in champagne. The soundproofing in that building was impressive.
A gondolier checks his phone as he drifts through the Venice canals.
My last evening in Venice, I started talking to someone I had met in the lobby the night before. Before I knew it, I was wandering the Venetian streets with a group, people from England, the USA, Germany, Ireland, and Bolivia to find a bar that someone heard was playing live music that night.
We got lost. I learned that the Bolivian girl had a brother who worked in my province back home and I chatted nonchalantly with the others, feeling adrenaline pulsing in my veins. I had always wanted to be a traveler, striking up conversation with strangers and exploring hidden gems like the bar that we eventually found. My dream was becoming realized on that trip.
People wait for the bus in Rome, Italy.
In Rome, I was pickpocketed. They had taken my cell phone and my credit card, and I felt cold fear strike my heart. Three strangers helped me look around and translated my pleas for help to the bar’s security guards; although we did not find my belongings, I will always be grateful for their kindness. Had I not had emergency cash on my person or the memory of the route back to the train station – my navigational skills had improved exponentially since I had first arrived in the country – I would have been stranded.
Ironically, it had been a blessing to lose my credit card. An engineering student in the city had found both items near a train station and had been able to contact me through Facebook using the name on my card. Everything was returned in perfect condition.
A red and orange building with intricately designed balconies, in Rome.
That incident left me shaken and I suddenly wanted to return home to my family and the comfort of familiarity. I booked a return flight. I was reminded of just how much I missed the people back home, feeling unsatisfied by the endless 2am video chats and sporadic texts. The eight-hour time difference and physical isolation was taking its toll. I felt defeated, at first. But living in Italy had changed me.
I booked one last trip. Packing took only a few minutes; I knew what I was doing. I took two trains to Piombino and walked down to the ferry, boarding shortly after with a sense of confidence and bravery that sent my heart pounding with exhilaration. I was not going to let one bad experience tarnish my lifelong dream, ruin my entire experience in Italy. I chose to stay in a hotel for that trip, and the view of the island was so incredible that I sat on the bed and gaped for a solid hour before I left to explore rocky beaches with clear blue water and narrow roads lined with foreign plants.
View of a rocky beach on Elba Island, Italy.
By the last month of my stay, and after tanning a few shades darker under the Mediterranean sun, I was often mistaken for a local when I struck up a conversation in Italian. My sense of pride at how far I had come with my language skills and my confidence was immeasurable. I celebrated my birthday by myself, eating gelato al café on the beach, talking to strangers, and later getting caught in the rain and taking refuge in a nearby café. I ate more gelato on the rooftop – it was my birthday, after all.
Vibrant colours of a sunset in Follonica, Italy.
Living abroad has remained the most challenging and rewarding decision I have ever made. I found peace in my own company, confidence in myself, and a sense of adventure that has not lost its appetite since.