University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Eat, Think, Live

The summer I graduated from college, I moved to Sicily to take a job working on a documentary in the middle of the mountains. I had never made a film and I didn’t speak a word of Italian, never mind Sicilian. I was clueless, thrilled, and determined to ignore my aching heart. 

My senior year I had dated a guy a year behind me in school, and as I applied for one overseas job after another, I convinced myself that an upcoming journey would be an excuse for long-distance phone calls while he finished classes. Instead, the day before my flight, I hugged him goodbye on the hot asphalt of a suburban auto shop, trying not to cry. Neither of us knew what the next years would bring, but he wasn’t ready to tether our lives across the ocean. He drove back to our college town. And one bus, two planes, two trains, and one dusty Fiat ride later, I arrived at my new home. 

As a teenager, I had binged on the canon of woman-goes-abroad-and-falls-in-love stories, and friends were quick to note that in this regard, my breakup was ideal staging for the journey. The family I was working for had had a string of English-speaking interns over the years, and stories of their love affairs haunted the local village: This was the shepherd who had dated Linda, that was the sommelier who had danced with Fiona. But as each day went on, I came to thrill in a life that didn’t oscillate around romantic attachment. I had spent my adolescence enmeshed in various iterations of courtship, but I had never questioned how much energy this took from my life. The head rush of the crush had always seemed harmless. Now, busily occupied in the hum of country life, I was surprised to realize that while I was often alone, I was rarely lonely. 

Workdays were long, so I found solace in twilight, when I could slip out and jog through the vineyards before dinner. One evening, a motorcyclist called to me from the top of a hill. The rider looked to be in his 30s, with a swoop of dark hair and a wide smile. By then, I understood enough to figure out that he was offering me a ride home. I smiled—no, grazie—and wished him a good evening. But instead of leaving, he hopped off his bike and gestured for me to come stand beside him. Beneath us, the sunset burned through the vines. We managed introductions—he was Salvatore, from a town a few miles away—and then, after a few minutes of stilted conversation, he reached a hand to my flaming cheek and said something I didn’t understand. Laughing at my cluelessness, he touched the ring finger of my left hand. My first proposal. 

For a minute, I imagined riding off with him. Maybe we wouldn’t marry, but still: Wasn’t this what being a traveler was all about? But then I remembered the broccoli I had harvested for dinner, and the letter to an old friend I planned to write while I ate. This, too, felt important and new. 

From a young age, we are taught to aspire to partnership, both platonic and otherwise. Still, it seems we should practice solitude too. Not only had I never learned to sit tight with the rumble of my own heartbeat, I had never thought that I should try. Instead, I had spent a lot of time aspiring to connection, all the while distracting myself from myself. So I strung together enough smiles and words to thank Salvatore. I told him I hoped to see him around. And then he grinned, touching my arm as he mounted his bike, and disappeared into the pink sky.

Erica Berry is a graduate instructor and fellow in the University’s MFA program in creative writing.

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