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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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My first morning in Tivoli was not actually morning. It was noon, something I didn’t learn from my dark cave of a studio in this village on the outskirts of Rome until I checked my phone. The jet lag was bad, worse than I expected, but I had a job to do and this job was making memories. So, no sleeping for me.

I had to pick my way through the rabbit-warren streets of charming cobblestone, cold and slick in January, to find a café. Here, I would become the swirly new European version of me. I would write and take my morning coffee and sit and become part of the fabric of this ancient place. This tiny version of Rome with a chip on its shoulder and laundry hanging just about everywhere.

I walk and walk. I wear clothes in dark colours that are almost right, but still a bit wrong. Too plain, too North American, too clearly from Old Navy. Every café I pass is called a bar. There are men standing at counters in cashmere scarves taking shots of espresso. A few people glance my way. I am blonde and curvy, middle-aged and afraid. I don’t fit, I think, but also I think: “I don’t fit yet.”

The café I find is bright and happy-looking. I see pale grey and white colours, and shiny, glass counters stuffed with croissants and doughnuts, and little pistachio-covered tarts. There’s also cannoli, which always makes me want to say, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” because quoting The Godfather in Italy is cliché, but fun. Also, I see a bag of chips I don’t recognize – paprika flavour – and I wonder who decided paprika chips should be a flavour when they are obviously just watered-down barbecue. Imagine munching on chips, pausing and waiting for a burst of something that never comes – and now you know what paprika chips taste like. They are a whisper of a chip.

It’s early days here, of course. I’m struggling with the loss of my kids and my friends and my routine and feeling a bit maudlin. But I am living in Europe for four months like I’ve longed to for the past 20 years, so expectations are running high. Too high on account of too many rom-coms, maybe.

I order my coffee with the only sentence I know in Italian, “Uno caffè latte, per favore,” and I am met with a disinterested stare from the Italian model/barista behind the counter. She is telling me with her eyes she doesn’t have time for tourists today and I am telling her with mine she can go ahead and make time, because this is happening. We have a standoff, I get my coffee. And then I realize I am also very hungry.

In Canada, I am a breakfast eater. One of those people who has several breakfasts, in layers: first, a healthy green smoothie and coffee. After a hike outside, where I can think about breakfast and make my plan of attack: savoury or sweet or a mix? Back at home, with red cheeks and good intentions, I pour more coffee from the pot and snack on a piece of toast with cheese and honey while I make my main event, breakfast. This will be a soft-boiled egg (salt and pepper on every bite, please) with a second piece of toast, final coffee, reading glasses and crossword. On a cold day, it’s oatmeal with berries and coconut and apple and cinnamon and maple syrup, a book in my favourite chair by the good window. Pancakes and sausages stacked high with my sons around the table, syrup and laughter everywhere on Sundays when no one is working and we have miles of time. My breakfast wears many coats.

Here in Italy, breakfast looks like this: shooters of espresso and a cornetto. Just like a coffee and a fancy doughnut, basically. That’s it, no variety. Also, I’m telling you this as a public service - if someone in Italy tries to sell you a chocolate croissant, they only mean Nutella, which is not chocolate. I will be fooled by this one too many times.

On my first morning, I don’t know this is all I will ever get for breakfast. I think I might as well treat myself to a croissant and surely I’ll find some fruit later. But it is January in Italy, there are only clementines and old apples. I love a clementine, but they’re not to be trusted with their hidden seeds.

Eventually, I will find a grocery store that sells six-packs of eggs in the back like a speakeasy and these will be the most delicious eggs I’ve ever eaten, but they will never boil right for me. Either the yolks are too hard or the whites are too runny. Pancakes are going to have to wait, as will my sons who I left at home to go about being grown-ups without me for four months. Fruit, I will find in the supermarket, tiny boxes of blueberries that cost me €4 (nearly $6) for one portion and I will pop them like pills.

I will keep going back to this café alone, drinking my caffè latte and sitting at a table and writing. No one will ever speak to me. They know I’m doing it wrong. And I wonder if there will ever be a yet.

After a while, I do make friends who introduce me to the true main event of eating in Italy: pasta carbonara. We will explore and drink wine, locals teaching me how to be local. Hike to little villages in the mountains and eat and eat. I’ll learn the way. But every day, I will also wake up feeling the roller-coaster drop of my stomach before my eyes open. I’m not where I should be. Every day, I will feel the painful loss of my morning ceremony and my not-so-bad-after-all life at home. I miss my sons.

And yet, I am here. For the next four months, I get to be a new person because nobody knows the old person.

Pancakes can wait.

Jennifer McGuire splits her time between Hamilton and Walter’s Falls, Ont.