“What are you going to do after that?”
I heard this question several times. While I was finishing school, my undergraduate and master degree, then my internship in Ireland and a 4-year PhD in England. I didn’t even know what I was doing in that moment and I was pretty tired of thinking about the day after tomorrow, when the important thing was to just focus on today. I was chased by the typical Italian mentality according to which you must either study or go straight into a good job. Before you even finish one step of your path, you need to have a specific and optimal plan for the following one. Nothing wrong with this, I’ve lived the vast majority of my life thinking the same way.
When I was a young child I had my own plan. I was going to attend medical school, graduate as a successful doctor who would have gotten married to the perfect man at the age of 25, had the first kid at 27 and why not, a second one at 30. Boy and girl, I was even thinking about names. Of course, every kid has a strong imagination, but mine was a bit stronger. I created a parallel world in which I could find refuge when I needed it the most. It was made out of trees and waterfalls, full of animals and smiles. Not many people, but music all around. The lyrics were the words I used to write on journal after journal. That need to let it all out was so strong, that I filled in pages and pages of tearful, joyful, angry, exciting stories. I knew what I wanted to do, but if you asked me “what about…” I would have probably seriously thought about changing my path. In fact I did. I never went to medical school. I didn’t get married at 25 and so far there are no kids in my life. Part of me would still want the whole package, but perhaps it just wasn’t my path. I learned to love something without becoming that thing. I love music, but I am not a musician. I love dancing, but I am not a ballerina. I love cooking, but I am not a chef. The list goes on forever. I used to believe that in life we are defined by what we do for a living, that when you introduce yourself you should give the perfect image for that new acquaintance to appreciate you and be intrigued by you. I feared that if I didn’t list all the things I loved, that person would have not considered me as the kind of girl who would get a licence to jump out of a plane on her own, or learn how to free dive, or to pilot a glider, or someone who simply enjoys reading. Does all of this really matter? Maybe it’s okay to like cars and not being a rally driver. It’s okay to enjoy films and not becoming a director. Maybe I’m just an overly passionate person who throws herself into whatever she discovers, and it-is-okay.
During my PhD I understood things about myself I would have never imagined. I learned when it is too much to bare, when I don’t want to see someone anymore and what weight negative thoughts can have on my life. I also became an impulsive trip-booker. The careful planner I was started to become the kind of person who sits in the pub with some mates and, after a few beers, books a flight to Athens. I just wanted to go, so why waiting? More importantly, why just Athens? I struggled to find companions to share my travels with, until I shared a video about Iceland on my Facebook profile and I received a message from a dear uni friend. Let’s do this! Let’s look at flights and go to Iceland together! A dream for both of us, and so the planning began. Hey, I was still an organised traveler after all! Chiara let me look for routes and stops. Our week there was not a lot, but we wanted to make the most out of it. And it was a life-changing experience. It’s not just the endless, stunning wilderness. Not just the majestic dance of whales swimming below us. Not the magical silence only broken by the wind. Not the black, rocky beaches and the overlooking volcanoes. More than anything else, what changed me was the search for one of the most amazing phenomena humans can appreciate. The northern lights. Chiara and I had spent the whole week driving into complete darkness to be able to see this incredible show. Camera, tripod, torch, gloves and multiple pairs of socks. Nothing. We were almost going to give up. After one of the most amazing meals in Reykjavik, the cold and tiredness were winning over us, so we decided to head to the guesthouse to take a hot shower and pack our things before heading outside the city for another expedition. It was then, while we were crossing the square in front of Hallgrímskirkha (the Space Shuttle-looking Church), that Chiara screamed “there it is!!!”. Eyes up in the sky. I could not believe it. We hugged each other and cried next to the looks of other surprised tourists and locals who kindly smiled, probably thinking “pff, look at these newbies!”. In that moment there was no tiredness, no cold, nothing negative invading my mind. Just an overwhelming sense of joy and immense beauty. A huge tick in the list of things to do and see in life. I felt blessed, humble and incredibly excited. It was that specific moment, when I looked into Chiara’s eyes, that I understood I wanted to travel more. And more. I wanted to wake up every day and be amazed by my surroundings. I wanted to discover what makes other cultures smile, what food they love, what music they listen to. I wanted to see new colours and smell new scents. I wanted to walk on the most beautiful and untouched grounds. After I went back I realised that I still had one year to finish my PhD, that I would have had the most terrifying year of my life so far. I walked into the lab feeling empty. All I wanted was to shout to the world how beautiful Iceland was, how emotional I felt when I walked to the top of a cliff to see waves, mountains and black sand around me. It didn’t feel enough to answer the question “how was your trip?”. I kept repeating myself: I wish I had one more day.