Reflections on the Cinque Terre

If my experience with Italy is a love story, the infatuation began on my first trip to the Cinque Terre. On my first solo trip abroad, like 99% of Americans in Italy, I was immediately grabbed by the scenery that’s made those five villages so iconic. I used to fit a stop in Vernazza into my trips as a sort of vacation from my vacation, because even though it's good to see new places, there’s a comfort to returning to a location you’ve come to know on a more intimate level. After three years and a good amount of travel around Italy, I’ve realized that there’s so much more to experience in this country, but I still think of Vernazza (mostly) fondly. After all, it’s the place that kickstarted this whole ridiculous affair.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I took a spur-of-the-moment overnight trip to the Ligurian town of Levanto. Honestly, I just wanted to escape my sweaty oven of an apartment and throw myself into the sea. I didn’t plan on going back to the Cinque Terre and fending off the summer crowds. However, considering that I haven’t returned since moving here last year, the idea crossed my mind and a quick visit felt imperative. Vernazza is just a 15 minute train ride from Levanto, after all.

Let me elaborate a bit on why Vernazza stands out in my mind. Like most mildly interesting love stories, my relationship with Vernazza isn’t perfect. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it a year ago, for some kismet reason, I’ve found myself there during the most emotionally intense points of my adult life. My first solo trip was a dream, and I remember discovering a sense of independence and adventure that I'd never experience before. However, the next time I returned to the Cinque Terre, it was at the climax of the darkest and saddest few months of my college career. It was also December, so the entire town was fittingly dreary and I mostly just holed myself up in the stuffiness of my room. If I learned anything from the latter experience, it’s that paradise isn’t a place; rather, at least in my case, it’s more of a state of mind. You can’t escape your problems with international travel (trust me, I’ve tried). On a brighter note, the third time I came back to Vernazza, it was at the end of that dark period. I remember hiking and cliff jumping and feeling a sense of ownership over my own life that I’d been lacking for months.

I had my first experience with the alluring yet utterly baffling species known as Italian men while in Vernazza, when 20-year-old Cocoa had not experienced much in the realm of male attention. Looking back, I was also nowhere near secure enough to navigate that situation. Worse yet, Vernazza was also the place where I had my first experience with violence while traveling. Again at age 20, a man saw me in the bar where I was catching up with friends. He followed me, first to the harbor and then to the alley by my rented room, and tried to force himself on me. Because he was drunk, I was able to fight him off before anything serious happened, but it was still a definitive and grounding moment. Not everyone you meet is good, and I learned never to take my safety for granted.

More recently, I was in Vernazza the day after I decided that I wanted to go to grad school in Italy. This was a different December, a few days after visiting SACI for the first time and meeting some of the people who would become more important to me than I could have dreamed. Lastly, there the weekend after I started school, when I showed my parents my favorite trail and the rock in the harbor where I’d go to read my book. Like I said before, I haven’t been back since then. My patience for crowds has waned after a year of navigating tour groups on my way to school each morning, and there’s so many other places in Italy that I want to experience. Still, I'm glad I made the trip back this weekend.

It would have been great to return, think about all of the good and the bad, and realize that I’ve surmounted the troubles that made a few of my visits to the Cinque Terre so memorable. However, that’s not what happened. At my core, I’m still the same neurotic and anxious girl that couldn’t manage to order a glass of wine in Italian in March of 2014. However,  I’ve realized that I’m never going to reach perfection, that life’s narrative (like the narrative of a solo vacation) is always going to be messy, and I’m much happier and saner if I let myself acknowledge the hard things in addition to the happy ones. For me, that’s the beauty of Italy.

Most of my day was spent in swimming and exploring Levanto; in fact, I only stayed in Vernazza for an hour before escaping. It was long enough to wander, take a few photos, and take a coffee. Still, it was oddly emotional to go back to Vernazza, revisit those memories, and realize exactly how much has changed. After a year in Florence, I’m learning new things every day, but I’m also more confident and my appreciation for Italy has grown much deeper. I recognized plenty of familiar local faces among the throngs of tourists, and for the first time, I can often understand conversations (or at least the gist of them). While sipping a cafe shakerato, I wrote a thank-you note in strained Italian to the owner of a local cafe. During that initial trip, he was the first person to make me feel welcome in Italy. Sadly he wasn’t there when I dropped by, but honestly, I didn’t mind too much. Maybe, at least in my mind, Vernazza has become more of a symbol than a physical place. It represents both the best and the worst of my (admittedly short) adult life thus far, to the point that going back is a mixed bag of emotions. Maybe one day I'll learn to take a normal, relaxing beach vacation. Sadly that day has not yet arrived.

So, there you have it: a narrative of my tumultuous relationship with one of the most touristy destinations in Europe, as written on the train home. Of course there will be a few photos to accompany this tale. I remember pointing my camera at anything and everything during my first few visits to Italy; now I’m a little more discerning about what I shoot. This time some of the photos are from Levanto, though most were taken in Vernazza. They’re not quite as blindingly colorful as my earlier photos here. Maybe that’s because Vernazza isn’t my safe place anymore, and if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure if it ever was. Still, this village means something to me… the good, the bad, and the hordes of tourists included.