2:00 a.m. Rome, Italy. Fiumicino Airport.
I arrive haggard, disoriented and ready to drop after a red-eye from Detroit, a 12-hour layover in Amsterdam, and a much delayed flight to Rome.
Naturally, my pack is last to appear at the baggage claim.
Even so, I fall into a taxi (my only option at this hour) reluctantly—unaccustomed to paying so much for so little. I direct the driver to Trastevere—my favorite Roman neighborhood, where I will spend the next five days. My Italian, which received a surprising amount of use in Africa, rises quickly to my tongue.
I sit back, desperately wishing, but unable, to sleep.
As the damp night speeds past my window, I watch it in a daze. Thanks to some alchemical blend of exhaustion and disorientation, I feel none of my usual enthusiasm.
And for what may be the first time in my entire life, I find myself wondering, “Why am I here?”
The answer is simple to a fault. I chose to come to Italy (rather than return to Zanzibar) because 1. I love Italy, 2. I speak Italian, and 3. It was easy to get here from Amsterdam, where I had an un-cancelable flight to anyway.
I have many times answered the question, “Why travel?” for my own benefit and others’. I have many times defended wandering as a path and destination unto itself. So why ask, why am I here? Why now, when finally I have a great job that I love and the first green shoots of a writing career to show for my efforts over the last year and a half?
Perhaps it is the openness of it all—my life, that is. The lack of timeline, the total freedom of movement, the sheer vastness of being, which, when made reality, frankly baffles me.
If you asked me right now why I am here, what I am going to do or where I am going—in the metaphysical, not the practical sense of the words—I would answer you honestly: I don’t know.
Right now, though, a few crumbs remain scattered from my meal over the red and white checkered tablecloth. A nearly-empty glass of red wine sits before me, and across the lane, a mesmerizing wall of quivering paper butterflies. Beside that, a pile of selfie sticks.
Tourists wander by in their summer dresses and Sophia Loren style hats, carrying cones of gelato or holding hands. The cobblestones are worn and smooth here, and high yellow walls rise up into the night. The streets are lined with tiramisu kisses, echoes of tambourine music, and spiralling jewelry I would like to buy. The air breathes slowly, wafting the scent of basil, garlic and bread through the scene.
In this moment, then, I do not ask, “Why am I here?”
I am simply here.
That–so simple and yet so profoundly complete–is the point. I am here. Tomorrow I will be here, and the day after that, and every day, hour, moment following.
A hundred voices clatter against the wall–Italian, French, English, Spanish and others I can’t understand–and I am here, listening.
The tang of red wine (della casa, of course) lingers on my tongue, and I am here, tasting.
A yellow glow bathes the faces of visitors walking their dream across the butterfly wall, and I am here, watching. I am grateful to call this my reality.
The particularities of the scene around me confront my senses–the man selling lighters shaped like toilet seats; the couple beside me who have returned to this same restaurant after visiting two years ago; the tap tap of gold heels on cobblestones; the clutter of languages in my ear; the fatigue of lingering jet-lag–and I am here, living in it.
Why am I here?
That I don’t know, but I am.