A few months ago, I had a nervous breakdown.
After almost one year in Italy, it was the first time I felt completely foreign and indifferent. My surroundings no longer made sense and I felt that maybe, this wasn’t the place for me after all. When I had the breakdown I was seated at one of my favorite wine bars in Turin, SPACCIO VINI e OLII when Ilaria, my darling friend and wine expert looked at me from behind the bar and mouthed, “are you okay?”.
Somehow, she knew that I was on the verge of tears – and isn’t that’s the beauty of real friendship? The kind that needs no words, the kind that is almost always feeling, fixing and protecting? With a lump in my throat, I shook my head. Ilaria simply nodded and then looked over at Lorenzo, the owner. He got up from where he was sitting and walked over to me, opened a bottle and poured me a glass of “sexy wine.”
Situated on the corner of Piazza Largo IV Marzo and just a few blocks from the Porta Palazzo market, I fell in love with SPACCIO because it reminded me of Joseph Leonard in West Village.
I used to carouse the establishments on Waverly Place on date nights or with a gaggle of good girlfriends, dropping into Joseph Leonard for a delicious glass of wine after dinner. SPACCIO has become my Joseph Leonard – it’s the place in Turin that I go to write, to sit alone and think, or even just to trade stories with Giancarlo and his gorgeous wife, or marvel at Ivan’s perfect hair as we smoke a cigarette outside.
So you can imagine that I was in good hands when I had my breakdown.
For being familiar with the complexities of travel, work, and new experiences, Ilaria pulled me aside and offered some words of encouragement. She knew that I was contemplating a move back home, but cautioned me to pause and give it some time – at least until the new year. Being strong, emotionally independent women we sometimes rush to take matters into our own hands in order not to feel things like failure, loss or even regret – it’s the way of the wild, untamable woman – jumping on a plane, a train the minute things get out of hand.
With Ilaria’s advice, I made a decision to try and see the beauty in a confusing situation. I thought that maybe if I focused on finding the joy in everyday moments instead of wallowing in regret, my anxieties would calm down.
So on one particular day, I chose to rediscover a city that had once felt so new to me.
After spending a morning focusing on my breath and working out my nervous energy on the yoga mat, I left the house for some shopping at Porta Palazzo; green tomatoes, fresh bay leaves, a kilo of clementines, red peppers, swiss chard and some limes. I only bought from one particular vendor because he flirted so shamelessly with me and always threw in a few extra of everything. It was a perfect day to walk around the city, slow in every motion and casual in all gestures. With a tote full of veggies on my shoulder, I wink at my vendor and head towards the center.
Later, I find myself sitting at a corner table at Pepino’s – a Saturday ritual that I enjoy. With a beautiful glass of prosecco to aid me, I write notes in my book while making time to casually observe the plethora of people who keep coming in, and going out. Besides the top-notch staff at Gelateria Pepino who fluctuate between perfect English and fast-talking Italian, the beautiful portraits that line the wall or the plush red booths against reflective mirrors – the Gelateria which also happens to be the oldest in Europe – is my first stop for writing inspiration in Turin. Pepino, because of its openness towards, and respect for diversity has become one of the most important stops on the cultural map of Turin. When I’m there, I realize just how much time has passed since I came to this country, and just how far I’ve come from being the shy New Yorker who spoke no Italian (and I still don’t) and had no idea what a bicerin was (I still won’t touch it).
After writing and watching the staff joke with each other, I pop over to Libreria Luxembourg just across piazza Carignano where I buy a few copies of Hemingway’s The Old man and the Sea for myself, and my friend Matteo ReBuffo. The bookshop is one of the only ones in Turin with a large collection of English and French titles, but really, I go there to swoon over all the attractive bookshop keepers who look like they’ve just walked out of a J.Crew menswear ad.
A few hours of book shopping and errand running, it’s time to grab an early dinner with a friend in the trendy neighborhood of Vanchiglia at Barbiturici – the eclectic restaurant and bar on via Santa Giulia, reminiscent of an old school pharmacy. I’ve been making religious pilgrimages to this restaurant ever since my best friend Elisa introduced me to its perfect chicken salad with bacon and avocado. I became a full convert to the house of Barbiturici when I discovered that Junior Ventura and artist Luca Ledda all worked there and that if one was lucky, their colleague Alberto Bonetto would bless patrons with a powerful Beyonce playlist while refilling wine glasses.
Fabulous staff aside, the most important thing about Barbiturici is that it is one of the only restaurants in Turin that serves an exquisite American brunch, a game changer if you’ve lived your Saturday’s chowing down eggs benedict at Vinateria, Maison Harlem, and Petite Boucherie when it used to be called, Dominique Bistro. However, it must be said that this day-drinking Mecca gets packed so if you’re looking to brunch, make sure to reserve a seat or risk waiting around for the Italian cool kids to finish their avocado toasts, mile high club sandwiches, and perfect omelets.
Tonight, it’s just dinner with a charming new friend. I enjoy making the trekk on foot from Piazza Carignano to Barbiturici – it’s the only time one really gets to see the center of Turin in all its glory. I cross the skateboarders landing tricks on the east side of Piazza Castello, the Nigerian street vendors and their colorful balloons, the American guitarist with his velvet voice and Ed Shereen covers, the group of Japanese tourist obstructing foot traffic with their selfie sticks, and the lovely elderly couple walking their poodle, arm in arm – still very much in love.
For a moment, I wonder if I’m ready to give all of this up and go back to the hustle and bustle of New York. True, these same things can be found in the Big Apple but here in Turin, the pace allows you to actually enjoy them.
I arrive at my destination to a packed house, it’s a Saturday night and it feels like all of Turin is at Barbiturici. Minutes later, I’m sitting at a table waiting for a friend to join me for dinner. Halfway through our respective plates, he laughs and says: “If you go back to New York right now, you’ll regret it. There’s still so much for you to discover in Italy, Joan.”
I make no comment and keep sipping my Arneis, appreciating his sense of adventure.
Fed, happy and a bit buzzed, I’m ready for a “big city” girl drink, translation: whiskey. I bid my new friend goodbye, say ciao to Luca and head on out.
Realizing that I’ve had heels on all day and my feet are about to sue me, I jump on the number 18 bus and make my way down to via Po. The bus stops at Rossini and there, I hop off and walk about 10 minutes, arriving at an unnamed building with no sign or visible address.
I press the button on the left, wait a few seconds and the door buzzes open. Making my way down some dark stairs, I arrive just in time to see Matteo walking in my direction from behind the bar. A speakeasy that not only provides live Jazz but also one of the best selections of cocktails in the city, The Mad Dog Social is equal parts classic charm, and modern appeal. Soon, it will become a members-only club, something that only raises the sex appeal of the place. Going to the Mad Dog Social is a real treat; one never knows who they might meet and personally speaking, I’ve had the pleasure of entertaining conversation with well dressed Italians, South Africans, Argentinians, and the French.
Matteo, our fearless leader and artist-in-residence is the only person in Italy that I trust to make me a Manhattan (I apologize to anyone who might be offended by this statement). Handsome, whip-smart and incredibly compassionate, he’s one of the first people I met when I arrived in Italy, and one of the reasons I stayed in Turin. He gives me a warm hug, kisses my forehead and walks me to the end of the bar – my usual people watching spot. Being a simple woman, the men at the Mad Dog Social know that I’m either drinking gin, tequila or whiskey – on this particular night, it’s as if Matteo has read my mind as he places a glass of dark liquor in front of me.
I sit at the bar and sip my little piece of home, tossing around some questions.
Should I stay or should I go? Do I want a life that is familiar or one that is bathed in uncertainty? Can I learn to manage my insatiable appetite for ambition, and live a life of balance? Can I write and still serve? Will I be happy back home, or here, in my new one?
The truth is, I’m a different woman here in Italy than I am in New York. Whether I have the support system or not, this country is stretching me in many ways I could have never imagined and pushing me to do things that are outside my comfort zone.
From the outside, it looks like fun Instagram posts filled with lovely Italian food, good friends and beautiful scenery. From the inside, it feels like isolation, being misunderstood, homesickness, and an “otherness” that follows me everywhere I go.
Enjoying my cocktail and reflecting on the joys of the day, I find myself grateful to have places like SPACCIO and Pepino, Barbiturici and the Mad Dog Social Club – places that welcome me despite my misgivings about the city. Places that focus more on the cultural exchange than the menu price and push for real connections over superficial ones. Places that say “come as you are” even if you don’t speak the language, or abide by the right social codes, or even if you don’t know if you really want to be here.
Places that make an American girl feel like she’s back home in Manhattan, while she sips a Manhattan.