Eight years is a long time. It seems especially long when those years span the decade between late teens and twenties — years of profound change in the lives of young people. That’s why I was very nervous two weeks ago, as I neared the moment of reunion with a group of friends I’d once been close to. Would it feel the same? Would it be awkward and uncomfortable? I feared the worst — that I’d wish I’d never gone so as to keep the wonderful memories intact. Yet, I knew I had to take that risk. If my friends hadn’t changed in eight years, and if we still knew how to interact, cultural and linguistic differences notwithstanding, our reunion had the potential to be one of the greatest moments of my life.
If it’s been eight years since I last saw these friends, then it’s been nine years since I arrived in Italy for a year-long student exchange program, sent by Rotary International. My destination was a town in the rural interior of Sardinia. Like you’re probably thinking now, my initial reaction was “Huh?!?” Sardinia was not a recognizable name to me at that time. Even if I vaguely knew it to be an island, I confused it with Sicily. Sardinia, or Sardegna, as it’s called in Italian, is an island off the western coast of Italy, located directly below Corsica in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, far east of Spain. It takes an hour by plane or overnight by ferry to get there — in other words, a long way from the mainland, from better-known Italian cities, even further from my little house in the Canadian forest. It’s a place of tremendous beauty: “Where else but on this 365-village, 4-million-sheep island could you travel from shimmering bays to alpine forests, granite peaks to cathedral-like grottoes, rolling vineyards to one-time bandit towns — all in the space of a day?” (Lonely Planet)
I was sixteen the day I arrived, jet-lagged and homesick, speaking minimal Italian, my brain utterly drained from the effort of trying to understand what little I could. For a week I stumbled around in a daze, weeping myself to sleep each night and struggling to communicate with my host family. They took me to spectacular beaches, fed me multi-course Sardinian meals, and helped me with vocabulary, but there was a cloud that hung over me: fear of school. Within a few days, I’d start the Italian equivalent of grade twelve, attending six days a week (yes, even Saturdays) in a classroom of young people that never changed; instead of students, the teachers rotate. What if I didn’t like them? What if they didn’t like me?
The dreaded day arrived and a girl named Francesca was assigned to take care of me. She was short and dark, with bright, laughing eyes and hands that danced as she spoke. Of course I didn’t notice that right away; we were both too terrified of the task ahead. It was a hard day, but thank goodness for Francesca, who explained as much as she could through hand gestures and scribbled notes, translated by my trusty dictionary. As the days went by, followed by weeks, and eventually months, Francesca and I grew close. I got to know the rest of the class — a group of about sixteen young people, each wonderfully unique and colourful and fascinating to my foreign perceptions. That class made my year, and those friendships have stayed alive via handwritten letters and now Facebook for eight long years. So, after such an intense shared experience, you can understand how emotions were running high when the moment of reunion finally arrived.
Francesca, who now lives in Florence, was joined by Giuseppina, Giulia, Elisa, and Giovanni. Together, we spent three glorious days, wandering the streets, eating gelato, sitting in the piazza at night, talking about our memories and perceptions of that year, marvelling at how much has changed in our lives, yet — most wonderful of all — how being together seems like the most natural thing in the world. It felt right, comfortable, joyful, despite the fact that my Italian is significantly rustier now. I was reminded of how Italians know how to spend time together with no greater objective in mind, i.e. they don’t need a coffee or a movie or a dinner to mediate a social gathering: rather, simply wandering through the Piazza della Signoria, leaning up against a wall overlooking the Arno, smoking a cigarette on the steps of Santa Croce, sitting outside the Uffizi — the journey is the purpose, being in one’s presence is sufficient, and conversation flows naturally. When I reached Sardinia a few days later, I met more friends with the same sensation of nothing having changed — Luisella, Marta, and Paola.
I wonder if it’s rare to have friendships that can pick up so naturally after eight years apart. As Giuseppina wrote to me afterwards, “Otto anni che sono svaniti in un abbraccio” … eight years that vanish with a single hug. It’s true. University, marriage, and motherhood may have changed the external circumstances of my life, as education and romance and living abroad has changed theirs, but we’re still the same people. What drew us together continues to draw us. Most wonderful of all is knowing now with certainty that it will continue to do so for the rest of our lives.