When I turned 30, there were no fancy dinners, no fireworks, no theatrical performances or a late night out with girlfriends. Turning 30 was far more mellow than what it might have been had we been living in America, but it ended up being the most memorable birthday of all my collective 30 years of life thus far. I celebrated my 30th birthday while staying in Vescovato, which is in my favorite country in the entire world – Italy. We celebrated while staying with the most memorable hosts of our entire travels, and I couldn’t have asked for a more authentic travel and personal experience.
So this is what turning 30 feels like. I believe over the past five months of traveling, the wrinkles around my eyes have increased, not because of stress or pain or tiredness, but because of happiness and life. My laugh lines have never been so prominent, and instead of seeing them as a sign of aging, I choose to see them as a sign of wisdom and worldliness.
I told Sasha that I was excited to be spending my first ever birthday abroad, but also that I was sad about hitting a milestone age away from all our family and friends. We were staying at an Airbnb along with another couple who were traveling musicians from Munich! We all hit it off straight away and in the morning I awoke to a table set with a beautiful breakfast made by our Ukrainian hostess. The guy got out his guitar and everybody sang happy birthday to me in the most beautiful harmonies and accents.
Our hosts presented me with the most delicious home made tiramisu, complete with lit candles. Natalya had woken up early that morning to make it while we were still asleep. The top I am wearing in the above photos was a gift from our hosts, whom we had known only for six days, an Italian brand made of silk.
The traveling musicians were actually quite well known and have a YouTube channel! They sang a mini concert for us in an intimate setting in the living room with our Ukrainian and Italian hosts (and their puppy). My heart was so full I couldn’t tell whether I should laugh or cry, so I did a little of both.
Even though I was a world away from my family and friends, it was one of the most special birthdays of my whole life, celebrating with new friends who felt like family. I couldn’t feel more fulfilled. If this is how the rest of my birthdays will be, I have a whole lot to look forward to in life. And I feel pretty darn lucky to spend the rest of my birthdays with this handsome man!
We stayed with Natalya and Francesco during our time visiting Lake Garda because when we visited in August, prices were far too expensive (Lake Garda is a popular holiday destination for locals and tourists alike, so hotels and Airbnbs can charge a premium). We stayed in a little town called Vescovato, located in Cremona, the city of violins. Little did we know that serendipity was about to lead us to the most memorable hosts we have ever met in our entire lives.
We booked this stay through Airbnb, but we almost didn’t take it because Vescovato seemed in the middle of nowhere. However, we learned that this home was in the countryside and only one hour away from Parma, Modena, Verona and Lake Garda, four places we had intended to visit, so we booked it! We started with three nights and ended up staying six because we loved our hosts and their animals (two cats and one dog) so much. Francesco is from Puglia in Southern Italy and Natalya is from Ukraine and speaks fluent Russian. Neither of them really spoke much English at all, so it was great that Natalya and Sasha had a common language to communicate in Russian. Since Italian and Spanish are similar, I would ask Francesco a question in Spanish, but he didn’t fully understand so he asked Natalya in Italian (which she also speaks fluently), and she would tell Sasha in Russian, which he would then translate back to me in English. This is precisely what I love about travel; it breaks so many barriers and proves that you don’t always need a common language to connect with people. Sometimes smiles, hand gestures, offering copious amounts of food, eating breakfast together at the kitchen table, and genuine hospitality will suffice. Here is a photo of us with our hosts, who now feel like our family:
Here is the view from their countryside apartment:
If you ever find yourself in this quiet little slice of Northern Italy and you are open to shared accommodation with the most trustworthy, kind and hospitable hosts, here is their Airbnb link. In mid August, we paid only €25 per night and spent the leftover money on gas and tolls commuting to and from our day trips.
Our hosts went above and beyond to ensure our stay was perfect, so we wanted to do something special for them. Because it is considered rude in Italian and Russian cultures to give your host money, we instead invited them to have dinner with us at their home and I would cook. Natalya decided that it would be fun to have a “dish-off” where we cooked something together in the kitchen, without knowing what the other person was preparing ahead of time. Deal, we said!
I decided to make Asian chicken and stir fried veggies since we miraculously found sesame oil, ginger and soy sauce at the supermarket! (not common ingredients found in Italy). Even though I only had half the ingredients of what I normally would at home, I made do. I figured home-cooked Chinese food is something they haven’t had in a very long time, if ever.
We cooked together in the kitchen for two hours, talking in Spanish, Italian, Russian and English, and some mixture of the four, laughing and gesturing and Googling photos to translate what things were. The result?…
Sesame soy chicken with garlic and pepper stir-fried veggies, Parmesano, and Risotto with mushrooms. Two classic Asian dishes mixed with two classic authentic Italian dishes on one plate, in one kitchen, brought together by four different cultures. We ooed and awwed and mmmmed, saying the word “delicious” in as many languages as we knew. Then, we were silent for a good two minutes, simply savoring the flavors and the moment and the sheer connectedness of it all. Through this travel experience, I can think of one word to explain our sentiments…connectedness.
That night was brilliant. That night reminded me of why there is good on this Earth. That night reminded me that regardless of your race, culture, ethnicity or background, food is always a uniting factor, breaking the barriers, breaking the awkwardness, and breaking through stereotypes. We learned so much from our hosts and left feeling as though we had gained two new family members.
Natalya said that seeing interracial couples from two different cultural backgrounds makes her very happy. And the fact that I am marrying someone of a different culture makes me very happy.
Here is the most beautiful joint meal I have ever prepared in my whole life with some of the nicest hosts we have ever met.
We cooked several more meals at home with them.
Did you know that in Italy, salvia is a commonly-eaten food item? It actually grows right outside their home! They fried the leaves in olive oil and served it straight up, as well as in pieces in pasta dishes. It reminds me of sage. It’s so interesting because in America, Salvia is considered a hallucinogenic drug. I had no idea you could eat the leaves!
Because they live on a farm, there is always a plethora of fresh fruits and veggies! Here were some of their loots, which they so kindly shared with us!