Why I Left a Piece of My Heart in Milan

Model apartment roses

Hello dear readers,

Today I wanted to share a piece I wrote just shy of two years ago, right after coming back from Milan. I originally published it on my old blog and deleted it the next day–I wasn’t ready to share this much of myself. Two years (and lots of over-sharing!) later, here it is. I probably should have done something cute like share it on the exact anniversary of my return to San Francisco, but I felt strongly compelled to share it today.

I think I need the reminder of resilience and gratitude as I search for new dreams. Emotional and intellectual breakthroughs only count when we carry them into our future, and I personally needed to pick this one up today.

So without further ado, I’m gonna hand you on over to October 2015 Maya… 😉

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The statuses were always the same.

“I can’t believe I’m already headed back to America after such a life-changing experience!” they proclaimed. “I’ll be back, London/Barcelona/Paris! You’ll always have a piece of my heart.”

Rolling my eyes in a combination of jealousy and judgement, I’d click my iPhone into lockscreen, throw it onto the desk and stalk down the hall of my office building in pursuit of another coffee and maybe a Kit Kat. Because just what every intense, already high-strung individual needs is some caffeine and sugar, amiright?

I was a self-righteous little thing (still am to a degree, but I’m working on it!) and always regarded the girls as clones of one another. They were all attractive sorority types who had probably had never experienced anything worse than not getting a phone call from that one guy from that one night at Delt. I was soooo different, obviously. I knew what it was like to have responsibilities and problems. I had a big girl job PLUS a restaurant job, and was also trying to process the heartache of my parents’ divorce in the midst of my 65-hour work weeks. My boyfriend was pretty great, but he still hadn’t proposed and we’d been together three years–another topic on which I felt life had dealt me a crummy hand. I mean, last week That One Girl From Junior Year English Class received a halo-framed, pear-shaped stunner from her boyfriend of only a year and a half! Poor Little Maya.

Male sculpture face

I’d take a hearty slurp of cheap coffee and crunch menacingly into my Kit Kat. Much better.

As I lie propped in my cozy bed in San Francisco, my (still cheap) coffee making a bubbling sound as the pot finishes brewing, I feel a surge of gratitude for how much I’ve changed in the last three years. And honestly, a lot of those changes occurred during my stay in Milan.

The thing is, all the beautiful sorority girls may have not been the most original of status-writers, but they were all completely, undeniably, 110% RIGHT. You absolutely do find yourself (“find yourself”…oh gosh, now who’s the one resorting to cliches?!) when you venture on your own into a foreign country.

Tuesday, September 1st found me at San Francisco International Airport kissing my husband of two days goodbye (spoiler alert– he proposed on my 23rd birthday after a *whopping* three and a half years together!) and crying so hard I could barely breathe. His brand new ring gleamed silver blue in the wet light of the pre dawn, and his eyes were filled with a stoic sadness.

“You’re going to do great, Noodle Babes,” he promised as I heaved snot and hot tears into the collar of his cotton tee-shirt.

“I can’t b-b-b-believe we just got married and I’m LEAVING!” I sputtered, feeling even more forlorn than when That One Girl From English Class beat me in the race to engagement. “I just want to c-c-come back home with you!!!”

As tempted as he looked by the idea, Stephen reiterated how he knew I would kill it in Milan. And as much as I couldn’t bear the thought of that ring-clad hand gripping the wheel of the Nissan as he returned to our apartment without me, we both knew Why Not Model Management was too big of an opportunity for me to pass up.

I still remember the day I first visited the Why Not website. Rows of the most beautiful creatures I’d ever seen stared at me from the screen of my laptop. Porcelain skin, sheets of chestnut hair, wideset alien eyes, chiselled cheekbones, and miles of long toned limbs graced the pages of the site. I did a double take when I saw Lindsay Ellingson– Victoria’s Secret Angel Lindsay Ellingson. The same agency that represented a Victoria’s Secret Angel also wanted to represent ME. I was in absolute awe.

Airplane wing and view of Italy

I disembarked the plane and smelled Europe in the air. It had been a full nine years since I was last here, despite having come every summer when I was younger. (That was another thing that got under my skin when the sorority types went to Europe; they felt like kids in a candy shop, cutting me in line. I was born in Germany of a German mother, speak fluent German, and have dual citizenship– Europe was my continent, dammit!)

Like all the times as a child, I felt immediately invigorated by the place that I obviously don’t actually consider “my” continent. I could taste the richness of culture and feel the depth of history radiating from the ground. Extra centuries of wisdom lay thick in the steely fog. My driver was a med school student and I was relieved by his excellent English, though I felt a bit guilty I hadn’t learned any Italian. He recommended at least ten “bars,” as I smiled politely and figured the teenage models must go out more than I did. It was not until the end of our three hour journey together from Malpensa International Airport to the Why Not office to the model apartment that he explained when you say “bar” in Italy, you are actually referring to a coffee shop. His suggestion that bars were a great place to pee and grab a water bottle between castings now made a lot more sense.

My time in Milan was far from easy.

I arrived fighting terrible acne, which I’d blindly hoped would clear up on its own. The weeks before my departure had left little time for anything except wedding planning, and I hadn’t had the foresight or mental clarity to seek out a dermatologist. By the time I arrived at my new agency, I looked more like a 13-year-old boy who lived off Doritos than an internationally signed model.

My communication was also limited. Since my iPhone was locked, I was unable to buy Italian data and I could connect to the internet only while I was in wifi. (Ciao, Google Maps, it was nice knowing ya! My poor spatial understanding and I totally have this under control…)

Not only did my newly crippled iPhone now lack navigational tools (although my roommate introduced me to ForeverMap–possibly the best three dollars I ever spent), I was also unable to make calls outside of wifi and What’s App. This meant that unlike in New York, I could not walk out of a rough casting and immediately call my mother for assurance that the sky was not falling. I could not call Stephen like I had from the green bench in Central Park, where all the selfie-snapping young couples made me miss him so much my chest hurt.

Because of the language barrier, I couldn’t have pleasant three minute conversations with grocery store cashiers or tell that adorable three year old I loved the glitter butterflies on her dress. I got really good at cooing “Ciao Bella,” at babies and quickly learned that “canella” (cinnamon) was what I wanted on my cappuccino, but of course it’s not the same as communicating in your first language with another native English speaker. It was happy things like glitter butterflies, toasty coffees on cold days, and bright flowers splashed over little balconies that often made me feel the loneliest.

Cappuccino with cinnamon

But the thing is, talk is cheap– another worn cliche that still rings true after decades of use. I read Pride and Prejudice during my time in Milan, and couldn’t help but think that we’ve cheapened communication though its accessibility. When Elizabeth needed Jane’s insight, she designated a time in her day to sit down and write with intention. She focused on nothing but the letter and what she wanted to tell her sister. What’s more, she processed her thoughts before sitting down to the letter. When Mr. Darcy rebuffed her or insulted her or professed his undying love to her, she couldn’t whip an iPhone out of the folds of her gown and shoot a “Holy $%^& I have to update you what he just did!!!” text.

At first, it was torture to not be able to communicate constantly. But after awhile, I started to treasure more the communication that I did have. I began to realize that maybe smiling and saying “Ciao” to the cashier at the Carrefour Express is just as good as forcing the standard, “How are you? Great. How bout you?” down her throat. Maybe my 2-word conversations with the little Italian boy who lived next door to the model apartment are the ones I’ll remember when I’m old and my beautiful college-age granddaughter is headed to Italy for a summer abroad. Maybe I’ll tell her how I’d say “Ciao” to the little boy and he’d proudly reply “Hello!” in English before ducking behind his grandmother’s legs.

But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just slip her some money to spend on wine and lasagna and cappuccinos with canella. Maybe I’ll just look into her eyes and say, “Enjoy your trip, honey. I love you.”

Lasagna in Milan

I think perhaps talk is cheap because we talk and talk and talk without communicating. We demand comfort from our mothers when a casting director looks at us the wrong way, instead of picking ourselves up by the bootstraps. We call our boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses when we miss them. We wallow in jealousy and social media and Kit Kat bars.

One day I missed Stephen so much I thought I would physically break in two. (That’s totally going to be one of those sentences I read in a few years and rolls my eyes about, but I can’t describe it any other way.)

And let me tell you, I threw myself a pity party for the books.

I was the loneliest newlywed that ever lived, I decided. I had just married the most perfect man on the planet, and had to leave him two days later. I had even left my rings behind, since I couldn’t wear them to work and didn’t know what type of roommates awaited me in Milan.

I couldn’t look down and see my beautiful marquise diamond sparkle next to my brand new wedding band. I couldn’t watch Stephen work at his computer, right hand deftly clicking the mouse and plump lower lip tense with concentration. I couldn’t hear Stephen laugh with abandon at It’s Always Sunny, his head thrown back and his green eyes radiant with mirth. I couldn’t feel his biceps clench around my legs or hear the cheerful, “Careful! I don’t want to hit your head on the ceiling!” when he’d spontaneously grab me and throw me into the air as I tried to cook dinner. These days, I was just lonely at dinner, thinking about how much Stephen would love real Italian food. Everything made me think of Stephen, and every meal, coffee, baby, couple, grandma, glass of wine, wedding ring, flower stand, bierria, and pizza joint made me miss him a little more. I felt lonelier than I’d ever felt in my life, and couldn’t believe I’d travelled halfway across the world after two days of marriage. I played the saddest tunes on my own violin, I made stupid jokes with myself about holding the Guinness World Record for Most Sexually Starved Newlywed, and whined when acquaintances back home made comments about my “perfect” life.

And then… I snapped out of it.

I did what people who care about me have been telling me to do for years: I came into the present moment. I stopped overthinking and complaining and worrying what others thought of me. I stopped feeling so damn sorry for myself. How could I justify even a moment of self pity when I truly looked at the life I had?

Selfie with gelato

So what if I had bad skin? I was an upper middle class girl in a first world country with access to dermatologists and whole foods and clean water. How few people in this world are lucky enough to say that!

So what if I was booking less jobs because of the bad skin? I was a model represented by three prestigious agencies that I absolutely love. My Italian booker and mother agent weren’t just concerned about my skin, but also truly cared about my body-mind-soul wellness. They checked in often about how I was doing and feeling. How few models in this world are lucky enough to say that!

So what if I missed my husband? I just married the man of my dreams, surrounded by the incredible people I’m lucky enough to call friends and family. I married a man who grabs me in our little apartment and throws me into the air with such joy he has to be careful not to whack my head on the ceiling as he professes undying love to his “Beautiful Amazing Schnoodley Pepper Babes.” How few wives in this world are lucky enough to say that!

That day, the day I missed Stephen so much I thought I couldn’t take any more, the day I felt so depressed about my acne I wanted to rip my skin off my face, that day, I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t send a long depressing email to my mother agent. I didn’t send a whiney text to my best friend. I didn’t call Stephen and cry so hard I worried about water damage to my phone.

I went on an 11.83 mile run.

That was 5 miles more than I’d ever run before.

I picked myself up by my [sneaker]straps and got tough. I got thankful.

A few days later, I booked a job with the biggest brand I’ve ever worked for, and had the most incredible week of my career thus far. Soon after that, I returned home to Stephen. And I like to think I returned to the States a better woman. I feel more grounded, more confident, and more grateful. I have even more faith in a wise, powerful, and giving God. I have an even deeper love for my new husband.

A heart is a muscle, after all. Muscles grow by getting stretched to their limit, tearing, and rebuilding themselves. That’s how they get bigger and stronger. My heart grew a lot during my time in Italy, and I feel the changes I made are ones I’ll have the privilege of keeping for life. So I now shamelessly join the throngs of attractive Florida State sorority types as I tell you this:

I left a piece of my heart in Milan.

Model apartment roses

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