Mum pulls up to the grocery store, cluttered with crooked cars and rogue shopping carts, and my stomach starts to sink. I know what she’s going to ask.
“Anna, will you go in and buy a carton of milk and some eggs?”
I start to resist, not out of laziness but rather fear. I’d rather dig holes all day like Stanley Yelnats than walk into a store filled with crowds of strangers who block isles and bounce loud conversations in the air like social ping-pong paddles.
I’m terrible at social ping-pong. I’m already practicing my interaction with the cashier so I don’t fumble on my words and pronounce my “th”s in that sort-of-broken-British way that makes everyone look at me strangely. Why is my mum making me do this? She’s a sparkling socialite; she doesn’t get how painful this is.
At the start of this afterschool ritual, I’m ten years old and certain of three things: Holes is my favorite movie, my face turns ten shades of purple when I’m embarrassed, and without my gregarious older brother by my side, I can barely pluck up the courage to utter a word. Shyness is both my shield and my spear. It protects me, it causes me great pain.
My family is fifty percent extroverts and fifty percent introverts. I think you can guess which category I fall under but perhaps you can’t guess how both disconnected and intertwined I feel to that little ten-year old girl with the debilitating fear of grocery stores and people.
Now, at 23, I sit at a beautifully cluttered table in Lamporrechio, a small Tuscan town about an hour outside of Florence. Next to me sits my host brother Leonardo, a ball of high voltage energy now reveling in the magic of American pancakes. Harry Potter has nothing on him because when I look into Leonardo’s eyes, I see lightening bolts. These bolts are not scars but rather the medicine that heals them. Anyone who knows Leonardo, a barefoot-running, kung-fu-fighting, long-haired marvel knows that even the most dazed of atmospheres can be revived by his prescence. This pokemon-obsessed, lego-loving ten-year-old is a Tuscan Pickachu-a rare and generous find.
I stay in Lamporrechio for two-weeks with Leonardo and his gentle and funny vegan family. During the day, I work in their synergistic garden, cutting down weeds and pulling up wilting tomato plants. The sun is strong and bleating but the smell of warmed tomatoes, grown from seed, is intoxicating. I can hear Claudio, Leonardo’s father, repairing an old bike while Chiara, Leonardo’s mother, picks ripe cucumbers and tells me about her upcoming Quantum Physics conference. Leonardo is running in and out of the house, the rooster next door is warming up for part three of his ten-part opera. This place and family is unlike any other but I feel completely comfortable, excited even by how new this all feels. How did a painfully shy girl who ran away from strangers and towards small and proctected rooms end up here in Tuscany, living with a family she just met?
I am and always will be an introvert by nature but two months of Italian sun has illuminated a new, surprising fact about myself. I’m not a shy or timid girl anymore. I love talking to strangers now. In fact, I can’t get enough of it.
In Lake Como, I met two friendly Germans who had me in fits of laughter. One told me that one weekend he traveled to Paris for an ice-cream cone. The other was convinced my major was called “read and write”. Was “copy and paste” also a course of study, he asked.
In Rovereto, the “Gate to the Dolomites” (more on that soon), I met three Australians who brushed their teeth to clubbing music and greeted me with such enthusiasm in the morning, I wondered if there was some national holiday I had forgotten about.
And in Lamporecchio, I lived with a vegan family with a belief system completely different from mine but with Claudio, Chiara, and Leonardo, I watched netflix, ate homemade, vegan nutella (which, dare I say, is actually better than the original) and reacquainted myself with the bubbling and brilliant world of a ten-year-old.
If I met Leonardo when I was ten years old, I probably would have run in the other direction. In my hight of shyness, I treated extroverts like the ultimate foreigners. I just didn’t get how they worked. Did they have an extra gene that my parents forgot to give me?
But now I realize Leonardo and I are not so different. We both love pancakes and skating through the cool grass with barefeet. We’re electrified by mornings and calmed by nights. We love meeting new people and cherishing the deep connections we’ve fostered over the years. And we are both obsessed with the Italian pop hit “Volare”. The sticking line of the song is “mi fa volare” which translates to “it makes me fly”. Pretty fitting, don’t you think?
The Leonardos of the world may be more amped and bouncy but I, an intorvert, do not lack energy. I am simply infused by the kind of energy that whispers and strokes rather than shouts and slaps.
In other words, you don’t have to be an extrovert to take risks, travel, and live outside of your comfort zone. You just have to be willing to step outside of your shell and bury your feet in the prickling sand. Those grocery isles aren’t so scary when you slow down and take notice of the candy section, especially during Easter when they break out the crispy eggs.
I’m not sure exactly when buying eggs stopped being scary. My shyness has been on a steady decrease over the years but a year of on and off solo travel put a hammer to my shell.
I can spot Moldova on a map now but I have no clue which direction my comfort zone is in.
Instead, I find myself beaming down on my ten-year old self, giggling at the great care I once took to make sure every shell of every egg was unscathed. Sometimes, I would spend up to five minutes picking the perfect carton eggs. Little did I know that I would break the biggest shell, the shell that I’ve curled into over the years, the shell that has been scratched, chipped, and dented by countless people and places over the years but ultimately shattered by my own two hands.
My mum always knew and perhaps I did too that there was a high-voltage world bursting inside me, waiting for the right time to sneak into the light and climb towards the serendipitous sun.
So to my fellow introverts, let the world pull you out of your shell. Let the kids with lighting bolt eyes take the lead and shock you with the best and most biting form of life. Drink terrible coffee with awesome strangers, skip pebbles with your severly sunburnt stomach on display (Lake Como burnt me to a cinder). Speak broken Italian, wear noisy flip-flops, compliment the shoes of the people who block the milk and egg isles in grocery stores. Saddle-up, take a gandour, and gallop into the pulsing pastures of the unknown that have grown around your armor. Let life and the people who contain it bend your shield and splinter your spear.
But when frantic and luquacious life briefly loses your touch in the happy hurricane of it all, don’t feel ashamed if you scuttle back into your shell for just a little while. Feel proud when you call yourself an introvert and never forget that when you hold a shell up to your ear, you can hear the whole ocean inside. When you sit in complete silence, you finally understand what Simon and Garfunkle were talking about. There is indeed a sound to silence and it’s a sound that’s just as beautiful and fascinating as the chatterbox center of life.
So throw your shells to the clumsy ocean and dust the sand off of them when they wash up on the shore.
Just don’t forget to thank your mum for making you buy those wretched eggs.
Break Shells and Volare
For your viewing pleasure-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtJ0lrIGSAE