It was February when I moved across the world – from the Midwest of the United States to Monza, Italy – to settle down into a small apartment with Marco.
Though it was all very exciting and very new, when the novelty wore off I was left with too much free time and no view of the future. Though technically we had settled, I was feeling decidedly unsettled. I needed a way to occupy my time, to release my pent-up energy. I needed an escape from job searching and the exhausting exploring that comes with a new move.
I decided to go for a run.
I knew that there was a park in the city, and that the most direct route from my apartment to the park was through the center of town. The center of Monza is beautiful, even in the winter. It’s also ritzy.
Expensive designer stores and small upper-class boutiques line the main street. The tiny cafés all have mahogany wood bars and aproned baristas who take their coffee-making seriously. Skinny Italian women in sunglasses set up camp at the outdoor tables, smoking cigarettes and judging the people who pass by. Their glasses do nothing to hide their obvious staring.
Older women in ankle-sweeping fur coats hold dog’s leash or shopping bags as their heels click-clack purposefully down the cobblestone streets. Men amble by with expensive suits and navy-blue scarves, loudly talking about business, politics or soccer. Doting grandparents or live-in nannies, called tata here, chase after the children, giving them superlative compliments to match their superlative bank accounts. Even the youngest are dressed sharply, with fitted pants tucked into their ankle boots and their puffy jackets, mittens and hats all matching.
Italians are known for their style and the center of Monza is the perfect place to show off. For me, however, the center of Monza wasn’t an ever-present fashion show. It was simply the fastest way to pass through town.
A pedestrian zone, it’s surprisingly direct and much nicer than walking on the cramped sidewalks that line the streets open to traffic. The morning after I decided to run, I slipped on tight pants and layers of long sleeved shirts to stay warm, leaving without even washing my face. Big mistake. In a city with a central street that resembles a runway, I didn’t quite fit in. Passing the women wearing sunglasses, I longed for a huge pair of my own to hide my blemished face. Instead, I charged ahead to find refuge among the other runners in the park.
The Park of Monza started as the backyard of the Villa Reale, the impressive mansion built in 1777 by the then-ruler of Italy, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. He chose the site for its beauty, proximity to Milan and strategic location along the Milan-Vienna route.
Just 10 miles north of Milan, Monza has a history of being held under Milan’s tutelage. As one of the most strategically located cities in the Monza-Brianza region, it’s become one of the most economically successful as well. The fertile fields and hills of the area have long been used as the gardens of the Milanese and the perfect backdrop for their summer homes – whether the locals liked it or not. I could sympathize with the ancient Monzese: On that first awkward walk through the center, I felt less like a ruler and more like the ruled.
Expanding over 1,700 acres, the Park of Monza is one of the biggest city parks and the fourth largest walled-in park in all of Europe, but during that solitary winter of my move, it was also my godsend.
Though I have a long history of traveling, I have a much shorter history of running. A competitive swimmer most of my life, I actively avoided land workouts, especially running. It wasn’t until college at Ohio University that I even tried to run, struggling through slow 20-minute jogs on the treadmill. After months under the gym’s florescent lights, I took my runs outside, following the brown waters of the Hocking River down and back. Each run was like a piece of homework finally turned in: done dutifully enough but without any enthusiasm or an ounce of extra work.
I wasn’t committed to running, but I was committed to working out and began to enjoy more and more the sensation my runs gave me. Slowly I began to turn to running to straighten out my thoughts. I went to take a break from a particularly hard essay, to wind down after a rough day at work or to waste nervous energy after a fight with a boyfriend or friend or my mom.
I wondered if I could keep running while studying in Florence that next fall, during my sophomore year of college. I wondered if I would be brave enough or in shape enough to run in an unfamiliar place. Running was scary enough – I could barely understand how it would be possible in an unfamiliar city around unfamiliar people. So when I got there, I didn’t run. Instead I went to class, explored the city and tried to understand Italy.
It was around the time that I started to feel like I’d never figure it out when I decided to go for a run.
Two years later, I began my first real running routine while living in Westchester County, New York for a summer internship. Once again I found myself far from home with a new job and no nearby friends. Though I was still in the U.S., I might as well have been abroad. After several weeks of long work hours and early bedtimes, I was sick of being alone. After work the next day I laced up my shoes and went for a run.
With each major move, running was my anchor. With each situation out of my control, running was something I could control – or on really good runs, an hour that I could forget about control entirely.
In Monza it was no different.
In between the ESL lessons I began to teach, I passed my time eating and shopping, writing and Skyping with friends, but what really helped me was running.
My first runs in the Park were hesitant, controlled and without much courage to branch out, but it didn’t take long for the beautiful nooks and corners of the Park to attract me. I began to recognize the main streets. I learned the paths that paralleled them and the bridges that crisscrossed me back and forth over the unassuming Lambo river, a river that cuts north to south across Monza-Brianza and has since forever, since even before the Park existed, before kings and dukes came to summer in Monza.
I started going two or three times a week, then three or four. Later, I got an ancient city bike and rode over the rough cobblestones through the center of Monza to the Park. I saved time, quickly pedaling past the ladies who, as the weather began to change into spring, had replaced their fur coats with light jackets and even bigger sunglasses. I’d screech into the front entrance of the park, lock up my bike and start my run.
My runs eventually brought me to other sections of the Park. Each outing showed me something new: a petting zoo, a golf course, a playground. After a particularly long run spent mostly lost I heard the deafening hum of the race cars whizzing past. I was parallel to the autodromo, Monza’s famous Formula 1 racing track. The sleek road curved up and down on the sides like a plastic road for toy cars. As I focused on jumping over enormous mud puddles from the rainy day before, brightly colored cars sped past, finishing their practice runs.
I particularly liked the path lined with ancient Oaks. Each huge tree planted in perfect order, once bare limbs bursting with springtime green and willowing into vibrant autumn oranges. I liked the yellow cascina, or farmhouse, and the nearby abandoned building along the river that recalls fairy tale stories despite its shuttered windows.
Now, my favorite runs are with the sunset. Sometimes I’ll see horseback riders out in the fields. There’s enough space that they can canter from one side to the other, freeing the horse’s mane and finally stretching the animal’s legs from a stiff trot. I imagine that on my best run I feel as carefree as the horse and its rider must feel during those late afternoon rides.
Once I couldn’t quite imagine myself running, let alone running in places I’ve never been, but after that winter I was no longer afraid. I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it, I wasn’t afraid that I’d be the only one, and I certainly wasn’t afraid of getting lost. I know that running isn’t how I get lost, but how I find my way.
Travel teaches us how to handle being in a new place with an unknown future. Running has taught me that whatever my next step into that unknown future is, it’s best taken with a pair of running shoes.