How Castadiva at Lake Como will set you free.
I stepped out of the car and was blinded by a dazzling ray of sunlight, peeking through the lofty banister of a sprawling Italian villa. The white gravel composing the driveway and creamy marble of the villa reflected the light, illuminating pristine lawns, rose gardens and tree lined paths leading down to the teal blue waters of Lago di Como (Lake Como). I walked up a grand staircase and into the villa, a beautiful hotel named Castadiva. As I stepped through the front door, I felt like I had been transported into another world. Ceilings 30 feet high, embossed with gold and painted in intricate patterns, arched over my head. Rich red silk drapes were tied back with golden cords, framing views of the glittering lake, with majestic mountains rising steeply on the opposite shore. A grand chandelier hung from the ceiling, and in the dying sunlight of the late afternoon, the clear crystals looked like fiery rubies, bubbling and dripping from the ceiling.
After dressing for evening appetizers and dinner, we joined a large party of people on the lawn in front of the Lake Como villa for a swanky business exposition. As the au pair for two delightful Italian girls, it was my duty to watch and entertain the children while their parents socialized with various prospective clients at the high-end networking event. Starving, the girls immediately dragged me towards the appetizer table. As we headed towards a table draped in white linens and covered with an abundance of exotic looking finger food, a growing sense of discomfort enveloped me. I felt extremely out of place among the wealthy Italians surrounding me. As the girls and I munched on mini filo dough pizzas I took in the entire scene. It was a vision of unpracticed elegance and luxury, straight out of a Gatsby party, or a James bond movie.
Women were perfectly made-up, sporting dresses in those I had only seen in high fashion magazines. Along with delicate, beautifully crafted shoes that probably cost more than my entire salary for the summer; a slick racing boat roared across the lake at top speed. Aboard the vessel, a group of men dressed in sharp suits and aviator sunglasses, yelled and laughed as the wind swept through their perfectly combed hair do’s. A party of men and women, all clad from head to toe in pure white leisure clothes, played cricket on a vividly green and perfectly manicured lawn. I looked down at my white embroidered tea dress from Macy’s and felt blatantly and humiliatingly out of place.
For the next few hours I followed the girls around, playing tag and visiting booths to collect the free goods each vendor was offering, the entire time feeling so self conscious and embarrassed I could not even begin to enjoy the beautiful evening everyone else around me was basking in. I was entirely consumed by insecurity. Was I holding my glass correctly? Did I introduce myself properly? (Some of Italian rules of courtesy are very different from those in the U.S.) Everyone else seemed so at ease amidst this luxury and elegance, but I was practically working up a sweat trying to pretend like I fit in.
I dipped into the ladies lounge, and alone in the cool, comfortably furnished lounge. I slumped down onto a short stuffed couch, exhaling the breath I had been holding for the past three hours. I took a sip of water and closed my eyes, dreading the thought of going back out to the party, to be observed and judged by the poised and elegant well-to-do people filling the luxury exposition. The girls would start bugging their parents soon, I had to go back out there. There was no avoiding it. As I stood up to walk to the door, a British woman and her daughter walked into the ladies lounge. They both had on shorts and t-shirts. As I passed them walking out the door, the woman turned to me; she had a bright glowing face and a brilliantly white smile. “What an elegant dress, we’re so underdressed!” She laughed breezily. I halted, shocked, and beamed. “Thank you.”
I returned to the party, my usual confidence welling up inside me. I may not be wearing a $3000 Dior dress, fine jewelry or designer shoes, but I didn’t need to be. This wasn’t my normal setting, I may be out of my comfort zone, but I couldn’t let the fear of being judged stop me from enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime experience. How many people have the chance to attend a luxurious party on the shores of Lake Como? I was the au pair and I wasn’t in designer clothes. Fine, let it be known, no more pretending; people at the party didn’t care about what someone else’s American au pair was wearing or doing. It was obvious that this world was new to me, but the beauty in that is that no one knew me, nor cared to pay much attention to me. I took a flute of sweet guava champagne from a tray and sat on the soft grass, overlooking the expansive lake bathing in the last glimmer of twilight. I played duck-duck goose with the girls and their friends, told silly jokes, laughed, and soaked in the gusts of warm night air coming off the lake, completely at peace with myself and my surroundings.
The water lapped against the mossy stonewall descending into Lake Como. The girls were already asleep, and I walked along the gravel path by the water, admiring large trees arching overhead and beautiful roses blooming along the walkway. I thought of this evening’s events, and the beautiful dream I was now occupying, relieved I had gotten over my self-consciousness to enjoy this beautiful night. After all, being a world traveler means you are constantly outside of your comfort zone, in unknown and unfamiliar settings, and you cannot let the fear of appearing different or wrong deter you from living the experience at hand. The fact is, there is only one place on the planet where you aren’t a tourist, only one place where you will “fit in” entirely and be completely within your comfort zone; your hometown. Aside from that, you will always be faced with different customs and unusual experiences. Every setting will be new and different, and rather than strive to know everything and “fit in” when you clearly do not, embrace the novelty of the each new experience. Relish the sensation of unfamiliar sights and smells; enjoy observing how a different group of people live their lives and don’t take yourself too seriously; let yourself join in without fear of judgment or ridicule. You may feel ridiculously out of place, like everyone is watching you and judging or laughing; get over yourself! They are thinking thoughts completely unrelated to you. So forget about looking foolish or feeling out of place. People may see you, but they don’t know you, and they never will.
When you travel, instead of feeling trapped by insecurity and fear, let the freedom of anonymity take over. Take silly pictures, run through the streets at night howling at the moon, wear ridiculous outfits. Be outrageous in every way possible. People may see, they may laugh to themselves, but to them you’re nothing more than a ghost, a quickly forgotten vision passing through their city. Don’t stress the novelty of every new place, embrace it, and let it set you free.