Unexpected Connections

The other day I was at the gym, completely absorbed in my own thoughts, when suddenly I heard something very surprising and wonderfully familiar. Two women nearby were talking to each other in Italian. My neighborhood is not a particularly Italian one, so I had never thought to meet Italians at my local gym. I stuffed any shyness I felt into the nearest locker and asked them, in Italian, where they were from.

We had been chatting for a few minutes when another voice piped up from the far side of the room, “Scusate, siete tutte italiane?” It turned out she was Italo-Australian. Before we went our separate ways, I told all of them about the Italian Professionals of Philadelphia, our local expat organization, because I know how hard it can be to find community. Sometimes you just need to be with other people who know the songs you listened to when you were a teenager, the cartoons you watched when you were a kid, the books you read in college, your favorite actors, authors… the list goes on.

Nevertheless, connections don’t have be based on shared cultural experience. For me, the greatest part of the story happened a couple of days later, the next time I was back at the gym. A woman I hadn’t spoken to before came up to me and said, “Excuse me, I just wanted to ask, what was that language you and those other women were speaking the other day? It was so beautiful.”

“Italian,” I told her, “and it is beautiful, isn’t it?”

In a moment, she had reminded me of the first time I’d heard Italian and the reason why I’d wanted to learn it in the first place. She didn’t speak Italian or have those Italian experiences to share, but it didn’t matter. We had both shared that moment of recognizing the same beautiful thing––and that, right there, was an experience in common. I felt more at home, suddenly, just for having shared it. It reminded me that I don’t have to go looking for community. It’s all around me, including in unexpected places––I just have to reach out and make myself a part of it. That is how any expat can make a home.

p.s. As usual, you can find this post on the PI-Philly Facebook page as well (see link above). 


Philadelphia's lovely Rittenhouse Square during the holidays

Philadelphia’s lovely Rittenhouse Square during the holidays

Adventures of an Expat Returned has been dormant for a while now. This is not for a lack of adventures, but because I’ve been having so many of them (plus running my own business, which is no small matter). I’m preparing to move to a new city in February… Philadelphia! I shall miss Virginia, which I’ve come to love, but I’m very excited about getting to know a new part of America, especially one with so much history and charm. Philadelphia is a place full of interesting stories to tell, corners to explore and secrets to discover. Once I’ve settled in there, I shall endeavor to share them with you. For now, I wish all of you a fantastic beginning to your 2015.

See you soon!

Back to Nature


How lucky am I? I get to see this sight pretty much every day. Granted, there have been marvelous things in every city I’ve lived in. You might ask, “What are a couple of deer compared to going past the Coliseum on your way to work every day?”

“Apples and oranges,” is my answer to that. I can’t compare it. Of course, there’s nothing like walking in the ancient Roman Forum or staring up in awe at the breadth of Brunelleschi’s dome in the Florence Duomo. Nature, however, inspires a different kind of wonder.

I find that marvels made by man stimulate my mind, the desire to learn, travel, study and see more – even to learn the language spoken by those who created them (yes, this is the main reason I set myself to learn Italian back in the day). Nature, on the other hand, fills me with a sense of wonder when it is majestic, and of peace when it is simple – like when I see this doe with her fawns or come across a turkey hen with her poults (Yes, I just looked that up. I don’t just know all these things off the top of my head). Then there are those nearly magical moments, when the sun has just risen and it illuminates an otherwise ordinary woodland scene, just so…

Why it's worth it to get up at sunrise sometimes

Why it’s worth it to get up at sunrise sometimes

Those of you who have been following my blog since its inception (and I thank you very much for sticking with me if you have) may have noticed a sea change over the past months – well, not counting the very long hiatus. For the first few months of its existence, Adventures of an Expat Returned consisted mainly of posts about my explorations of the woods around my new home in Virginia. That is because my bicycle was, for my first eleven months in America, my only means of transportation. Things are far enough apart here that I couldn’t really go anywhere new. Neighboring towns and pretty much anything beyond my local supermarket, chain bookstore and chain coffee shop were quite literally beyond my reach.

I was beginning to feel as though I’d exhausted my available subject matter when winter came. That pretty much put paid to bike rides through the woods in any case, no matter how good my intentions. I was reduced to taking pictures when family, friends or acquaintances organized day trips to somewhere new and I didn’t feel rude snapping tons of pictures. Then, in January, I took up a new hobby – running. This was something I never would have imagined myself doing, let alone liking… or loving. It took me awhile. From zero to my first real 5K run took me a good five months, but my initial doggedness has turned to a true passion for my new morning pastime. Best of all, it got me back out into my woods, even when the trails were too treacherous for a bicycle. By the time the summer rolled around, there was no way I was trading my sneakers in for my bike again. At the moment, I’m training for a half marathon – a fact I’m pretty proud of, if I do say so myself.

I see some pretty amazing things in the woods in the morning. Apart from the aforementioned wild turkeys and deer, there is a red fox I occasionally spy through the trees and all kinds of birds – hawks, an eagle, even a great blue heron. In the park where I go trail running, there are supposed to be coyotes. I haven’t seen any of those yet and, frankly, I wouldn’t mind if it stayed that way. However, there are also everyday scenes of trees, rocks and the stream that runs through them  that catch the eye and make me pause, sometimes literally, if only for a moment.


I think I stumbled across someone’s living room…

The problem is that, since I’m actually doing serious training, I can’t really stop and snap a picture the way I did when I was riding my bike for fun. Besides, then I had my backpack and could take my serious camera. Now I just have my phone’s camera. Let’s face it, the images just aren’t that great with those things, no matter how much we’d like them to be.

All this to explain why my blog has gradually shifted from nature to civilization, from trees to coffee shops. What’s important to remember is that this never was intended as a nature blog. It was a blog to document the adventures of an expat returned. Those adventures have slowly grown in scope, from the woods behind my house to nearby towns and cities and I hope, someday, even further afield. Stick with me. There are so many adventures still to come. I’ve got the next one planned. The one after? We’ll see. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

Thanks for dropping by and see you next time,


A rather blurry close-up of one of my neighborhood fawns, but still worth posting, I thought. They're growing up fast.

A rather blurry close-up of one of my neighborhood fawns, but still worth posting, I thought. They’re growing up fast.

Quite Ready for Another Adventure (a Day Trip to Fredericksburg)

I suppose it actually has been 5 months since I put up a post on this poor, neglected blog. Most of you must have thought I’d fallen right off into the “Here There Be Dragons” zone of the map while seeking out new expat adventures. That might have been pretty fun, actually… well, if I’d had my dragon-charming equipment with me when I slipped off the edge of the world, anyway. Gladly, it’s a moot point.

Today we go back to Fredericksburg, to my favorite bookshop and to take a little tour of some of my favorite goofy shop windows. Just hang in there while I explain why I've been gone so long...

Today we go back to Fredericksburg, to my favorite bookshop and to take a little tour of some of my favorite goofy shop windows. Just hang in there a minute while I explain why I’ve been gone so long…

There are a few reasons for my long hiatus. The first is, simply, that it’s a very time consuming and sleep depriving endeavor to start your own company. The second is that, limited to a bicycle-riding radius around my home, I was beginning to run out of topics and inspiration. I couldn’t always wait for some occasion or someone else’s motor power to take me to some new town or place worth telling you all about.

So, the big news is (cue drumroll) I finally got some motor power of my own. It took me almost exactly 11 months from the day my plane from Italy touched down, but it was well worth the waiting and scrimping. Perhaps you can imagine the way I felt when I first got behind that wheel and knew that I could go anywhere.

“Wait!” you might say at this juncture. “That’s an exaggeration!”

Believe you me, when you’ve grown up in pre-Schengen Zone Europe, and Eastern Europe during the Cold War especially, it is not. I grew up knowing that you could only drive so far without running into a border – probably involving barbed wire and machine guns – and, even if you got to the other side, you wouldn’t be able to get a bottle of water until you exchanged your currency or ask for directions unless you spoke a different language.

Those of you familiar with Tolkien’s oeuvre will know remember what Bilbo says to his nephew. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

When I read that line as a child, I always thought about America. We’d come back from Europe for the summer holidays and go visit the grandparents. We’d pull out of their driveway to go somewhere and I’d think of the maps I’d studied in school and I knew that, if we just kept driving, we could go anywhere. We could drive all the way to the Pacific and never have to pull out a passport or a phrasebook.

Of course, as an adult, one of the things I love best about traveling is the cultural diversity, the new sounds, smells, tastes, ways of speaking and even ways of thinking that other countries have to offer. That’s the beauty of traveling abroad. The fact remains, however, that I can reverse out of my driveway and the little road outside of my front door could sweep me off all the way to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert… all those places I’ve dreamed of and never seen. Someday I’m gonna do those things. What I can also do is return to some places I’ve loved and would like to get to know better, something I didn’t have the leisure or liberty to do until now (motor power!).

I’ve been planning this blog comeback for a couple of weeks now. I got a map and drew a 60-mile radius around my house, figuring that anything that fell within it was close enough for a stress-free day trip. Last week I even had my backpack packed and ready to go one morning. I was literally walking out the door when my clients in Italy called me up with yet another urgent job. What can you do when you have your own business? You certainly can’t say no. I was planning to go the next day, and the next…

I didn’t give up hope. The bag waited, ready with maps and camera. Yesterday I knew that today would be the day, and so it was. I set off – not for somewhere new and unexplored, but for someplace I already know and love and had been wanting to get back to for awhile: Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Those of you who have been following my blog may remember that I’ve already done a couple of posts about Fredericksburg. There was the “Sorry Mom” post and the “What to Do When It’s Raining (or Snowing) in Fredericksburg, Virginia”” post, about the Griffin Bookstore and Coffee Shop, which is where I happened to be sitting when I began writing this post (it ranks up there among my favorite places in the entire world). Not only do they have a wonderful selection of used books for pretty any much any taste, the also have some of the coziest rooms in the world and a garden that I could sit in for hours with whatever volume has decided to befriend me.

How can you not stay here until you've finished the chapter... and the next one... and...

How can you not stay here until you’ve finished the chapter… and the next one… and…


A cool refuge on an August day… and you’ll never get bored in there.


It's even pleasant underfoot.

It’s even pleasant underfoot.

Fredericksburg is, of course, a town with a ton of stories to tell. George Washington’s boyhood home was here, after all, not to mention the Civil War battle that took place here. On my first visit, when I’d only been back in the States about a month, I saw the historic homes, plantations and the battlefields. I took the trolley tour and explored the antique shops. Since then, I’ve been back a couple of times and, obligatory tourist stops aside, it’s also an extremely pleasant place to be. The locals are much friendlier than anyone would have any right to expect them to be in a tourist town such as this, there are more bookstores than grocery stores (Finally! A town with it’s priorities straight!) plus some really excellent restaurants. We’re not going to be serious today. Today, I’m going to show you some of my favorite shopfronts and store windows – the kind of things you spend your time looking at if you’ve already visited a couple of times before (which you have, if you’ve been following my posts). Enjoy!

Let’s start with those bookshops. Besides the Griffin, there are a couple more right on Caroline Street, the main shopping drag, whose windows I always enjoy.

What a fantastic name for a kids' bookshop. The stuff they have in the window is enough to make any small child with a big imagination  (wait... that's all small children, isn't it?) write a very long wish list.

What a fantastic name for a kids’ bookshop. The stuff they have in the window is enough to make any small child with a big imagination (wait… that’s all small children, isn’t it?) write a very long wish list. The window isn’t that fun today, but I’ve seen it veritably brimming with the kind of toys that make me wish I were a kid again.


Riverby Books is a little more serious. The browsing is excellent but the lack of the coffee shop aspect means I'm not inclined to stay for quite so many hours... just one or two.

Riverby Books is a little more serious. The browsing is excellent but the lack of the coffee shop aspect means I’m not inclined to stay for quite so many hours… just one or two.

Riverby also has a whiteboard in their one window that’s always worth stopping by to read. Here are a few of the things I’ve seen there over the last few months:

A tongue-in-cheek Fredericksburg architecture primer

A tongue-in-cheek Fredericksburg architecture primer…

Anyone got any Lego to get rid of?

Anyone got any Lego to get rid of? (This was back in May, but I bet they’re still buying.)

This one was from around graduation time. I know the glare makes it hard to read, but give it a try. It's worth it.

This one was from around graduation time. I know the glare makes it hard to read, but give it a try. It’s worth it.

Alas, man (and woman) cannot live on books alone, so off I headed to find some lunch. The Virginia Deli seemed like a good choice for a quick, budget meal and indeed it was. I was tempted by the southern pulled pork BBQ sandwich but, in the end, opted for a less soporific roast beef. I did have to ask the owner about the suspicious statements on the signage:

IMG_9504 IMG_9503

He cleared everything up for me. Both George and Bobby have eaten there. Only, their likenesses are a little misleading: the former is the George who owns the Blarney Stone up the street, while Bobby owns an establishment a couple of blocks in the other direction. So, as you see, it’s all true.

Later on, once the Griffin had closed its doors for the day, I turned my steps toward the Hyperion, the local specialty espresso shop and hangout for the kind of people (like me) who like to plonk their computers down on a table near an outlet and not move for a few hours. They’re open a little later, even on Sundays.


A little caffeine jolt did me good for the ride home, which was rather more adventurous than the ride in. I decided to set my GPS to avoid any highways and see what would happen. What happened was rather a lot of cows, horses, deer and generally extremely windy country roads. It was a lot of fun, but I did get home quite a bit later than planned. What this means is that some of those photos I took and things I wanted to share will have to wait for another post. That’s ok, I’m sure I’ll be going to Fredericksburg again.

Let me just close with one more of my favorites for now:

Super-sophisticate handmade shoes should always be paired with silly socks. How else would you wear them, really?

Super-sophisticated handmade shoes should always be paired with silly socks. How else would you wear them, really?

Meanwhile, my new motor power should help finally have some new expat returned adventures. I look forward to sharing them here with you. Thanks for reading and see you again soon!