Early this year I turned 50. It’s not a unique case; many people have turned 50 before me, and knew it was going to happen…I just didn’t expect it to come so soon. Sometimes, when I look at my reflection in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. I am showing some wrinkles now, my face is more rounded, my hair is partially gray, my dress size has doubled in digits, my hands show traces of toil, the strength of my knees has become fickle, and my eyes look experienced. Still, sometimes, I get a glimpse of my youth; when I had more pronounced cheekbones, when I didn’t care to be careless, and where the naïve smiles used to be the norm. I have been lucky, though. I have a good life, even with a reckless dawn in my adulthood. My teen years were a bit troubled, laced with an identity crisis. My priority was fitting in, and loyalty still hadn’t graced my being. I was easily swayed to deny my beginnings and betray the people who loved me. My twenties were worse. I made many poor decisions. It’s a wonder that I didn’t go to jail or get killed during that decade. As hasty as I was in my twenties, I also learned more about myself. I learned that I had the ability to change, IF I wanted to do it. I learned that I could be brave. I learned that I could walk away from things and people who weren’t good for me. So, it happened that my thirties was a decade of starting over and getting my life together. I relocated. I learned a new trade. I met and married a man who is the right one for me. I became a mother. I started to love myself. In my 40’s, I continued to grow as a human being with some small setbacks here and there. I strived to work on improving my mental state and nurture the love for who I am as a person. Motherhood made me less selfish and changed my perspective on life. Things that I thought were important are no longer a priority. I am more patient and less vain. It also made me realize that I have so much love to give. In my 40’s, I realized that I am decent at my trade. I accepted recognition without accepting an equal amount of guilt and started to feel that I deserved the good cards I was being dealt. I let things go more easily. Very few things bothered me. I think I was finally growing up.
And now, at 50, and far from perfect, my life is full and the one I want and need. I accept and forgive myself of my tumultuous past and senseless self. I am gentler and kinder to myself and others. I am more honest. Life and experiences have humbled me. I see more clearly, hear with understanding, and act with thoughtfulness. I am still a work in progress, and I am ok with that.
To mark this momentous event of my half-century birthday and continuous rebirth, my husband planned a weeklong vacation for us in Florence, Italy. I have always wanted to go, and, at 48, I told him that I have to visit Florence for my 50th birthday. Because he is a wonderful husband and loves me, he booked the trip for the two of us. Just weeks before the trip, he realized that his passport will expire within three months of the trip, in violation of Italy’s travel policies. Even paying an expedited fee, the new passport didn’t arrive in time. We decided that I would go on the trip without him.
I was nervous but also excited. This could just be what I needed! Time alone is one thing I’ve always wished for. And now I would have time alone in beautiful Firenze. Most of my first day was spent sleeping and getting some rest. I booked a few museum tours and city tours. Some days I toured the city on my own…all on foot. I ate when I got hungry, I had cappuccino every day, I rested in the beautiful apartment when I got tired, and then went out again in the evening to explore the city at night. There was so much beauty and culture to take in. It overwhelmed me at times. I was humbled by Michelangelo’s David in its grandeur, beauty, and power. I felt my eyes and soul undeserving of the Doumo di Firenze’s magnificence and Basilica di San Lorenzo’s rich history. How lucky am I to sit by the piazza, savoring an aperol spritz and a just-right focaccia sandwich, immersed in the moment? How lucky was I to be able to walk around the palaces and to admire brilliant works by Rafaelo, Davinci, and Botticelli? Quite lucky, indeed.
I ate many things in Florence. Gelato everyday was my goal. Pappa pomodoro, steak tartare, beef tagliata, cacio e peppe, pizza, arancini, lampredotto, fried seafood at the fishing lab, truffled tagliatelle are some of the many bites that graced my palate. I went to San Lorenzo market to shop for leather goods and taste some local fare at the food hall. All meals were accompanied, of course, by a glass or two of prosecco or pinot grigio.
As I strolled the cobblestone streets of Florence, admiring the beautiful architecture, historic Ponte Vecchio, and the magnificent plazas, savoring my fifth flavor of gelato for the week, I felt thankful. I was thankful for my husband who loves me very much. I was thankful of the life we have which afforded me to be away on vacation in such a lovely place for a week. I was thankful for all the beauty around me. I was thankful for the peace I felt in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. I was thankful for the gelato every day. But most of all, I was thankful for my mother. Had my mother not made a decision to uproot us and start a new life in America 35 years ago, I wouldn’t have the life that I have now. And I probably wouldn’t be in Florence reveling in my life’s many gifts. I am grateful that she had the courage and the fighting spirit. I am grateful that she is smart and resilient. I am grateful that she raised me to be brave and independent. As I watched the beautiful sunset at Arno River, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the beauty the world has to offer and for the life I was given.
I just looked in the mirror again, and I see a different person…but someone I recognize and proud of…someone I like very much. If anyone told me at 25 that my life would be this at 50, I wouldn’t believe it. I never dreamed it would be like this. The lines around my eyes show maturity and experience. The grays in my hair blend in naturally with the many dark hair that will still see many opportunities for growth. My round face shows joy and love for good food and good life. My smiles show understanding and appreciation. My bony hands are strong and my knees…well, my knees are still a bit of trouble.
Coming back from Europe this time, I didn’t sneak foods in my suitcase to bring back to the U.S.A. I felt I’d had my share of Italian grub for seven days, and didn’t want to risk getting in trouble at the U.S. customs. I limited my contraband to some beautiful chocolates and dried pasta.
For this post, I would like to share two recipes. An easy weeknight meal of baked ziti to commemorate my trip, and a no-fuss Filipino-style BBQ chicken to honor my Filipino heritage. Both dishes are simple, delicious, and favorites in our house.
I hope that you see a person you like the next time you look in the mirror. You deserve to be here, and this life is yours. You set your own timeline, you go as fast or as slow as you please. I hope you enjoy the ride. Eat, see, do.