Graduation, and my year in Italy without a job

posted in: Blog 3
This is a great time of year to think about “graduations”…

How to Live Before you Die

In my opinion, ‘graduations’ ought to be called ‘transitions’. College grads perhaps have the most extreme transition as they go from years of “school” to full-time “work”. Commencement speakers try to help by sharing messages of wisdom (coincidentally – the best I’ve heard is by Steve Jobs to Stanford grads “how to live before you die”). It’s really a time of transformation. I mean, who wants a J-O-B?

When I graduated from College in 1990, that’s the last thing I wanted to think about. The thought of a “JOB” scared the crap out of me. So, what did I do? I packed everything I owned into a blue footlocker and moved to Italy (of course)…

The Blue Footlocker

My friends’ brother (John) was working in Milan (as a male model). I had his phone number and address. If I could afford a plane ticket, Milan would be my first stop. So, I sold my Plymouth “Volare” (see previous post) for a couple hundred bucks. One-way plane ticket to Milan – Check.

Next, I held a garage sale at my parents’ house in Lexington (they had a bunch of crap lying around for years – surely they wouldn’t miss anything). Pocket money – Check.

My brother had an old footlocker. It was solid. And blue. I packed everything I owned inside (including a small portable keyboard). I had no idea how long I’d be gone. I just knew it would be better than having a JOB. Check.

Let’s Go!

Off I went. Me, the blue footlocker, and a couple hundred dollars garage-sale money. No job. No place to live. Remember, this is PRE-cell phone days. No ‘always-on-and-connected’ gadgets. From my point of view, it was more like Thoreau heading into the woods to write *”Walden“.

Oh, I had a youth hostel card and a copy of “Lets Go – Europe“.  Based on my naive calculations – for less than $10 a day, I could stay in youth hostels and survive for years on bread, nutella and water. I would earn money in the streets playing ditties on my little keyboard. The Troubadour. Yeah, I can do that.

I landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport. I took the train to Milano Centrale train station. And then (and not a second earlier), I sat down on my footlocker, looked around and thought “What the HELL am I doing?”. I mean, seriously. Dude, what were you thinking? You don’t even like Nutella!


About 30 seconds after my “oh Shit!” moment, an attractive young lady is staring at me strangely. She’s Italian. Was I crying? Damn-it, better wipe the tears. She must feel sorry for me. I’m getting nervous as she walks over. “Are you G-ary from A-me-ric-ah?” she inquires. I forgot. I had left a phone message letting John know I was coming through town. He had sent one of his friends to greet me. Her name was Rosanna.

Turns out Rosanna was just about to start classes in Milan (she was from Brescia, a good hour away) and was looking for roommates to share a flat. (cue: small service bell “DING!”)

We grabbed the footlocker and took the metro to meet up with John – who invited me to crash at his place for a couple days while I figured out what to do next.

Person to Person

John mentioned opportunities for Americans teaching English. So, the next day, I visited a school called “Person to Person“.  They were looking for Americans to teach ‘conversational english’ to Milanese businessmen. They paid $25/hr and would help me with the “permesso di soggiorno” (basically a document which allows you to stay in the country – umm, hadn’t thought of that..) – was I interested?

Should I stay, or should I go?

In just a couple days, I had found a place to crash (thanks John), a possible roommate (thanks Rosanna), and some paid work (thanks Person to Person). Instead of zipping off to my next location, something told me to stick around and see what happened here in Milan.

Meanwhile, Rosanna had found a 1-Bedroom penthouse apartment near the train station. Her friend “Renate” (from Austria) needed a place too. Split three ways, the penthouse was affordable. I still remember the address – 34 Via Tadino. It was 5 flights up/down (no elevator). The European gals shared the bed. I slept on a cot (or usually, just passed out on the couch – it was more comfortable). It was totally “Three’s Company”.


Although I began working for Person to Person, it never felt like a “job”. I would teach Monday through Thursday. First thing Friday morning, I would walk to Milano Centrale with a backpack and my keyboard and take a train to a different city. I worked all week – so I could spend everything I made (less rent) on my little weekend excursions.

I stayed in youth hostels and the cheapest, most run-down hotels and inns I could find. Sometimes I’d travel at night and just sleep at the train station. I didn’t care about the accommodations, I was out for EXPERIENCES. I visited the Stradivarius instrument museums of Cremona. I ate true “Pasta Bolognese” in Bologna. I visited all the museums and churches of Firenze. Soon, I was talking about my travels with my Italian Businessmen clients. This was wonderful conversation, and they were eager to tell me stories of “must see” places, “must try” foods, even recipes I could enjoy cooking in my little penthouse kitchenette.

Soon, I was exploring the quaint medieval city of San Gimignano. Riding a motorcycle through the streets of Roma. Experiencing Hemingways’ Lago di Como (and drinking at Harry’s in Venezia). I saw an Opera at the world-famous La Scala. Took in the most awesome outdoor concerts in the ancient coliseum of Verona. Every weekend was a new adventure. Genoa, Pisa, Modena, Piacenza, Ravenna, Mantua, Bergamo, Lago di Garda. All the while, I was learning the Italian language and culture  – and writing music on my little battery-operated keyboard. Each song tried to capture the character of the places I visited. It gave me a way to digest my experiences and distill the ‘essence’ into musical form. To this day, when I play those pieces, it takes me right back to the moment and place.

1 year later…

I did this for a year. Wow. A Whole YEAR – working at the same place! Some people would call this a “job”. Funny, I hadn’t noticed….I was writing music. I was traveling. I was learning.

I got to share some of my experiences with my family. My sister had joined me for Christmas – and my brother (and his future wife) visited in the Spring when we hiked the enchanting Cinque Terre.

After a year, I returned to Boston where I took a piano ‘sales’ position at M. Steinert & Sons. I had learned I could be happy AND earn money at the same time.

So, the message of my story is – don’t go looking for a “JOB”, go looking for yourself, and see if a paid position doesn’t materialize at the same time 🙂

 *Note – I was slightly prepared for my adventure – I had previously backpacked through Europe for a month, surviving mostly on a diet of nutella and bread, while staying in Youth Hostels and using a Eurorail Pass to move about.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – please share in the comments below.

3 Responses

  1. Lorraine Nielsen
    | Reply

    Gary, I just love reading your stories! What a great experience; wish I could have been that brave when I was in my 20s. My daughter is in Austria studying music (singing) with her college music dept students and having the experience of a lifetime. Which songs are the ones you wrote while there in Italy? Looking forward to your new album.

    • pianoxcape
      | Reply

      Thanks Lorraine – sounds like a great experience for your daughter! “San Gimignano” and “Florence” (from the first “Naked Piano” album) were both written during this period. However, most of the pieces have yet to be recorded (Some even have lyrics). I intend to re-visit these places when my kids go to college and create an album exclusively from these experiences and memories. Have you done any traveling in Europe?

  2. Lorraine Nielsen
    | Reply

    I never have but I would love to see Italy and Ireland if only my husband would want to. He’s not interested in visiting foreign countries; he’s happy right here in Montana. Maybe in Heaven!

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