Tanna Mezacapa was one of the beloved babysitters who cared for our four kids fairly often before she graduated from college. The first time Kevin and I met Tanna, our discussion turned to travel and we immediately sensed a kindred spirit. Here was a girl who understood the value of living dreams and a life well-lived. When she first told us her dreams of traveling to Italy, she didn’t yet know how or when she’d make the dream happen.

But she found a way to live her dream. And when I heard her story about “how she spent her summer vacation,” I knew I had to share it with you. What a reminder to live your dreams NOW, while you still have time, no matter if you’re 21 like her, middle-aged, or at the end of your life.

Do what you want. Make your dreams happen, because no one else will do it for you.
Here’s my interview with Tanna. Enjoy!!

Explain how you came to be an au pair in Italy. What was your thought process? How had you heard of it?
I had to take a language course to fulfill the common core curriculums at Mercyhurst College, where I go to school. Out of the various languages Mercyhurst had to offer, I easily decided upon Italian in that it is my heritage. My professor, Maria Pia Dio, saw the love and drive I had to learn a language. She often said to me throughout the term, “You are a girl who needs to travel.” It was she who channeled this need in me. Hearing her talk about Italy completely captivated me.

I began to see that I needed to live this dream. Professor Dio told me about the opportunity of being an au pair. An au pair refers to a domestic assistant, usually from foreign countries, who takes on a share of the family’s responsibility for childcare as well as some housework, and receives a small salary allowance for personal use. I began this process by making a profile on the top sites: http://www.aupair.com, http://www.aupair-world.net/, http://www.euraupair.com/. Once I made a profile on these sites I began to search for families that were posted on the site. This was fun because I got to see different types of families I could possibly live with and all the different places I could go. I sent out a lot of messages to families, expressing interest in getting to know them better. It was somewhat stressful for me to find time to plan something like this while being very busy with school and a job. I also sometimes felt very overwhelmed with the idea of not really knowing the people I was going to live with besides through Skype and emails.

Background on you: age, year in school, major, your previous travel experience?
My name is Tanna Mezacapa and I am from Wickliffe, Ohio. I’m 23. I began my love of travel with a trip to Aruba two summers ago, growing up in California, traveling to many of the U.S. states, and, of course, my recent adventure to Italy.

Can you describe the au pair program – i.e., the timeframe, your duties, what you received in exchange for the work you did?
I spent my au pair experience in la Spezia for three months. My duties included watching 10-year-old Giovanni from the time we got up until 1 p.m. each day. During that time frame, Giovanni and I usually did an hour of English study each morning and spent the rest of the time in the square, or as the Italians say, “piazza,” taking their dog Ulisse out! At 1 p.m., Giovanni’s mom Barbara would come home from work and make us lunch. After lunch, we spent the hot summer days at a beach called Bia Blu, which to me was more like the country club than the beach. At the beach, I usually played with Giovanni, or when Giovanni was with his friends, I got to just relax and take it all in!

We usually returned from Bia Blu around 6pm and spent some time downstairs at the local bar. The bars in Italy are cafés where the Italians sit and enjoy a relaxed drink and eating hour socially with friends and family. Italians have dinner late – we usually ate dinner around 9pm and when we finished we usually relaxed and went to bed. I usually helped Barbara prepare dinner and clean up after dinner.

During my time I also got to join the family on a trip to Sardinia, which is an Island off the Coast of Italy! It had the most amazing clear waters and white sandy beaches. It is said to be one the most beautiful places in the world. I felt very fortunate that I got to the join the family in seeing something so amazing.

In exchange for the work I did for the family, I received 10 euro a day that I used on personal items, gifts, and to travel! The family was really amazing about making sure I was completely taken care of. Any time I went out they would make sure Giovanni and I had money for the day. They were so generous in never letting me pay for anything and taking me in as a part of their family.

Why Italy?
I chose to go to Italy ultimately because my family is originally from the Southern part of Italy. I have grown up with a strong Italian background, filled with many stories about Italy from my grandparents. Ever since I could remember, I have always wanted to go. And then the idea, with the help of my professor, who is also an Italian citizen, seemed to become my reality.
I also liked that so much of the world’s history resides in Italy. The country portrays its proud history and monumental buildings everywhere you go. In one summer I got to see the three of the world wonders: the leaning tower of Pisa, The Coliseum, and the Vatican. I also, got to see the paintings of Michaelangelo, and the houses and works of Dante, Aristotle, and Galileo.

Can you describe the family you worked for?
The family I worked for were the most amazing people I have ever met. They not only were a family I lived with but over this experience they have become a family to me. Stefano (dad) was the one I got to know the least because of his very busy and important position for NATO. He often worked most days from 7am until 8pm, and was also gone on business trips for long periods of time. In the time that I did get to spend with Stefano I was impressed by his intelligence, especially his love for the English language, which he had mastered. I also found him very funny and down-to-earth. It was sweet to see the way he loved Giovanni and Barbara.

Barbara (mom) was the person I got to spend the most time with. I honestly think of her as a mother to me, and on the very top of my list of best people I have ever come to know. Not only is she beautiful, but her passion for life is something rare. Barbara has been very successful in her life. She has traveled all over the world, working in top command for Prada. Barbara talked about Prada a lot, always referring to it as her dream. She no longer works for Prada because she decided she wanted to settle down and have Giovanni.

Barbara spent much of the summer giving me advice about life and living my dreams. She also, from the moment I saw her, made me feel at ease with this experience. She always took special note of me, somehow reading my face like it was an open book. She has an inner child which I believe makes her so amazing. She never takes life too seriously. Her laugh was contagious and the entire town knew who she was and loved her just as much as I do.

Giovanni reminds me exactly of her, which is probably why I feel the way I do about him. He is a typical 10-year-old boy. I was truly impressed in the way he took to me. I was thinking the entire time of him and how strange it must be for a 10-year-old to understand this foreign girl in his home that he could not understand. He had a heart of gold and was a sweet caring boy. When we were out together, he always spoke on my behalf when my Italian was not so good. He is very independent, which surprised me for his age. He was going around the town, in and out of shops, and saying hello to people like he owned the entire town. He actually reminded me of my own brothers at home. He was very receptive to learn, to speak with me, and be patient. In the end, we grew very close and I spent many days playing in the pool and ping pong with him. I was very impressed with Giovanni, he picked up English rather quickly and I was proud to leave knowing how much he had learned being with me.

Overall, I feel that I was very lucky with the family I got. They went out of their way for me to not only make me feel at home but also really make a part of the family. When I left, I really felt that saying ‘thank you’ did not express how much I appreciated them. They were truly an amazing family and I am blessed to have made a forever connection with them.

What part of Italy were you in, and how did it compare and contrast to where you live here in the States?
I was in Northern Italy specifically living in La Spezia. The town I stayed in was completely different to that of Wickliffe, OH (where I live) or Erie, PA (also where I live). My professor often said that when she missed Italy she went to New York City. I often did not understand that, but now that I have lived there I can see her point.

La Spezia was somewhat like NYC in the respect that all the buildings are tall. In Wickliffe there are tall buildings but for the most part all establishments are single, flat, buildings that are much larger (yes even the small buildings are bigger) than most Italian buildings I saw. Barbara often told me that Italy is built like that because of the lack of space, you must build up. But in the U.S. there is room for individual houses and stores.

We lived in the very center of La Spezia. When I would go out into the streets, there would often be (depending on the time of day) many people crowding the streets, filling the stores and restaurants. But no one was in a hurry, people were outside just to be, walking just to walk, and be around everyone else. They never really seemed to have a direction, sense of time, or a hurry in their step to be somewhere. It was different to observe people just enjoying other people in the streets, bars, restaurants, gelaterias, and so on.

Another major difference was being in a town like that where everything you could want is within walking distance. People used public transportation more, also, like buses to get to the other small towns, and they used the train to take them to places that were even farther distances away. A lot of young people I met also used VESPA’s because the legal driving age in Italy is 18. This, along with very narrow streets and high fuel prices, fuel the use of VESPA’s in Italy. This was very different from what I’m used to in Wickliffe, where everyone has a car. It would not be practical of me to even think of walking to a grocery, clothing, or restaurant around here.

Describe any traveling you did beyond the town you lived in?
I was actually in many parts of Italy just because the amount of time I was there. I and a few other au pair girls took advantage of the weekends and often spent them in other parts of Italy. In total I traveled to:

    ■ Portovenere
    ■ The Cinque Terre
    ■ Lerici
    ■ Rome
    ■ Pisa
    ■ Florence
    ■ San Terenzo

I also got the luxury to go to Sardinia with the family. It was a small island off the coast of Italy, and truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

My favorite place had to be Rome. I was just amazed by the history that literally fills every street corner there. The Trevi Fountain was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Also the Vatican was filled with history of the Catholic faith. The buildings were something that I could not even fathom. The sheer beauty and fine details that I saw was something that no picture could do justice to. I was always amazed to see the Sistine Chapel and the works of famous Michaelangelo. It was something that I will never forget. Although a very touristy place, which is not something I usually like, I could not help but be taken away by the vast beauty and history in Rome.

Explain the scariest moment of your experience. Explain the most uplifting.
The scariest moment of my experience had to be when I first arrived in Italy which actually led to my most uplifting moment. When I first arrived in Italy I was so shockingly taken aback by the culture and how difficult it was for me to be there. I was overwhelmed with nausea from being so nervous and barely able to eat anything. I was flooded with feelings of anxiousness, curiosity, sadness, happiness, a sense of awe that I was actually living out a dream.

The first month of being in Italy was me getting used to everything. I am not sure if I was just naïve in thinking that I would be completely fine. I’m a strong independent young adult, but no matter how prepared one is for a new experience, adjusting is just difficult.

For me this reality hit me like a car doing top speed into a cement wall. I immediately was sick after my first meal and that night I went to sleep in strange house, room and bed to the sounds of a loud echoing city night life. I spent my first three days not being able to leave the bathroom/my bedroom because of how sick I was. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor thinking to myself, “What have I done?”

I had no idea what medicine to take. I was a stranger in someone’s else house so I was uncomfortable moving around, and I did not even begin to know what to say to the family I had just met.

For the first week Giovanni was finishing up school and Barbara had started a new job. So I was literally alone, and although the family thought this was good for me to adjust to everything, I thought this was the worst because I was literally there alone sick, not even beginning to know what to do about it. I was afraid to walk outside in an unfamiliar town and I was just overwhelmed with everything that was going on around me.

I remember crying to my Dad for the first week on Skype telling him that I had made a huge mistake and that I know I have to come home. It took everything I had the first month to wake up each day and to get going. I was learning so much I was in sensory overload by the amount of information being thrown at me. I was then responsible for the care of this boy who had no idea what I was saying.

At the time I was very overwhelmed with everything, and I was too busy trying to be American in Italy. Once I realized this, I began to put myself out there. I began to make friends, and I began to understand the city and culture. I learned the family routine, and how to take care of Giovanni. Giovanni and I picked up on our languages rather quickly in that we both knew that it was important since we were going to spend a lot of time together.

Once I began to immerse myself and shed the ideas and ways of myself as an American, I quickly adapted to the culture. I began to miss home but in a good way, knowing that I was going back. It was no longer unbearable. I began to enjoy Italy.

In the end, this self struggle was what led to my most uplifting experience in Italy, my last day. On the last day, I spent time reflecting on the past three months, the places I traveled, obstacles overcome, and the people I’d met along the way. I began to be extremely proud of myself knowing that what I had just done was not easy. I was also proud of the fact that even though it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, I stuck it out until the end. I had learned so much about myself along the way and was going home so much more of a better person. I could not help feeling proud. I was happy to have made friendships with so many people over the past three months. I was so proud of Giovanni, especially when I remembered how when I arrived, we couldn’t even understand each other. It felt good to see that, by the end, Giovanni was speaking to me in much better English. I was so very proud of him for being only 10 years old yet so receptive to learn, and especially in the summertime.

As they dropped me off at the airport, we all cried. I will never forget how Barbara looked at me before I boarded the plane to tell me with tears in her eyes how much she had appreciated me and how proud she was of me for doing this. I left Italy with tears in my eyes. I was definitely a forever-changed person.

How has this experienced changed you?
I made many self discoveries about myself including about the importance of life. I was proud that I stuck through this even though it was hard. I recognized just how strong of a person I actually am. I discovered many things that make me happy in life including my passion and calling to teach and travel. I met many people along that way that also changed me. I learned from the Italians to really appreciate life and to not get so caught up in everything.

In traveling and being scared to have anything taken or stolen from me, I began to really understand that all I have is material things and at the end of the day the only thing that matters is me. I began to truly value that people are the only thing in this world that are irreplaceable. My realization came with the help of my ‘life talks’ with Barbara. These talks made me see that a lost passport, money, luggage, or camera (although would suck), at the end of the day are just lost material goods. Essentially they are just possessions that could all be replaced. I learned from this to not be so serious about life. I realized that I cannot control everything and unfortunate things happen to everyone, even those that are the most cautious and responsible. It is all in the game of life. I really began to see that in life it is the people and love that really matters most of all. I met many people along my journey, people from all different walks of life and countries. This experience opened my mind to see how much is out there and what life has to offer.

I talked to people that I know I would not have typically talked to. With each person that I met, I became more and more curious about the world around me. I was surprised to learn that not everyone is fed this “Go to school, get good grades, work hard, get a job, work 9-5, make a lot of money, get married, and have a family” culture that is pushed into the minds of most Americans I know. Most of these people I’d met had no direction other than what was going on in the present moment, and that fascinated me. I was shocked by the fact that these people were not going to school, did not work “forever” jobs, did not have plans, or the stress of “what is expected” of you to become.

These people challenged me to see how much is out there, and that the American way is not the only way to live. I learned much about their freedom and admired their bravery to take on the world completely alone with no directions. I have ultimately returned to the U.S., changed in that I will not live in the bubble of just America. I have lived and come to know all that is out there. I learned sheer joy and the thrill that comes with traveling to an unknown place.

I am forever changed in that I do not look at the small things the same as I had used to. I try to appreciate what I have every day, and how lucky I am to live in such a powerful country. I learned to see the endless amounts of opportunities out there waiting for me as a young person.

What travel plans do you have for the future?
I do have a long list of travel plans I have made since Italy. In my trip to Italy, I met a girl that became a good friend of mine. She is originally from Australia, and has plans to go back there in a year so. When I finish at Mercyhurst, I am strongly considering spending a considerable amount of time there with her. It has always been another one of my dreams to go there. Meeting Hannah has seemed to me to be one of those “meant-to-be” experiences. I feel that it was not by accident that I got to meet her and become so close to her. It is just another door opened to a path I want to explore. I look forward to making future plans of spending time in Australia with her. I am excited to take this opportunity and see where it leads me.

Would you recommend this experience to your friends? Why or why not?
I have recommended this experience to my friends. Spending time in Italy or any foreign country makes you grow up in a way that I believe is impossible to do in the comfort of the U.S. The amazing things I saw and people I met have made me grow in unimaginable ways. I cannot tell someone the amount of value that comes with doing something like this. It expands your mind and puts the world in perspective. I also began to appreciate everything I have here in the U.S. This experience is one that I more than highly recommend. I feel it has had such an impact on my life for the better that is a necessity for others to get out there and do the same.

How has this experience influenced how you think about living your dreams?
It was very surreal for me to be in Italy when I was there. I had dreamt about being in Italy for so long – my entire life – that when it was actually happening I could barely make sense of everything.

Now that I have had time to reflect upon my experience and how it has changed me, I begin to see how important it is to live your dreams. We always hear that “life is short” and that is something I do believe. Now that I have begun to live my dreams, I see more and more how true it is. I have witnessed how easy it is to make excuses. Too many people are caught up in their lives to stop for a minute to see what is truly important. At the young age of 21, I have already had too many hardships, and lost a few friends along the way of my life journey. I have even, sadly, had to reflect on a life that was cut too short. This made me see that life has no promises for tomorrow.

I have promised myself that I will try my best to live for today and take every opportunity I have to do the things I want to do. They say that is the key in life, to do what makes you happy and that way, “you will never work a day in your life.” I plan to live my life to the very fullest. When I look back on my life, I will not have a single regret but instead pride that I have lived – and fulfilled my dreams.