Cleaning my kitchen back in Florida I am reminded why I love traveling so. Even in the nicest of destinations you are stripped away from your comfort zone. And your routine, whether mundane or solid, is put on hold.
I just got back from 16 days in Italy, accompanied by my 13-year-old son, who had never been out of the eastern U.S. This was my third time to Italy, staying with the same beautiful and gracious people I met there so many years ago. Three different trips, all unique. Each during a different phase in my life.
It’s quiet here now at my desk. The usual Florida summer humidity holding steadily outside. The weeds in the cracks of the lanai having grown a foot in my absence. There is laundry to be done, floors to mop, bills to pay. There is work to go back to, alarms to set, exhaustion looming in the distance. Although I helped out in my Italian host’s kitchen (they cooked, I cleaned) it did not feel like a chore. Their lack of air conditioning use drove me insane a few times but my open window was a gateway to sounds I do not usually hear. The cooing of pigeons, lively conversations in Italian, the undeviating church bell song– became welcome melodies to my late nights and early mornings.And those early mornings. Determined not to come back with extra wobble, I jogged with every sunrise. In the peace of dawn a little world was at play– feral kitties hiding in the long grasses on the edge of fields of lavender and tomatoes. Hefty black and white magpies sitting stately on top of hay bales. Jackrabbits as big as raccoons scurrying across the skinny roads and farm landscape. The meals we shared will forever be etched in my memory, both the company and the food itself. Believe me, I have a photo of every dish I ate! There was the torta fritta, an appetizer of lightly fried pockets of dough wrapped with the freshest prosciutto, so good all our Italian friends tried to either duplicate it or find it at various restaurants and markets. There was the pasta of course, not really my favorite because it blows up my belly, but the way they cooked it with various fresh sauces, like real carbonara with egg, and spinach and pumpkin ravioli, melted in my mouth. I had to refrain from gulping my wine and coffee as the Italians are sippers. Plus you can’t really gulp espresso, not if you want any dignity.
My son finally experienced what the fuss was all about regarding real Italian pizza. He even requested it as our last meal there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him finish a plate of food like that. And the few desserts we did have were totally worth the carbs—lemon, rich chocolate and tangy yogurt gelato, a pastry called a Susanna with ricotta cheese and dark chocolate surrounded by a biscotti type crust, a pistachio cream-filled flaky croissant.Two of my very favorite meals happened at restaurants we hiked to, enjoying the views and meaningful conversations and laughs along the way. And ah yes, the views! Everywhere my eye rested during those sixteen days there was something amazing to see. Medieval castles dotting the hillsides, Romanesque paintings on cathedral ceilings, vineyards and fields of wild flowers for miles, and white, rugged mountaintops against a clear-blue sky. Possibly our favorite part of the trip occurred in a little town called Sesta, which really deserves its own story here. It’s the tiniest coolest town I’ve ever been. Nestled in a hillside surrounded by the mountains there are only 12 full time residents. Winding cobblestone streets take you past their mortared walls, which are elegantly and eerily marked with various paintings, some chipping away from weather and time. An old fountain rests at the edge of the houses, flowing forth cold, fresh drinkable mountain water. At night the paintings are softly illuminated and the neighborhood children play hide and seek among the shadows. I sat on a wooden chair and watched them as my Italian host’s father tried to communicate with me in broken English. We only stayed there for a night but that town will always be with us. Neither of us wanted to leave it behind.
Traveling, being away from home and away from all the things you think you have control over, is a lesson in self-reflection. There are things you come to both revere and loath about yourself and/or surroundings, as well as learn about yourself and other people, cultures, places. I appreciate American coffee and air conditioning and strangers who smile and wave. I revel in my goofiness, independence, and sense of adventure. I do not appreciate the loneliness I sometimes feel when the house is quiet and empty. Or the loud suburban noises reminding me of consumption and perfectionism and competition.
I do love my own neighborhood and my comfortable living space and my sometimes mundane yet solid routine. But I am mourning the flat and mountain houses back in Italy where my son and I could casually hang in that small space together without distractions or the pressing of time. Lazy moments reading. Dinner being cooked for us. Spontaneous games of Frisbee. Conversations with old friends making new memories. The promise of another day of adventure and enrichment and relaxation and effortless bonding. We must go back. Soon. And until then make time for such moments within the realm of our working days and fleeting weekends.
I am ever grateful for the space in time and circumstance in which we have to travel. Whether across the globe or down the road, everyone should have that space, too.