Tag: Globetrotting

14May

Reentry

It might surprise you, given the nature of my blog, to hear that I’m not a natural at traveling. Don’t get me wrong; I love traveling and take every available opportunity to trot the globe. I’m just not particularly well suited to it.

Here’s what I mean: Planning itineraries sends my ISTJ brain into decision-making purgatory, though not planning them is worse. (“Let’s just wing it” is not nor ever shall be a valid sleeping arrangement.) Packing takes me about six times longer than it should, and I end up bringing the wrong kind of shoes regardless. If I don’t get stretches of alone time during a trip to process and recharge, I end up losing myself, though every minute I do take for myself take feels like a misappropriation of resources. I blend in almost nowhere on the planet, I sunburn at the [literal] drop of a hat, and public transportation gives me gray hair. Also? I’m hopelessly squeamish. Spiders in our tent, lobster eyestalks in my scampi, any animal, plant, or mud-related life form in a lake… They’re liable to make me faint on the spot. For real. Just ask Dan how well I handled the extreme anatomical accuracy of our seaside dinner Friday night.

Of all the different challenges that come with travel, however, reentry is by far the hardest for me. No matter how much I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and slipping back into my own routines, returning from a trip tends to go about as smoothly as the final third of every astronaut movie ever made. The atmosphere rubs me the wrong way. My mind begins to malfunction. Everything is shaking and dramatic and underscored by off-key violins, and it always takes a few days before I’m able to readjust to gravity. Or in this week’s case, to get my land legs back.

Bethany on the boat

Dan and I spent this last weekend on a boat (a brilliant Airbnb find on his part) to celebrate our upcoming 11th anniversary. We slept under the Mediterranean stars, picnicked just off the coast of Cinque Terre, and formed our own tour group of two to explore the coves and islands nearby. We were either on or in the water for two days straight, and the waves and I have been mutually reluctant to let the other go. I can still feel the floor sway ever so slightly when I close my eyes. The sun is still painting jewel tones on the bay. The breeze is still singing a cappella with the seabirds and the rigging of passing sailboats. I was never going to be ready to leave.

Lighthouse on Isola Palmaria

Captain Dan

Islands from above - 1

Bethany and Dan hiking

Chiesa di San Pietro - 1

Porto Venere

I’m getting my equilibrium back though, slowly but surely. Absurd amounts of sleep have helped, as have molasses cookies, fresh nail polish, and a spontaneous family outing to the park this afternoon. I think that often, in my love for chronicling our adventures, I skip over the frustrating or sad parts—the romantic dinners that fall flat or the tourist attractions that end up being closed or the homecomings that are less Norman Rockwell and more Deep Impact. As a result, I forget to add extra grace to future packing lists. Frustrations then magnify, and I berate myself for feeling anything less than relaxed when the trip is over. It’s as if I believe that nostalgia should work like a simultaneous interpreter, infusing experiences with a real-time sentimentality that leaves no room for disgruntlement.

Life is not a Hallmark movie though, and I should know well by now how multi-faceted and messy travel can be is. Sure, some days it’s sea and sky and colorful villages and cold wine on the beach… but some days it’s reentry and struggle and the real-life work of forging melancholy into nostalgia. I’m not particularly well suited to this part either. But if I can get over myself enough to keep camping with the spiders and ordering the scampi and saying yes to the vast unpredictability of going somewhere new, then I can summon grace enough to let this week’s crash landing be a part of the beautiful whole instead of its undoing.

Mediterranean in the distance

28Apr

Greener Pastures

Come August, we will have lived in Perugia for seven years. This is liable to give me mental vertigo, all these days expanding and collapsing like accordion pleats in my memory. A trick of the light, and I am once again massive with child and complicated hopes boarding a one-way flight to Italy; the angle shifts, and my perspective accelerates through one baby, two visas, three homes, and the better part of a decade to where I sit today penciling summer destinations into our calendar. Time is often catalogued for me in terms of travel, and we’ve done so much of it in these seven years that my mind can’t quite grasp it all at once.

We realized on last week’s little excursion, though, that our view on travel could use some tweaking. We tend to think of travel as something grandiose and all-consuming, volumes of time propped between the bookends of journey. The farther we drive to get to a pasture, the greener it is, right? This is why we’ve spent Saturday after Saturday chafing against weekend chores and griping for want of air. This is why the idea of a staycation this Spring Break disappointed us. This is why, in seven years, we haven’t ever climbed the slopes of our own Mount Subasio.

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

The forecast called for rain on Saturday, but we went anyway, the drive to explore our own backyard stronger than our desire to stay dry. And it was beautiful, all of it: the girls’ pride at making it up the mountainside by themselves, the clouds billowing like down comforters overhead, the wildflowers holding their own against the tide of grass and gravity, the towns laid out below us like stitching on a vast patchwork quilt. On the drive there, we’d listened to Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Two hours later, I knew exactly what that felt like.

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

Hiking Subasio - Assisi down below(That’s wee little Assisi in the center of the photo.)

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

I will never stop wanting travel on a grand scope—road trips and international flights and wildly new terrains underfoot. This weekend has convinced me though that we don’t need to keep holding our wanderlust at bay until schedules and finances align. We have a wealth of beauty close to home, perhaps even enough to fill the next seven years of Saturdays. The verdancy of far-off pastures may be up for debate, but I can say now with certainty that we’ve got a green worth experiencing right here.

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

What’s your favorite “destination” in your neck of the woods? Or is there a place nearby you’ve been curious to explore? Where would you take me for a Saturday adventure if I came to visit? 

25Apr

Worry vs. The Great Outdoors

It’s been an up-down kind of week, the way school breaks usually are for me. I love getting more quality time with my girls, but I tend to flail like a shipwreck victim when I find myself in a patch of undesignated hours; their fluidity makes them frustratingly difficult for me to shape. My brain doesn’t help matters either. In typical overanalyzer fashion, I’ve worried while sitting down to write that I’m not making enough of the social opportunities this week, then worried while hanging out with family and friends that I’m not holding on to myself. I’ve even worried in my sleep that I’m not using the wee hours of the day to best advantage. Occupying my own head can be exhausting, and sometimes the only way to get out of it is to inhale the wide-open air.

Monte Tezio - Skyline

Dan, the girls, and I piled into the car yesterday with no plan beyond the picnic lunch we’d packed and a vague swath of map where we hoped to eat it. Fifteen minutes later, we turned down an unmarked dirt road on a whim, and five minutes after that, we were piling out of the car at a trailhead as if we’d always planned it that way. (Dan calls this style of travel “going crazy,” and it consistently defies my expectations by turning out well. Fantastically, even.)

Monte Tezio - Hiking

For the next few hours, we hiked… and by “hiked,” I mean that we picked bouquets of riotous color, chased orange-winged butterflies in circles, performed scientific experiments, lingered over aperitifs, speculated on what was living in nearby hidey-holes, blew clouds of dandelion wishes, picnicked, combed the treetops with binoculars, peeked under rocks, picked more flowers, and occasionally walked forward a few meters. This is our girls’ version of hiking, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. When I’m out in nature with them, I can’t help noticing it—all its colors and textures and idiosyncrasies, all the little nuances of life. And in the quiet of noticing, I remember how to breathe again.

Monte Tezio - Wildflower bouquet

Today, I’m back to my struggle against time and that will o’ the wisp called balance. As much as I wish that moments of tranquility would act as a freeze frame for my soul suspending me permanently in the center of who I want to be, my mind is always waiting to snap worry back into focus. Did I sleep in too long this morning? Is the day wasted? Are the girls getting enough attention from me? Should I be doing housework right now? When should I work out? Is it even worth trying to stay in shape? Why can’t I write faster? Quick, the day is slipping away! For better or for worse, I am yoked to a mind that requires me to fight for my tranquility.

Monte Tezio - Pink flowers

The difference today is that the fight feels fair. Yesterday’s breeze still blows through my perspective loosening clods of resignation and despair. My breath is not confined within the parameters of worry; I have enough space between my ribs now to stretch into confidence and peace. I’m delegating these few slippery hours in the pursuit of joy rather than the placation of guilt, and I find it telling that the one piece of housework I opted to do today was laundry.

After all, if I didn’t wash our hiking pants, we wouldn’t be ready to go crazy again tomorrow.

Monte Tezio - Victorious Sophie

22Apr

Treasure Planet

 It’s Spring Break, but we have no tent in the trunk, no extra hundred miles on the odometer. We looked up at least a dozen possible destinations, but all of them said rain. Double-rain up in Cinque Terre where I most wanted to go. We’ve camped in the rain before, but none of us has the energy to face soggy sleeping bags this week, so staycation it is.

For reasons that have not only escaped us but are now doubled over laughing at us, Dan and I decided to allay our disappointment by watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it for your next rainy Saturday night; it’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with the adventure of life, the treasures in the world around us, and Ben Stiller. One thing it does not do, however, is calm pangs of wanderlust. Just take a moment to soak in the screenshot below. That would be the open road in Iceland. Iceland! Can you imagine?

Walter Mitty in Iceland.png

Dan and I have been to Iceland… sort of… in the sense that we once spent a half-hour hour layover exploring the grounds of the Reykjavík airport. We couldn’t see any mountains or geysers or lagoons from where we stood, but the landscape fascinated us all the same. Each tuft of grass, each scribble of green or beige or wine-red against the volcanic gravel was like a character in a fairy tale. The sky reached all the way down to the ground there. Within a minute, we were cloud-damp and windswept and smitten.

(Please enjoy this high-definition, award-winning documentary we made there upon discovering how very similar the Icelandic turf is to a trampoline:

You’re ever so welcome.)

A piece of my heart is still there in that wild and wonderful country, and there is nothing for it but to go back one day. I won’t be able to reattach that part of myself, of course, but I can visit with it as we traipse among the fjords and up the volcano slopes. Maybe on the way home, I can stop by the Highlands to commune with the part of my heart forever rooted to its glens, then down to visit with the piece I lost on a Portuguese beach. I stopped checking items off my travel wish list years ago when I realized that each check mark represented a longing awakened rather than one fulfilled.

Beach toes

I wrote in my profile that I’ve got this whole colorful, spinning planet of ours under my skin, and that becomes truer the more of it that I see. I have room for oceans in here, for limitless hues and textures of sand, for all the forests and waterfalls and summits that I’ve seen, pressed cheek-to-cheek with all the ones that I have not. With so many types of terrain held in me at once, it’s no surprise that wanderlust can be a real, physical ache sometimes.

I didn’t realize when I started writing this post that today is Earth Day, but the significance is not lost on me—that I would feel tugged inside-out by the trillion different points of our planet on the day set aside for acknowledging and respecting her. I grew up thinking that environmentalism was at odds with human advancement, but now I believe the opposite. We need the infinite variations of green on a mountainside to stir our creative impulses. We need the roll of waves to smooth the sharp edges of our souls. We need the wind flying across prairies to reawaken us to freedom. We need the intricate art of flower petals to show us the signature of God.

Purple wildflowers

And sometimes we need the ache of wanderlust to remind us what a treasure we have in this place we call home.

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

3Nov

Pulling a Pheidippides

I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.

They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.

Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.

Marathon - D and B

Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.

The race began around 9:30, though it took several minutes more for those of us in the nosebleed section to make our way up to the starting line. Once we were there, however, it was as if a tidal wave rolled up underneath our running shoes and lifted us all in a cresting rush of energy and direction onto the road. I’ve never felt anything quite like that communal forward momentum, and I didn’t encounter it again during the race. Almost immediately, the marathon changed for me from a group exercise to an individual challenge. I found my stride within the first kilometer, and my focus narrowed to a small bubble around my own head. I concentrated on breathing evenly, navigating the road (which hugged the plentiful curves of the Brenta River for the first 17 kilometers/10½ miles or so), and maintaining appropriate levels of shock and awe that I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON.

Refreshment tables, many of them accompanied by live bands and cheering spectators, were set up every five kilometers, so the race naturally subdivided itself into half-hour increments for me. Just about the time my strength started to lag, I would round a bend into Partyville—cups upon cups of Gatorade, cookies and bananas given out by the handful, little kids waiting to give high fives, the occasional bystander adventurous enough to try pronouncing my name. The encouragement of strangers made more of a difference than I would ever have thought. Each new chorus of “Brava!” drew me out of the intensity of my own headspace and reminded me that I wasn’t alone on the road. You could almost see the change in atmosphere where crowds gathered to cheer; every single runner on the road picked up speed. Weary athletes who I had seen slump into a walk only seconds earlier caught a second wind. Grimaces turned into smiles… or at least grimaces with a facelift. Even rubberneckers who had clearly shown up to watch out of curiosity with a generous side of WTH?! provided boosts of incentive to do what we had come to do and run.

Marathon - First 5K

Stay tuned for my exciting new e-course on taking cell phone pictures through your armband while running AND looking like an off-balance penguin while doing it!

The race got very real for me around kilometer 32/mile 20. That was the farthest I had ever gone in my training runs, so I had no empirical evidence to suggest that I might be capable of doing more. Until that point in the marathon, my mind had been able to kick up its feet with the assurance that my body could handle its task. Now, however, with each new step marking the farthest I had ever run in my life, the race became as grueling psychologically as it was physically. And this was when the bridges started—17 of them, the second being the 2½-mile-long (read: interminable) Ponte della Libertà taking us over open water to the islands of Venice.

My carpe diem drive went into desperate mode once my feet reached the cobblestones alongside Venetian canals. This was it: the last stretch, the true test of my endurance, the magic of running through a floating Medieval city coupled with the pain of pushing my body beyond its limits. My focus shifted constantly with my mind scrambling behind trying to keep it in line. My mental dialogue during the final 5 kilometers/3 miles went something like this: Ow ow ow can’t do this anymore CANNOT, hey look at that basilica! Wow, I’m in Venice, this is horrible, must remember all the encouraging comments and emails people have sent me; they think I can finish, so I must be able to. Oh God, another bridge. I can do this, I can’t do this, I CAN do this, look at me passing three semi-ripped men in a row, I hate existence, no I don’t, I’m carpe-ing the *expletive* out of this diem right now, I’m going to die. What a pretty canal!

My favorite thing about that last insane stretch was a fat old Venetian woman leaning out of her window and shouting, “Come on, what are you wimps slowing down for? You’re basically at the end by now!” At that point in the race, I was in no mood for live music or high fives any more; the thought of lifting more limbs than absolutely necessary had become unthinkable, and I was pretty sure I hated everyone in the world who wasn’t struggling up those bridges with me. However, that old lady’s crusty pep talk was just the kick in the pants I needed to keep running. Plus, it got me smiling just long enough for the photography team to catch me looking [inaccurately] like a congenial and capable human being as I crossed the Canal Grande into the final kilometer of the race.

Bethany's first marathon

Yay! I hate you all!

It wasn’t until I crested the seventeenth *double-expletive* bridge and saw the finish line straight ahead that I lost whatever psychological control I had been using to hold myself intact. My veins flooded with icy tingles, my heart left my body, my vision began swarming with tiny Disney bluebirds, and my mind shrugged helplessly and said, “I got nothin’.” I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be thinking about. I definitely couldn’t remember why I had signed up for this. I was about to faint and/or die right there in front of the Doge’s Palace, but I didn’t really mind too much because at least then I could stop running.

Something about this line of reasoning tugged at me though, and I slowly realized that I was so eager to stop running because… [and you might want to brace yourself for the profundity of this statement]… I was currently running. Without any conscious input from my brain, my legs were still moving forward. Some instinct had taken over when energy and intention had crashed and was keeping me in motion. Frivolities like discernible heartbeats and motor control were no longer part of the picture; there was only the pure, inexplicable reality of me, running.

Granted, the victory of crossing the finish line was tempered by the fact that I was basically a decapitated rooster at that point. However, my mental faculties returned once my legs stopped moving, and I realized what I had just accomplished about the time someone hung a medal around my neck. I had done something that, up until that very moment, I had never believed myself capable of doing. I had run 42.195 kilometers without stopping, giving up, or pulling a Pheidippides after all. My final time of 4 hours and 38 minutes wasn’t too shabby either, especially for a new runner. I wasn’t merely a runner anymore though; I was a marathoner. 

Marathon - Finisher

Yay! I love you all!

A friend asked me the following day to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how inclined I was to run another marathon in the future. I had difficulty nailing down an answer. If you had asked me during the first hour and a half of the race, I would have ranked my willingness at a 10; during the final hour and a half of the race, I would probably have answered something like negative infinity. Even in the thrill and buzz immediately following the finish line, I don’t think I would have given you more than a 2, and when my friend asked me the next day, I finally settled on an uncertain 4. A week later, however, my post-race aches and pains have dissipated, and the memory of accomplishment has far outstripped the memory of effort. For various reasons, I haven’t been able to go running since the marathon, and I find myself antsy to lace up my shoes and hit the track again. I’m not planning any long runs for the immediate future, but there is a part of me that wants to see what I could do with this challenge in the future, knowing as I do now that I am strong enough. I’m not ready to stop surprising myself yet, and given how very much the marathon asked of me in the end, maybe the biggest surprise would be deciding to do it again.

We’ll see. I’m only now at a 6 on the would-I-do-it-again scale, and other challenges have caught my attention for the time being. Still, the value this experience held for me seems only to be increasing with time, and if you asked me to rank from 1 to 10 how glad I am to have done this first marathon, I would have to go with something in the neighborhood of, oh, say, 42.195.

4Oct

A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.

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