Category Archives: Italy

I Won’t Say I Was “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Even Though I Was)

Okay! It’s that part of the day where I’m up at 3:30 a.m. rearing to go because my body is still in Italy thinking it’s time for cappuccino and sunshine. This is what flying from Europe to the United States means: doing laundry at 4 in the morning, feeling like the only one moving at this hour except for the raccoons outside calling it a night and the hookers on 8th Avenue thinking the same.

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My 10 days in Italy flew, and there’s no effective way to capture all that I did, saw, ate, smelled, heard and overheard other than to list. As Diego Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “Let me explain. No. There is too much. Let me sum up.” Here we go:

– Nonnas everywhere: towns, cities, dirt country roads. And it’s good luck to catch a nonna. I caught one last year while standing on a train that was slowing down to the station. Our train lurched, and a nonna standing next to me lost her footing and just fell into my arms. It was *exactly* like that feeling of catching the ball in third grade and all your classmates cheering for you. This nonna regained her balance, squeezed my arm, and pronounced the longest “Grazie,” Italy had ever heard. It was like six syllables long and easily a full 10 seconds, that’s how grateful she was to have not fallen down. She wore a cardigan, skirt, and a beautiful scarf, and as I drove from Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena this past week, I saw that all nonnas wore cardigans, skirts, and beautiful scarves. It’s their superhero costume. One even wore yellow Crocs. So always slow down for nonnas crossing the road, getting on/off trains, and better yet—catch one! She might even grant you three wishes.

– People keep making films in Tuscany and about Tuscany because Tuscany is probably what the Garden of Eden looked like, and we all crave to get back to what was green and good.

– Green shutters on all houses. It’s like a homeowners’ association thing, but nationwide.

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– No one uses dryers. I love this about Italy (perhaps because my own dryer doesn’t work). This was my third visit, and I always saw people line-drying their clothes. Fuck dryers.

– Fat grapes heavy on the vine do indeed look sexy.

– I drove a little stick-shift Lancia from Florence to Sestri Levante to Panzano to Siena to Florence. I named him Pepe. He didn’t like uphill dirt roads but anything downhill turned him into Peter Pan. Also, driving Pepe into one-way city streets or markets in Florence while jet-lagged and with minor traces of Klonopin in your bloodstream may sound scary, but Italians appeared accustomed to this and simply moved aside while I made very public mistakes and got turned around. I even pulled up to Il Duomo and no one cared. This zigzagging and series of false turns is not in any guidebook but is a great way to see Florence.

– As my new friend Rose McAleese says, “Bugs are annoying in all countries.” Italy was beautiful, but its bugs are formidable. I saw bees that had actual muscle mass. I saw ants that could bench-press Skittles with ease. I also watched a yellow jacket take a piece of chicken (or was it pork?) off a spoon and fly off with it. I have an allergy to wasps and hornets, and while I’m not interested in wiping out any species, I don’t need to get close with bugs. I did two beautiful hikes with my EpiPen in tow and nothing happened. I’ve been fortunate to have not needed the EpiPen, and if there is an emergency stinging situation, I’m worried injecting an EpiPen will be like trying to remember how to properly use the kitchen fire extinguisher. Those are two situations you don’t want to screw up.

– I ate my body weight in mozzarella. I am both proud and slightly ashamed I did this without hesitation.

– I did not see the actual David in Florence, though saw its replicas everywhere. Honestly, I don’t mind missing David. I’m a fan of The Man, but David looks like a guy who lives in his head and he’s not well-endowed, so I didn’t feel motivated to pay museum admission to stand and admire a thinky dude with a small penis. I know that says a lot about me.

– I ate my first gluten-free ice cream cone in Sestri Levante. I’ll take this to the grave. The flavor was olive oil gelato, which was amazing and should be its own body scrub.

– Finding St. Catherine’s severed head was indeed a “Where’s Waldo” moment. You’d think a 700-year-old head would stand out, but we walked by it at least three or four times before realizing that waxy bulb behind the glass was the face of a 14th-century nun who had a relationship with Christ that would incite Jesus-envy among women and men alike. Not only did she suffer the Stigmata, but was said to have a ring made from Jesus’s foreskin that only she could see. Can you picture her showing off that bling? Once we did find her, me and my two companions, both Irish-Catholics, dropped to our knees and bowed in prayer. We may not be church-going regulars, but we know what to do when facing the mummified face of a saint.

– I hiked by olive trees that had inexplicably split. No one knows why they did this, but the olive trees kept growing and now look like hands raised in prayer. This seems to work because there are now more olives.

The Bay of Silence lived up to its name. Go, especially late morning on a Wednesday when it’s just you, a few leathery-looking ladies, one nun, and the beach guard.

– You can get bad coffee in Italy. Anything that comes from an automated machine should not be trusted. You’re in Italy; treat yourself. Pay the three Euros and ask some handsome fella behind the barrista to razzle-dazzle the espresso machine and whip up something nice for you. You won’t regret it.

Going Places

This summer, I went to a handful of places: the town library, the town pool, the grocery store, the yoga studio, and the Adirondacks—always a late-summer favorite. While neighbors and friends went on vacations to cool places, I stayed home and tried to spend as little money as possible. I looked and behaved like a suburban hausfrau. The rest of the world was happening somewhere else, not in my ‘hood. When not grocery shopping or borrowing library books, I browsed Twitter for the latest Donald Trump bashing, worked on corporate writing assignments, or read some fabulous books including Paul Yoon’s “Snow Hunters,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger,” Annie Gray’s “The Greedy Queen,” and Emily Ruskovich’s “Idaho.” See? Lots of trips to the town library.

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I’ll need plenty of books for the fall season of globetrotting that’s kicking off on Monday. I’m in Italy for this amazing Hedgebrook conference, then I am squeeing over the fact that I will be going to Macau in October and Australia’s Northern Territories in November as guests of the local tourism boards. In fact, four days after I fly home from Macau, I turn around and fly to Australia. If you knew me, that last sentence would make you laugh your head off because you’d say, “Hey, you don’t like to fly.” True, being stuck on a plane isn’t my preferred state-of-being, but neither is getting my yearly mammogram, sitting in Lincoln Tunnel traffic, or waiting in line for interstate fast food I don’t even want to eat but I have to because I’m starving and there’s nothing else sold on the interstate and I’ve run out of snacks. I’ve decided I like travel more than I dislike flying, so airplanes it is. The klonopin and donut floatie are ready.

My last (and only) trip to Asia was a 13-hour flight to Tokyo in 2013, so I’m rusty with long hauls in the sky. Plus, I’m not a spring chicken and I do like my sleep; the idea of being 25 and “powering through” sounds ludicrous to me. I don’t want to “power through” anything. I want to savor all of it, not rush any of it, see as much as possible, and get enough rest so I can keep not rushing things. Twenty-five-year-olds do not think this way.

I have no idea what to expect when I go to Italy (well, okay, this is my third trip to Italy so I have some idea), Macau, or Australia, but you can follow my reactions, inner monologue and photos here. Also, all three of these trips are solo. My biggest accomplishment from them will not be a published clip but to instill a sense of empowerment in my 13-year-old daughter, to show her that the world is hers to explore, that it’s a world of yes, and if anyone tells her no, she keeps pushing forward, that despite society being rigged to benefit white guys, she can still succeed.

I feel very lucky to have the travel opportunities that I have. I know that people see the trips and assume it’s a glamorous life, but as any travel writer will tell you, it is anything but glamorous and few travel writers I know earn any real money writing about interesting destinations. Tumbleweed may blow through my wallet, but I have a long list of interesting experiences to share. Assuming I can afford to get into the party, I have enough cocktail party stories to keep the night lively. I usually don’t have a hard time at cocktail parties as long as someone else is paying for the drinks.

Stay tuned, and we’ll see what stories emerge. I can promise you that I will try to use the word “cerulean,” one of my favorite words ever anywhere, as often as possible. You’ll likely get sick of it, maybe even find it pretentious. I can’t help it, I love that word and that color. To date, “cerulean” has appeared in three of my travel articles, including my most recent piece which is in the October/November print edition of National Geographic Traveler where I talk about my obsession with hotel swimming pools (it is indeed a long-running thing). I have my second story coming out in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, where, sadly, the word “cerulean” didn’t apply, but there are several references to “green.” It’s a coming-of-age essay set in London coming out any day now.

So off we go! Join me on the journey. No sugar-coating, I swear.

I’m Going to Tuscany This Fall And This Freaks Me Out

Italy, I’m coming back. No one is more surprised by this than me. Last month, I had my first piece published in Panorama where I talk about Italy as if I’d never see it again because I didn’t expect to see it again. It’s a gorgeous country, worth seeing repeatedly, but we’ve got this overpriced suburban-blue-ribbon-school-district lifestyle to pay for as well as an old house that eats up most of my husband’s paycheck, so I have to be choosy about where I go and when I go. Like many families in America, we live paycheck to paycheck, though we have equity and retirement savings (his, not mine; my meager IRAs went into buying this house and paying off debt), so we are fortunate. Writing is not my hobby, it’s my job, and it doesn’t pay well. In fact, it pays worse than when I started out 21 years ago. No one could have predicted this when I was earning my English degree, but here we are. I don’t praise the freedoms of the gig economy like I used to a few years ago, but I’m not eating ramen noodles three times a day either.

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Then I got accepted to this, and you just don’t say no to those kinds of opportunities when you’re trying to get your own book off the ground. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Hannah Tinti before, and I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, which I gulped down in four days (that Alaska chapter–wow!) and still occasionally reread, like I do with Naomi Williams’ Landfalls. Both books are about large, geographical journeys (and, yes, there are emotional journeys, too). Take them to the beach and go read.

My own book is a road trip story that I’ve been chipping away at since July 2013, the day after my daughter started sleep-away camp, and as a parent of only one, I suddenly had an empty nest and decided to pursue a lifelong dream. Four years in, I can report that lifelong dreams are expensive. Thrilling, sometimes fulfilling, a shit ton of fun, but very, very expensive.

This is why I’m freaked out about going to Tuscany. Because this writer’s life is one big gamble. We cashed out some old stock so I could go. Meanwhile, we have a teenager with a $6,000 smile who has her own dreams of becoming an artist, so she goes to art school and art camp, and there are medical bills, car insurance bills, our front sidewalk is so crumbled it looks like we have been blitzed; the neighborhood dogs give it the stink eye when they’re being walked. My husband brings home the bacon, writes science fiction on the side, and is trying to pursue his own dream of being a sci-fi author. He attends conferences, does his own marketing, and promoting his own books costs money. We keep our CPA busy with tax deductions and many, many receipts.

We are a household of three, each with our own dreams and ambitions, and this costs money. We feel lucky to even consider pursuing what makes us happy. Some people—no, many people—don’t or can’t. I grew up with those people. I now live in a McMansion community where everyone seems to be able to afford everything; last month, my daughter came home complaining about a classmate who complained how her housekeeper wasn’t bringing up the clean laundry to her bedroom—a room that has a chandelier, a skylight, and a flatscreen TV. This drives me nuts.

Unlike many of our neighbors in our McMansion community, we value travel over stuff but our stuff is falling apart and we have to prioritize. Our sofa is ripped up. My glasses need to be replaced because they are quite old and scratched up, and I have put off this purchase for years. One of our garage windows is broken because a neighbor sent a golf ball through it. Kitchen cupboards are peeling or becoming unhinged (and who isn’t with the current US administration?). One small pleasure I always delight in is going out to the chicken coop in the morning and collecting whatever eggs the hens dropped. Our credit card debt may be high, but dammit, I do enjoy an organic, extremely freshly-laid egg, usually paired with some diced cherry tomatoes and doused with a little olive oil and black lava salt. I eat it on my front porch with all the windows opened. It’s my morning treat.

But yeah, dreams cost money. A lot of money.

No one tells you this when you begin chasing your dream.

It would be easier if writers I’ve met over the years who read my stuff said things like “Look, Woz, this is nice and all, but focus on your family,” which is something said more often to women than men (it was said to me once by a female HR rep at a publishing company), or “Hey, Katrina, great effort, but have you considered basket weaving instead? Baskets make great gifts, you know.”

Instead, the feedback to my novel manuscript has been, “Wow, this is really promising shit. Keep going. I can’t wait to read your book.” These compliments make me feel compelled to see things through, to not let others down, to not let myself down, to not let all that’s been invested be for nothing.

What is the cost of chasing a dream, the price of seeing your name on a bookshelf? Maybe think about this the next time you browse the shelves of your local bookstore. If I added things up for myself, including this upcoming Tuscany trip, I would likely have a panic attack, and I can’t afford ER visits right now or any additional prescriptions (trying to ease off the Klonopin now that it’s summer and my seasonal affective disorder is temporarily shelved). When I voice my panic about finances and risk and “Oh my God, all of this for a book???” I get responses about keeping the bigger picture in mind, keeping an eye on the finish line, that anything worth doing is a slog, and the usual cheerleading axioms. People want happy endings. I want a happy ending. I want to be successful. I don’t like carrying debt.

This September, if you peruse my Instagram feed, you’ll see hopefully sumptuous, well-composed, eye-catching photos of Tuscany. And it would be easy looking at my Instagram feed to assume I live this glamorous life with endless sources of income because that’s what Instagram does—it carefully curates those most beautiful moments. And beautiful moments are worth curating; we all need more beauty in our lives. But don’t let beauty skew reality; I am thankful to live an amazing life, but it’s not glamorous. The large dust bunnies congregating under our dining room table or the orange mildew blooming in the cracks of our white ceramic shower tiles or the spiders of varying sizes that love the cracks and crevices of old houses tell a different story, as do our bank statements. Tuscany will be every positive adjective that you can think of. I’ll celebrate every minute I’m there. I’ll bring my donut floatie to the pool that awaits me. I’ll want every sunrise over the olive groves to last forever. And then I’ll fly back across the Atlantic biting my nails, praying to the old gods and the new that my efforts will lead somewhere.

Dreaming of Italy

Outside, the Tyrrhenian Sea had disappeared into darkness. I could see this from my seat at the dinner table; one side of the restaurant was all windows looking out, but at the moment, there wasn’t anything to see except specks of light coming from neighbors’ windows. Nightfall in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is at all not like nightfall in suburban New York City—it’s a true, deep, inky dark, not that hazy, pink dark that clouds Manhattan and all its neighbors from sundown til sunrise, giving you the false sense the sun never slipped away at all, it simply changed colors. We were enveloped by the blackness curling around the coastline while inside the restaurant, hundreds of candles glowed, what felt like the safest place to be on Earth that night. At the table next to me, a woman from Texas, a writer who now owns an artisanal wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles, stood up, and in her soft Southern drawl, delivered an impromptu buzzed speech about the importance of writing, the commitment to the process. She then raised her glass and said loudly and passionately “Fuck money!”

Cheers and applause followed. She was speaking to a restaurant filled with writers, some published, some not, some quite notable, and others who were trying to carve a name for themselves, like myself. And it was easy then, just two weeks ago today, to lift my glass and chirp “Fuck money!” in response. I was surrounded by supportive peers at a five-star hotel for a writers’ conference. I was someplace ancient and magical. I had redeemed frequent flyer miles to get there, and had flown business class for the first time in my life just to make the claustrophobia I feel on planes more tolerable. I couldn’t really afford the event, but I was there. “It’s an investment in your writing,” my husband said in the months leading up to the conference, and there I was saying “Fuck money!”

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Most writers I know don’t earn much. The US Department of Labor says that in 2014, writers averaged about $58,000 per year. I’ve been on both sides of that figure in the last few years. My husband just finished edits on his fourth book, and tells anyone who asks—and it’s been asked several times—that he will never leave his day job as a writer for a mutual fund company. He loves what he does, and the company he does it for, and his job has changed our lives in ways we never thought manageable, allowing me to leave my office gig four years ago and return to full-time freelance writing and, more importantly, return to creative writing, something I hadn’t touched since college.

Three days after that candlelit toast, I was happy to be back home after 12 days in Europe, though, truthfully, I would’ve much preferred my family to fly out to Italy to be with me. I have no love for New York City. It’s the financial capital of America, and this toiling for coin dominates life here. In my leafy, snobby suburb, it is assumed everyone has a ton of money. I did not grow up with middle class comforts, yet years of working hard, paying off debt, and job promotions led us to a town of bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, human resource managers, engineers, and one neighbor who is a senior administrator for the United Nations. It’s a town of 60-hour work weeks and big paychecks. It is not a town where freelance writers live. But we were able to afford a small, aging house here because it offered the best education for our daughter, and an opportunity to build equity quickly, for houses in this town sell well. At home, busy not fitting in, I try to think of living here like I think of the conference in Positano or my writing in general, an investment. And investments are about time.

Meanwhile bills roll in, and the stress of not getting paid kicked in as soon as the jet lag wore off. I spent my first week home following up with clients, a daily constitution for most freelance writers I know. When I wasn’t doing that, I worried, which I’m very good at. There are often financial dry spells when working as a freelance writer, but it was difficult to have it follow such a luxurious week. Just days earlier, I sat inside a dreamy hotel sipping luscious red wine, nibbling on tuna carpaccio and talking with a Canadian writer about the restaurants down by the beach. Difficult clients, ignored emails, piling bills, and the snobbery of an overpriced, award-winning school district community were all four-thousand miles away.

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Perspective was easier in Positano, not because of five-star accommodations, but because of Positano itself, with its Easter-egg colored houses clinging to a cliff, its lemon trees in between homes, twisting toward the sun, everything appearing so old and still and lovely. Fewer than five-thousand residents live there. I saw some of their undergarments drying. Laundry lines crisscrossed several households; just outside my fancy hotel, someone hung men’s briefs and a large bra from a clothesline strung across a front balcony.

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The Amalfi Coast seduces. I get it now. This was my second trip to Italy (the first one being in March 1996), but my first trip going beyond Italy’s cities and to the smaller places. Our hotel, Le Sirenuse, is an exceptional place that deserves all the praise that’s ever been said or printed about it. And it has a magnificent outdoor swimming pool. On the Saturday morning I had to check out, I finally had a chance to try the pool. It had been a chilly, wet week in Positano, the sun often coming out when I had to be inside for a writer’s workshop. But a few hours before check out, the sun was strong; morning felt like early afternoon. I changed into my bathing suit and slipped into the pool. Many of my colleagues were still enjoying breakfast, and while they finished their eggs and cappuccinos, I had what now ranks as the best swim in my life.

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As a hotel pool junkie, this is a notable claim. I have swum in many fine hotel pools around the world; I have gone into debt to travel and experience these places just like I went into debt to travel and experience Positano. The conference and the people and the learning were unparalleled. I hope to attend again. But that swim—the warm water, the smell of the beach just a few steep staircases away, the sounds of the cliff waking up and beginning another weekend. Wow. Just wow. That’s the best I can come up with because you really had to be there. What else can I say other than I had the pool to myself for about 20 minutes, that gliding across the water, I realized Italy was letting me in on its secrets, and that was when I knew I had been completely seduced. I no longer felt guilty about the expense of being there. I wanted to swim until my skin pruned. I wanted to tell the taxi driver taking me to the train station that I had changed my mind.

Positano will balloon with tourists this summer. I was grateful to enjoy the region in early spring, when things are quieter and slower. Many shops were still closed for the winter; a gelateria across the street opened for the season during my week there. Other shops began to unlock its doors and hang their shingles. Poverty used to plague this area during the early twentieth century, and by mid-century, Steinbeck and movie stars were showing up. Being a charming fishing village wasn’t enough anymore. Positano depends on tourism, it needs travelers to be swept away by its beauty, and to keep coming back.

Steinbeck is right: “it’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I thought I arrived with all my practicality in check, and since leaving two weeks ago, I feel haunted by the place. I think about how vertical Positano is, how you ascend or descend to see things. Everything is up or down. You climb stairs carved into homes or the cliff itself or make your way along exceptionally narrow stone roads you share with Vespas zipping by, and if the stairs and roads have been washed by the day’s rain, you pray there’s a railing nearby to steady you. Public buses use these same roads, which blew my mind as I watched drivers handle hairpin turns with familiarity, not slowing down when I thought they should, but they knew Positano’s curves. I did not.

I hope to earn enough money to go back. Writing has been cheapened. Freelance gigs are harder to come by. Book advances are shrinking. Everyone jokes how there’s no money in publishing. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, health care and education have all gone exponentially up while salaries have flattened, editorial salaries being among some of the worst. It’s hard to make things work in the United States. In this election year, I hear many people say the American dream is dead. I want to say “Fuck money!” that I write for the love of language, that I write for the same reasons Steinbeck wrote, that I am compelled by passion, not income or status, which I’ve never really had anyway. And when I was in Positano, it was easier for those things to feel true. Now back in suburban New York, I fret constantly about money. I feel defined by my lack of it. New York is so expensive, and even robust paychecks don’t feel like enough. No one here hangs their laundry outside to dry. Landscapers are always around tidying up people’s gardens and yards. We own one car where most driveways have at least two, sometimes three, and often newer models. What your kid wears and where your kid goes to summer camp reflects how well you are doing. Here in my 1926 Colonial, around the corner from some newly-constructed McMansions, I am writing in my pajamas—as freelance writers do—and I’d like to lift my coffee cup and loudly proclaim “Fuck money!” but the silence that would follow would overwhelm me.

The Power of One

Today’s news from Brussels has me thinking about Antonio, the thirty-something hotel employee at UNA Hotel Naples who seemed to know how to do everything. He didn’t dress like a traditional bellhop, but he carried my bags, figured out the adapter problems I was having after the guy behind the front desk tried a few different adapters with no luck, and—most importantly—he found my passport on the street in front of the hotel entrance. There it was on cold, wet, dirty stone, people walking by it, over it, around it, a critical document carelessly dropped in Naples—the city with all the pickpocket warning signs everywhere. Naples, the city where Americans raise an eyebrow and say “Watch your wallet.”

Brussels’ airport has been bombed, and I’m thinking of Antonio because I’m thinking of the power of one person. Good or bad, there’s more power we wield as individuals than most of us probably know. I’m sure we don’t even feel this power; it would likely overwhelm most of us. I just sat on trains and planes going all over Europe that could’ve been blown up at any time. I can’t imagine what goes through the mind of an individual standing in a crowded wing of an airport who is about to detonate bombs strapped to his body. There were so many little choices made up until that point, fragments of thoughts we will never know about.

I arrived to UNA Hotel Naples after a long train ride that took me from Zürich through the Swiss Alps into the Italian countryside to Milan to Naples. I spent much of the trip sitting next to an adorable Corgi named Liza, the celebrity pooch of Coach 5 that day. The hotel was right across from the train station, which is why I chose it. It stood behind a noisy intersection filled with construction work, traffic, and not enough lighting. It was night time. I dragged two heavy suitcases across very uneven cobblestone, and, since this was Italy, I dodged traffic filled with Formula 1 wannabes. I had to get to the other side of the street and walkways just suddenly ended, like a Shel Silverstein story. It was dark, cold, I was tired and extremely hungry, and my smartphone was going to run out of battery power soon. When I arrived nearly out of breath at the front desk, I reached into my backpack pocket to present my passport. It was gone. The zipper on the pocket was slightly open. I emptied my backpack in front of the bespectacled guy patiently willing to let me sort this out in front of him; dumping my EpiPen, lorazepam, lipsticks, wads of old receipts, dirty tissues, my wallet, my journal, my checkbook. “Dude, here’s my life,” is what my backpack said. I have traveled to 14 countries and have never lost my passport. I blurted out “I think my passport has been stolen!” and I said this with both exasperation and vehemence because it’s much easier to blame a city known for pickpocketing than to admit I was an overtired idiot who may have dropped it on her walk from the train station. That’s right—I did not hesitate for a second to throw Naples under a bus.

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The guy at the front desk called a taxi and wrote down the address to the police station. The taxi was there immediately and we began this rushed, nauseating zigzag through Saturday night traffic in Naples while I quietly seethed, preparing myself for a long night of explaining my situation to Italian police and trying to negotiate an emergency passport. I was scheduled to be in Positano the next day for the start of a conference. “It could be worse,” I kept telling myself. “Documents can be replaced.” Though I knew no hotel in Italy would allow me past the front door without a passport. I wondered if I would spend the night curled up on some chair in a police station. I wondered how long I would be stuck there.

Less than five minutes into our ride, the taxi driver got a phone call. He then tried to frantically explain to me—his hands alternating between gesticulating wildly and gripping the steering wheel—that the hotel found my passport. He tried typing translation into his iPad, and it kept coming up as “Want to go to passport hotel?” I was trying not to get mad at him. I just kept saying “Please, just take me to the police station.” He threw his hands up, turned the cab around, and we were back at the front of the hotel. We were in the car less than 10 minutes, and I was completely confused. The driver told me I owed him nine Euros. He motioned to me to go inside, and there, in the lobby, stood a tall, handsome fellow wearing a UNA Hotels uniform and holding my passport. It’s as if I had written my own screenplay. Good-looking, honest, and in possession of the exact piece of paper I needed to keep going. He looked at my photo in the passport, then at me, and then handed it to me, like he had picked some pretty spring blossom. I threw my arms around him.

I don’t know who Antonio is or how he was raised, but I hope there are Antonios everywhere. That Saturday night in Naples could’ve gone in so many different directions for me, it could’ve been much, much more than this weird, very stressful half-hour of picturing some thug taking off with my passport, imagining all the different ways he could have leveraged and profited from my identity. We are raised to fear. We are taught to distrust—and that to think differently is at your own expense.

Once settled in my room, I ordered a glass of red wine with my room service, and when it arrived, I toasted Antonio. I played salsa music and reveled in the joyous surprises that find us, which are all the more special when we are lost and don’t know the language. I sipped red wine and wished Antonio all the good health and prosperity the world had to offer while he was five flights down somewhere doing his job. I wished him a gorgeous girlfriend or boyfriend or both, financial comfort, and a long life filled with his favorite things. Perhaps, bending down and finding a lost passport felt like nothing to him. Maybe he never entertained the idea of pocketing it and telling no one. Maybe what to do was just simply clear. Apparently, as soon as he found it, he informed the front desk, which called the taxi driver. This all happened in minutes.

How quickly things can change, good or bad. And I think of this as I read the news out of Brussels while sipping coffee from my sofa, feeling so far removed from all this after having been in Europe just the day before. Yesterday morning, I was in Zürich’s airport; we all know the banality of making our way through airport queues to get to our gate, the anticipation of going somewhere, perhaps home, perhaps a conference, perhaps a vacation. No one really likes being at an airport; it sometimes feels like going to a doctor’s appointment, lots of sitting and waiting for things to happen. During my 12 days in Europe, I pushed myself through waves of people at all these different hubs: crowded bars, hotel lobbies, train stations, security checkpoints, airports. In 2008, we spent Christmas in Belgium, a place I never visualized becoming anyone’s target, but I admit to only knowing a postcard version of Europe and its cities. I spent time living in London, but that was 1993, and it’s a very different world now. We parachute in to beautiful places for vacations or meetings while the nuances of Islamophobia and ethnic and religious tension play out in the neighborhoods. What happens at street-level affects the world, choices on the front steps of apartment buildings, in cramped living rooms, around kitchen tables, that can affect any of us at any time—are happening all the time. I was extremely fortunate Antonio made the choice he did.

Naples 2016

I saw very little of Naples. I was there only 15 hours, and left early the next morning. I will now always associate that city with Antonio. Naples, the pickpocket capital of Europe, was generous to me. What I did see of the city occurred from the hotel terrace at breakfast: sounds of construction everywhere, laundry crisscrossing other people’s terraces, the clanking of dishware coming from kitchen windows. The city was waking up. Cappuccino machines were whipping up morning rituals as quickly as possible. Maybe Antonio only works night shifts, for he was gone when I checked out. I wanted to say “thank you” one more time. I didn’t see him, so I boarded a van headed to Positano, a stunning coastal community that feels like an ancient place with Wi-Fi, as far removed from bombings and terrorism and geopolitical discontent as you can get. It’s a place Italians fled to during World War II—including the owners of our hotel there. It’s a place where we’d all like to flee to when things get ugly.

Positano 1