Category Archives: Travel

The Beaches and Their Stories

Now and then, you get glimpses of Old New England. Not the chic galleries and pride flags along Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Not the farm-to-table fine dining with views of the coast. Not Boston and its history of Irish immigration. You get it walking on the beach on a windy day when no one is around, those windswept sand dunes undulating like the sea before a storm, and you start to picture what the Pilgrims saw when they landed in Provincetown in 1620. This fact gets lost in our Thanksgiving story—we Americans are so gifted at myth-making—but on November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims came ashore on what is now one of the most LGBTQ-friendly, art-loving communities in America. They deemed the sandy shores too difficult for farming so they explored further inland, looking for a good spot to till and hoe. Five weeks later, they made their way to what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, naming the location after the port from which they had sailed.

We spent last weekend in Cape Cod. It had been two years since our last visit. Haunting seems like an appropriate, yet overused word to describe the area. Cape Cod—and New England—is a region, but also a mood. Every time I’m there, I think of hardship and resilience, isolation and community, beauty and danger. A trite phrase often used in travel writing is to describe a destination as a “place of contrasts,” which you could say about almost anywhere. Cape Cod—and, really all of New England—is a study in cyclical conflict, made all the more poignant by its four very distinct seasons. Winters are exceptionally cold, brutal and long. By April, the land and sky soften and you feel yourself willing to forgive. By August, you sit on the beach enjoying a lobster roll picnic, and you can’t remember winter’s fury. In October, when the leaves turn, when the pumpkins are everywhere, when the air shifts, you know you’re in the most beautiful place on Earth, yet you start to wonder what the darker months ahead will bring, and if you’ll be prepared.

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Cape Cod reaches about 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it literally looks like a flexed arm putting its fist up to the Atlantic’s many storms, protecting the rest of Massachusetts. I walked out on part of that flexed arm last weekend; a sign warned me about sharks and to stay away from seals, which get eaten by sharks. Looking out to the sea, you felt Cape Cod protecting you from all that happens in the ocean. Go past that barrier at your own risk; for centuries, this stretch has been dubbed an “ocean graveyard.” The National Park Service reports there are one thousand shipwrecks between Wellfleet and Truro, which is less than five miles long. The first recorded shipwreck occurred six years after the Pilgrims landed. Winter months, not surprisingly, were the worst, with an estimated two wrecks every month during the early 1800s. The region gets pounded by storms, blizzards, hurricanes. A category 3 hurricane hit the area in 1635, a force of nature settlers born in Europe had never heard of or seen before. The beaches, no doubt, could tell us many, many stories, everything from who showed up and when, to the horror unspooling in the waves, to the objects fishermen accidentally reeled in, to children scampering about getting a sunburn. The beaches have seen it all.

When I think about leaving the Northeast, I think about escaping New York City, but when I think about leaving New England, I hesitate. Jobs brought and kept us here, in New York, but New England pulls us away from all that. I grew up vacationing in Mystic, Connecticut. As a child, I remember being fearful of all those oil paintings featuring angry sperm whales attacking sailors. I got married in Vermont on the coast of Lake Champlain. My first newspaper job was in Dover, New Hampshire, the Granite State’s “Seacoast,” a 40-mile stretch of oceanfront. On my days off, I used to sit and chill on the sand in York, Maine, another beach that has seen its own share of shipwrecks. In fact, in 2013, a storm washed away enough sand to reveal the bones of sloop dating between 1750 and 1850.

Today, back in suburban New Jersey, I miss coastal New England. The gray weather here doesn’t feel intriguing like the gray weather there. Last weekend, on an overcast rainy day, I visited the Provincetown Library, an impressive building given to the town in 1873. The first thing I saw walking in was its “Mysteries” section. New Englanders love their spooky yarns. Stephen King is a lifelong Maine resident. Before King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts,—witch trial central—was writing about all the shit in the woods that could kill you, or, at the very least, emotionally scar you for life. Somehow, when you drive west and cross the Connecticut border back into New York and turn south to head into New Jersey, New England’s haunting beauty dissipates. It’s not going to compete with malls or the Manhattan skyline or traffic. You have to go there to feel it.

We rented a condo in Provincetown, just two blocks from Commercial Street and all its wonderful restaurants and galleries, and every morning as I poured myself a cup of coffee, I would look out from the kitchen and see the Provincetown Cemetery, a few of the taller headstones poking up from a hill. There are stones dating to the early 1800s, also worn by Cape Cod’s mercurial weather. If you read the dates on many of these graves, you realize a number of people barely made it to age 45. Many graves lack a birth date because the information wasn’t available.

And that’s Cape Cod, and much of New England right now: orange and brown leaves blowing past old headstones; people curling up indoors reading a good mystery; waves and winds hitting the beaches harder; fireplaces going strong inside restaurants serving chowder because it’s getting cold and warming up takes more effort. And it’s all beautiful, even when it feels creepy.

On Privilege and Travel

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This year, I had the privilege to travel to some fancy places where people live well. I live well now, but I didn’t grow up with money, and when you cross classes, when you weren’t born into the world you currently live in or the ones you occasionally visit, you feel that gulf more acutely. What people with money or born into money might take for granted is that money permits mobility. And sitting still sucks. Feeling left behind sucks. In high school, I was the only student in my French class who did not go on the bus trip to Quebec City because neither one of my divorced parents could afford to send me. There’s immobility for you—I literally sat at home while my classmates walked around Quebec, took in the sites, and practiced their French with very patient waiters at the city’s mid-level restaurants. In college, and during my twenties, there would be more financial troubles to come, including an expensive yearlong family court battle that would take a long time to dig out from. The household was too much of a mess to consider vacations or even weekend getaways. Travel—and really, experiencing the world in general—was not encouraged.

Which might explain why I couldn’t wait to get out on my own. (And how in a three-year period, we visited Quebec City—twice—and you should, too.)

Fast forward twenty-something years, and between March and May, I had a nine-week stretch where I went to four countries, one with my family and three on my own. This isn’t my norm any year. I visited Zurich, Switzerland; Positano, Italy; Exuma, the Bahamas, and Havana, Cuba. I came home wanting more. I am currently reading Elisabeth Eaves’ book “Wanderlust”, and early on, she references Thomas Jefferson warning his nephew that “Traveling makes men wiser, but less happy.” Jefferson seemed to be suggesting that travel triggers insatiability. After four countries in nine weeks, this feels painfully true. I’d like to say that I am enjoying a relaxing summer surrounded by the comforts of home, which I am, that I’m not in any rush, no planes, trains or buses to catch, but the reality is that on quiet, unstructured days, my mind drifts to where I’ve been and where I haven’t been. Sometimes I wonder if this is old wiring, of growing up in a household I didn’t want to be in, of not being able to afford things, and thinking about what to do and where to go next.

Unlike Ms. Eaves, I didn’t wander the world for years, and I applaud and envy those who do. I traveled in fits and spurts when I had some cash, often thinking “I didn’t yet go here” or “I haven’t yet tried that” but maybe my problem is that I’m still thinking like a 23-year-old. Maybe my 43-year-old self should just chill and say “Hey, look, at least you had the foresight to get up and see as much as possible whenever possible even while being discouraged to do so. Go you!” We need to learn to be kinder to our different selves. I am still learning this. I also need to recognize I won’t get to go everywhere, I won’t get to experience everything, but I have gone to many places and I have experienced many things, and there’s more to come. Did I backpack the world? No. Did I ever live without an address? No. But I’ve crossed socioeconomic classes and crossed oceans, and that’s more mobility than I ever could have predicted back when I was sitting at home, sixteen years old, waiting for my classmates to tell me how much they enjoyed Quebec. My daughter is twelve years old now, and, so far, has been to ten countries on four continents. She goes on class trips without issue. When she’s old enough, the world will be hers to backpack while I sit at home biting my nails, waiting for her emails and postcards. It sounds like such a simple middle class rite of passage, but to me, it will be a tremendous achievement.

Guava Cream Pie and Sunlight Addiction

Our last few spring breaks have been quite cold. Our school district has spring break every April. Last April, we skied in Vermont; in 2014, we went in Iceland—beautiful and absolutely worth a repeat visit, but cold; in 2013, we were in Japan enjoying spring chill and cherry blossoms; in 2012 we were in Quebec freezing our butts off and warming up over pots of maple fondue, in 2011, we went to Cancun and Isla Mujeres, and in 2010, we visited Key West, Florida, more traditional spring break routes.

Growing up along the Great Lakes in the Snow Belt, that frigid stretch of the Northeastern United states that gets pummeled with “lake effect snow,” spring break always meant more than just a vacation. It was that much-anticipated week where you went somewhere to thaw out after months of cabin fever caused by playing too many board games or watching too much TV. You were sick of shoveling snow, helping your parents scrape ice off the car, and being yelled at by your mother for tracking dirty snow into the house from your snow boots. Spring break was synonymous with wearing fewer clothes, getting sunburned, leaping into giant, Smurf-blue swimming pools and drinking drinks made of colors too bright to exist back home, for who anyone north of Florida drinks Curaçao, that Windex-hued liquer flavored with laraha citrus?

I lived vicariously through other people’s interpretations of spring break. My family did not take springtime vacations, and we certainly didn’t go anywhere, not even anywhere nearby, to pass the school breaks. There was no money. Sometimes we went to a museum but most often we were left to fill our days on our own. I always felt jealous of the kids whose families flew to Florida for spring break, and to this day, I still find palm trees exotic despite having been around them now in several different countries. When I joke to friends that “palm trees give me the feels,” I mean it, because those shaggy fronds signal I’m somewhere else. In two years, we are hopefully moving to Los Angeles where I will wake up to palm trees and have the feels every day.

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Palm trees are obviously a big part of the scenery at Great Exuma Island, one of dozens of islands in the Bahamas where we spent last week. Exuma is breathtakingly photogenic, and I Instagrammed the hell out of it. Now that I think of it, anywhere in the Caribbean gives me the feels; I’m always happy there. I mean this emotionally as well as biologically; I have seasonal affective disorder, and my vitamin D and serotonin levels were soaring in the Bahamas last week. I could feel the release. Less rumination. Less worrying. Sunshine is good for the soul. I loved sitting out on the front deck of our rented cottage and getting pummeled by sunlight. I loved admiring the trees’ silhouettes against a backdrop where sea and sky were almost the same shade of blue. I have a crush on the word “cerulean,” and that’s the word I kept thinking of while in Exuma, a chain of islands home to just 7,300 people, a place that is part of a much larger archipelago originally called Baja Mar or low seas. It is indeed very shallow in the Bahamas, a region where the focus is outward, towards the water, where people move more by yacht or catamaran or dingy. The commercialized Caribbean vibe makes it easy to forget the Bahamas was once the gateway to the New World, when one day that probably started out like all other days, a stranger in a boat approached. In 1492, Christopher Columbus first spotted what is now called San Salvador Island, about 93 miles from where we rented our cottage. The Caribbean hasn’t been the same since.

People—usually pale Americans, Canadians and Europeans—go to the Caribbean to do the following: snorkel, dive, boat, fish, sunbathe, and, later in the day, eat the things you saw while snorkeling, diving or fishing. I could live like this for months, but spring break is only a week long. We snorkeled almost every day we were in Great Exuma Island, either off our private cove, in Elizabeth Harbour near Stocking Island, or near some of the smaller cays where a red-faced, old-time Bahamian guy named Ray took us out on a boat tour. We swam with the famous wild pigs of Exuma, who have their own Instagram feed, and held piglets born on Valentine’s Day. Twice, we snorkeled small coral reefs, and once you were mask-down, you saw the cast of “Finding Nemo” going about their business; fish of every size and color, some striped, some shinier than others, some bug-eyed, some darting about like over-caffeinated New Yorkers late for something, some just sashaying about, and some slowly circling yellow or dark-orange colored brain corals. We quickly discovered that swimming with the fishes in the Bahamas means something entirely different from swimming with the fishes in New York.

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Breathing through my snorkeling tube, I wondered what the fish thought of all these people coming through and spying on them. We held living starfishes big and small, we found sand dollars, we saw a barracuda swim past our boat, we saw conchs that still had their meat on them—and were hoping to get through the day without getting caught, for conch fritters and conch salad are on every menu everywhere around Exuma. Also on the menu: guava cream pie at the Driftwood Cafe in downtown George Town, where they also serve a delicious black bean burger. On three different occasions, I ate guava cream pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pie does work as a side dish at any meal.

My daughter is not an adventurous eater, and I couldn’t interest her in the guava cream pie, but she’s adventurous in other ways. I could tell she was getting brave in the water. After a year on swim team, she was able to take full advantage of the snorkeling opportunities we had last week, and swimming has given her such confidence, that she started diving for shells and curiously poking around the reef to see more. We had taken her snorkeling in Key West six years ago, and tried to show her how to feed bits of pineapple to the fish, but she lasted less than 10 minutes in the water before freaking out. Last week, we had to beg her to get back on the boat, and once seated next to me, her skin pruned from a great time in the salt water, she smelled like a bag of potato chips.

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I tried to memorize the colors of the Bahamas during our visit, for even while swimming through these colors, I knew as soon as I got back to suburban New York City, I would miss the high these colors delivered. However, Great Exuma Island wasn’t all beauty all the time—there’s no recycling program, and I tried to pack our emptied plastics and bottles, but they wouldn’t fit in our suitcases. I also wondered about the local waste management system since garbage was everywhere. It’s an island of mixed development, with pockets of poverty alongside flamingo-pink administrative buildings and an old yellow school with not much of a playground. These buildings are just down the road from only a few major resorts such as Sandals and Grand Isle Resort, all connected by the “Queen’s Highway” as it is known, one long paved road running down the middle of the island, which also joins Great Exuma to Little Exuma via a one-lane, one-way bridge. From the Queen’s Highway are countless unpaved roads filled with potholes, which was how we got to our cottage. We chose to vacation on Great Exuma Island because we didn’t want to hang out in a resort bubble. I didn’t want to interact with resort staff. Instead, I chatted up locals when I could, asking a conch fisherman about where he dives for dinner, and talked to a guy selling produce out of the back of his pickup truck what days of the week he came through George Town. Everyone we met was exceptionally friendly.

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Being out of that bubble meant seeing some things that were upsetting, like piles of garbage or abandoned, rusting school buses or cars left at the side of the road, or empty homes with windows punched out like broken teeth. Yet it also meant unadulterated beauty and wandering the Tropic of Cancer beach on your own, a crescent of white powdery sand that’s at 23 degrees latitude and is going to get super-hot when the Summer Equinox rolls around in two months. The Tropic of Cancer beach is easy to miss, and we mistakenly drove by it twice. The painted line that you can straddle for your photo-op was once blue and is now bleached by the sun; it’s as understated as the fading signpost by the road indicating the Tropic of Cancer was just ahead. What was most impressive about this beach was not the imaginary line that runs across it, but how unsullied it was by anything or anyone. The Bahamians call it a “footprint-free” beach, and they’re not kidding; any footprints made are your own, and quickly disappear with the tide. Jersey Shore beaches are as crowded as highways, often barely a square foot of sand to pitch an umbrella, but here, my daughter ran races against her father and skipped around. The Tropic of Cancer Beach was one of the most beautiful swaths of land and landscape we had ever seen, and yet there were only two adults reading on the sand, two teen boys playing in the water, and that was it for a late Thursday afternoon. No conch fisherman. No rusting boats. No garbage in any direction. No paddleboarders or swimmers. No one standing over a cookout. And certainly nothing that characterizes most American East Coast beaches: no fried dough vendors or saltwater taffy stands or lifeguards looking bored by the job. Just a strip of sand being licked by soft waves of salt water. Just a beach the way beaches used to look.

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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