Tag Archives: Italy

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.

Walking-in-Tuscany-large

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.

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.

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.

Liza

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

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

SwimmingPig

Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

How Eating Waffles Inspired a Trip to See Pigs

This always happens with freelancing: work that actually pays slows down a bit so I turn my attention to non-paying creative writing pursuits, like this blog and a manuscript for a novel. Then work that actually pays shows up in my inbox (and for that I am very grateful if any of my editors are reading right now), creative pursuits get sidelined, deadlines are met, invoices are paid, hopefully editors are happy, and suddenly it’s been weeks since I touched my blog or manuscript.

Time to dust off the blog today, despite deadlines, to share with you our favorite Sunday morning pastime—sitting around the table planning vacations.

piggy

I’ve mentioned my wanderlust here before, and a crumbling kitchen, not to mention two dead trees in our backyard that require professional removal, do not seem to quell my addiction in the least (a note about living in the suburbs: tree removal can cost thousands of dollars or the equivalent of an all-inclusive to the Caribbean). When the weather starts to suck, which for us is usually mid-November when all the glorious red and gold of fall has blown away, Sunday mornings are spent slowly. We slowly eat homemade gluten-free waffles while slowly perusing our various computer devices for vacation ideas. We sit at the table for hours doing this, so much so that we have spring break 2015 planned.

So what’s on the horizon after all this waffle-making and vacation-planning? Next month, we leave for Taos, New Mexico, to enjoy a Southwest Christmas, and then we’re crashing our friends’ wedding anniversary and New Year’s plans by staying at their place in Phoenix, Arizona. Returning to the Northeast after nearly two weeks out West will feel like it always does: a slap in the face. Some Jersey traffic will set us straight quickly.

Ok, but really happened over waffles was this: after we get back from the Southwest, in April, we’ll either visit Iceland for this awesome writers retreat or I’ll be squealing in multiple tongues because I will have been accepted into Sirenland, which takes place in Positano, Italy. Both conferences are fantastic, and I would be thrilled to attend either. Iceland would be a completely new experience for me. I traveled to Italy in 1996, but that was a four-day drive-through visit to Rome and Florence. The Amalfi Coast? That’s Rome’s pampered, beautifully blonde cousin, someone I need to get to know.

Piggy 2

While outlining Spring Break 2014, our family decided on Spring Break 2015, and it involves pigs. We haven’t been to the Caribbean in years, despite discounts constantly plastered on the Internet and at bus stops, especially during long New York City winters, so in 2015, we’re going to spend a week swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas, which is far better than swimming with the fishes here. Wild porcines have taken over a cay called Exumas, and I have just got to see what this is about. In addition to hating planes, I hate boats, but there are some promising-looking tours that take you out for snorkeling and pig paddling, so I am open-minded about this. Mike thinks the water there will taste like bacon. Not salty water. Bacon. This isn’t surprising given that we planned this trip while eating waffles.