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.



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.




– 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.


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.

Our Story of Stuff

I’ve been jogging more lately, which means I’ve caught glimpses of what my neighbors are up to—and not up to, such as cleaning out their garages. I’ve seen a number of garage doors with boxes packed to the ceiling, stuff spilling into the driveway. Catching someone opening his or her garage door is like witnessing a surgery; the surgeon cuts an opening, and the viscera that’s packed in there so tightly overflows past the barriers of skin.

That’s suburbia. More. More. And then more.


Japanese minimalism hasn’t caught on here, or, if it has, those folks keep their garage doors closed. My husband often jokes I should earn money consulting as a de-clutterer. I don’t have any books to my name like Marie Kondo, only a decades-long track record of purging stuff. One of my college roommates called me “Spartan” because in our cramped apartment in London, I kept only a few items and didn’t paste my corner of the wall with mementos. Open our garage door and you’ll find about seven things that belong to us: my 1926 iron-cast clawfoot tub I hope to reglaze; our lawnmower, a fire pit; two bags of potting soil food; two vintage-style porch chairs. The rest of what’s in there: wooden planks (no idea why or for what); gardening tools; a very old dining room chair that doesn’t seem to match anything; and interior doors from our 1926 Colonial all belonged to the previous owner, an avid gardener who was from Japan, and who spent more time sprucing her yard than the house. Not knowing what to do with her stuff, we just left everything alone.

I’ve been doing some late spring/early summer cleaning, and while I was doing this, the same college friend who called me “Spartan” sent me a story about compulsive purging. I’ll own this, but only up to a point. I will admit that there’s a little brain chemical rush when the Salvation Army picks up old furniture, or when last weekend, some guy in a white pickup truck took the old barbecue smoker I left on the curb (because no one has 14 hours anymore to stand around and turn meat as it smokes). Purging gives me the same brain chemical rush as eating chocolate or dancing or jogging or yoga. Perhaps I was sparking my own joy before it became trendy. But I’m not a compulsive purger, and there are many reasons why.

Walk into my house and books are everywhere. On the coffee table. On the dining room table. On the desk. By the bedside. Sometimes on a chair. Sometimes left in bed. Sometimes serving as a coaster. These books aren’t organized in any particular way, just splayed out in either the order I was reading them or the order in which I brought them home from the library.

I also keep in plain sight a conch I found last year. It was lying in a pile of garbage and rotting conchs on a beach in the Bahamas. It’s absolutely beautiful, a swirl of pink grooves, and people have asked where I got it. When I say “in a pile of garbage,” they often look surprised, perhaps assuming I bought it at a tchotchke shop in Florida, because isn’t that where shells come from? I have a number of shells from my travels (though none from the Galapagos Islands because that’s illegal, and I won’t take anything from Hawaii, whenever I visit, because I’m told that brings bad luck). So I guess you could say I’m hoarding shells.

Also, I don’t buy something, purge it, and then go out and buy it again, which is what compulsive purgers do, with anything from lamps to toasters. Usually when I buy something, I hold on to it for a long time. I have two dresses I bought in 1993 at the Portobello Road Market that I can no longer fit into (no amount of diet and exercise is going to give you back the waistline you had at age 20). Donating them would make sense, but I never will. I also have a lovely antique-looking (don’t know the exact date) chamber pot Mike bought for me also at the Portobello Road Market when he was there in 2015. Do I keep a chamber pot next to my bed? No. Do I love having a chamber pot sit on my bookshelves next to a century-old Lithuanian typewriter? Yes. Will that chamber pot ever fall into the Purge Pile? Never.

I fall somewhere between wanting that Japanese aesthetic and wanting a Cuban aesthetic, and I recognize that sentence makes no sense, but let me explain. When I went to Japan in 2013, and walked into hotel rooms or restaurants where the only adornment was a single vase with a single flower, or sometimes just a vase or piece of pottery, nothing on the walls, no other distractions, I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Clutter gets on my nerves, space calms me, and Japan calmed me. And then I walked into paladars in Havana where the walls are sensory experiences, filled with color, dozens of paintings often by local artists because Cuba brims with art, fresh flowers, an old record player, and I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Color and eclectic stuff make me happy, and Cuba makes me happy.

The decor of our 1926 Colonial swings between these two. I’m not sure it works, but I’m being honest with you in case you visit.

We’re not shoppers. We don’t routinely go to malls or have boxes on our front step from Amazon. We are surrounded by folks who are Black Belts in online shopping. When I’m in Cuba, I think about the Story of Stuff, and wonder what Cubans would think of this, an island where there’s a shortage of just about everything, where I brought a suitcase full of art supplies and baseball gear. How do you explain that de-cluttering has become a middle class American battle cry? Whenever I come back from Cuba, I’m always in shock at the 10,000 brands of toothpaste on the shelves here or the hundreds of shades of nail polish. Do we really need this much?

Research suggests clutter reflects stress, anxiety, and depression, and adds to these feelings. I believe this to be true, though I have my own unique compartmentalization techniques my husband still quite doesn’t understand. I can’t stand the clutter of a pile of shoes (I like shoes kept in their original boxes so they don’t get dusty), but I don’t mind a sloppy stack of books. I can’t stand too many kitchen utensils or appliances cluttering up our small kitchen (really, how many spatulas and frying pans does one need?), but I’ve got a five-foot metal sunflower made in New Mexico that I lovingly dust. A pile of dirty clothes will fray my nerves but a pile of seashells from Mexico, Florida, Jamaica, is okay. It only makes sense to me.

My mother-in-law spent decades shopping herself into poverty, and when she passed away from leukemia in 2014, my husband and I geared up for the arduous task of going through her house and sorting through her stuff. She had countless unopened boxes from QVC, including multiple salad spinners and asparagus cookers (so that you could cook asparagus vertically instead of horizontally in a conventional saucepan). To call the experience sobering is an understatement, and perhaps afterward, my husband came to appreciate my quirky de-cluttering tendencies (or maybe not; you have to ask him).

The death of a loved one, the clearing out of a house, always makes us pause and think about what we really need, what should stay and what should go. Whenever we move out of our 1926 Colonial and away from these overstuffed garages and McMansions, I will feel a huge sense of relief but also, surprisingly, some sadness. We’ve lived in this house for seven years now, and I’ve grown very attached to writing on my enclosed front porch, where I write this blog post. I will miss this porch very much, one of the main reasons we bought the house. I will miss my other clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom (I will reglaze its twin someday), where I would soak after a day of skiing in the Catskills. I will miss the backyard Easter egg hunts that we no longer do because kids quickly outgrow such activities (we already donated the plastic eggs we used to fill with candy). I will miss roasting s’mores on the backyard fire pit. We will be eventually downsizing because my husband and I dislike lawn care and we only use two-thirds of our 1,430-square-foot house, which is modest compared with current American floor plans. We are not very good suburbanites. It’s time for a change.

Five years from now, which will happen in a blink, our only child leaves for college. I’ve kept five or six large plastic bins filled with stuff from her childhood: tiny handprints cast in clay; crayon drawings; some baby clothes; some baby toys—items that used to be randomly tossed about our apartment before we bought this old house because back then, they were everyday objects. I remember during those early years, feeling overwhelmed by baby clutter, the strollers, the swing, all the bulky plastic toys before she became old enough to play with small Legos and not swallow them (and then the tsunami of Legos overwhelmed me). Over the years, I set aside the items, many that my daughter made, that I could never say goodbye to (though she was such a prolific artist we did have to toss quite a bit of art). Now, these objects that were once taped to the refrigerator or gathered dust on a table are mementos and memories stored in bins, bins that will follow us no matter where go, no matter what the anti-stuff experts say.

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.


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.

Me and Josue Finding Santeria

A week ago today, just a few hours before I had to return to Jose Marti International Airport, I stepped into the backseat of a bicycle taxi driven by a twenty-something named Josue. I had no idea who he was, that he had a five-year-old daughter with big, brown beautiful eyes, that he struggled with asthma, that he lived in Old Havana. He didn’t stand out from the other Bici-taxi drivers—sinewy guys in secondhand T-shirts. There’s a look to the guys moving the gringos about. I asked him to take me to Fin de Siglo, a market not populated by gringos. He drove me there, and it was closed, even though my hotel concierge told me it was opened. That was twice in one week that I had tried this market with no success. But that’s the thing with Cuba—you don’t learn about what’s opened or closed by researching online, if you’re lucky enough to get on the Internet. You learn Cuba by asking around, and going there, either to discover the doors opened or closed.

(This isn’t Josue, but a different Bici-taxi driver who didn’t take me anywhere.)

Josue offered to take me to the San Jose mercado, a massive craft market on the waterfront that’s popular among tourists. Along the ride, we chatted in that broken, awkward way two people who don’t know enough words in one language do, but he had a warmth to him that I trusted. He coughed throughout the entire ride, and when I asked what was wrong, if he was okay, he said he had asthma. Our conversation was mostly in Spanish. I learned he was separated from the mother of his daughter. That soon, he’d be going to the pharmacy to pick up his asthma medication. That he didn’t smoke cigars because of his asthma. That the following day, Saturday, he would get to do his hair, drink some whisky, enjoy the weekend. Cuban men have a thing about hair. He showed me pictures on his phone of how he liked to style his hair. I wanted to tell him he spent more time on his hair than I did on mine, that my idea of going out was a shower and hopping into a convertible so that the wind could give me that beach-blown look I often have. He admired my eyes. I showed him a photo of my husband and daughter, said I missed my family but also enjoyed traveling alone. He jokingly said if I were his “chica,” he wouldn’t let me travel alone. I smiled, enjoying the sweetness of it all. Blonde ladies traveling solo from the Snow Belt are exotic in Cuba. I get it.

When we got there, I asked him where I could pick up a taxi to get back to my hotel; I didn’t expect him to wait. He offered to come inside with me. So we wandered the market together. We were about the same height. Me and Josue looking at baskets. Me and Josue looking at jewelry. Me and Josue looking at art. When I stopped to admire a painting, and the vendor told me it would cost fifty, Josue leaned toward me and whispered to only pay forty.

I wanted to spend more time at the market. I wanted to fly home with more Cuban art. I wanted to know more Spanish verbs so I could have a more meaningful conversation with Josue. But it was the end of my trip, I was running low on cash, I had used up the five or six Spanish verbs I knew, and I still had to throw my suitcase together and make my way back to the airport. That afternoon, I would be somewhere over the Florida Keys, heading north. I tried to explain to Josue I didn’t have enough to pay for both him and an artist. He kept putting his hands up, and if I understood him correctly—and, perhaps I didn’t—he told me not to worry about it. I got the impression he was giving me a free ride, and who anywhere anymore gets a free ride? I told him it was okay, we could go.


On the drive back, he began talking to me about Santeria and the “Santos,” or saints. I never mentioned Santeria, but he seemed to want to tell me more about himself. He pulled over to two different Santeria shops, gently led me by the arm or the shoulder, showing me inside. He started pointing at things, speaking in a slow Spanish, sensing I was trying to tune into each word, like recognizing a song. I didn’t pick up everything he said, but admired the santos beaded bracelets he wore, which he pointed out were for sale in the store. I didn’t get the impression he wanted me to buy anything, but that this was something that was cool to him because he darted from one section of the store to the other, explaining things along the way. He pointed to ceramic urn-looking objects that he said you put food and offerings in; he mentioned he had a few of these at home. I could tell he wanted to share more with me, but we were limited by language, and I kicked myself for not practicing more Spanish before my trip. I didn’t buy anything, at the San Jose market or the Santeria shops, and Josue didn’t appear to care.

After a few stops to Santeria shops, we were back in front of Hotel Parque Central, one of the city’s newest additions at only a decade old. Another example about how you learn Cuba at street-level: Hotel Parque Central sells five-hour Internet cards, a luxury in Havana where the telecommunications infrastructure is still embryonic. I discovered this by accident when my hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, informed me they were out of Internet cards, and offered no further explanation. I ran across the street to Hotel Parque Central, made my way to the “Business Center,” another rarity in the Havana hotel scene, and was sold a five-hour Internet card for $10, a much better deal than the hourly cards that cost $4.50. There’s your Cuba travel tip for you.

In front of Hotel Parque Central, I paid Josue more than the cost of the fare, and maybe he anticipated this or maybe he didn’t expect anything. I’ll never know. I hugged him goodbye, and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. I would miss him, even though I had known him for about an hour. We’re now Facebook friends.

And I knew why I would miss him. In New York, or when I’m visiting Los Angeles or when I’m pretty much visiting anywhere, I don’t chat up taxi drivers or allow them to join me at art markets. I don’t follow them into Santeria shops or ask them about their kids. I don’t tell them to be careful with their asthma, genuinely worried that bicycling through clouds of exhaust coming from vintage cars was exacerbating a medical condition. The U.S. trade embargo may have kept out Starbucks and McDonalds (though Starwood is making headway in Cuba), it may have made Cuba the time capsule that intrigues the rest of the world, but what it also preserved was Cuban hospitality, a warmth unmarred by relentless ambition to get ahead, which I see in abundance everywhere else. I would miss Josue because I knew what I was flying back to: a heads-down, self-involved affluenza neighborhood where moms at book clubs compare their wedding band upgrades; where, three miles from our house when my daughter had a bicycle accident and was crying loudly over her bloody foot, three people jogged past us as if we were in their way. I was flying back to Trump’s America, to rainy weather where the temperatures were in the 50s, to a dance studio where my favorite teacher no longer taught, to where no one would offer to take me to a Santeria shop without something in exchange.

Towards the end of our ride, Josue either said that next time I come, I bring my entire family or next time I come, I should meet his entire family. Either way works. Josue, if you’re reading this, muchas gracias. Espero ver ti próximo año cuando visito otre vez.