Last February, while C and Z were barrelling down zip lines and ski slopes of the French Alps, I flew to Naples, Italy and holed up in a lemon orchard on the Amalfi coast to put in some long hours on my book project. I stayed in the small village of Minori, tucked into the crack of a vertiginous hillside. It was 476 steps down to the centre of town, which meant it was 476 steps back up. I went down and up just once a day, to consume a dish of pasta or a pizza and a glass of wine, wander the cobbled passageways and think about my story line.
A month ago, while C and Z were in Malta, I spent a week 100 miles north of them on the Italian island of Sicily. I had turned over my completed book to an editor and was wildly excited about ‘taking a break’. But what happened this time was I grew weary of my own company and wanted out. I was no longer content to talk to myself for 15 hours a day and it hit me like an al dente noodle that I suddenly didn't enjoy traveling alone.
If my biggest wish ever came true, that I could have a chip implanted in my brain that allowed me to speak and understand any language in the world, I would take this all back and make easy friends wherever I went. But smiling and nodding only go so far in a country that doesn't expect their children to learn much English. I soon became bored without a project to consume me. And rather than start a new one, I forced myself to take a break from writing to see how it felt.
It didn't feel good, which I guess is a good sign that I've chosen a career that I’ll continue to love. I thought I'd look forward to wandering a few museums, roman ruins or visiting baroque churches. But I couldn't muster the enthusiasm. Instead I went on the hunt for good food and a friend.
To say Italy is a good place to enjoy food is like saying going to the beach is a good way to get sand between your toes. The airbnb host where I stayed the first few days, brought me a bowl of miniature strawberries that looked as though they were grown by pixie fairies. The prawns were brawny, the pizzas were pillows of chewy dough, and the stuffed rice balls were so divine I felt as though I could now die certain that I'd tasted everything good on the planet. I ate a panna cotta that made my tongue tremble. I savoured a flavour of chocolate gelato that was unlike any permutation of cacao this side of heaven. And I had a fresh tomato salad in the Palermo market, accompanied by a dry Sicilian white, that was so perfectly balanced with olive oil and a smidge of salt, I swear the Mediterranean goddess of happiness was sitting by my side.
I still have a pang of longing for this one
Then, to deal with my loneliness, I used a social networking app to find myself a dining companion. D was a non-drinking vegan, but he had a motor scooter and whisked me up to the highest point overlooking the city. We hiked the beach and drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We talked about the fiery Sicilian personality and I told him he needed to move to California because he was way too mellow. Instantly I was having fun again, talking and laughing with someone who spoke English and was as open to spending a few hours with a stranger as I was.
I think back to the traveling I did as a college student. Alone, curious, but shy beyond any notion of going out at night and shooting the breeze with a bartender. I'd spend my days in museums earnestly trying to piece together the history of the region while knowing in a few hours the lessons would be lost to my grey matter forever. Reading historical novels by Irving Stone and James Michener taught me more than the Palazzo Patti or the Louvre. Maybe that was my Americanism, needing history to be imbued with a riveting narrative in order to be understood.
At midlife however, the narrative is about asking the question, ‘What's important now?’ I ask it of my son and I ask it of my companions on the road. The most mouth watering pasta in Ortigia? Take me there. A fabulous spritz at 4pm? That's what I shared with my brother when he met me in Rome. He got up one morning to visit the Vatican but other than that, we spent all our time noshing and talking and I was happier than a pig in mud. Occasionally I look up and notice the architecture, I look down and imagine the painstaking work of laying cobblestones a few hundred years ago, I follow my nose to the scent of grilled fish and strong coffee. But none of these things is nearly as breathtaking as they are when I'm sharing the experience with someone else.
I hope Z starts to like more than amusement parks and beaches soon so we can spend time together without me getting nauseated or sunburned. I don't need to force him through museums. But I do need to spend our time together trying to understand what is important to him. Just as that's all I need to do for myself now. It's like sprouting wings to have finally discovered that food and relationships and writing about the two, are all I really want these days (there's also gun control, but that needs to wait until I'm back in the States). Maybe I am slowing down and becoming middle aged. One thing age has taught me for sure is that one's happiness is a matter of perspective and expectations and when I simply rejigger what I think will make me happy, it usually works. Now I'm insanely content to meander using my nose, travel with friends or not be afraid of meeting a stranger through a web site, and discover history through serendipity rather than a museum display.