I've been home from a week in Italy for just over a week now. I've spent most of that time nursing a cold made worse thanks to jet lag. I'm finally able to put cohesive thoughts together. I'm finally able to look back on my trip and recognize a theme. To see what I got out of my time with 24 strangers, little sleep, a tightly designed schedule, gorgeous vistas everywhere I looked and some freedom to do whatever I wanted.
Before revealing my theme, or my takeaway, indulge me a bit. Allow me to regale you with tales of greenery and wine. Tuscan tables long enough for 25 people and 2 roaming farm dogs. Friendly chatter among 25 people still getting to know each other over local wines, olives and cheese. Imagine the smell of wildflowers, mixed with a bit of earthy manure. Rain and clouds in the distance. Rain and clouds that are heading our way, but we're only worried about it in the vaguest sense because we'll have time to finish our lunch, take our photos and get back to the bus before it takes over. Because cleaning up isn't our responsibility and nature is being kind.
Then there are the ancient cities. Walled and closed off from the green hills that surround them. Beautiful in their own ways, these cities, some small and some large, contain people, art old and new, shops full of art, tchotchkes and so much of that delicious cheese that when topped with a bit of local honey is like heaven on the tongue, just like the views are heaven to the eyes. By the last day, I had to admit that looking at the cheese was all I could do, as my stomach screamed "basta!" at me.
I made friends. We bonded over gelato and our shared awe at the Tuscan beauty that was pretty literally everywhere we looked. We talked about writing and reading and what our lives were like back at home. We marveled at how we had waited almost a full year for this trip and omg we are finally here! I let one of them take my picture a couple of times (this is crucial to what I've decided is my trip theme).
One of my trip mates gave me a huge gift when she admitted that she, too, disliked having her photo taken. I suddenly felt less alone, less stuck in my own mind on the precipice of the city of Orvieto and said fuck it.
It felt good to let go, so I did it again. This time after pasta making in an old castle with a backdrop that would make even the most stoic among us swoon.
Seriously. That's a real place and it was outrageously gorgeous. So we took a top notch group photo there, too.
Anyway, this leads me to my trip theme: Control. Or lack of. As someone who is used to making decisions, who typically wants as much information about a thing as possible before committing, I was shocked at how easily I let go of needing to be in charge and stopped caring about what would be next because I knew it would be epic. Oh the bus is scraping up against branches that happen to be at the edge of a hillside? Oh well it's fine, back to the conversation about books I go. Do I want to go to dinner with you? Sure! I don't have to decide where? Even better! You'll guide us through the crowded streets of Rome to find late night gelato? You're a literal Angel on earth and I will follow you anywhere.
Part of this letting go of control came simply as a result of having no choice. I went where they went. Except for the day when I was able to take a few hours to myself and wander and shop and found myself outside the city walls in San Gimignano, looking over the once again ridiculous beauty around me, listening to old Italian men gesture and talk so fast that it sounded like a made up language only they shared. I imagined the lives lived in the apartments and houses with their small gardens and hanging laundry. I stayed and simply watched and listened for so long that I forgot I ended up being very late (actually, I forgot the plan) to get back on the bus, holding everyone up thanks to my last minute plan to have an iced coffee and bruschetta (worth it). I was actually late thanks to coffee and bruschetta twice. Here's to taking delicious risks in a foreign country.
I also did myself a solid by planning well before I left. I picked the right clothes, the right shoes, and made sure I had all the products. Like, ALL the products. I packed wisely. I felt comfortable enough in my own skin thanks to taking full advantage of the almost one full year I had to plan that I enjoyed every moment. I didn't scrutinize my every clothing choice. I felt good, and feeling good opened the door to living in these experiences, with these people, in these magnificent places.
This trip would undoubtedly have been less enjoyable had I not allowed myself the space to just be. It felt so good to relax into the fact that decisions were made for me, and trusting they knew what they were doing. Feeling safe and going with the flow have never come easily for me. If I had known how great the reward would be, I certainly would have done it sooner. Actually, I probably wouldn't have, because we're ready when we're ready. And I would not have been ready.
I almost cancelled several times. I was aware that I'd likely be the oldest person on the trip (I was). I was aware that all the traveling I had done in recent years was shorter in duration and history showed me many times that shorter is usually better for me. But something told me to take the chance. To not cancel. To believe our host, author Amanda Montell, when she told me last summer at a book signing in NYC that my age wouldn't matter. I remembered feeling her excitement and anxiety when she announced the trip and how she leaned into it. I thought about how i took that as proof that those 2 feelings could exist together and thinking if she can do it, so can I. I'm so grateful to Amanda. This trip helped me hold on to excitement and let go of anxiety in ways I don't think I believed I was capable of.
Big thanks to Jasmeet Arora who pushed me beyond the bounds of the selfie (which I control, of course) and getting some beautiful shots of me. I'm grateful.
Life is full of surprises.