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italy

travel bug, chooose
Culture, Nomadism

The First Time: When the Travel Bug Bites

Some people will reminisce—with nostalgia, regret, or a little bit of each—about their first cigarette, their first drink, or their first time trying X (fill in the blank with your substance of choice).

Me?

Alcohol was never a big deal in my family, and I’ve stayed away from cigarettes like my life depended on it (oh wait, it kind of does).

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have a “first” on which to reflects with the romantic fondness of well over a decade of distance.

I’m talking about travel, of course.

Several early family vacations could count as that first—London, Canada, Florida—but one in particular stands out in the box of mismatched, half-faded memories I carry: Italy.

Italy, first and most enduring love of my life… after horses. That first visit I only remember in glimpses: The heat (there was a record-breaking heatwave that summer). An old woman in a bead shop, and a strand of irregular, aquamarine beads (I would finally turn them into a necklace some fifteen years later). Crisp, white slices of coconut beneath a cascade of water glittering in the sun. Venice canals and dreams of carnevale (I have yet to visit at the right time). Cappuccinos for breakfast, and several subsequent bathroom breaks over the course of the morning. Fairytale mountain villages, and cities shimmering under summer sun.

I have since been back to visit nearly a dozen times, learned the language, and made numerous friends across the country. I have bungee jumped in Piedmonte and reignited a passion for adventure in Sicily. I’ve indulged in pizza in Napoli, anchovies in Genoa, and fiori di zucca in Rome.

Just thinking of it makes my mouth water and my palms tingle.

Italy.

But the dreamlike beauty of these childhood memories is about so much more than one country. It marks a beginning.

I could trace my enthusiasm for the wonder of discovery to many moments—many trips:

Dancing in a circle of women in rural Senegal at age sixteen.

Wandering the streets of Spanish cities at Christmas-time with my peers, age fifteen.

Age seventeen, arriving in Paris alone, and growing into a sense of adventure once too big for me.

I could pick any of those or countless other journeys, but I choose to locate my travel awakening in that sweltering Italian summer many years prior. A seed already planted. A map already drawn across my future—big, swirling letters spelling, WANDER.

And so I have. And so I do.

The first time we meet ourselves is extraordinary indeed. Even if we’re too young to realize it. Even if we repeat the experience countless times thence. Even if we’re full of shit, and it wasn’t like that at all, and that dreamlike beauty is just the result of fifteen years’ obfuscation.

So, I’m curious: what was your first time traveling like?

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3 Macabre Stories that Capture the Essence of Napoli

Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy

The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary. 
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:

Rub a skull for good luck.
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.

L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.

This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance. 

There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.

***
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Culture, Europe

La Notte della Taranta—or, Where I was on Saturday

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on


On the road to Melpignano

Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.

Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.

It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.

The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.

The History:

In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.

According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.

Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.

La Notte della Taranta Today:

I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.

But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.

Worth the trip? Absolutely.

Some outcomes of this excursion:

  1. I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
  2. I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
  3. I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.

Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.

Skip to minute 4:00 if ten minutes of Italian folk music isn’t your thing.

 

Skip to minute 5:00 to see a bit of traditional dancing.

 

***
 
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Europe, Food

Olive Oil on Everything—A Gastronomic Diary of Italy

Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.
Florence, Tuscany
Gnocchi with fennel, mint and gorgonzola. A generous drizzle of olive oil (the frisky, green, good quality kind) on plain, unsalted bread.
A lake near Rome somewhere
Tiny fried fish, fresh marinated anchovies, mussels, salad with potato and octopus. Gnocchi with clams. Zucchini with mint. A drizzle of olive oil.
Perugia, Umbria
Hands dry from chalk after climbing. Spaghetti with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes. Olive oil from my host’s grandmother’s home. On the pasta—and on my hands.
It was in Italy that I learned you can truly put olive oil on everything. 

This most recent visit was no different.
I mean the good stuff, of course. The fresh, tangy-green and gorgeous kind. The kind with bite and soul that tastes like it came from somebody’s grandmother’s farm (it probably did).
Here is a short list of ways I have seen olive oil used to perfection:
  • Drizzled (well, poured, really) into tomato sauce after it is cooked and off the heat.
  • Applied to dry hair, skin and lips—best directly after the shower while skin is damp.
  • On a plate with sea salt and balsamic vinegar, for dipping (soaking) bread.
  • Drizzled over pasta, salad, cut vegetables, meat, pizza—everything, I’m serious.
  • Straight from the jug—just a taste, a drop.

Olive oil is everything. Condiment and cooking base. Start and finish. Salve for the body and soul. I suspect it could heal a broken heart, too, though I haven’t tried yet.

In the North, butter features prominently in many recipes—but in the South, it’s always olive oil.
And that’s really it. I mean, I could keep listing mouthwatering Italian meals. That never gets old for me… but I suspect others might have a shorter attention span.
Olive oil. On everything. My time in Italy, in a nutshell.
Try it. Don’t be moderate. Italian grandmothers never are. 
Find the good stuff. Apply liberally. Buon appetito!

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Europe, Nomadism

Revisiting

“Revisiting” Sicily

I have rarely been one to visit the same place twice.

I always used to squirm uncomfortably when new friends, by way of goodbye, would ask when I was coming back, because I knew I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I would, indeed, be coming back.
Lately, however, I meet those new friends’ eyes and say with confidence, “I’ll see you next time,” because I’ve since learned that the universe likes nothing more than to send us what, where and whom we least expect. (It seems to particularly delight in setting me down on the same path twice.)
I can never say when or where or how this next meeting will occur, but it no longer seems so far-fetched to expect that it will.
You see, though I was never one to visit the same place twice—the pull of the uncertain new always stronger than that of the friendly and inviting known—I can no longer claim this to be so. In the last two and a half months, I have revisited: Rome, Sicily, London and Amsterdam. I have seen friends made in Serbia, Kenya, Germany, India and Vermont.
As I write this, I am en route to Helsinki for visit number 2.
Lonely shoe, Helsinki.
For a serial seeker of new places, it is an odd thing to go back to—to revisit—a place.
And then, as most strange things are, it is also wonderful.
I find, in revisiting, that such an act does not in fact exist; it is impossible to visit the same place twice. Friends cut their hair, or grow it; beloved restaurants close, and new ones open; memories, friendships and connections are planted, and new experiences grow from those seeds.
More important than anything, my perspective—ever evolving, never exactly the same—makes of each “known” something entirely new, and so, in going back, I find I am always going forward, after all.
The repercussions of this fact are almost terrifying in their magnitude. For each step that I take, there are infinite possibilities, not only ahead of me, but behind me as well. The tree that I see in summer might present itself entirely anew stripped bare in winter; the rose in bud another matter altogether in flower; the city of my 17-year-old travels lent a thousand shades of nuance by seven years’ distance.
And so?
And so.
Sunset on the plane…
Always moving onward, but am I?
Maybe I am no longer “not one to visit the same place twice.” Maybe only now does it truly sink in that “everything” or “everywhere” is a receding mirage, the pursuit of which can carry us in endless circles.
And still, I pursue it—encouraged, not dissuaded by the ever-expanding nature of the illusion—I willingly, obligingly circle back, and forward, and back again.
Moving forward, or backward, exploring the new, or revisiting the old, I find the unknown in everything everyone everyplace, and I am inspired, in-spiralled, enthralled…
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” — Lewis Caroll
 
***
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An Incomplete Guide to Sicily in Quotes & Pictures

Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), Agrigento, Sicily

“The climate’s delicate; the air most sweet.
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.”
— Shakespeare

I could write—and, indeed, have written—many pages about Sicily. However, I’m hardly the first person to be taken with the island’s complex history, natural beauty and unique charms, so for a change I would like to share the words of other writers, whose perspectives, combined with pictures from my recent visit, make for a woefully incomplete (but very poetic) look at the place. I hope it may whet your appetite for more, as I never tire of convincing people to visit!

Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks), Realmonte, Sicily.  
“Ho capito che la Sicilia è molto più complessa di quello che si può pensare: la paragonerei ad una cipolla dai molti strati.” — Paco Ignacio Taibo II
(“I have understood that Sicily is much more complex than one might think: I would compare it to an onion of many layers.”)
Cattedrale di San Givanni Battista, Ragusa.
“Sicily has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The sequence of different cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other.” — Andrea Camilleri
Valle dei Templi.

“This is the homeland of the Gods of Greek mythology. Near these places, Pluto abducted Persephone from her mother. In this wood we just walked through, Ceres ceased her swift running and tired of her fruitless search, sat on a rock, and despite being a goddess, she wept, the Greeks say, since she was a mother. In these valleys, Apollo pastured his flocks; these groves, stretching down to the seashore, have echoed with Pan’s flute; the nymphs got lost under their shade and breathed their scent. Galatea fled from Polyphemus and Acis, close to succumbing to the blows of his rival, enthralled these shores leaving his name here … In the distance you can see the lake of Hercules and the rocks of the Cyclops. Land of gods and heroes!” — Alexis De Tocqueville

Valle dei Templi.

“Sicily is more beautiful than any woman.”
Truman Capote

Valle dei Templi.
“Il siciliano è il prodotto di un territorio che non è un pezzo staccato d’Italia, che non ha mai fatto parte di alcuna parte del mondo in epoca storica, che è stato occupato da nord, sud, est, ma mai è stato assimilato, l’isola in cui niente è stabile se non il movimento, il non-stabile, dove un giorno distrugge quanto l’altro giorno ha costruito, dove vulcanismo e nettunismo sono continuamente all’opera, dove un giorno trasforma la storia di secoli.” — Paul Yorck von Wartenburg

(“The Sicilian is the product of a territory that is separate from Italy, that has never been part of any part of the world in any period of history, that has been occupied by the North, South, East, but never assimilated, the island in which nothing is stable except movement, non-stability, where one day destroys that which another the other day built, where volcanic and marine forces are always at work, where one day transforms the history of centuries.”)

“Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow.” — Plato

Valle dei Templi.

“For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own.”

This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.”

― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sunset from a lighthouse.
“I was enchanted… the limpidity of the sky, the restless splendor of the sun, the beauty of the countryside, a certain excitement of the fantasy…which brought to mind the time when in the fields one encountered the divine.” — Jean Houel

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

“In Sicilia abbiamo tutto. Ci manca il resto.” — Pino Caruso
(“In Sicily we have everything. We’re just missing the rest.”)


Valle dei Templi.
“Noi fummo i Gattopardi, i Leoni; quelli che ci sostituiranno saranno gli sciacalletti, le iene; e tutti quanti gattopardi, sciacalli e pecore, continueremo a crederci il sale della terra.”

(“We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who will replace us will be little jackals, hyenas; and all of us Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”)
― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Macalube, Aragona, Sicily.

“Per me la Sicilia ha una luce particolare, qualcosa di primordiale. Io non sono nato in Sicilia anche se mia madre è di Palermo. È come se con questa terra ci fosse un richiamo anche più lontano della mia esistenza, che appartenga alla mia memoria. Scrivo volentieri qui, c’è un’aria speciale, istintiva. Non mi va neanche di dargli un nome sennò darei dei confini che non ha.” — Emanuele Crialese

(“For me, Sicily has a particular light, something of the primordial. I wasn’t born in Sicily even though my mother is from Palermo. It’s as if with this land were a recollection even further back in my existence, which belongs to my memory. I write often here, there’s a special atmosphere, instinctive. I do not even give it a name, as to do so would give it boundaries which it does not have.”)
Scala dei Turchi.

“There it was again: the sweeping verbal gesture magnified in the prism of Sicily, the pronouncement so poetic it nullified any arguments before they could take their first breath. The vines, the amphorae, the thousands of years of history, the palmenti, the volcano, the beauty, the power of it all. In Italy, of course, beauty is next to holiness. Sicily was long the most treasured daughter of the Mediterranean. So who can teach Sicily anything about beauty?” — Robert Camuto

Fountain, Ragusa, Sicily.

“All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination.” — Leonardo Sciascia

“Raccontano, infatti, che secondo il mito la Sicilia è sacra a Core poiché qui avvenne il suo rapimento e perché l’isola fu offerta alla dea come dono di nozze.” — Plutarco
(“They say, in fact, that according to legend Sicily is sacred to Persephone since her abduction took place here and because the island was offered to the goddess as a wedding gift.”)

Train tracks at the edge of the Valle dei Templi.

“And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.” — D. H. Lawrence

*** 
[All translations mine. :)]
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Europe

Being versus Seeing


So, what are you doing here?

They say it kindly—with honest curiosity—and they say it in Italian, but that is the question.

The woman at the cheese shop who patiently helps me taste 10 local varieties before wrapping up my selections. The barista at the cafe on the large piazza near my apartment. The elderly gentleman who insists on guiding me through the steep valley from Ragusa (the newer city where I stay) to Ragusa Ibla (the old medieval part of town).

They want to place me, and I want to help them.

Entering the valley.

I explain, in as few words as possible, my work-travel creation. That is, more working than traveling; more living than exploring.

And, sheepishly, I recall inwardly how disappointing a tourist I have been…

I managed to climb the bell tower of the main cathedral. I spent an hour in Modica, one of the next towns over, tasting chocolate made the traditional (unbelievably delicious) way and eating granita. I’ve visited a few beautifully restored churches (a huge earthquake in 1693 destroyed most of the older architecture, and I’ve wandered many of the small, hilly streets, eating gelato, canoli or any other treats I stumble upon. I have the good fortune to be staying with two teachers, and have attended a few dinners, lectures and expositions with them, too.

Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista (and the piazza)

It’s not nothing, but it’s not much, considering I’ve been here 10 days already. Compared to past trips, when I managed to cover as many countries in a month and spent entire days on an expedition to see a city from top to bottom, it’s not much at all.

What’s changed? Quite a bit…

These days, I don’t have so much free time.

Between trying to regain a daily yoga practice after injuring my hip, working six to seven hours, chatting with my hosts (my Italian gets better by the minute!), cooking all my meals and trying to write besides, I watch my days fill up fast.

Most days, I’m happy to get a walk in, a visit to the market and maybe an hour at a cafe.

In the valley: gate to nowhere.

So when I feel “guilty” for not doing or seeing as much as I can while I’m in this new town—this place I’ve never been before—I gently remind myself that actually, I’m not here to visit, to tour, or to see.

I am here to be.

Not, I am in Ragusa to ____.

Rather, I am in Ragusa.

That’s all.

Ragusa Ibla.

It’s a subtle shift, but it relieves some of that odd pressure of being a tourist or traveler—here to see, absorb and record as much as possible.

And I find I am only capable of this shift because I have “an excuse.” I’m working, I’m not on vacation, I’m girando (moving around), but I’m not a tourist… blah, blah blah. Excuse or no excuse, maybe this is the way to do it—for me. (You can do it however is the right way for you, of course.)

Seeing what I see and doing what I manage to do, but moving my focus away from quantity of recordable events, I can experience my existence here without expectations. The same way I would anywhere, without the badge of “travel” tacked onto the box where I store and process those stories.

What does it mean to focus on “being” in a place, rather than “seeing” a place?

Well, that’s what I’m figuring out right now… I’ll let you know.

Ragusa Ibla.

***

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Snapshot: Bar Willy

8:30a.m., Trastevere, Roma — 24 August 2015

I begin the day with that most Italian of concoctions… il bar.

Bar Willy sits at one corner of a busy plaza in Trastevere—at the edge of Rome.

Its staff are a typically diverse mix, representing Asia, Africa and “the Continent” too. (Rome is a massive epicenter for immigrants to the country.) They joke about regional linguistic variations, for which Italy is famous.

At 8:30 on a Sunday, the bar (anywhere else it would be a “cafe”) is buzzing with activity. The tables outside, however, are mostly empty, for—in typical Italian fashion—most of the patrons prefer to take their morning coffee and cornetto (croissants, but, sorry, not as good) standing up.

And so the bar pulses with the ins and outs of customers on their way to the Sunday market just outside.

They order a caffe’ (espresso), cappuccino or latte macchiato (hot milk with a touch of coffee), and the sounds of their orders rebound from barista to cashier to my ears and back. The clatter of tiny spoons on plate, plate on bar, cup on plate; the rustle of pastry on napkin and hands on newspaper; the din of shouts, greetings and laughter—all combines to a decibel of energy to which I am unaccustomed so early in the morning, but which, for some strange reason, pleases me.

It is good-natured—all of it. It is pleasant, honest cheer—a thing the Italians (I find) do better than any others. It is the thing that pulls me back to this country again and again. It is the lushness of fresh pressed olive oil on green figs (speaking of which, the food I’m eating will have to wait for another day…).

It is magnetic, for me—and clearly I’m not the only one.

***
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Europe

Three, Two, One, BUNGEE


(Sorry, Mom—I know I promised I wouldn’t, but I really think you should be proud of me.)
“Do one thing a day that scares you.”  The words run repeatedly along the length of my teal blue yoga strap, which, wrapped around my yoga mat, has accompanied me throughout my journey.  Each morning when I unroll my mat they greet me boldly, all capitals—a challenge, maybe.  But usually I smile and take them as an affirmation because, well, I’m trying my best.
I try, but it’s not always easy.  I hate talking on the phone, but it doesn’t scare me.  I dislike ants and spiders, but we’ve come to an understanding and coexist quite peacefully; they don’t scare me either.  As I travel I seek out situations that challenge me—accepting an invitation to a dinner party in Biella, Italy full of Italian speakers I had never met, for example—to test my mutability, adaptability and flexibility.  I repeatedly throw myself at the universe and marvel at the endless variety of ways in which she catches me.  I am rarely scared.
On Sunday, July 7, the straps of my safety harness wrapped around my billowing teal pants (Toby Pants, of course) as I stood at the center of the Colossus bridge, 152 meters above the ground at Veglio, Northern Italy.  A spectacular scenery of forested green mountains surrounded the small group of spectators.  The three o’clock sun heated my shoulders.  I watched as one after another the people ahead of me jumped, arms out “like Superman.”  When my turn came and I climbed the metal steps to the edge of the bridge, nothing but an elastic cord attached to a carabiner at my ankles, I was scared.
“Sei pronta?” Gianluca asked me, grinning casually after ten years of facilitating this bizarre and exhilarating activity.  “Si,” I responded, though I was hardly convinced.  I had closed my eyes and imagined leaping out into the air at least twenty times since calling the bungee center several days prior, but I was nonetheless terrified—terrified of jumping, and even more terrified of not jumping.
“Alza le braccia.”  I lifted my arms.  “THREE,”  I think my heart stopped beating.  “TWO,” I bent my knees. If I don’t go now, I never will– the thought jumped spontaneously into my consciousness and before I could think further I leapt on “ONE.” At “BUNGEE,” where one usually jumps, I was already in free-fall, accelerating towards a speed of 28 meters per second.
The scream that wrenched from my throat could probably be described as blood-curdling; it was certainly as close to primordial as I have ever come.  I had thought jumping would be the scariest part.  Wrong.  The first two seconds of my fall, as I felt the uninhibited force of gravity act on my body, I think adrenaline blocked all other brain functions.  Then, the following few seconds, I managed to process the sight of treetops rushing toward me at blinding speed, the sound of air whooshing past my ears, the pressure of wind against my cheeks.  My scream morphed into a whoop of elation.  Next, as I reached the full length of the cord, the elastic caught me, pulled me to a stop, and flung me upwards.  Twice I rebounded high, my body hung suspended for a moment in mid-air, my heart in my mouth, and I flew…
I pulled myself upright, a feat which proved more physically challenging than jumping, and the woman at the landing platform pulled me back to solid ground.  As I walked (and skipped) along the trail back to the road I felt exhilarated, jubilant, and, especially, satisfied.  Satisfied because I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than jumping of a 150 meter bridge, and I had done it.  I had taken a fear and alchemized it into a thrilling experience.  I had physically embodied my policy of leaping at the universe.  The elastic cord, like optimism and openness, had turned a free-fall into flight.
To clarify: bungee jumping is not scary because it is dangerous.  In over 60 thousand jumps and 20 years of experience, the Bungee Center at Veglio has never had an accident.  As extreme sports go, bungee jumping is extremely safe.  Our instincts are not so rational, however, and to voluntarily jump one must override a very basic fear and instinctual reluctance.  I am not really a thrill seeker—I don’t like cliff jumping, skiing on ice, driving fast, or otherwise putting my body in danger.  This probably won’t become a regular activity for me; however, I might choose to repeat the experience, or something similar, just to remind myself that I can.  Because even after the fact I can barely believe that I really jumped.  I had trouble falling asleep that night as the memory of treetops speeding towards me replayed in my mind.  I no longer felt scared though- only elated.  I had done something that truly scared me, and it rocked.
If you want to see it, the lovely people at Veglio were kind enough to film my jump for me, and it’s posted here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10200301434598511.
Do one thing a day that scares you- try it! 🙂
~
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