Thursday, May 11, 2017

Even in total silence, time flies

Lately, “Time flies” and “I have been so busy” are quite possibly the most common phrases that I say or hear. In fact, it seems to be the root of many conversations: explaining why we haven’t been in touch, why I haven’t returned your call, why I haven’t seen you in weeks, why I didn’t know about your latest news… it all starts with, “Oh, I have been so busy lately… ” and “Wow, I can’t believe it has been 3 weeks/3 months/3 years! Time really does fly.” All of my conversations seem to gravitate around these two points.

We know that the world has gotten more scattered and frantic. People are available 24 hours a day on 6-10 different channels: 2+ email accounts, FB messenger, What’s app, SMS, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram... All of these notifications pop up on your phone by the minute, urging you to check them constantly in between everything else you are doing: getting dressed while checking the phone, drinking coffee while checking phone, running to catch the bus while checking phone, meeting with friends while checking phone, even meetings at work now happen while half of the people are checking their phones.

Even Facebook thinks it! As I was posting this,
Facebook made a Time Flies video for my "faceaversary
Everything is done frantically, instantaneously, halfheartedly, so messages are easily overlooked or forgotten; phone calls are rarely accepted and in-person meetings are increasingly sparse. I am too busy. Everyone feels it, so it is always a valid excuse. And no one can complain about it because it is always true. We are all too busy. Too busy for human interaction because we are now 24-7 interacting with humans and we are overloaded.

So sometimes we all need to lose, or at least lose track of, our phones. Oops, it was on silent. Oh, I went for a run. Oh, I was cooking dinner. Oh, I was on the phone… In truth, the phone pretty much participates in all of these activities, but we need to say we were unavailable, even if we weren’t because, we can’t do it anymore. We need some time for silence, even if it is forced.

These thoughts were even more striking to me this weekend as we went to a place of total silence, a site of practically no human interaction: Certosa di Trisulti. It is a 12th century monastery/hermitage in the hills of Lazio, 1.5 hours from Rome, where currently only 2, but up to 60 monks, have lived their lives in total silence. The rule of the land was quiet. No one spoke to the other, and human interaction was usually limited to mass. Wooden boards replaced spoken words for logistical purposes, assigning daily chores. Some kept to their rooms entirely and never left, not even to eat. A private garden offered them the sustenance they needed.

13th Century Chore Board
In this setting of utter quiet and basic human interaction, the floor of the resident pharmacy (which they needed because, even in sickness, you never left the monastery) displays a mosaic picture of an hour glass with wings: time flies. The 13th century version literally translated from the Latin: memini volat irreparabile tempus reads "Remember, time flies irreparably." Written in a dead language, in a secluded setting such as this, silent monks coexisting peacefully in their own worlds, were still reminding each other through art that time flies and you better make the most of it.

"Remember, time flies irreparably"
I wonder how many of us overstimulated human beings would find that time flies when living in utter silence, in one setting, day in and day out, closed off in one place for all our needs. This scenario is almost our modern definition of boredom. But this message was part of their experience. One of the few that are engraved throughout the site. It would seem that these monks did find that time flew. Even in solitude, in quiet, with no interaction, time flew. Someone thought this an important enough message to remember along with other sayings around the Monastery: One does not live on bread alone and Better to prevent than to cure. Time flies was a part of their existence. It was a truth they faced.

One does not live on bread alone
How interesting that no matter what the circumstance, no matter how quiet a life might seem to an outsider, how slow an existence might be to an external person, the person living it still feels like life is fleeting.

In some ways it makes me feel better. It makes me feel like even if I threw my smart phone into a well and lived in a village outside of the maddening pace of a big city, I would still feel like life is too short. That even if I lived in a village and stayed inside all day every day, I might be the one commissioned to write a saying on the floor of my village and I would choose to say that time flies. It is comforting to know that this is a human experience that cannot be avoided no matter our life choices.

The amazing pharmacy
On the other hand, it is a little sad. I acknowledge that it is I who have attached this melancholy feeling to that artwork. I don’t know if it was at all intended. But what I am pretty sure was intended, what is always intended, is the feeling of “Open your eyes”/“Be in the present.” This idea that we are here but not here is the part that is scary. We live each day, but do not experience each day. We go through the motions, do everything we have and want to do, we eat and sleep and exercise, answer all our messages and do all that we should and at the end of the day we barely remember the motions of that day. We are never mindful because our minds are too full. No wonder carpe diem and mindfulness are such trendy terms.

Photo Credit: Adam Koford
My life is not going to slow down. In fact, if I believe my elders, it is only going to speed up. I am not going to throw my cell phone down a well. I am not going to move into a remote village or even a suburb. I am not going to renounce speaking to humans (though sometimes it is tempting). I will continue my busy, city, digital life because I like it and because life works this way now. But what I will try to do more is to be present, to be indeed more mindful.

In fact, that is what Living like a Tourist is all about: to live each day, wherever you are, as if you might never come back tomorrow. To treat each day like you are on holiday. I am good at doing this when I am touring my city or traveling, but I am not so good at this in mundane tasks of “ordinary”, non-touristic life.

I want to remember to put away my phone when listening to friends, to finish loading the laundry machine before I start reorganizing the cleaning products, to finish writing one email before looking at the new one that pops up. I want to be fully present, because even more than remembering that time flies, I have to remember: the present is all there is. That is what I want to hear myself say more often.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Winning a peace prize

I knew I wanted to get away for my birthday. Where didn't matter. But I didn't want to stay put.

I have not felt at home or at peace since I have gotten back to Rome. There are a whole series of reasons why; the biggest are that my kitty died and that the apartment that we moved into has had an endless stream of ridiculous problems. This combined with a lot of smaller issues, like my old-reliable computer crashing, getting backed into in our new car and being investigated by the Quebec tax commission, has just made it feel like, despite my best attempts, I haven’t been able to make Rome feel like home again.

And probably because of the stress of it all, I keep getting sick and being sick makes everything worse because you can’t run around and ignore your problems. You have to sit still and face them, which means that I have been forced to stay inside, in this seemingly cursed apartment, living in the absence of Matteo and staring at my broken computer screen.

So of course, I booked a flight out of retribution. The cheapest flight to a place I hadn’t been was to Oslo, so that was the one I booked. It was self-inflicted banishment. If I was without a home, "home-less" if you will, I wanted to act that way.

Oslo Harbor
Oslo was an escape for an unquiet and peace-less mind. And, in retrospect, what a funny place I chose to go to: Norway, the land of the peace prize. One of my first impressions was how quiet everything was: the Norwegian Air flight, Gardermoen airport, the train into town. It seemed a land where stillness was everywhere: silent zones on trains, hushed talking in restaurants, kids everywhere but rarely audible, wide open sidewalks and low population. The winter grayness and snow made the world feel even more tamed.

View from Royal Palace
And in turn, this stillness and quiet tamed my mind too. I let my anxiety and restlessness condense into droplets and freeze in the Norwegian cold, a mild cold, that was just enough to crystallize those drops into snow. My thoughts became snowflakes that fell on the ground of Oslo. And looking at the white world it created, a blank slate, I felt relieved.

Parliament House
Oslo was beautiful, serene, grand and inviting. We could walk everywhere on boulevards that seemed made for royalty and really were. New cafes and restaurants spotted the city amidst its old elegance. The theatres, palace, parliament and museums were a distinct placeholder for an elegant past, but modernity was very much alive. The new Opera House and construction cranes reflected Oslo’s march forward.

Construction plans for a new business district. Opera House featured on right.
It is true that everything is expensive, very expensive in fact, but it is a good test in moderation, making you question whether you really needed that extra glass of wine or that dessert.

People always spoke Norwegian first, but switched to English without disdain or hesitation. We were not treated as anything special, not foreigners to gawk or scoff at, not as anyone outside of the ordinary. No one asked where we were from; it didn't matter. Everyone was treated like a local: equal, normal. We were just there and that was what mattered.

Maybe that idea of equality, that no one is great no one is terrible, is what lead the Nobel peace prize museum to be subdued. Housing the stories of some of the most amazing people who ever lived, I was let down to see that each incredible person had only one small screen with about a paragraph of text assigned to him, her or it. No story. No extravagance. No drama.

Room featuring Nobel Peace Prize winners
There was something peaceful about that as well, but knowing that outside those museum walls, there was drama everywhere, sad, depressing, infuriating drama, never more personified than in the newest world leader, I was hoping to hear the stories of some of the people who stood out in history as the real lights of the world. I felt like the museum fell short of portraying that; it didn’t give due credit to these amazing people and stories. Maybe I was particularly disappointed because I needed to hear inspiring stories more than most of the museum’s visitors.

Yummy Stockfleths cappuccino. Worth the 4 euro.
Oslo is also known for its coffee and it did live up to that though. We are tough critics coming from Italy, but we tried 4 places and all were well above average. Stockfleths, a chain, but one of the oldest coffee houses in Oslo, was my favorite. We never once felt compelled out of desperation to visit the Starbucks that were there.

We bought nothing but we were amused by the variety of trolls on sale and marveled at the beautiful wool of Dale of Norway. The train ran perfectly. The grocery stores were organised. All the machines we used worked. The bathrooms were clean. It was a nice break from Italy’s "charm".

Families strolling in Grunnerl√łkka neighborhood
I knew this fix was temporary, that getting on the plane back to Rome, nothing would be solved: no cat, no real home, no instant solutions, but I could pick up my marker again and return to that white slate. A lot was still out of my control, but I felt calmer. In some small way, I was more ready to rebuild a home even if I am still grieving my lost ones. I can wrap those happy memories around my grief and make them into decorations for the new place.

I am not on track to win a Nobel peace prize, but out of this trip, I did win some peace.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Goodbye 2016: The end we were all waiting for

2016: the year everyone wanted to end. It just seemed like the bad news was everywhere: in politics - the ugliness of the US election and the unknown aftermath of the British vote; in the news - the horrifying Aleppo conflict and the endless stream of refugees needing homes in places that can’t or won’t accept them, the disgusting terrorist attacks at celebrations; in Hollywood - the unexpected deaths of so many young, beloved and talented celebrities …

Even in our personal lives, everyone I knew seemed to be dealing with something: health issues, job issues, relationship issues, children issues… no area went untouched; it was all fair game this year.

And it seemed like it wouldn’t let up; when you got over one bad news, another one appeared. And the new wasn’t just bad, it was usually really bad. Often times, it was unexpectedly, shockingly bad.

This says it all: LAD bible actually made 2016 into a horror movie!

Every year has its share of problems, sadness and loss though, so I don’t know why 2016 was just so tough. But somehow, it just was, for all of us it seemed. Maybe it is a collective fatigue. Or maybe it is our inter-connectedness on social media that we now feel everyone else’s bad news more acutely, a social empathy or recognition of all the sadness out there.

Perhaps it was also so difficult because, instead of relying on one another for needed support, we stopped calling, stopped going out, stopped talking... I seemed to notice that in 2016 we retreated into our own sorrow; we hid away from the world. Like crabs afraid of what the waves would bring, we buried deeper into our sand caves, which of course made it all the harder to carry our own burdens because we were carrying them alone.

As for me, in 2016, things weren't so awful comparatively speaking. But the last 6 months were mired with never-ending house problems, contract delays and very frequent vet visits. It was also a year when I lost pretty much all the homes I knew: my one in Rome last year, my childhood one, the new one in Montreal and then of course, my kitty, who was what made each transient place I went to a home. That was of course for me the worst loss: losing my Matteo, my travel companion and best friend for 12 years. And unfortunately, just turning the page on the calendar doesn’t make the pain go away.

One of my first blog posts about Matteo as my travel companion
That’s the thing about New Year’s: Health issues aren't cured at midnight. Jobs aren't found or fixed with a stroke. Pain doesn’t just evaporate. The new president still takes office this month. 2016, and its challenges, doesn't disappear overnight.

I don't want to put a silver lining on the 2016 cloud because I don't want to gloss over the pain people have felt and still feel from these issues. I do, however, think it is important to paint the full picture of 2016. And for me, despite sadness, I feel like I grew a lot last year.

I took this year to figure out what my calling might be, to understand what I wanted to do with my talents, my interests and my nagging desire to write. I finally seem to have it straight in my head that I want to be a writer, but I don’t want to be an author. I want to write one book, but not write books for a living. I like writing on behalf of causes. I don't like writing blog posts every day (obviously). All this is clearer to me now after a year of reading books, listening to podcasts, seeking out articles, speaking to people, interrogating friends and just generally overthinking (my trademark). I was searching to figure out what I wanted to do with this interest and I understand a little bit better now. So my goals are clearer.

In 2016, things were also clearer to me about marriage and partnerships. I think there are statistics out there about the first year of marriage being difficult, but I didn’t expect it. There were growing pains that I didn’t foresee. I think in the first year, conversations are sometimes laced with a certain defense mechanism, a type of edginess from the idea that you need to stand your ground or perhaps lose this point in this “rest of our lives” scenario. Everything is a bigger deal because it is setting a precedent. If you let one thing go, you could get stuck in that pattern forever. Of course, this isn’t the reality, but it is often how we feel: secretly at war, defending our own independence and former lives. But to make it past that first year, you have to put away the weapons. You have to realize that marriage isn't trying to kill your former unattached self. In fact, it is important to preserve those versions of ourselves. Marriage is about incorporating those versions of ourselves into our new versions and into our partnership. By 2016, I understood these things; the war had ended. I had found peace.

Our Christmas Day family Skype call.
We were in 3 different countries, but still took a selfie.
I saw my family a lot this year which reminded me of my priorities in life and the importance of a strong family foundation. I also saw friends, many of whom I have lost touch with. This is a priority I have been neglecting, and it is something that I have vowed to work on in 2017.

Faith played a huge role of support and comfort for me this year. In all my travels and my fear of flying, in starting over and believing that things would work out and especially in the death of Matteo, I felt more strongly supported and comforted than I ever have before. Maybe it is because I had to rely on it more than before, but the power of prayer, meditation and gratefulness is more obvious to me now than it ever has been.

With losing and changing homes so many times this year, I realized that I could make a home anywhere I want: Rome, Baltimore, D.C., Montreal, Guatemala etc. Living like a tourist has taught me that I can make the most of any place I am in. And that the important people in your life will be there no matter where you are, even if you have to make a greater effort.

My original home, Baltimore.
Letting go is a huge part of love, the hardest part of love. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is very true. It took me a long time to come to terms with letting go of Matteo. And I am still working on it. The instinct is, of course, to want to never feel that pain again. But I know that one day I will want another kitty; it is an important part of my life to love and care for another being/ living thing. It makes my life more whole. Perhaps knowing this, I might be more ready for motherhood than I thought. (However, I'd like to stress the perhaps in this sentence).

"A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner." 
It is unfortunate that there are periods in life where things just seem awful, difficult, dark and never-ending. I hated seeing so many of my friends dealing with such serious issues. I wanted their pain to end. By the end of the year, I too felt very worn-down and ready for a break, a new start. I may have learned a lot, but I was exhausted. I suppose this is how life works though. "a smooth sea …, what doesn’t kill you…, no pain, no gain..." Those sayings come from somewhere.

Back in 2007, another difficult year for me, when challenges hit, I often sunk or chose the easy way out. At least in 2016, I felt like I did rise to the occasion. I hope that 2017 gives new air to these wings and offers us some brighter, sunnier days to let them dry out a bit.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Living here and there

So many of us are living in more than one place at one time. It is especially pronounced with expats, who on paper already have two addresses, permanent and present. But even for those of us who commute to work (which in North America can easily be 1-2 hours one way) or who work in one city, have a house in another and daycare in a third, our lives can feel split among many locations.

After a year of traveling and moving around, I am working to reestablish a residence somewhere and that somewhere is currently in Rome. We have an apartment in Rome, but I don’t yet have a visa to stay. So I am leaving again next week. I am going back to see family in the US, settle some things in Canada and regroup before probably coming back out again. I am partly living in Rome, but I am partly living in Canada where we have our own apartment and citizenship status. And I am partly still living in the US, where I have a history and an address that is on my driver’s license, credit card, mail etc, but which is only valid until my parent’s sell their house, an imminent occurrence.

It is as if little parts of me are residing in a multitude of cities, as if I am living everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This is the downside of living like a tourist.

I find it great fun to come back to somewhere like Rome, somewhere that I have known for over 15 years and for which in many ways is home, but still do all the touristy things to make me remember what a great city I am in.

Pizza at Cave Canem: Yes, I still take pictures of my food
Each time I come back to Rome, I have to get a coffee at standing at one of the many bars and a biscotto della nonna gelato at La Romana, thick pizza at Da Grottino or La Focaccia and thin pizza at Cave Canem or Baffetto 2, cacio pepe in Testaccio and have at least one plate of cicoria (chicory) wherever. I have to see the Colosseum during the day and Pantheon at night. I have to run along the Tevere (Tiber) river at sunset. And now, just not to tempt fate, I have to throw a coin in the Trevi. If it is summer time, I need to get a granita di caffe (coffee slushie) at Tazza d’Oro, if winter, a zuppa ai ceci (chick pea soup) at Ai Balestrari. And of course, I have to drink as much wine as I can, particularly of Primitivo, Ripasso di Valpolicella, Nobile di Montepulciano or Lacrima di Morro, varieties that are harder to find outside of Italy.

Charming Rue St. Denis, Montreal
Whenever I go back to any city, I have particular habits: get a bagel and half a poutine (I can never finish one) in Montreal, walk around the Old Port and St. Denis, run along the Lachine Canal. In Baltimore, I make it a point to have Old Bay on something and see the Inner Harbor, go to an O’s game and get a local brew in Fells Point. In DC, I get Julia’s empanadas or falafel in Adams Morgan. I go running on Rock Creek Parkway and see one of the many DC museums (most of them for free!). I walk on the Mall to see the Capitol and the Washington Monument. If I go in the spring, I like to see the Cherry Blossoms (with the other two million tourists who come to DC for this as well).

It is nice to be back in these cities and be a local in the sense that I know where everything is, I have friends there, I have memories there, I know all the things I have tried and liked and all the things which I tried and didn’t like. Yet, I still get to be a tourist, visiting everything with new eyes and retrying certain things in case it, or I, have changed (salted caramel ice cream in DC for example… I like it now).

Mandatory Colosseum picture taken in August. Guess I will need another soon.
At the same time, it is a weird predicament. I am always back for a limited period of time; that period of time is sometimes a year or more, but sometimes that period of time is 2 weeks, like it will be now. So am I still a local or am I just a visitor at that point? I am neither living there nor here. Does that make me a tourist everywhere or a local everywhere?

I don't know the real answer to that question, but I try to be both. I try to live everywhere like I am a local, but take advantage of the city like I am a tourist. I try to make the most of my time in any one place because I never know how long I will be there. Like any of life’s dualities, it is both a kind of sad and a kind of great way to live. But I remind myself that it is the lifestyle I have chosen, so I choose to focus on the great.

I'll miss my husband but I will get to see my parents. I will miss my kitty, but I will get to see my cousins. I will miss my Rome-based friends, but will see my Balti-DC ones. Our lives are all split, (yes- some more than others), but you just have to focus on what you have in each place, not what you are missing in it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The end of a Sabbatical

It was about June last year when we were discussing the concept of this entire plan.

“A year? You want to take a year off?”
“At least.” he said.

Where is this coming from? I said more to myself than to him because I knew his answer would be, I don’t know. He is not the introspective type. But despite where it came from, the pebble was rolling and quickly picking up weight on the way down. By July, it was a boulder and there was no stopping it.

I was hesitant. I was very hesitant. Italy felt more and more like home. I finally lived in an apartment of my own furnishings and decoration. I had a job where I felt needed. And though it had been a hard year for a variety of reasons, I was more in the mindset of keep your head down, and work harder. I had been doing that for months.

Most of the time, when there's a will, there is a way. But sometimes willing it, is just not enough. I couldn’t change all of my circumstances by willing them. So I finally agreed to stop the current tide and start something new. Who knew, maybe it would create a different, welcomed ripple in our future.

Our emptied apartment in Rome
So in Summer 2015 we told our work places that we were leaving Rome. We gave up our apartment, sold our car and furniture, packed up most of our possessions, threw out the rest, closed our bank accounts, shipped 400 kilos of stuff to North America, put it in a U-haul towed it 10 hours to Montreal to set up a new condo that we had bought in pre-construction, bought new furniture, unpacked the 400 kilos of stuff and probably another 100 kilos of my childhood things. Stopped everything and went to Vancouver, then came back to Montreal, then back to Baltimore. Went onto Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, then went back to Baltimore, collected my cat, drove back up to Montreal, finished setting up our condo, drove back to Baltimore, dropped off my cat, flew to Haiti, attended a wedding, then went down to South America: Cartagena, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Colonia, Santiago, Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, Mendoza, Santiago, Lima, Pisco, Paracas, Huacachina, Lima, Cusco, Aguas Calientes, Machu Pichu, Cusco, Lima, ended the trip with a week in Charleston, SC. Drove 10 hours back to Baltimore, picked up my kitty, drove another 10 hours back to Montreal, put up the last frames and touches on the apartment, and then undid it all to pack for Rome and start a shipment to go back to Italy.

Unpacking the shipments

Which is where we are now. 9 months later, it is all over. We went full circle and are back in Rome once more. Mind you, that was not the intention. The intention, as aforementioned, was to do something new after this sabbatical.

But fate had stepped in to say what our next step should be. While we were still on our travels, my husband got a call for a job in Rome and it was a hard one to turn down. We discussed it at length and, as I do, I thought about it even longer. But the answer was ultimately, yes.

Fifth time back, but still love pictures in front of the Colosseum
When you decide to take a year off, you think that you have so much time. Surely, a sabbatical would allow you to accomplish everything you wished you had time to do: write a book, learn Spanish, visit all of Central and South America, catch up with old friends, spend time with family, find a miracle vet to cure my cat’s cancer, discover a new home, uncover my calling, reorganize everything I have ever owned and still have time to do yoga, a couple marathons and maybe learn croquet. (Just kidding about the croquet part, but you get the point). It doesn’t work that way. I made headway in a little of all of the above, but, as you can imagine, I did not complete any of the above.

I am not exactly fluent, but 4 weeks of Spanish is a good start
I will admit that I hoped it would be the eat-pray-love year that would turn my entire life around and lead us to a whole new reality: a new city, a new job, a new career, a new calling... a type of prize for having taken a leap of faith and trusting in life and fate. But maybe fate handing us back our old life is the prize. And maybe it is not our old life at all, but the newness we were craving. I hope so.

So despite everything that we tried to do, I am back in Rome for the fifth time. And the truth is, I am happy about it. I have proven that no matter what I do,  Rome will never be out of my system.

All roads lead to Rome. I couldn’t put it better myself.

I keep throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain. That must be the problem!


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