Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you look back (at 2020)

It’s almost in the rearview mirror – this never-to-be-forgotten year. Even though turning over the date on the calendar won’t change reality, there’s something about ditching the double 2-0 that feels hopeful.

I’m not setting out to bash what we’ve gone through the last ten plus months. A microscopic virus has accomplished what monarchs, armies, and governments never could. Overnight it brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt.

I want to acknowledge and honor the significance of all of it. Once. Then it’s face forward utilizing what I’ve learned in preparation for a very different future.

So what were my lessons of 2020?

Number one with fifty exclamation points:

I need people

Boy, oh boy! Do I need people! A deep-seated belief that I’m a loner, perfectly happy to entertain myself for days on end, ended when that became my reality. But it’s not just people. It’s friends who care, who are committed to being there for each other – give-and-receive relationships that spring from the heart and don’t disappear when times get tough. Living alone with neither a partner nor pets, these friendship connections have kept me sane.

Number two could be listed shoulder-to-shoulder with number one, it’s that important:

I need ritual

I have to know there’s something to wake up for, something to occupy the beginning hours of the day. Fortunately, that routine was already in place, it just became longer, and vital. First, I journal with coffee. When I realized coffee was adding nervous energy that exacerbated anxiety I switched to ginger tea. Journaling finished, I do a yoga workout to hypnotizing hang drum music. After that, relaxed and soothed, I sit in meditation. By then I’m starving and ready to mindfully savor every bite of breakfast.

I need to move my body

Yoga’s great, but a walk gets me out of the house and out of my head into the empty sidewalks of Ubud. Sometimes I stop at Circle K even though I don’t really need anything, just to say a few words to another human. Sometimes it’s the library. The disorganized shelves of used books for sale are like hunting for treasure in a sea of trashy romance, but it passes time.

I need sunshine’s vitamin D

Rainy season came and cloudy days along with it. I wasn’t getting out as much and my thoughts grew steadily darker. It dawned on me one bright morning that I no doubt lacked vitamin D, a mood elevator delivered naturally via sunshine. I was out the door in a hot minute. That day I walked four miles and felt almost euphoric. Now I’m more cognizant of the shift toward depression and avail myself of stabilizing sunlight whenever that golden ball appears. It works like magic.

I need purpose

This one’s tricky. From my arrival in Bali in March 2012, until I returned from Italy in March 2020 and found the island in lockdown, my purpose and single-minded focus was writing. I wrote two novels, a memoir, poetry, this blog, and an occasional short story. My entire life centered around writing and writers’ groups. Literally, overnight all desire to write vanished. I’m still trying to figure out why. But whatever motivated me prior to Covid was suddenly as utterly absent as my non-existent sex drive. Months passed and I regularly engaged in other projects, cooking projects, sewing projects, puzzles, and a plastic-bag-flag project. But I’ve found nothing to replace the all-consuming passion I once had for writing.

I need adventure

Perhaps some people get their excitement fix from movies or TV. I’ve never developed the habit. For me, it has to be an embodied experience. Go there, do that! But in my Covid-altered state, I forgot that I could jump on the back of Ketut’s motorbike and take off for favorite haunts or discover new ones. Even a bike tour of the backroads surrounding Ubud is adventure enough to scratch that itch for days. Now that I’ve remembered what pure joy it is to ride, it’s become part of the survival plan.

I need hope

We all need hope – a belief that 2021 will be better. But I’ve let go of the fantasy that there will be a return to what was. After flailing about for the first few months of the pandemic it began to sink in how destructive and broken the old ways were. Some were already obvious. Others have come boldly to the forefront to blatantly challenge history as contrived by and for the privileged few. In spite of the chaos, loss, and irreversible damage, Covid has pushed a massive reset button. For that, I am deeply and truly grateful.

Tomorrow is the 31st here in Bali. Fireworks and parties are banned and I can’t say I’m sorry. On this night in the past, Ubud has sounded like a war zone until three or four a.m. Instead of tossing sleeplessly for hours, tomorrow, in the silence, I’ll pay my respects to 2020 for the things it’s taught me. Then I’ll burn the calendar – a letting-go ritual signifying endings. I’ll bring out the fresh, new one with the number prominently displayed at the top. 2021. I’ll crank up the music to that iconic song from the Broadway play, Hair, This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Age of Aquarius…

and I’ll dance.

Bali Beaches and an Un-Planned Christmas

I’m sold on the un-planned Christmas.

I told people I wasn’t doing anything. Wasn’t going anywhere. Would stay home and think happy thoughts and that was absolutely my intention. Then a get-together scheduled for December 21st had to be moved. How about the morning of the 24th? Christmas Eve Day? Does that work?

Well..I wasnt’ going to…but…sure. That works.

It turned into a psuedo white-elephant-gift-exchange, great coffee, and lots of laughs. Santa appeared out of nowhere, and carols played non-stop.

Warm and fuzzy inside I walked home with a gentle breeze cooling my face – one of Bali’s stellar-weather days – glad that I’d had Christmas Eve morning with good friends.

I’d barely gotten inside the house when my phone beeped a Whatsapp message. It was my neighbor next door inviting me to an impromptu lunch – if I didn’t already have plans for Christmas tomorrow. The complexion of my solitary holiday was changing fast.

I’d love to!

The high-octane energy of a family with a young child is a whole different ball game from the gray-haired gatherings I’m used to. But who can resist a five-year-old dynamo on pink roller skates?

We were well entertained and the meal of four-hour Balinese green beans, chicken betutu, cream-cheese mashed potatoes, and homemade frosted Christmas cookies was magnificent. The wine didn’t hurt either.

All that and a mystery guest. I finally got to meet a person I’ve been hearing about for years and if anything, the glowing reports were too humble. He’s one of those down-to-earth, funny, sincere, fascinating VIPs that you just wouldn’t expect to run into at your neighbor’s spur-of-the-moment Christmas lunch.

After two celebratory days I didn’t want the fun to end. I suggested to Ketut that it was time for another motorbike adventure. My back took weeks to recover from the marathon ordeal I put it through three months ago, but a visit to the beaches south of Ubud wouldn’t be a taxing trip. I wanted to check out the rumors that there are actually people down there – visitors – domestic tourists – because in Ubud they’re rare as unicorns.

As with most outings, eating figures in at some point. For this trip I wanted to stop at Cantina Warung. It’s on a dirt road that dead-ends somewhere between Seminyak and Canggu, and it’s so close to the ocean you almost feel the salt-spray on your skin. We’d check out Sanur and Kuta beaches on the way and easily be back in Ubud before the predicted afternoon downpour.

There was no traffic as we approached Sanur. The bodies standing in the water were fishermen, not tourists. Ketut thought he saw one family that probably came from another part of Indonesia but the few people enjoying the sun and sand were local. I’d expected that. Sanur isn’t the hotspot for vacationing party-ers who want a nightlife.

We hopped back on the bike and continued our search. Traffic by the Mall Galleria was almost non-existent.

In Kuta and Seminyak the story was the same with a slightly different twist. Here there were no locals, just a smattering of visitors and miles of empty lounge chairs on the deserted beach. Were we too early? Were the partying people still in bed nursing hangovers? It was getting on toward noon – surely they’d be up by now – if indeed they were here at all.

On the bike again I hollered through my mask at the back of Ketut’s helmet. “This adventure’s making me hungry. Let’s get lunch.”

There are several restaurants in Bali that are so enchanting I just want to keep eating so I can sit there for hours guilt-free. Cantina Warung is one of those. A constant ocean breeze, the rumble of breakers rolling in, comfortable chairs…don’t ever underestimate the importance of cushy seating – it’s huge…and today there were people sunbathing. People swimming. People walking dogs. We’d finally found PEOPLE!

We settled in and ordered lunch. Ketut is predictible – fried chicken and coca-cola. I had the BBQ chicken burrito with fries and a mojito. Not sure why the french fries came garnished with herby greens. They were easy to remove. But I have to say, that chicken burrito with chunks of avocado, crunchy lettuce, a sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce on the melt-in-your-mouth grilled poultry – oh my! I’m drooling just remembering.

We’d whiled away about an hour and a half when Ketut pointed to a sign that I’d ignored and said, “Look. Our table is reserved for eight people at four o’clock. We can stay three more hours.”

That’s when I ordered two cups with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in each, and a pot of coffee to pour over it. We stretched that out until about two o’clock when all of a sudden Ketut said, “Mungkin hujan di Ubud sekarang.” Whoops! In my idyllic reverie I’d completely forgotten about the afternoon rain I’d been hoping to avoid.

The ride home took us through Canggu. There was a lot more traffic there than we’d seen anywhere else. Shops and cafes were open. Perhaps what I’d heard was true, that Canggu is the hot spot right now. Hot may be too optimistic a word. A warm spot.

As we approached Ubud the road was wet. “Maybe rain is already finished,” Ketut said. Three minutes later we were pelted with huge sloppy drops.

“Do you have your plastic, Ketut?”

“Ya. You?”

“Ya.”

“You want to stop?”

“No.”

“Good.” He laughed.

How precious, memorable, and unexpectedly rich this holiday has been. I could have sat home and survived. I would have called it a fitting end for a year during which many of us have done little other than sit at home and survive. So I’m going to see my unplanned Christmas as a positive energetic shift, a vital lurch propelling us toward a brighter 2021.

May it be so.

Blame it on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning dawned, hot, muggy, and slightly overcast.

There was no planned outing with friends to a local restaurant for roasted stuffed turkey with all the trimmings. Such gatherings are discouraged for now, and to actually find a restaurant open, and not only open but serving turkey which is outrageously expensive to buy here…well…it just wasn’t going to happen.

I awoke with reasonably good intentions of accomplishing something, but a goal as fuzzy as that rarely gets much traction.

So I napped and read, read and napped, and thought about Thanksgivings past.

The table was set for ten or twelve. Before Dad said grace, and before digging into moist slices of turkey, candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and stuffing with gravy, we took turns telling what we were grateful for.

Between snoozes and the interesting story I was sort of reading, I rehearsed my current litany of blessings, see-sawing between past memories and present realities when suddenly… I had an overwhelming urge to sort through files. Trust me, this never happens. I knew I had to act and act fast or the notion would pass.

Soon the floor around me was littered with stacks of ‘keepers’ and ‘dumps.’

And then…

There it was. The packet of old photos Mom sent home with me when she was divesting herself of a lifetime of family history kept in picture albums. I’d never bothered to open it.

Oh, my! Ms. Bouffant 1969.

I was 19. How did I even get my hair to do that? I probably slept on giant brush rollers all night, then teased the curls into rats’ nests, smoothed the top and spray-lacquered it to the consistency of a bike helmet with Superhold Aqua Net. Remember Aqua Net? Superhold was purple.

aqua net hairspray 80s - Yahoo Image Search Results | Aqua net, My  childhood memories, Memories

I came across other shots equally as humiliating, but my pride will only allow one at a time.

As it happened, I actually accomplished quite a lot in spite of my very slow start. Eleven fat folders became four skinny ones. I found poems I’d forgotten I’d written and old diaries that jogged more memories.

So I wasn’t really alone for Thanksgiving. Old ghosts came back to remind me how truly grateful I am NOT to be living in the past. No matter how tough this Covid year has been, and no matter how uncertain the future seems at the moment, helmet hair and Aqua Net are forever behind me and that’s worth celebrating!

When It All Comes Crashing Down

Hibernating gets old. Just ask any grumpy she-bear who’s been holed up in a cave all winter in a state of suspended animation…

Does this sound familiar?

Of course Bali doesn’t have cold weather…or bears. But it has more than its share of expats who are feeling the effects of confinement. For the past few days I’ve barely stuck my nose out of the house. I meant to, but it was easier not to.

This morning, for some inexplicable reason, I woke up at 5:30 supercharged. The sky was brightening but the sun wouldn’t rise for another half hour. I made my bed, certain this was a fluke and the jolt of energy was just that, a jolt, and would quickly pass.

It remained.

The voice I’ve come to recognize as my stern grandmother (if you’ve never had a Norwegian grandmother you’ll have no idea what I mean) pulled me up short. Skam på du! she said. I think that’s the only Norsk phrase I ever learned. Shame on you!

She washed my hair once. I was about 4. My scalp was raw from her vigorous suds-ing. When she dumped buckets of water over my head to rinse out the soap, I came up spluttering and choking. That’s my most vivid memory of her.

I threw on yesterday’s clothes, masked up, and bolted out the door.

At 6 a.m. the air was cool and sweet. A brisk pace took me to Ubud Palace. Across the street the traditional market was already bustling. I don’t blend into the crowd very well, so I didn’t stop and shoot a photo straight into the market area where bodies moved shoulder to shoulder in a dense sea of commerce. Had I done so, my actions may have been misinterpreted, or at the very least, unwelcome. I don’t want to be the Ugly American.

But a few paces farther along, I captured the motorbikes lined up in front.

I stuffed my phone back in my bag and continued past the glistening Arjuna statue that marks Jalan Raya’s east end. For probably the 2,578th time in my nine years in Bali, I stopped, backed up, fished my phone out again, got the perfect angle, and took the photo. I’m still awes-struck at the elegance, the intricate detail, and the sheer size of these artistic works depicting scenes from the epic Hindu texts, the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Still brimming with energy and smiling under my mask, I continued to Delta Dewata, one of two major grocery stores in Ubud.

I assumed it would be open. There was a patch of shade on the flight of steps leading up to…locked doors. I sat on the stairs and checked the time. 6:35 a.m. Their website said they were open every day, 8 – 10.

It wasn’t that I’d intended to shop. But I’d have browsed and found something I didn’t know I needed before resuming my jaunt.

I sat there, plotting my next move only semi-aware of the person working in the shrubs beside me. When a cracking sound caught my attention, I looked up – just in time.

WHACK! A huge penjor crashed onto the pavement, almost taking my nose with it.

I jumped. Probably squeaked a bit.

Then the ah-ha moment. Today is the day for removing these elegant, graceful tokens that are erected every six months during the celebration of Galungan-Kuningan. They invite the spirits of the ancestors back to their family homes to be remembered and honored. It suddenly made sense: That’s why the offerings I’d been seeing were more extravagant than usual.

Now I had a mission. I continued my meandering journey photographing the bountiful offerings and the women making their way to the temple.

Throughout the day, thousands of penjors will be removed. Their splendor has faded. The once-brilliant fabrics adorning them are now washed-out pastels. The spirits of the ancestors left weeks ago.

The penjor crashing down in front of me woke me up. It’s as though Grandma Rakel was scolding again. “Pay attention!” she said. “Don’t walk through your life asleep. Be present for the small things – they are your reality. They are right now.”

Wise and terrifying Norwegian Grandmother Rakel, thank you.

Travel surprises in a COVID-19 world

Travel is stressful under the best circumstances. But add a global health crisis to the mix and intensity escalates.

Packed and ready for the long journey home.

Even though I couldn’t have been more isolated if I’d stayed in a monastery in Mongolia, the fact that I’d just spent a month in Praiano was like having ITALY tattooed on my forehead. I felt vulnerable.

So I was surprised to find how absent any mention of the caronavirus was in airports and on planes. If a person hadn’t read the news there would be little indication that anything was amiss with the world. No one employed by the airline industry wore a mask. Everyone was exceptionally engaging, smiley, and helpful.

On both flights seatmates offered me sterile wipes and we all dutifully wiped down our tray tables, movie screens, armrests, safety belts, etc. Convinced we’d disinfected our surroundings, we plugged in earphones and tuned each other out.

Usually I’m a serial movie-watcher on long flights. After the sanitizing ritual I selected Ford vs. Ferrari with Matt Damon and Christian Bale. I loved every minute of it, Then fell asleep and didn’t stir for seven hours.

That was a first. I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane. It was my shortest 12-hour flight to date.

The layover in Singapore was just long enough to stretch, check in with WhatsApp and Messenger, take my bags through security and board for the final leg. Nobody mentioned the C-word.

Once in the air, flight attendants distributed a yellow slip of paper from the Indonesian Ministry of Health. Anxiety prickled in my chest, what questions would it ask that I didn’t want to answer? The form was as basic as it could get: name, flight number, passport number… At the end were two boxes with this inscription: Is your present condition sick or healthy, check one.

Efficient. Maybe not terribly effective at detecting illness, but definitely efficient.

Upon landing in Bali, I joined all incoming passengers in line with our yellow forms. Here I assumed my temperature would be taken and they’d ask where I’d come from. As I approached the end I couldn’t see any of that happening. Then it was my turn. A person with a mask exchanged my declaration of ‘healthy’ for another slip of paper, also yellow, with COVID-19 stamped in bold block letters. In small print it said to keep this in my passport and if I got sick to contact the nearest health facility immediately and bring along this card.

That was it.

I proceeded through immigration, no questions asked, handed in my ‘nothing to declare’ form in the customs line, and sailed out into the chewable night air.

I breathed in the moist, incense-laden, warmth of Bali and tension left my body. The long journey was over. Ketut was at the airport to meet me with a bottle of water and his 2000 watt smile.

I’m home.

Thank you all for coming along on my 70th birthday adventure. You’ve been great travel companions and have made my experience even more enjoyable by sharing it with me!

You have old skin? Wear a shawl!

I thought yesterday would be my last post from Praiano. I’m sorry. There’s too much magic. I have one more story to tell.

Three days ago I stopped at Centro Market for this and that and who did I run into but Felicia. You may remember her from the Cooking in Italy post. We greeted each other like long lost sisters and I caught one word: coffee. I frantically sought help but no one spoke English. What about coffee?

I apologized. By now you probably know my one Italian sentence as well as I do: Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano! She left and I continued browsing.

A few minutes later I heard, “Sherry! Sherry!” Felicia was back. She handed me a bag with a bowl of something warm inside and made eating motions. I scolded her and thanked her, then rushed home to see what she’d given me.

I pried the lid off. Water spinach. I’d know that veggie anywhere. Along with it, potatoes and ribs. Felicia had evidently run to her house, scooped up a bowl of her dinner, then returned to deliver it while I was still in the store.

I’ve eaten a lot of water spinach in Bali and I can’t say it’s the most exciting dish. But the flavors in Felicia’s combo woke up my mouth. Olive oil, lemon – what else? How could water spinach taste so good? I polished off the meal with gusto but the coffee question plagued me.

I texted Nicola, told him I’d run into Felicia and she’d said something about coffee but I hadn’t understood what she wanted. He explained it’s customary when you meet a friend you invite them in for coffee.

“You mean immediately, like right then?”

“Yes.”

Oh, darn. I’d blown that opportunity.

But there was still Felicia’s bowl. My mother taught me never to return a dish empty. Oh, Mom! Your words still ring in my ears after all these years. I had to return the bowl filled with something and time was getting short.

Felicia’s house is about ten steps from Centro Market. I’d noticed the market had a kilo (2.2 pounds) of Himalayan pink salt for $3 U.S. That’s much cheaper than what I pay in Bali. I wanted it and a box of goji berry tea. It was my last day in Praiano. I could kill two birds with one stone.

With the translation app’s help, I wrote a note in Italian telling Felicia how my mother taught me never to return a dish empty. Then I heated a pot of kale/carrot/sausage/lentil stew and spooned it into Felicia’s bowl. I’d stop at the market first, pick up my tea and salt, then I’d drop the bowl off at Felicia’s.

As I entered Centro Market, there was Felicia chatting with the owners. After a boisterous greeting I took the bag out of my purse and handed it to her. At first she said No! No! Then she read the note and laughed.

Another volley of Italian and – there it was again – coffee. This time I was ready.

“I don’t want to disturb…”

Non disturbare! Non disturbare!”

I left with Felicia. As soon as we were seated at her kitchen table with steaming cups and tiny anise cookies – because you never JUST have coffee – I whipped out the translate app on my phone and the chatter began.

I was commenting on her fashionable outfit when she stopped me mid-sentence and jumped up. “Un momento,” she said and disappeared. She came back carrying clothing: a spaghetti-strap dress, a filmy red scarf, and a silver camisole.

She talked fast. I thought she was telling me she worked with a resale shop in Positano, that she brought donated clothing home, washed and ironed it so it was cleaned before offered for sale. When she sat expectantly waiting for my response I knew I’d missed something.

“Felicia, per favore.” I handed her the phone. She spoke and I read the translation. Whoops! How could I have been so mistaken?

The clothes were for me.

“But Felicia,” I spoke to the app. “I have old skin! These are beautiful but they show too much!”

She read the Italian and made a very unlady-like sound, grabbed the phone and said: Hai la pelle vecchia? Indossa uno scialle.

I took it from her and read:

You have old skin? Wear a shawl.

I howled with laughter.

There’s a distinct similarity between Italian and Balinese women. They’re both extremely hard-headed and refuse to take no for an answer.

It was time to go but Felicia had one more thing to show me. She rents her house next door to tourists.”Prego! Prego!” she said. Italian spaghetti sauce? No, it means after you, or please, or you’re welcome, or just about whatever you want it to mean! I went in.

She pointed out the new patio garden. Lovely. We toured three bedrooms, two baths, and a large eat-in kitchen. Then she picked up a book and motioned me to the terrace.

For the next twenty minutes Felicia flipped page after page of food images in full-color. Her picture was featured on many of them with her famous recipes. She pointed out her brother’s contributions as well as those of restaurant owners up and down the Amalfi Coast shown with their best aperitivi, antipasti, primi, secondi, insalati, and desserts.

This woman never ceases to amaze me. I could hardly wait to get home and google it. Sure enough Amalfi Coast Recipes is available on Amazon.

There are used copies for sale. They cost just over $20. A new one is $894.94 U.S. dollars. Used is fine. The recipes are in English.

Cookbook under control, I tried on clothes. Felicia wanted photos. I wrapped the scarf around my neck and slipped into the dress. It fit like skin. The cami, too. Surely there’ll be an occasion…?

It’s surreal, like a dream-state. I’ve moved from one unlikely event to the next as though they were pre-planned to happen just so. But they weren’t. Nothing was. What a thrill!

Okay. That’s all. I promise. This really is the last post for a while.

Wish me luck with flights and some interesting travel bans that have just been announced back home. This adventure isn’t over yet.

Whiskey, the singing dog of Praiano

There’s an unassuming little ceramics shop in Praiano called La Bacheca. I was told it would be open from 10:30 to 1:00 today. And by the way, my friend in Florida texted, they speak English.

At this point in my communication-starved state, that’s all the reason I needed to stop by.

After yesterday’s wind and rain, the warm sun was a welcome companion as I strolled Via Roma through the tunnel to the San Gennaro side of Praiano. It really is like two separate towns. People have asked me, Are you staying on the San Luca side or the San Gennaro side? referring to the two major churches. I’m on the San Luca side.

As usual, I was staring at the ever-changing sea and almost missed the shop across the road. When I twisted the handle to enter nothing happened. I peered through the glass and was about to leave when the door swung wide. Buongiorno, the woman said.

“I’m sorry, are you closed?” No, the shop was open, but it was immediately apparent that this person did not speak English. I made apologies for my lack of language skills with my one Italian sentence, Mi dispiace non parlo Italiano, and stepped inside to drool over the merchandise.

I’d made two full circuits of the store and collected a small pile of must-have items on the counter when a gorgeous young woman walked in. Buongiorno, she said. A minute later the door opened again and a second beauty entered. There was a flurry of Italian, then their attention turned to me. They both spoke beautiful English.

The questions began. Where was I from? How long had I been in Praiano? Where was I staying? When it was my turn I found out that Carmela and Lucia were sisters and the woman who had let me into the shop was their mother, Anna. By this time a bottle of limoncello had come out of the back room and a shot was poured.

“Mmm, delicious,” I purred.

“It’s made here in Praiano. Have you been to the factory?” I had not. “Do you like Bailey’s?” Strange question, I thought. Limoncello was nothing like Baileys.

“I do, yes.”

“Then you must try this.” Another bottle appeared. It’s contents had a greenish tinge. “Creme di Pistacchio,” she said. “It tastes like Bailey’s.” She poured. She was right – like Bailey’s but a thousand times better.

“Carmella, it’s a good thing I didn’t know about this a month ago!”

“Here,” she tilted the bottle toward my cup. “Have some more.”

I laughed and told her no thank you, that I’d be too drunk to walk home. That’s when she offered to have her father give me a ride. How do you not fall in love with these people?

I was able to convince them that I enjoyed walking and needed the exercise. By then my items had been professionally wrapped.

I paid and was about to leave when a little dog walked up and sniffed me. “Oh!” Carmella said. “Whiskey wants to sing Volare for you.” And so Whiskey did.

I’d be hard pressed to choose the highlight of this trip. Amazement has greeted me at every turn. But I’ve never before been served fancy liqueurs in a ceramics shop, nor have I been serenaded by a dog. Thank you, Carmela and Whiskey. Today was very, very special.

*Note: if the video doesn’t work, here’s the link: https://youtu.be/MpAn-TIPxQQ

Five unforgettable lessons from my solo trip to Italy

The past month has changed my life. A different creature than the one who flew off to celebrate turning seventy will disembark the plane in Bali. This trip has been as transforming as the one I took at sixty-two when I made the choice to leave Minnesota and set up permanent residence in Indonesia.

The difference has been in the speed and intensity of this mutation. The move to Bali was like slowly opening one cherished gift after another. The island just kept on giving. Praiano must have sensed the time was short. I’ve been zapped by successive lightning bolts of insight that have dazzled and humbled me.

What you’ve seen in my almost-daily posts as I navigated the heights and depths of Praiano, were descriptions in words and pictures. What I haven’t shown are the results of those lightning bolt revelations that have rearranged me from the inside out – the inner odyssey.

Come along…

1) A smile opens doors, but knowing the language gets you inside.

As much as I hate U.S. entitlement and strive not to be that person, I made an ignorant, arrogant assumption. I assumed that most people in the touristy Amalfi Coast area of Italy would speak English. I was wrong. Perhaps during high season it’s different. But right now I may be the only tourist in this small town and it’s a rare joy when I’m understood.

The locals treat me beautifully, but point and gesture is as good as it gets with communication. It’s insanely frustrating. Before I do an extended trip again, I’ll learn the basics of my host country’s language.

2) Always be willing to change what you think you know about yourself.

This is big. If you tell yourself anything long enough, you’ll start believing it. And when you believe it, it becomes your reality and shapes your life. While I’ve been here I’ve experienced seismic shifts in the stories I’ve told myself for years. One catalyst that inspired change was a book that just ‘happened’ to be on the shelf. Another surprising insight came as a result of my daily posts to this blog. A third became clear as I spent significant time alone.

My goal for this trip, other than a septuagenarian celebration, was to gain clarity for the future. That intention provided fertile ground for inspiration and revelation to germinate. I was receptive to receiving and the Universe delivered, as she always does to the willing seeker.

3) It’s essential to tell yourself the truth and then live it.

The truth can be a very confusing idea. But our perception of truth goes hand-in-hand with the stories we tell ourselves. So how do you know if you’re telling yourself the truth? What does your life look like? Is there any area of your existence where you’re miserable, dissatisfied, unhealthy, bitter, angry, or whatever other negative response is possible? Isolate that part then ask, What am I telling myself about this circumstance that’s causing distress? You may believe that what you’ve been telling yourself is true. My guess is that it’s not.

I’ve always been very good at hiding my feelings. I’d do anything to keep the peace. I perceived myself as diplomatic, self-controlled, level-headed, composed, but in truth, confrontation terrified me. Not being liked wasn’t an option. As a result, nobody really knew me and I was okay with that, until now. Turning seventy flipped a switch. All of a sudden, being known feels more important than being liked. Maybe the grumpy old man, crotchety old woman thing is just the point in life when we become real. Look out! I’ve arrived.

4) Expect the unexpected, anything can happen.

When I left for Italy, I didn’t expect that over the course of one month the world would be thrown into a state of panic. That a virus would leap international boundaries and rip through countries with unprecedented ferocity. I personally don’t tend to imagine worst case scenarios. A flight delay, luggage lost – that’s as far as I go with ‘what ifs’. I don’t buy travel insurance. Ever. To me it feels like betting on disasters which as yet, in seventy years, haven’t happened to me. There have been flight delays and my luggage has arrived several days late a few times, but that’s it.

As the numbers of infected persons worldwide continued to rise, and the possibility of restricted air travel became reality for some areas, I entertained the idea of cutting my trip short. I bought into the overarching anxiety for about half a day. Then I caught myself. No. Why should I run scared? I have the funds to extend my stay if that becomes necessary. This began as an adventure and has become an even greater adventure. It’s a huge lesson in flexibility, in trust, in dealing with what comes in a sane and sensible, way. I have a friend battling cancer. That alone puts everything else in perspective.

5) Your mind is your ally only if you can control your thoughts.

I said I bought into anxiety for about half a day. When fear-energy amasses on a global scale, it’s necessary to take an intentional stand against it or it will play games with the mind. I was being sucked into that energy.

I’ve employed several ways of dealing with unwanted emotions that are working effectively for me.

  • Movement is number one. Getting outside for a walk, doing a yoga routine, even sweeping or vacuuming the house helps. Then I meditate.
  • Meditation makes a huge difference. I use a soundtrack in the background and concentrate on the notes, the mantras, the rise and fall of volume, anything other than what’s inside my head. I also focus on gratitude, all the things in this amazing life I’m grateful for.
  • Information gathering, assembling those facts that apply to my situation and screening out the rest is essential to keeping anxiety in check.
  • Distraction may seem like a negative but in the case of monkey-mind, when I can’t seem to stop myself from thinking about something that there’s nothing I can do anything about, it’s necessary to divert attention elsewhere. For me, writing, reading a good book, watching a movie or documentary, researching music I haven’t listened to before, all work well as diversionary tactics. I’m finding that preparing and eating a healthy meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is soothing as well. Good nutrition helps regulate moods.
  • Self-talk is ultra important. The story I tell myself must be true or I won’t believe it. I also want it to enable me to continue to enjoy this beautiful town, its kind people, the extraordinary view, and my last few days here. The key is to remain grounded in the present moment and not extrapolate what might happen. In the case of COVID-19, even the experts can’t accurately predict the outcome. So my truth is that in this moment I’m fine. I have empathy for the suffering this epidemic is causing and will continue to cause for an unknown period of time. But I will not contribute to fear.

Nothing excites me more than the boundless potential for human evolution. If we’re open to expanding self-awareness, intuition, compassion, understanding, knowledge, and become active participants in our own growth, there’s no limit to where it can take us. It isn’t always a comfortable ride, and sometimes to get there we have to take ourselves, alone, to parts unknown, so lightning can zap us.

Look what just appeared outside my window! After lightning bolts, a rainbow!

Food Glorious Food Glorious Fooooood!

I’ve embraced food-love.

Not just the flavors and nutritional value for my body, but the beauty, the colors and textures, the rugged heartiness or delicate elegance of the visuals (and victuals) on my plate.

I still prefer simplicity. One dish well-prepared delights me far more than a variety. I don’t know why that is – maybe I’m too easily stimulated by flavors. Maybe my palette gets confused and goes into overwhelm.

Whatever the reason, I’m much happier going deep into the complexities of a single entrée than sampling many. A table groaning with selections thrills some. Maybe they’re the true foodies. But for me, in quantities of food and friends, less is more.

Speaking of friends, small-talk, the inane chatter between people who don’t know each other well and may not care to, is painful for me. It’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets where you leave grossly stuffed but haven’t really tasted anything. I’ve taken new acquaintances aback when, after a few minutes of chit-chat I say, “So…tell me about your childhood.” The ones who reply, You first, are friends for life.

Food and friends. The two go hand-in-glove, don’t they? I hadn’t intended to write about friends – they just slipped in. But it makes sense. Sharing the daily repast is probably part of our DNA from the beginning. I don’t think Eve ate Adam’s rib. But she did offer him an apple – which didn’t end well. Hmm. Bad analogy. However, I think historically speaking, breaking bread together has been a peaceful endeavor, not an act of war.

But about the photos…

That’s lentil stew ladled atop the brick-hard bread I’ve raved about. I paired it with Sartori Pinot Grigio. A red wine would have been too heavy. Even though the slices of spicy salami I boiled first, created an intensely flavorful stock, and the chunk of bread added heft, the white complemented beautifully without overpowering.

In spite of the stunning meals I’ve had here, I was missing my Bali breakfast of homemade granola and coconut yogurt, topped with tropical fruit. On my next trip to Tutto per Tutti market I scanned the cereals on offer and came home with Kelloggs All Bran, a container of Yomo plain yogurt, bananas and strawberries – not quite dragon fruit and papaya but adequate.

The first day I ate it with yogurt. The following day I ate it without. It was either surprisingly good or I’ve completely forgotten the taste of my other life.

My latest achievement is a stew identical to the first, but this time I added kale and more garlic. Not only that, there are still plenty of bread boulders to submerge in the broth for exciting crunchy mouthfuls. That bread! I wish I could bring a year’s supply back with me – although it wouldn’t be the same in Bali’s climate. A bit heavy perhaps…?

I’m loving this – the prep and eating of food. I wouldn’t want to devote my life to it, but it’s fun for an hour or so during the day.

And in case you’ve forgotten, here are the lyrics to the last stanza of Food Glorious Food from the musical, Oliver:

What wouldn’t we give for
That extra bit more
That’s all we live for
Why should we be fated to do
Nothing but brood on food
Magical food,
Wonderful food
marvelous food,
Beautiful food,
Food, Glorious food glorious fooooooood

Stairway to…I guarantee it wasn’t heaven!

I love my sister. We email several times a week. We agree on important things and agree to disagree on everything else. But she owes me now. Bigtime.

Several days ago she wrote complaining that I’d mentioned a beach. She said she’d seen photos of sheer cliffs disappearing into the sea and although the images were beautiful, by her definition that did not qualify as beach.

So, Sherry…is there a beach?

Remember this sign? Alla spiaggia means exactly what the translation immediately below says it means: To the beach. But the day I took this path I was on my way to the church of Saint January. I diverged to the massive square in front of the church and did not continue on.

So Sherry, is there a beach?

According to the sign, yes. Had I seen one in all my meanderings? No. In Paulo Sandulli’s tower studio he had painted people sunbathing on what looked suspiciously like…a beach. Tourists flock here in the summertime to go to…the beach. The map has a location in Praiano called…Lido One Fire Beach. So…

Today for you, sister, I’ll follow those signs. According to the map, Via Rezzola will take me there.

Its entrance was easy to find.

After the little landing at the top it was steps.

At the bottom of this flight, the path turned and there was another flight.

Then it leveled off for a leisurely stroll.

I imagined my trek down to the beach would be like this lovely trail, gently sloping, lined with interesting gates, gardens, flora and fauna.

And it was…for a while.

All good things must end, and so did my walk-in-the-park so to speak. The path turned to steps. Downward.

And down…

and down…

It was a nightmare of steps. Any minute now, I thought…around the next corner…surely I’ll catch a glimpse of…anything but steps.

But that was not to be. Each bend brought another steep descent.

And then there were step switchbacks.

I hadn’t seen a soul. I have to admit it was a bit creepy and I felt extremely alone. No sound of voices, no footsteps, no animals…a twilight zone.

Just endless steps taking me where?

The to the beach signs had disappeared long ago, but there were no other trails, no other options, only this steady march downward.

Buildings – deserted. And more steps.

Where am I?

Sherry, is there a beach?

When I rounded a corner and saw an inlet below me with a flat surface I almost cried. THE BEACH! Then I took a closer look. At the bottom of this cove was a massive, man-made concrete shelf. Holy moly! Was this the beach???

Couldn’t be. The real one must be on the other side of that rock wall with the industrial looking equipment on top. I proceeded around the rim of the inlet to the other side and walked through the assortment of old boats, steel drums and mysterious odds and ends looking for a way through. But there was nothing else. Dead end.

Nicola had warned me not to go on the beach when the seas were high. Giant waves crashed over the surface. I decided this was definitely one of those days.

I watched for a while, dumbstruck. What a forlorn place.

Sherry, is there a beach?

Well, dear sister, not exactly but sort of. Well, no. Not really. Heck no! Not at all!

Suddenly I wanted distance between me and this desolation. I’d seen a road on the map. Now to find it. There was no way I was going to walk those fifty million steps back to the street.

I hadn’t seen another way out on my way down, but it must be here somewhere…

There was no road. Or if there was, you couldn’t get there from here. I did indeed have to walk back up all those steps.

It was 55°F (12.7°C) and there was a ten mph (16 kph) wind out of the north but I was sweating buckets by the time I reached the street. I thought about you, sister – thought about what I’d been willing to do to satisfy your inquiring mind. Thought how it would have been so much more fun if you’d been with me.

I let my mind wander. If she was with me, what would we do next?

Across the street was a little cafe with drool-worthy scents emanating from its open door. I peeked in and knew immediately what we’d do.

Zeppole di San Guiseppe aka creampuffs.

When I got home I Googled beaches in Praiano and what do you know? Yes, that dreadful Lido One Fire is one of them, but there’s another. I’d passed it on my ‘cute shoes walk’ the other day and took this photo. I didn’t know it was a beach. This is the one Sandulli painted from his tower. You can just barely see it up in the far left corner.

You’d be happy. I can tell from the photos on the internet…there’s real sand.

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