It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’ve always liked that quote. The older I get, the more it describes the changeable feelings we experience day by day. Everything can be so calm, so good and minutes later it can all be turned upside down. We live with change and the moment to moment possibility of loss. We must document the happy moments and enjoy the views.
After recovering from covid, I went on holiday to Italy. It felt like the first proper break for some time. The weather was close to my definition of perfect weather: sunny afternoons and evenings, sitting outside for meals without getting a chill, no bulky coat, but also not getting too hot and sweaty. I returned to some places – Verona, Lake Garda – and visited some places new to me – Milan, Brescia, Lecco, Trento. Whilst masks and vaccination passes were still required, my anxiety has lessened. This is one benefit to having had covid. I’ve faced the invisible demon and no longer fear every person within a 2 metre radius in the same way. Something has shifted, for the better.
Italy was always my favourite section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It’s more likely I’d end up seeking spiritual enlightenment in pasta and gelato than in the ashram described in latter sections of the book. There is something healing about Italy.
A few days in I realised I was sleeping through the night! And all it took was more sun, fresh air, hearty meals, good wine and walking 20,000 steps a day. And no Zoom calls! My feet ached but I fell into bed each night feeling that I had lived a complete day. Is this what’s been missing so much in the last couple of years? The feeling of full living. Can our days be more than screens and thoughts? Can they include views and history and people and variety? How do I keep it that way?
I had been wondering if travel was just too much for me these days. The tough bit is the actual travelling – the planning, nerves, packing (seems much trickier now), dreaded airports, claustrophobic planes and scary turbulence. During take-off, I always think why can’t you just keep your feet on the ground? Find a quiet place and simply stay in it, accepting that you saw enough of the world already.
But then, there is Italy. And France.
There is the pleasure of running away from monotony, bills and cleaning the bathroom. The thrill of a new hotel room with a bed made. Pushing back the curtains to discover a new view. The little soap in the bathroom.
And having company helps. Navigating adventures abroad is very different with another person. Even with daily disagreements, there are shared delights over the view or the coffee. There is the rich luck of being able to figure stuff out as a team. Getting lost on your own is stressful. But getting lost with company is a diversion. This new street looks nice, maybe you’ll check out a shop before you get back on track. There is less panic. Less constant need for vigilance. Letting the guard down.
I often think about the concept of being alone, solitude, self-sufficiency and captaining my own ship. Some days I resent it. Someone my age cheerfully trilled on a podcast they had never lived alone and wouldn’t like it. What if it wasn’t a choice, I thought angrily. This idea that you can conjure friendship, love, family, relationships up throughout life and in the location you need them doesn’t ring true for me. There were many times when doing things alone was the only path that I could see. Yet if I hadn’t experienced it I would never have that feeling of total freedom. The knowledge that you can make your own decisions and go where you choose. Not to be underestimated or undervalued. But not without its own challenges.
Whilst planning Italian adventures, Duolingo became my addiction. I’m learning words each day and savouring my favourites: certo, limonata, uccelli, perché, armadio. I need to be able to roll my ‘R’s to get pronunciation right. It’s really hard but I’m motivated to keep trying because as soon as I returned from Italy, I wanted to be there again.
Back in the UK, I visited my parents at the time of the recent local elections. My Dad decided to stand as a councillor for the first time ever! His profile in the paper talks about his background as a retired teacher and how he wants kids to have safe routes to school so they can walk or cycle. Having lived in the area for nearly 40 years, he’s got so much knowledge. He went on the campaign trail, mapping all the local streets and delivering his leaflets. A lot of hard work and dedication, considering he also recovered from covid recently. I’m very proud of him.
Growing up, I suppose it was a political household. My parents are left wing and my Mum worked for Friends of the Earth back in the 80s when it was definitely more radical. I remember trying to distance myself from this at school because it was so embarrassing. Going on protests about climate change was fun for us kids. We got to make banners and make a nuisance of ourselves. But my friends at school wanted their parents to buy new cars and take all us to McDonalds. Environmental activism did not fit well with that. There was also a frustrating feeling that we would never be the ones making decisions. We were ‘shout at the TV’ people, not ‘on the TV’ people.
So it is a milestone that my Dad at age 72 put himself forward for the council election. The Labour team had low expectations – they were the underdogs. Yet when the results came in, they were very close! Dad had only 13 votes less than the winning Conservative candidate. We’re all having mixed feelings about this – shock, pride, disappointment and perhaps a small amount of relief. Back to shouting at the TV for now.
I got to sleep in my childhood bedroom for a couple of days in Stoke. It’s a relief occasionally to cocoon myself in this space I’ve known all my life. My hopes and fears are here. They are as present as the purple and pink paint chosen by my teenage self which is still, inexplicably, on the walls. Nostalgia rushes in. A typewriter is unearthed and I remember how thrilling I found it to type stories as a child. The loud clack of the keys, the page filling up with black text. I’ll always find a photo album here, and a piece of school homework there , and it’s easy to get lost in these things.
But I have to shut the door on them and get back to my real life, whatever and wherever that is.