My welcome-to-Italy fetters

A water fountain near our apartment and on the way to the college, a former monastery, Susan Michael Barrett, photographer

I so want to write romantically about Italian food. 

I want to to tell with enough detail that you’ll head to the kitchen. I want your tongue to long for—I mean, really long for a dainty pastry stuffed with lemon curd, nestled on a ceramic saucer holding a steamy demitasse swallow or two of velvety coffee supporting a swirled milky coat of arms. (It looks like a leaf.) 

I want to tell you about the first pasta I was served. I didn’t even know what al dente meant until then. And that light white sauce. Perfecto. Parmigiano Reggiano whirled with a hint of burro, with even less cream, and ground pepper. If you need to try this tonight, do not scrimp on the pepper.

But instead, I’m writing about my welcome-to-Italy fetters. My knots. I know, I know. You say, don’t, Susan, don’t. Please pass the pasta. Keep that last paragraph going. 

I hear you and understand. But you see, I must learn the skill of recognizing knots.

I hear teacher Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh)  suggestion to attend immediately to knots. “Give knots full attention as soon as they form.” Why? A new knot is still loose and can be more easily untied. And I know the difficulty of a tight knot. I wore saddle shoes as a young child. I remember my mom cutting my shoelaces because knots tugged tight from a lack of noticing. 

Better to catch knots early.

So, I’m here to untie a knot or two.

First some context: I have a severe chest cold. Illness adds so much more to working with what a moment offers.

Day one: Rome. In a broad stroke (and acknowledging this city’s historical significance), Rome is too violent for me, especially the ruins of the Forum and the Colosseum.  I'm grateful for fifteen minutes of teal blue sky over the Colosseum because if I had to stand looking out into that stadium in the pouring rain, well, I might faint. I look skyward and silently exclaim that I'm not on a pilgrimage. I'm not honoring this place, nor succumbing to formalist engineering delight at the expense of forgetting just what happened in this oval: a half-million people and a million animals were killed for spectacle. I see too much primitive human pilfering, cruelty, and warring. 

Twelve miles of fast walking and listening to scholarship keeps me from noticing what I notice. I mute my earphones. Quiet magnifies my awareness.

Day two: I stay in bed shivering in fever. 

Day three: Now what happened on day three? Oh, that’s right. The Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the MAXXI Modern Museum of Art.

Day four: Orvieto, Italy. A funicular cable ride up the mountain to learn in a downpour of cold rain about the facade of the Orvieto Cathedral, meandering streets, and finally zuppa. (Hearing the word funicular brings the Funiculi Finicula song to mind. I bet you know it.) 

About 4:30 PM, I get my first glimpse of Coronta, a small town nestled near the top of a mountain. Our bus stops next to a church. Below the church is the monastery, which is now a college established by the University of Georgia and where the students live and T will teach.

Roberto our landlord takes us to our apartment on Via Maffei. Thirty-three steps up, broken into three angular sets. My legs ask why I didn’t investigate apartment options before T agreed to this one. We get a quick tour of what will be home for three months. We unpack. The charm of a 1500 CE apartment with thick stone walls, beamed and brick ceilings, terra cotta floors, and swinging windows and shutters are chilled by weariness. 

T heads off to dinner. I skip it. Instead I prop a pillow on the floor by a radiator safe from the chilling walls. I breathe. I am in a retreat setting I wished for and already I don’t like the company (me). I cry and then lighten enough to have this thought: Nothing’s wrong. I’m in an innocent situation. I don’t have to escape or think I have to be better than I am in handling this. I don’t have to come up with an improvement plan.

I am sitting in the same spot an hour and a half later when T returns with vegetable soup. I sip a cup, then we go to bed. 

I wear my sweater to bed.

It snows in the night.

Even though T catches my cold, he still brings me coffee in bed that first morning. He wears a blanket on his shoulders and I can tell he’s chilled. His kindness shows up anyway.

The coffee is his offering and amend for his impatient irritability.

We all respond to adversity differently. On our walk from the college to our apartment last evening, T stops to photograph a shop’s window. He says, “You’re in the reflection.” I step away, but it’s how I hear it. (Well, he is admittedly crabby.) I feel his words like a heart dart.

Engaging in my own little Roman war, I hit back. 

I  move away, arms tight, face hard, and swiftly looking to the side, I blurt, “I could never live here,” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying something like, “I’m not so happy you brought me here.” He looks over with his eyebrows raised and asks, “Why?” I pause, and lie. “It’s too cold.”

I say I’m cold and didn’t pack like I was headed to a mountain top. I want to blame him for not telling me about this or that as if he’s my personal assistant. I want to blame the weather for the discomfort of our twelve-mile walk through Rome, in the rain, on slippery cobblestones to see some of the most iconic structures and art ever created (and looted). 

I want to blame T for my unsteady footing today in Cortona. I’m cold and didn't train for walking narrow, steep, rainy (and snowy) cut-rock roadways without falling. 

I think our shower is tiny, not hot enough, and spews wildly from a mineral-corroded shower head. The radiator-heated rooms scream for a scarf, hat, gloves, and three sweaters to be worn indoors. Not suggested. Required.

I’ll be buying a down coat.

But honestly, this is it: I’ve shut down to newness and uncertainty. Hardened. Closed tight.

I see what I don’t like about myself.

My views. (Why does dinner have to be at 7:30 PM when I like to eat at 5:00.) 
My reactions. (I say zuppa and she says she doesn’t know what that means so I say it louder.)
My opinions. (Our apartment needs a clothes-dryer. And WiFi.)
My judgements. (That mini-blender I bought won’t chop kale.) 
My thoughts. (I’m on a self-selected retreat, so why is it so difficult?) 
My admonishments. (You’re too “something” for a trip like this.)
My behaviors. (Lost in a tired woe, I pass a homeless man and do not think to give him my left-over food.)

I’m learning. Awareness shows me what I can work with. So I’m letting this experience be an example of me not giving up on myself. Of me not afraid to be myself in all my frozen-assedness. I get to see how I am. That I am not some ideal I have to live up to. I am who I am right now and I’m working with it.

Simplicity and quiet are not for the meek. I thought I already had pared my life. Not so. This is a new level of less and stillness.


  1. There's our Susan. I so admire your determination to strip away the layers and get to the core of what's troubling you. While the food natter would be grand the Susan fetter is better. Your honesty is as always so refreshing. And your conclusions tell me that your dealing and healing process has begun. Baby steps. Now go out and get that coat!

    1. Oh, Kelly. You're here. I cannot tell you how wide I'm smiling. Thank you for going with the Susan fetter over the food natter. And yes, I'm stripping away layers and finding fine. It's all okay. And it's warmer today. Putting off the coat... <3

  2. I am lost in your words. I feel the cold floor. I imagine trying to "will" more heat out of the radiator. I begin to ponder what frozen-assedness is and if it is more than physical...does it reach the mind, heart, soul..... Your courage is so large it jumps through the screen. Your authentic journey being so generously are on sacred ground and you have invited us to walk alongside you. While I know the pasta and gelato and art, my God the art, will soothe your senses, your most profound journey seems so beautifully within you. I sense you watching for and yearning for the light, the heat, and as it begins to glimmer in your sight I see it growing into a roaring Fire of magnificence. Or, I could have simply said, "thank you, Susan."

    1. Michael, your ability to will heat works. Our apartment is warming up! But Michael, I'm having this thought about you--and if you don't see it here, I hope I remember to write you an email: I hope you start a column where people write to you. They write their gut-honest stories and then you respond with your amazing ability to nurture, pull one's inner nugget forth and out to place smack dab in one's hand. You're really something, Michael. Really something special. And I am so grateful to be a recipient. Thank you.

    2. I see it...and I'm floored! Wow! Just wow! Thank you on every level possible!!!

  3. Oh dear. I'm worried that, in our close friendship, my travel-phobic, shivering-in-the summertime self has rubbed off on you. Say it ain't so!

    Well, you could say it is so, and that would be a nice, tidy way to duck out of self-responsibility -- but I think all your readers know you better than that. One of the things I admire most about you is your willingness to take responsibility for that long list of personal experiences you cite, your VROJTABs, to acronymize it.

    As always, you continue to be an inspiration to me, both in our friendship and in your writing. I hope that this cold -- the head cold and the deep-down shivers -- passes quickly, and you are able to settle in to the glories that are before you right now.

    I know already: you are, and you will. ♥

    1. Ain't so, Harmony. Well...worries aside, and honesty fully present, yes--our friendship and your shares about shivering and rain and Oregon winds and storms and weatherness affect me. But it's a good effect: I better understand your experience and have learned from your rough sailing to just make a hearty kettle of soup. So thank you, dear friend. Sloshy shoes are not so bad! That is, compared to a cold, wet back.

      I wish I could remember my VROJTABs. Or what that means : ))

      I'm in Italy! Glories are here. And you're here (thank you for reading this). I'm so grateful. Many hugs, much love to you.