Put me in front of a group of people to do a presentation on Italy, share ideas on family Lenten practices or explain Brunelleschi's dome and its influence on architecture, and I am in my element; in fact, I love it.
But, ask me to do a book talk and I am a bundle of nerves. As in, take-deep-breaths-or-I-will-throw-up kind of nerves.
It's a conundrum. The only thing I can figure is that in one scenario I'm teaching, in the other I'm sharing.
Also, I've never done this sort of thing before, so there has been a huge learning curve. Each time I give a book talk I learn something new, which is good, but also creates self-doubt because I'm in a situation involving trial and error. But I now know, for instance, to bring a pen to sign books (at my first book talk I had to borrow one), to ask questions about the venue because it helps knowing ahead of time if there will be a podium or if I will be using a microphone, to speak from my heart and not rely on notes, and to request two easels for poster boards I like to use as a backdrop.
Yesterday I was invited to speak at the local chapter of the Suburban Woman's Club, and when it was time to leave home I was this close to being sick. I needed backup, so I turned to God and called my sister. In that order. With God I was grateful for this opportunity to share my story and humbly asked for a smidgen of courage; with my sister I got to the point.
"Okay. Talk to me. I'm giving a book talk in 30 minutes and I already feel like I'm going to be sick," I said. "Why do I do this? It is so idiotic. I am prepared. I have a really good talk that comes full circle by the end. I am even having a good hair day! So why can't I breathe?"
I'm laughing when I say this, but not really.
"Oh, you do need to breathe," Laura says helpfully. "Breathing is important."
Before I can come up with a witty response, she continues.
"I get the same way when I have to do a presentation at work," she explains. "You need to remember to breathe from your diaphragm, not your upper chest. It helps."
See? I always learn something new. A little later I'm smiling and breathing from my diaphragm while the treasurer of the club introduces me.
Here's another thing I've learned in doing these book talks: After working myself up into such a state, at some point during the presentation I settle down and actually enjoy it. Which is precisely what happened yesterday. I had a lovely lunch with some truly lovely people who liked hearing my story. They laughed, wiped away a tear or two, asked questions, and wanted to know more.
"You are the best speaker we've had in a long time," one woman said afterwards. "You are so personable. Do you have other things you could talk about because I want to hear you again."
I liked the fact that she used the word personable because it allows for a little bit of everything, including nerves.
I smiled at her, and remembered to breathe from my diaphragm.
On the morning we left Venice, I was delayed at the Air France check-in counter because the computer system had somehow merged my ticket with that of my sister-in-law. In a way, I could understand ... Maria Anna Novajosky and Mary Treacy Novajosky sound and look very, very similar. It was a problem we had encountered earlier in the trip when Mary checked in for our Atlanta-Amersterdam flight and they gave her my boarding pass.
So one at a time, members of my group received their boarding passes while I stood at the counter waiting for Air France to fix the problem. I finally told the group to go through security and that I'd meet them at the gate. My sister, who had her boarding pass, remained with me.
Time passed. The nice Air France attendant typed furiously on her computer. She made three phone calls. Four. Then five. She called her manager. Finally, she had to cancel my ticket and re-issue it, and by the time she handed me the boarding pass our plane was already boarding. Luckily, the attendant had stamped our passes so we could race through security. Honestly, I have never gone through security so quickly--straight to the head of the line, throw our bags on the belt, leave on our shoes, run through the metal detector, and grab everything and go. We made it to the gate just in time.
Now, while all this was going on I had been very calm. I knew the issue would be resolved. I was even happy that, out of everyone in the group, it had happened to me because I could speak Italian (which facilitated things greatly with the ticket agent).
But when I boarded the plane I realized that, in canceling and then reissuing my ticket, my seat assignment had been changed. Prior to our trip I had been so careful with my seat selections; in fact, on that particular flight (Venice to Paris) I had even paid for an upgrade so I could have more leg room. Now, however, I was stuck in the middle, with an elderly American woman on one side and a gentleman of Middle-Eastern descent on the other.
I was mad. And hot after my airport run. Then I thought how my seat assignment on my next flight--the one from Paris to Atlanta--was probably changed too.
So I sat there stewing, with my elbows wedged to my side, typing a text to Joe asking him please (when he woke up) (hopefully before I landed in Paris) to go online and try to get back my original seats. I ignored the lady to my left (who, I was sure, was going to talk my ear off) and the gentleman to my right (who, I was sure, had nothing in common with me).
You know how someone can give off an air that tells people not to mess with them? Well, I gave off that air. Don't look at me, touch me, talk to me. Don't smile at me. Don't be nice to me. Just. Leave. Me. Alone.
I was in a mood.
A little later the pilot announced that there was a clear view of the Alps out the window, so I leaned over to take a look. What a view! Grandiose. Majestic. And it put things into perspective for me. Our plane was so insignificant compared to that majestic mountain range, just as my little ticket problem was insignificant compared to what had been a wonderful and problem-free trip. I thought back to the past 13 days of traveling with 31 women, a trip I had organized, and of the thousand--no, the MILLION--things that could have gone wrong ... and nothing had.
It's so easy to complain that the rose bushes have thorns instead of rejoicing because thorn bushes have roses.
Just then the flight attendant came by offering snacks and drinks. The woman next to me asked the attendant for a gluten-free snack, but they were out so she settled for a cup of hot tea. I took a deep breath and turned to her with a smile.
"As it happens, I have a gluten-free muffin in my purse," I told her. "It's from our hotel breakfast this morning. You are welcome to have it."
And I handed it to her. Then, because I didn't want ignore the gentleman on the other side, I turned to him.
"I'm sorry," I said. "That was the only muffin I had."
He smiled and, in broken English, asked where I was headed. And there I was, having a conversation with a gentleman from Egypt who was flying to Paris on business and nervous about everything because he had never been out of his country before.
As we started our descent into Paris, I was awash in gratitude--for our wonderful trip, for the memories and laughter and experiences, for the time with my sister and the visit with my relatives, for smooth flights and good health for everyone, for the view of the Alps and the sight of Mont Blanc. I was grateful for the elderly American woman on my right and the Egyptian gentleman on my left. I was even grateful for my ticket woes and wherever I happened to be seated on the next flight.
There was so, so much for which to be grateful.
Mostly, though, I was grateful that when I was so quick to resort to childishness when something didn't go right, God's grace enabled me to see the roses through the thorns.
Today we said arrivederci (or auf wiedersehen) to Bolzano and stopped in Verona for a half day walking tour before continuing on to our final stop, Venezia. As many of you know, my mother is from Verona, and our relatives still live there; additionally, Nicoletta's mother is also from Verona. So when our bus arrived to Ponte della Vittoria in downtown Verona our relatives were all there, waving and smiling at the bus with its GIRLS' TRIP TO ITALY banner on the front window. After everyone said goodby to Nicoletta (who would remain in Verona), my sister and I spent a few hours with our relatives while the rest of the group toured the city of Rome and Juliet. They visited Juliet's house, Romeo's house, Piazza delle Erbe (with its market stalls), and Piazza Bra with the world famous l'Arena (the open air colosseum which is still used today for concerts and a summer opera season). There was free time to explore and have lunch, and in the early afternoon we boarded the bus for the last time for a short drive to Venice.
On the outskirts of Venice we said a final goodbye to Rocco (alas, no bus drivers are needed in Venezia) and boarded water taxis for a thrilling ride up the channel and into the Grand Canal. It was an amazing way to arrive into this magical city. We disembarked at Piazza San Marco and walked across the famous square to our hotel, Hotel Cavalletto. Yes, that's right, our hotel was right next to Piazza San Marco!
That night, most of the group participated in a dinner and gondola serenade (Mary Brooke participated in a duet with the musicians on the gondola as they were floating down a canal) while the rest of the group either explored on their own or attended the 6:45 p.m. Mass at St. Mark's Basilica.
Two of my favorite places on earth.
Enjoying lunch with my Italian family in Piazza Bra.
Much love to Paola, Silvio, Tizi, Luciano, and Martha!
And much love to Davide, Damiano & Irene (who had a baby
just a few days ago), and Chiara (who was away at university).
Melanie, Elizabeth, Jeannie
Lunch with a view.
Our grand entrance into Venezia.
Our first glimpse of Piazza S. Marco, Doge's Palace,
and the campanile.
Melanie and Cathy taking in our view from Hotel Cavaletto.
If you go out the back door, you land in the canal.
Off to a gondola ride and serenade, followed by dinner.
Lower left photo shows the musicians (including Mary Brooke
who sang along).
Piazza S. Marco at night,
and Mass at the Basilica (one of the few times they turn
on the interior lights is during Mass).
Venezia at night is magical.
Story of this photo: I was trying to identify a church across the
lagoon and slowed down to look at a map while my group went on ahead.
Since it was dark, I held the map up high to try and read it by
lamp light. All of a sudden I heard the sound of laughter ...
my group, taking this photo, saying I looked like a tourist.
Day 12: Venezia (Sept. 30)
The sun was shining on our first full day in Venezia. We began with a guided tour of Doge's Palace where we saw masterpieces by Titian (one of the most important artists of the High Renaissance), Tintoretto (responsible for the largest oil on canvas in the world), and Veronese (known for his characteristic blue skies in the background of his paintings). We were able to walk across the Bridge of Sighs (so named by Lord Byron) which connects the justice chambers of Doge's Palace with the prisons.
After touring St. Mark's Basilica, we watched a glass blowing demonstration at the Vecchia Murano Glass Factory. Our afternoon was then free, and almost everyone spent that time exploring or, if they hadn't already done so the previous evening, taking a gondola ride.
Our Farewell Dinner was at Ristorante Al Colombo where we dined outside in a courtyard that provided excellent acoustics for Mary Brooke to sing two arias--Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro and Ave Maria. She received a standing ovation from all of us, as well as from the other patrons dining nearby. After one last group photo, and after making a speech thanking Jane for being such a wonderful guide, we spent the rest of the evening in St. Mark's Square enjoying a magical evening of twinkling lights, orchestra music, and the festive air of the piazza.
Note: In the months leading up to our trip, my sister and I hosted several information sessions about some of the sights we would be seeing in Italy. While we went over Florence, Milano, Verona and Bolzano, I purposely did not go into great detail on Venezia ... mainly because I believe everyone's first visit to La Serenissima shouldn't so much be about the mind, but about the senses. You have to feel, taste, touch, smell, see, hear, and experience Venezia as the unique and magical place that it is.
Mollie and Cathy
Brilliant sun, blue skies.
Our first full day in Venezia was perfect.
St. Mark's Basilica in the morning sun.
Very proud of this photo showing a streetlight (with the characteristic
pink Venetian glass) and St. Mark's lion (the symbol of Venezia).
Three details from Doge's Palace.
Details from inside Doge's Palace.
Window with a view, Doge's Palace.
My sweet sister in law, Mary, outside Doge's Palace.
Vecchia Murano Glass Factory.
The demonstration included glass blowing and glass pulling.
Each piece is exquisite.
Waiting for our gondola.
A few of us took a sunset gondola cruise before dinner.
Flavio, our gondoliere.
Flavio, our gondoloiere, taking us through the smaller canals
and into the larger, Grand Canal.
Dinner in a courtyard.
Mary Brooke singing Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro
Mary Brooke singing Ave Maria
Post dinner stroll.
Piazza S. Marco on our last night.
Our friend Karla took this amazing 360-degree photo
of Piazza S. Marco at night.
First night in Italy,
last night in Italy.
Day 12: Venice-USA (Oct. 1)
Sadly, departure day. After our checked luggage was sent on ahead by boat (luggage which had "mysteriously" not only grown in weight, but also in number), the group again boarded water taxis for a 30-minute boat ride to the Marco Polo Airport. Long lines awaited us at the Air France counter, and while the rest of the group sailed on through without any problem, Maria was stuck at the ticket counter trying to prove that Maria Anna Novajosky and Maria Treacy Novajosky were sisters-in-law ... that is, two different people and not the same person! She made it to the gate just as everyone was boarding! Whew!
A connection in Paris, a customs and passport control in Atlanta, and the group said goodbye to Brenda, Jeannie, Elizabeth, Mary, and Mary Brooke (all of whom, with the exception of Mary Brooke, had connecting flights). Everyone else flew in to Augusta.
Much later that night (well past midnight) texts via WhatsApp confirmed that everyone had made it home safe and sound.
Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends,
but it is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.
Half of our Bunco group (we missed the other half!).
We've been together for amost 17 years.
Walking across Piazza S. Marco one last time.
The heavier luggage was sent by boat ahead of time.
Mysteriously, our luggage not only creased in weight, but in number.
One last view of Venezia.
(photo sent to me by a blogging friend)
And I leave you with this ... a gondoliere singing
This week La Dolce Vita Travels is publishing a series of posts recapping our Girls' Trip to Italy. I do this for several reasons: as a means of transcribing my travel journal, to share our trip with all those who have been asking how it went, and to plant seeds of interest for our next trip (and there will be another one).
The series will be five parts, corresponding to the five cities in which we stayed--Pistoia (Tuscany), Santa Margherita (the Italian Riviera), Stresa (Italian lakes region), Bolzano, and Venezia. Today, we leave the shores of Lago Maggiore and head toward Bolzano. Day 9: Stresa-Franciacorta-Bolzano (Sept. 27)
After one last breakfast served by waiters straight from Downton Abbey, we said arrivederci to our three night stay in Stresa and headed for Bolzano, stopping first at the Bellavista Vineyard in Franciacorta, a region known for their white grapes and the wines they produce. At Bellavista we learned how the owner, Vittorio
Monetti, turned a small family-run wine making activity into a full-fledged
business, keeping to tradition by using an 8-step process that begins with
harvesting and ends with packaging. The heart of their method is perlage (the process whereby bubbles are
introduced) and Bellavista is proud that the bubbles in their wines develop naturally (as opposed to in a factory) and therefore do not cause
headaches; additionally, unlike champagne which is aged 15 months, Bellavista sparkling wines are aged for 36 months (3 years), and 90,000 bottles are turned daily by
hand during the aging process. After the tour we were treated to a wine tasting
of two different Bellavista wines, both of which were absolutely delicious.
leaving the vineyard we drove a short distance to Agriturismo Bertola for
lunch. An agriturisimo is a working
farm that has opened up part of their property for lodging and dining. The best
part of an agriturismo is the food
since everything they serve—produce, eggs, meat, and wine—is either produced on
their farm or sourced from the surrounding area; hence, everything is fresh. At
Agriturismo Bertola we had a delicious lunch (with even more wine!) and then continued
our journey toward Bolzano.
Just in case you missed it, wine mid-morning and wine for lunch ... we were a happy group when we got back on the bus for the drive to Bolzano. Poor Rocco.
We arrived in Bolzano by early evening. Some people took taxis to go eat downtown, while others shopped at the Italian grocery store across the street and pooled their purchases for an impromptu picnic back at the hotel.
Our waiters spoiled us.
When I got home I had to make my own cappuccino.
Bellavista Wines overlook the Franciacorta region
known for growing white grapes.
At the entrance was this very intriguing sculpture.
All of the 90,000 bottles are turned daily by hand.
Gathering for a wine tasting.
Bellavista wines are light, refreshing, and sophisticated.
Thirty minutes later, lunch at Agriturismo Bertola with
even MORE wine.
Boarding the bus for Bolzano.
Poor Rocco ... all these women.
Our lovely tour director, Jane, as we checked into our hotel
in Bolzano. The hotel brought the outside inside with a forest of trees
and a pumpkin patch.
Day 10: Bolzano (Sept. 28)
morning began with something totally different: a visit to see Otzi, a 5,300
year old glacial mummy whose body was discovered by hikers in 1991. Our tickets
for the Museo Archeologico allowed us
to enter 30 minutes before the museum opened, so we were able to get up close
and personal to Otzi.
As amazing as it was to see Otzi, the science behind his discovery was even
more fascinating as it revealed his eye color, last meal, blood type, diseases he had (such as cardiovascular disease), and a theory on how he was murdered.
We also learned how the tattoos on his body were used as a form of acupuncture
for pain and arthritis and that the location of the tattoos correspond to
ancient Chinese acupuncture charts.
walking tour of Bolzano introduced us to a city that had us asking: Italy or
Austria? Indeed, throughout history that area has belonged to both countries, but after WWI it was officially declared part of Italy. But today, with most of the locals speaking both Italian and German, with
the street signs written in both languages, and with apple strudel and tiramisu
offered as dessert options, it's a little disorienting knowing we are in Italy but feeling as if we are in Austria. (In fact, when Maria and
Thalia were hiking on Soprobolzano and stopped to ask directions to a church, the elderly
gentleman spoke no Italian at all!)
After our guided city tour, we had some free time for lunch and shopping, then later that afternoon the group
boarded the Renon cable car for a 15-minute ride to the sun plateau of
Soprabolzano where we hiked, had a gelato, photographed the views, and
enjoyed the crisp, mountain air.
that evening we enjoyed an Italian-German meal at Ristorante Wirtshaus Vogele—ravioli for a first course, goulash for the second (unless you ordered
the polenta), and for dessert we had a delicious apple strudel with a vanilla cream sauce.
Otzi, the 5,300 year old glacial mummy, was discovered by
hikers in 1991. At first treated like a modern-day crime scene,
it wasn't until three days after the discovery that an archaeologist
was called to determine the real age of the body. The science
community was all abuzz with excitement. (And it was still considered
a murder since Otzi died after being shot in the back with an arrow.)
The Mercantile Museum
Founded in 1635 by Archduchess of Autstria, Claudia de Medici, the purpose
of the merchant court was to settle commercial disputes.
Going up, up, up on a cable car.
Soprabolzano: Maria, Gayle, Mary
Beautiful views, crisp mountain air.
Ristorante Wirtshaus Vogele
Our last dinner in Bolzano.
A little Italian, a little German.
A quick story about the last photo above: In Bolzano my sister-in-law, Mary, and I had lunch at a sidewalk cafe. I ordered the stuffed potato dumplings (soooo good, similar to pierogies) and a glass of Fanta. Now, the Fanta in Italy is NOT like the Fanta in the States (which is too sweet and too orange). I don't drink soda, but when I am in Italy I do like their Fanta. When our waiter walked away with our order, I regretted not ordering a beer since our local guide that morning and gone on and on about the beer in Bolzano. But when the waiter brought our drinks, he served my Fanta in a large beer glass and with the color of the drink and the foam on top it LOOKED like a beer (kinda, sorta). When I thanked the waiter for my fake beer, he laughed.