Friday, July 11, 2014

Rick Steves, Gene Kelly and Me

I decided today I need a new mantra:

Work is not vacation.
Work is not vacation.
Work is not vacation.

I have been blessed, by fortune, design and effort, to combine work and travel, work and leisure, work and play. My work is so much fun, so joyful, so pleasurable, that it barely qualifies for work as most people know it. And it has been particularly wonderful to work while I travel, travel while I work, feel myself as an ambassador of good news about children, music and human potential while getting to trot around the globe.

But no matter how glorious the work, it is work. It happens on a schedule, it requires preparation, it needs accompanying notes and occasional meetings, it demands responsibility on my part to deliver what I promise and fulfill all understood obligations. After a day of teaching, I often need to conjure up some charm going out to dinner with my hosts (though mostly, it’s effortless enjoyment of the company of great people), then come back and review the next day’s plans or prepare yesterday’s notes.

But vacation is something different. I can sleep late or wander aimlessly or read for a few hours as I like. Left entirely to face myself— for better or worse— I can sift down to the bottom of my thoughts without interruption, get off the merry-go-round of the timetabled-day and try to remember what it’s like to “just be.” Truth be told, it’s sometimes terrifying. Not only because it feels better to contribute and go deeper and reach higher into my life’s path and aspirations, but because sometimes I can forget how to “just be” and feel the need to be busy to confirm my imagined identity.

But not today. On a roll with three days of invigorating hiking, my wife and I set off again today to take the two-minute train from Riomaggiore to Manarola. On that brief ride, we overhead an American say, “If Rick Steves doesn’t recommend it, we don’t do it!” Rick is the Travel Guru author of his own guidebooks and we do pay attention to his suggestions. But it’s also great to just find things on our own and today, we picked a winner.

Now in case any reader has stumbled on this blog looking for specific advice a la Rick Steves, it’s clear that you’ve been disappointed. But today, I do have a recommendation for the traveler to the Cinque Terre area. As follows:

“From Manarola, find the path up to Volastro. This town on top of the hill didn’t make it into the Five Town family because it’s too far from the ocean. But as you’ll see, that’s part of its charm. There are some 1265 steps ascending to get there, but though the beginning is mildly steep, the rest is a gentle incline. Enough to give you your day’s workout, but not exhaust you a la Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Worry just a little about the thunder you hear and pick up the pace near the top when a light rain begins. Go around the corner as soon as you enter the town to a little shop where a woman is negotiating a few items with the grocer in Italian. Practice Buddhist detachment while her list keeps growing and you realize she’s doing her Costco-equivalent shopping for the month or hosting a wedding and all you want is a sandwich. But enjoy! This is the real deal! No shop made for tourists, just the residents doing business as usual and you’re a guest. Then order your fresh mozzarella-tomato-pesto sandwich with a nectarine and a banana and then sit outside on a little step under a roof to enjoy your picnic lunch that costs 8 Euros total for two.

Then set off for the next part of the walk down to Corniglia, only to duck into a church when the rain starts to pick-up. (Religion really comes in handy sometimes!) While you wait for the rain to let up, talk with your wife about all the famous Italian-Americans you can think of— Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valle and the Four Seasons (here a comment about how the Italian teenagers we knew growing up were the “greasers” with their tight sharkskin pants and slicked-back hair). Wonder about Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone. Kind of wish you had Internet access for Google, but more fun to see what you can come up with on your own. Meanwhile, note that the rain has not let up and it’s a slightly chilly rain not inviting to walk in.

Finally, decide to brave it, put on your nerdy broad-brimmed camping hat and protect your valuables in zip-lock bags. Evoke Gene Kelly while you’re “hiking in the rain…” hope for some covered forest and instead get wide-open paths through vineyards and now the rain coming on a little harder. You’re having an adventure!

Note the town of Corniglia appearing far below you and suddenly, looking back on the path, notice sunshine ahead! Stop at an open area and bask in the sun, warming your chilled bones and drying your wet shirt. Now it’s a forest not unlike parts of Mt. Tam back home and the birds are singing. While walking, plan a blog from the point of view of your shirt, that starts fresh, gets drenched with sweat, gets drenched with rain and then back to sweat in the sun. Resist the temptation to complain “Now it’s too hot!”

Begin the long descent down, picking up the pace to reach the train on time, but still loving it all, feeling alive, feeling engaged, feeling adventurous. Get to the platform just at the timetable time, only to discover the train is 15 minutes late.

But who cares? It’s vacation!!”

P.S. Proud that we had discovered something, we looked up this hike in Rick Steve’s book and sure enough, he already describes it in detail and with enthusiasm. Minus the rain, sun and sandwich-buying. Oh well.

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