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The deplorable tale of the appalling Paula Park.

Umbria, Italy. July 2020.

In true Sivitri style, I went off on another ‘adventure’. This time, it was primarily out of necessity.

After losing my home and job in Florence, I stayed in the Tuscan countryside for a couple of months to regroup and explore what was ‘out there’ for me in these uncertain times, but after little progress, the time had come for me to move on.

I applied for a few volunteer positions through a website I had barely used. There you can seek out a work-trade placement in which you may have the opportunity to learn a new skill and work in exchange for accommodation. Definitely something, I am learning, one should rather do in their 20’s.

My plan was to find a position at a retreat center or Agriturismo; a self-sufficient place with an organic garden and some fruit trees where I’d learn about permaculture or perhaps essential oil distillation and also be able to use my skills to help in whatever way was needed. Between massage and yoga, design, and nutrition I have a lot to offer. In my spare time, I would pursue my writing and creative projects and continue building my business ideas.

I applied for many positions but did not find exactly what I was looking for. Only one woman replied to me: Paula Park, in Vocabolo Santa Croce, in Migianella, in the town of Umbertide, in the Province of Perugia, in the region of Umbria.

In her profile, she said her passion was her animals and that she had horses and dogs, which she needed help with, plus there was help needed around a property that she managed.

Hmm, horses, I thought, I love horses and have always wanted to have more experience with them. I envisioned photographing and connecting with these beautiful sensitive souls against a backdrop of lush green hills – Ahh, yes, always the perpetual idealist … and dogs, well, I love dogs and I’d love to interact with them more. Since love and affection had been lacking in my life, I thought it would be a perfect way to give and receive some of that. Plus, she said she had puppies that needed to be photographed for her website.

I looked through all of her work exchange reviews and EVERY SINGLE ONE was positive. She’s generous, kind, the dogs are sweet, the property has lovely views. They all thanked her for the experience.

Wow, ok! Who could go wrong?

After moving so many times in the last couple of years, I asked Paula Park if a longer stay of at least three months would be possible, as I wanted to stay put for a while. She suggested I bring my massage table so that I could work on the guests at the property she managed; that way I could make some money. Great! But something in the energy felt, let me just say, unclear, however I didn’t feel like I had much choice and so I arranged a time to arrive and a ride there. I packed up all my things in Tuscany and took off with my massage table, a bag of my favorite herbs and spices, my camera, laptop, and a suitcase of summer clothes; mainly work clothes but a couple of nice things just in case. Perhaps I’d go to South Africa afterwards or the south of Italy, maybe Spain. I needed to take a couple of different scenarios into account so that I was prepared.

My wonderful friend agreed to drive me and we set off on a hot summers morning. We watched the landscape change from the dramatic hills of Tuscany to the gentler farming countryside of Umbria. I was thrilled to see the joyous sight of acres and acres of sunflowers in full bloom.

Umbria is the region where the Umber pigment was originally extracted; a natural brown or reddish-brown earth pigment that contains iron oxide and manganese oxide. The name comes from terra d’ombra, or earth of Umbria, the Italian name of the pigment. The word also may be related to the Latin word ombra, meaning shadow, which is particularly interesting as it relates to this story.

After driving up a long and winding road that seemed would never end, we finally found the location and descended down the white stone driveway towards the property – the place that she managed and where I would be staying; guest accommodations, surrounded by lovely gardens and a gorgeous view of the surrounding Umbrian hills. Her house was front and center.

As we parked, I noticed an overweight woman with sun-drenched skin and shifty blue eyes getting out of her car. Could that be her? I thought. I called her name: “Paula?” She turned around. Yes, it was she. I introduced myself and as she said hello the smell of alcohol wafted out of her mouth. Hmmm, I thought, it’s noon. My friend, trying to put my mind at ease, said: “She’s lovely. Yes. Nice place. It’ll all be fine”.

She motioned towards a little house and told me I’d be sharing it with another volunteer, Rodrigo, from Brazil. She said that her German visitor was making lunch and that I could rest until it was ready. As my friend, who drove me there, was about to leave, I felt my insides make a U-turn to go straight back up the driveway with him and leave that place. I should have begged, pleaded, and made sure that I fled.

But this story would not have been written if I had obeyed my instinct and every bone in my body to leave.

So, I had lunch around a table with her German visitor and his son and the son’s girlfriend. The German was an awkward man with a limp which he had acquired as a result of an injury from a motorbike accident. He wore a cheezy Hawaiian shirt and faded jeans and talked the hind leg off a donkey. He made silly jokes, which got sillier the more wine he drank.

The girlfriend of the son, not more than 16 years old, had false nails painted with blue and black nail polish. She wore a disgracefully short mini skirt and had painted-on eyebrows, which made her look surprised and angry all at the same time. The boyfriend wore boxer shorts, no manners, and a hickey on his neck and had nothing too interesting to say. He had the same awkward body as his father, gigantic feet, and seemed altogether oversized for a 17-year-old. The two of them couldn’t keep their hands to themselves and made funny little doting faces at each other the entire lunch.

Two of the volunteers joined us as well. They seemed to just appear out of nowhere. They apparently had been working on the other property – the one she rents. It seemed like a bit of set-up – Sunday lunch out on the terrace with plenty of wine, good food, and everyone present. It was the first and last time we would have a meal like that, where everything, including Paula Park, for the most part, was hospitable, light, and somewhat ‘normal’.

Robert, one of the volunteers, who sat next to me, was American with Italian ancestry. He was in Italy to get his Italian citizenship. He was a little bit of hick, a little bit of white trash and a little bit of lost all rolled into one. He swaggered in an unsure way with his head cocked slightly forward as though, with every step, he was making a feeble excuse for something bad he’d done. He had black toenails and bad teeth and rambled on when he spoke, way past the point that anyone was still interested. He never finished a sentence and was unable to realize when he had said enough, and later, I would come to learn, unable to keep from gossiping or keep anything to himself at all. Furthermore, and most importantly, he was unable to speak up in a situation that I came to learn was clearly fucked! (excuse my language, but honestly, there is no other word that would be quite as appropriate). You will soon learn why.

Paula Park proceeded to drink a couple of bottles of wine all by herself and by the end of the lunch was almost falling asleep at the table. We all finally excused ourselves and later I went back to ask what the schedule for the following day would be. Again, it all seemed a bit vague. All I knew is that I would have to be awake quite early and instructions would be given during breakfast, which wasn’t really breakfast at all. It was a: help yourself to cheap bread and factory-farmed eggs and jam, taken from a mini-fridge that hadn’t been cleaned in three years, affair. There was barely any counter space to create anything of significance in there and the entire house smelled like dog. So, I resolved to ask for a ride to the grocery store, where I would buy my own things such as almond milk and bananas and make a smoothie in the mornings so I wouldn’t have to spend any more time in that weird kitchen than I absolutely had to.

That night, at dinner, Paul Joan Park got drunk and was gushing all over everyone. Laughing and shouting in her coarse Scottish accent with her course uncouth manners and her course uncouth voice. There was no grace there, and no authenticity; just a vulgar mouthed woman who evidently was hiding some deeply seated pain, and no-one seemed to notice, except me.

The next few days went by and I was given my orders, which I carried out; simple cleaning and gardening. Some days Paula Park was there for lunch but mostly she wasn’t. Robert later revealed to me that she had a boyfriend that she went to have sex with, four times a week. He lived in another town and was married. Robert also told me that the boyfriend gave her money and meat. Every time she came back from his house she would reverse right up to her front door and unload big pieces of pork and beef and, sometimes, homemade pasta and jam. She would then carry on about the fact that she had brought us amazing food and proceeded to lay it all out on the kitchen table, pointing out what was what; making sure that we noticed the effort she had made for us. In the same breath, as Robert mentioned her affair, he also told me that Paula Park had been gifted her car, had no money of her own and that she got violent sometimes when she drank. He said that her daughter had called the cops on her more than once!

On most mornings Paula Park, who never worked, would give us orders about what to do and then disappear for the majority of the day, leaving us to work and make our own lunch out of ingredients that were mostly canned, jarred or frozen, bought from a discount grocery store called Euro Spin which I had never heard of or seen in Italy before but just from the name I visualized the cheap-looking logo and the low-grade things you could purchase there. When I actually did end up driving past it one day, it was exactly as I had imagined. I resolved from that day on to call it Euro Trash! Yes, I’m a snob when it comes to quality and that will never change!

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In the evenings Paula Park would attempt to make dinner, but because she would start drinking (usually a pink gin with strawberries), the moment she walked in the door every afternoon, by the time she actually got around to preparing the food, she was so sloshed that cooking would take her forever and dinner time would be at 10 pm, which just did not work for me. I’d be too full to sleep and so I’d toss and turn in bed and then have to wake up early to do my work. After a few days of that, I decided to buy my own food and make my own dinner at a reasonable hour and that was that; except for one or two nights when I decided to join the others just to seem social. Honestly, I don’t know why I bothered as the conversation would always be dominated by Paula Park, seeking attention, sucking everyone else’s energy, and always wanting to be right about every single subject that was brought up.

There were certain times of the day when I would hear a dog barking. The sound was coming from her house. I seemed to recall hearing that bark upon my arrival too. I inquired about it. “Oh”, Paula Park said, “That’s my Ridgeback. He’s in my room because I don’t want him to bother the dogs that the guests have brought with them”. Hmmm, but I never see him at all. A Ridgeback, I thought. That’s a big dog. I grew up in South Africa and was quite familiar with the breed. They typically were hunting dogs. They require vigorous exercise on a daily basis.

I didn’t understand, and then, one morning, I saw Iron, the Ridgeback. She had just fed him and he appeared very nervous and agitated, running back and forth from the door of Paula Park’s house, down the stairs and back up to her door repeatedly like he knew he couldn’t go very far. I observed his mannerisms and looked at his body. He had huge swellings on both his front legs, a callus at the base of his tail, and on one side of his hip region. These could only be from sitting in a small enclosure for an extended period of time and struggling to move. A large, gorgeous animal, caged all day!

I grew increasingly sad and angry at Paula Park the more I heard him cry. I couldn’t stand it and one day mentioned my disapproval to the daughter who gave me the same stupid excuse that he needed to stay in whilst the guests had their dog there. She evidently had become totally de-sensitized and brainwashed by her narcissistic mother.

Paula Park’s kitchen, where we prepared our food, was right next to her bedroom. I heard Iron barking and crying again and heard a scuffle one morning when I was making my smoothie. The bedroom door was open so why wouldn’t he come out? I peered inside the room and there he was locked in a cage. A cage that should only be used to transport a small to medium-sized animal; certainly not to keep a large dog captive. My heart broke. The lie she had manufactured about keeping him away from the other dogs was totally insane. In fact, I had witnessed him on his 5-minute pee break playing and running away from the other dogs. She treated this dog as a possession and gave him absolutely no attention. She just shouted at him every time he cried to be let out.

Then, Thursday came and she wanted me to go and take photos of the puppies at her rental property. That was going to be my work for the day. I wasn’t sure what to expect after what I had already witnessed but I was, never-the-less, looking forward to finally seeing the dogs and holding the puppies. As a child our family always had adult dogs and I’d always yearned for a puppy so I usually jump for any opportunity to see one, play with one, hug one. Although, the thought of going to the other property energetically seemed daunting and I couldn’t put my finger on why.

She told us she wanted to leave early in the morning so we could wash the puppies and be ready for the vet to chip them before the photos were taken. Due to her disorganization, we ended up leaving late. Of course, there was no apology for getting us up so early and making us wait. Five of us eventually piled into her car and made the journey to the house where the dogs were.

We drove down the hill, under a bridge and along another very long and windy country road, passing fields of tobacco plants, wheat and sunflowers, and old abandoned factories along the way.

We arrived and Paula parked in the short dirt driveway.

The second we arrived I understood why I had felt, unclear and apprehensive.

The property looked abandoned. No fence, no gate, no house number. Dirt and horseshit piled high, no grass, no garden. A house, and yard that was un-kept with litter and various random objects abandoned and scattered about; a rusted wire cage, a plastic tub, old roof tiles, crushed plastic flower pots, a broken rake …

Surrounding the house were a series of smaller buildings and out of these buildings came the barks and cries of many dogs. As I opened the car door the smell of shit assaulted me and the howling grew louder. I knew right away that I was walking into something I did not want to be a part of. A wave of disappointment, sorrow and hopelessness washed over me. I almost left my body in anticipation of what I was about to witness. This was a scene shrouded in darkness and sadness. The anguish was palpable.

I got out of the car and walked closer to the building. Stunned and shocked, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Robert had the door to one of the enclosures open. The first dog I saw was a pregnant female Boxer, crying and shaking, appealing to me with her voice and her eyes to get her out of there.

“Oh, they’re just hungry”, Robert retorted, after he saw the horror on my face.

She was in a wire cage within an enclosure. A few other dogs were beside her, wading around in their own shit – hysterically pacing back and forth. A group of Dalmations jumped up to the tiny wire mesh window of one of the gloomy, dark adjacent rooms. I walked further passed more cages and saw an English Setter and a Collie in a fenced enclosure with no water, scratching at the fence to be let out, the anxiety and desperation etched on their faces.

Further still, a worse enclosure, so dark I couldn’t see what breed or how many dogs were in there. Through the tiny fenced window, I could barely see them running back and forth, jumping up to the small window, crying, imploring someone to let them out – out of their minds with despair. All the doors were bolted shut and padlocked.

I hid behind one of the buildings and broke down in tears; my face in my hands. I knew my time with this insane enterprise was over. I wouldn’t be able to be in the presence of this wretched woman, Paula Park, who owned these animals and kept them in this prison. No matter how acceptable our accommodations or pretty the land where we were staying were, the entire operation was veiled in a shadow of negativity and heartlessness.

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Robert proceeded to tell me that some of the dogs she had received in trade for the horses, which were no longer there. Apparently, they couldn’t stand the place either and had repeatedly attempted to run away, so she decided to get rid of them.

Whilst Robert was filling me in on various other haphazard and horrifying facts about what had been occurring there over the last 15 months, he proceeded to shovel the shit off the concrete floor of the enclosures, tossing it into a big pile right outside one of the buildings.

I couldn’t listen to anything else he had to say so I snapped into action and pretended to walk around the property looking for a spot to photograph the puppies but instead, without being seen, shot as many photos as I could of the poor animals. Shaking with anger and sadness, some shots were so hard to take because of the lack of light in the enclosures.

I came across Paula Park whilst I was on my secret mission and asked her if the dogs were ever taken out. She replied with a cold and dismissive, “No, they don’t.” In my mind I was thinking: Are you kidding me? You’re actually bringing people here, admitting to me that they don’t get taken out and you know I have my camera with me. Do you think I’m stupid?

I shot the desperate, dirty puppies, placing a blessing on each one that they would find a loving home as soon as possible. Then I was ordered to make a flowerbed in a concrete trough that was filled with a mixture of dog shit, water, and sand. I thought I would pass out from the heat and the smell, not to mention the total shock and heartache from the entire experience – my mind turning over with the knowledge that I needed to do something about this deplorable business, and in order to do that, I needed to get out of the entire situation as soon as possible.

The rest of the day was a blur for me. I tried to be somewhat nice, as I didn’t want to let on that I was going to report her whole operation. And I needed more information before I could leave. I needed as many details as I could acquire if I was going to properly help these dogs. I needed the exact address of where they were. I needed more pictures and I needed to find a ride out of there with all the darn things I’d brought with me.

An Italian girl arrived that evening. I couldn’t eat or sit around the dinner table with Paula Park or make small talk with these people who had turned a blind eye to what this woman was doing. I made light conversation and excused myself early.

The next day I went through the motions of doing my work and in the afternoon rested and prayed that somehow I could make it back to the other property to find the address.

The Italian girl had a car. I needed the right moment to bring up the subject of the dogs and assess her trustworthiness.

The next day she and I went for a short excursion to a nearby village. On the drive, she made mention of Iron – the big, beautiful Ridgeback who lives in a cage in Paula Park’s bedroom. I told her how I felt about that and mentioned the equally heartbreaking situation over the hill that I’d experienced the day before. I showed her some of my photos. She was horrified.

Over the next couple of days, we spoke more and I persuaded her to take me up to the rental property where the dogs were so I could get the address. I couldn’t remember exactly how to get there but I knew somehow we would find it.

We set out, nervous but determined. We went too far up the road I thought the house was on, so we backtracked and tried another road. That one was not right either. They all looked the same. Then on the way back, I asked her to try one last road. She was paranoid and wanted to turn back. She didn’t want to run into Robert on his return to the house but I encouraged her to go a bit further. I prayed and asked the angels to help us. All of sudden, right before I was about to give up, there it was. The prison. All the dogs howling in the heat of the summer’s day.

I searched for the number of the house. There wasn’t one as I thought I’d recalled. We dropped a pin to the location on Google maps and quickly screenshot it. We then ran up to the house and shot a video and some more photos. The puppies were trying to escape through the small space in their enclosure. The mother looked absolutely desperate, sad, and thin with sores on her body from lying on the damp concrete floor surrounded by her and her puppies’ feces and urine. I photographed her and the floor and we escaped with the evidence and left that atrocious place.

The only thing left to do was to photograph Iron, the Ridgeback, in his cage and plan my escape. I was desperate to help him too. I had visions of kidnapping him whilst Paula Park was out. If I’d had my own car and he hadn’t been chipped, I most certainly would have.

There were several minor things that happened following that day, such as Paula Park, in her sober state, screaming and shouting over this and that and then in the evenings getting belligerently drunk and laughing her head off. I avoided her and her house as much as I possibly could.

Unbeknownst to me, Robert and the Italian girl hinted to her about my unhappiness there, which of course made Paula Park mad and mean towards me. Naturally, before I had the chance to tell her myself that I was leaving, she decided she wanted the upper hand and sent me a text immediately telling me she thought I wasn’t suited for the place and ordered me to leave!

The morning before I left I tried to convey my reason for not wanting to stay. I said that I felt misled by the description in her hosting profile and that I didn’t understand how she could say her dogs were her passion. Before I could finish my sentence she launched into a thousand insults towards me and told me to get out of her sight as soon as possible.

The truth, evidently, she could not bear.

I knew there was no use in trying to explain my feelings as she is totally unable to see the pain and destruction she leaves in her wake.

The next couple of nights I took sanctuary in nature and the quiet of the night sky after everyone had gone to bed. I tended to my heart, which always lets me know with physical pain when I need to get out of a hurtful situation. Because I couldn’t sleep, I’d get out of bed and peer out the window at the stars and take deep breaths to calm my nerves. I avoided Paula Park and her house like the plague and tried not to hear her vulgar voice or step foot inside her smelly, disorganized kitchen.

I packed my things before even knowing if my angel rescuer could come to get me. Thank God he did.

As I was driving off, in my anger, shock and upset, I wanted to call Paula Park by many names – I wanted to call her hideous, disgusting, a delusional drunk, a mean and sad excuse for a human being. I honestly had visions of punching her in the face and locking her up in a cage without food, water, or a bed, and I wanted people to come and observe her in her utter misery until she woke up, realizing how despicable she actually is. At the very least I wanted to see her taken away in handcuffs for her crime against these 25 dogs that she keeps under lock and key 24 hours a day. Much like factory farms or human trafficking operations she only has them in her possession so she can sell them.

I wanted to steal the key to those despicable cages and take all those animals to loving homes.

Of course, I’m going to try my best to get them out of there but who knows when they will get relief and if they do, will they even live a normal life afterward as they are so mentally unstable from living in such horrific conditions, for what, I was told, has been more than two years.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself how much pain she must be in to be so oblivious to the harm she is causing and I left quietly and calmly the next day. I was brought back to safety to start my search for home all over again.

I will pray eventually to be forgiven for wanting to destroy Paula Park, and also at some point, to actually forgive her, but not right now.

Now that this true tale is written, I shall calmly submit all my carefully and precisely put together evidence to the animal rescue agency and pray that these dogs have many angel saviors to liberate them from that awful prison, owned by that despicable Paula Joan Park.

 

– The End –

THE DAY AFTER THE 54th DAY


Today I hugged someone for the first time in 54 days. 

I rode my bicycle for the first time in 54 days. 

I sat in the park under trees. I saw families and dogs and smiles. 

The air smelled so fragrant and the flowers so sweet. Roses, wisteria, orange blossoms! All the things of spring I’d been craving. What a marvelous afternoon under the sky. 

Today was the first time we were let out in 54 days – allowed to roam further than 200 meters from our home.

I was so happy to see that Amore, my bicycle, was still where I’d parked her 54 days before. Boy did it feel good to meander through the streets and all at the same time, so sad. Everything closed, on a Friday afternoon.

I cycled passed cathedrals and clothing stores, gelaterias, pizza shops and museums. Businesses that should be booming at this time of year but it’s like a ghost town out there. I rode through piazzas and beside the old fort. I rode past the gigantic, lonely palaces and over the ancient bridges. I couldn’t bear the mask so I rebelled and only pulled it up over my face when I spotted police and military or people in close proximity. I wanted fresh air. I wanted to feel free. I rode passed my favorite church. It looked so huge and I felt so small. Maybe because I hadn’t seen it at all in 54 days. I paused at it’s steps and gazed up at it. I’d always found its façade arresting because of its simplicity. More beautiful and admirable than it’s more intricate and detailed counterparts. It was simply so good to see it again.

I made my way to my friend’s street like I always had to see if he was home. Perhaps he’d like to go on a bike ride with me, I thought. I stopped outside his door, my finger hovering over his doorbell. Was I allowed to ring someone else’s doorbell? Someone who wasn’t my relative? The new decree said, no visits to friends, only relatives. Apparently that evening after the decree was announced, the word ‘relative’ was the most Google’d word in recent history. Who can we see? Does relative only mean mothers and fathers and sons or daughters and brothers and sisters or can we see cousins and nieces and second cousins and fiancés? For family oriented Italians especially, this is a very important question!

I looked up and down the street for police and then pushed the bell. Davide hung his head out the window from his 3rd floor apartment and with a big smile asked me if I wanted to go up. I grinned and shouted up to him, “Am I allowed to!?” Oh my God! What has this world come to?, I thought. Without an answer he buzzed me in and I ran up the stairs – his dog greeting me before I reached the open door. 

And then – a hug – the first embrace I’d experienced in 54 days. The first one-on-one human contact I’d had in all this time. The first face-to-face conversation I’d had in 54 days. I thought I would cry but I didn’t. I was just happy and no one would know as we were behind closed doors. And there we were, two little rebels, sitting at his kitchen table having a chat. Petting his dog. Normal but not allowed. Natural but surreal.

We talked about what we were going to do, and how it had been – all this time we’d been locked up. 

He’s been getting the government checks, I have not. I don’t qualify. We both don’t have an income but unlike me his landlady has not pressured him for rent. He’s Italian. I’m not. 

We make a plan for our bike ride. No one must know we are together. If anyone questions us, we don’t know each other. 

We race down the street on our bicycles, like two excited children, keeping a good distance between each other. We ride along the river – a cool spring breeze caressing our delighted faces. We hang a left away from the Arno, traversing a street that is usually packed with traffic, but now, of course we sail right across, as there’s not a single car in sight. 

We meander through a quiet residential neighborhood. The first thing I notice are all the roses. Voluptuous roses that have been blooming and which I have not seen for all this time – these 54 days that spring had been happening outside. Secretly flourishing alone, with no one to behold her unfolding. I’d been robbed of the experience of witnessing it all unfurl. I feel dismayed but happy, amazed but grieving the time that’s been lost.

We zigzag up the back street hills and find ourselves in the most glorious neighborhood. An area in which I’d looked at an apartment for rent a few months prior to the lockdown. A neighborhood I knew very well I couldn’t afford to live in but was curious to check it out. They say if you want to feel wealthy visit an expensive hotel and wander through its lavish lounges. Order a drink at the bar and sit and observe the opulent people and surroundings. Soak in the energy of it. So, I met the owners. A Well to do Florentine family, and walked around the property, taking in the views, imagining myself waking up in the gorgeous bed overlooking the rose garden. Gazing out of the kitchen window towards the manicured hedge and lemon trees, as I made tea. 

Anyway, I diverge…

We push our bikes up the steep hills, huffing and puffing – our bodies straining from the lack of exercise these last couple of months. The fresh air burns my lungs but I’m just so happy to smell the air. There are a handful of mask-wearing people out and about and a sense of censored relief and refreshment. 

As we make our way around the neighborhood, my friend and I poke our heads through the fences of fancy homes where wisteria and jasmine cascade over them. We make up stories about living in one of the villas and how it would be to quarantine in one of the palaces with gorgeous gardens, swimming pools, and incredible views of the Florence valley. 

We come across a small park and sit there for a long time, listening to the birds and looking up at the trees. What simple magnificence. We watch dogs and cute children frolic in the grass. The new ordinance says that contact is allowed between children and their parents whilst outside, so things look relatively normal as we observe families interact on this Friday afternoon. Facial expressions masked, we now become more observant of body language and voice intonation. 

My friend and I sit next to each other, not really thinking about the distance between us. It doesn’t actually enter my mind. It just feels so good to feel relatively normal and there’s no police in the area keeping an eye out. 

We leave our bikes and go for a walk up more hills, passing several people, some of whom have their masks pulled up over their faces and some who just can’t be bothered. I wonder, as the hot and humid months of the Florentine summer approach, if we’ll still have to wear masks. The thought of it is stifling. 

On this exuberant stride up these hills I marvel at my body and how it moves. I marvel at the smell of the air and the intensity of the brightly colored foliage. I marvel at the little succulents and the bright red poppies pushing their way through the ancient stone walls of Tuscan properties. I marvel at the ability of my eyes to focus on faraway hills after being indoors, enclosed by 4 walls, for 54 days. They say that people who live in the countryside have far better eyesight because they can gaze at the horizon, whereas city dwelling people’s eyesight deteriorates quicker because the objects they focus on are far nearer and therefore they become nearsighted.

All I know is that on this day we can see far – further than I’ve ever seen beyond the city and into the hills in all directions. The air is clean and fresh and this moment of relative freedom is fantastic, magical and exhilarating. 

We are made to enjoy and appreciate this planet and to savor nature in all her glory. Perhaps she doesn’t need us but we need her and not a day goes by when I take her for granted. 54 days is too long to be apart and I sincerely hope and pray that we are never separated for this long, again.

 

Sacred Tears

I sat and edited some artwork today whilst listening to my favorite music. Music that fits the mood of the world.

I cried today for the first time in a long time.

I cried when I saw a mentor of mine sharing heart-opening exercises to relieve anxiety. I cried because she was sharing it on mainstream media. They were happy tears because this is change, this is healing, transmitted to those who need it – all of us.

I cried for the loss of a friend I love.

I cried because I don’t feel supported in the city I have chosen to live.

I cried in gratitude for the people I feel connected to.

I cried tears that have been building up.

I cried because I’m strong and cope well in times of crisis.

I cried because my friend in Berlin needed to sit in silence to process the sadness she felt after going out to buy food this morning.

I cried for our hearts, for the homeless and hungry, the jobless and overwhelmed, the anxious and exhausted.

I cried for the swans in Venice canals rejoicing in clean water and for my sister in South Africa who stays silent through it all.

I cried because a stranger emailed me to see how I was and asked if I needed to talk.

I cried because I can feel the collective heart open and love flooding in.

Yes, love is flooding in.

Your tears are sacred.

Cry if you need to.

I love you.

Monday


Florence, Italy

There was a cool crisp, breeze. A shaft of sunlight appeared above the terracotta roof tiles. It was Monday morning but it didn’t matter which morning it was as all the days had seamlessly rolled into each other.

I was happy to finally be up before 10 am. I stood in the only small sliver of warmth at my dresser in front of my bedroom window.

Out of the silence, the bark of a dog in the distance punctured the air as though it were dusk in the countryside somewhere. But this was the city. A city on lockdown, in the midst of crisis, in a country where thousands had died and continued to perish on a daily basis. Whilst we sat; obedient, uncertain, the spring sun shone down outside and our bodies yearned for a walk in the park, along the riverbanks, down to the piazza for lunch.

I wished that I were near the ocean, beside a field, next to a trail, where I could disappear for a few hours. Where nobody would notice me or stop me. Where I didn’t have to fill out a form to say where I was going.

But I settle, accept, and appreciate almost, the fact that I am alone. No children to tug on me, no partner to distract me, no external opinion. Just me, in the quiet of my space, my thoughts, my being. Freedom in the stillness, to roam my inner landscape, to look under the stones I have left unturned, all the flowers I hadn’t noticed that had bloomed and seeing all the dead weeds I’d clung onto in the hope they’d one day turn into fruit trees.

Here lying bare in a field of dreams. Some hardly alive, some stillborn, some fighting for their lives, upon barren soil that had been raked over too many times. In a desert where the afternoon gusts had swiftly snatched the life force away from them and there they lay shaking, in shock and grief.

And now the breeze has turned into a strong wind but I don’t want to close the window. Not just yet, whilst the sun is there for just a few more minutes.

Day-by-day

    An account of my life on lockdown during the Coronavirus outbreak. 

    Florence, Italy.

    Friday, March 6th – I wake up to the sound of children playing in the courtyard of my apartment building. It’s Friday, I think. Oh, yes, the schools are closed. 

    I go about my day stopping in at the grocery store, not expecting to wait in a line but here we are queuing one meter away from each other to enter. I buy only a few fresh food items and focus on lentils, beans, and other dried or canned foods that I can store in my tiny kitchen cupboard, just in case I don’t have the opportunity in the coming days. I only buy what I can fit in my backpack and in my bicycle basket. 

    In the afternoon I cycle to an art school in Santo Spirito, where I model for a painting class. I notice along the way how quiet the streets of Florence are, almost deserted. At this point learning institutions, gyms, churches, museums and some businesses are closed. The tourists have vacated almost entirely. Whilst I’m modeling for three artists in the silent studio I can hear conversations echoing down the street: “I should leave Florence now, I don’t want to be stranded here”, “I wonder if the trains to Germany are still running, I need to get home”.

    When the art class is over I ride home with a cash payment in my pocket. Little do I know that this €30 will be the last income I’ll see for a while. I cycle fast in the crisp air under a huge full moon which hangs over Florence in the early evening sky. I cross Ponte alle Grazie and into my neighborhood passing some of the cute little restaurants, which are still open – holding on, holding out for clientele. Tables set with newly laundered white tablecloths, candles alight and not a single person dining. Proprietors standing proudly at the door waiting for someone to come in. My heart sinks.

    Saturday, March 7th – I’m called into the Spa where I work as a massage therapist. I have four clients throughout the day. The first is a woman from Pakistan who has an awful cough. “I’m getting over bronchitis”, she says. I don’t think twice about it until a couple of days later but try not to dwell on it. We’ve sanitized everything between clients and been vigilant about disinfecting the facilities and ourselves. Another client is from Germany, one from Italy and one from the United States who lives in Florence. After her session, we talk about the situation at hand and how her workload has been rapidly declining over the last few weeks. Little do I know she is the last client I’ll work on until further notice. Two days later the Spa closes its doors. Payment won’t be made until after we re-open. We are notified via our WhatsApp group of the closure and we send good wishes and strength each other’s way. For some of us, this job is a matter of making the rent or not.

    Sunday, March 8th – I am officially let go from my Air BnB job, even though I’ve barely been there since the first coronavirus case was announced in Tuscany at the end of January. Up until this point, everyone in the tourism industry has been riding the winter wave when everything is slower, waiting for spring to pick up and tourists to flood back into the city, but instead, guests have been canceling one-by-one until entire building’s of clients are now empty. 

    Monday, March 9th – I read an article online about the surge in coronavirus cases in Italy and the grave situation the medical workers are finding themselves in. It states that doctors are having to implement a ‘Selection Protocol’ to choose who lives or dies as the equipment on hand is insufficient to assist all patients. Tears fill my eyes. I just can’t imagine having to be put in that position as a healthcare worker. Not only feeling exhausted from working long hours and at risk of contracting the virus themselves but now having to make this unfathomable choice.

    Tuesday, March 10th – Guiseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, announces further restrictions on public gatherings and advises people to only go out if it’s absolutely necessary. 

    Later on that day I try and make a call and realize my phone service is down and decide I should brave the great outdoors and go to the cell phone store to solve the problem in case I need to make an emergency call. I get dressed and leave my building. I walk down my street and am dismayed to see that all the shops have closed – the café downstairs, the pizza place, the language school, and the sweet Indian man at the corner, selling bags and clothes is gone. I turn the corner into Piazza Santa Croce. It is empty except for one man walking his dog and a few military men standing at the steps of the Cathedral, it’s majestic facade casting long lonely shadows down onto the empty square. Will the men stop me? I think. They don’t.

    I walk briskly under a cloudy dark sky and make my way across town. There is a chill in the air and the atmosphere in the streets is heavy and palpable. I only see a handful of people. I pass by Piazza del Duomo, which is empty bar one woman sitting on a bench and a couple, wearing surgical facemasks, taking a photo – two miniature figures perched in front of the steps of the immense towering beauty of Cathedral di Santa Maria Fiore. It’s not the first time she’s seen desolation and it won’t be the last.

    I reach the cell phone store, which is devoid of any customers. I explain my issue. I am told their system is down and they cannot help me at this moment. Unbeknownst to any of us, this would be the last moment as the next day they will be closed.

    I start to make my way home and pass through Piazza della Repubblica which is the central point of Florence and is usually bustling with people – musicians play and a carousel whizzes around with smiling children throughout the day and into the night. Now the piazza is empty except for a few police and the carousel is shut down. I sit on a bench in the sun which has decided to make an appearance through the clouds for a few minutes. The only movement is a mother and daughter crossing the piazza with shopping bags and panini’s in hand. 

    On my way back home I decide to buy a tube of toothpaste as I’m running out, and I get a spray bottle for the bleach I purchased a couple of days before. They will be my last purchases for a while.

    That evening the Prime minister announces that the whole of Italy is now a ‘protected zone’ and signs a decree that in order to safeguard the citizens of Italy and the healthcare system, it is mandatory for everyone to stay at home, except for emergencies or to walk your dog. The only stores that can stay open are supermarkets and pharmacies. Everything else must close. We are on lockdown. If you do go out, you must go by yourself and keep a distance of one meter from the other people you may pass. Buy what you need and go home. 

    Being single and having a dog are now tickets to partial freedom!

    The next day I wake up and notice something is different. The church bells are not sounding. It’s dead quiet except for a few birds chirping in the palm tree downstairs. I go online and see photographs of the completely emptied streets. Only police patrolling up and down, two by two, making sure everyone is obeying the rules. 

    I start to feel a sore throat coming on and decide to use my credit card to purchase some extra immune-boosting supplements online, hoping that they will be delivered without any problems or delays. I know I am well. Worrying and staying up too late has affected my immune system but I’ll be fine in a couple of days.

    Two days later the mailman rings the doorbell downstairs. I buzz him in expecting to go down and sign for the package as usual but in order to avoid any contact he has placed my package in the foyer under the mailbox and left. On my way back up the stairs to my apartment I pass the elderly lady who lives next door. We nod and greet one another politely in the stairwell. She has a slight grin on her face as she makes her way out of the building. I wonder where she is going. Later, from my window, I see her walking up and down the deserted street to get some exercise.

    That was four days ago.

    We’ve all accepted that this is what needs to be done for the citizens, for the hospitals, for each other. Resto a casa, I stay home.

    I have fallen in love with this country more since this all began – seeing how people have supported each other, been creative and resourceful, setting up times via social media to have music concerts from balconies to lift morale, on-line support groups established and notes being written to hang out of windows, saying tutto andrà bene, everything will be ok.

    I’ve been trying to develop a routine in the last couple of days so that I not only feel productive but am also taking care of myself mentally, physically and emotionally. The first few days of the lockdown I was somewhat aimless, not getting dressed, online a lot looking at updates, eating more than I needed to and worrying excessively about not having any work.

    There were certain people both near and far who I expected to hear from during a time of crisis, “hi, how are you, I know we haven’t spoken in a while but I just wanted to check in and see how you are”. It was the people that I least expected to contact me that did and I’m so grateful. It’s essential not to feel alone during a time like this. Especially in a new country with not much community around you.

    As I reach out to my worldwide community and as the days go by we are realizing we are all in the same boat, some sides sinking more than others but nevertheless together. We connect the dots and support each other as the situation develops differently for each of us in our own countries. We stay level headed and talk about the bigger picture. We see how necessary this situation ultimately is for humanity, although the implications in our immediate reality are real and from this standpoint uncertain. How will we all get back on our feet financially? How will I pay my rent next month? How long will this last? I feel for all the businesses here in Italy and worldwide, some of which will not be able to recover.

    I’m quite content with staying at home. In general, I’m a loner and very capable of spending a lot of time by myself. I actually relish in it, but when you’re not given the freedom to roam you tend to feel restricted because it’s not self-imposed but rather imposed upon you. This is only human. I miss going on a walk, even if it’s to the river a couple of blocks away from my apartment building to take a few breaths of fresh air and even if I don’t have many friends, just being around people in the street is nice. I know the first thing I’m going to do is go into the hills on a hike when this is over and be in the sun surrounded by nature. I keep that vision in my mind’s eye.

    But for now my days will include my morning tea as usual, stretching, catching up on creative projects, learning Italian, sending love, light and compassion to everyone on the planet at least three times a day, eating well, taking supplements to keep my immune system strong, dancing to good music turned up really loudly to release any trapped emotions, reaching out to people to see how they are and going inwards – just being quiet.

    As my friend in Scotland said a couple of days ago during one of our lengthy check-in conversations, “Well, we have all the time in the world to do simple things such as laundry, cooking, and reading. If we want to take 3 hours to do the laundry, we can”. I washed my sheets yesterday, made gourmet mashed potatoes and cleaned the tiles in my shower. Because of the silence, I hear sounds in my surroundings that I don’t usually hear – the old man upstairs listening to the news on his radio, the lady downstairs playing classical music, the couple across from my window passionately arguing.

    One thing I feel certain about is that this situation is showing us who we are, both individually and as a global community. How are we responding? Do we soften and prioritize generosity, kindness, and positivity or do we demonstrate greed, fear, and animosity? Do we waste time in panic and information overload or are we creative, resourceful and helpful? Yes, the fear is real, the virus is real, the tragedy of it all is real but I feel now is a time to stay centered and not get carried away with despair and anxiety. As humans we’ve been so driven by the external world – what we are doing ‘out there’. Now it’s time to go inside. This is a reset. An opportunity for change. It’s showing us what we need to prioritize. It’s showing us that we are together in this – all of us! We are being forced to be at home and that also means at home internally within our own beings. To be quiet and listen to each other and ourselves. To connect to what matters. 

    This virus is a change-maker and if we ride this wave with strength, trust and take the middle path with the right doses of information balanced with intuition and logic and come together to support each other, we will emerge on the other side of this with a renewed vitality.

    I’m going now to sit in my doorway, as there is a shaft of sunlight coming in at just the right angle and I don’t want to miss it. Who knows what tomorrow will bring but for now I will turn my face towards the sun and take some long deep breaths and give thanks for my healthy lungs.

    Florence – The Recent Past

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    These days have felt strange, at times, surreal. I’m still hovering above the ground. I haven’t fully landed. I wonder when I will.

    I’m taking care of my friend’s dog whilst he’s away and I have a deadline for finding housing which is good and daunting at the same time.

    I’ve made two ‘big’ purchases. Big for a person who hasn’t worked in 7 months and doesn’t know when she’ll start earning again. A pair of sneakers and a second-hand bicycle, so I can get around more easily. I buy €3 panini’s when I’m down on cash – I don’t want to go to the ATM until I absolutely have to. Those fees are piling up along with my curiosities about whether my girlfriends ever sent my marketing email out.

    I take the dog for a walk. He decides to pee in the entranceway of Gucci. Really? Gucci? Could you not have peed somewhere else? I chuckle; remembering his papa saying, “Don’t let him pee in anyone’s doorway”. I will not be telling him of this atrocity. Gucci, above all doorways. We hurry along in the hope that no-one saw this faux pas.

    “Quickly”, take a poop, please. It’s freezing cold and I need to get back so I can start my day. What day? What am I doing? I mean, the list is still long and seemingly overwhelming: choose a place to live, figure out how I’ll make ends meat, make connections at the art schools and yoga studios, finish setting up online portfolios and market my work, and in between, try and learn some Italian so this whole process is a bit easier. Not too much of a list. Ha!

    I cycle to the coffee shop. On my way, I stop at a panini shop to see if I can buy a cheap sandwich as I only have €5.36 left in my wallet. It’s too late. They are all finished. The only thing left are a few croissants and some grandmothers’ cookies, which I must say are damn delicious but I must pass as I’ve had way too much sugar in the last couple of days. That cookie was a total surprise when I first got it on a whim a week ago. Soft and flakey outer pastry, encrusted with almonds and custard in the center. Divine.

    I could easily turn into a fat Italian mama here – eat my way through pasta, panini’s and pastries all day.

    Actually, all of a sudden, I’m overloaded with offers for housing. One outside of town in the north with a bit more nature, sharing with others and my room is below street level and a bit dark. There’s a tiny studio in the west of Florence with a view of the Duomo and the hills of Fiesole, in which things are falling apart somewhat, with a bathroom and kitchen I can’t turn around in as they’re both so small. It has horrendous decorations and a pull-out sofa bed which I think I’ll loath after the first night….but the view! Then there’s another place where I’d be solo, in the east, in a typical Florentine neighborhood. It’s immaculate but has no character and opposite my bedroom window is a parking garage. And then there’s an apartment in the south that I’d have to share with two others in an absolutely desirable neighborhood with light and air and gorgeous views of Piazza Michelangelo and birds and green and it would take a bunch of elbow grease and some imagination to pretend that all the fixtures are not falling apart and haven’t been replaced in a hundred years. So, you see, the universe has me covered in many different scenarios and directions and they all have their positives and their drawbacks and by the time you read this I would have chosen and be complaining and praising things about one of them.

    For now, Nino, the dog keeps me on my toes as I have to walk him three times a day and feed him twice a day, and as much as I complain about having to walk him right before I go to bed when I’d rather actually be in bed, there’s something calming about walking around the neighborhood at that time of night. I’m grateful for the exercise and a cute pooch to hug and talk to when I’m not talking to myself, which seems to be the comforting thing to do as I get older.

    I take sanctuary in these yet to be determined moments by remembering that I’ve always been OK. I’ve been resilient and I don’t have to figure it out all at once. I have a reminder on my phone that tells me to take things step by step and that I don’t need to prove anything to myself or others. To stay in the moment. And when I’m walking down the street, sanctuary is looking up towards the sky and the tops of historic buildings or when I zoom by on my bicycle and catch a glimpse of a Michelangelo sculpture just hanging out on the corner of the street, and I remind myself where I am and that I made it here. I am here.

    Frankincense and Oranges

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    Tuscany, Italy 

    The old man, Gos the dog, and I drove up the hill. Our conversation simple. The lack of understanding between us standing out like a blaring siren. Gaps of silence whilst I searched for a different way of conveying myself. Sometimes there wasn’t a different way. He would just get frustrated. His English vocabulary limiting him. The only word I managed was, “pericoloso!” which somehow had remained in the recesses of my mind for years, until this moment when he overtook a slow-moving Fiat on a sharp bend. Pericoloso means dangerous in Italian. I held onto the seat and looked the other way until the pericoloso! moment was over. Gos, the dog, barking and breathing his awful breath all over us. I wound down my window and took a big gulp of fresh air.

    We stopped at the public spring to fill our glass bottles with water whilst his slobbery dog ran around like an unruly monster, rolling around in the dust, drinking from the pool of spring water then shaking and spraying us with a mixture of water and saliva. I’m definitely more of a cat person.

    We got back in the car, Gos barking in excitement, as he knew what came next; a walk through the forest and up to the monastery. Again, we walked in relative silence. I tried to comment on this and that, making small talk, mentioning the trees and the view. Asking which villages were in the distance. I was happy it was warm and that I was getting some exercise. The old man had remarked before we left the house that I would not be able to walk up the hill in my sandals but with every step, I proved him wrong, overtaking him and waiting for him at various intervals. I was strong. I had walked all over India for six months in those sandals. Do you think a 30-minute walk up a small hill is beyond my scope of capability without proper walking shoes?

    We got up to the monastery and I was eager to look at the architecture and peek inside the church. The old man said he wasn’t into Baroque architecture so he and Gos stayed outside whilst I climbed the stairs and into the sanctuary. Sunday mass was just coming out and there was an energy of peace surrounding the entrance as I entered. The Baroque interior was gorgeous and a heavy veil of frankincense smoke hovered in the air.

    The smell reminded me of my childhood and Catholic mass. My mother wanted us to go every Sunday and my sister and I would sit in the pew, bored out of our minds. I looked forward to communion when there was some movement and we could get up and have the ‘body and blood of Christ’ and I could give my knees a rest from all the kneeling. I loved when the priest and altar boys would walk down the aisle with the burning frankincense. That was my favorite part; being enveloped in the sweet and pungent smoke.

    I sat in a pew and said a short prayer, knowing that the old man was waiting. Usually, on visits like this, I’m on my own and I like it that way. I can take as long or as short a time as I want. I can sit and stare at the artwork on the ceiling and the sculptures on the altar and watch the light as it passes through the stained glass windows, with no urgency to leave. I don’t like to be waited for or to wait on anyone else. Traveling alone has ruined me in this regard. Very seldom do I like to travel with others, especially inexperienced travelers. It’s extremely frustrating for me. I feel like a bird that’s had its wings clipped. My pace is severely hindered. I’m selfish with my freedom.

    I made the sign of the cross with a half kneel, walked down the aisle and out of the huge wooden doors and back down the stairs to meet Gos and the old man and we all walked back down the hill. The old man handed me the lead with Gos at the end of it. I was not impressed.

    “This is your dog”, I thought. “Not mine”.

    If he was trained properly it would be a different story but this Gos is unruly and disobedient and meanders all over the place, pulling whoever is leading him wherever he wishes.

    Back in the car, Gos and his excited signature bark accompanied us down the meandering hill. I was relieved and excited too, although I knew we’d have another pasta dinner and my belly was starting to look and feel like a bulging beach ball. This was not going to be a sustainable diet for me. I needed to investigate the produce markets once back in Florence and I was counting down the days until my return.

    Of course, I’d miss this little world in the hills, in the stone house. One of those houses that you always see when you’re traveling and wonder what they’re like inside. Well…they have heavy wooden shutters, inside and out, stone stairs and floors and uneven walls and can be quite cool in the mornings. If you use too many appliances the electricity will go out and it’s quite a puzzle to figure out how to fix it.

    In the mornings I woke up to opera, birds and spring blossoms and squeezed Sicilian blood oranges for the old man every morning. We would sit quietly – each in our own worlds, trying to communicate when we could, over sweet biscuits in the morning or raw fava beans and pecorino cheese in the evenings.

    I realize that my time there was an exercise in listening to energy when you can’t understand words. I realize how I want to please and how I wanted to be liked and understood and in those moments when words were useless and the old man was stern and frustrated, I learned to be OK with the silence. To be comfortable in my skin, in this foreign land, in this foreign home with this foreign old man.

    Untethered

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    Tuscany, Italy

    There was only one thin thread holding me there – love. Love of a man that was not in love with me and was not right for me. I knew it in my bones but I persisted anyway. He was my last attempt, or maybe my last excuse to stay in a place that was not ideal for me and hadn’t been for a very long time. When that thin thread disintegrated, the anchor that was already near the surface of my ocean, broke and there was no sinking down again.

    I shudder when I look back on the years of wasted time, trying so hard to make it work. Grasping. Pulling myself up a steep hill and never reaching the summit. Barely even making it far enough for a decent view. Constantly walking through the desert that was California. A valley of tears, that sucked me dry.

    It was always love that had led me away or to something. Usually the love for a man, sometimes a job, or simply the freedom to escape, to travel – a new discovery in a foreign land. That, after all, was my first love. 

    Finding myself in an airport was natural and just seemed to happen throughout my life, from the moment I went on my first journey. Always at certain junctures in my life. Endings, beginnings, times for expansion. Space to untether myself from heartbreak or confusion. To get lost on purpose in an unknown land. To embrace myself and the warrior in me. My free spirit gleefully flying across the skies. I never once regretted spending money on a plane ticket. If it’s all I ever spent my money on, I was content.

    So there I was, at another juncture, that I had created, looking back at all the doors that had slammed shut – collaborations, love affairs, homes, projects and attempts at creating something that resembled my version of a good life. A life I could be proud of. But it had all failed. One thing, after the next, until I believed I was a failure. The pathways in my mind, forging a deeper and deeper sense of shame with each passing year. I had to save myself. I had to pack it in, pack up and ship out.

    They say that wherever you go, there you are and there’s a great deal of truth in that – whatever your inner state, so is your outer reality. I say, also, that your environment carries an aura that feeds into you, like osmosis, and affects your inner being.

    I’ve always been sensitive to my surroundings – the weather, the aesthetics of the environment and the people. Plant me in a place with authentic souls, art, beauty and nature and I’ll grow like I was programmed to. Like a plant that needs air, light and warmth to survive. It’s simple. Why be so dedicated to the struggle when there are so many other options available? So many other gorgeous places to live on this earth. As we get older we realize that time is of the essence. Someday, one day in the future, becomes now. Not a moment too soon.

    Here it was. The final hour. I was just about to cross the finish line and birth myself into another reality. The decision was made and it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Waking up each day to assess what was most precious and purging the rest. Waking up to the reality of the shift I was about to make. My life in the United States, unraveling behind me. Coming to terms with the lifetimes I’d lived in the last 23 years – exactly half my lifetime thus far. I had to keep a steady focus on what was in front of me, leaving behind the what-if’s and the if-only’s. It was too late for those. I didn’t have any more time to waste. The task was clear and each moment was filled with hitting the target: October 3rd. A flight out of San Francisco, at 6:20 pm.

    All my belongings had to be packed, sold, stored or donated. I had to be ruthless in moments when I could have been nostalgic. I had to press on, placing one foot in front of the other. Making multiple trips to my storage unit and wading through what seemed to be an endless exercise of figuring out what was staying and what was going. Most of it had to go. My precious chairs I had bought at a little antique store in San Diego eight years before, when the wide-eyed wonder of living in my 1920’s apartment overtook me with enthusiasm and hope. My rare jazz cd’s and my sketchbooks. Artwork I had created and not sold. Trinkets I’d had for years from travel adventures . Things that ex-lovers had gifted me. In the donation pile they went. Things that evoked sadness, things that were old, things that seemed to belong to another lifetime, attached to memories I’d rather not take with me.

    Four boxes – keep, throw away, donate, sell. I made gift packages for people, gave things away, arranged garage sales, listed things online. My days were consumed with organizational tasks. Listing Jamima – my 30-year-old Volvo – to be sold, and due to some miracle, she was. Working here and there when I could to make some extra cash. Making dates with people I would see one more time before departing. Packing my suitcases – one for summer, one for winter – for a journey that would take me to the southern hemisphere for 3 months and the northern for…who knew. Books, essential oils, sage, a couple of precious gemstones, my camera, a deck of Oracle cards and my favorite clothes.

    The time drew more and more near until finally, I was standing in my friends living room four hours before my flight, surrounded by things that hadn’t yet been taken care of. Bless that woman for letting me leave with things undone. My vision board on her living room floor, my last donation items in a random box, a pair of shoes I didn’t know what to do with, abandoned in the corner, soaked from running back and forth in the rain. My emotions undone from exhaustion and from this moment finally arriving.

    I had pushed and pushed for months on end, intending to tie it all up in a neat little bow, not wanting to burden anyone with any loose ends. But here I was and I had to give myself permission to leave these few things undone and accept my friend’s loving recognition of what this moment entailed. Knowing I had tried my absolute best. Knowing this was a huge deal. It was OK not to be a perfectionist in this particular moment.

    And then, as in a weary dream – sanctuary – sitting on the plane. The few keep boxes stored in my friend’s basement and me, in the air with two suitcases. No more storage units, no more fitting all the puzzle pieces together or taking them apart. There were still going to be decisions that needed to be made but not for these next few hours. I could breathe, watch movies, write and dream.

    Six months later, as I write this, sitting at a desk in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, there is one suitcase in London and one with me. So many logistical decisions have had to be made since my departure. More diversions before I finally decided on a place to land. South Africa, England, Scotland, supposedly places I’d work and study and make the proper decision about where to be. Lugging those suitcases more times than I care to mention, up and down stairs, into airports, onto trains and buses. Accepting people’s help when it was offered, otherwise making it work the best I could. An enormous amount of energy to merely sidestep the right decision, any decision, about where I wanted to ultimately land up.

    Sometimes a decision just has to be made and any inkling of inspiration followed. A dreamer I may be. An idealist, most of the time. Free as a bird, only encumbered by my own perceptions of the vision ahead. I realize that sometimes freedom can have one more confused but having gratitude for that freedom and diving into one of those things that have passed through your dreams, things only someone who has this freedom can entertain for real, is a wide open blessing. Choosing one of those one-day visions. Because if you don’t you would wonder ten or twenty years from now, what if, I had…?

    Now, after the intense heat of South Africa, the cold rain of England, and the snow of Scotland, I wait in anticipation for warmer weather again when I can wear my summer clothes that I so carefully packed. To shed a layer and really be here. Here in the land that I’ve envisioned living for so long. Here now, with another list of to-do’s. Things that seem like massive hurdles at this juncture:

    Learn Italian

    Make new friends

    Search for a job

    Find somewhere to live

    Even amidst the doubt and the worry and the, what if this fails too?, maybe I could start by congratulating myself for my courage and strength in making it this far, as I walk down cobblestone streets, marveling at the grace, beauty and grandeur that surrounds me.

     

     

    Aliveness


    Chefchaouen, Morocco.

    I wake up and open my bedroom window to reveal blue walls and blue sky and sparrows singing and men singing in the mosque. Hearing Arabic brings a smile to my lips and I remember my grandmother and my heritage. I hear her saying prayers in Arabic before we eat and her accent. Her sweetness, her innocent outlook, despite all the hardships life had presented. 
    The passion in the language of these people, the presence with which they talk, their kindness, the way they walk.
    Their skin, their eyes, their hand gestures. Where do I come from, where am I going and where will I stay? These questions I ponder as the crucial time for deciding grows ever so near. Will I return to the mother land. Is this my destiny? Will I align with the cultures that are rich with passion, with sound, with design, with music, with a spirituality engrained in their veins. 

    The way the footsteps of running children echo down the narrow alleyways and the voices of traders as they argue with each other. It’s all in good spirit though. It’s part of the culture. Passion, authenticity, being heard. They explode with strong emotion then return to a mischievous smile and relax into the moment. 

    I giggle. I appreciate what I am hearing. There is an aliveness outside of my window, that spills over into my room and it fills me with gratitude, just for this simple moment of being here and hearing this life that is going on for me to witness, for me to hear, for me to be a part of if I wish. 

    This land I love

    Bangalore, India 

    I’ve been tossed and tumbled in this place like a pebble on the river floor. 
    I’ve been pulled with the flow of traffic on this dusty street.
    I’ve been shown my resilience through these peoples eyes 
    Their hardworking hands that give what they can 
    My edges have been softened by these children’s beaming smiles
    My wit has grown stronger with these crafty salesmen’s hooks 
    My center has exploded with the burning fire of faith for all the questions answered and for those still wrapped in mystery 
    Another day begins with more lightness and more grace 
    With more trust in flow and pace
    Floating with the current
    Dancing down this street
    Grateful for these feet
    That have carried me so far
    My eyes are wet with tears
    As I try to contain my fears
    And leave this land I love 
    I love, I love, I love.