Saturday, January 26, 2013

Travel Tales: Lemons for Drinking

Cinque terre

The morning was as perfect as one spent on the Italian coast could be.
My sister and I caught an early train from Florence headed west to Cinque Terre. These "Five Lands" built into the cliffs jutting out of the Mediterranean sit like hidden treasures waiting to be explored.

The day trip from Florence, our home for a few months, was a last minute decision and had not been well-researched or planned. This was pre-smartphones and tablets and our travel research was typically done in dated guidebooks or minutes at a time at the internet cafe down the street from our apartment. But we loved spontaneity and thought we'd just figure it all out once we arrived.

As our train drew closer the conductor announced the next station, Montorosso - the only place to disembark in the five towns. We hopped off and within minutes had scouted out an information kiosk. We had heard one could walk between the five towns along the coast so we told the attendant we'd like to make it to Vernazza. The woman hesitantly warned us that of all the paths between the towns, this was by far the most difficult. But we didn't pay much attention to that, and asked her to point us in the right direction.

We began our journey and were immediately blown away by the beauty. Deep emerald blue waves crashed onto the cliffs beneath. The path lead through orchards and vineyards and groves of lemon trees. It was all breathtaking.

Cinque Terre

But what we envisioned as a leisurely walk soon turned into a full-fledged hike. Our skirts and flip-flops were not the best attire choices. We liked to travel light, and had been known to take weekend trips with only a large purse or small backpack. So that day we didn't even have water bottles with us, just our cameras and small handbags, most likely stuffed full with a book and journal. Having caught such an early train we had not yet eaten anything either.

We climbed hundreds of steps and struggled up many hills, sometimes on a path so narrow it was like walking a balance beam, with a steep drop off on one side. After an hour there was still no sign of the destination.

As we hiked our thirst grew until it was almost all we could think about. The dehydration was making the journey more difficult and less enjoyable by the minute. But the only things in sight were the vast sea and the winding path cut in to the hill stretching out in front of us. No sign on humanity and certainly no sign of a water fountain. We snapped pictures of the incredible view, but soon all we could really think about was our thirst.

We turned a corner and spotted an elderly man just off the path in the distance. He sat in an old chair behind a small, rickety table. Drawing closer, we saw he was selling lemons. The yellow fruit sat in a basket on the table.

The man was not well-groomed, and was exactly the type of character I would imagine to find sitting in the middle of nowhere on a dirt path... leathery-tan skin and dirty hands from a lifetime of outside work, a long graying beard, an unkempt head of hair. He spoke only his native language, and we were not particularly proficient. We tried, unsuccessfully, to ask him how far until the next town, but ended up just buying three lemons for one euro. We noticed as he handed them to us that he only had half a pointer finger. What had his life been like? What was his story?, I wondered.

We walked a little further up the path until we were out of his sight and immediately sat down to rest. Our thirst overcame us. We bit off the top of the lemons and squeezed the juice straight into our mouths, every last drop. We grimaced and squinted and our faced tingled, but we were that thirsty.

We laughed to tears at our pitiful state, and kept hiking. That man was the only person we encountered. It was another hour before we caught a glimpse of the postcard-esque sight. There were those beautifully colored houses, stacked haphazardly on top of each other, appearing as though they might slip in to the ocean at any moment.

Cinque Terre

Before long we were into town and exploring the winding narrow streets, searching for the best place to try out the famous pesto sauce there in the region in which it had originated. We ate it on their renown fococcia bread, and then went back for seconds. 

The afternoon quickly grew chilly and it was time to get back on the train headed home. On the ride Anne and I sat laughing about the day, our lemon drinking, and moaned over our sore feet and muscles.

It's a delightful piece of what made our Italian adventures as a whole so enjoyable and memorable.

Cinque Terre path

As I write this out, I'm actually quite profoundly struck by the importance of the journey, and compelled to embrace my real-life journey today, and reject the temptation to look off in the distance straining to see the next destination. The Cinque Terre hike holds wisdom. I remember that day having a hard time truly enjoying what was right in front of me - the trees and flowers, the world renown views, the blue sea - all because it was taking longer than expected and we were tired.  

In general, I recognize my propensity to look ahead to what’s next and not rest in the moment in which I’m living. But even there? Yes, even there, practically walking through a scene on a postcard.

The journey, the everyday path, has the potential to be breathtaking with so many little picturesque views which should not be missed. Yes, there will be exhaustion and I’ll feel sore and tired. I may even have to "drink lemons"  due to lack of foresight.  Things will not go as planned. But as is often the case with life, the hard experiences teach you the most vivid lessons. Clarity usually comes in hindsight.

If ever I have the chance to walk the Cinque Terre trails again, I vow to walk unhurried and focus on everything right in front of me. And bring some water. When I look back on my life, and specifically time with my husband, children, family and friends, it would be such a shame to realize I’ve missed much of the journey because I spent so much time looking elsewhere.

Today I will look at that which is directly around me, take in the beauty in my children, enjoy and praise the man God has made in my husband, and recognize that the small tasks that make up my day are all part of a beautiful picture, a lasting story. Gratitude for what God has laid directly in my path, the good and the bad, brings true contentment in the journey.

Travel Tales will be a series of memories I'll post here and there. Nothing hugely monumental or life-changing, just little vignettes drawn from experiences and adventures. I've been wanting to record several of these for myself and those who experienced with me, and anyone else reading will just get little glimpses into my past.