My Year Away. And Back.

Four Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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Things I Simply Don’t Understand About Italy

This is my fourth time to visit Italy. I have now spent well over 100 days in this country and I look forward to the next 100 days over the next couple of years. After teaching a study abroad class in Rome, the hubster and I are tucked in at Meta, a small town just two train stops from Sorrento. To say I am obsessed with Italy might be a bit of an understatement. In many ways (and I’m not sure why), it feels like home.

Still. From an American’s perspective, anyway, Italy has some odd quirks that I simply don’t understand. Here is my list (in no particular order).

Coffee. I love coffee. Italy is known for its coffee so this seems like a no-brainer. But, non e’ vero! To me, coffee should both satisfy the caffeine fix—and serve as a beverage. Is that too much to ask? In Italy, yes. First, understand that you pay for your coffee by the cup. And by cup, I mean a teeny, weeny hint of a cup. One swig and you’re done. If you want something a bit larger, try a cappuccino, but Heaven help the American who tries to order one in the afternoon. Cappuccinos in Italy are works of art, but still, they are made with a touch of coffee and a whole lot of foam. So, again, a swig or two and you’re done.

I might have conquered the Italian espresso maker but I don’t understand it.

The apartment we’re living in this summer is huge. It sleeps five, but it contains one espresso maker. As in one coffee maker to make one itsy bitsy espresso for one person. I’ve at least figured out a way I can get two (small) cups of regular coffee out of this Lilliputian contraption. While it’s perking, I boil a pot of water so I can pour half of the (okay, yes, quite delicious) espresso into a cup and fill the rest with water. Caffe Americano! It’s a labor of love, but at least I can get a morning beverage. (Now, if I repeat this three times, I will have had my morning coffee.)

Bathrooms. C’mon, Italy. You can do better. I’ll let you have the bidet, although I simply do not understand this contraption other than it takes up too much space in small Italian bathrooms. But, why do the showers have to be so small? Our shower in our apartment doesn’t even have doors that close, which means that after you shower, you have to use towels to dry the floor. Public bathrooms are even more confusing. Why do so many Italian public bathrooms include missing toilet lids? The design of the toilet shows that it calls for a lid, so did someone, somewhere, decide that Italians can’t trust tourists with toilet lids? Of things to swipe to take home as souvenirs, I wouldn’t think toilet lids would top the list.

Street Noise. In every Italian town we have visited over the years, the noise on the street is LOUD. Even the quaint towns with only local traffic have way-too loud noises. Italian towns are built in stone, so noise reverberates off the postcard-worthy buildings. Add to that the barking dogs, the Italian mamas yelling at their Italian bambini, the teammates of the local Italian soccer club yelling at each other just because they can I suppose (we hear this every night), the motorcycles weaving through the narrow streets all day (and night) long, and the street sweeper cleaning the streets every morning, it’s hard to get away from the noise. From pictures, Italian towns look quiet. Rest assured, they are not.

This is the lock to our front door in Meta.

Obsession with Security. All the Italians I’ve met have assured me how safe Italy is. And I feel safe in Italy. Back home, I never walk alone around my town at night. But, while in Italy, nessun problema. Given how late the morning starts, the three to four-hour riposa in the afternoon, and the evening, which begins around 6, if you don’t walk around at night, you are basically stuck at home the whole day. However, as safe as Italy feels, locked gates barricade every home. Each front door has a deadbolt system that would rival any New York City walk-up. Every first-floor window has steel bars on them. I’ll tell you. No one is getting into your home.

This is the view from our terrace in Meta.
This is also the view from our terrace.

Juxtaposition of Squalor and Splendor. Like any tourist, I want my pictures on Facebook to look pretty. So, I post the sea view. The lemon groves. The bucolic vistas. But for every lemon grove in Sorrento, you can see an empty lot strewn with trash. For every winding street, you can find another right next to it packed with garbage, junk, and all sorts of gross things. (Speaking of garbage, every day is a different recycling day, which means basically, that refuse sits out on the street, waiting for pick up, every single day.) For every great masterpiece, you can find 10 times the amount of graffiti. The graffiti is so bad that most of the village names at each stop on the Circumvesuviana local train from Napoli to Sorrento are grafitti-covered and unreadable. Which is challenging giving the train stops for about 30 seconds before moving on to the next village.

Pizza. Pizza in Italy is ridiculously delicious (especially near Naples). It is also ridiculously cheap. Last night, I chose the Marinara pizza (tomatoes and basil). It was huge. It cost 3.50 euros. The hubster splurged and ordered a Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and added olives and eggplant. His totalled 4.50.  The dichotomy of pizza prices compared to the cost of one cup of coffee, water, bread, or just about anything else on the menu does not make the least bit of sense to me. Seems to me that Italy could erase its economic woes just by charging tourists double for their pizzas. I don’t think we’d even notice. 

But I’m not going to complain about cheap pizza. In fact, I’m not really going to complain about anything in Italy. Just because I don’t understand much of it, doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied. I like the confusion of Italy. I like that my wash takes hours and that I have to wait additional multiple hours for it to air dry (this also explains why laundry is always hanging outside in Italian homes). I like that I need to ask the grocery guy to select my vegetables because, apparently, you do not touch the produce. I like that I can basically mix anything together in a pan, cook it for a long while, mix in pasta, and have a rather delicious meal. I like that we buy our wine from the wine guy down the street and pay 4 euros for 3 liters of wine. I like that we relax in Italy.

Resting. Eating the best food in the universe. Drinking excellent wine. Walking everywhere. Repeat. So maybe I do understand a bit. Amo l’Italia!


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When Achalasia Takes Vacation

As you all know, the hubster and I recently travelled through France and Italy to celebrate our 40th anniversary.  You all also know that I had put so much planning, hope, and expectations on this trip that some people (okay, my husband) was concerned I might be disappointed.  I mean what trip could possibly live up to a vacation I had spent untold hours thinking about, rethinking about, and then thinking about again?  Those of you who know me well, know that I have a vivid imagination.  Believe me, there was not one inch of this trip that I didn’t think about (multiple times) before we left.

So, how was it?  In a word, Epic.  I mean utterly, truly, unbelievably epic.  It was what I had hoped it would be.  And then some.

I could point to any number of reasons it was so magical.  Spending a month with the best guy ever would be one reason.  Being out in the middle of the ocean for two weeks would be another.  Breath-taking scenery everywhere we turned would be yet another.

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The ship hadn’t even left port and I was already relaxed!

But, eating the food was a highlight that was so delightful, it’s difficult to describe.  Simply put, I ate with gusto on this trip. And, I ate a lot.  In fact, I am positive that I ate more in one month than I have eaten over the entire past year.  One night, for example, we decided to take a break from our normal four-course meal at our agritourismo.  We walked into town for a “light” dinner.  This breezy dinner consisted of a pizza for each of us (Do the math.  That’s two pizzas.), a scoop of gelato (I think on that night I had Nutella and Cream, if you can imagine) and a carafe of wine.  And, just for the record, that entire meal cost about 25 euro.

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This is the restaurant where we had a “light” dinner of pizza, gelato, and wine.

In Italy, if a pasta dish were available (and in Italy, pasta is always available!), I ate it.  Formaggio?  Oh, si, grazie!  Coupled with a delightful (and crazy cheap) local wine, I was happy.

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My lunch in Cortona. And, yes, I ate every bite.

It didn’t stop there.  We ate dessert with just about every meal, which, if you knew my husband (since he doesn’t like sugar), is amazing. At one restaurant, we even shared three desserts, each one yummier than the one before.

My achalasia was clearly on vacation.

I first started noticing that I was eating easily during our transatlantic cruise. While you hear stories of people piling their plates at the buffet with bacon (yes, I did see people eat way too much bacon in one sitting), waffles, and everything else they could grab, there were wonderful healthy choices that were truly mouthwatering.  Oatmeal for breakfast, exotic soup for lunch (and usually ice cream afterwards), salmon and vegetables for dinner.  I loved the food on the ship and ate it with joy.  I was relaxed and breathed deeply while sitting on our balcony.  Over the two-week cruise, I only had to pause and consider whether I could continue to eat (usually the answer was yes!) just a few times.

In Italy, I only had one semi-major constriction of my esophagus and I wasn’t even eating then.  It was while driving on a mountainous, supposedly two-lane road with 180-degree hairpin turns about every two minutes. I think anyone fearing a heart attack would be justified at that moment.

Before our trip, I considered whether I needed to worry about gaining weight over the month. After all, the only good thing about achalasia was that I was able to shed my excess weight.  What if it came back? I even brought a pair of my old-size pants just in case I wouldn’t be able to fit into my new-size clothes by the end of vacation.  I finally concluded that if I found I could eat, I wasn’t going to worry (much!) and that gaining up to 10 pounds would be acceptable and well worth the price for eating fabulous food.

But I didn’t gain weight.  Not even a pound.

I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps I ate less than I thought.  (Even if true, I’ve got pictures of the entire pizzas I devoured so I know I ate a lot.)  Perhaps exercise kept the extra weight away (Yes, we walked a lot, but I don’t think it would be possible to walk enough to keep the “calories in/calories out” equation even partially balanced.). Perhaps I only ate good-for-you food.  That was mostly true, but a big bowl of pasta has some serious calories, no matter which way you count them.  And, as for the 5 oz. of wine per day is good for you medical recommendation, yes, well…

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Just taking a rest before gearing up for a four-course dinner.

I think it was a miracle. A full-blown “hey, I’m going to give the girl a break just because I can” kind of miracle.  A challenging year of barely eating ended with a flat-out celebration of the goodness of food.  Ecclesiastes 7:14 begins “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” I’ve had a bit of adversity—not much compared to others, but I’ve shed a few tears—and from May 6 to June 6, I had joy.  Complete freedom to eat without worry.

Since we’ve been back, I continue to do well, but I certainly can’t eat the way I ate on vacation.  I’m back to thinking carefully about my food, paying attention to the pains, drinking plenty of hot water when I get into trouble.  In short, I have nearly daily reminders that I still have achalasia and I always will.

But, that’s okay.  I got a glimpse of joy.  My favorite author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”  I might be stretching here, but I think I got a glimpse of a sliver of heaven on this trip. And it looks a lot like Tuscany.


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And, now, for the weirdest medical diagnosis ever.

In September 2016, I was diagnosed with achalasia—a condition I had never heard of.  Only one person out of between 100,000 and 200,000 people has achalasia.  With a US population of about 325,000,000, you do the math.  Seriously, do the math (I keep getting confused about what to divide or multiply).  Chances are, I will be the only person you will ever know who has this weird condition.

I am more fortunate than most who suffer from achalasia in that my gastroenterologist zeroed in on my troubles right away (after I finally made an appointment to see him).  Apparently some people suffer for up to a decade before they get an appropriate diagnosis, which given what I have experienced, I find not only bizarre, but utterly horrifying.

So what is achalasia, anyway?  It’s a swallowing disorder (or if you want to get all medical, a “motility” disease).  There are lots of swallowing disorders out there, but this one may be the craziest.  In order to be diagnosed, you have to go through four tests.  First up, the typical endoscopy.  If you haven’t had an endoscopy in a while, I highly recommend one.  For mine, I was given the drug that Michael Jackson took a little too often.  And it was awesome! (I totally see why he got addicted.)  I had the best 20-minute sleep in my life and woke up completely refreshed.  You have to have an endoscopy to “get the lay of the land” and to rule out a bunch of other esophageal problems.

Next up, you have one more test to rule out “pseudo achalasia” (code word for tumors and cancer):  a CT scan with a lovely dye injected throughout your system.  I would have called this an uncomfortable test, but then I had Test #3, which made all other tests there are in the world seem like a warm tropical island vacation.

The Manometry Study.  To explain this test, it’s helpful if you’ve seen The Matrix.  Remember those mechanical worm things that set out to destroy Neo and his crew?  Well, for the Manometry Study, the technician takes one of those and sticks it in your nose and down your throat, through your esophagus, into your stomach.  Without sedation.  How I let them do this to me, I’ll never know because I have a gag reflex that is, shall we say, sensitive.  Once the tube is in place (and the technician confirms that the patient is still alive), for about an hour, you swallow little sips of water every few minutes.  This test measures the muscle pressure of your esophagus as well as the pressure at the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES).  If you have achalasia, over time, your esophagus loses its ability to squeeze food down past the LES into the stomach.  The loss of this muscle squeezing is called peristalsis.  My reading was at zero, which meant my esophagus muscle was shot (bummer).  The test also shows the pressure at the LES, which is the little trap door that opens and closes. The idea is that the LES opens when food works its way down the esophagus and closes after the food passes through.  If you have GERD (severe acid reflux), there’s a good chance that the LES doesn’t close quickly enough after the food passes through, which allows the acid from the stomach to work its way back up the esophagus.  But if you have achalasia, the LES doesn’t open in the first place so the food stays in the esophagus.  In the Manometry Study, high pressure at the LES indicates the LES stays shut.  Yep, that was me.

After all of that, I still had to go through one more test.  Just to be sure.  The Barium Swallow.  I might have been concerned with this test (I had heard plenty of horror stories), but, I tell you, after the Manometry Study, having a Barium Swallow was like going to a cocktail party with your best girlfriends.  Even the barium drink seemed pretty festive. The radiologist conducting the test seemed concerned.  After shooting the first slides and then exclaiming rather loudly “Oh, wow.  Just wow!” and then quickly apologizing for the outburst, I told him I was fine and that I would also like to see these amazing slides of which he was so enamored.  You could say the radiologist and I bonded:  He, because he was finally seeing a live version of a condition he had only read about and me, I suppose, because I was the live specimen.  What he and I saw was a stretched out esophagus, a tight-shut LES, and the barium sitting in my esophagus.    That clinched it.  All doctors involved agreed.

I have achalasia.

All also agreed that there was only one solution:  surgery (scheduled for February 2).  If the condition is not weird enough for you, then how’s this?  Surgery involves making small slices in the outer wall of the esophagus, forcing the LES to stay open.  This is called the Heller Myotomy Procedure.  Then, in order to keep the food from just shooting back out my esophagus, the surgeon performs a Nissen Fundoplication (who comes up with these names, anyway?), a procedure that wraps my stomach in some weird position around part of my esophagus to help keep the food down to give it time to digest.

It’s not a cure.  Apparently, I’ll never get the pressure back in my esophagus and I’ll always have to be careful about eating.  But, I should be able to eat relatively normally after I recover from surgery.

So what have I learned from all of this craziness?

First, those of you who know me, you know how much I love food.  I love to cook food, I love to look at beautiful food, I love to read cookbooks, I love to try new foods, I love the texture of food, I love to write about food, I love to talk to other foodies about food.  And most of all, I love to eat food.  But for the past year (at least), eating has become difficult.  I do best when I stick to hot, soft foods like soup.  I love soup, so it’s not like I am deprived.  But, I’ll admit, even I am getting tired of soup.

strawberry-salad

I can’t eat this now, but soon!

Because of achalasia, I have to think before I eat.  I have to eat slowly.  I have to pay attention to my food.  I have to be mindful about what goes into my mouth.  And, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not a single thing wrong with eating that way.  So I’m thankful that achalasia has brought me to that point even though it would have been nice to get there in a slightly less painful way.

Second, I’m reminded of what a privileged life I live.  I have a fantastic GI doc who suspected I had something other than acid reflux when I first met with him.  In just a matter of months because of his insight, I had a definitive diagnosis and a plan for the future. As the doctor told me, this is “serious, but not life threatening.”  It seems like almost every month I hear about someone who is young and healthy yet gets a cancer diagnosis.  I may no longer be young, but I am certainly healthy and have remained so, even while struggling with this condition.

Third, while I would not recommend this method to anyone, because of achalasia, I have lost excess weight.  But it’s weird.  Even though I have an extremely healthy self-esteem, I’ve learned that I do have some body image issues.  I’ve always felt like I needed to lose weight (even in 7th grade when I was growing about a quarter inch a week and could not eat enough to keep up).  My BMI is way within the normal range now and when I fill out those highly (un)scientific online polls, they all say things like “it would not benefit you to lose more weight.”  Still, I think I could lose a few more pounds before surgery.  I have nightmares that I’ll gain weight about 30 seconds after surgery (how many pizzas would it be possible to eat in my first week of recovery, I wonder?).  All told, I have more empathy now for those who need to lose weight, those who don’t need to lose weight but think they do, and those who can eat everything in sight without a care in the world.

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I was a bit chubby as a kid, but that’s okay!

Finally, I’m learning that life continues to be one interesting journey.  And the longer we travel, the more interesting it becomes.  While Easy Street might seem like a worthy goal, it’s really not.  So whatever you’ve been handed, make the most of it.  Trust me, it’s better than curling up into a ball or sticking your head in the sand.   Victor Hugo once wrote, “Many great actions are committed in small struggles.”  To be sure, compared to others, my struggles are small.  But the good news is I can take my own small struggles and work toward better actions.  That’s what I hope to do in 2017.  And, at least occasionally, I hope to contemplate these actions while mindfully eating a luscious, crunchy crusted, piping hot pizza.