Eat, Run, Love

A view from the Cinque Terre coastal trail, with the town of Vernazza coming into view.

Last night I read Goethe and ate divine pesto, and this morning I ran across a mountain and climbed back into bed with Morgan.

It’s all about life, Italy and the pursuit of happiness.

(Bear with me while I explain what Goethe has to do with it …)

I didn’t expect to pick up 18th-century German Romanticism more than twenty years after my last college lit class. I’ve been eating up delectable novels and memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and told myself I should ingest some historical fiction or classics (similar to how I reach for bran flakes and skim milk to balance out the pasta and wine).

Then, around the same day, we serendipitously stumbled upon Goethe. His name was everywhere. We were in the town of Malcesine on Lake Garda, a giant drop of blue in Northern Italy hanging like a bead off the skirt of the Alps, and were spending five nights there for no better reason than because three months earlier, in New Zealand or somewhere, Morgan had looked at Italy on Google Earth, saw the splotch of blue and the steep topography around it, and said, “I wanna go there!”

Kyle on a snowy ridge in the Alps above Lake Garda during a hike he took with Morgan.

As we drove the freeway up from Verona and the steep mountain pass down through Turbole, we started noticing inns and restaurants named after the German literary great.

Once we settled into our lodge, Morgan logged on to research why Goethe was such a big deal in this neck of the woods. “You gotta read this,” I soon heard him say.

We found ourselves following in Goethe's footsteps.

I looked over his shoulder at a newspaper article from 1986 about local bicentennial celebrations of Goethe’s sojourn to Lake Garda: The 37-year-old Goethe set off for Italy from Weimar at 3 A.M. on Sept. 3, 1786, in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis. Impulsively, he took a short leave of absence from his post as the right-hand man to the young duke of Saxe-Weimar, jumped into a coach without a servant or much luggage, assumed the name Filippo Moller and left for what turned out to be almost two years of renewal in the Mediterranean. … In Italy, Goethe experienced what he called a rebirth, living a life “exactly like a youthful dream.”

I wound up entranced by Goethe’s early novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and learned more about his Italian journey while touring the 6th-century Malcesine castle, a place he explored after docking his boat there due to bad weather.

The castle and town of Malcesine, which Goethe visited 224 years ago.

Ever an artist, Goethe pulled out his sketchpad and settled in to draw the castle. An exhibit at the castle detailed how the stress of Goethe’s job left no room in his life to pursue artistic interests, and how by radically changing his circumstances, the poet hoped to get closer to the meaning of his existence.

It will come as little surprise to those who know us that Morgan and I could appreciate the motives behind Goethe’s odyssey, much as I could relate to Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision, detailed in Eat, Pray, Love, to spend a year of self-inquiry through travel. It’s trite but true that the most satisfying kind of travel involves contemplating the meaning of life, and discovering and pursuing new interests along the way. It’s part of what we’ve been doing, and with a mere six weeks remaining until we return to California, we’re spending more time reflecting on where we’ve been — not just in the past year, but in the two decades we’ve been married — and what we might do next.

The topic came up again over dinner on the patio of the apartment we’re renting this week in Vernazza, one of the five impossibly beautiful villages that make up the coastal region known as Cinque Terre.

The town of Vernazza, with our apartment in the corner of the building on the far right, directly above the cafe umbrellas (that's our laundry hanging out the kitchen window).

The patio has a staircase that leads two flights down to the small town square and harbor, so the kids periodically ran from dinner to the beach. We opened a white wine harvested from the hillside outside our window, and served a rotisserie chicken and baguette from a deli downstairs. For the side, we cooked fresh pasta, covered it with locally made pesto, sautéed green beans and sliced an heirloom tomato (which isn’t labeled “heirloom” here — it just is). An outdoor restaurant sits right on the other side of the apartment terrace, and at one point a waiter, who had been observing our family meal with some amusement, came over and handed us a giant bowl filled with a couple dozen garlicky steamed mussels garnished with lemon wedges, compliments of the chef, just to be nice.

We lingered over the plates covered with mussel shells and chicken bones and looked across the water at the steep hill, where innumerable layers of dark gray rock stretch across in diagonal lines and then curve, dip, and rise again, as though charting geologic time, and we wondered how many millions of years it took the hill to push up from the sea. Then we looked over to the 14th-century church, so pretty against the pastel-colored buildings around the town square, and peered down to check on our kids, who were climbing on boulders protruding from the water, and we heard their giggles float up on the wind.

The church and hillside vines across from our apartment at sunset.

It was in so many ways the most satisfying dinner, and the potency and transience of the moment made me teary.

It’s not just that packing up and leaving home — and in the process leaving the security that comes with a familiar routine, a generous income and a solid reputation — forces change and exploration (of self as well as of surroundings) in a way no amount of therapy ever could. What moved me is the way in which this journey has delivered constant reminders — in the form of spectacular natural history as well as human artifacts such as Roman ruins and medieval castles — of the brevity of our time on Earth and the degree to which we’re microspecks in the millennia, so what can we do but seek happiness through relationships and experiences, and do the best we can with our greatest gift and trace of immortality — our children — during the limited time that we do have?

Kyle and Colly hanging out at the harbor after dinner while we watch from our apartment above.

I paused after that paragraph for a two-hour run. While Morgan and the kids slept in, I climbed the narrow coastal trail linking the towns of Cinque Terre.

I’m running more these days in part to prepare for a 35K trail race on my 41st birthday two weeks from now, which will be through a valley outside of Florence. Morgan is caring for the kids and arranging transportation so I can do the race, which is really giving me the gift of all the drama and endorphins that go with a tough mountain run, and what can I possibly give him in return on his birthday in September, after all he has given me? I smiled at the passing idea of a Rembrandt hat and cape so he could dress up like Goethe for Halloween.

But the main reason I’m running more, just as I’m letting myself eat and lounge around with Morgan and the kids more, is to soak in the sensations of these destinations and explore them as fully as possible before we head back home.

Kyle and I make a toast to each other with gelato cones.

As I navigated the rocks on the tapering trail and glanced over the edge to the ocean below, I considered something several people have said in casual conversation: “You must be sad the trip is coming to an end.” Oh yes, I really am, I automatically reply. But as I ran that cliff edge, I realized that assumption is only partly true; more than sad, I’m fundamentally grateful we’re heading home in mid-June.

Our days like this are numbered.

I’m thankful the trip has an endpoint because it is that very ending that enables me to so fully appreciate these numbered weeks. It’s that return date on the calendar that made Colly reach for my hand and squeeze it as we walked along the lakefront in Malcesine, and prompted her to say with maturity and tenderness beyond her 12 years, “I’m going to miss this so much.”

Along my run, I met an Italian man on the trail who had a creased face and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was carrying a gardening tool and looked stooped over as he walked toward a row of vines on the steep terraced hill. Generations of families have carved out a living by working the soil in this remote corner of the country, and it’s a safe bet he was carrying on a family tradition. I said buongiorno as I ran toward him, and he smiled and raised his eyebrows, a look of admiration crossing his face as he paused to study me and perhaps imagined what it must be like to run for fun. I wish he could have known how much I admired him at that same instant; he might be surprised that in that moment, I wanted to be less the fleeting, carefree passerby and more the local with a harvest to reap.

Morgan and I have talked over dinners and during runs about how we really can’t see our family joining the growing ranks of modern-day gypsies who travel indefinitely and call themselves “digital nomads” as they work and homeschool via the Internet wherever they might be (though anything is possible). We want to go back for the kids’ sake. This trip has been undeniably beneficial for their personal growth and education, as well as for our family bond, but they yearn for the friendships and familiarity that only their school and neighborhood can give. And we want to get back to aspects of life that we put on hold: maintaining a home, reading the local news, lending a hand to help in the community, socializing with friends, developing and finishing projects, earning the satisfaction of a job well done. Those things all really matter. The challenge, we know and vow to remind ourselves regularly, will be to preserve as much as possible the values and visions, and the rhythm of life and closeness with each other, that we rediscovered between Argentina and Italy.

Morgan took this shot of me near the north end of the Cinque Terre trail near Monterosso before we turned around and headed back.

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