D.C. Mornings

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I’m a morning person. Wait, maybe I’m not being specific enough—I’m an OBNOXIOUS morning person. It’s a personality trait that, after many failed attempts to convince myself in past relationships that dating a night owl wouldn’t cause arguments in our future, has proven to be the one identifier I’ll never be able to quit. It’s also the one identifier I refuse to quit.

See, the thing is, I love getting up early. There’s a magical energy that exists between those few hours between sunrise and when the rest of the world starts to stir—it’s when I feel most creative, most adventurous, and it’s the time when I can really let myself be. It’s when I am most productive, spitting out page after page of writing, compared to the abysmal content I’ve created during that 3 p.m. workday lull when it takes all of my energy just to answer an email.

When I travel, it seems almost insane for me to sleep in, even if the day’s agenda includes lying on a beach all afternoon. I blame this trait on my father—as kids, he would always be up with the sun, caffeinated and ready to go by the time my sisters and I were just opening our eyes. As an adult, I have taken on that role, stepping out to wander the new city I’m visiting while my travel partners sleep.

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I purposely factored in my sleeping habits to take advantage of the short time I had there. The trip was work related, so the bulk of my time was spent in and out of meetings, but the restless voice inside my head was calling. How could I, someone who adores government and American history, travel to D.C. and not visit at least one monument?

For any traveler, it’s important to take advantage of every free moment you have. I should mention that in this case, there is a distinct difference between vacations, which are meant for relaxation, versus traveling, which is meant for absorbing the sights and sounds of your destination. Both are equally rejuvenating. So for me, like many past trips, I took a close look at my schedule and planned a block of time between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. to wander central D.C. before catching my plane (A Note: Travel light if you plan to follow my suggestions. Because of my timeline, I was stuck carrying a backpack and purse with laptop for the duration of my adventure).

Washington D.C., at 7 a.m., before rush hour really kicks in and the school field trips start to overload the National Mall, is a peaceful time to walk. You have the chance to enjoy the history of this city without kids trying to catch Pokemon off of Thomas Jefferson’s head (is Pokemon Go still relevant?). You can her your own thoughts. You can see the sculptures that line the capital as they were intended—unobstructed by the massive crowds of tourists that will take over later in the day. It’s the quiet that makes these mornings so rewarding.

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Dr. Martin Luter King Jr. monument in Washington D.C.

Prior to this particular trip, the capital had unveiled its newest monument, dedicated to civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had made a point to visit the monument first because it was something new that I wanted to see, but even more so because I needed a reminder of the good in this world. In just a few short days, we will see the conclusion of one of America’s most vicious elections, which has created such a terrible divide across the country, and has encouraged such low brow comments that any hope of a unified outcome seems impossible. I needed a reminder of the fights our past leaders endured, and that through their lessons, we too can work to create a better tomorrow.

I think every American needs to take a trip to this monument. It’s a reminder of the equality of humankind, no matter your race, religion, gender, status, etc., and how important it is to choose love and acceptance over hate and divide. Our country is great because of the opportunities we offer—we’ve forgotten that melting pot analogy that welcomes people from all over the world to come and make a new life. It’s why so many people want to come here, to try his or her hand at creating a better future. America is not a story of haves and have nots, but a story of opportunity for all.

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D.C.’s memorial to MLK is lined with his most famous quotes about equality, love and kindness. It’s a reminder to today’s generation about what unity really means. 

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Part of the Family

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View from the Lost Iguana resort outside La Fortuna, Costa Rica

There’s pros and cons to every form of travel—whether you’re with a tour group, a self-guided trip, alone or with friends, we all have our own image of a perfect vacation. Within the millennial travel blogger realm, I see a lot of think pieces about traveling solo, with tips on what to do/ not to do, safety, or the benefits. Those are great pieces to read about, especially for me, a woman, who may face certain challenges as I backpack across Europe alone. It’s important to read up on others’ experiences and hear their advice before going on your own trek.

However, what if you decide to travel with a group? Or even more specific, what if you decide to travel with your family? On your solo adventures, the only person you have to cater to is yourself—you get to dictate which museums you visit and when, how late you want to stay at a bar, or if you should change your flight and stay on an island one extra day (tempting, right). But when you’re with a group, your needs are as equal as the others you’re traveling with, and many times you have to compromise to make sure everyone has a good time. That’s the key too—everyone needs to have fun.

Such was the case for me earlier this year when I traveled to Costa Rica. The country itself had never been high on my radar, but when an opportunity to visit my youngest sister there came up, I was sprinting out to the store to buy a guidebook. What I learned in my own research first, is that Costa Rica is a hub for adventurers (which made me wonder why I had never had it on my list before!). Between each coast you can hike in the rainforest, climb a volcano, zipline through the canopies, and surf the Atlantic or Pacific (your choice). And let’s not forget about the sloths. There are so many sloths.

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The beaches at Manuel Antonio.

If I was traveling solo, my trip would easily be booked with days and days of adventure. Instead, I was traveling with family, where each member had his/her own skill set, interests, and comfort level when it came to traveling through a new country. Originally, I had written out an itinerary similar to the trips I had organized in Europe—day to day outlines with travel, hotel options, and activities in each location. Because of the timing, I set aside two parts to the trip—a few days on the beach, and a few days up in the mountains.

Reading into the travel portion of our plans, I forgot that driving in a foreign country is never the same as driving in the U.S.—five hours of straight driving here is easy, but there, you’re venturing through winding streets up and down the mountains of the countryside (and watch out for gators!). Luckily, it was my father who suggested we hire a driver to do the heavy lifting. It was the best decision we made on that trip.

For first timers to the country, I would recommend consulting a travel guide. We went through Costa Rican Vacations (http://www.vacationscostarica.com) and they hooked us up—they set up the drivers, scheduled our tours, and booked our hotels for us for the whole week. All we had to do was show up.

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Hiking selfie in La Fortuna.

For me, going through a tour guide isn’t always my first choice—I tend to feel restricted, and without the freedom to travel at my own pace (very fast), I worry about missing something. But due to our circumstances, and the fact that none of us had traveled to Costa Rica before, this was an opportunity to put the planning in the hands of the experts. It was our priority first to have fun.

Of course, there was also compromise in our day to day decisions—the heat was difficult to deal with, so spending an entire day at the beach wasn’t ideal for everyone in our family. The cliffs made it hard for the non-hikers to get to certain beaches, and I had to learn how to sit still, but together, we were able to make memories we’d cherish forever.

During our trip we stayed in two areas: Manuel Antonio and the Arenal Volcano region. We took a few guided nature walks and got to see sloths and monkeys up close, we swam in the warm ocean, and hiked through the rainforest (on our last day in Arenal, I stepped on a viper while hiking and determined it was time to go). But what I remember (and miss) most, were the hours we spent lounging by the pool, with the gorgeous view of the ocean behind us. It’s an out of character memory for me, but those were the moments where I was able to reflect and simply enjoy the ride.

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Local Costa Rican iguana + a view in Manuel Antonio.

Namaste, with Architecture

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The studio, looking out at Boston’s Copley Square. (Credit: Vega Vitality Boston)

After months of settling in to my new life in Massachusetts, I found a wonderful yoga studio on Boylston Street overlooking Copley Square. The studio is on the top floor, level with the rooftop of the Trinity Episcopal Church, with large, clear windows offering a view of the church and the reflective 200 Clarendon Tower (also, more commonly, known as the John Hancock Tower). This juxtaposition of a sleek, modern skyscraper against the Richardsonian Romanesque peaks of the church, is a soothing image to look out to while you hold your tree pose for 30 seconds.

I’m a firm believer in the practice of calming your mind by looking out at something beautiful. It’s been discussed that staring out at the horizon can actually lower stress and anxiety, and by being outside and being active, we can live a happier and healthier life. Like many young professionals, my weekday schedule can be hectic—between meetings, sitting at my desk, writing for hours on end, and commuting home (I alternate between the train and driving the 2+ hours one way each day into Boston), having the time to be outside to clear my head becomes an occasional activity.

In a perfect world, I would have time to hike every day, but that isn’t so much of a realistic goal. When I lived in New York, I would trade in my subway commute with a walk, using the city streets as my own hiking trail. I would pass some of my favorite landmarks, enjoying the architecture and design of the city, all while getting the exercise I needed.

I should add an aside here—exercise, for me at least, is first a method of easing my anxiety. Dealing with the basic stresses of each day, my mind has a tendency to wander, and most of the time towards the negative. By creating time for myself to move, get my heart pumping, and stepping away from my phone, I’ve found a guaranteed method to lower my stress and turn my focus towards the positive—holding poses, pushing myself to do that one extra mile, pausing at the end of a hike to enjoy the view—it all helps calm me. The physical benefits of exercise are just a bonus.

So when I relocated to Boston earlier this year, my new challenge was to find a way to balance my work life, my commute, my social life, and still find time to move. My walks seemed more distant as I started following a set train schedule, and the longer I lingered in the city, the longer it would take for me to get home. I was spending too much time cramped up on a train, and I could feel myself slipping.

That is what led me to this yoga studio—I realized that while walking in Boston may not provide me the same relaxation as walking in New York did (I know, weirdest sentence ever, but walking in cities really does calm me), there were other ways to achieve it. I realized that the best thing for me was to follow a strict schedule, something that could help me set aside a specific amount of time each day to exercise.

ClassPass was my answer—through this service, paying the equivalent of a monthly gym membership, I am able to attend classes of all types and at a variety of studios before getting on my train to go home. I register ahead of time, and can do anything from yoga, to boxing, to cycling, and come out on the other side feeling stronger and at peace with my day. Instead of sitting on the train stressing over minor anxieties and letting them grow, now I would focus on the high I felt from my class, and what other activities I need to get done before the end of the week.

This week was when I finally made the connection I needed. In New York, I had the element of a view, something to look at while I cleared my mind. Walking the streets of the city always gave me that, but many of the studios I visit now are windowless, so I can only focus on the activity at hand. That’s why this moment at my yoga studio was so poignant, because as I looked out, I saw the beautiful image of modern mixed with stone, of the old against the new, of architecture, and it felt like home.

I’ve realized in my travels, that these are the moments that make your journey feel real, that when you feel that emotion of comfort mixed with awe, it can really enhance the experience. I keep a notebook on me at all times and record these moments—climbing to the top of a mountain in New Hampshire, sitting on the steps along the Trevi Fountain—making notes to remember those little moments of peace in the chaos of the city.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

Happy Anniversary, Cinque Terre!

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A bench on ‘Lover’s Lane,’ part of the first leg of hiking paths through Cinque Terre.

You will have to excuse the sappy nostalgia of this weeks’ post—I discovered a recent photo a few months ago and was eager to write about the memories it stirred up in me. There’s a reason why this week is the week I write about it too, because September 8 is the eight-year anniversary of my hike through the Italian preservation known as Cinque Terre (translates to ‘Five Lands’).

If you read any travel guide, Cinque Terre is typically labeled as a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting the Italian Riviera. It’s smaller than the trodden towns along the Amalfi Coast, but thanks to its National Park preservation status, the trails in between give you a more authentic look at the natural coastline of this country. Rick Steves (author of his self-titled series of guidebooks, aka ‘The Bible’) raves about the five towns in this region regularly, and encourages anyone planning a trip to spend at minimum two nights there. And with hiking trails, white anchovies, chilled Liguarian wine, and beaches at every stop, it’s not surprising why this place comes so highly recommended.

I think about this place all the time still, but specifically September 8, 2008. On this day, I woke on a beach hidden deep below the cliff side of Cinque Terre’s two towns of Corniglia and Vernazza.

It was actually Rick Steves’ guidebook that brought us there too–I had made friends with some hikers in my program, and we still had a few weeks left of warm, summer weather and wanted to take advantage of a trail with both stunning views and swimming. We did some research, and because of the guidebook’s heavy push to see this place, we decided it would be a great way to get that hiking fix. We took an early train from Florence’s main train station to La Spezia, a coastal town outside of Pisa, and switched there to enter the five towns. (A note if you want to visit there: Cinque Terre has its own rail system that stops in each of the five towns. You can hike between each one as well, but if hiking isn’t your thing, you can still go from town to town by train. All you need to do is buy a Cinque Terre rail pass at La Spezia train station).

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Cinque Terre has a rail system that takes you through all five towns for a good price–it’s a great alternative to see everything without having to hike.

Stop one on the train is Riomagiorre. The ride from La Spezia is only ten or so minutes long, with the final portion cutting into the rocks of the mountainside. Sitting in complete darkness, I was staring at my reflection, probably rearranging my ponytail or telling some story to my travel companions while simultaneously watching for a view to appear, when a short spurt of light poked through, revealing our first sight of the sea crashing upon the rocks. I gasped, audibly, so much so that my friend burst into laughter. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.

Our two-day hike had a lot of similar, jaw-dropping moments—the region is stunning, with pastel homes built into the cliffs overlooking the Liguarian sea. Life moves a little slower in Cinque Terre too—the locals are up early, taking advantage of the morning to get their boats out and bring supplies down to the ocean side stores and restaurants before the tourists roll in. You forget the rest of the world for a moment, with every turn bringing you a new surprise, a new photo opportunity, and new memory to store away.

I truly believe the best way to experience a place is on foot—it gives you a chance to take the time to see everything and to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of where you are. In Cinque Terre, walking the narrow (and steep) streets in many cases is your only option too—in the five towns–Riomagiorre, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare—cars aren’t allowed in the center part of the cities (Monterosso is the exception, with wider streets for cars and a more level beach).

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Be careful on some of the trails in Cinque Terre–they can be steep and rugged. If you are not an experienced hiker, I recommend taking the train.

For the amateur hiker, I would recommend walking the first two legs, starting at Riomagiorre and walking to Manarola and onto Corniglia, which includes the popular ‘Lover’s Lane,’ complete with locks along the covered stone pathway. You will need to purchase a pass to hike (it’s less than 10 euros for the day pass, and you can purchase it at any trail entrance), and be sure to check the weather and trail conditions (depending on the season, mudslides or the threat of falling rocks will close portions of the trails). Regular hikers will find more of a challenge between the last three towns, and there is a network of trails that go through the higher peaks if you have the time to check it out.

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View looking down to Vernazza.

If I can make one recommendation though, it is this—do not miss Vernazza.

On that particular trip in 2008, we climbed down a narrow, steep path (with ropes to attached to the rock for safety), which strayed from our main path, just to get to the staircase leading to the beach. Because it was so hot, we dedicated most of our afternoon to swimming. As the sun started to set, we climbed back up into the hills and stopped in Vernazza. If you do even the most minimal amount of research on this region, Vernazza will always pop up—it’s the picturesque cove town, with a stone watchtower looming over the curved docks. Here is where I spend most of my time when I return to Cinque Terre every few years—I would recommend trying to find a room here, but book well in advanced, most travelers will have the same idea.

On this specific occasion, we only had a short stay in Vernazza. We grabbed a few bottles of wine and pizza from a local shop, and ate dinner seated by the cove that protected the small fishing boats from the rough seas around the bend. The air was still that night, and we packed our bags to hit the trail one more time, this time, to find a quiet place to camp. We went backwards, back to the beach we had found earlier in the day, and watched the sun set, feet in the sand, wine passing around between the four of us.

The beach was small, only about 400 feet from the cliffs to the breakers. Between the two borders was a large rock, and we set up our camp behind that, lying our sleeping bags in a row with only the night sky as our cover. The idea was, with the rock there, we would have some protection from the tide, giving us a chance to pack up and move if it came all the way up to the wall. I doubt I slept for more than an hour or two that night, but looking up at the stars and hearing the faint sound of waves crashing, I felt comforted—I felt home.

As expected, the tide woke us first—it hit the feet of one friend, and started a chain reaction of us waking up in a rush, and we moved to higher ground to watch the sun rise from the vineyards above our heads. But before we climbed back up the cliffs to start our second day of hiking, we wanted to leave a mark, so we scratched the name of our school and the date into the cliff side. It was our small reminder of the memory we had there, of the experience we shared.

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Leaving our mark at the beach.

I don’t want to sound too corny, but I really fell in love with Cinque Terre on that trip—it was such a new experience for me, and between the hiking, the swimming, and the camping, I pushed myself way outside of my usual comfort zone. Since that first trip, I try to go back as often as I can. I brought my family later in 2008 when my semester in Florence was ending, and I returned in 2011 with two of my other friends during our trip across Italy. For me, returning to Cinque Terre is like returning to myself—I get a chance to revisit the place that help shaped who I am today. But I also love bringing people there who have never experienced Cinque Terre before. The reaction is always the same—we sit in the dark on that train, passing through the rock, and that first blip of ocean, that first glimpse, is enough to make anyone gasp. I still do every time.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

Find Your Park

The United States’ National Park Service turns 100 this week. Specifically, August 25th. On that day in 1916, Congress approved of the agency and tasked it with the role of preserving the natural and historic sites it is entrusted with, keeping them available for public use. Today, the NPS employs over 20,000 people, and has 59 official national parks, and also oversees thousands of historic sites and preservations across the country. It’s pretty cool.

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National Parks come in all shapes and sizes–here’s my view from the North Cascades in Washington State during a quick lunch break on our hike.

To celebrate their birthday, the National Parks Service’s marketing team put together a year-long social media campaign #FindYourPark, where participants post photos, stories, etc. etc. about their favorite national park experience. It’s been a fun year of celebrating all that the service offers, and a great reminder of the importance of supporting this organization to help preserve these sites in the future.

It’s also a great reminder of what our own country has to offer. Over the years, I’ve noticed a big trend in the destination choices of Millennials—it’s no longer cool to travel to somewhere new, now you also have to travel to some obscure place just to up your cool factor. In my own experiences, when you start down the path of conversation about travel, most of these hipster types will rate your travel juju based on where you’ve been—Europe isn’t cool enough anymore, so any tales of your semester abroad in France should be set aside.

Part of this has to do with privilege—Millennials are a part of a generation where their parents were able to expose them to world travel at a younger age because they could afford it. My own parents stuck to local vacations growing up, and didn’t even travel to Europe until my sisters and I were in high school. A big trip to another country was a luxury, where for Millenials, it’s just another badge of coolness on your Instagram. We had the opportunities to see Europe and much of the US at a younger age, so our desire to find new and exciting experiences is heightened—and thanks to technology and engineering, getting to farther places has become easier and easier.

So I get the desire to explore somewhere new, but in this race we sometimes forget about all of the destinations the US has to offer–we can hike through jagged mountains, run with Buffalo on the plains, and watch the sun set over the Pacific, all in our big backyard.

I think that’s what I love so much about the National Parks’ #FindYourPark campaign—it lets us celebrate the majesty of our country, and inspires us to visit the incredible variety of places in our own country.

It took me some time to find my park—there’s so much I desperately want to see, but to celebrate the anniversary I had to trace back to my first love—the Appalachian Trail. This ‘park,’ as you may call it, is a National Scenic Trail stretching 2,180 miles along the east coast, from Georgia to Maine. Every year, thousands of people hike through the trail, either in segments, in day hikes, and for a few, all the way through. For New Englanders like myself, it’s a common activity in the warmer months, and encountering a ‘Thru Hiker,’ as we call them, is as much a tale as actually doing the hike.

I think I first became enamored with the AT in middle school. I had hiked Mt. Greylock in western Massachusetts with a camp group, and learned all about this culture of hikers and their multi-month living and walking in the woods lifestyle. I read up on the AT, trying to learn anything and everything about becoming a thru hiker. It became my obsession, something I desperately wanted to achieve. Of course, years passed and between college and a full time job (that I enjoy!) and the glamour of quitting so I could camp for four months seemed distant. Occasionally, I dream about hiking the whole trail, but to still make this more of a reality in some way, I’ve dedicated my free time to hiking the AT in pieces—sometimes just a day hike, sometimes a few days, just to get the experience I crave, while still making money and trying other hobbies. Plus, hiking the AT has become a regular part of my life, versus a one shot attempt of the whole thing.

So my park is the AT. It has the most beautiful views and has challenged me as I grow, change, and become stronger (both physically and mentally). It’s been there for me through high school, through college, and it was a lifeline during my years in New York City—the AT was more than just a hike, it was home.

Ten years ago, I graduated high school and spent three days hiking the Presidential Range up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with my dad. It was my first taste at real hiking, and after that I was hooked. I’ve returned to those mountains many times, most recently trekking through Franconia with my sisters. Ten years have passed, and my list of hikes has grown, but there is one thing I know for sure—as long as I am able, I’m going to keep hiking.

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Here’s me in 2006 hiking the AT (I was 18).

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And in 2016 (Age 28). Not much has changed….right?

 

Want to learn more about the National Park Service? Visit their website here.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

 

Return to Florence

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When you return to your home you realize you can be a little cheesy–tourist photos are allowed.

I have this necklace that at some point became more than just an accessory. It’s part of who I am, like a tattoo, but a little less permanent (the whole ‘you must keep this symbol on your body forever’ thing kind of creeps me out). It’s a simple chain with three charms attached, each with its own meaning. The first is a golden hen with a tiny pearl egg under it, like it’s nesting—that one is a gift from my mother. It’s my little reminder of the family that raised me. The second charm is a Tibetan dorje, which in Buddhism is a symbol of sudden enlightenment, of finding happiness within yourself. I wish I could say that the charm itself is a symbol for my own inner happiness, but I actually bought it in a store on MacDougall Street on my first day living in NYC—it was my official new home, and in my mix of excitement and fear for my big move, I wanted to buy something to commemorate the moment. So I bought the charm, and it has become a symbol of courage for me throughout my 20’s.

My final charm is my favorite—it’s a small silver heart with a blue cloisonné decoration inside, traditional to the craft done by Florentine artists. I bought this charm back in 2011 when I visited Florence again after four years of being away.

There are certain places in a person’s life that you can consider a true home. For some, it’s where you grew up, and no matter where your life takes you, that place will always be home to you. For me, it’s a little more complicated than that—home is where I evolved, where I spent time growing and learning to become the person I am today. And the list keeps growing.

Florence, Italy fell into the literal term of my home in the fall of 2008. It was my semester abroad in college, and I wanted to join a program where I could study art by looking right at it, and Florence, well, it was the perfect place. I immersed myself in the sculpture of Michelangelo, studied fresco techniques in a studio near the Arno River, and ate every type of pasta I could find. It was, to express my love for Florence, my Bella Citta, my amore. But even with four months of living in a city, you run out of time to explore, so a few of my ‘must sees’ fell by the wayside. One in particular was Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a manuscript repository and reading room in the cloisters of Florence’s San Lorenzo church.

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Family dinners were a regular item on the menu in 2008 Florence.

That was what brought me back to Florence in 2011—first, I wanted to carve out time to see the library, and second, I wanted to spend time with my home again, doing nothing but walking the streets, listening to the chatter of local Italians and sip coffee from an outdoor café while the world flew by.

The first thing I noticed when I returned to Florence was that there are more students there than I expected. I guess I forgot how popular this destination was for students and tourists, and I was disappointed to find that as I crossed the Ponte Vecchio I could hear young girls complaining about their art final in clear English. I wanted to decipher Italian conversation, I wanted to try my hand at speaking the language, an instead, I was dropped into a tourist destination overrun with Americans.

But I was being overdramatic. The memory of Florence in 2008 was still engrained in my head. I returned to recapture the days when I was 20 years old, reading about Botticelli in the morning, grabbing paninis with a friend for lunch, and walking down a new street in the afternoon with no real destination in mind. I wanted the fuzzy, wine-induced nights at the bars, I wanted the dance clubs, the late night snacks with my friends. What I forgot was that while Florence had left an imprint in my heart, the city itself would change and evolve, just as I had.

You cannot recapture a part of your life that has passed. This was the first time I really encountered this lesson—I saw Florence as one thing, but that part of my life ended when I boarded my plane back home. In the four years I was away, I had graduated college, landed my first job and was creating a new home. I was different, and I saw Florence in a new lense.

On our second morning in Florence, after spending the night dancing at one of my favorite clubs, I woke with the sun and slipped out while my friends still slept—I left them a note saying that I would return in time for our wine tour out in Tuscany, scheduled for the mid-afternoon. I was on a mission, I wanted to find that café, get my coffee, and just sit with my city. That’s the thing about these ‘homes’ we create throughout our lives, as we grow and change, we can always come back to that familiar place. We feel safe there—for me, Florence was my first time living in an apartment, cooking for myself and being away from my family. It taught me how to be confident, how to navigate city streets and find comfort in a new place. I missed Florence, and even though some things had changed, the spirit was still there. I just had to take some time to find it.

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The steps of the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo.

I took that morning to relax, I wrote in my journal while sipping coffee, and at 10 a.m. I was the first person to enter the Laurentian Library, right as they opened the doors. For a short period, it was just me and Michelangelo’s work. I had the time to walk down the center aisle of the reading room, the click of my shoes echoing on the walls. I saw every curve, every panel of the staircase for what it was, and I felt complete. I had found that feeling I was looking for, the feeling of home, of returning to a place I loved, and it gave me the renewed energy I needed to bring back to my life in the states. It’s funny, how those moments alone with something you love are the most rewarding.

I still dream about Florence. Every time the summer air cools, I’m brought back to those months of exploration in my favorite city. It was a city that taught me how to be independent, how to survive on my own, and it was the city that taught me how to embrace change. That is what keeps bringing me back—even though I don’t live there, Florence will always have lessons for me. It’s my home—like New York, or Rhode Island, or Worcester—and it will always be a part of who I am.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

A Moment of Clarity at Harts Pass

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After the storm, a rainbow appeared at our campsite in the Okanogan National Forest.

If you type Harts Pass into the Google search browser, you get a listing of images, videos and websites solidifying the danger of this mountain road. It’s description, according to DangerousRoads.org, is the ‘highest mountain pass that you can drive to in Washington State,’ with a summit of 6,100 feet above sea level. At the peak, you can camp overnight among the mountain meadows and the remains of a once lush forest, now reduced to charred skeleton from years of wildfires blazing through the area.

While dangerous, the hairpin turns along the crag of the mountainside will even out, bringing you to the peak, where there you can rest in complete silence and serenity—besides the few campsites occupied by PCT thru hikers and adventurous families, you are completely alone in the wilderness, devoid of cell service, electricity and the stresses of your daily life.

I’m not much of a person for heights—I admit, that while I love hiking, I still experience the dizzying sensation of my vertigo setting in when I look over a cliff (or, to be more honest, a railing). Even with my feet firmly placed on the ground, the image of falling makes me panic—all it takes is one thought of what ‘could’ happen to trigger it.

The idea, though, of what sparks my vertigo made me wonder: What if this sensation isn’t vertigo, but a branch of my own anxiety? The cause is the same—a simple thought ignites a story in my mind of all the ways things could go wrong. And from there, it overpowers me.

I’ve dealt with extreme anxiety for most of my adult life. At some points, the anxiety is minor, but there have been days, weeks and even months when the feelings are unbearable. Mainly it’s social anxiety I’ve dealt with—I tend to convince myself that my friends are annoyed with me or do not want me around, that even though they haven’t said anything to confirm that suspicion, I convince myself that I am not worthy of their friendship. I isolate myself, shut down when these feelings start to appear. I’ve lost friends because of it, I’ve ended relationships with people I truly cared about, just because I was afraid.

Ninety percent of the time these feelings are wrong—I let my analysis of something consume me, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of this, and I try to push through the anxiety until I can feel better. Once these feelings subside, I’m left with a clearer idea of how happy my future can truly be. But what about that other ten percent? Those are the moments I can’t control, the things that make me doubt myself and my inner strength. It’s a constant, uphill battle, where the roads are narrow and rocky, and the only thing you can do is keep going, even when you are afraid.

That was my last year. My worst fears came true—people I once relied on could not understand my melancholy, and instead of listening, they told me to suck it up. I fell deeper and deeper into the darkness, fighting my own inner demons without a hand to hold. I didn’t know who to trust anymore, who to confide in. I hurt people I cared about, sabotaged my own happiness. I felt completely alone.

Things always seem to get worse before they get better. At Harts Pass, even on the clearest of days the road is treacherous. When I traveled up the road, we had been playing chicken with a thunderstorm in the distance. The hope, of course was that we could make it to the peak before sundown, and that the storm would go over us. But as we pushed closer and closer to the top, it became more evident that the worst was going to happen, that the storm would reach us right on the ridge. We were afraid, alone, without protection. And the only way we could go was up.

It’s important to test your inner strength, to remind yourself of your confidence and your ability to survive. For so long, I had lost that part of myself. I had let my own anxieties take over, obsessing over what others thought of me and why, and let that shape my opinion of myself. But at that moment, with lightning crashing through the clouds outside our car, the wind pushing us closer and closer to danger, I suddenly forgot about the party I wasn’t invited to, the people who made me feel like I didn’t matter. I wanted to survive this, to see this through, and to return with renewed energy and confidence.

As we entered the campground 6,000 feet up, we could finally park and wait the storm out. As the rain patted against the window, and the winds died down, I looked out to the sky to see a sight unlike anything I’ve experienced before—there, above our heads and out on the ridge, was a rainbow. In the Bible, a rainbow was a symbol to Noah representing the promise that God wouldn’t bring another flood. It was a sign that everything would be ok.

That was what that moment brought me—it was a reinforcement of confidence, a promise that with so much change and regret in my life, that I would be ok. It was the push I needed to welcome peace back into my life, and begin again.

This may be an apology to those I hurt in my past. This may be an excuse I use to justify my feelings and my actions. But really, what this is, is a release. I know people don’t always like to talk about their own mental health, myself being the number one offender. Anxiety has always been my own personal demon, something that I was ashamed of for so long. But I’m not ashamed anymore. That’s why I want to open up, to be honest with myself in a form I am comfortable with—writing. This is my rainbow, my moment of clarity, my moment to remind myself that everything is ok.

Clarity is a series of personal essays or vignettes about my travels and the lessons I learn while there. You can read more pieces of Clarity here.

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I have to remind myself everyday of my strength–it keeps me going.