Have Phobias… Will Travel!

Mount Etna Cable Cars

Mount Etna Cable Cars, Photo by Joe Foster

Elaine: I know Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” She said one thing, Joe–ONE!

Joe: Our second week in Sicily was full of suprises. We’d packed mostly warm clothes, expecting typical New England fall weather. It was typical alright… typical for the Mediterranean. One of the pitfalls of a “no-plan” plan is occasional wardrobe surprises. But, hey, that’s what flea markets are for. We could find whatever clothing we needed “in place”.

Driving out of town, we decided to head north-west. Elaine pulled out her iPhone and started searching Vacations by Owner is a vacation rental site we’ve had good luck with in the past. It allows us to contact the hosts directly instead of having to go through a middleman, like AirBnB. We like that. We want memorable experiences and talking one-on-one with the owners is crucial for our safety and pleasure. After all, we may be pushing the “anxiety free” lifestyle, but we’re not reckless!

Once again, it’s that left-brain, right-brain experience. We could spend hours studying accommodations, locations, and amenities online but until you have direct contact with the owner, it’s still just a crap shoot. A one-minute conversation, even with someone who can barely speak English, and you know…you just know. People are so much more important than the size of the bed, access to wifi or the location of the closest cafe…well maybe slightly more important.

Elaine: Sorry, Joe, but I have to disagree here. I need the wifi.

Joe: Elaine found a home on the outskirts of Cefalú, a medium-sized town on the northern coast of Sicily. We called the number and were soon talking with Maria, a sweet sounding woman who knew enough English for us to both be able to communicate well. We were all happy. I plotted a GPS course and found the closest entrance ramp to a highway. We drove down the highway in our little banged up Fiat doing 130 km/hr (80 mph), while being passed by a constant stream of BMWs, Audis, and Opals. The highway took us up into the mountains where I enjoyed the high-speed curves.

Elaine: Am I the only person who thinks the words high-speed curves and fun don’t go together?

Joe: There are no slow pokes in the left lanes of Italian highways, they just don’t live that long. It’s better to open it up and keep an eye on the rearview mirror for approaching sports cars flashing their headlights. Off in the distance was Mount Etna. We’d noticed it when we landed the other day at Sigonella Naval Air Station. The high peak was shrouded by clouds and we’d commented on how cool it must be up there. It was at least 90 degrees on the flight line and we wondered if there were any comfortable accommodations up on the mountaintop. Now we knew better. Mount Etna is an active volcano. Those weren’t clouds up there, those were plumes of steam streaming out of it’s molten center. We would walk along that volcano later, although we didn’t know it at the time.

As we drove towards Cefalu, Maria sent us several text messages giving us directions and arranging for us to meet her husband, Antonio, at a large local hotel and bar. How difficult can it be to find? Then I remembered our late night search for the apartment in Siracusa. I decided not to question the wisdom of an intermediate meeting point.

We arrived at the Santa Lucia Hotel and Bar, two hours later. Elaine was just finishing another verse of, “SantAAAA LuciAAAA” when I parked the car. Elaine texted Marie, telling her that we’d arrived. I headed straight for the coffee bar while Elaine went straight for the pizza/pastries. Starbucks look out!  After buying some delicious looking snacks and drinks, we walked back out to the hotel patio and waited for Antonio. I just sat there, relaxed, and watched the world go by. Old men were siting at the table next to us drinking beer and laughing. A couple school girls sat on the other side of us, looking like they were waiting for a ride. A constant stream of people were coming and going, cars rushing by and horns occasionally beeping. This place was very alive! An agoraphobic might panic with this kind of crowding and bustling, but it’s all a matter of perspective.

Elaine: Now that I’ve been “outed” I’ll admit, my initial reaction was to avoid this kind of crowd/sensory overload, but the food was just too appealing. I’ll be honest and admit that a small glass of wine also helped.

Joe: I heard the unmistakable rumble of a Harley Davidson. Wow! Even here in Sicily, with high performance BMW 1200s, Ducottis and Japanese rice rockets, the Hog was still a King. The rider, dressed in leather, pulled his Harley up to the front of the hotel entrance. Everyone’s eyes were on it and him. It was beautiful, meticulously taken care of, it’s chrome shined bright in the mid-day sun and the custom paint job hadn’t a speck of dirt. The rider climbed off, pulled off his helmet and stepped onto the patio. He was a good looking, clean cut Italian in his low-to mid-thirties. He wore a broad smile and seemed to know most everyone there. He walked up to the elderly men sitting next to us and patted one of them on the back while they all talked at once. I looked over to Elaine, “I like this place! It feels good.” Elaine nodded her head in agreement without taking her eye’s off of the handsome Italian. “Excuse me! I’m over here!” I said with a laugh.

Elaine: I have to overcome my stranger anxiety somehow. Remember, it’s important to remain in the here and now. It helps to focus on the sights and sounds around me. The biker just happened to be a therapeutic distraction for my worry.

Joe: As we continued to eat our snacks and drink our coffee and wine, the Italian biker concluded his conversation. He walked over to us and said, “Yoe? Elena?” We nodded back with big smiles of our own. “Antonio!” I said. We greeted each other heartily but that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. We tried, we tried really hard, but our Italian and his English was just too sparse to get anything meaningful across. But, we all smiled and nodded our heads in good-naturedness. We learned about how to overcome the fear of speaking a foreign language with strangers and wrote about it in another post.

Cefalu MariaAntonioHome

Antonio indicated that we should follow him as he pointed toward the mountain. We finished our drinks, he climbed on his Harley and we got back into our rental car. Soon we were heading straight up the mountainside. Suffice it to say that both Elena and I were white-knuckled the whole time. We followed this Italian biker up steep, narrow, hair-pin turns, one after another. I thought for sure my drivers-side mirror was going to shatter as oncoming Italian drivers came barreling past. There were some spots where two cars could not pass at all. The rule is supposedly, “first come, first serve” but I started to realize it’s “fastest come, fastest served”. We climbed a thousand feet, trying hard to keep up with the fast bike. The whole time Elaine was saying, “I can’t watch, I can’t watch!” as she looked a hundred feet down over the edge of the cliffs. “Then why are you looking? I asked while turning hard to negoiate another curve. “Oh, my god, I can’t believe we’re doing this!”

Elaine: Have you ever driven along hairpin turns where you can’t see the oncoming traffic? I prayed, looked away, held on to Joe’s arm with a death grip that stopped his circulation–anything to calm my nerves. All I could imagine was another car coming around a blind curve and knocking us off the edge of the mountain road. If anyone knows why something like that doesn’t happen more often, I’d like to know why.

Joe: Ten minutes later we pulled into the driveway of Antonio and Maria’s mountainside home. We both breathed a huge sigh of relief. Feeling safe and sound after the ride up the mountain made our vacation rental seem like paradise.

Elaine: I’ve heard it said that travel lets you appreciate the little things. I’ve just learned why.

Anxiety Lessons for Today:

1. Thinking I can’t handle something (like driving along a narrow mountain road) is not the same as not being able to handle it.  The only thing that helps me know the difference between my thoughts and my  capabilities is real-life practice.

2. Avoiding the things that scare me, keep me stuck in place.

3. Many people enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. Get to know and learn from them. It’s a technique in therapy called modeled behavior.

4. “There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth… not going all the way, and not starting.” These are the words of The Buddha. We experienced many truths about fear and joy through our actions today, so can you.


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