There’s a big blob of raspberry jam on the front of my white top. I tried to blot it off but instead ended up smearing it into the cotton fiber and have now left a red streak across the left breast pocket. This is a problem. Because it’s my only Sunday top. And I’ve forgotten to do the laundry this week so my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday tops are all dirty. Shirts are currently on strict rotation as there are only seven in my temporary closet, and in my life. No more than six days can go by without laundering because I’ll run out of material to clothe my upper body. My trouser situation is slightly worse as I have only one pair for daily use. If blobs of jam find their way onto them I am shit out of luck. Shoes, I’m currently working with two pairs: one casual and one even more casual. One Winter jacket, a fleece, a light Summer dress, whose existence has been of absolutely no use to me whatsoever through the Wintertime in London, my camera equipment, journal, laptop, phone, and basic toiletries. This modest collection of items, by western standards, are currently all of my worldly possessions. Which means at the present moment I possess all of the basic tools needed to produce media content, maintain clean teeth, hair, face, body and to cover my private parts to a socially acceptable standard for public places. No more, no less. I even went so far this month as to buy the ultra waxy brand of dental floss which was a daring and decadent addition to the toiletry bag. I went to meet a friend last week in a trendy part of town and she asked me what I’d be wearing. I said my trusty Monday through Sunday jeans, my Saturday top if I’d remembered to clean it, and either my casual pair of shoes or my other casual pair of shoes. She promptly laughed at my absurdity, told me not to show up looking like crap, and then hung up. Such is the life of a gypsy. Not a literal gypsy, the kind originating in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent telling fortunes and living in caravans, but the modern, self-inflicted, professional kind. I’m poor, homeless and almost naked, but not really.
It’s not entirely new territory for me, I’ve lived out of bags before, traipsing around parts of the Himalayas, southern Asia and Australia with what seemed like nothing more than a few bandannas and a pair of Tevas. But I’d never really done it before as a fully formed human, as a thirty-something year old with looming societal expectations and a husband. We’ve lived in six different abodes in under seven years and rather gotten used to the art of the pack/unpack. More a refined skill than a physical chore, this seemingly arduous task has some advantages. This kind of lifestyle provides ample nuggets of opportunity for the de-crapping of one’s life. Every time one is forced to lay everything one owns out on the bed and assess its importance in the grand scheme of things, emotions run high but decisions are made. Like deciding which John Hughes collector DVDs will be cast aside and left for trash, will it be Ferris Bueller or will it be Breakfast Club? A heartbreaking decision no child of the eighties wants to be faced with, but alas, it must be done. Despite the odd sentimental attachment to items symbolising your youth and existential teenage angst, one usually comes to the realisation that most things one acquires are really, essentially, just crap. It’s just that one isn’t necessarily provided the opportunities to come to this realisation until they’re forced to fit everything they hold dear in this life into 50.7 lbs. of cabin space. Every time the pack/unpack occurs, crap departs. The amount of excess crap in one’s life is often closely related to the frequency of the pack/unpack. I’d venture a guess to say the more one opens, closes and hauls baggage to and from different towns, cities and continents, the less material crap one inevitably is weighed down by. Such less crap in fact, that before you know it you’re back in London walking down the road wearing nothing but your bra, your candy cane socks and those old jeans. You’re lighter and less burdened by material comforts for sure, but you probably won’t be served at Subway.
It’s a funny thing only owning what you absolutely need. The odd days do inevitably arrive when you miss thumbing through that old stack of obscure vintage stamps of prominent Hungarian historical figures you found at a street stall in east London, or wish you had that Oscar Meyer Wiener whistle to conduct comprehensive social experiments on people’s tolerance levels, but for the most part, you never miss the crap. Decision making of any kind, which these days can be cause for heightened levels of anxiety and stress due to the sheer amount of choices that are screaming like a teething toddler for our attention, is now a breeze. The morning routine of leaving the flat, or hotel, or airport lounge, or in-laws house, or whatever structure with sleeping facilities inside it that we’re found inhabiting these days, is done in a matter of seconds. What used to involve dozens of minutes of deliberation over what type of shoe I might be in the mood to wear or what’s most suitable for the weather, or what outfit makes me look most like Mary Tyler Moore from her renegade days as Mary Richard, TV producer and all round female maverick of the seventies, now involves a quick grab of the only items on offer. No thought, no deliberation, no comparison to the styles of television icons, and no subconscious wear and tear of the mind’s critical thinking capabilities. These are now preserved for thoughts of much higher importance, like how can I make real a difference in the world? Why are British Starburst flavours so different to American Starburst flavours? And how on God’s green Earth is it statistically possible that I always get the economy seat with a broken screen? Predicaments I now have the additional time to ponder.
Speaking of too many choices, I used to find walking down the cereal aisle at the grocery store slightly unsettling, but now I find it to be the single most terrifying human experience one can endure. The last time I accidentally wandered down this neverending labyrinth of high fructose corn syrup-induced nightmares, they found me curled up on the Captain Crunch shelf, having only made it a third of the way down the aisle, my eyes devoid of life as I rocked back and forth, no recollection of how I’d gotten there. We won’t go into the time before that but let’s just say it involved several crushed boxes of Bran Flakes and a store wide effort to contain what I remember over the loud speaker as the “crazy lady in aisle eight with the baseball bat.”
Most scenarios these days involving more than a simple “yes”, “no”, “is it customary to eat that part of the animal?” or “I’ll take whatever’s warmest,” sends me into a paralytic state somewhat resembling the cereal aisle debacle. Having lived close to the ground for a while now and relatively uninhibited by the drudgery of choice in my daily life, due to a healthy travel schedule to lesser developed regions and a general lack of interest in anything preceded by the words “buy two get one free,” I’ve completely lost the ability to process and cope with things like shopping malls, menus that read like Tolstoy novels, or the mere mention of a “holiday sale” or “mega-anything.” Like an Amazonian tribeswoman whose been thrust abruptly in front of an IHOP menu after a lifetime of eating whatever drops from the berry tree, my neurons stop communicating with each other when faced with so much choice. Just give me the daily special and I’ll be on my way thanks.
The truth is that eliminating this gamut of choice in our lives has itself been a choice. We’ve foregone traditional models of living and the comforts of security and stability to embark on something else. We’ve chosen to pare things down, to detach ourselves from attachments, to free ourselves from the bondage of crapdom and to remain geographically and psychologically open to the unique opportunities that arise in business and in life. We’ve unshackled ourselves from expectation and the promise of security in the short term, and have gone after something that, at the moment, looks a bit like an uncut episode of The Amazing Race. It’s fast and uncomfortable and the Tuk Tuk driver with Tourette’s keeps missing our stop and violently slamming on the brakes in 50mph traffic, but the journey itself is sweet and the rewards at the end are well worth riding for, assuming we get there in one piece. It feels dangerous at times being this deep in the hustle, like the ground beneath us might be ripped out at any moment. But I think we kind of like danger. There’s no surer way of feeling alive then positioning yourself as close to the edge as possible, where the views are the best but so too are the falls.
I can feel myself standing on this precipice, looking out over the endless abyss while the wind rushes past, unsettling my stance and blowing pebbles and dirt over the edge to their freefalling end. My hair flies across my face blocking my steady gaze and I have to keep my heels firmly pressed to the ground to feel as if I won’t too be blown over the cliff. It’s chaotic and uncomfortable. I don’t know for sure that I won’t lose my footing, that my concentration won’t break and the gust that’s coming in from every side won’t pick me up and drop me over the edge. But I can see the view. Out there it’s calm and the sky is the colour of a sun that’s just set. I keep my eyes out there. The wind continues to blow, there’s chaos all around me and nothing’s coming easy. But I won’t stop looking. If I lose focus and let the windstorm uproot me, that’s the end. I’m not interested in a diversion or a quicker way around the storm, the only way is through. Chaos might just be the prologue to peace, and I never read a book whose best chapter started first.
And so here I sit with my jam-stained shirt and my threadbare jeans, one foot on the edge and the other likely stepping down on my suitcase to force the zipper closed whilst I open the plastic packaging of Tide-To-Go Instant Stain Remover with my teeth. Having nothing feels unstable and scary, like Carrie circa 1976 except without any pig’s blood. But it’s also incredibly freeing, like Willy circa 1993 except without any whales. Which is I guess what life is all about anyway, having the faith to make a jump when your tank at Sea World doesn’t suit your ambitions anymore, and trusting you have the strength to make it over the brick wall and into the open seas ahead. If you’ve got a human friend and a Michael Jackson soundtrack to accompany you the whole way through then you already know what the ending will be, and it’s a good one.
[Note: The thing about this particular piece is that despite the seemingly helpful sounding title, one really does not have to try very hard to get fat in Rome, nor does one need a guide in order to do it. Nor does one necessarily care to do it. Making this “How To” utterly useless in every way that a How to Guide is meant not to be. In fact, in not a single distinguishable way does this resemble a “How To” guide of any sort.]
If one is not getting fat in Rome, then what may I ask, is one doing?
Having been a resident of this fine city and a consumer of all of its consumables, I simply cannot think of how a person with a mouth in which to deposit food can spend anytime here at all and still have loose fitting trousers to show for it. If a person does happen to return home without so much as even a small amount of ‘derriere transformation’, I am lead to believe one of two things must have happened: 1) A 9.0 earthquake buried all food establishments under an endless heap of rubble. 2) Said person was stricken with an intestinal parasite aiding the fast and uncomfortable expulsion of calories.
It’s not that I particularly enjoy feeding myself to uncomfortable levels as some sort of sadistic culinary pastime; it’s just that when I’m in Rome, or anywhere in Italy for that matter, food finds me. I can only assume it finds us all. I am not so much a glutton as I am a victim, an innocent passerby who cannot outrun the speed at which the scent of parmiggiano travels. The olfactory force is too great. It’s a task too big for any one person to resist the hedonism that is three square meals of Buccatini all’ Amatriciana with a side of warm chocolate calzone. The streets of Rome are minefields of gastronomic temptations and I am one of their many casualties.
Let’s talk for a second about Italian social rituals.
First of all there’s the use of the hands. Their purpose goes far beyond conventional acts of holding cutlery and wiping one’s bum and Italians know this well. Whether flailing indiscriminately in disagreement or making demonstrative gestures near one’s groin area in order to communicate the “breaking of one’s balls,” Italians really take advantage of the human body’s upper extremities. They are as much a part of conversation as the words themselves and imagining Italians speaking without their hands is like trying to imagine American tourists without sneakers on. The upper body’s full potential is really being met in Italy, and I think that’s something to consider for a moment.
Secondly, there’s directness. Having lived in Britain for the better part of the last decade and endured many a conversation containing more non-verbal proprieties and unwarranted expressions of apology than actual words themselves, I can tell you this: Bullshitting is hard work. It’s much more time effective, and at times life saving, to know out rightly if you’ve offended someone by adding milk to their tea before water or if your choice of shellfish starter is going to send your dinner guest into anaphylactic shock. Life is short, and if we make the grave mistake of leaving our thought reading devices at home then we’re all just wasting precious life moments imprisoned in an eternal loop of empty verbal gobbledygook. That or we’ve died a slow, suffocating death-by-crustacean. Italians do us all a great service when they get to the point bluntly and without hesitation. In this way, they are the most misunderstood of cultures. Famous for having no awareness of time or respect for punctuality, the opposite is actually true. They have a profound awareness of time. They know once they arrive to their scheduled social engagement they’ll already be saving you both twenty minutes by cutting the introductory bullshit and telling you that yes, your haircut does make you look like your mother. Knowing this, they leave fifteen minutes later than you did. There’s no false complimenting or superficial douchebaggery once face-to-face and so based on this widely overlooked truth, Italians are actually always early. Italian tardiness is one of the most undeserved and ill informed stereotypes ever bestowed upon a country. And so, misunderstood and insulted, they carry on telling it like it is and saving us minutes of our lives by simply not beating around the bush, and we repay them by calling them lazy and late. The nerve.
I’m usually not one for sweeping statements of grandeur and exaggerated claims without the support of hard hitting evidence-based research, well not this afternoon at least, but I believe the Italian meal might just be the most provocative act of social rebellion in today’s fractured world. It transcends the mere mechanical act of human nutritional consumption and approaches something much closer to the divine.
Modern society has taken the significance of food and the shared meal out of its cultural context and reduced it to a physiological juggling act of the digestive and posterior muscular systems. If we’re not chewing, swallowing and digesting our meals at the same time as walking, working or finishing some arbitrary chore, then we need to reevaluate our pointless and unproductive lives. Evolutionarily speaking, eating quickly on the run may have been a necessity for our primate ancestors when escaping danger or some Stone Age predatory threat. The only threat we’re faced with today is the decision to have the egg mayo baguette or the tuna club sandwich at the corner deli, so what’s the rush?
But Italians throw up a big middle finger to society’s devaluing of the meal. Don’t be preposterous, they think. Food is to be made with the highest quality ingredients and eaten with gusto. Meals are to be seated affairs shared with other humans. Their indifference and utter disregard for any opposing school of thought on this is more than a simple difference of opinion, it’s revolutionary. It’s progressive. The table is more than a functional piece of furniture in Italy. It is the rebel force leader of a movement challenging all the modern ideas of progress. It is a four-legged symbol of resistance, of community, of our past but also hopefully our future, and of change in a disconnected and disoriented society. Long live the table! Viva la tavola!
Much like I believe the enduring significance of the meal in Italy presents an interesting discussion point for ideas of community mindedness and the values of slow living in the 21st century, at least for those of you who are miraculously still reading this, I too think the seemingly dull observations of a woman walking her dog around the lesser known Roman neighborhood of Piazza Bologna is a relevant topic for today’s garrulous ramblings about… what is it we’re actually talking about again?
Having lived in the Piazza Bologna area as a young twenty-something student, my lengthy walk to school each morning was an interesting lesson on everyday Italian life in untouristed parts of the city. Hitting the streets was a way for me to experience the goings-on of daily Roman life in an intimate way and I reveled in the opportunity to integrate myself into the morning routines of the people around me.
There was one particular neighbor across the road sharing my same schedule and route down to the minute and street. Completely oblivious to my presence each morning, this woman exited her apartment with her Labrador in tow and headed off into the business of the morning. The first few days I found our corresponding routes uncanny, but of no particular interest as I trailed behind, neither outpacing nor falling behind her and the canine companion. But as the weeks progressed, I began to study the patterns in her morning routine as well as some of the deeper existential meanings behind the habits of this woman. In other jurisdictions this might have been considered suspicious behavior, illegal under some ordinance relating to “criminal stalking,” but as someone who is still bearing the emotional scars of having once suffered a maniacal and unrelenting stalker, (it was a wildly predacious mosquito in the end but nonetheless a headache), I would have never engaged in such inappropriate absurdity. I was simply trying to lessen the monotony of a repetitious commute.
And so it went in all of those weeks and months of stalking, ahem, legally observing from an awkwardly short distance, that I picked up on a few recurring themes:
Not once, in more than ninety opportunities to do so if my calculations are correct, did this woman discard of her dog’s excrement. Not once. Instead, she left steaming heaps of crap strewn across the pavement as if they were breadcrumbs helping guide her and Hansel back to their starting location in the magical forest. It was as if she believed her dog’s waste might actually be good for the concrete. Someone forgot to tell her that that’s garden soil she’s thinking of, not paved pedestrian thoroughfares in urban centres. But still, her complete lack of interest and confident nonchalance in the whole idea made me laugh, and tread more carefully.
In every instance where a small injustice was taking place amongst locals and passersby, she addressed the issues she saw unashamedly by cursing so loudly and savagely that everyone in the vicinity tended to scatter for fear of their lives. One day, it was a car driving too fast down a quiet residential road, another was a group of boisterous and unaware teenagers who almost took an elderly woman down with their rowdy curbside antics, another was a moving man carelessly teetering a sheet of plate glass on his head. Whatever and whomever it was committing these sins against society, she was right there with a cutting expletive followed by a lesson on life and proper behavior. Respect your elders! Drive slower! Watch what you’re doing! It didn’t matter the severity or triviality of the offensive act, she was there to uphold justice and she was going to do so using words you wouldn’t dream of saying in front of your mother. It was a riot and an absolute ball watching her passionate tirades as the defender against all evil in northwest Rome.
In between bouts of her gifting the city’s streets with tiny brown nuggets of feces and leaving Rome’s youth population with night terrors, I noticed a particular tendency she had when faced with an unexpected challenge. Whether inconveniently rerouted because of heavy construction work or bruised from a fall caused by her overly excitable Labrador tangling her up in its leash, or even after one of the aforementioned screaming matches with the neighborhood’s delinquents, she would pause for a moment, zip around to the nearest pastry establishment, tie the dog up outside and sit down to enjoy a baked good. It seemed every time something forced her to break routine she went off skulking across the road after some sugar coated comfort pastry. As if all the tensions of these unforeseen events needed to be settled within her and the only way was with the slow release of sugar into her bloodstream. It was odd, if not completely relatable. But it was also a perfectly delicious coping mechanism that I came to see as culturally relevant. And so, once again, Italy showed me how food and its ability to soothe and satisfy can have far reaching sociological effects that shape the very fabric and values of a country or society. Afterall, well-fed people are happy people.
In light of all these thought-provoking (and some overwhelmingly irrelevant and verbose) observations of Italian social customs, I’ve been adopting a more thoughtful approach to food, cutting the bullshit level down in my daily interactions, cursing at misbehaving adolescents I encounter, keeping my sense of humour when life’s shit gets dumped on the road before me, and eating pastries in the face of adversity ever since. Because la vita might not always be dolce, but a cannoli always is.
I wouldn’t say that my life is significantly worse since I decided to give up caffeine. Kind of in the same way that I wouldn’t say my life is better now that my limbs have all fallen off. Though, I now happily don’t get the shakes and an adrenaline-fueled surge that makes me feel like I’m either about to save the world from fire breathing dragons or have a nervous breakdown resulting in behaviors normally reserved for the second day of menses: fetal position, possible whimpering, definite consumption of over-the-counter-drugs. Caffeine just started to affect me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen in my twenties. I fully blame the post-thirty aging process. Not that I miss the occasional Diet Coke or Fanta. Those were always second-tier beverages for me. But coffee. Oh rich, aromatic, sometimes frothy but always life-affirming coffee. How I mourn thee.
I sat Shiva after the death of my relationship with coffee. I’m not Jewish, but formally devoting a whole seven days to my grief just seemed like the right thing to do. It was a long week. I eulogized its scent. I memorialized its taste. What would mornings even be now? Was it worth waking up to find out? Sunrise to me was now a reminder of my loss. The various coffee making devices I’d collected over the years, the mug shelf, the leftover Lavazza, even the milk carton. All painful reminders of a life that was no more.
I’d traipse down into the kitchen and suddenly the whole room was a foreign concept to me. Like crossing a border into unknown lands my kitchen had become a vast landscape of sights that no longer made sense to me. Everything’s purpose seemed to relate directly back to the consumption of coffee. The bread was for eating in between sips of coffee. The toaster was for toasting the bread that was eaten in between sips of coffee. The spoons were for stirring the milk that went into the coffee. The window was for staring out of while sipping the first coffee of the day. The dishwasher was for washing the coffee mugs and the coffee-stained recipe books were almost too much to bear. My favorite room in the house had become my prison.
Several weeks carried on like this until I realized that I would actually have to confront the terrible truth of things: that I would be living a decaffeinated life. I used to judge this kind of “decaf” lifestyle. The people who’d forego the real stuff and instead settle for a lesser version of it, and in turn, a lesser version of life. Or so I thought. I didn’t want to extract the flavor out of my life! But I started slowly, sauntering down to the high street and carefully deliberating which café it’d be at that I sold my soul to a cup of decaf. I chose the least populated and therefore one with the least amount of witnesses to this crime of desperation. It was dreadful, of course, but it didn’t kill me. And that was a start.
I continued much in the same way for a year and eventually found the establishments in London whose decaf didn’t taste like home roasted tar. By the eleventh month I’d even begun to perk up at the thought of a hot cup of milky decaf. Things were going swimmingly. I was tremble and anxiety free thanks to my new lifestyle and I had an extra spring in my step. Which was surprising, given the lack of caffeine and all. But then something happened. I moved to Vietnam. And all hell broke loose.
Coffee in Vietnam is as ubiquitous as Hipsters wearing flannel ironically in Brooklyn. You might say that coffee is ubiquitous everywhere nowadays, but as one of the world’s foremost coffee growing regions, this place simply doesn’t run without it. As Vietnam’s economy continues to grow and it races its way into becoming a middle-income country, the exhaust fumes it leaves behind are made of pure caffeine. Try asking someone in Vietnam for a Grande Decaf. Just try. I promise the look you’ll receive will be a mix of confusion and utter disdain at the thought of it. What the hell is decaf? Is what I’m sure they said to me in Vietnamese the first time I stooped so low as to ask. Decaffeinated simply doesn’t exist. Asking for decaf coffee in Vietnam is the moral equivalent of asking for a pint of Guinness in Ireland “but please could you hold the head?” The foamy head is its essence. Asking to remove it of its essence is an act of treason, an act of such crude and incomparable stupidity that you’d be lucky to escape a swift and uncomfortable deportation. It’s embarrassing, and you’re a disgrace for ever having uttered the words. That’s what it’s like trying to live a decaffeinated life in a proudly caffeinated place: Fraught with danger and the constant threat of accidentally shoving your foot into your caffeine-starved mouth.
Total abstinence from coffee-related products and non-caffeinated beverages (there’s only one, water) were my only options. Not only would I never know the pleasure of Vietnam’s world-renowned beans, now I couldn’t even moderately enjoy the fake stuff. So as not to feel too sorry for myself I started to compile a list of things I’m grateful for that I am allowed to consume, but I only got as far as 1.) Bagels with cream cheese and 2.) Bacon. But then quickly remembering that I no longer drink coffee and therefore no longer eat breakfast, in protest of the former, my list was redundant. With no concrete reminder of reasons in my life to carry on, I was back to being a very well-hydrated crybaby.
But then something else happened. Just as I was becoming the very worst version of myself and an utterly impractical kind of being that rests all of her life’s happiness on a commodity crop, another kind of drinkable plant species was placed before me. A coconut. Its shell expertly macheted off leaving a small hole on top from which to place my straw. I took its fibrous husk in my hands and brought it closer. It was full to the brim with its water. Cold and subtly flavored it passed through the straw and into my consciousness. It was refreshing, it was hydrating, it was energizing. And drinking it felt badass in a Katniss-Everdeen-meets-Bear-Grylls kind of way. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? It was sold on every street corner and was cheaper than even water. I could buy them in cafes and restaurants I could buy them on the beach. Things were looking up. No I couldn’t put it in a Styrofoam cup and clasp my cold hands around it during the Winter, but I was now living in Vietnam so who was I kidding. With ninety-percent humidity and a mean annual temperature of ninety degrees, making the switch to a cold drink started looking a whole lot like self-preservation to me.
A month has gone by and Coconut Water has become my everything. Between that and regular ole’ water I am now the most hydrated person in Ho Chi Minh City, or perhaps, the world. My bathroom breaks are inconveniently often and sometimes carrying a large coconut shell down the road doesn’t feel quite practical, but it works. I still have moments of weakness, and sometimes when watching the condensed milk being poured by the barista into a steaming cup of Arabica beans I have to stop myself from running at full speed towards it mouth open and tongue hanging out. But those moments are becoming fewer and farther in between. Luckily for the baristas.
The way I see it, this is only the start of a sacrificial-themed thirties. The killing off of habits that once worked for me and now no longer do. The beginning of a long road of things I will need to either stop doing or start doing in order to improve my well being as I ease into this fourth decade of life. No caffeine. More exercise. Less ice cream. More night cream. Less Netflix. More burpees. It’s all happening. I’m still young, but I’m not. Not really. Caffeine was only the tip of the iceberg. And my slowly aging body is the Titanic. I just hope Rose leaves me some damn room on the makeshift raft.