Italy Part 3: a Heavenly Pause for Reflection

I recently watched a video from some esoteric guru who claimed that the ‘present’ is the only thing one should concentrate on. According to him, the past is irrelevant and the future so unreliable as to be almost non-existent. Not exactly ground-breaking revelations, I admit; the notion that we should all just live in the moment and not give a second thought to past or future is not a new concept and has been regurgitated a million times over. Carpe Diem, seize the day, smell the roses blah blah blah. Poets, philosophers, spiritual leaders and every second person on Facebook are trying to tell me that the real meaning of life…is to not give it one. Uh? Isn’t that what it means? If I should forget about the future then all my ‘work’ is futile, planning useless and dreams a waste of time. If I were to REALLY just seize the moment, in the most literal sense, then I’d have to give up any notion that my life, as a whole, has any meaning whatsoever.

What a load of crap.

Sorry. But it is. There are a few reasons why I believe this to be crap and, if you’ll allow me, I’d also like to explain what on earth this has to do with my road trip through Italy.

As much as I LOVE the ideal of a Carpe Diem philosophy (I have been known to pledge allegiance to this in the past), I personally find that it is only really valid when the present is good.

Example of a very good 'present' in Florence

Example of a very good ‘present’ in Florence

Sure, stretch out the good times to infinity I say, let the sun shine every day, my riding boots never get wet again, loved ones never get sick and peace and love on earth till all eternity! How good would that be? I would definitely enjoy that present. But unless you spend your whole life smoking some funny shit, life doesn’t really seem to work like that. To me, it seems to ebb­ and flow between good, bad, better and worse. Am I allowed to just Carpe Diem some of the times and fast-forward others? Am I an awfully un-spiritual and ungrateful person because, to be honest, I did not really enjoy every single minute of my San-Marino-hell riding day?

I don’t think so.

The only thing which saw me through the worst riding day of my life was thinking, and knowing, that the present would soon be over. I knew this because of past experiences. The only constant in life, I find, is that nothing ever lasts. Nothing. Not the good, not the bad. Bad news for those sunny days, but super-good news for those crappy times. Can’t win ‘em all I suppose…

Example of a 'not-so-good present', -5 temps and gail force wind :(

Example of a ‘not-so-good present’, -5 temps and gail force wind 🙁

Relying on the memory of past experiences is what pushed me to not give up riding in the freezing rain. Visions of a future where I would be standing under a hot shower (or lying on the deserted beach of a tropical island sipping a cocktail or two) are the only things that kept me going. I love my past because that is the only tense which has taught me anything and from which I draw my strengths and I absolutely, categorically, love dreaming about the future. To me, THIS is what makes the present enjoyable during the good times and bearable during the bad times. Erase my past and rob me of my future, and it’s actually my present which becomes rather pointless and insufferable.

Ask anyone who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness how good the ‘present’ feels now that their future has been removed from the equation, and they’re likely to punch you in the face. Take away the prospect of a future in such an extreme and cruel way and the strength of character needed, to actually enjoy the present, must be colossal. It’s not in our genes, not in our make-up, it’s just not how we live. Personally, it seems to me that everything we do is as a consequence of our past and geared towards preserving our future. Enjoy the present by all means, swim in it, and soak it up until your fingers get all pruney when everything is fine and dandy, but be assured it’s perfectly OK to simply ride out the dark times awaiting a sunnier tomorrow. I don’t think this makes you ungrateful, I just believe it makes you human.

Thawing out after a freezing night (and it wasn't even snowing!)

Thawing out after a freezing night (and it wasn’t even snowing!)

This sparkling new revelation (well, new to me at least) is what makes me enjoy our first gorgeously sunny day in Venice. The multiple heavens Chris and I enjoy whilst travelling through Italy are amplified immensely by the existence of the numerous hells. Sometimes, the two even merge! Being force-fed to oblivion was both painful and immensely enjoyable. Again, because both Chris and I have experienced the pits of hunger on previous travels and know how to appreciate a good dose of family hospitality when we’re lucky enough to have it.

Venice is one of Italy's many 'heavens'

Venice is one of Italy’s many ‘heavens’

Wandering aimlessly through the maze of canals in Venice is absolute bliss. The city is quite possibly the most beautiful in the world at the worst of times, yet seeing it spring into effervescent action during Carnevale time is priceless. The streets are abuzz with activities: there are live bands on Piazza San Marco and a myriad of stalls fills the streets; everyone trying to find that perfect mask to bring home as a souvenir. We buy nothing in Venice, nothing which would take up valuable space in our bags anyway; we decide instead to spend our money and time simply being there. Yes, we are enjoying the present, but we are also ensuring ever-lasting memories, both to validate past struggles and to upload resistance to any future ones. Sometimes, I think memories are the best kind of souvenir.

5-chris-ice-creamWe stroll along the Grand Canal and devour our first ice cream of the year. It is so warm, that we take off our thermals for the first time in three months. We hop on a vaporetto and snake our way back to the central station…only to hop back on and enjoy the trip all over again. It’s about as perfect as a day can get.

Could do this all day...

Could do this all day…

Cast aside the politics, economy, pollution and crime and Italy could well be the most beautiful country in the world. Between the superlative cuisine, innumerable art, history and natural attractions, there’s neigh a place on earth which can beat it as a holiday destination. Cities like Florence and Venice exude an unmistakable, classic charm; try as you may, it would be near impossible to resist adding to the padlocks on the Ponte Vecchio, queuing for two hours to catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David or splurge on a gondola ride. Italy has that effect on people.

Hmmm, not on everyone though…

Most independent travellers I’ve met hold the firm belief that those are exactly the sort of things one shouldn’t do on a holiday to Italy. Too touristy, they say, too cliché’ and overrated. What you should do, according to them, is get lost in some corner of the country/city no-one else ever goes.

Newsflash: usually, there’s a perfectly good reason no-one ever goes there.

Day 2 (174)On our second full-day in Venice Chris and I decide to veer off the city’s most celebrated suburbs to delve deep into ‘uncharted tourist territory’. Sounded good at the time, but all we ended up doing was waste three hours of a glorious sunny day meandering through suburban apartment blocks the likes of which one sees in every single city in the world. Oh, we found the housing commission hood of Venice! Yep, looks just like every other run-down housing commission hood in the world.

If you’ve yet to make it to Venice, not only do I urge you to go at least once in your life, but I would also like to urge you to feed the pigeons on San Mark’s Square, take a gondola ride past Marco Polo’s house and pay an extortionate amount of Euros to enjoy a sundowner at the outdoor terrace restaurant of the Hotel Danieli. It’s pure, unadulterated, magic.

Away from the big cities is where we discover the true magnetism of Italy. Riding through the Tuscan hills was as beautiful as I’d ever imagined (my first time in Tuscany if you can believe it!), yet it was Umbria which really struck a chord with my heart. Following only secondary and tertiary roads we snake our way from north to south, stopping at impossibly picturesque old villages for our mid-morning coffee breaks and to scour local flea markets in search of anything and everything we’d never need. I love it. I’d always thought foreigners were mad to even contemplate a self-drive holiday through Italy, but I now realize that to get to the best of the country, you’ve got to get off the highway and far from any major airports.

Umbria is an absolute stunner!!

Umbria is an absolute stunner!!

After the time spent with family, our days on the road are my favourite here and prove to be by far the most memorable. We get caught in the middle of a student protest in Lazio only to see our motorbikes become the centre of attention within minutes (really committed to the cause they were), we’re almost run off the road by a herd of horny goats in Campania and we manage to find our first stunning beach camp-spot of the trip, and my first ever sand ride, somewhere north of Foggia.

The most classic ride, however, was when we inadvertently end up riding though Florence’s historic centre after we followed the wrong car (quite possibly the only one which had permission to drive there). I tell you…that had me shitting bricks! The cobblestone alleyways were painfully slippery, Pixie was overheating due to the stalling traffic and we kept getting daggers from locals who just looked at us and shook their heads. When the Duomo came into view I nearly dropped the bike there and then from the shock. At that moment I couldn’t have cared less about a possibly (very) hefty fine; I just wished I’d been quick enough to take out my camera and snap a photo of Pixie in front of the Cathedral. I know…I’m such a tourist.

Sometimes, you can plan the most stupendous moment of your trip, only to have you blundering your way right up to it unknowingly. And that’s the whole point. What makes my present so damn exciting is the unpredictable prospect of my future.

As our three month trip through Italy comes to an end, we receive an invitation to ‘pop into Slovenia’ to visit friends. The wonderful doctors with whom I’d volunteered in Uganda in 2008 live not too far from the Italian border. We hesitate but for a mere second, hesitant about a healthy snowfall which is expected soon (we have no chains). It looks like we may be able to get there yet we’re not 100% sure we’ll be able to get out.

Oh well,what the heck. Our hospitality-o-meter is running low…time to snuggle some wonderful friends.

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