Once Upon a Time in Italy


There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.


Rising Above the Oooh

I’ve always considered myself someone who likes to travel. I mean, it makes you sound so accomplished.

“What do you like to do?”
“I’m a writer, and a big reader. I also love to travel.”
“Really! Where have you been?”
“I’ve been to Europe,” *shrug*.

I live for the Admiring Oooh.

In all seriousness, I really do enjoy travel, not just for the Admiring Oooh. Visiting new places and seeing life done in different ways has always fascinated me. It’s wonderful to think that while you’re at home doing whatever you do, all these people are here, miles and miles away, doing what they do. It doesn’t stop and start when you arrive, it happens simultaneously with your own timeline. And for a moment, you get to step into a story not your own, and watch it, and sometimes even write some of it.

However, as I’ve gotten older (and this is really sad because I’m not even that old), I’ve found that I have to remind myself how much I love traveling, because more often than not it really stresses me out. New places are unfamiliar, full of a million unknowns, and I hate unknowns. Also I have a sensitive stomach that gets ill easily. Also I need to have enough sleep, and who knows if this will happen? Also I sunburn, literally, like hell. Also I am easily dehydrated. Where’s the closest water fountain? I pull away from my house, my place, with all my things in it, and see it looking so forlorn and abandoned, and I want to run back and cancel everything.

(And this is just going to visit my parents.)

I’ve learned that some things are worth hacking through a slew of fears for. I’ve done it before, and I regret it when I don’t. I want to cling to home, to peace, to the familiar, but not always for noble reasons. Often, very often, I cling to these things out of fear, thinking that without them I will no longer be myself. I forget that I am becoming evermore myself because of the times I travel, the times I encounter unknowns, the times I uproot myself now for better roots later. I would rather be that sort of person than to spare my house’s feelings.

I really do want to be the sort of person who travels, and not just for the Admiring Oooh.


Don’t forget to visit my Patreon Page for this week’s Workshop Wednesday! Answer my writing questions and I’ll answer yours!

A Tourist


Yesterday the Russian and I were tourists.

We had breakfast at a random-but-delicious Greek diner in Nashville, then we went to the Parthenon. I’ve been there before, back when I lived in Tennessee for a few months. So for me, it felt less like touristing than it did being a local and showing a newbie the local sights. This, of course, in inaccurate, but it was nice to pretend.

The Russian isn’t really one for the arts, but he did marry a woman with an English degree, so he’s good at dipping his toes in. We milled around the art gallery under the Parthenon, looked at the collection of paintings based on Tennessee state symbols, and pondered how much of a hole buying two $7500 paintings would put us in. His favorite was a closeup of a ladybug on a leaf. Mine was a detail of juniper berries. Neither of us would compromise, so $15000 in debt it is.

It was a gorgeous warm, sunny day, the kind we probably won’t get in Pennsylvania until our annual February thaw. The place was full of people from everywhere, a mix of languages and dialects.

Hearing the Southern accent still makes me do a double take; I’m so unused to it, and I was even when I lived here. It reminds me that even though I consider Nashville an adopted city, even though I can get around without directions and show my husband the local sights, I still prefer a rugged Pittsburgh accent to a Southern one, a mess of damp hills to a dry plain of flatness, pierogis and sauerkraut to barbecue.

Despite everything, I’m still a tourist.

Workshop Wednesday 11.22.17

Happy Day-Before-Thanksgiving!

The Russian and I are on our way to Nashville for the festivities, but I couldn’t resist sharing my newest idea: Workshop Wednesday (I’m so good at alliteration)!!!

I’m planning to put together a virtual writer’s workshop through my Patreon page, where supporters can view the new fiction I share each week, give me feedback, and share links to their own work, which I’ll give comments on as I can. I’m excited to form a sort of community where we can grow into better writers together.

Interested? Head over to today’s post, and then take a look at my novel-in-progress, which I release chapter-by-chapter each Friday. Let me know what you think, and feel free to share some of your own work! I’d love to see what my readers are working on.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Adventures, Past and Future

I’ve talked a lot about adventures this year. I’ve visited two new states and revisited three. This week I’ll be revisiting another favorite: Tennessee.

burgess falls

Nashville, to be exact.


I lived with my cousins in Nashville for several months almost three years ago (!). We had a bunch of adventures together and it’s one of the highlights of my life.

After Nashville, my cousin Ian and I went on a two-week adventure to Europe with some of his friends. Ian and I have always been pretty close, and it was tons of fun to explore the Old World together.

The Alps, Austria
Erfurt, Germany
Florence, Italy
Salzburg, Austria

Funny thing is, the reason I’m returning to Nashville this time is for Ian’s wedding. And his wife-to-be, Julia, was also on that Europe trip. The three of us hung out a lot. We walked the streets of Florence, toured a medieval synagogue in Nuremburg, and had a sparkling New Year’s Eve dinner in Salzburg. And although I never told them, the whole time I was thinking, “it would be awesome if these two got together.” And now they really are, and I feel like a great matchmaker, even though I really had nothing to do with it.

It’s funny how adventures come full circle; you go off somewhere with the faith that it’ll change your life, and then you go on to the next adventure, never realizing that your life really has changed until you come back to the beginning and everything’s different. God seems to work in circles sometimes, bringing you back to where you started and making you laugh because you’re a new creation now.

This week is the revisitation of an adventure for me, but it’s the beginning of an adventure for my cousin. It’s a beautiful, terrible, exhilarating, frightening, clever, insane journey. And it’s going to be awesome.

Congratulations, Ian and Julia!


The Beginning of Adventures

el paso.jpg

It’s not really the beginning of all the adventures. We’ve already been to El Paso. It was hot, and pleasant, and you could see Mexico right over the poor excuse for a river. It was lovely.

Tomorrow we begin the long-term adventure to Arizona, to the desert where we’ll be spending the next two months. In the many times I’ve been to this lovely state, it’s always been summer, which I think is probably the worst time to go.


And yet, it’s not really that bad at all. It’s beautiful. Just a different kind of beautiful than my own beloved state. I’ve been drinking in all the greenery here, hoping it’ll tide me over, a little nervous of leaving the protective hills and peaceful trees for the always open landscape and wide open sky of the desert.

There aren’t many clouds out there. You can’t get your bearings or mark time by the passage of giant masses of water vapor. In El Paso at an open air mall I looked up to see a patch of sky bordered by buildings all around me, and I was bewildered. All that was up there was blue, no framing trees or hills or clouds. I felt lost and disoriented for a moment.

There have been many times I’ve felt so bewildered, for reasons besides the sky. This past year–one year of marriage, yay!–has been bewildering in many ways (not because of marriage, okay. That part’s been great). I’ll look up from all that’s going on and try to get my bearings on the clouds and trees in my life, and when I don’t see them I become disoriented (and also really crabby). I’ve had to realize that my bearings do not come from the fickle sky or the changeable landscape, no matter how decent or reliable they might sometimes be. My bearings must instead come from the earth, the Rock I stand upon.

All other ground is sinking sand, which I realize is the desert, but that’s beside the point.

Springtime Travel

Time seems thinner in the spring.
I mean, each year is a layer
and usually the layers are too thick,
too heavy to push aside and revisit.
But in the springtime —
in the euphoria of sunshine
every past soul has seen,
of a fresh breeze
every past soul has smelt,
of tender sprouts
every past soul has touched
— the layers begin to melt a little,
run together, overlap,
and I enjoy the season in solidarity
with every other generation.
We smile and walk down dusty lanes
together in the rediscovered sunlight.

Our Coming Adventures

Over a month ago I shared that we were making tentative plans for some big adventures. Well, we’ve decided to take the leap and spend most of the summer in a new place:




(photos all by me :) )

We’ll be visiting the great state of Arizona for 2-3 months! We plan to stay with Alex’s grandparents near Phoenix, helping them out and getting to know them better. Alex and I have been to Arizona several times together and separately, and it’s one of our favorite states. Alex wants to move there. I’m a little more skeptical.

It was a little scary to decide to run off West when we still have a house and jobs here in PA. I like structure and I was rather set on our plan to stay near school over the summer. But this was an opportunity that shot up suddenly, and we’ve noticed that when this happens it’s usually something we need to take advantage of. We won’t have very many years of utter flexibility, so we decided to enjoy where the wind takes us while we’re still light enough to be swept along.

It will be a busy summer. We have three weddings to attend in three different states, none of which are Arizona. We’ll get to see a lot of new airports. But we’re looking forward to going on those adventures together, to discovering new people and places and learning more about ourselves in the process. We are fully confident that God is leading us in a new and exciting direction, and that we can trust in His provision as we do something slightly crazy.

And anyway, it’s the closest Alex will let me get to being a gypsy.


Everything is Beautiful

With the arrival of March, we enter “Still Winter”, a season known to the rest of the world as “Spring”, and one of the most depressing parts of the year in Western PA. The weather is a yo-yo. You can literally wear shorts one day and a parka the next (this week was like that).


I used to hate this time of year. Every warm day made me incredibly giddy, but with every temperature drop my hopes were dashed. More than once I’ve trekked through snow on the way to church Easter morning, snow boots paired with a floral dress.

Last year I focused on just getting through winter to better days, and this year I tried to love it while it was here. And I’ve realized after everything that I actually absolutely love Still Winter.

There’s something about the the trees so bare and the grass and brush so many different shades of brown, all waiting for something to happen, that gives you this sense of incredible hope. The tops of the trees are thick with tiny buds, which will burst out in a week if we have a good stretch of warm days. And time seems thinner; I feel the accumulated hope of many years and generations all coming together with the spring.

Everywhere I look I see something beautiful. It’s usually very mundane things, like a house or a bush or a rock and some snow. But I can’t help it. My eyes get pulled in and I can’t stop staring and feasting on the beauty. There are things I think are so beautiful and I can’t explain why.

This weekend starts Spring Break. While Alex will be spending it in sunny South Carolina with his sports team, I will be in sunny Oil City, PA. It’ll be nice to catch up with family and friends, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate (I lied. It’s not that sunny).

My town is a forgotten one, a place that used to be great and isn’t, and I think that sense of failure and hopelessness is unconsciously imprinted onto everyone’s mind. Facebook has a meme page for Oil City, with some referring to it as the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King. Lovely stuff.

But there is beauty there, too. There are tree-covered hills healed from decades of abuse, majestic brick buildings and painted gingerbread houses built by old millionaires. There are good people who need hope, who need to look at things and be captivated by beauty without understanding why.

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about this spring break and Still Winter. I hope I run into others who think about it too. And I think that practicing that kind of focus can do some amazing things. I’ll have to try and see.




I’ve always liked traveling. When I was young my family drove all over the South and Midwest, staying with family and visiting historical sites along the way (we were homeschooled so we had to make it educational). We visited Chicago, the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Nashville, and Orlando. I fell in love with St. Augustine (the city, not the man).

We’d always travel down South in the winter, halfway into February when we were most sick of snow. The balmy temperatures and the fresh, floral scent in the air meant a kind of freedom. We weren’t stuck in snow drifts. We were on an adventure.

Somewhere along the way I lost a little of my love for adventure. It’s been replaced by an annoyingly grown-up need for security and planning. Sometimes I wish I could drop everything and be a gypsy, but then I remember I have a job and a house and an education (and anyway, my husband says no).

But it looks like there will be a return of adventure for us in the months ahead. Opportunities have come our way and although it’s a little terrifying to take them, we realize that we must. Everything that needs to work out will.

So stay tuned for our adventures, and go on a few of your own while you’re at it. :)