Guest blog by Lauretta Zucchetti
Last autumn, I was lucky enough to spend several weeks in Europe’s most stunning cities, including Rome, Florence, Vienna, Budapest, and Athens. I was awed, inspired, and humbled by each place’s unique beauty and culture.
The strangers I encountered treated me with kindness; the friends and family members I visited embraced me. It was nothing short of marvelous.
The whole time I was away, however, something held me back from enjoying myself as completely as I should have. One constant worry pestered me, as tireless as a tsetse fly: I need to get back to my Real Life.
Balancing achieving and enjoying
I was born and raised in Italy, a country full of people who are persistent in their pursuit of pleasure. I immigrated to the United States in my late-twenties, and soon became a product of a completely different culture.
Like most Americans, I’ve been conditioned into thinking that we must consistently aim for more: Everything must be bigger and better; we need to keep going until we have, and are, the absolute best.
This philosophy took over, and before long it defined my days, if not my existence. If we need to get ahead, accomplish more, and have more things, how dare we pause? How can we attain success and perfection if we’re wasting our time having fun?
How can we remain loyal to our work if we’re distracted by the delights of sensory pleasures? Meaning: How could we possibly live like Europeans?
At the beginning of my time in Europe, I committed what might be considered cardinal sins by some Americans. I let my work slide. I ate with abandon. I let whole afternoons slip by while I stared off into space in the sun.
Then the pressure of the woman I was supposed to be—driven, responsible, and always on the go—returned. I got restless during the long and lovely meals that are a huge part of the European culture. I cut lunch dates short. Conversations went unfinished. I ignored the gorgeous sights around me.
Hours that should have been enjoyed with my family and friends thrummed with an undertow of anxiety. Emails were waiting for me! I hadn’t checked Twitter in hours! I had phone calls to make, writing to do, a To Do list longer than the Thames! I should be at the gym, or reading the news, or taking care of something, shouldn’t I?
Taking care of business
One morning, determined to take care of shopping, emails, and an assignment for my business before my family woke up, I stopped at a café to rev up on caffeine. They didn’t offer take-out (where was Starbucks when I needed it?).
I was forced to sit at a table outside and wait for my coffee. I pulled out my phone, convinced I was missing out on something crucial from back home, and frantically went to my email.
Then I heard a whistle. Delicate and low, like a secret.
A tiny, exquisite bird was perched on the chair opposite mine. It considered me before its little, beady eyes drank in the sights around the café.
I followed its line of vision. I absorbed everything it did: The sunlight hitting the bougainvillea. Water tumbling in the fountain in the square. A toddler with bouncy curls playing with her shadow. A young couple, holding hands and laughing. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. The wealth of aromas surprised me: freshly baked bread, vanilla beans, and freesia from someone’s perfume.
I took my time with my cappuccino when it arrived. I slowed down, and smiled.
As a life and career coach, I always urge my clients to remember the importance of being present at all times. I do my best to keep this in mind myself, but it’s easy to forget when you’ve been taken out of your daily routine. In creeps worry.
Then I remembered the words of Ekhart Tolle when he began his spiritual journey: “Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence,” he writes in The Power Of Now. Like Tolle, I paused. I absorbed all of the sensations around me. I gave in and let go. My mind cleared. My body thanked me. Bliss fell over me like a blanket.
I took advantage of the opportunity by lingering over my coffee. I ordered a pastry, and relished every bite. I listened to all of the happiness around me: bursts of laughter, cheerful conversations, music floating down the street from an open car window.
With the tiny bird sitting across from me, I promised myself that I would commit myself to the right here, right now.
I spent the rest of my time in Europe with this on the forefront of my mind. I engaged with the people I love. I listened. I felt the warmth and comfort of my husband’s hand in mine. That night, we went out for a five-course meal.
Did the emails I needed to answer cross my mind? Yes. Did I worry about all of the appointments I had waiting for me when I got home? Surely, but I thought of these with less urgency.
I reminded myself that when it came time to taking care of those things, I would give them the time and attention they’d need then. In the meantime, I had a meal to savor and a glass of wine to enjoy. I had conversations to cherish, and relationships to treasure. If this isn’t Real Life, I thought as I took a bite of risotto, what is?
Lauretta Zucchetti was raised in Florence, Milan, and Pavia, Italy. She is a writer, motivational speaker, career and life coach, and the co-founder of Africa Hope Alliance, an organization that provides assistance to impoverished villages in Kenya. Lauretta’s writing has been featured on Thank the Now, SoulFriends, and A Band of Women, and is forthcoming in Literary Mama and Crone: Women Coming of Age. Her award-winning essay, “Mothering Mothers, and Finding Comfort in the Branches of an Empty Nest,” will be published in A Band of Women’s anthology, Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 71 Women on Life’s Transitions. She lives in Northern California, plays drums in a band, and recently wrote a memoir about her Italian childhood.