I’m sitting at a bayside café in San Francisco, on a sun-spattered, blue-sky afternoon, reading my journal and traveling back to a similar day three years ago at a lakeside café in northern Italy, when I re-learned one of travel’s great lessons: the importance of immersing yourself in the moment.
As the summer travel season unfolds, it’s a good reminder that travel’s gifts can stay with us long after the journey ends:
At the Piccolo Hotel café, Garda, Italy:
I’m sitting lakeside at the extraordinary town of Garda in the extraordinary region of Lake Garda, about 80 miles west of Venice.
I’m at the end of an exhausting but also very wonderful two-week stay in this enchanted and enchanting region, and feeling that odd mix of delighted expectation at the prospect of returning home and melancholic sentimentality of having to leave a place that has now become a rooted and enriching part of me, that has shown me so much and reawakened so much.
How to compress the riches of this place into a few words? The beauty of the landscape, the sane slow pace of life – the enjoyment of life! History embodied in old stone palazzo, piazzi and farmhouses. Culture embodied in centuries-old frescoes and 21st-century fashions. Cobblestoned streets and soaring stony chiese. Pasta perfectly al dente. Exquisite house wine. Vineyard-latticed hillsides. Rows of trees brightly budding into green. Sitting at a café by a lake, watching the red and blue and yellow motorboats bob and the stately deep green cypress trees reach like green prayers for the sky.
Arranged before me is a spaghetti alla bolognese, a basket of breads (rolls, sliced baguette, breadsticks), a plate of cherry tomatoes with mozzarella and rocket leaves, a glass of crisp chilled white wine, a side glass of sparkling water. I’m watching sailboats skim the smoky blue surface of the lake – and I’m in heaven.
This is what I want to take back with me – the sense of exultation in small and simple things. The Italians seem to do life so well.
Sitting at a serene lakeside table exulting in the simple sensual richness of things is not the ultimate meaning of life – but if life is a book, I would like to make this sense the texture of the paper that book is printed on.
Or at least the Italy chapters. Of course other places have their own rich textures, but right here, right now, I am immersed in the Italian moment – and it is an exultation of almost indescribable depth and richness.
I am content. Perhaps this is what it all comes down to – a moment of cobblestoned, cypress-green, sun-caressed, vineyard-latticed, chilled vino bianco contentment.
The salad is delicious – the tomato tasting of sun and soil, the rocket piquant and fresh, the mozzarella silky and smooth. I savor another forkful of spaghetti and sigh.
I look at the stony cliffs to my right, the spectrum of greens, from lemon to pine; the elegant aging buildings that line the lakefront – tangerine, pale lemon, blood orange – like a long wonderful fresco. Outside the buildings on the cobbled piazza are dozens of tables covered in bright tablecloths – red, yellow, orange like the buildings. Ducks quack and squabble for breadcrumbs thrown by German tourists. A sleek ferry streams in, passing a sailboat that idles in the breeze-less afternoon.
I want to absorb this scene so deeply that this table, this lake, this slice of Italy, becomes a part of me.
I had never heard of Lake Garda before this trip, even though it is the largest lake in Italy, but from now on, whenever I hear “Italy,” I will think of this blessed place, and the peace and plenty I have found here.
Home life awaits. In less than 48 hours I will be immersed in that reality, dealing with deadlines, crazed by how much I have to do in so little time.
But I hope when the craziness threatens to overwhelm, I can stop and come back to this moment – a table covered by a cream-colored cloth, bright boats bobbing on the lake, tree-covered slopes to my left and right and pastel buildings and café tables behind me.
Good food and wine, good people, a surrounding of natural and manmade beauty, the synthesis of the old and the new, nature and design: a place where life proceeds with an effortless grace.
Three years later, at a sun-lit San Francisco cafe, I read these words and think: Contentment blooms anew on the shores of Lake Garda.