Grazie, Non Beviamo

by Goodrich, Mary

Our leasing agent pointed up to the delightfully colored houses layered on the cliff face at the coastal end of the Apennine Mountains. It was late afternoon and the sun was warm. The ocean was just blocks away, where the mountains ended in the Ligurian Sea. A warm breeze lifted the sea air through the central street where our agent’s office perched above the village’s only tobacco shop.

“There are two ways to get to your flat,” he said in his best Italian-English. “Straight up the stairs or the long way up the street.” He eyed us skeptically. “The street,” he said. “It’s not so steep.”

We had just completed our paperwork and payment in his small, crowded office. At the close of our business deal, my husband and I refused a complimentary bottle of wine made from the grapes growing in the terraced vineyards above our flat. Based on his astounded reaction and the confusion about what to do with the refused bottle, I deduced we were the first customers in Italy to utter the words, “Thank you, we don’t drink.”

Lumbering down the narrow stairs from his office to the street – our 40-hour journey to the Cinque Terre nearly over – we began the “long way” to our flat. Anticipating the joy of dumping our now excessively heavy backpacks, I realized I had waited too long to rest and eat.

Finally, the door tightly closed behind our departing leasing agent, my husband and I collapsed on the couch near where three complimentary bottles of wine stood on an adjacent shelf. “Wine country,” I said. “Would you like a nap or an espresso?”

2016-1-Goodrich-webThe Land of Pasta and Gravy

We had been planning a trip to Italy for months, fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to the land of pasta and gravy – not the gravy poured from a spout onto Midwestern potatoes, but the kind heartily ladled over beds of fresh pasta and ravioli.

We dreamed of rich food, rugged countryside and a deep culture and history incomprehensible to our American understanding of antiquity. With only one week to spend in Italy before hopping a plane to England, our trip to Tuscany – the heart of Italian wine country – was simply a matter of logistics. Tuscany was a focused location that would minimize our travel, yet still afford us some of the country’s premier cities: Florence, Siena, Pisa, Assisi and the Cinque Terre to the northwest.

Our travel plan, like our lifestyle, would actively avoid circumstances that promoted alcohol – an effort we took for granted in our routines at home. We reviewed travel videos, books and recommendations from friends to plot a tour via rail. We sought excursions to match our active lifestyle, but purely sober alternatives were not easy to find.

We had been planning a trip to Italy for months, fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to the land of pasta and gravy – not the gravy poured from a spout onto Midwestern potatoes, but the kind heartily ladled over beds of fresh pasta and ravioli.

It was our third time skimming through the sales brochure before my husband and I identified excursions that did not have “wine tour” in the title: sea kayaking, hiking, cooking classes, helicopter rides and guided walking tours. While wine was not the focus of these alternatives, it was always included as part of the experience. Group kayaking included a prepared lunch with local wine; cooking classes included a meal and wine tasting; walking tours visited local villages, but also included wineries.

It took effort – research and emails – but we were confident we had finally booked a trip that would honor our commitment to sober living and fulfill our desire for a delightful, fun-filled Italian adventure.

Closed Kitchens and Cappuccinos

When we arrived in Rome, we stepped off our plane and boarded a posh first-class carriage on the high-speed train to Florence. A hub to nearly any destination in Tuscany, Florence was our stopover and introduction to the country’s rich history and culture.

Excited with anticipation, we felt refreshed and undaunted by the lack of sleep from our overnight flight. Standing at the cab stand, listening to foreign conversations and watching the chaos of buses and cars, we ditched our original plan to sleep in favor of food and fun.

Within minutes of arriving at our hotel, we had showered, changed and begun our walk along the Arno River in the midday sun as scullers glided on the water between the famous arched bridges. Traveling west to east, we walked past the five-arched Ponte alla Carraia and the Ponte Santa Trinitai (the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the world). We found a resting place at an outdoor café and an empty table near the bridge at the entrance to the medieval Ponte Vecchio.

We wanted our first meal in Italy to be memorable. Bruschetta, pizza or fresh mozzarella on anything would have sustained us for the afternoon. Menu in hand, I ran down the list. Squinting against the afternoon sun, our server shook her head in denial.

“The kitchen is closed,” said the young woman.

My husband looked at the watch he had purchased for our trip – it was 2:00 pm. I glanced around, examining the other tables. Everyone was drinking, but no food was being served.

“Wine?” our server invited.

“No, thank you,” I said. If we could not order pranzo (lunch), we would order merenda (afternoon snack).Tiramisu and cappuccino,” I requested.

It was the best tiramisu and the smallest cups of coffee we had ever consumed, but the most valuable results of our first dining experience were the lessons we learned: Every kitchen in Italy closes between 2:00 and 6:00 pm, when resting and relaxing become national pastimes; coffee houses and bars are the same establishments, so there are no alcohol-free cafés; and finally, a large Americano in Italy is smaller than a small American coffee, so order two at a time.

Stumbling Sleepless 

At home in Chicago, our daily routines are central to our regiment of self-care: healthy eating, exercise, adequate sleep and the right balance between community and personal space. When traveling, these routines are frequently interrupted and challenged despite our best preparation.

On this particular trip, we planned to maintain our healthy eating with fresh Italian cooking, replace fitness routines with walking and hiking, and use headphones to tune out crying babies and other frustrations. Sleep was a challenge we anticipated with the six-hour time change and a fundamental we had ignored despite our better judgment.

Following our cappuccino at the famous Ponte Vecchio, we crossed the Arno and walked the 14th Century Palazzo Vecchio. The crowds on this beautiful September day were often shoulder to shoulder, but the architecture, sculptures and history embedded within every brick and stone were astounding.

Now 24 hours without sleep, we traversed the city streets, getting lost several times in the back roads and narrow alleys. Turning our tourist map one way, then another, we eventually found a route back to the hotel along the Arno and collapsed for a nap. We had planned to experience Florence by night, enjoying a four-course meal, walking the city streets and eating every flavor of gelato we could find; but the consequences of our sleep-deprived zeal laid waste to our plans.

We awoke in the morning with sun streaming through our terrace doors. We had missed our opportunity in Florence. We quickly packed and boarded the train to our next destination, the Cinque Terre via Pisa.

The Slogan We Live By

With another full day’s travel, navigating trains, hoisting backpacks, avoiding pickpockets and eating on the run, we finally arrived beleaguered in the Cinque Terre at our leasing agent’s office above the tobacco shop.

Later, slouching on the couch in our flat, hungry and tired, cappuccino machine spitting its final burst of steam, I contemplated our efforts to ensure our serenity and sobriety. We were only 48 hours into our first week and were already compromising the basic principles of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogan we lived by: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired (HALT). Running down this checklist, I confessed we were living what we should have been avoiding.

Fresh coffee in hand, I selected a thin phone book from the shelf and turned to A: Alcolistia Anonimi, Quando: mercoledi e venerdi alle 17:00 (Alcoholics Anonymous, When: Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:00 pm). As the reassurance of those words washed over my tired frame, I remembered we were neither the first, nor the only, to say, “Grazie, non beviamo.” (Thank you, we don’t drink.)

2015-4-Goodrich-aMary E. Goodrich is a writer, wife and mother of four adult children. With a deep family history of alcoholism, she brings decades of experience to her recovery-focused articles. Visit her at where she blogs about family, marriage, work, purpose and wellness.

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