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Traveling Outside My Comfort Zone

Several years ago I decided to break out of my comfort zone. Far, far out of my comfort zone. I’m the girl who thinks “roughing it” means no blow dryer. I am decidedly NOT a hiker, not a backpacker, and certainly not a very outdoors-y kinda gal.

So I decided to walk across part of Switzerland and Italy. With a backpack. In the woods. Alone. With 3 shirts, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of pants, 1 skort, 2 pairs of socks, 2 pair of underwear, and not much else. My backpack weighed around 18 pounds. I did not bring a blow dryer (but I’m not gonna lie: I thought long and hard about it). Did I mention I was going to be hiking? All day long? For weeks on end?

The original plan was to walk/hike along the Via Francigena—a pilgrimage route that spans from Canterbury, England, to Rome, best known for Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, who walked the length of it in the 10th century to receive his papal vestments in Rome. I was going to walk part of it for the better part of a month (it takes 3+ months to walk the entirety).

Why would I do this? It’s complicated. But let’s just say I had just been looking for an interesting place to take a very long walk, to do something just so not me, and when I found out about the Via Francigena and realized it went through a good swath of Italy (including Tuscany, which I adore), which is one of my happy places, I was thrilled to do it—hike by day, pasta and wine by night—what’s not to love?

Well, I sheepishly admit that for me, it was the hiking bit that wasn’t to love. I mean I was okay with it. Ish. Hiking up into the Swiss Alps was spectacular. The picture of me with the St. Bernards was taken at the Great St. Bernard Pass at 8,100 feet—after hiking to the top, enjoying breathtaking views along the way. This is where Napoleon’s army invaded Italy, and partly follows ancient Roman roads. The Hospice at the top (where I stayed) has been in existence since 1049 (founded by St. Bernard of Menthon), and became famous for its use of St. Bernards in rescue operations (think: the famous barrel of brandy on their necks).

Hiking down from the St. Bernard Pass into Aosta was just beyond beautiful, with the cheery clang of cowbells punctuating the wind song coursing through the hills and valleys.

But there were parts of the hike that were just super boring—like I could have been hiking in the woods behind my house rather than in Italy. And I kept thinking, I’m in Italy and I could be in, say, Florence, rather than walking in 100-degree heat on a fire trail schvitzing my butt off while depleting my rapidly dwindling water supply, or along a busy roadside, foraging berries, only to look above the branch I just ate blackberries from, only to see a dirty diaper dancing from the thorny branches. Yummmm…

I was hearing the siren call of Italy loud and clear, and it was calling to me, big time, rather than resorting to listening to my iPod for the fifth time in a row, thoroughly bored with my own company. The deal-breaker was the road-walking part of it.

Walking for miles on 2-lane roads in Italy with broken glass, trash and doggy doo lost its appeal for sure, and one day when I was leaving a town during rush hour and was crossing a traffic circle and rolled my ankle and the weight of my backpack threw me into the circle (had there been a car coming I’d have been a goner) kind of helped me decide to adopt a Plan B. Don’t get me wrong: I am in serious awe of people who will hike 15 miles a day for 3 months to get from Canterbury, England, to Rome. But I recognize that is so not in my wheelhouse. 

I just read The Sun Is a Compass, the most amazing book about a couple who trekked 4,000 miles over six months from the Pacific Rainforest to the Alaskan Arctic.

I decided to find my way to Florence, where I parked myself in a hostel for a while, then rented a tiny Panda smart car and drove toward Rome, staying for a couple of nights in a real castle that had been in the same family since the 11th century. The lovely owner gave me a tour; I even got to walk the drawbridge. The castle walls were pockmarked with divots from cannonball hits from wars over the centuries (some cannonballs were even used as wall decorations in the gardens). It was actually kind of a spooky place to be alone at night, but it was a fun and interesting experience.

I ended my trip by meeting my husband in Rome then training it to the glorious Amalfi Coast. Prior to his coming, I Facetimed him in my closet and gave him explicit instructions of what to bring for me in a real, live, suitcase,

After weeks of no make-up, no blow dryers and hand washing my undies and socks nightly in hostel and pilgrim facility sinks, I was probably a little too excited for real clothes. But I was also thrilled to be with my husband—I found it to be very lonely to be out there alone in the woods, occasionally lost. Argh! Getting lost was the WORST, because it would sometimes add a mile or two to what was already a 12+-mile walk for the day. 

I cherish the experience, and it was good to learn that just like how I already knew I detest cilantro, I already  knew I wasn’t a hiker or an outdoorsy girl, and it reaffirmed that I’m super fine with hotels and airbnbs and even hostels—and restaurants and amazing history to immerse myself in as well. It was super cool to find myself occasionally walking on Roman roads, and to imagine the history that preceded my treading on them, but I was more than happy to find myself back in civilization with the comforts of, well, civilization!

Read more about my adventures here:  Via Francigena

Categories: Jenny Gardiner, memoir, relaxation, travel

Long Time No Me!

Well, hello, stranger!

And by stranger, I don’t mean you, dear readers! I mean this blog, that has been woefully neglected by moi for a while, and I have no one to blame but myself.

I often have good intentions to maintain this blog more regularly, but life seems to get in the way. And my last post certainly attests to that – it was before Christmas! Argh!

In my  defense, two days after I’d posted that, on my birthday, just about an hour after I finished a book and turned it into my editor and was all psyched for a stretch of relaxation and enjoying having the kids home for Christmas, we learned that sadly my father had passed away unexpectedly. He’d spent his winters in Hawaii and thus far from family, and no one had heard from him in about a week. It was so very sad for us all but we were all very grateful that he died in his happy place, a place he hadn’t expected to be able to return to after having fallen gravely ill last summer with Lyme disease of all things.

My father’s passing meant much word needed to be done ASAP —  my brothers and I had to close up his life, settle all affairs, clear out his house in Pittsburgh and his condo in Hawaii — both of which were overflowing to the brim with junk (uh, we filled three 6-ton dumpsters to the brim in Pittsburgh alone!). Dad was a hoarder and boy, did we have to purge and purge massively. Between the time spent emptying out his belongings and then organizing two memorial services, and the myriad emails and texts going back and forth amongst family during this time, all of a sudden my other have-to’s took a backseat for a while. And to be honest, having lost both of my parents suddenly and unexpectedly in the past couple of years, it kind of threw me back on my heels for a while as I processed this all. Which meant my productivity just evaporated, and I had to postpone a book that I had due to my editor repeatedly, only finally just this week turning it in months late. In the midst of this all, my middle daughter was getting married, so it was a lovely chance to redirect from sadness to great joy — we kind of ran the gamut of emotions in a very condensed time frame.

Without a book releasing for a while, I decided to bundle the first three books in two of my series  — The Royal Romeos and Falling for Mr. Wrong for the first time to make available to readers at a great price—I’ll post info below if you’d like to check them out. If you’ve not read any of them, this is a great time to give them a try for a real bargain! And don’t forget books 1-3 of the It’s Reigning Men series are also available in a bundle! And I’ll post below a picture from the wedding and the breathtaking view from my dad’s condo in Hawaii, where I’d never been until we had to go there to clear it out—you can see why it was indeed his happy place.

  

For those of you anxiously awaiting my next book, thanks for your patience as I let life get in the way a bit. Bird Dog, book 4 in the Confessions of a Chick Magnet series, is with my ever-so-patient editor and will finally be released July 16th!

I’m writing this, by the way, Memorial Day weekend, kind of lamenting that we’re not somewhere fun, like a beach or a pool, relaxing with friends and family, but also enjoying the chance to do absolutely (well, mostly!) nothing for a day or two without feeling terribly guilty. It’s the first chance I’ve had to start working my way through the many things that got waylaid over the past several months, so it’s nice to feel like I’m making progress, interspersed with watching episodes of my latest guilty reality TV pleasure, 90-Day Fiance (it hardly gets better than watching 90-Day Fiance Pillow Talk!). 

quite a view from my dad’s condo in Oahu — of which I am now a temporary 1/4 owner of! Sadly we can’t afford to keep it–anyone interested?!

 

And lastly, a lovely family picture ❤️❤️❤️ from our daughter Kendall’s wedding!

Happy reading, everyone!

Categories: News

Happy Ho-Ho-Holidays!

Hey there! Just wanted to send warmest of wishes for a happy and safe holiday surrounded by those you love and cherish most!

    I’m a sucker for the Christmas season. Always have been. Don’t know if it’s the deluded optimism the holiday thrusts upon us, or just a strange affinity for otherwise maudlin songs dressed up as cheerful seasonal chestnuts. I mean, let’s be honest, at any other time of year, who would actually listen wistfully to a yawner like “The Little Drummer Boy”?

    Whatever it is, I have always ensured that my family gets into the holiday spirit, starting with finding the perfect Christmas tree.

    When I was a kid, the search for the ultimate yuletide tree took us to the nearest gas station: hardly a romantic venue from which to choose the centerpiece of our holiday decor. We’d pile into the station wagon for the three-block drive to Buck’s Esso station, spill out onto the oil-slicked parking lot, mull over three or four already-netted spruce trees, and then dad would haggle down the price. End of story.

    Ah, so I was determined to rewrite that tradition with my own family. Early in my marriage, we decided the most festive tree-acquisition could only be achieved by cutting down our own (plus you get the added benefit of the needles actually staying onthe tree all month rather than littering the floor). Because we lived in citified Northern Virginia, the cachet of escaping to the “country”–i.e. the closest remaining patch of farmland untainted by greedy developers–only added to the allure.

    But one year, I found myself almost wishing for the chance to just pop down to the local gas station to buy a tree…

    That year, my husband and our three children, all under the age of four, trekked to the Clifton Christmas Tree Farm, where awaiting us were candy canes, hot chocolate, homemade wreaths and the typical abundance of forced holiday cheer that we craved.

    I had whipped my kids into a tree-chopping frenzy, and so they took their task quite seriously. For forty minutes, we foraged throughout the whopping half-acre “farm” until we found the perfect tree: seven feet of holiday splendor, as wide as it was tall, perfect to fill our cathedral-ceiling’ed living room and flood us with the Christmas spirit.

    The kids took turns on the ground with the saw while my husband supervised the chopping honors. Their excitement was palpable. We dragged the tree back to the cashier stand where the farmer’s son coiled the netting around our white pine. The kids stood by, sucking on candy canes, sipping hot cider and petting the farmer’s dog, who’d recently wandered over. I was just about to retrieve the car to load on the tree, when Fido lifted his leg.

    “Noooooooo!” I shouted in what seemed like a frame-by-frame slow motion, as a steady stream was released onto our perfect tree.

    For a moment we stood stupefied, not knowing what to do. But we weren’t about to keep a tree covered in dog wee, so we grabbed the kids’ hands to head back into the wilds to hunt for a replacement one.

    Until our kids let us know in no uncertain terms, that this tree was the one, the only. They threw themselves on the ground, flailing and crying, thrashing and moaning, like something from a Greek tragedy. They wanted their special tree, and nothing else would suffice.

    Their wails did not subside until we relented, and agreed to load up the tainted tree.

    The farmer found a makeshift bucket, filled it from a nearby stream and doused the offending urine from the tree. We loaded it onto the roof of the car, and went home.

    I have to admit, I sort of detached emotionally from the tree that year. Couldn’t quite get over the psychological hurdle of having a tree the dog peed on in my living room. Somehow it clashed with the whole festive notion.

    But for my kids, the tree was just about perfect, despite its incumbent flaws. And maybe that’s exactly why I like the holidays so much: because at this time of year, we’re all a little more likely to forgive the small things in order to see the bigger picture.

 

 

Categories: News