The World, Opened Up
The fear of traveling in my body made the world seem small, until I did it anyway
I’m a workaholic. Until recently, I had never taken a vacation as an adult. During graduate school and the first few years of teaching, I couldn’t afford a vacation. I had no one to go on a vacation with. And then it seemed like an unnecessary extravagance when there was so much work to do. Those were mostly excuses though, because when I could afford a vacation, I still did nothing. I was fat, I told myself, I couldn’t possibly travel abroad and see the world in any meaningful way.
At my heaviest weight, my loneliest truth was that as my body expanded, my world contracted. I longed to travel but knew I would be painfully limited in where I could go and what I might do when I got there. But then, I had weight loss surgery and as my body has contracted, my world has expanded.
During the summer of 2019, my then girlfriend and now wife Debbie and I decided to take a European vacation. While she had been several times, I had only been to Stockholm and London for work. The great continent remained largely unexplored. We are both incredibly busy in that modern way where we overschedule ourselves and say yes to everything asked of us until we reach a breaking point, recalibrate, and repeat the madness all over again. Because we weren’t going to have (read: make) the time to plan the vacation, we decided to work with a travel agent. I consulted Google and found Abercrombie & Kent, a travel agency specializing in all manner of trips and expeditions. They had a handsome website. The name felt official and reliable. I sent an inquiry and when a representative responded, I outlined an ideal itinerary involving several Italian cities and Paris. I’m a writer, after all, and not immune to cliché so of course I needed to visit Paris and sit in a café with a notebook and a fresh baguette, looking writerly. When I finally got to Paris I never managed to sit in a café with a notebook, but oh did I enjoy a baguette, hot from a bakery oven.
Mary, our representative, was wonderfully eager to help plan our trip and after only a little back and forth, she had assembled an itinerary that would take us from Milan to Verona to Venice to Florence to Tuscany to Rome and finally, Paris. In each city, we would take tours and visit historical landmarks and immerse ourselves in local culture. There would be sumptuous food and drink. It all seemed like a dream and then we saw how much a dream can cost. We began to rethink our plan and then we decided to go for it, and when our semesters were done, we packed our bags and flew into the known unknown.
I was nervous on the flight from New York to Milan, nervous about the hotel, nervous about not speaking Italian, nervous about my picky eating habits, nervous about keeping up with my fast-walking girlfriend as we traipsed about. But then we were in Milan and the airport, at least, was not at all different from a hundred other airports I’ve been to. We were met by our local fixer and escorted to our hotel where we encountered the first of several terrible hotel rooms. Mary, the wonderfully eager representative, was suddenly no longer our point of contact. We quickly learned that when you book with a tour operator that takes a 50% cut of what they charge, they put you in really terrible, mildewy rooms with views of air conditioners, brick walls, and dark, narrow alleys. It was fine, we decided. We were not in Italy to spend time in hotel rooms and we were together.
After sleeping for several hours, as we arrived in the morning, we ventured to a restaurant the concierge recommended and every glorious thing we had heard about Italian food was proven true. The pasta was sumptuously soft and pliable, covered in a light, fresh marinara sauce. The wine was plentiful. The Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella was a symphony of flavors. As we gamboled around after, digesting our meal, I felt like I was in a dream and, in a way, I was.
The itinerary boasted a wonderful culinary tour so the next day we were excited to see what local delights we would taste. Imagine our surprise when we were taken to Eataly, a chain Italian grocery emporium where we shop for groceries at home because it’s 10 or so blocks from where we live. I looked at Debbie and all we could do was laugh and agree that we would have a hilarious story to tell. Lovely people walked us through the store. We tasted bread and fresh mozzarella and wine and parmesan. We learned this and that about Italian cuisine and the Eataly empire. The tour concluded with lunch at the seafood restaurant in the store, but I am allergic to fish and shellfish, which they knew, and served me some indescribable glop. There was wine and the wine soothed me as Debbie delighted in her seafood. As we were conveyed to our next stop, we turned and looked at each other and asked, “Did that really happen?” It did.
From one city to the next, my world opened up more and more and I started to understand just how big and beautiful the world is.
For every strange turn or terrible hotel room, we had a dozen incredible experiences. We saw The Last Supper, even as it is fading from the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie. Only a handful of people at a time are allowed into the room where the mural adorns a stucco wall. The humidity is constantly monitored. There are air lock chambers on your way in and out. You can’t get too close or take flash photography. And still, at the center of all these reminders of the realities of the world, there is this surreal masterpiece, hundreds of years old, a work of art that has withstood war and calamity and neglect.
We spent an afternoon walking around Verona, with a delightful, irreverent tour guide who was as kind as she was knowledgeable about this history of Verona. She took us into a Benetton store (Benetton! Still a thing!) and we were skeptical until we arrived at the lower level and found an ancient ruin in the middle of racks of mass-produced sweaters and slacks. At Juliet’s balcony, we wrote our initials on a tacky red heart and locked it on a fence amidst hundreds of other locks bearing the names and initials of couples willing to indulge in something at once silly and romantic. We bought sun hats from a street market as the sun shone relentlessly. Late July and early August in Italy are hot and humid. Tourists like us were everywhere, clamoring to see beautiful Italian art and architecture. We walked through what little remains of the Jewish ghetto and saw what was once a synagogue.
All the while I marveled that I was walking, actually walking, for miles, in the sun, hot and sweaty, but keeping up, making conversation. My body was doing things I never thought would be possible and were it not for the joy of the experience, I might have cried.
When we got to Venice, we had to get into a water taxi and I was again filled with anxiety. Would I be able to step down into the boat? Would I fall and humiliate myself? Would people stare? Living in a fat body means you are in constant conversation with yourself, managing the anxieties that rise out of a fatphobic world that wants you to believe you don’t deserve to live a full and joyful life. Living in a somewhat less but still fat body means not knowing what your changing body is capable of and always doubting yourself. In the end, I had no problem getting in the water taxi. I was still anxious throughout the short trip to our hotel because I wondered what getting out of the boat would be like, but that was also fine and maybe people stared but that was their problem, not mine.
Venice is all canals and narrow walkways, the old world and the new, constantly colliding. All of it is stunning; St. Mark’s Square is lined with cafés and live music and tourists and vendors. The basilica is breathtaking. You can walk down a narrow alleyway and find a nondescript restaurant that serves a perfect plate of cacio e pepe and on the way home, you can share a gelato and get caught in the rain and laugh because you’re getting soaked while strolling through a floating city close to midnight. In the hotel bar, we had a nightcap and chatted with the charming bartender who told us the history of the cocktails he made.
We watched glass being made at a Murano glass factory, the heat from the fire threatening to suffocate. We saw linen being made on a small island of bright pink and blue and green and red and yellow houses. We cruised along a water highway, with speed limit signs for boats. We took a gondola ride, after a sharp but brief moment of anxiety about the boat and a fear of falling into the canal. We were serenaded by a burly gondolier. Our tour guide throughout our Venetian visit was an unapologetic sexist who opined at length about everything, absolutely everything, but we were in Italy and so we remained unbothered. He meant no harm.
From one city to the next, my world opened up more and more and I started to understand just how big and beautiful the world is. We very liberally drank our way through the Tuscan countryside. Our driver, a very enterprising young man, had “friends” who owned a winery and so he took us there and three hours later, we had bought a couple cases of wine and imbibed a dozen glasses of wine between us and ate the most perfect pasta we had ever tasted. The restaurant was on the second floor of a building with no elevator and when I realized this, I was going to say I would wait in the car, but then I thought I might give it a try. It was an unremarkable ascent, another reminder that I was not living in the body I thought I was living in, that my body was as capable as I allowed it to be. At another winery, we learned about how wine was made and how balsamic vinegar was made and oh, how we drank, floating around on the most pleasant buss.
In our hotel room that night, with the windows flung open to the night air, we watched Avengers: Endgame and ate olives and mozzarella and fresh basil and tomatoes and bread from a nearby grocery store. We drank more wine. As we drove by a field of sunflowers as far as the eye could see, we stopped just to appreciate the natural beauty. In Florence, more amazing pasta, Florentine steak, more walking, a golf cart ride up to the top of the city where we watched a newlywed couple taking their wedding photos, the immensity of il Duomo, the impossibly large statue of David, street performers playing music in a square at night. The Leaning Tower of Pisa truly does lean, and yes, we did the horrifically cheesy tourist thing of taking pictures holding the tower up. Rome was a city of ruins, absolutely everywhere. Finally, we took a real food tour, more walking, Vatican City, street art, elaborate fountains, the towering Colosseum, all the history I had read about for most of my life.
Our trip ended in Paris, a lifelong dream realized. We toured the city in an old Citroen, drinking cheap champagne in the back seat. We visited Versailles, crowded beyond belief, bodies pressed together and shuffling through the palace. We drove around the immaculate grounds in a golf cart that would shut down if you went too far afield. At the Louvre, we tried to see as much as we could but the museum was massive. We stood in the shadow of Notre Dame, in the process of being rebuilt, and visited the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I was recognized by the booksellers and asked to sign books which made me thrill, quietly. During a walking tour, we came upon Éditions des Femme, a bookstore and art gallery that only carries books by women, and a store that sells exotic salts and peppers and spices and a gallery that was featuring the gorgeous art of nonbinary artist Caroline Wells Chandler. We walked around Montmartre and went to a fancy store where a security guard racially profiled me because there is no vacation from racism, and my wife chewed him up and then we were being served drinks and there was an apology. We saw a cabaret show, beautiful women, topless even! And then, the trip came to an end and we were ready to return home to our bed and our little life.
On the flight home, content, relaxed for the first time, maybe ever, I only wanted to see more of the world, to live more fully, to hold on to the courage I marshaled each time I did something new and terrifying that opened up my world a bit more. For years, I told myself that the bigger I got the smaller my world became and that was true. When I finally allowed myself to go see the world, when I finally found the will to live proudly and unapologetically in my fat body, I realized that it was me far more than my body that ever made my world smaller.