Lost in the Hills of Assisi

A few months back a colleague sent me a notice for a fabulous psych conference in Assisi, Italy, home of St. Francis, patron saint of ecology. I sighed because I really wanted to attend.  But the sorry truth is I have “issues” where traveling is concerned: I always get lost; it’s my nemesis.

Hoping my friends in the field might be interested, I forwarded the information.  Everyone responded that they already had their continuing credits for the year.  Okay, I’ll brave it by myself.  That’s when the undermining thoughts began to arrive: None of your friends are going? Are you delusional? You’ll never find your way to the Philadelphia airport, through check-in and security, to the gate, onto the plane, then off the plane in Rome and through their security, through baggage claim and then find your group in the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport. Never mind reversing and coming home. Besides, Rome’s airport is so enormous you’ll have to take a train inside it to even get to most gates.
Okay, so I got serious and argued both sides of the ‘I can do it’ and ‘forget about it’ debate.
“Come on,” I championed myself, “normal people navigate their way through airports, train stations, and major highways – no big deal; you can do it, Mary Jane.”  That’s when the historical voice talked louder and faster - Remember that time you thought you were headed to New York City? How you sobbed uncontrollably when the conductor informed you that you got on the wrong train and were headed to DC instead?  And what about last spring when you were yanked off the airport security line even in your own City of Brotherly Love?
I decided I needed a tiebreaker - I sought my husband’s opinion.  Never lifting his eyes from his laptop he remarked, nonchalantly, “I’ll never see you again.”
“But you’ll drive me to the airport, won’t you, Richie?” 
He raised his eyes and grinned, “Sure, if you promise to be good over there.”  Ha Ha on that my inner demon laughed.
Airport check-in was a piece of cake.  Okay, a confession - my husband drove me and then escorted me from the parking lot, through check-in, and right to the security line.  Once airborne I sighed, “See, Maria Giovanna, you’re a bon vivant, an amazing international traveling scholar!”

After landing in Rome a couple of intrusive thoughts rumbled: I hope I got the dates right. There’s only one airport in Rome, isn’t there? I brushed the thoughts aside and followed the crowd.  After I cleared security and customs I moved through baggage claim.  When I spotted our conference leader in the waiting crowd I almost leapt into his arms. We walked together to join our group. Ninety minutes later everyone took a seat on the reserved motor coach and made the three hour trip to Assisi. Pasta, local wine and a gorgeous view of the Umbrian countryside awaited us on the veranda.  After lunch the savvy travelers left to nap.  I - now an overly confident traveler - strapped on my cutest sandals, cocked my Rocky-style straw hat, and sashayed solo out the door to the Basilica di San Francisco.

The heat was an insufferable 95 degrees.  Walking the thirty minutes up to the center of Assisi, I placed my mental breadcrumbs to mark the return trip back to the hotel. When I entered the Basilica I almost fainted with my faith-filled thoughts, although it may have been the heat.  I walked around inside for an hour before beginning the decent back down the hill. My confidence continued to strengthen knowing I had made it this far.

Initially everything looked familiar but then … jeez, where did that big convent over there come from? Funny, I
didn’t notice that little farm and those goats before. That was the moment when another one of those intrusive thoughts broke through:  Oh, Lord, am I on the wrong road? Convinced I was, I made an about-face and hiked back up to the highway to walk and search for a more recognizable road farther down.  Another mile more and I gulped my last sip of water and calmly decided that the turn I made and thought was wrong?  It was probably right.  I did a quick 180 and walked back up. “Please St. Anthony come around,” I prayed, since he’s the one who finds things.  Or was it St. Christopher who helps lost travelers? Man, did they plant more olive trees in the last three hours? OMG, look at the time, I’ll never make it back before dinner.
Rambling about these unfamiliar Tuscan roads had finally morphed me into a lost and confused Henry Fonda’s Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond.  NSEW, where’s the sun? Where’s the hotel? I was thirsty, hot and oh so lost.  That’s when my inner voice ushered a command - get a grip!  I immediately sat down, and with closed eyes prayed I wouldn’t die of dehydration. When I opened my eyes I saw a car approaching.  I ran wildly toward the vehicle.  I looked insane.

“Scusami, scusami, I’m trying to find my hotel!”

The car stopped and the woman in the passenger side asked, “You got problem?”  I shook my head hysterically up and down.  “Get in; we got problem, too.”
Ever the therapist I asked, “Oh, what’s your problem?”

“No air in house or car. Now I just look on phone and no battery either so have to drive back to house!”  OMG, this is when they take me to a second location and chain me in the basement. Why did I get into the car? Maybe my husband was right that he would 'never see me again.'

The driver’s head swiveled around; and he grinned at me with a mouth full of gold teeth.  Minutes later he pulled up outside a small house hidden - you guessed it - behind an olive grove. “Come inside, I make a call” the woman announced.  “Would you like drink?” Heaven save me; she wants to liquor me up before I’m tortured for ransom. “What name of place where you stay?” I blinked and swallowed hard before answering.
“Verde, yes, that’s it.  Try Casa Verde.” She made a call and started speaking in her native language which no longer sounded Italian.  She told me to go outside and wait with her husband.

 “What’s your name?” I asked making small talk.


 “He’s one of my favorite saints.”

 “I heard of this St. Anthony.  He’s fellow who finds lost things and women.” There were those flashing gold teeth again.  His joke also struck me as funny and timely since I had just prayed to St. Anthony. 

“You and your wife are very kind to help me.  Thank you.” A small silence ensured. “Did I mention I’m visiting Assisi for a conference with a group of psychologists?”

“You psychologist?”

“Yes, studying Carl Jung.”

“Ah, Jung, looking for meaning, no?  I, too, am psychologist in Amsterdam but here on holiday.”  Now I realize why he didn’t sound Italian.
“Anthony, high-five, you’ve triggered my memory by saying psychologist. I now recall that the conference I’m attending has a website.  We can Google the conference name and the hotel where I’m staying will be listed.”  There, ‘The Country House – Tres Esse’ (where did I get that Casa Verde thing?) was written in big, bold and beautiful English. Ten minutes later we drove up to the hotel’s front door.
I almost wept shaking Anthony’s hand goodbye. When his wife extended hers I put it to my face with an overwhelming feeling of gratefulness.  That’s when she reached up with her free hand and gently touched my cheek.  In that gesture we were connected forever on life’s spiritual highway, a road that needs no map and no app to find its way even for folks like me who can sometimes lose their way.

Published in The SandPaper, October 11, 2017