Italy 3: When Autopilot Fails the Senses

I pull on the door. It does not open. It’s a glass door not too different from the ones on the Italian trains. Maybe it slides. I try to slide it open. It does not open. There’s a button on the wall like the ones on some of the trains that opens some of those doors. I push the button. The door still doesn’t open. There is a lady at the counter. I ask her how to open the door. She looks at me a little perplexed, and then pushes the door open for me. I smile, feeling once again like a two year trying to make sense of the world all over again. I walk down the stairs to the toilets. I approach the doors hesitantly, guessing a bit at the labels on the doors. I enter one. A women smiles. I go into the toilet room, pee, and again, hesitantly, look around for how to flush. All the toilets have been different, some a push button on the wall, some a push button on the toilet, some a pull string, some a foot pedal. There have been so many ways and I’m hesitant because most of these toilet rooms also have an emergency alarm, sometimes it’s a pull string and sometimes it’s a button. I return upstairs to our dining table, feeling just a little like an idiot. I tell Neon my story of how I embarrassed myself again trying to make my way to the toilet. He smiles. Moments like these make me so aware of how much I do that is simply run by familiarity on “autopilot”.  

Perhaps disabling our “autopilot” is among the many reasons why traveling and doing new things outside our comfort zones is such a good thing. To truly explore the human consciousness we must move beyond what we know, move beyond our early training, and push the boundaries of our personal comfort zones. Doing this is where I’ve learned the most about myself, about humanity, and about nature’s rhythms.

It is very easy to become conditioned to move through our own little world, operating on preconceived notions about the rest of the world. So much so that we forget how to truly be present and how to see with an open mind and an open heart. Doing new things is a great reminder that there are so many ways to move through this world. And doing things outside our comfort zones encourages “autopilot” to shutdown and awakens “self” to be present so that we might actually see with an open mind and an open heart.

This is the longest I have been abroad for and I wonder how I will see things when I return home. In my last post we had just arrived in Cortina d’Ampezzo. We had a lazy afternoon talking about all we were going to do here. We woke to pouring rain and a week of rain in the forecast. Our plans quickly changed and we ventured south to Venice, Piano di Sorrento, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast.

We walked the streets of Venice, tourists thick like clouds of tropical mosquitoes. We found peace and lost treasures in the quiet of the side streets. We wandered through little cafés selling gelato, coffee, and sandwiches. I mused at all the shops selling masks and handbags, and read all the labels of origin on the fruits and vegetables in the street markets. We emerged to a sea of tourists in San Marco square and quickly retreated back to our hotel on the mainland. It was, with all the tourists (us included), a bit of a Disney World scene, but still there is something special and magical about Venice.

We ventured further south to Sorrento. It was hot and humid. Citrus trees lined the neighborhood streets. Arbors and trellises supported grape and kiwi vines. The city and surrounding area was an edible paradise growing lemons, oranges, plums, grapes, olives, tomatoes, and so much more. We spent a day riding a little scooter around the Amalfi coast on tight curvy streets, squeezing between cars and buses. We walked through the streets of Pompeii. I felt no life here. The buildings were dead, just exhibits in a museum. I thought I would feel more, the way I did with the old buildings in Northern Italy. But the stories here were quiet; their history had become simple words in museum pamphlet.

We returned to Cortina in pouring rain and another week of rain in the forecast. We woke to sunshine, gathered our gear and decided we would do the via ferrata we had done here ten years ago again. We started much lower on the route than we had started before. Hours passed as we climbed up the route toward the summit cable car. Finally we saw the summit of Tofana di Mezzo (Middle Tofana). We had fifteen minutes until the last cable car departed. We continued, scrambling up fourth class trail to the top. It was clear now that we still had a ways to go and would not make the last cable car down. When we reached the summit we decided to try a rough trail down a steep scree chute in hopes that we would not have to bivy on the summit. We hiked a long way down. The trail got narrow atop a steep scree cliff. I was not up for this. We turned around and returned back to the cable car station. It was late now and getting colder. Neon walked ahead. I stopped to watch the clouds. The setting sun was illuminating just the upper edges. “That’s their silver lining”, I thought. I smiled. When I got to the cable car station Neon hollered up at me in a happy voice, “there are beds and blankets in here for us.” I smiled again. Yes, sometimes clouds really do have silver linings. We woke to a beautiful sunrise with the summit of middle Tofana all to our selves.

We took the first cable car down and headed off to Switzerland to visit a friend. The weather was beautiful. We spent three days hiking in the Appenzell Alps, exhausted and happy to have the opportunity. A few days later we climbed the Eiger-Rotstock via ferrata on the western flanks of the Eiger. It was a bit dreamy, like laying hands on a god. Neon hurt his hand on the way down. I was out of Arnica and suggested that we get more. Neon said we could stop at a pharmacy. I told him that no regular pharmacy would carry Arnica, that we’d have to find a health food store. The pharmacies I’ve been to in Europe are actually just pharmacies, not mostly convenience stores with a pharmacy in the back like ours in the US. We walked in a Neon asked if they had Arnica. The pharmacist said yes and then went behind the counter and came back with a tiny vile full of little pills and gave us instructions on their use. She brought us arnica gel and arnica salve saying that the gel was more cooling and the salve was more warming. I was speechless. Sure, you can get Arnica in the US, but it can be difficult to find, it is not taken seriously by those in the medical profession, and it certainly does not come with a pharmacist’s instructions for its use.

On our last day we went to the art museum in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. The exhibit we saw included a work by one of my favorite artists, Marina Abramovic. It was a large pair of shoes made of amethyst, titled “Shoes for Departure.” Later I looked up the work on the internet. In past exhibitions their had been instructions for the public to enter the shoes with bare feet, eyes closed, motionless, depart, time: limitless. The interview with Marina I found on the internet stated that “They’re objects that the public can perform, like props. When they trigger their own experience the object [shoes] can be removed. … People ask me, Can we really walk on a ladder with knives? Of course we can, it depends on our state of consciousness. If you put this ladder with knives in front of a shaman in Brazil, he will walk on it. It’s our problem that we can’t. In a way it’s to remind you that you can push your limits. …”

I’m sitting in a train now on our way back to Italy wondering how I have pushed my limits, what these weeks have taught me, and how they have changed me… Time will tell, but I know that I am changed.

In front of a church on the Amalfi Coast
Venice Texture
Swimming on the Almalfi Coast
Visuvius from Pompeii
Heading up Tofana between via-ferratas
Sunrise from the summit Tofana, looking down at Cortina D’Ampezzo
Climbing up the final via-ferrata heading up to Tofana
Heading up the Eiger-Rotstock via Ferrata
Looking up the Eiger-Rotstock via ferrata
In the Appenzel Alps
In the Appenzel Alps




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