The first time I read Eat. Pray. Love. I was sixteen in Turkey. After my first two weeks in a summer homestay program in Istanbul, the return of my anxiety disorder from the dark depths of freshman year of high school sent me into a “self-help” phrase. I did not eat anything but baklava for those first two weeks because I was terrified of food poisoning (and I guess I assumed that baklava was immune to that?). On the fourth of July, an acid-reflux/diarrhea attack sent me hysterically crying as I tried to reach my mom in the States. I woke up every person in the apartment and then spent half an hour convincing them through hiccupy sobs that I was totally great, thanks!!! No worries!!
The next day, I knew it was time to put an end to the madness. As I strayed away from the idea of taking an SSRI (like Lexapro) or a benzo (like Xanax, but not in the way you used it to get blackout in high school) for the whole of my childhood, I had to come up with my own medication. Thus, I gave birth to the master plan of all master plans: I downloaded seven self-help books on my Kindle using my 23-year-old host brother’s phone Wi-Fi, and I’m pretty sure that at the time, I had never been so excited about anything in my entire life.
Whether the end of my panic disorder as it manifested itself for that summer in Turkey ceased due to inspiring nonfiction written by great women, I do not know. (The same summer, I also read all three books in the Fifty Shades of Grey saga. So…) But the memoirs and stories I deemed “self-help,” even though their actual genre may not read the same way, did shape my idea of being alone and being alive. I decided that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love. would be the first I read. It was also the best.
What I remember most from the memoir is a small paragraph in the introductory section where Gilbert speaks about herself as a someone who explores the world; though she has been everywhere from eastern Africa to Asia and back again a dozen times, she is not a “natural” traveler. She gets food poisoning everywhere, she catches malaria or something like that, her feet blister easily and she doesn’t do well on planes… that sort of stuff. But still, she chooses to travel. And she loves it. And this is the part of the book that I have been thinking about for the last six months, and, more recently, at least twice a day for the last 74 days. We, maybe meaning me and Elizabeth, maybe just meaning all of us, choose to do things even though we know they may be hard. It is the rewarding type of self-sabotage where, in the end, we aren’t quite sabotaging ourselves at all.
Since metaphysically joining Gilbert on her journeys to Italy, India, and Bali in 2012, I have wanted to travel alone. So, I made it a point to take a weekend away myself over the course of my four months in Europe. And I told everyone that I would too, maybe because I thought that would make its chances of happening higher. I sent my parents links to articles. Listicles. Anything. They weren’t very enthusiastic about the whole idea, but the truth of the matter is that a month ago, I booked a plane from Prague to Milan for two and a half days, so now I’m in the airport and soon I’ll be incredibly alone in the Italian city of Milan. I can already tell I will like it because the strong cologne of the thin, bald man in a sleek suit next to me at gate C2 is kind of a turn on. What???
I will be staying in a private room in an AirBnb hosted by a lovely fifty-something woman named Fabrizia. She signs her emails “Fab.” I think we will be best friends.
I don’t really know anyone in Milan at all besides Fab, I guess. People have been asking me what are you going to do there?? which I think is a silly question because I’m going to do what I would do if I wasn’t alone, DUH! I am going to see the Piazza Duomo and Via Montenapoleone and eat pasta at fancy restaurants. Yes, I will be eating pasta alone because I am traveling alone! Yes, I will wander to a bar at night where I can drink red, red wine so good it puts the song to shame (if it is not to shame already). I will buy myself something nice to wear, like a hat, and when it gets late at night, I’ll have a date with Microsoft Word, which is the closest sugar daddy to Bill Gates I’ll probably ever find.
I have no idea what to expect, but I am really not nervous at all. I promise I’m not even just saying that to sound cool. Because I thought I would be nervous and I’m not. I feel very amazing, actually.
Of course, though, this good feeling will only last until I wake up in the middle of the night with that dang ol’ hereditary acid reflux and call my mom crying. But I have my Zantac (not to be confused with Xanax) now so I’M ALL GOOD! Don’t worry, Mama!
So, I guess this is it. I’m not freaking out, but I may or may not be thinking I AM LIVING THE DREAM, because, and I could not be thankful enough for this, I am. Me and the little Elizabeth Gilbert who sits on my shoulder will be eating al dente pasta, praying for a good floppy hat that is affordable enough for me to purchase, and loving every second of being alone with my oldest friend – me. (Haha.)
Traveling is odd. People find discomfort in being picked up and reshuffled far away from their cats and their refrigerators. If they aren’t having Woody Allen-type anxiety, however, they feel freedom from traveling. I used to have a terrible fear of planes, but not because of the planes themselves. Rather, it was the idea behind them and the events that could take place upon them. Though a “thing” and the “ideas behind it” seem inseparable, they are not.
I was never afraid that the plane I was on would crash and burn. Nor was I afraid of landing on a desert island, regretting leaving my teddy bear and blankie at home because now, I would be stuck for a lifetime without them. I never did well in times of transition, and perhaps traveling was, for me, a transition. Though temporary, I was moving from one place to another. Change never bothered me much, but transition did. The in-between from where you were and where you’re going to be was terrifying.
Once, I took a trip to Florida with my uncle and my cousins. Beforehand, I was scared shitless of the 3 hour flight and the Fountain Bleu that awaited me in Miami. A week before the vacation, I was speaking with a friend who was flying to Canada alone. “Why are you so scared?” she asked. I told her I didn’t really know, I was just naturally an anxious person about everything. “Airplanes relax me,” she said too enthusiastically. “I just think about how I’m going to somewhere better, and it’s all good.” I’ll never forget that conversation. She made it look so easy. When I spent the entire flight from Newark to Miami clutching my cousin’s thigh in a death grip, I realized it wasn’t. That vacation, I was too anxious to eat anything besides Piña Coladas, which naturally made me incredibly sick, inducing my anxiety even more.
I’m no longer afraid of flying. Now, I fly alone, and I actually enjoy it. Humans are creatures of habit, and so the same thoughts run through my mind every time I fly (actually, I have a conversation with myself… seriously):
Sitting in my seat, directly before take off: They say that that planes are most likely to crash in the first five minutes during take off or during the last five minutes during landing.
During the flight: No turbulence, so no vomit. We are in the clear.
During descent: They say that that planes are most likely to crash in the first five minutes during take off or during the last five minutes during landing.
Somewhere in between Thought Processes 1 and 2 I let the most terrifying thought of them all slip through my mind–worse than projectile vomit in a contained space, worse than a smelly person sleeping on my shoulder, and worse than dropping 300 feet in 2 seconds. I don’t think people are afraid of the mechanics of an airplane as much as they are the concept of one. The permanence freaks the shit out of me again and again and again. There’s no escape and there’s no turning back. There’s nowhere to go.
Then I realize that there is, in fact, somewhere to go. And, of course, I am going there. I am getting there. There’s no turning back, but I’m getting somewhere else instead. When I really thought about it once, I realized the funniest thing. Isn’t that just another way of explaining life?