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Sicily: Life in the Slow Lane

Hi friends! I’m ba-ack!! And I’ve missed you all!! As you may have noticed, I’ve taken a few weeks off from the blog. After a year of cookbook-creating, and three and a half years of blog-writing, I felt like I need to take a little time to reflect (and rest!). I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this blog to be: Is it strictly a space for recipes? For dinner party inspiration? Life inspiration? Travel adventures? Interviews with inspiring people? All of the above? Also: what’s next for the book? We know we want to reprint, but how many copies make sense financially?! All of these questions felt a little overwhelming and uncertain, which is why I figured I should take a step back and figure it out at the top of the year.

So. Brandon and I just did something absolutely crazy. We took an entire month off from work. Actually more like 5 weeks, if you count the week of Christmas. Given that we’re both entrepreneurs, I truly don’t remember the last time that we had gone longer than a day without working – and even that’s rare, since I usually end up emailing on my iPhone wherever I go. Last year, between B starting a company and me self-publishing a book, we got into some particularly unhealthy routines: we’d wake up and immediately open our laptops, work all day – maybe run out for some meetings – and then once home at night, we were back on our laptops until late. We made no time for exercise, for play, for rest – or really, for us. By December, after throwing 10 book events in 3 cities in 2 months, shipping out 2000 books (and dealing with the debacle of nearly 200 lost and stolen books), I was on the verge of collapse. And B’s health was at an all-time low. Cracks had slowly began to form – individually and collectively – and knew we needed to make some serious changes.

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I hesitate sometimes to share these sort of realities, because I don’t want to appear ungrateful. 2014 was incredible in so many ways – it was a year of dreams coming true that I never though possible. Writing a cookbook, fundraising via Kickstarter, traveling around the country throwing dinner parties, and seeing so many people’s enthusiasm for the project was beyond exciting. But I want to be honest about the fact that fulfilling a dream isn’t always pretty and shiny and simple – and if you aren’t careful, it can totally consume you. I spent much of last year struggling to keep up with the momentum, and wondering what was wrong with me for feeling so overwhelmed – and often sad. I mean, if everyone can do it all, and make it look easy – why can’t I?!

Of course, I know that’s a lie, perpetuated by social media, but in my weaker moments, I’ve often wondered how everyone else juggles careers and families and maintains a beautiful home and a big smile…what am I doing wrong?! If there’s one thing I realized last year, it’s this: when I push myself beyond my limits, trying to pursue perfection and please everyone, I’m not the only one who suffers the consequences. Those closest to me – especially Brandon – suffer as well, when they have to deal with my ragged, not-so-nice leftovers. I realized that taking care of myself is actually the first step to caring for those I love. Kind of a revolutionary thought!

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So we decided to go to Italy. The trip was kind of a last-minute decision (i.e. we made our travel plans less than a month in advance!). We booked cheap last-minute flights, rented a car, and found affordable apartments on AirBnB. We spent our first few days in Venice with good friends from NYC, and flew south to spend the remaining 3 weeks in Sicily. B’s great-father immigrated from Sicily in the early 1900’s, and he had always wanted to go there and explore his family roots. If you followed my Instagram pictures at all, you know that Sicily is a total dream: rugged, rocky terrain, studded with citrus groves and olive trees and vineyards, with glimmering sea views and the snow-covered peak of Mt. Etna looming in the distance. It is truly one of the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. My friend Linda Sarris, who’s lived in Sicily, warned me that I’d fall in love, and she was totally right. (Also, thanks to her recommendations, we met some amazing people and got to experience things that we would have never found on our own – including an incredible Street Food Tour of Palermo with her friend Salvo. I never knew street food could be so delicious!)

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After Palermo, we stayed a few days near Mt. Etna, in a guesthouse built from volcanic stones, surrounded by orchards and citrus groves at the idyllic Monaci delle Terre Nere. (I got a chance to take a cooking class there with their chef Francesco, which was truly one of the highlights of the trip. More on that soon…!) For our final two weeks, we stayed in Modica, a sleepy Baroque town with nearly vertical staircases for streets, in the south of the island. We got into the Italian rhythm of life: cappuccinos and cornetti at our favorite bar in the morning, taken standing up with the locals, and daily visits to the produce stands, the butcher, the fish market, the bakery.

I cooked many of our meals at home – simple things that mirrored what was seasonal and available: tomato, basil, mozzarella salads with prosciutto, baby arugula and radicchio salads, red mullet stuffed with wild fennel and lemon, roasted purple broccoli, eggplant, zucchini, and tomato tian, pork chops braised with apples and red onions, grilled steak salad with blue cheese, tomatoes, and peppery greens. Everything was ridiculously fresh and so affordable – we got very spoiled, to say the least. We found our favorite spot for gelato (Gelateria degli Angeli), for pizza (Orizzonte), and for chocolate (Bonajuto) and wandered up and down the endless staircases that connect Modica Alta (the high part of the city) with the main shopping street below (Corso Umberto I). We drank wine at lunch, and took naps and read books outside on the terrace when it was sunny.

Sicily-Modica

We went on lots of day trips – to Taormina, a former Greek colony built into the cliffs overlooking the Ionian Sea, and Ortygia, an island off the coast of Siracusa (another former Greek colony), to Agrigento on the west coast, to see the ancient temples, and to Ragusa Ibla, a nearby hill town. We visited Arianna Occhipinti‘s winery near Vittoria, and tasted her delicious organic wines made from exclusively from indigenous grapes, and tasted peppery olive oil from Pianogrillo, a farm and olive oil producer down the road.

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It was totally dreamy in all the ways you’d imagine, and gave us the greatest gift of all: time. To rest, to reconnect, to dream, to laugh. It was restorative in ways we never imagined. But the funny thing about us New Yorkers, is that resting is really hard for us. I was really glad we stayed for 3 weeks in Sicily because it took me about 2 weeks to truly let go and relax. Having so much unstructured time felt really weird at first, only because it was such a jolt from what we were used to. So much of my identity is wrapped up in feeling productive, that at times the stillness made me feel restless, and guilty for not “accomplishing” anything. Believe it or not, I actually went to Italy with a to-do list: to write regular blog posts, develop a bunch of new recipes, read a stack of books, start running again, work on my photography skills, map out career and personal goals for 2015, and learn some Italian. (Ha!) I was tempted to try and create busy-ness even while on vacation.

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But I remembered the article (“No Time To Think”) I read in New York Times last summer, and realized that this resistance to slowing down is entirely normal. Stillness brings feelings to the surface that we’d rather push back down. I learned that the best thing to do is to just lean into the discomfort and be still, rather than constantly seeking distraction. In the end, I threw the to-do list out the window, along with my guilt, and just tried to focus on just being present and soaking in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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We got back to NYC a few days ago, and you know what? It feels really good. As much as I loved Sicily’s beauty and laid-back pace, I missed the energy of NYC, I missed our good friends, and honestly, I missed working! It’s been great to be back in our apartment, with our sweet kitties, and to reconnect with friends (and eat sushi and bagels and kale salads and all the things that you can’t find in Sicily!). Sometimes you have to go halfway around the world to appreciate what you have right at your doorstep. As for what’s next this year, I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve got some ideas percolating. And I can honestly say that I’m in a much healthier headspace than I was 6 weeks ago! I am beyond grateful for the chance we had to get away, and I know that no matter what this year brings, I’m going to weave rest and stillness and simple pleasures into the fabric of each day.

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What about you? What are your hopes for 2015? And: is rest a struggle for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Happy Weekend, and see you all Monday with a blog update!

xo, Anna

(Photos by Brandon Carl)

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