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Living Slow in Italy - A Couple of Smart Cookies

Valerie Schneider

One of the great things about our long residency in Albuquerque was the vast array of ethnic cuisines to be found in the area. We love food and regularly enjoyed the fruits and flavors of India, Japan, Thailand, Italy, and of course China. During the months we spent deliberating about moving to Italy, we'd get take-out and, with chopsticks flailing, discuss the pros and cons, the dreams and fears, and logistics of such a move. One of these sessions brought an encouraging fortune cookie: Tomorrow will be too late to enjoy what you can today. This little statement confirmed what we'd been discussing and reading, and seemed to sum up our feelings that we didn't want to wait until we were old to make this move. I tucked the little slip of paper into my wallet as a reminder.

Months later after the decision had been made and the planning was being undertaken in earnest, I was out for a girls' night at an upscale Chinese restaurant, enjoying a plate of Orange Chicken with generous sides of laughter and conversation. At the end of the meal, with great ceremony, my friend Mary passed around the fortune cookies and stated seriously, "sometimes there is great truth in the cookies." One by one the crispy treats were opened and read aloud. Astonishingly and prophetically, this night each fortune, normally bland and generic, seemed destined for its recipient. It came to my turn: You are an adventurer traveling on the highway of life. The girls gasped and gaped in one accord as only women who are hyped up on hoisin sauce and hormonal camaraderie can. Just moments earlier one of the gals had commented on our forthcoming move saying, "you're really adventurers at heart." Another fortune, another little encouragement. This one, too, was pocketed away.

In March we submitted our paperwork to the Los Angeles Consulate to request our visa, we packed up our house and moved all our earthly possessions across country for storage near my very helpful sister-in-law. We were excited that the adventure had begun, though the long, muscle-cramping drive was tedious. During this trek across America, I discovered a few things: I don't care to ever drive the entire length of Oklahoma again; truck stop food is downright scary; and the bovine population of Oklahoma and Missouri must certainly outnumber humans. We arrived in small-town Ohio, where we'd planned a two-week stay to visit family and friends before our departure. It turned into a six-week tenure. We arrived to the stomach-dropping blow ... our visa application was being denied. We were dazed.

With legalese, the consular letter stated that we submitted an incorrect form, thus not proving "adequate" evidence of housing arrangements, which had given the consular agent the impression that we would be vagabonds, without proper housing, drifting from place to place.

We were plunged into bureaucratic purgatory. The consular agent in L.A., known hereafter as Evil Woman, gave us cause to think she'd deny any future attempts at a visa on our part. She wouldn't allow us to obtain the "correct" version of the form in question, but said we'd have to start the process all over again. She said, with great glee, that maybe they'd consider our second request. We were dejected.

On top of that, in this little town from which I hail, there are no eateries worth eating in. No healthy fare; nary a whole grain in the tri-county area. And don't even mention ethnic cuisines if you don't want a diatribe about illegal immigration. We were glum and depressed, and worse, we were hungry for something good. We did what any reasonable person would do - we drove over an hour to Cleveland to have some decent Chinese food. We found a bright, lovely place with a comforting menu and kind waiters. We savored every bite. That day my fortune cookie brought the words: Don't be discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward. Amazing wisdom from a little cookie.

We started the visa process all over again, but discarded any attempt to deal with Evil Woman in L.A., about whom we had received several emails from other expats who had similar, heinous dealings with her. (At least we knew it wasn't just us she was mean to.) We drove two hours to Detroit to inquire about the requirements there. The first encounter was rather encouraging; the agent asked if we were Italian citizens. Not a bad beginning, as she'd sized us up and thought we were one of her. She answered our list of questions, gave us the correct version of the form we'd so imprudently filed with The Other Consulate and told us the turn-around time is about two weeks. It had taken five weeks to receive our nasty rejection.

We accumulated the paperwork once again, changed our official residency to Ohio by obtaining drivers' licenses (yes, we had to take written tests), and again made the drive to Detroit to file the paperwork anew. We walked into the consulate office shaking; inexplicably, we felt like kids who had been called into the principal's office. Could the people in the waiting room hear my heart pounding? My hand shook as I signed in. I feared the ultimate outcome and another rejection. Then the impossible happened: the consular agent called my name and - she smiled! She checked our identification, had us sign the applications and took the bulky packets of oh-so-carefully gathered papers. That was it? She smiled again and told us not to worry, that the process would take about two weeks. We left, practically running from the building, nervous energy emitting from us both.

The drive home was quiet and long. Finally, the stress and emotion gave way to ravenous hunger. I needed food, and a Chinese restaurant was nearby. I caved. Against our better judgment, we stopped. The meal was - well, to be honest, it was gross and hardly recognizable as Chinese fare. This worsened my mood. Glumly I cracked open my fortune cookie and unfurled the prose. Good news will be coming to you soon. I smiled and handed to Bryan to read. He quickly splintered his cookie and read: Happy events will take place shortly in your home. We laughed the nervous-relief kind of laughter. We felt oddly at peace.

Eight days later we received our visas. Next week we begin our Italian adventure. We successfully navigated the maze of bureaucracy and found encouragement along the way in the strangest of places. When we board the plane, I'll have five little pieces of paper in my purse with wise words imprinted on them. I guess my friend Mary is right; there is truth to be found in the cookies.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2006

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