finding my no-fly zone

words & images yuki hayashi

I was in Puglia brewing myself a stove top espresso when I realized the deep cultural gulf between Italy and Canada. I was staying in a masseria, a fifteeth century former hunting lodge, outside the town of Altumura, with a handful of American and Canadian travel writers. We were trying out a cultural tourism package developed by local cultural preservation societies and a Canadian-based sustainable tourism provider, and I was miserable.

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I was shivering all the time. While I had checked the weather beforehand, it was several degrees colder than Toronto, home town. I wasn’t expecting the south of Italy to be chillier in June than the True North (the weather app on my iPhone certainly had not conveyed this), and I’d severely under-packed. Because we were on a busy schedule, shuttled from one event and activity to another while lodging in the countryside, I hadn’t even had the opportunity to shop for a sweater.

The only time that I felt warm—and happy—was when I went running (And when I was eating). I ran past undulating fields of golden wheat and roadsides blooming with bright red poppies with bluebird-perfect skies overhead. But, every night I would go to bed shivering in my three layers of short sleeves, in a chilly room with high ceilings that I was certain had to be haunted. I’d wake up each morning at dawn, chilled the instant my feet hit the tile floors, and would wait to use a shared bathroom the size of tiny powder room back home. Then, I'd get outside and run, taking the edge off the cold—and the culture shock that I was experiencing.

Mostly, I was finding it hard to cope with being me. As an introvert, I find the busy-busy itineraries and non-stop chatter of group press trips mentally exhausting. The jockeying for position, the one-upmanship, and even the act of choosing a seat at a long table was stressful for me. Without any physical exertions (like my favorite hiking, snorkeling, and Ziplining), most of my moments were spent in conversation. Further, without free time to wander and meet the locals, I was limited to talking with my fellow journalists and people connected to my itinerary.

An Italian film crew was also staying at the masseria and participating in our activities. One afternoon during a pocket of free time, I was (as usual) freezing and wandered into the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee using the stove top espresso maker. Three espresso makers were sitting on the counter: a one-person mini espresso maker and two big family-size makers, the ones that were on the table each morning when we came down for breakfast. As everyone else was gone, either upstairs napping or typing away on their laptops, or otherwise occupied on the sprawling property, I reached for the one-cup maker.

Not long afterwards, some members of the video crew walked into the room, smelling the coffee. Seeing the one-cup maker, the designated translator was vexed: “Why did you only make one cup?!”

“I was the only one here,” was my reply. “No one else was in the kitchen or nearby.”

“You Americans always think solo,” he replied. “But there can always be someone else. People will join you if you make coffee,” he declared, somewhat aggressively reaching for the multi-cup espresso maker. I was embarrassed by my cultural gaffe; it seemed to have caused offense on not just a practical, but also a philosophical level.

It was profound moment for me. I’m not sure if the national generalization was true, but it definitely applied to me. As an only child, as an introvert, as someone who works alone from home, as someone who’s cut off my extended family, as someone who lives a fairly isolated existence, I felt the gulf like a punch to the gut. There isn’t always someone else.

I held onto this reckoning, turning it over and over like a pebble, rubbing it, feeling it, wondering if I should keep it or toss it? It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, right? What would it be like, to stop living apart and to start to living like there’s always someone else? Was the single-serve espresso maker the wrong choice?

I was never happier to head back to the warmer climes of Canada.

Many months later, in the tiny mountain town of Canmore, Alberta, I found the affirmation I had been looking for, on yet another press trip. Surrounded on all sides by the Rocky Mountains, the Nordic skiing and fat biking hub channeled a buff, outdoorsy vibe. Dining on Alberta bison steak one day and raw-vegan salads the next, it was a town with options. As we journos were hurtled from cross-country ski lessons with Olympic bronze medalist Sara Renner to hockey lessons with the city’s elite junior squad, I was able to finagle my own private fat biking expedition along some local trails. There was enough to stay busy and to ensure easy banter over dinner, and two fireplaces in the my suite to keep me warm.

One afternoon, our small group was gathered in the hotel ballroom to learn the patented BooTy fitness regimen designed by fitness instructor Tara Newbigging. It combines dance with plyometric and resistance training.

     “Don’t we live in a world that’s filled with numbness?” asked Tara before dimming the lights almost to darkness.

As we danced like no one could see us (not a stretch, given that the lights were almost completely out), we were having a cheesy blast. As a group, but alone in our own goofy blissed-out bubbles. Obligations, routine, over-reliance on technology, and the affirmations and opinions of others can kill you, a little bit at a time. It’s up to us to find that private space and to guard it. What size espresso maker you reach for varies by culture and personality. I made peace with mine in Canmore.

Later that afternoon, I ran alone along a hard-packed snow trail, empty beneath the towering mountains and the Bow River rushing below. I enjoyed the silence of my life, the space to have my family, the freedom to find time away. I kept pace to the sound of the river.

The next morning, as we gathered for breakfast, one of the local journalists pointed up to Ha Ling Peak, which was named after the Chinese railway worker who first scaled it during the town’s mining boom in the 1880s (lore says that he had to climb it twice, planting a flag the second time because people didn’t believe he’d actually made it the first time). She told me that she had scaled it last year.

Had she been in a group, I asked?

“No, just me and a friend. We didn’t want to share the view.”

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