Isn’t life just exhausting? We work, and work, and work, before we come home to cook, and clean, and maybe–just maybe– kill half an hour or so unwinding with a drink and some TV before we doze off to the glow of an iPad. There’s so much toil for so little reward!
At least that’s what I used to think on dragging myself out of bed for yet another day of long hours and grueling commuting. Even with the luxury of living with my parents–a true luxury if you consider that I only rarely had to cook meals or do very intensive cleaning around the house–driving an hour and a half to and from my swanky job in Georgetown still left me exhausted and wondering if driving, working, and bolstering my resume were all there could be to life. I wondered this even more bitterly since building my career was the only reason I hadn’t followed my husband when his military service sent him halfway across the U.S. But just as today’s modern pace of life began to push me to my breaking point, I made a drastic change: I quit my job, spent the better part of a year living in America’s heartland with my husband and our Neapolitan mastiff, and later moved back East again to work in the wine industry at just a few dollars above minimum wage. And yet, despite making less than a third of what I used to make in my swanky corporate job, the three of us are happier than ever.
I could chalk up this difference in quality of life to our time in Kansas. Life in the Midwest gave us time to find ourselves where folks are friendly whether they’ve known you a few hours or a few years, and where the weekends were long and the land untainted by bumper-to-bumper traffic. We made friends there we’ll never forget, and actually spent time hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. Needless to say it was a drastic departure from the rat race that consumes so many of us within a certain radius of our nation’s capital. But I don’t think I can credit our short time in the Midwest with any lasting transformation. In fact, returning to the east coast only seemed to stress us out more than it had before, especially after having a taste of the slow life. Wistful for our days in Kansas, we found ourselves sucked into the mire all over again.
If anything changed our outlook for certain, it was meeting our friends Lorenzo and Alli.
I may be happy with where I am in life now, but I was definitely disappointed on coming back east when I realized all we’d be able to find for work for a while were jobs in retail. Surrounded by people and a culture constantly striving to make a little more money and have a little more stuff (all between rushing from home to work to home to “enriching” activities and back), we couldn’t help feeling down about how little money we had, or the fact that we had moved in with my parents to save up for a house. I often found myself at work hauling wine boxes around and musing that the last hour’s work–minus taxes–could barely buy me a value meal at a fast food place, let alone any of the bottles of wine I sold to our fancier clientele. The thought was so depressing to me that I lost my mind for a moment and actually expressed it out loud. Hearing my dejection, my new coworker, Lorenzo, took pity on me and invited me over for coffee. It was an offer I’d taken friends up on in the past, and it always made me feel better about whatever was ailing me, but I couldn’t have known just how mood- and outlook-altering a simple cup of coffee could be.
If his name wasn’t certain indication, I’ll tell you: Lorenzo is from Italy, land of amazing food, stellar wine, and a very different pace of life. And while you can take a man away from his home country, it’s much harder to take away the habits he’s learned there. In Lorenzo’s case, it means that he’s found ways to keep savoring life even amid the hustle and bustle of the DC area, and even in spite of making just as little per hour as I do. His wife, Alli, who hails from Puerto Rico but spent several years studying and working in Italy, shares his appreciation for all things fun, delicious, relaxing, and delightful–even when the budget leaves little to no room for dinners out or nights on the town.
When I entered their apartment after work that day, the little metal espresso maker on the stove had already filled the space with the rejuvenating smell of strong coffee. Alli and I sat at the small table set with four simple chairs–a bowl of peanuts was laid out for peckish guests–while Lorenzo finished preparing the coffees. We snacked and talked, my mood lifting almost immediately, though I immediately regretted helping myself to the peanuts since Lorenzo brought not only the coffee to the table, but a plate of cookies and treats from their last trip to Italy. We sipped and ate, talking all the while of work, home, life, and wishes.
How delicious they were! Not just the refreshments, but the ability to relax with kind friends. We spent two hours at that table, getting up only when we realized that the sun was quickly fading. But even on returning home I still felt myself relaxed and happy. I had been transformed by a mere cup of coffee, a few cookies and, not least of all, some very good company. And it was no fluke either.
The next time I visited Lorenzo and Alli, my husband and I joined them for a weeknight dinner. With hugs and hellos they ushered us in and revealed a masterpiece in progress: pasta alla carbonara. If you’ve never had carbonara, I’ll sum it up for you: it’s pure genius, born of simple kitchen alchemy. With a couple eggs, some cheese, a box of pasta, bacon or ham, and a bit of onion or garlic, a practiced cook can transform humble ingredients into a silky, savory dish brimming with rich, delicious flavors. Lorenzo opened the bottle we’d brought as Alli grabbed the pot of piping hot pasta, the pop of the cork heralding the arrival of the carbonara at the table.
It was the best night we’d had in a long time.
Was it the food? Was it our new friends? I’d say it was both, but there is something that was most certainly not the root of our joy that night: having a lot of money or stuff. On the way home I considered all the old friends I’d had–the ones I’d lost to their own focus on climbing the corporate ladder or being as busy as possible–and I wondered if they could possibly be happier than me at that moment. I could tell from their proudly displayed Facebook pages that many of them had taken new 60 hour/week jobs, shelled out for lavish cruises and vacations, or blown who knows how much on a big fat commercial wedding within the last year. I had often felt jealous of what they had. But–call it a carbonara revelation–it quickly dawned on me that all their working (or all their debt) would surely be an obstacle to regular enjoyment of something so simple as spending a Tuesday night with friends enjoying a bottle of wine and a comforting bowl of something homemade and delicious. Suddenly working 5:30AM to 2PM, making enough to pay bills and invest in some really amazing home cooked meals didn’t seem so awful in the grand scheme of things.
And that is why I decided to start this blog. You don’t need to kill yourself working or make six figures a year (ha!) to enjoy life to the fullest. It took a little inspiration from our good friends for me to see it, so I’m hoping to pay it forward and inspire you, too. If all you can afford right now is a cheap bottle of wine and a box of pasta, you’re already well on your way to living the Bella Vita, the good life 🙂