Stealing Beauty: An Aeolian Acid Trip, Part 1

by | Feb 28, 2018

“Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Someone or crowds of someones over time penned the achingly true trope, “wherever you go, there you are”. It’s heartbreaking, at times. We choose what to pack, why can’t we choose a different self for the voyage? This travel diary is perhaps not what you expect. It’s the tale of a far-off land I’d dreamed of visiting for years after stumbling upon its beauty, tucked away in the center of a magazine. As I read the article one day near my parent’s pool, the Aeolian Islands and I forged a non-verbal pact to commune someday soon. They would whisper the secrets of how they had plunged inhabitable land out of deep sea, like wine out of water, and I’d sit amongst the pristine white, Mediterranean walls of the small towns and vow to be slow, to tuck away to-dos and to focus on breathing in the exotic air.

Almost four years later, the story of my visit to the Aeolian Islands is unfinished. The I who was packed was grief-stricken, broken, and became more battered from the moment it was time to depart for the airport in Los Angeles to the moment I returned. I was at the height of anguish, almost the place where breaking points become breakthroughs…just not quite yet. Gruesome truths, devastating losses, brutal rebuffs and abducted hope became a cocktail inside of me laced with serious side effects. A year and a half prior, I could only distantly, as though answering a trivia question, define anxiety. Since then, usually on planes – but if I’m honest, increasingly even in everyday interactions – I could definite it viscerally, give it life.

When my Mom was first hospitalized 18 months before, and I was to get on a plane and leave my father with the fresh mess of it all, I sat in the Tulsa airport and felt real panic. I felt sick at the thought of abandoning him, about hours on a plane and layovers to establish more distance between us, when our bond was pulled tauter that week. I sat up from the airport restaurant table I was eating at – poking at food, really – and walked right over to the closest ticket counter and calmly yet pleadingly asked if my bags could still be retrieved. I recall calmness, but my voice must have sung of pain and urgency. The lady at the ticket counter kindly said she could make it happen, and made multiple calls in front of me, locking in her promise. I called my Dad who had dropped me off about an hour before and asked if he could come retrieve me. I couldn’t leave him. Waiting for him outside, close to the same spot he’d just left me to return to Los Angeles, I felt better, calmer, but back in that restaurant I’d been close to a panic attack, an intensely foreign concept to me ninety minutes prior. I would sidle up to this feeling differently but more frequently after that, not just in airports.

A longtime friend and seriously frequent flyer, Serena, accompanied me on this Aeolian voyage. I met her in London where she was at work for the week, and we embraced Italy first in Taormina, Sicily. Since I had made all of our Aeolian Island arrangements, she chose our first two days in Sicily before we pushed off on hydrofoil boats (probably redundant, but how many of you know what they are?!) to reach the distant islands. I knew nothing about Taormina and little about Sicily and decided to keep it that way as I prepped for our trip. It would be a surprise.

Taormina was a stack of ancient house-cards alongside a cliff, one of those built-into-the-side-of-a-mountain European towns alongside a sparkling coast. It was treacherous and exciting trying to wind our way up to our hotel on a hot Friday afternoon in August. We enjoyed the area by foot that day and all the wines we could stomach that night. The next balmy day, we had a lovely breakfast on the roof and tried to decide what to do with our only full day there. Two Gothic-loving girls could only come to one conclusion: we would visit the gloomy and stark volcano staring us down during our sun-soaked breakfast – the one and only Mount Etna.

Taormina is a hilltop town known for the Teatro Antico di Taormina, an ancient Greco-­Roman theater still in use, and of course Mount Etna and its proximity to that ancient and active volcano. As we crested the desolate and prehistoric-looking road that winds up to Mount Etna’s parking area, we went from end-of-summer sweat to bundled up in warmer layers. It was incredible. And creepy. The anxiety I’d experienced trying to get myself to LAX at the beginning of my trek had turned into my constant companion. I wanted it gone. It was derailing my focus on conversations and hijacking my physiology. I felt awful. Later that night, I wrote in my journal, “Full day in Taormina. Went to Mount Etna and walked around. I am really tired and also struggling, standing outside of myself trying to self-modulate what I should feel: happy to be experiencing this volcano of the Gods, halfway across the world with a good friend, and yet uncomfortable, not happy, not sad. There aren’t real highs; there have just been smatterings of my general usual happiness, my intrinsic glass way over half full missing.”

Backing up, the way I arrived at the Aeolian Islands, situated in the Tyrrhenian Sea, was via the cargo of manifestation. The beginning of June this past year, I was committed to beginning my Masters in Counseling Psychology in September, and I knew my days of impetuousness were a little more numbered with that atop full-time work. The Aeolian Islands and I hadn’t met yet, and I needed to alter our fates and fast. On the hottest day of the season, a Saturday in July, I called Serena and asked if she’d like to go. She, an encyclopedic source of global locales, barely knew of the area past my exaltations for it and a movie she’d recently seen (A Bigger Splash with Tilda Swinton, highly recommend), which is to say she said yes, of course. I reached out to what tourism boards or travel groups I could find, as I knew these obscure, tiny islands would not be easy to navigate on a whim but would be best experienced with a resemblance to a plan. A few organizations and companies got back to us, but my sweetest and strongest ally in making my dreams a reality was Paola Costanzo of, an official tourism site for the Aeolian Islands. She and the organization made this trip possible. She said yes – yes you will get to experience these islands you dream of. She created a rich itinerary for a week’s stay, and she became a friend. Much more on her in the second installment of this travel journal.

We arrived on Sunday, met the lovely Paola briefly to kiss and discuss the plans of our coming days, and we found our way to Ristorante Filippino, an elegant and famous restaurant on the island over 100 years old. The fresh fish, the earthy oils, and the rich history embedded in the Mediterranean walls were so intoxicating they even drowned out the obnoxious mobile game and its blood pressure-raising beeps a kid was fixated on nearby.

My dreams during the first half of the trip to Taormina and Lipari were feverish, wine soaked and weighted with carbs. It’s a wonder such lucidity could enter my mind those nights I indulged in so much foreign substances. My dream journal is filled with recollections from the nights, and I could tell my visit to a dream land while waking was coinciding with necessary healing in my unconscious and some very trippy feelings.

(The next installment of Stealing Beauty: An Aeolian Acid Trip coming soon!)