Eat, Cry, Panic

While typically my inbox brims with rejection emails, several weeks ago I received a message that began with the word "Congratulations!" 

Thrilled to see that salutation instead of the usual: "We're sorry, but we just don't think..." I was elated before I'd even identified the sender. (I'm at a place where if you congratulate me on anything from wearing a clean shirt to not stepping on my cat, I'll graciously accept and momentarily glow with pride.) 

But before I got my hopes up too high, I realized it could be another "Congratulations! You've been selected to attend our 'Combatting Female Baldness & Vaginal Dryness During Menopause' seminar!" email, so, naturally, I had to table my enthusiasm temporarily until I'd read further.

But, it turned out, it was, in fact, good news. My application to attend a small writing conference in Italy this July had been accepted.

I read the email in disbelief but within moments my initial excitement morphed into fear. 

To paraphrase Audrey Hepburn, Italy is always a good idea, but could I really navigate the countryside alone? The conference will be held in Recanati (which I'm still struggling to spell), approximately three hours outside of Rome. While it looks gorgeous in photos, the image that comes to my mind first is me being pickpocketed within 30 seconds of arriving at the baggage claim carousel.

I don't know if this phenomenon only happens to moms, but sometimes when I'm traveling alone and my children are safe at home, I achieve a new, almost-dangerous level of auto-pilot. It seems without concerns about one of them knocking the cane out from under an elderly person while the others shoplift chocolate at a gift shop, I become completely carefree. With only myself to worry about, it seems I don't worry at all. I'd like to say I'm laid-back, but it's really closer to full-blown zombie.

Last year, when I traveled to New Orleans, after being wined and dined by Zatarains (please go buy their rice and cornbread mixes, they're delicious and I owe them big time!) I was so relaxed, I left my laptop on the conveyor belt after going through security, which, when you're a writer, is like leaving both your hands behind. I'd spent a glorious morning at the New Orleans Botanical Garden (raise your hand if you thought I was going to say, "Bourbon Street's Absinthe House"), and was so chill, I didn't even notice my massive blunder until ... 

I was drying my hands in the ladies room when I heard my name followed by: "You forgot your laptop!" in a sweet Southern drawl coming through the loudspeaker above my head. I dashed through the airport like O.J. Simpson in his famous Hertz commercial, hurdling King Cake displays, to reclaim my computer.

Had that happened at the airport closest to my home – Newark Liberty –  I'm certain I'd never have seen my MacBookAir again. (And it's a fairly safe bet my autosaved credit cards would've been used to buy everything short of a beach house and an Escalade in under 20 minutes.) 

So as much as I've been whining about needing a vacation and desperately wanting to go somewhere other than my local ShopRite, I can't help but imagine this sojourn turning out like the polar opposite of Eat, Pray, Love. My version would be aptly titled Eat, Cry, Panic. 

You see, first, I can't seem to find flights that are under a thousand dollars – unless I want to make three stops each way. Call me cynical, but I think when you're agreeing to change planes multiple times en route to a single destination, you're just courting disaster. From lost luggage to acquiring deep vein thrombosis, it feels like a bad idea. 

Here's another thing that's freaking me out: Expedia is now offering flight ratings. I'm sorry, maybe I'm fussy, but when I'm aloft, I want only the very best. What does "Satisfactory flight" mean? And what about "Fair?" Am I going to have to take over the controls while the pilot uses the toilet? Is there even a toilet? Tell me more ... but maybe don't because the other flights – the "Good" and "Very good" – are hundreds of dollars more.

Second, the quaint hotel where the conference is being held is already completely sold-out. Feel free to stay at an alternate hotel or an Airbnb!, the organizers suggest. Without being fluent in Italian, I have no idea what I'm agreeing to when I skim these options, but I do know that photos of exposed light bulbs and sad little twin beds – the only places in my price range – aren't inspiring much confidence. And how can I stay among potential roommates without sleeping with one eye open after watching countless Amanda Knox documentaries? Who's going to stop an innkeeper from coming to harvest my organs while I'm full of chianti and dreaming of tartufo? When I look for other accommodations, none seem to be remotely close by and that's after I have to do the tricky math that is the kilometer-to-miles conversion. 

Third, while I'd gotten my application in on time to be considered for a scholarship that would cover the workshop, I didn't win it. (Don't worry, there's no GoFundMe link coming up, you can keep reading. Phew!) So bottom line, this one week could set me back close to $4,000, or, a mortgage payment, or 75 percent of my son's orthodonture. Feels kind of frivolous now, doesn't it?

Fourth, I haven't received an itinerary yet and because this is the "inaugural" conference, I don't have any past reviews to look to for guidance. What if I travel 43 hours one way as Expedia recommends, only to hear an instructor say, "We're now going to take the next 90 minutes to write about things we suspect all dogs are secretly thinking... and go!" I'd be tempted to either throw a tantrum and ask for my money back, or, more likely, say I'm going to grab a cappuccino and walk off into the sea. 

I hate the fact that I've even made a list like this. Years ago, I'd have embraced this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I'm older now, and after both my husband and I have lost two jobs apiece in the past four years, I'm gun-shy when it comes to spending money on anything. (Even gum feels like a luxury in my post-Great Recession mindset.)

I've also become oddly fearful of getting lost. I think I may get this from my mom. Decades ago, my mother, a once intrepid driver, would pile us into a Mercury Marquis the size of a small yacht (perhaps you'll recognize it as the car from Uncle Buck) and drive across all five boroughs of New York City, the hilly terrain of the Poconos, and really anywhere that held the promise of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

She barreled over bridges, charged through tunnels, and sped down country lanes depositing us at our final spot primarily on instinct.

Now, at 75, she second guesses herself – and all navigation systems. She talks over Google Maps to repeatedly ask, "Do you think he knows what he's talking about? Isn't this the way we just came? I'd swear that's the third time I've waved at those kids at that lemonade stand! If we pass them again, I really think we should stop and buy something." 

Can one inherit self-doubt? Yes, I think so.

I also can't stop having flashbacks to the time my father and I – unable to read or understand a word of French – circled Charles de Gaulle airport in a rental car smaller than a suitcase for what felt like hours while he swore we'd be on our way to Belgium in no time if we could just get out of the rotary. 

I desperately want to go to Italy, but practicality is getting the better of me. Plus, there are so many other things I'd like to do that I don't have the nerve to pursue. Here's what's topping my list:

When I'm at the drive-thru window at Starbucks, I want to bark, "Holy sh!t! Are you crazy? No way!" when the barista tells me it'll be $17.49 for two beverages and a small package of vegan cookies. 

I have until May 15th to save my spot before they move on down the alleged wait list. What should I do? Grazie in advance.

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