Walking in America

We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.

It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.

Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA
Cotton fields near Cape Charles VA

When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.

I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.

With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are
With no alternatives McDonalds become our only watering hole. This one had a nice map that shows where we are

Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.

What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.

People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. But they are also concerned because  but also because it’s not normal to walk few miles to places like the grocery store. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous. Many times we had to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.

The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars. Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.

It’s scary how an urban design issue is deeply influential in how we think about society. When we were in Georgia (the place where I lived the longer in the US) the sight of a walker on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody  in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. The sense of distress permeates these hypothesis as we drove by on our vehicle. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”

Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment, during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.

“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more other things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.

Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today this is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more, how it all became a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.

I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes really would do fine. Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is possible and not a russian roulette played with cars.

Or to people that have no alternative, like us.

Seek and Destroy

Mid March may not be the best time to start thinking about 2015 resolutions. Getting through the first quarter of the year however helps to skim the unreasonable off the cauldron of expectations. The recent  approval of my permanent resident status (Green Card) gives us more oxygen and several degrees of freedom to think about the next moves, and what is going to be with our lives. So with this renewed spirit one should think that now the way is all downhill (or downwind). Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First we have to ask ourselves one question: are we ready to resume cruising? Sadly the answer is no, and even if it’s unreal to think that one day Tranquility will be in perfect shape, with every detail addressed and we will be full “ready”, loaded with enough cash to sustain the costs of cruising, we have to be honest and admit that the day we are cutting dock lines and sail away is not imminent.

We were contemplating a summer cruise of New England shores, the same shores that saw us on the first chapter of our endeavor. The idea was to leave Coastal Georgia in May-June and head north to savor the wonderful summer in New England. That area had been my home for two summers, the first one as professional crew on Superyachts, and the second as a boat owner who was assembling his boat to go cruising. In neither case I had the option to freely roam the coves and anchorages and to explore historical and naturalistic points of interest, as I was alway “on duty”. It seems that this desire has to wait a little longer.

But why this is not possible next summer? Well something happened while we were wintering in Brunswick, waiting for the green light of the Green Card. And that something was me. I started to take apart Tranquility even more than I did during the previous months. One piece leads to another, and nearly every single component of the deck has been removed. The boom lays down on the deck, the electric motor and batteries hauled out, part of navigation station ripped off. Kate and I observed this process happening with fear and awe, as spectators of an ineluctable fate.

Removing rotten teak on the bow stem
Removing rotten teak on the bow stem

There no such a thing like a small or partial refit. Tranquility was in shape enough to sail the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and she did a good job in protecting us from the severe winter but yet she is not as we imagine her. There is a real Tranquility and a dream one, and the reason why we are investing more time and money is because this two Tranquilities are still too far apart from each other. To bridge that gap the extent of the refit must be enlarged.

Refurbishing the galley
Refurbishing the galley

It is extremely difficult for someone doing their first refit to accurately assess the time, expenses and details of preparing a boat for a voyage. I did other refits on different boats, and no matter the budget and the expertise involved it seems that project management and boat refits cannot go hand in hand. The process is pretty much the same: I start with a little improvement, like re-grouping the batteries in a more rational position and then I have to modify the existing navigation station to host the batteries, remove the existing electrical system, build new floor, and so on… For some reason this path lead to the replacement of the existing ladder and the creation of new and bigger counter space. Little by little every out of date part of the boat is going to be replaced or repaired or refurbished.

A little more destruction
A little more destruction

We have to say that Brunswick is definetely a good place for refitting your boat all year around. Almost too good as departure keep being postponed.

Brunswick, where the hell is that?

This is where we live
This is where we live

We initially moved to Brunswick when James Baldwin offered me an apprentship after visiting us on Tranquility. We were transiting in Jekyll Island, getting ready to land in Florida and find us a good spot to make some money and improve the boat. We never make it further than St.Mary’s on the State Border. We decided instead to give James and Brunswick a chance. After one year we are still here and this must mean that Brunswick is not a bad place at all.

Even if sometimes I feel like we ran aground in the marshes of Glynn, it’s remarkable how many good things happened to us here. We had been introduced to the South, with its culinary specialties (see Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil) and the proverbial courtesy warm hospitality of the population. Soon enough we friended some special people, keen souls who are rooted here or following a similar pat, ran aground. Kate is already a notable person in the community and I personally learned a lot working side by side with James Baldwin, having helped him in many of his sailboat refits.

Tranquility is not ready also because my standards have risen and seeing what James did on other boats changed the idea of what is possible and impossible in terms of boat customization. While we were summering and wintering here few important things had happened. Kate and I got married in very hot day in Woodbine, GA. Subsequently I applied for a Green Card which was approved just recently. The Green Card process itself was very demanding and time consuming, kind of a part time job. No wonder it was a very busy time here in Georgia!

Anyway, we can’t afford to live in a perpetual dream of boat perfection. Wether Tranquility will be closer to perfection or not, winter is coming, this time with some tropical weather and crystal clear waters waiting for us. The time of the distruction must end… just let me deal with a couple little more things that I don’t like…

How to write 100 blog posts in a very long time

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This is the 100th post of La possibilità di un’isola, and I feel somehow it needs to be celebrated. The name of this blog comes from title of a novel by Michel Houllebecq, the first book of the french novelist I read, a book that I loved. I chose it because it is the perfect explanation of what was happening in my life: in 2009 I was leaving my country and my profession as an organisational psychologist to go live aboard Velero Bicho in the archipelago of Los Roques. The islands were real, this life change was a new possibility for me and this blog a way to keep track of it.

Amongs all the changes during my life time, writing has always been a constant. A variable constant to be fair, as the process is definetely influenced by life events, including periods of drought followed by more prolific ones. I have always loved to write, and I have always being scribbling something, on the pages of notebooks of different size and colors, sometimes on a computer, trying to compose something “serious”.

I think my first real attempt was a short story I wrote for the class journal when I was 12. A short sci-fi novel imagining a scientific expedition to Mars. It’s funny to read it now, but it is also impressive, for the scientific details I was able to introduce at that age. Then I won a the first prize in High School for creative writing, with a short story about the dilemmas of culture and counterculture, seen with the eyes of a high school student. The prize was 100.000 lires (roughly 50 euros, a bit more considering inflation) and a copy of Moby Dick. Who could tell that a dozen years later I bought and refit a sailboat in New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world and the city where Ishmael, the protagonist of Melville’s novel, wakes up in an inn at the beginning of the book.

The university time was a moment in my life when I clearly decided that writing wasn’t going to give me a job and so I hoped that Psychology would. Writing was serving academic purposes, with occasional side projects like articles for self-published magazine with a group of friends, co-writing in a theatrical play, research articles about adult learning with Ariele. When I moved to Torino for work I took a class of creative writing with Marzi at Verba Volant. That’s the only time I invested money in writing, but then I left for the other side of the Atlantic, and things became busy.

This wasn’t the first blog I opened. The first one was a travel blog about a holiday trip to India, a perfect alternative to email to send information to friends an family. Then I took part to a collective blog. With fellows gathered from Ariele’s outskirts we started Leaderlessorg, an intellectual exercise to figure out how the web 2.0 was a revolution in the way people relate to each other, with a focus on the work organisations. None of these blogs were successful or gave me money, they were a new form of communication I was discovering.

Writing takes time and effort, and sometimes I have to sacrifice it from work and other duties. And it’s not always a pleasure. It can be rewarding and excitng when everything flows, but for the most part it’s made of unsatisfying attempts of moving forward, like placing heavy blocks of concrete in order to make a building. The decorative part comes later, once the graceless but solid structure is in place.

This is my 100th post in more than 5 years, not a great average. I write when I can, and when I have something to say, or a content to share. In these last years I moved through different countries and switched the language of my posts from Italian to English, because my public became more and more international, and also because it is a good practice for a non native speaker. I rarely write in italian anymore, a language that I am starting to miss.

Blogging makes writing more and more immediate, fast pace. According to experts, you are required to give fresh content every 2 or 3 days to have a decent traffic, but I have never been able to achieve it. After all nobody is paying me, nor telling me how my life should be lived, but it’s clear how today the competition to get the attention of internet users is very hard. The contents are shortening, videos become the favorite media, everything is compressed to the minimum, up to the 140 characters limit of Twitter and other Social Media, modern haikus for distilled thought. “Reading requires time. No one cares about anything anymore, we have all become frivolous and superficial” a friend of mine told me few days ago, when I asked him why my blog had so few readers.

Over time, I tried to focus on certain topics and genres, but it’s not really how this blog works. When I left for Venezuela, my main interest was to underline the cultural shocks I was living in first person, lustful shocks to be honest. When we left on Tranquility and started cruising, the blog became a logbookwith new blog posts to track our progress. In that situation a lot was happening and I had trouble to keep track of it. Sometimes nothing happens and it’s hard to think about something to write, and I somehow freeze.

Sailing and traveling are a big part of my life, but this blog is not about sailing, or about traveling. It is more like my mind, it constantly wanders through different terrains. I recently figured out that it is a perfect way to capture and deal with daydreaming. Instead of starting the project of building a boat using natural fibers, I write about it. It may or may not happen in real life, but writing about it will make something out of simple speculation. Hopefully pointless speculations can be of some interest for readers.

 The 100th post is not an important goal per se. It gave me the opportunity to retrace my steps so far, and to notice how this virtual notebook mutated through time and space, a slow and laborious path which continues after many years and, thanks to the support of you readers, it has never been so alive.

Eternal apprenticeship

Gran Roque - Venezuela
Gran Roque – Venezuela

“Che i sogni siano un rifugio? Una fuga dalla realtà? Può essere, ma non riesco a fare altro, né so che altro fare”

I wrote this sentence in a notepad about five years ago. Soon it’s going to be five years since I left Italy, soon my niece is going to turn five as well. The moment I told my mom I decided to leave is still so clear in my memory. It happened in the waiting room of the hospital, my sister was in labor delivering Melissa, and I cried a little because I felt that my decision was taken. Less than two months later I moved to Venezuela. I was 27 and leaving my former career of psychologist. In that moment I let the dreams rule.

It was a jump in the unknown, an hazardous move. I also tried to sabotage my departure telling my father to drive me to Malpensa airport while instead I was leaving from Linate. Both airports serve the city of Milan but they are quite distant from each other. That morning I forced my dad to a race through highways and traffic, and l took that first plane for a matter of minutes. Not even my unconscious could avoid it.

Along these 5 years I continued to be a moving target, crossing boundaries of different countries. All this happened without a specific strategy. Kate would say this movement is “Planktonic”. Similarly there is not a particular reason why now I am in  Coastal Georgia. If the current pushes towards unpredictable destinations, the fil rouge  of this drifting seems to be the condition of apprenticeship.

When I left for Venezuela my mission was to manage the operation of a charter yacht. I never did such a thing before. For my biased mind sailing was an activity for snob and rich people, and I carefully avoided it. So when I approached this job I was completely unexperienced.  I had to learn everything on the field, find help and learn how to be helped which is not exactly something foregone, expecially when you don’t speak the language.

When you are in such a situation you feel like an idiot most of the times. It is hard to linger in this state of constant awareness of your own deficiency. Sometimes you don’t have a clue and at the same time you have to endure the fatigue of being far from your own comfort zone. It also true that any success it’s worth the double and it’s easy to get enthusiatic. During my first self-taught apprenticeship across the ocean I seeked for the help of a professionl coach in understanding how my role was changing and that was a great support.

After being an apprentice charter manager I had to be an apprentice sailor, then an apprentice captain and now I am an apprentice restorer of old fiberglass boats. Even if it seems the trajectory of this growth belongs to the maritime world, the change of scenarios and tasks keeps me grasping for some prior knowledge to sustain my efforts, and it’s hard to predict what is coming next. I moved so much in the last 5 years but it seems I didn’t get anywhere in terms of seniority.

How long will this condition last? Will I ever master anything? Sometimes I wish I had arrived. If you ask where I probably won’t be able to give an adequate response, but the feeling remains. The narratives of reinvention usually portray people in their second-half of life who distance an established position because it no longer satisfy their needs. It is the broken dream of a corporate life, where too much stability and benefits, and maybe a too narrow task build into a state of boredom and lack of sense. In this case the reinvention pass through a reintegration of a solid knowledge into something more meaningful.

I wonder how to put two and two together, how to reintegrate the constant conflict between the discovery of something new (and being unprepared) and just do what you know and be firmly attached to something valuable. Maybe it has something to do with becoming middle-aged and this eternal apprenticeship it is a social trend that affects my generation.

But there is also some active research for new objects thst propels the movement. This dilemma was well described by Michael Balint, a psychoanalist who defined two personality types, the “Philobat” and the “Ocnophil” in his theory of Object Relations. In simple terms the Philobat enjoys thrills, adventure and the unknown, avoiding to get trapped by a specific object. The Ocnophil has to get a firm grip on something, or a situation to avoid possible danger and the fear of getting lost in the void. It seems that I qualify as a Philobat and I keep looking for something new to leanr and experience, even though there is a certain grade of Ocnophilia that protest against this chaotic wandering. In life there is not such thing as pure Ocnophil and Philobat, they will be chained in some asylum.

 A long apprenticeship brings together the ghosts of never grow up, the persistance of a state of deficiency and the difficulty of accepting the gap between what you are and what you are going to be. It surely has a positive side, expecially because it allows to be receptive to new ideas and knowledge and to discover things I like and I do not like, which usually come after trials and errors. I feel that the challenge now is to balance and weave together experience and new knowledge and to  find continuity in change, which translated in a simple language sounds like “sit down, relax and enjoy the journey”

Let go

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A white explorer in Africa, anxious to press ahead with his journey, paid his porters for a series of forced marches. But they, almost within reach of their destination, set down their bundles and refused to budge. No amount of extra payment would convince them otherwise. They said they had to wait for their souls to catch up.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines