Seek Journeys: Brenna in Italy

I recently returned from two rich and restorative weeks traveling in southern Italy with my husband, James, and our family friends. We started in Naples, then spent 10 days road-tripping through Sicily, focusing our time on the northern and southeastern coasts. James and I also spent a too-quick 36 hours in Rome before flying back to the U.S. 

I’d been dreaming up an Italy trip for years, for many of the usual reasons—art, ruins, cuisine, landscape—and for one of my own: my grandmother’s grandparents had come from southern Italy, as had a branch of my grandfather’s family. 

But in the weeks leading up to our departure, I felt a mounting anxiety about my vacation.

This wasn’t unusual for me. As an adult, the lead up to vacation has often been accompanied by a frenetic work anxiety. Would I tie up every loose end before I left? (No.) If I don’t, is that okay? (Yes.) Will taking two weeks off make me seem unproductive or uncommitted? (It shouldn’t. I’m entitled to take my PTO.) And if I know I shouldn't stress, and often judge this stress of mine as a moral failure, why can't I just let go and unplug? (No answer.)

I should also mention that eight weeks before our flight, I tripped and broke my ankle. My doctor cleared me to travel, but he supposed I might still need a walking boot, and I’d have to limit my mileage to keep the pain and swelling at bay. I was grateful we wouldn’t have to cancel the trip, but the injury only added to my stress.   

One thing that calmed me was planning to pack light. Historically, I’ve been a chronic over packer. But if my to-do list felt extra chaotic and unending, at least my bag would be tidy and contained. So, I channeled Joan Didion and committed to fitting everything into my 20 x 12-inch duffel. Here’s a list I made:


To pack:

Dee Caftan from Seek 

Page Shirt from Seek

Green dress

2 pairs of shorts

2 tanks

2 bathing suits

Socks, underwear, etc.

Sleep dress 


To wear on plane:

Green pants

T-shirt

Sneakers

Hat

I also felt calmed by our loose-ish itinerary. We’d booked round-trip tickets to Rome and places to stay, but we otherwise set out with only a short list of must-sees and a desire to explore. This turned out to be convenient for someone with a still-healing ankle fracture, who couldn’t commit to long days of sight-seeing. But it’s also the way I prefer to travel. I enjoy the freedom of a wide-open agenda.

So, after landing in Rome on Monday morning, knocking back our first of many espressos, and exchanging our dollars for Euros, we had only one task left for the day: get to Naples. We took our time navigating Trenitalia, the robust network of trains that cover the length and breadth of Italy. As we pulled out of Rome, we spied old Roman aqueducts, admired the landscape with its abundance of bright oleander, and watched the small coastal cities and villages pass by. As we took it slow—no urgency, no agenda—I felt myself beginning to let go of the anxiety that had built up over the previous weeks. 

James and I landed in Naples around mid-afternoon and checked in to our AirBnB, which boasted a plant-clad rooftop with cinematic views of Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. Each morning, before the sun rose too high, we drank our coffee on that terrace, watching the swifts and seagulls take their morning flight. Each evening, we climbed up to feel the breeze and see Naples flicker. During the day, we wandered the streets of the Centro Storico, popping into museums and old churches, including an unassuming chapel that housed Caravaggio’s magnificent painting The Seven Works of Mercy. We ate plenty of pizza and sipped plenty of Campari spritzes. We tracked down a few sights from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which had admittedly been one of the reasons I wanted to visit Naples in the first place, so transporting they were.

A highlight of our few days in Naples was visiting the ruins of Pompeii, which was just a quick train ride to the other side of Vesuvius, the area’s iconic and still-active volcano. Once a flourishing Roman city, Pompeii was buried by ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and is now a vast and impeccably restored archeological site. It was also the subject of my middle school Latin textbook, and I’d been hoping to visit ever since.

Another highlight was noticing a familiar name attached to a local hospital on the map: Antonio Cardarelli Hospital. Cardarelli was my great-grandmother’s maiden name, and her mother was born not far from Naples. I texted my dad, who confirmed that Dr. Cardarelli was indeed a distant relative. 

After Naples, we met the rest of our group in Sicily, stopping first in Palermo, the island’s capital. We spent five days in a 100-year-old stone villa in Partinico, a small agrarian village outside Palermo, and we explored other towns along the northern coast each day. We stopped in Cefalù, a coastal city with aquamarine waters and a 12th century cathedral housing elaborate Byzantine mosaics. We visited ancient Greek temples in Segesta and had lunch in Marsala, where we enjoyed the rich, fortified wine made there. We ate some of the best pestos and sauces I’ve tasted—sometimes spicy, sometimes a bit sweet, and often garnished with almonds or pistachios. (Sicily is home to one of the most prized pistachio varieties.) On day six, we cut across the island to the southeast coast, marveling at how different it seemed from the north. One of the most striking things about Sicily is its variety. The island was conquered by many empires and kingdoms throughout history—the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Normans, and the Bourbons at least—and each left its cultural mark. 

When we weren’t touring towns, we spent lazy afternoons by the ocean. We’d post up with our towels, or rent spaces at one of the many Lidos, with their monochrome umbrellas and chairs. On one such afternoon, I waded into the ocean and swam out far enough to create distance between myself and the crowds. I lay on my back and closed my eyes. I thought of my Italian American grandmother, who loves the beach more than any place, and who taught me to float when I was a child. I remembered that the ocean has always brought me joy and a sense of calm. As the waves carried me, I inhaled deeply. I exhaled, and felt a tension leave my body. I was weightless.

Brenna McDuffie is a Brooklyn-based copywriter and editor and has been the copywriter for Seek Collective since 2018.

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