Quit a Job to Go To Italy? A Story about Motivation

In January of 2006, while on a beach in the Florida Keys with two dear friends from my college days, my mother called me. After exchanging pleasantries about my trip, my mother got to her point. “So your grandmother joined a senior citizens group.  And guess what the first thing was on the agenda of their first meeting?”

“No idea.”

“A trip to Italy.”

“Really?”

“Yeah – and she wants to go.” I was hoping this was leading where I wanted it to.  My mother continued, “but her hearing’s not too good, so she doesn’t want to go alone.” Jackpot.

“I’ll go with her,” I said, without hesitation. Grandma’s husband and dedicated travel companion of sixty years had died just six months earlier. Grandpa always called me “The Vagabond” when I arrived for meatballs on Sundays, having just returned from travels to Switzerland or France, or from an internship in Portland or North Carolina, or having come from my new home in Boston or Bethesda. It was only fitting that this vagabond take his wife on such a trip.

“I figured you’d want to go, but what about work?” my mother asked.

“If they won’t let me go, I’ll quit,” I said.

“Rebecca…”

“I’m kidding Mom. I’ll figure it out. Just tell her I’ll go.”

A few weeks later I received an e-mail.  My department was looking for volunteers to help another department catch up on a big project. It was not exactly mindless work, but it was routine. The work would have to be done outside our normal jobs, which meant staying late or coming in early. We would not be paid overtime, but we were offered something I consider much better: comp time.

By now I’m sure you can figure out who added an extra hour or so each day and earned six days of comp time in time to take her 83-year-old Italian grandmother on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the land of her ancestors. (For those of you asking why I couldn’t just use my regular vacation days, it’s because I’m one of the few Americans who uses up all her vacation days. I needed more!)

First, I’ll say that of course this all worked out.  Because I believed it would.

But this story came to mind today for another reason.

I was just reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  I heard Mr. Pink interviewed about this book a couple years ago.  I heard enough to get the gist of the book and so didn’t bother to read it. But something sparked my interest in it recently, so off I went to check it out of the library (yes, I’m one of the three people in the U.S. who don’t own an e-reader).

The book is all about what motivates us. I’m currently reading about extrinsic motivation, which he argues is best used only when there’s a routine task that needs to get done.  He cautions that, even then, extrinsic rewards are only good if the person giving them 1) explains why the task is necessary 2) acknowledges the task to be done is boring and 3) let’s workers complete the task in their own way.

That’s exactly what my former company did with the aforementioned project. They explained – in numbers – how many adjustments had to processed, acknowledged it was something none of us would want to do all day (but perhaps for an hour), and they let us do it how we wanted to do it – whether that was to come in before or after work, do it on a lunch hour, etc.

Mr. Pink argues that had they forced us to do it and/or outlined exactly how/when we could do it, we would not have been as motivated.  He’s spot on. Lucky for me, somebody in my company knew a little something about extrinsic motivation. Either that, or they learned about my conversation with my mother and didn’t  want me to quit my job.

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Epilogue:

In March of 2006,  me, Grandma Gallo, my brother, and two cousins headed to Italy. Grandma still talks about what a great trip that was.

When I took my first writing class in March, 2008, we were asked to bring something that was important to us.  Our first assignment was to write about what we brought – in my case, photos of  that trip. When I read my story aloud to the group I cried as I recalled Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table greeting me, “There she is – my vagabond granddaughter!”

 

A Test Run

I don’t know that I’ll ever shake that initial jolt of fear that shoots through me when I arrive alone in a foreign country.  I follow the crowd through the terminal to baggage claim.  Traveling only with carry-on luggage, this is where I abandon them.  I look around to find the bus or train I need to get to my destination.

Sometimes, I don’t even have a destination when I arrive.  During a visit to Rome a couple weeks ago, I headed to the bookstore in the train station first.  I was in this same station with my sister ten days earlier so I knew they had a section of English travel guides.  I flipped to the index in a few of them scanning for the word, “hostels.”  I opened my small green notebook and jotted down a few ideas for places to stay.  My next stop was an internet cafe to research my options a little more.  I wrote down the contact information and directions to my top three choices.  A phone call to my first choice disappointed me a little – they only had one night available and I wanted two.  My intuition told me to go anyway.  So I found the bus that would take me there.  I got off one stop too early.  With my few Italian words and the helpful people at that bus stop, I was able to find my way.

Scribbled directions to the Lodi Hostel in Rome

My intuition, as usual, was right.  My roommate and I had a nice chat when I arrived.  She and I decided to meet up later that evening for dinner.  Upon our return, I met a few more people traveling alone and was invited to dinner again.  I declined, but spent a lovely couple hours with that same crew the following morning.  Over breakfast in the garden at the hostel, we all worked out our plans for the day.  Thanks to a couple no-shows the previous night, a bed was available and I got my wish to stay there for two nights.  Cam and Gary decided to take their chances with the proposed train strike and head to the train station anyway with Florence as their destination.  Daniel and I took off for a stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens.

A few days later I reflected on all the ways in which my three weeks in Italy prepared me for my upcoming Camino:

  • I got reacquainted with all the emotions involved in waking up in the morning not knowing where I’ll lay my head down that night – something I’ll do nearly every morning on the Camino.
  • I was reminded of what it’s like to be alone in a country where English is not the native tongue.  The result?  Anytime I heard people speaking English, I found a way to get into their conversation.  It’s a great ice breaker.
  • I remembered why it is I love staying in hostels (meeting people!) and how imperative it is that I bring my ear plugs and eye mask (lest I get no sleep – snoring does not help me descent into dreamland, nor do early-risers keep me there).
  • I learned why it’s best, if I have the option, to stay on the top bunk.  (Every time the guy above me moved, the whole structure shook and I was woken up.  I lamented about this the next morning, and a new friend informed me this doesn’t happen if you’re on the top bunk.  Note to self.)
  • I got plenty of opportunities for walking with my pack.  Like the Camino will be, I walked both alone and with others – sometimes spending whole days with people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.
  • I got to test-run how best to write on the road.  I took legal-size printer paper – a stack of five pages – and folded it in half.  This gave me a little booklet of twenty pages.  I made seven of  these packets and filled them as I went.  The idea is to make them into a book now (something I learned at the Folk School, then perfected while at Glenda’s in February.)  I wrote my blog posts in these packets, too, and when I got to an internet cafe I pulled out my entry and typed it up.
  • I got to test-run traveling with my pack – which pockets are best for which items?
  • I recalled why it’s so good to pack everything in zip-loc bags: my pack may get wet in the rain, but nothing else will.    Have you ever looked into the top of a large backpack?  At first its appears to be a bottomless pit.  Not so when everything has its own see-through zip-loc bag – I could pull out those bags, toss them on the bed, find what I needed, and throw them all back in.

My pack – and some of its zip-loc enclosed contents.

  • Best of all?  I was reminded and encouraged that yes, I can still travel alone.  And that there are tons of people like me out there to meet along the way – all with their own fascinating stories.  (Note to God: If you’d like to send someone my way who would want to travel with me for the rest of my life, I’m open to that.  Thanks.)

On Walking

As we walked toward Piazza Venezia, I flipped open the pedometer on my belt.

“How much?” Daniel asked.

“Nine miles.”  I’d made a mistake earlier of telling him that I set a personal record ten days ago when my sister Jessica and I walked seventeen miles one day in Rome.  He, of course, wanted to beat that.  Not competitive by nature, I had no desire.  But as we roamed the city, the miles started adding up.  Villa Borghese Gardens, the Dali Exhibit, gelato at the Cremeria.  By the time we got back to our hostel, I’d clocked 15 miles – my second highest day yet.  (To his credit, we would have probably beat the record if I didn’t have us take a bus back to the hostel that night.)

4/22/12: Me and Daniel at the Trevi Fountain in Rome - Mile 13

Italy was a great place to rack up miles for three weeks.  Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Rome.  Now that I think about it, though, every place I’ve been since I started training for the Camino in January has been “meant to be” – for both the walking conditions and the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of walking.

Would I have started training in January were I not living through such a mild winter at Glenda’s house in Hayesville, NC?  Would I have not continued training had I not spent ten days on Kiawah Island with all it’s options: walking trails, bike trails, golf courses and beaches?  What about those unexpected ten days I got to go to Florida? Walking in 70 degree weather with Sarah and Russ surely beat the temps of winter in my home state of New York.

Speaking of Sarah and Russ, I was pleasantly surprised by all the friends who accepted my invitations to join me on a walk.   Leslie, Kate, and Dianna met me at different times on the Norrie/Mills Mansion Trail.  Stacey, Lois, and Lynne on Kiawah Island.  Sr. Peggy and John on the Walkway Over the Hudson.

“I don’t know if I can keep up with you,” my friend Dora lamented when we took off from her doorstep in Maryland.  I’d stopped there for an overnight visit on a drive between Asheville, NC and Hyde Park, NY.

“I’m not walking for speed – just distance.  I mostly stroll.  You’ll be fine.”  Indeed she was.  In fact, we walked a trail her husband has volunteered to maintain for their town.  Would I have known of his good work had Dora not agreed to take a walk with me?

Kate did my first mountain with me which happened to also be the first time I hiked in the snow.  I’m hoping I don’t have to repeat the snow experience in the Pyrenees.

4/1/12: Hiking Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, NY

Greg and Scott were patient as I lagged behind on the hundreds of steps up the hillsides of the Cinque Terre.

4/19/12: Greg and I on the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

Dad and Mom walked the Walkway Over the Hudson with me.

“How many more miles do you need to do today?” Dad asked.

“Eh – probably another two or three would be good.”

“This trail keeps going – Mom could turn around and get the car, then meet us further down the trail,” he suggested.  Mom did just that while Dad and I added more miles to my daily total.

I’ve done plenty of walking alone, as well.  Sometimes that was fine.  Other times, I needed the distraction of a phone call to keep me going.  So thanks to Dawn, Tara, Terry, Mom, Jessica, Meg, Liz, Jenn and Jeff for taking my calls.

A few weeks ago I made a list of everyone I’ve walked with since I started training.  My cousin Stephanie and I caught up on a walk around her neighborhood.  My Asheville friends Todd and David accompanied me on trails in North Carolina.  I’ve got a list of 19 people I’ve walked with since January.  And I’m pretty impressed I’m managed to mention every one of them in this post.  (If I left you out, please let me know!)

So thanks to all those who put foot to pavement with me.  And also thanks to those who were with me by phone on those days I needed someone to keep me going.  Know that you all helped to get me to this point: in thirteen days I’ll get to see all this training pay off.

Slip ‘N Slide

Maybe hiking a steep stone trail in the rain wasn’t my best idea.  But it was my first afternoon in the Cinque Terre, and I wanted to get out there.  So off I went climbing up and up and up towards the Madonna di Montenero Sanctuary high above Riomaggiore.

The light rain didn’t faze me.  I know there’s a chance I’ll have a wet day or two on the Camino, so I’ve gone out walking every day – rain or shine.  In any other year of my life, rainy days would find me curled up indoors with a good book.  I laughed to myself.  I was impressed with how much I’d changed my habits and myself in preparation for the Camino. There was another change that needed to take place though.  I needed some uphill practice.  Miles of walking on flat paved surfaces are not going to help me hike through the Pyrenees (which I must do on my first two days of the Camino).

So after settling into my hostel, I started up at 4:45pm.  I saw just two women coming down during my forty-five minute hike up.  They each had a pair of walking sticks.  That’s when it hit me.  I turned around and looked at the slick stones I’d just ascended.  That’s not going to be fun walking down, I thought, wishing I had some walking sticks.  I looked around but grapevines weren’t going to cut it.

I plugged ahead, deciding the walk would be worth it, and I was right.  If you think the views from the Cinque Terre are amazing, hike a little higher.  I’d post pictures, but am having some technical difficulties.

I took dainty baby steps on the descent.  Stairs were done one at time.  Watching only my feet, I thought of a few things to be thankful for:

  1. The residents of Riomaggiore who put railings between their property and the trail – something to hold onto!
  2. The patches of grass growing between the stones – much better to step there than to slide down the slick stones.
  3. The two girls who passed me as I was walking down.  At least if something happened to me, I knew there’d be two people coming back down the trail that I could call to.

When I reached the bottom, I walk also thankful to have all my parts intact.  No sprained ankle, no broken leg, not even a scratch.  It would be devastating to get injured on these trails.  Not only because I’m alone and far from home, but because then I wouldn’t be able to do the Camino.  I’ll be much more careful here on out.

**********

For those of you worried about my safety:

  • Before hiking, I leave a note in my room as to where I’m going and when I should be back.
  • If I can go with others from the hostel, I’ll consider it.  But I do like being on my own schedule.
  • The trails I’m taking are not back woods types of things.  They’re pretty commonly used by tourists.
  • The two trails that had the mudslide in October are closed.  I’m not a rule-breaker, so will not be climbing gates to get to them.
  • If I’m meant to die falling off a cliff into the ocean on the Italian coast, so be it.  It’s a hell of a way to go, no?

 

Farming & Facebook

Today, I found a good use for Facebook.  I know, I know – there are lots of you out there who can’t imagine living without it.  I’m not one of them.  I’ve often wondered what I’d miss if I closed my facebook account.  I can’t say the list was too long.

I would not miss Farmville for sure.  I couldn’t care less about the crops on your fictional farm.  Probably because when I have an interest in farming, I go volunteer on an actual real-live one. I know plenty of you don’t care to do that, or don’t think you could.  To each her own.  But a fictional farm just doesn’t do it for me.  That’s why I’m feeding my farm fix by WWOOFing in Italy next spring.

For those of you that don’t know, I’m getting rid of most of what I own and living “on the road” for a year as of 7/7/11.  Part of my year will be spent in Italy working on organic farms in exchange for room and board.  That’s why I spent a week at Sisters Hill Farm this past summer – to see if I could hack farm work. Well, turns out I can.

Here’s the first dilemma: where in Italy do I want to farm?  The country has over 200 farms that take WWOOFers.  By joining WWOOF Italy, I get a list of these places with a short description of the farm, the work, and the accommodations.  But how much can you really know about a place just on a short description?  You don’t pick a surgeon by his bio on the internet.  Nor do you pick a farm this way.  In both cases, you want personal recommendations.  But how do I get those when most everyone in my life never heard of WWOOFing until I told them about it?

This is where facebook comes in.  Today I found a page for those of us that are planning to WWOOF in Italy! On this page, I can say when I’m going and what I’d like to do, and other WWOOFers can recommend farms I might like.  Here I thought I’d have to spend hours searching the internet for people’s WWOOFing experiences, but with facebook I now have access to over 500 people who can help me find just what I’m looking for.  Thank you, facebook.  I’ll be keeping my account.