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I awoke on a floor mattress in a stylish 5th floor apartment with a view of the iconic Lake Geneva waterjet, my body not yet acclimated to local time. My daughter was completing the final day of an internship/semester abroad this afternoon, and now, a 12-day odyssey of celebration and family reconnection on my wife’s side was about to begin.

Despite total unfamiliarity with my surroundings, I felt serene.

Somewhere there was a schedule of upcoming activities and events, but this wasn’t my first family rodeo. Everyone in our strong-minded group would have their own ideas of what will bring them happiness on this trip. For the next 12 days, staying above it all would be the key to me finding mine.

From the moment we picked up the rental car, I relinquished control of it to my Italian wife.

Italy was, after all, her racetrack. My daughter naively volunteered to shotgun navigate. From the start of our autostrada ride out of Geneva, through the eastern edge of France and across Northern Italy, I wholeheartedly celebrated this arrangement. Luxuriating in the rear of the Volkswagen, I read The New York Times and admired the stunning waterfalls flowing off the surrounding Alps, aware of little else.

During her time abroad, my daughter forgot that navigating for mom requires the calm demeanor of an air traffic controller and the practiced patience of a therapist. There is no renderable level of directional, technical, or emotional support that exempts the navigator from being the reason we somehow missed a turn. The 160 km/hr driving pace and improving GPS arrival time would be the driver’s solo achievement. Anything that went wrong was also squarely on her.

Aside from the occasional psychotic episode, the drive was fun.

My Formula 1 driver wife was happy. She’d already gotten reacquainted with an old Italian friend: the car horn.

A mini family reunion awaited us in the rural town of Villa Verla. Within minutes of our arrival, my oldest brother-in-law had his beloved World War I artifacts out for my review. His wife, a retired school teacher, was significantly more relaxed since her daughter’s 2012 wedding; her severe intensity then, like an Italian Ruth Bader Ginsburg on cocaine. All four of their kids and two grandkids stopped by. As the youngest kept yelling for Alexa to play crazy dance music while everyone tried to talk, I eventually joined him; we both spazzed out in the living room. Laughing, he asked his mom, “Tutti gli zii si comportano cosi?” Do all uncles act like this?  

I awoke the next morning jubilant.

Wifi carried the news that my beloved Sixers somehow beat Boston in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinal. I gleefully took in James Harden’s 46-point highlight reel on my phone while lacing my running shoes. My Italian nephew’s wife, a goalie for a local semi-pro soccer team, showed me her collection of colorful competition jerseys, her name embroidered on each. Seeing how taken I was, she spontaneously gifted me the red one, and it fit!

We celebrated my daughter’s 21st birthday with a day-long chill-out in their childhood hometown of Vicenza. Years of high school Italian now on full display, my kid looked and sounded like an Italian model chatting it up with the locals. Shadowed in the sun by the town’s clock tower, our buzz began with prosecco and spritzes at Piazza Dei Signori. Someone’s cousin eventually appeared on a bicycle, letting us take self-guided, two-wheeled tours of the town.

Later, we ventured to a nearby basement wine bar to sample the bolder reds.

Down winding stairs and narrow, red-bricked corridors, a magical Narnia for winos appeared, where consciousness of time, space, and how much I was spending were all temporarily suspended. At some point, I recall my daughter whispering to me how she’s spent years suppressing her weird, unfiltered self just to please the world, and she thanked me for reminding her to never lose that person because I’d once told her that’s the real you. We eventually pass out in the back seat of the rental, mouths agape in full wine stupor, the moment memorialized on someone’s phone.

The next few days took on a familiar cadence: I go for an early run, then grab my laptop and a cappuccino or two at the local café (which alone qualifies as the highlight of a normal day). One by one, the crew appears, and it’s apparent the previous night’s plan has changed, then changed again. Groups then move out together or diverge, depending on the level of disagreement. But soon, Team Prosecco reforms somewhere, and everything falls happily into place. A large gathering for dinner at someone’s house rounds out the day. But at absolutely no point does the behind-the-scenes debate over what should happen next and who should do what, ever really stop.

My Zen shield protects me from the high tension between the capos.

We visited the highest peak in Vicenza, a vista called Montevideo, to get a panoramic view of the city. On the steps of the basilica, my daughter used her phone camera to recreate Rocky Balboa’s iconic run up the steps, casting and directing me as the Italian Stallion. The fully edited clip, with slow-motion enhancement and overdubbed with the classic theme music, proved unequivocally that we are related.

The next day we hung out with our niece’s kids in Bassano del Grappa, had lunch in their backyard courtyard, and kicked a soccer ball around. I invented a game I called “angle roof basketball,” where I flexed my athletic prowess wrestling unpredictable roof rebounds away from a six-year old. The only non-Italian speaker, I’d adapted by becoming an expert at what I called “international charades.” Using a combination of the words I know, careful listening, and using my entire body to act out what I mean, it became increasingly easy (and comical) to join conversations and be understood. In France and Switzerland, this did not endear me to the locals. In Italy, it was a big hit (author’s note: I let myself think this; my family disagrees).

My exhausted wife finally begged for a maintenance day, so everything fell perfectly into place for a daddy-daughter day in Venice.

We strode through the alleys and along the canals for miles, eventually finding an outdoor grotto shielded slightly from the sun, for lunch and a liter of red, where we talked about everything. We stopped on the canal bridges to watch the gondolas carrying tourists float by, both of us fighting the insane urge to yell out inappropriate things that might alter the entire trajectory of their vacations. I will always remember this afternoon fondly, but Venice was the one Italian city that made me sad. Despite its eternal beauty, it felt like a dying place. Rural Italian towns I’d spent time in seemed so alive to me; locals living and working and milling about, enjoying simple, unhurried lives. Venice was like a beautiful carcass being gobbled up by armies of tourist ants crawling across every square inch, snapping selfies.

Fully aware that I too was a tourist, I wondered how cool this place must have been before tourism.

Saturday, we prepped for a trip northward. By 6 A.M., WhatsApp texts flood our phones with detailed changes to the day’s plan. My wife’s thumbs flew across her phone in reply as another day of real-life Who’s The Boss? began. I returned to sleep, safe in the knowledge that Team Prosecco would save us; the team had not failed us yet. I was in a majestic place with people who sincerely wanted us here; you could see it in their faces. Everything appeared to me as visual painting. I was either eye-poppingly caffeinated or fruitily anesthetized at nearly every minute of every day. Whatever was to happen on this day would certainly bring joy, so why control it?  So what if we miss a turn (rotaries were everywhere), or a train (they ran often and on time), or a particular stop on the mental checklist?  Does joy come from having an experience, or from the exercise of supreme control over the experience?

Plastic glasses of cabernet, sliced meats and cheeses pass freely about our train car.

Even this typically mundane exercise is orchestrated so no one is ever left alone with their thoughts. I smile but acknowledge that the wine has definitely elevated my zen state. My Italian-American brother-in-law (my wife’s closest brother) begins a performance that makes this beautiful ride through this flat, green countryside just fly by. An off-the-charts charmer who spent most of his life overseas, his engaging personality ensures we end up meeting our trainmates. Performing definitely brings him happiness, and provided you never compete for the stage, he’s a joy to be around.

His midwestern wife of 33 years has evolved into his formidable equal: talented, well-traveled, socially gifted, her eyes relentlessly on the prize. They’re a Swiss Army knife of human capability, chasing that optimal curve, riding every big wave life has to offer. Just before starting another well-told story from a seemingly bottomless chest of tales that must be told, she teases me. Her favorite brother-in-law. The guy with “a lot to say.” Their lifelong childhood friend and traveling companion completes Team Prosecco. Along with the spectacular scenery, he and I take in all the stories, performances and boss banter with like serenity.

We’d both apparently studied from the same zen handbook.

Brightly colored homes and apartment buildings with rounded terra-cotta shingles dot the high hills of Trieste, overlooking a spectacular boat-filled bay. A taxi whisks us up winding hills, narrowly missing people and parked cars by millimeters, to my wife’s 80-year old Triestina cousin and her husband. Twenty-five years ago, they’d flown for the only time in their lives to America to visit us for nearly a month. I’d forgotten how small their apartment was, but the view of the bay from their balcony was unforgettable. Plates and glasses appeared, along with several wines, prosciutto, and a massive hunk of cheese encased in thin rope. Talk of their shared past and what happened to old friends and relatives lingered well into the afternoon. Somehow, I instinctively felt the things  she said. Later, I retreated to their balcony to soak in the stunning view and let them share their common past, free of the burden of translation.

Before we leave, she produces paperwork containing her recent blood work.

It confirmed that she and I now share something unique. Not a common language, but something called Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). Her decision not to seek treatment might leave her precious little time. Having just completed a clinical trial and started what I hope is a lengthy remission, I know a lot about the latest treatment options, but doubt she does. The attempt to discuss this ends abruptly. And after the wine was finished, the laughs died down and we prepared to head back, I took her in my arms and hugged her tightly. Her eyes said that she’d lived a good life. It was her choice. She was happy.

Returning that evening to our base in Villa Verla, and thanks to some fortuitous timing, I would get to watch Game 4 of the Sixers/Celtics playoff series. My beloved Sixers simply had to win. My nephew and his sports-loving soccer wife stayed up with me well past midnight, yelling and cheering every critical basket as the game went to overtime. Somehow, against all odds, they hung on for dear life and won the game. Exhausted from another great day in Italy that ended perfectly, I retired to bed, lighter than air.  The next day, I gifted my niece-in-law my Sixers shirt.

Most Italians I met weren’t chasing big dreams or money.

They lived with or near their parents in their original hometowns, buying an apartment and setting down deeper roots. They linger for hours over food and drink with adorable, spoiled children running amok. They walk a lot. Nobody obsesses over politics; they just assume all politicians are corrupt and that nothing really changes. There’s a general feeling of friendliness and hospitality everywhere (except behind the wheel, for some reason). Food isn’t available through a car window and coffee comes almost exclusively in little cups and saucers.

Everything is a little bit slower. People engage with each other. By the scale we in America typically use to keep score, these folks don’t have a lot. But I found them overwhelmingly happy. And as I return home and begin piecing together my thoughts from a memorable trip, I am left with this overarching thought:

We alone are responsible for our own happiness.

Happiness is a constant choice. And if you choose right, it’s accessible in every place, at any time, and in all circumstances. We each possess unique gifts and are burdened with fatal failings. Some of us draw lucky circumstances and others not as much. Our friends and loved ones can help enable my happiness, but they can’t make me happy. They also can’t make me unhappy. I have total control over both those things.

After nearly 60 years of finding happiness so elusive, I think I’ve finally found it. It was right in front of me all along.


Devin Householder

Devin is passionate about writing, reading and remaining in emotionally harmful relationships with losing sports teams. He suffers quietly (except on Sundays) with his loving wife and daughter in Rhode Island.

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