My husband, Joe, and I are just months away from opening a cafe and coffee bar in downtown Baltimore. Occasionally, there are days that we wake up and feel doubt-filled dread, but most of the time we feel like we’re defying gravity. And while we can’t quite see over the horizon, I don’t think either of us has any regrets.
By far the most common question that we are asked by our family, friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances is: “Why?” Not that this same group isn’t supportive and happy for us – they very much are – but because they are genuinely curious about why we would embark on a Second Act that diverges so completely from Act One. Implicit in the “why” are other questions: Don’t you like your current jobs? Why are you spending so much time and effort on a new path when you have obviously worked so hard on your careers? I thought you both had dream jobs?
In order to answer this one large question and the many smaller ancillary questions I need to move the clock back to the summer of 2011. We were both in our late 40s. We both had full-time jobs we loved, Joe in healthcare and me in higher education. We had busy, full lives intertwined with family and friends. We traveled quite a bit, both for work and pleasure. And yet we kept circling back to this desire for something different – to know more about ourselves and one another.
We talked quite a bit about how we could shake up our lives without completely jumping off a cliff, and we made the very conscious choice to stop what we were doing, move to Rome, and live as Romans do for several months. Joe is third-generation Sicilian and I have always loved Italian culture, food, art and history, so it seemed like a natural place to go experiment, something we had often talked about doing.
Hitting the pause button in the middle of your career and asking your boss to take a four-month leave of absence is not the easiest thing to do. We thought asking a year out would be brilliant and would help. We had no idea what our employers’ reactions would be or if they would give us the time we desperately wanted.
Surprisingly, Joe’s employer was the most supportive, and said “yes” immediately. My boss was at first encouraging and then had a change of heart. It is hard to adequately convey my disappointment and even anger at hearing this news. The night after I was told “no,” over a few glasses of wine, Joe and I decided that the leap was more important than the fear of losing a job. I distinctly remember how freeing it was to reach that decision. I now know that was the beginning point of bringing down the curtain on Act One. After much negotiation, my employer relented and granted me the time off.
Before leaving on our mini sabbatical we spent a lot of time talking about what we thought we would gain from our experience living in the Eternal City. We had the usual expectations: become better global citizens; improve our language skills – Joe is fluent and I speak waiter Italian on a good day; gain an increased appreciation for art, history and culture; make new friends; learn to live with less … etc. I knew life in Rome would change me, but I kept wondering how those changes would manifest.
There was a moment in Italy when we were boating the Amalfi Coast with friends. We motored up alongside these cliffs that explode vertically upward out of the water and I could see some steps carved into the rock. I thought, “WTF?” They surely don’t expect me to climb up three stories and jump into the Mediterranean? Yeah, they did! And we weren’t leaving until everyone had, I don’t know, proven themselves. It took me 10 minutes to find the courage to leap off those rocks. I can’t tell you how many times I have dreamed of that moment since coming home. The sensation of falling, the whoosh of crashing into the water, the pressure on your ears as you sink deeper than you expect into the clear water, and the cheering of your friends when you finally surface, gulping for air and hoping you’re still alive.
When you hit the pause button, you give yourself the time and permission to find out what you are about, what you care about, what you enjoy, what is important, what you are passionate about. For me, it is people, food, travel, the environment.
We came home changed. We lived out of two suitcases for four months. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t need half the crap I thought I did. We lived in the moment – it’s amazing who you meet, what you learn and discover when you do. We jumped off cliffs when we thought we didn’t have the stuff. All of those experiences gave us courage to change direction while we already had lives in motion. I now trust myself more than I ever have.
Last fall, a year and a half after we returned from our extended Roman holiday, the changes in our lives were significant: We were married after 20 years of living together; I was no longer working at the college; and we were in the process of creating the Park Café & Coffee Bar. Additionally, I began spending more time writing about my experience in Italy on a blog, Dreaming in Italian, Chasing Vespas. Joe continued to work as a physician, but started devoting some of his time volunteering at Healthcare for the Homeless.
Do I have doubt about our leap of faith? YES, every day and sometimes more than I think I can stand at a given moment. Decisions are made by the hundreds instead of by the dozens, and you feel as if your entire reputation hangs on making the correct choice every time. Will people like the food/menu? Is our business plan based upon the best possible data and assumptions? Do we have the energy and confidence to pull this off?
I have heard people talk about the vicious spiral or circle downward. I now know the reverse is equally true. There is an amazing spiral upward as well if you step away from the normal routine. Every day I meet someone whom I don’t know, either online or in person, who offers a suggestion about a menu item, tells me about a friend who has the greatest personality and would make a great barista, states emphatically that the neighborhood has waited a long time for just such a place to open, etc. Beyond these wonderful interactions I am learning about food costs, city regulations, graphic design, food safety, zero kilometer philosophies, etc.
How would we ever know what success looks like if we never tried? We have embraced wholeheartedly one of my favorite quotations: “The worst regrets in life are the risks not taken.” – Anonymous
Photo: David Hart