EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN: What happens when a celiac with no art skills goes on an art and yoga retreat to Italy.

(a post by EPM contributor and assistant coordinator, Sarah Roseberry)

I have always been a lover of travel. As a member of the EAT.PRAY.MOVE staff and the wife of an actor who often travels for work, I have gotten quite a few locations under my belt. I can find my way around most cities, and I love learning new cultures and exploring with no restrictions. 

So, this fall, Erin, founder of EPM, suggested I come to Italy. The last spot for the Venice retreat was open, and I hadn't been on a retreat yet this year, so she said it would work perfectly for me to jump in at the last minute. 

 

My first reaction: SHEER TERROR. Why, you ask?

After a period of prolonged illness last year, I discovered I have celiac disease and severe damage from being undiagnosed for my whole life. My life had to be put on hold while I took time to rest and let my body heal. My diet had to get very basic, with baked meats and stewed veggies, building back slowly from there. My energy has been lower, and I never know if I will have a day where I'm in pain or stuck in the house.  I'm still on a limited diet, with a lot of major restrictions, including gluten and dairy. It's been a long ride, and it continues to be a rollercoaster.

To say I was hesitant about traveling to Italy was an understatement. For one thing, I am always drawn to summer trips. I am a warm weather girl, and I always look for something with a pool or a beach, so it hadn't crossed my mind to take a retreat to Venice, especially not in fall. Also, it was a yoga AND ART retreat, and I am one of the least artistically inclined people I know. (Creative? Yes. Any tangible skill? No.) The food, however, was a huge concern. How would I navigate ITALY, land of flour and cheese? Erin assured me that if I could give her a list of what I can and can't eat, we could figure it out. So I did what I do a lot in my life: feel the fear and say yes anyway. 

The retreat I experienced was unlike any I have been on before. To say I came back with a new perspective was an understatement. I always come back from EPM retreats with new knowledge about myself, but this one topped all the others. 

THE FOOD

(Note: All of the provided meals on the retreat are vegetarian, and some seafood options are offered on the Venice course. The meat dishes mentioned are from optional meals guests can choose on their own).

This was my biggest fear before the trip. I even packed a weeks worth of snacks just in case I was left starving. I came armed with Larabars, packs of nut butters, chocolate, rice cakes and jerky! I am happy to say...they were almost all left at the end of the week! I won't say I didn't have to put any thought into it, but it was actually fairy easy. This is mainly because Erin and Julian put a ton of thought into it for me. They planned the restaurants carefully and translated with the waiters and chefs most of the week, checking and double checking the ingredients for me. 

I definitely ate different from the others, but I got very lucky that my fellow retreat mates were SUPER kind and understanding. I told them on the first day what I was dealing with, and they never made me feel like an outsider because of my dietary restrictions. So what did I eat? 

Breakfast: This is always the hardest meal. I usually have to bring or make my own breakfast most places. Though they did have some gluten free cereals, I opted for fresh fruit (sometimes with nutella!) and then I would have a larabar or rice cake with almond butter mid morning. I was always offered tea, and even had a kettle in my room!

Lunch: Antipasto dishes can almost always be found with ease, so most days my lunch was prosciutto or crudo with grilled veggies or olives. I got lucky that the vegetable risotto at Harry's Bar at Cipriani's can be requested without dairy, so that was a surprising feast.

Dinner: This was always the meal I looked forward to. I had several gluten free pasta dishes over the course of the week with amazing pomodoro sauce. Venice is known for its seafood, so I enjoyed some incredible prawns and fish. always accompanied with salads or cooked veggies. My biggest surprise was the final night of the retreat: we went out for pizza! Initial fear was soon quelled, as the chef told Julian he would take extra precautions with my pizza. I ordered a simple marinara with rosemary and olive oil, and it was probably the best thing I have eaten this year. 

Dessert: I am happy to report that I had some incredible gelato experiences. I had a raspberry sorbet that had HUGE chunks of dark chocolate ganache (unreal) and chocolate sorbet that you would never have known was dairy free. I also had several options at GROM, including their lemon sorbet, perfect for the Italian palate. 

I was expecting a lot of hardship, but at the end of the week, I realized I had still had the full Italian foodie experience, despite my illness. I even had an Aperol spritz to make it all official. 

I now know that IT IS POSSIBLE for me to travel internationally and still enjoy myself, and that is priceless. 

THE ART

Like most adults, I don't like to do things at which I do not excel. Art is one of those things. In the last few years, as I have traveled more, Don't get me wrong, I enjoy seeing it. I purposely seek out visual art experiences, seeing galleries and museums and installations that would increase my vocabulary. But if you asked me if I wanted to DO any art, I would answer a solid NO. It's just something I don't do.

Going into this retreat, I didn't know what to expect from the art portion, but I quickly learned that it was going to be woven through the whole week's themes. From day one, it was used as a tool to focus our time there. As we went on a walking tour through the city, we were encouraged to photograph A LOT. Cityscapes, details, shapes, textures, colors--it was an exercise in staying present in the world. It was incredibly freeing and almost indulgent, as I am accustomed to people being irritated at my stopping to take tons of photos! 

We did continuous line drawing, watercolor painting, collages, even a class in Venetian mask making! I found it intimidating to jump feet first into a practice at which I have NO SKILL. Having a blank page in front of you, knowing you are the only one who will create something, is daunting. But Julian always helped us to stay focused, highlighted what we got right, and pushed us to go further. We also had the benefit of sharing with each other and seeing each other's books and creations for inspiration. We also learned a lot about photo editing, and I have now fallen down the rabbit hole of editing digital photography. It's pretty much all I've done since being home!

It all helped me remember something: I loved art a long time ago. As a child I would draw and paint and make collages. But as I grew older, I just stopped. As with most artistic things, at a certain point, if it's not integral to your daily life as an adult, it falls away. But this retreat really helped awaken that inner creativity. Being great at is isn't the point; being mindful and meditative and imaginative is the point. It's what I love about yoga--it challenges us to step out of our comfort zone and push to do something that makes us uncomfortable, even fall on our faces sometimes. It's not about the final product; it's about the process and what it teaches you.

At the end of the week, not only did we come away with tangible items (a travel journal and a Venetian mask), but we all found skills we didn't really know were there. And we never would have known that without putting ourselves out there to try something new, something potentially scary.

THE CITY

I always thought I would go to Venice...someday.  As I said, if I'm going to invest money into a vacation, it's usually going to be somewhere warm and sunny, usually with a beach. Even my past yoga retreats in Italy and France involved beaches, so this was just not something to which I naturally gravitated.  But I am so glad I took this trip, at this time. 

I am glad that I went to Venice while I was young enough to really enjoy it. It's a walking city, so you would miss a lot if you didn't have the time or the stamina to explore it fully, and the only way to do that is on foot.  It's a place where all the rules are turned upside down. An alley is a street, a boat is a taxi, and a bridge is a crosswalk. Not only do you get a slice of Italian life, but you feel like you are getting thrown back in time. It's impossible to be there without being aware that the city has been there for hundreds of years. From the uneven stones underfoot to the crumbling sienna plaster walls, it's a walking history lesson and an education in another way of life. It is also undeniably photogenic. You can point your camera any direction at any given moment and find something beautiful through your lens. Best of all, because of the timing, I really wasn't fighting anyone for space or time. It didn't feel like a touristy experience whatsoever. When I think back on my time there, I don't remember lines or crowds of selfie sticks, and that was incredibly refreshing.

It was also a refreshing change to stay in a major city. While it is always a nice change of pace to stay in the countryside at a villa, it was pretty luxurious to stay in a full service hotel with all the modern amenities you could want. The staff was so kind and thoughtful--you could ask them for an espresso any time of day, and it would magically appear! To know I could come back at the end of the day to a hot bath and hi speed internet? Not too shabby. 

I came home from this trip feeling different than I have on any other retreat. In the past, if I had to describe my retreat experiences, I would say I felt restored. This time, I would describe my experience as being stimulated, inspired, awakened, and invigorated. 

A new city can light a fire under you in a way nothing else can. I feel energized to take on the holiday season with a spark that wasn't there before. 

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