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On an Italian vacation we’ve looked forward to for years, a development that I never saw coming: kicking my coffee dependence
I didn’t plan it this way, but it seems that I needed to travel 5,000 miles to quit drinking coffee.
A little over halfway into a two-week trip to Italy with my wife Bridgett, I haven’t had a drop of caffè since my last espresso on Air Italia.
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At some point, I plan to detail some of our excursion’s amazing sights, sounds, and tastes, as well as observations about some of the cultural differences between the U.S. and Italy. But for now, the lead story from Florence is this unexpected lifestyle shift.
It all boils down to my desire to turn The Coffee Headache from Hell into something of lasting good for my health. Any coffee drinker knows all about coffee headaches — or will, if they go long enough between caffeinated cups.
To set the scene: after a pair of flights totaling nearly 11 hours, with a few cups of coffee and a few espressos while on board, I got off the Air Italia flight shortly after 6 a.m. local time last Friday.
Getting from Rome to Lucca in the Tuscany region was a rather grueling, stressful adventure. Tip: never assume your train platform number is accurate until you are onboard. Our long day included a sneak preview of a few sights we will see in the coming days, such as the Colosseum.
All that swallowed up another 10 hours before we checked into our hotel in Lucca.
We then stayed up another five hours to try to get on Italy time. By 9 p.m., I might have been “on Italy time,” but I was also a big hunk of physical mush. It didn’t occur to me to have any coffee throughout the day. Mentally, it felt like I had some in the morning, but physically, my body interpreted it as late the previous night, Chicago time.
Recapping, then: over the preceding 32 hours, I’d had maybe an hour of iffy dozing on the train. Four hours later, some 19 hours since my last ill-advised downing of yet another espresso, I awoke to the aforementioned CHFH.
Within a few minutes, I broke into a full body sweat and was on the verge of upchucking. A Google search confirmed what I suspected that I needed desperately, so I staggered to the front desk in search of Ibuprofen. They directed me to the 24-hour Farmacia a quarter mile away. Umbrella fending off the steady rain that was the perfect thematic backdrop to the caffeine-dependent mess I’d created, I trudged onward.
Once I got outside the pharmacy, somewhere around 2 a.m., I encountered what you’d expect in Italy: words in Italian.
This was the moment that my lax Duolingo training came back not only to haunt me, but to laugh at me with a wry Italian accent: “Look at you now, Mr. American Who Doesn’t Have Time to Learn Even Basic Italian.” The next day, during the shop’s regular hours, the pharmacist pointed to a phrase on the pharmacy door directing folks to ring a bell so someone inside could handle the transaction through a secure slot in the door.
In that confusing, bleary-eyed, temple-throbbing moment, however, all I could see for sale was a lineup of vending machine-displayed condoms.
Um, nope…not on my one-item shopping list.
I began to lurch back to the hotel, soundly defeated and disappointed, not only by my circumstances, but that my coffee habit made me the author of those circumstances. Then, through my haze, a realization: I was only steps away from a community water fountain we had encountered on our way from the train station to the hotel. I filled up my bottle. Though I fell short of my goal to acquire Ibuprofen, the cool air and this promise of sustained hydration was consolation.
Bridgett, who had likewise been deprived of sleep during the long journey, snoozed through my whole ordeal. She was shocked to learn of it as I caught her up on the details but joined me in being grateful that the awful headache was blessedly behind me. Going “cold turkey” from coffee is more than an overnight process, however; the general rule of thumb is that withdrawal symptoms, including lack of energy/tiredness, last up to nine days.
(This helps explain why I have been napping for 60 to 90 minutes each evening — it’s not just the typical tourist fatigue from extensive walking.)
My Weird Coffee History
I have had a rather unusual coffee consumption history: Although my work-study for three years in college consisted of making and selling coffee from a kiosk at the student union, I didn’t become a drinker back then. The stuff gave me the jitters, which aptly was the coffee stand's name.
Then, about 25 years later, I started drinking coffee. It began casually at my library board meetings, then spilled over to coffee shops. Before long, a Mr. Coffee was in the house, coffee mugs began accumulating in the cupboard, and I would drink two cups within an hour of waking.
I had descended into a full-blown coffee drinker, all the while knowing that these elevated caffeine levels really were not for the best.
On occasion over the past decade, I have experienced coffee headaches – those pulsating monsters that kick in when I have gone too long without it. But each time, I was in my day-to-day routine enough to simply slide back into the habit since drinking that next cup was an easy, short-term antidote.
Addiction was probably too strong a word for my relationship with java, but dependence certainly fit.
On our vacation, Bridgett and I have ridden bicycles on the walls that were Lucca’s original borders, traveled to Viareggio for a stroll along the beach and the best pizza of my life, and enjoyed five days of marveling at the natural beauty, architectural wonders and artistic treasures of Florence. A four-day stay in Rome beckons.
But here on Day 9 of a trip we’ve looked forward to for years, the biggest personal take-away is that it’s also Day 8 of my return to a healthier coffee-free existence that I never saw coming.
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