How to Lead a Writer’s Retreat in Tuscany During a Pandemic

  1. Spend months in the summer of 2019 meeting with Graseilah, your tour guide partner, designing a dreamy ten-day writing retreat at a Villa in Tuscany, a place you’ve never been. Drool over pictures of the Villa you’ll be staying in: the gorgeous swimming pool, the beautifully set outdoor table, an albino peacock strolling through the grounds.
  2. Create a gorgeous website filled with stunning full-color images and enticing ad copy. Make sumptuous postcards to hand out at your in-person classes and retreats. Tell everyone where you’re going and why they should join you.
  3. Sell out the retreat. Seventeen writers are going with you to Tuscany!
  4. Watch your bank account swell with their deposits, first payments, second payments, final payments. Pay your venders, your virtual assistant, your webmaster, your graphic designer, and put a fat deposit down at the Villa.
  5. Spend February 2020 following breaking news of a new disease. Agonize over whether to cancel your retreat. Will Covid-19 fizzle out in time for you to take your June trip to Italy? That question wakes you up every morning at 3 AM.
  6. In March, write $113,000 in refund checks. Panic about money. Scramble to find a way to move your teaching business online.
  7. Hunker down like everyone else. Wash your vegetables and quarantine your mail before you learn how the virus really spreads.
  8. Adjust to pandemic life.
  9. Wait a year and a half.
  10. In the summer of 2021, before Delta surges, start meeting with Graseilah outdoors on a weekly basis, drafting Covid policies for a 2022 reprise of your trip to Tuscany. Have fun dreaming of Italy while your whole life remains buttoned down.
  11. Meet for months, reconfigure everything, and as Delta wanes, relaunch the trip with a June 2022 departure. Hope for a miracle.
  12. Figure that your chances of pulling this off are 10-20%. Do not buy airline tickets.
  13. As registrations slowly trickle into your inbox, allow a small sliver of hope that this trip might really happen.
  14. Avidly listen to two Covid podcasts a week trying to read tea leaves for the future. They are unreadable.
  15. In March of 2022, when you finally reach your break-even point for the retreat, call your travel agent. Go into her office, masked, and book your flights. Get the best travel insurance you can buy, including bedsit coverage, in case you need to quarantine in Italy.
  16. List your travel dates on to find a pet-loving housesitter to take care of your animals while you’re away.
  17. Late at night, research farm stays in Italy for a five-day post-retreat vacation with Karyn after your facilitation duties are through.
  18. Over Zoom, make plans with your friend from Brussels, who you’ve only met online, to travel together for a week after Karyn flies back to California on her own.
  19. Watch Covid numbers decline as your retreat slowly fills with people sick of the pandemic and eager to travel.
  20. Allow yourself to get excited.
  21. Start sending out “lead up to the trip” emails to your participants, building up anticipation for the trip ahead.
  22. Buy a new suitcase because the handle of your old one is broken. Pull out summer clothes from the back of your closet and try them on—sundresses you only wear when you travel to places a lot hotter than Santa Cruz. Get an international driver’s license and pull out your dusty passport.
  23. Think about studying Italian, but don’t do it. The trip doesn’t quite feel real enough and besides, you’re too busy.
  24. Watch the world fall apart and feel grief-stricken and powerless. Think how nice it would be to leave it all behind for a few weeks in Italy.
  25. Order Euros from the bank.
  26. Follow the photo stream of your godson’s trip to Italy with his wife. Notice what they’re wearing for clues about what to pack.
  27. Pray that the war in Ukraine or another Covid surge doesn’t derail your trip again.
  28. Watch your son, daughter-in-law, and vaccinated and boosted friends get Omicron. People are testing positive all around you. It’s feels like Covid is everywhere. You assume you will get it; you just don’t want to get it NOW.
  29. Fly back from Massachusetts where you’ve been teaching a retreat. Keep your N95 on through airport security and on the plane even though most fellow travelers are not. Glare at the woman sitting next to you eating and talking without her mask on for the whole six-hour flight.
  30. Pray that you stay healthy. Start to relax as uneventful days pass after your trip.
  31. Commit to packing less than you’ve ever packed before. Keep reducing the piles on the floor of your bedroom: three sundresses instead of four, two pairs of pants instead of three.
  32. Buy dry laundry strips so you can handwash clothes in your sink at the Villa. Practice at home. Be amazed at the profusion of suds in the sink.
  33. After days of procrastination, create your curriculum. Design handouts for your writing students. Prepare little gifts you will give them at their first writing class in Tuscany.
  34. Breathe as you watch worry and excitement vie for attention in your body.
  35. Ten days before your departure, cancel the family gathering you’d planned for Memorial Day, cancel the evening party you said you would attend.
  36. Obsessively revisit Covid protocols for the arrival of 18 travelers, all of whom will be passing through multiple airports before convening in Florence.
  37. Show up to see your grandson, visiting from southern California, wearing an N95 and keeping your distance. Don’t hug him. Don’t eat anything. Refuse offers of water. Feel anxious as you drink in just how beautiful he is—this young man who lived in your house as an infant twenty years ago. Leave before the party guests arrive. Feel relieved to walk away from the people you love best.
  38. Spend an afternoon visiting your friend Denny. Playing with the dogs outside. Eating outside. Playing Rummiqub outside with a mask on.
  39. Keep praying. Your mantra: “I just don’t want to get Covid NOW.” And “Just let me get on that airplane.”
  40. To be continued…

NOTE: I love travel blogging while I’m out of the country. I’ll be sending out irregular blog posts in the lead up to Tuscany and throughout my time in Europe, wifi permitting. If you’d like a little vicarious armchair travel and you’re subscribed to my mailing list, digests of my travel adventure posts will arrive in your inbox every few days. If you’d prefer reading the posts fresh as I write them, you can follow me on social media: Instagram @laurasaridavis and on Facebook @thewritersjourney

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