A Two Month Sabbatical in Italy

Story by Sarah Carpenter, Images by Anna Peters
"If I had chickened out and not done it, I wouldn't have known what I was missing out on."

I’m sitting across the table which is really across the city from Anna Peters for our Zoom chat. It’s the first interview I’ve done for Et Toile, and the circumstances of having to talk over video instead of in person make me slightly uneasy. Although I know this will be normal for any contributor not living nearby, I still can't shake the feeling that we should be snacking on fries and cake and talking in person. Anna is casually dressed in a cream linen top, hair up, minimal makeup, not that she ever needs it. She is at ease. I can tell because we’ve been friends for almost 5 years now. In fact, Anna was one of the first people I met when I moved to Seattle. She was kind and generous at a time when I didn’t know how and when I’d make any friends in a city I’d never even visited before moving. When I decided to start Et Toile, I knew she was someone I’d want to feature. Her work is soulful and insightful in a way you only hear about. Anna is a wedding and lifestyle photographer based out of Seattle, Washington.

A few years ago, Anna decided to take a 2-month sabbatical in Italy. This is what our chat was about. She sees the world with her eyes fully open, and you can see that in her photographs of the people and places she captures. We’ve talked about her time in Italy before, but never in a setting where I was really able to hang onto her every word.

“It’s something you just have to plan.”

Anna tells me she made the commitment to take a trip to Italy since it was a place she’d been drawn to for years, but it was also something that she decided to do on a whim. She tells me, laughing slightly, “It’s something you just have to plan.” The trip came at the perfect time for Anna. She knew she had to take this trip during the winter as summers are busy with weddings, and it just happened to come at a time when things in her life were changing. She had quit her day job, wanting to put everything she had into her photography business, been through a break up and lost her mother to cancer the year before. Anna tells me that she had always felt like Italy was glamorous, beautiful, simple and historical, so she knew it was a place she’d want to be.

She began her trip by meeting up with her dad, who had never been away from North America in his life, in Switzerland and spent a week with him before another friend met her for a separate week. After that, she traveled alone for the remaining 6 weeks. She says it was wonderful to travel on her own and that this trip made her value that. “I never thought I’d spend so much of my 20s traveling alone” she says and tells me she feels like it’s a way to “tap into your own desires”, that you can do what you want without having to answer to anyone else.

“I don’t think there’s really been any other time in my life that for 8 weeks I did what I wanted… I just think that traveling alone is singularly one of the best ways that I’ve found to get out of my own head and really enjoy myself”. Anna also says she doesn’t feel like everyone would love traveling alone and that she feels “hungry” for a partner and a family to one day travel with, but being single right now, traveling pulls her out of the loop of her everyday life and the loneliness she feels there. She tells me that it’s a way to feel present and get naturally shaken out of her own thoughts. She explains that having to focus on keeping oneself safe and planning the next location you’ll be in keeps the negative thoughts away.

She directs me to a quote she had posted from philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and the idea of traveling solo for some moment in my life is immediately a goal I want to write on my list. Maybe. At least, I realize how much I admire those who have the courage to travel on their own.

“Where nobody knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than you are at any other time.”
-Hannah Arendt

I ask Anna what her favorite place was and she tells me it’s a bit of a long story. She hadn’t really planned her trip out and ended up zigzagging across the country a bit. On her way to the Amalfi Coast, she decided to make a stop in Naples and upon arrival realized it wasn’t really where she wanted to be. She describes feeling uncomfortable and tells me it was more of a gut feeling than anything actually happening, that she’s sure she would have loved it if she had stayed. She also says there was something in her gut that told her to go north. A recommendation from a good friend made her get right back on the train, cancel her Naples Airbnb and head to Lake Como. That’s where she felt completely inspired. She loves to be near the water, loves living by the coast, loves rivers and lakes. Water is the element that most inspires her and she tells me, “the fact that Lake Como is mountains that spill right down into the lake, I just found that to be incredibly peaceful”. She also says that being there in the off-season made the area feel quiet. It’s a place that, from October to March, shuts down quite a few attractions that would normally draw tourists. Because of this, she felt like she didn’t have to do anything or see anything specific. “So much of travel is how much can we do… how much can we see… Lake Como just really allowed me to be there”, she says. She describes it as beauty, simplicity, old unlike anything in the United States.

“So much of travel is how much can we do… how much can we see… Lake Como just really allowed me to be there”

She ended up staying in Bellagio for 2 ½ weeks and used the ferry to visit other towns like Varenna and Leno during that time. When I ask her about her routine (if she even had one) and to tell me what her favorite things were to eat, she says she took advantage of the good Italian espresso and found any coffee shop she could sit down in and journal, explaining that many coffee shops in Italy are places with very little seating where customers have an espresso quickly and leave. “I didn’t want to sit at a coffee shop and be on my phone”, she says. For Anna, people watching became part of her everyday routine. She enjoyed spending time drinking a cappuccino at a table and journaling through thoughts and emotions she was feeling about whatever was going through her head at the time, using this time to process the grief from the previous year.

As for food, Anna tells me that she got to a point where she was tired of the richness of food being served at restaurants and desired to eat only simple foods. She found a little Salumeria called Macelleria Salumeria Butti Enrici in Lake Como owned by a woman named Annamarie. If you don’t know what this is, it’s a place that sells assorted cheese, meats, and bread. I would consider it the Italian equivalent of a boulangerie in France. Anna would go there and ask for the owner’s recommended cheese, salami and bread. She loved the simplicity of this meal. “That’s what Italy does better than potentially anywhere else is simplicity. You have good ingredients; you don’t need fancy food.” She says telling me that this was her favorite meal.

“That’s what Italy does better than potentially anywhere else is simplicity. You have good ingredients; you don’t need fancy food.”

When I ask her, what is the one thing this trip taught her, I find out there are quite a few more than just one. She says that she really loves traveling alone, that she learned to trust and follow her instincts more. She says that she learned to be more present. She learned that the Italian people are warm, love to laugh, that they aren’t doing things just to impress anyone else, they share olive oil between neighbors, they seem to find a sense of contentment that is hard to find in the US. She learned to enjoy the simple luxury of a fresh radish and has come to think of things in terms of “more-better” rather than “more-more”. You can read her thoughts on this on her blog. As a photographer, she was drawn to the way light dances on the water and took as many pictures of that as she could. She also explains that this trip made her try harder to shoot what’s in front of her rather than trying to force “what I envision things to be on a moment.” This trip, she says, also opened her eyes to the kind of images that would sell really well as prints, the kinds of images to take of a place that would provide ease and peace to the customer.

I ask her if she misses it, and she tells me that by the end of her trip, she was ready to come back but that Italy is a special place and she does miss how quiet it was during her off-season trip. She’ll be heading back to Italy next summer to shoot a wedding and cannot wait to get there, especially with all the challenges of 2020. She does lament the fact that she won’t be able to go during the winter, so if you’re thinking you’ll only love this place in the summer, you might want to rethink that.

In the final moments of our conversation, I ask Anna if she’d ever take a trip like this again and she tells me she absolutely would. “At some point, you have to plan it. It’s never going to seem reasonable to do something like that,” Anna tells me. It doesn’t have to be Italy. As much as she’s in love with the trip she took to Italy and was inspired by it, she admits that there is so much beauty in the United States and that it is so much more financially accessible to do a long trip inside the country.

“If I had chickened out and not done it, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing out on.”

The moral of this story? These are experiences and opportunities that feel crazy for us to take, but they are experiences we should commit to and make happen in our lifetime. The world is so full of beauty, and taking the time to be separate from our daily lives is important for everyone’s mental health and growth as a human. As for my takeaway, I believe that this need to step away from reality resides in all of us, even if it’s a 30-minute bath while the baby sleeps in the other room.

Anna Peters is an award-winning wedding and lifestyle photographer based in Seattle, Washington. See more of her work here.