Self-proclaimed reluctant traveler tells tale of a year in Italy

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 8, 2012

ROCHESTER — If someone told Nancy Yuktonis Solak 28 years ago that she would spend a year living with her husband in Italy, she would have thought they were insane.

At that time in her life, Solak was the victim of frequent panic attacks and wouldn’t dare set foot on an airplane. Her attacks got so bad that for the last five of those 28 years, she couldn’t drive or even leave her house in Grosse Pointe Farms.

But all that changed in the blink of an eye — or three weeks to be exact — after she began taking medication prescribed by her doctor to help combat her nervous tendencies, a condition that she believes she was born with.

“My mother said the doctor said I was so tense that, as a newborn, he could stand me up in a corner and I wouldn’t fall over, so I guess I have some kind of crazy gene,” she said with a giggle. “It was obviously biological, because once I started taking the medication, three weeks later I was fine. I started a Girl Scout troop, I drove across the country — it was like I was finally born. It’s just amazing. It was a miracle,” she said.

With a new outlook on life, Solak and her husband, Rich, decided to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Europe, followed by — in the many years after — vacations in China, Alaska, Hawaii, Africa and various other places around the world.

Of all their travels, the couple was especially drawn to the relaxed lifestyle they encountered during their time in Italy, so they made the bold decision to move to Umbria, Italy, in January 2005, for 11 months.

“Being an uptight, nervous person, I realized that Italians were really laid back … and I thought, ‘This is a country where I could learn something,’” Solak said.

Although they prepared for the trip for nearly a year, getting their visas, finding a place to live and learning the basics of the Italian language, their plans didn’t prepare them for what lay ahead.

Solak quickly discovered she would have to change her rigid ways and slowly was able to mimic the laid-back lifestyle of those around her. With the conveniences of the U.S. left behind, she and her husband had no choice but to adapt. They weren’t fluent in the language by any means, but they knew just enough Italian to help them get by. They relied largely on photos, especially when shopping for food at the markets.

“It was a challenge. I even mention in the book that I know what it feels like to not be able to read now and how you have to rely on pictures. In the grocery store we took so long. The eggs were not refrigerated, the supposedly low-fat milk was really thick, you’d buy fish and you’d have to clean it — it was a lot different,” she said.

But that wasn’t all. The couple was on “a shoestring budget,” so they relied heavily on their own two feet, as well as bikes, buses and trains, to help them get around. They adapted to cooking on an outdoor oven, hung their laundry outside to dry, and kept the temperature of their apartment to 59 degrees in the winter to cut costs and help spread their dollars as far as they could.

It was an adjustment for Solak, who said that in the end, the experience made her a much better person.

“I always wanted things done in a certain rigid way, and by living there I learned that food, friendship and family are the things that are most important, and that all the other stuff is not that important in the scheme of things,” she said.

During the extended vacation, Solak — an award-winning writer and editor — kept a journal that served as the inspiration for her first book “A Footpath in Umbria: Learning, Loving and Laughing in Italy.” The self-published book details the joys and challenges of the couple’s trip and features more than 50 photographs.

Solak will give a slide presentation and discuss the book from 7-8:30 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Rochester Hills Public Library, two blocks east of Main Street, off of University Drive, on Olde Towne Road.

Library Director Christine Lind Hage said the library’s travel programs are always popular. In fact, she said more than 75 people have already registered for the event.

“People can dream, especially in this weather, that they are in sunny Italy,” she said.

The presentation is free, but registration is required, and only open to those with a Rochester Hills Public Library card. To register, visit the events calendar at www.rhpl.org or call (248) 656-2900. Solak will be autographing and selling copies of her book for $12. “Footpath” is also available as a Kindle-friendly e-book and can be purchased at Amazon.com.

For more information about Nancy Solak or to order her book online, visit www.areluctanttraveler.com.