la agrodolce vita (the bittersweet life)

professional traveler w.f.m. goodall visits Italy at long last & reflects on the families we are born into & the families we make

photo by w.f.m. goodall

excerpted from the print magazine…

My apartment is right outside the fort-like walls of the Vatican and provides a cropped but beautiful view of Michelangelo’s architectural masterpiece - the 119m dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Below the dome lies an immense 17th century piazza that was designed by Bernini as a place for the Christians of the world to gather. I walk here often, through the massive semicircular colonnades, amongst countless black robed priests and nuns to the center of the square where an alien obelisk stands, brought to Roma by Caligula from Heliopolis.

Roma is known for its light, and I’m overtaken daily with the sculptural beauty of the buildings. There is a deliberate composition to everything - perhaps divine. Among the thousands of artifacts collected and created here throughout history, none seem out of place, not even the millions of busy Italians going about their daily routine.

As exciting as it is to finally be here in Italy, the trip hasn’t magically erased the difficulty of last year and my separation from my wife. As I walk through the streets I cannot help but think of her.

I recognize that time may not necessarily heal all wounds. But sometimes I feel that I am being held back by the sadness of things in my past. In other ways, I realize that the sadness is what propels me forward. I have always welcomed new experiences in my life so why not embrace the divorce as such and try to grow from it?

Perhaps more than anything else Roma will teach me what it has appeared to teach the people that live here: the past should not keep us from living in the present.


Everyone has somewhere in their mind, a list of places they would like to visit. I have about sixty. Ironically, Italy has always been at the bottom of my list, not because it is unimportant to me, but because it is. Italy is the source of my family heritage and I always feared that visiting would reveal too much of my essential character.

I am a traveler. When people ask me what I do for a living, I generally have an answer for them, but rarely do I say “traveler” It has only occurred to me recently that this is really what I do - my true vocation in life. I have spent nearly half of my life traveling the world. I find my centre through traveling and normally seek out places that symbolize eternal energy, holy places.

When I started to travel, I had the notion that I would not return to a country I had already explored until I had been everywhere I wanted to go. This plan went out the window somewhere around Country 31 when I began to retrace some of the steps I had taken in the past. I convinced myself that I was actually running out of places to go and that I should probably slow down or I would have nothing left to see later in life. In hindsight, I think what I was really doing was avoiding one very important country: Italy.

Then I met my future ex-wife. We talked a lot about touring Italy. It didn’t happen. And so began the only travel drought I have experienced since hitchhiking to Mexico at the age of 14. Although she was already an accomplished traveler by the time we met, in the five years we were together we traveled a total of ten days!

This is a fact that still doesn’t make sense to either of us, but it speaks of the impact a relationship can have on individual goals.

Since then, I have learned that marriage is unlike any other relationship. But like all relationships it usually fails around the point you start asking more of your partner than they’re willing to give. Anyone out there who has ever been married is probably concealing a nervous laugh right about now.

In theory at least, marriage is a leap of faith, a conscious decision on the part of two adults to form a family. On just about every level this makes sense since it seems that love and family are almost synonymous and often seen as the two things that make life worth living. If this is true, it should be a surprising fact that loves and family are also cited by many people to be their greatest sources of pain. But somehow we are not surprised.


Immediately after separating from my wife last winter, I booked a flight from British Columbia to Toronto to see my family. I returned home to ground myself and collect my thoughts. Those first weeks of our separation I had my wife's image burned into my mind. It's a mystery how I could have lived a good chunk of my life without knowing that she even existed, then after meeting her, felt it as if we had always been together and always would be. I was suddenly faced with the reality that once again, I would have to learn to live without her. And the scariest thought of all was that I would eventually get used to it.

At my parents' house I immersed myself in La Dolce Vita - "the sweet life” Italians can’t help but embody. What this really means is day-long feasts staggering in variety and quality and almost deafening conversations punctuated with laughter. One evening, after dinner with my extended family, I thought about the journey my grandparents took when they left Sora, Italy in 1947 and emigrated to Canada with seven children. Boarding an ocean freighter in Genoa, they sailed for ten days leaving behind them a post war depression in Europe and all of their worldly belongings. Today our family tree has flourished to almost fifty.

As good as things were at home, it didn’t take long before I was called away. It was interesting that through five years of marriage, I hadn’t traveled at all and not long after the separation I suddenly needed to. I wondered if the impulse to travel was an attempt to run from the pain of the divorce. But when I meditated on it, I knew I wasn't running from pain because I knew the pain would follow me. I was running toward my future, toward myself. I decided that if I was going to resume my career as a traveler I should start with Italy. I signed up for an Italian class at the Italian Cultural Centre in Toronto. After completing the course, I was ready to book my flight.

W.F.M. Goodall is an award-winning tattoo artist, photo journalist and traveler. He can be contacted through his website:

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