THERE ARE COUNTRIES with strong economies, and then there are the countries where even good food is cheap. Rum, red wine, ouzo. Hash, pot or qat. Music, trinkets, sun, sex, crumbling castles and ancient churches--whatever you need, it's out there in abundance.

According to Philip Slater in The Pursuit of Loneliness, an English psychologist once found that "neurotic anxiety was a good predictor of success and achievement, both for individuals and for nations."

Why has Italy, for example, soothed this neurotic anxiety while the US has cultivated it? Naples at sunrise is red with the sun cutting through pollution. It's lush and crumbling at the same time. I walked an ancient alley down to the water, small shrines to the Virgin tucked in corners, trash spilled into the street. Late that night a waiter brought my friend and I everything on the menu, knowing we barely spoke Italian. The whole place laughed at our surprise and joined us in the meal. Nobody asked for money.

In Rome, it was the same. Trains were slow and crowded, the lira out of control, everybody on strike, but the meals were a dream and the company even better. In a Calabrian fishing town my hosts and I rode motorbikes up a hill. We walked in the abandoned ruins of a castle. An old man and woman fed us raspberries soaked in brandy in tiny cut crystal bowls. We sat in the grass.

A fine US achievement now would be to turn down the level of neurotic anxiety--not with Zoloft, Prozac and Welbutrin, but with the decadence of blending what we call vacation into life.