In our case, we didn't know it was a dream yet. We just kept dreaming it. Year after year we returned to Italy. For the air. the light, the people, the food, the history, the culture. For the Toscana Photo Workshop where Sally teaches. For the Roman wedding of friends.
Besides certain brain wave patterns and terror, sleep researchers have found only one other thing that differentiates dreams from nightmares: Dreams turn into nightmares when the dreamer becomes helpless to change her situation.
Here's a real example: Sally and I are at the check-in desk in the international terminal at JFK. We are on our way to to Rome, to participate in the wedding of two of our dearest friends, Eric Fischl and April Gornik. We place our passports on the counter and the agent picks them up.
"I'm sorry sir, but your passport's expired. I can't issue you a ticket."
"Can't we get a new passport here?" Sally pleads.
"No. You'll have to go through the appropriate agency."
Sally's tears don't work either. So we both turn around and cab back into the city.
That was a waking nightmare. But luckily, I was able to get an "expedited" passport, and after a full day's hustle we were on our way to Rome.
The wedding was beautiful, intimate, Italian. On motorini (Vespas, pre helmet law), the wedding posse buzzed suavely through the city in skirts and suits, treating traffic lights as suggestions like the Romans do, and stopping for photo ops at ancient sites. The bride threw her bouquet into the muddy Tiber from a bridge. The meal in the Hassler, atop the Spanish Steps, was grand. The whole thing was one of the best dreams I've ever eaten.
Someday, sleep researchers may reveal how to turn nightmares back into dreams. Until then, here's a warning: If you are afraid of nightmares, don't come to Italy. You will be forced to dream here ... frequently.