A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

Sun and Hailstorm in Como

June 30

The rain is pouring down in torrents...the likes of which I have only seen one time before, in Fiji, in a monsoon. We are in the Lake Como area of northern Italy and just arrived by ferry to the little town of Tremezzo. We have to be picked up and driven to our apartment in town because it would be much too far to walk in these conditions. A baby provides a brilliant excuse, for Italians will not refuse you anything when a baby is involved. So we are driving with absolute sheets of rain, and hail is echoing down on the windshield of the car. The hail sounds like continuous tapping. It is ricocheting off the windshield like quarters spewing out of a slot machine. Tap, tap, chick chick, chat chat clack. It is as if someone is taking aim at the car and chipping golf balls on the roof. The baby is soaked. And we are all simultaneously drenched and still smoldering from the hot sticky weather from an hour ago. There is steam rising off of my skin like a boiled chicken. I want to sit in the rain but the baby needs a nap. And we need to get our things to our villa and unpack and prepare dinner. After this trip, rote things like making dinner or reservations for a weekend away will seem like the easiest possible tasks. The small things here can be a challenge always. Where to find food, is it open, what supplies will the house have when we get there, what time is the boat or train, how do I get there from here...

I cannot remember the last time a place spoke to me when I walked in the door. Most of them here immediately offend, then slowly grow on me like a slow creeping vine. There are always problems. A light switch doesn't work. The air conditioning is broken, or the internet isn't connected. There is no coffeemaker, the window won't open, the stove won't light, the TV won't turn on. I am beginning to think they make a game of this, wondering who will actually notice that something is broken. For instance I walk in and one of teh doors of glass has a big crack, so I ask the guy, do you know this is here? oh yes, he says. OK. He is not concerned. I open the cabinets in the kitchen to start cooking for Bodhi and I notice there is not a single pan or pot or food preparing item. (I call and they bring them). I can more or less remember the places we have stayed by the mishaps...Oh, that was the place we never got the internet to work..that was the place we switched rooms twice because the TV wouldn't turn on.  I know they are thinking, those picky Americans! And I am thinking, oi! A little attention to detail would go a long way here. The detail-oriented editing part of my brain wants to come here and evaluate the whole system, making notes of improvement along the way. Another part of me goes, eh, give it another few months and you won't even notice, you will become immune. Either that, or it will kill you. Like a relationship. Either those quirks become your lifelong friends, for better or worse, or they drive you to madness.  Best to find out early. So two months in Italy now, and I think I need a little time off. We are going to head to a greener, cooler Northern town in the Alps of Switzerland or France. It remains to be decided, and we are trying to make a plan for our next few weeks so we don't have to spend all of this time in indecision. I know when I leave, I will either miss this place like crazy or not look back. Or both. 

One thing I still cannot figure out is the single versus double room rate in Europe. It is the same room. But if one, two or three persons use it, it is a different cost. Perhaps it is more fair, if you split it per person ,and if you consider those persons traveling alone and perhaps requiring less. But to me, it is still the exact same room, for different costs. So, laundering an extra towel costs ten euro more? I am still baffled. But it definitely can work in your favor. For instance: The place we are currently staying is a five bedroom villa. If you used all the rooms, it would cost nearly triple what it costs the two of us adults to stay here...and use one room. But it is a ton of space for just the three of us and completely affordable because they charge per person, so it works out to be less than staying in a double room at the corresponding hotel. This I do not comprehend, but I am definitely happy and reaping the benefits. Sweet. We have views out every window of the gorgeous lake, and the green wooded mountains beyond. It feels like we are in Switzerland or the Alps, but it is warmer. The landscape is magnificent. The sun is out and the day is cooler, and now that I have had a little time to cool off and dry out, this is a wonderful place.

Posted by globalmomma 15:57 Archived in Italy Tagged lake storm como dysfunctional Comments (0)

Reflections on time & family

When I now go to touristy spots in Italy, it makes me feel like a caged animal or a fly searching for an open window. I can't breathe, can't see light. I feel trapped. I feel an extreme irritation when someone approaches me and directly speaks English. I want to be challenged. I want to be met where I am... Not as a newbie guest visiting Italy for the first time, but as a friend returning.
I know the difference between rosso di Montalcino and rosso di Montepulciano... I know Chianti Classico and Primitivo and Vermentino. I have been to each of the regions. I know the grapes and the landscapes. So when I go on a wine tour designed for Americans, I frankly occasionally find it insults my intelligence. Enjoyable nonetheless to spend an entire afternoon touring Tuscany tasting locally produced wines, but I have a thought to provide tourist experiences for a more experienced traveller... and I realize that when you travel, things are still often black and white. Tourist or local. No matter how many shades of grey you may try to create. "Where are you from?", I hear on many occasions, including today. There is always a hesitation before either of us speaks an answer. There is no clear answer. Usually we say: "most recently, Seattle". Sometimes we say Tahoe for ease, or Rhode Island, when we are with our respective families. Or sometimes we use the areas of our births. It is difficult to explain our current predicament. People do not understand traveling for three months. They are confused. Vacation? No, not really, we answer, more of a lifestyle choice. Blank stare. We currently have no house, only stuff packed in storage. We need to move again when we return home, and we are not sure what home that will be. We look for a simple answer, but there is no easy response. There is not a word for this thing we are doing, this extended travel. This long vacation/life/migration. I have heard it referred to as 'modern nomads', travelers, vagabonds, but these all have an intonation of recklessness and insecurity. They imply we are searching for something that has not yet been found, moving around until we find that missing element. They don't convey the joy and light steps of a nomadic life that is on the go when it wants to be, moving from place to place at whim. There is nothing missing, there is only an inherent love of travel that one either contains or doesn't contain.  On our last trip, we called it the travel bug or travel fever, because it felt contagious, and once you caught it, there was no returning. Like malaria it keeps recurring, the fever, the sweats, the deep desire to be on the road again. Finally you need to seek treatment for the condition, and get moving. Sell your house, pack your bags, and the fidgeting stops.

Maybe my son will develop this travel bug too, we will have to wait and see what happens. Maybe he will become a homebody whose dream is a permanent residence for the rest of his life (HA!)... You never know what it is that will make each individual happy, you only have to search inside and find what you truly want, and to make that visible to the world. And as a parent, to try to nurture and basically get out of the way, to allow the child's true self to blossom and come through. I watch how quickly my son is growing and it is a continuous reminder of the impermanence of life.  It all goes by so quickly... I am amazed I am now double the age of when I graduated from high school, and yet it does not seem all that far away.  I tell people my son is fourteen months old and think, "where has the time gone?" When I hold him as he falls asleep, I still flashback to those first few nights looking into his brand new face, watching the little angel sleep in my arms. Days I will never forget, and yet, the memories keep building. Piling on top of the older ones like building old stone walls of a fortress. It is a foundation of solid moments that continues to grow until you look back at it and see the castle of memories and instants that you have created. I want that castle to be full, and solid, and strong. I want it to be massive and have areas of lightness and of density. Most of all, I want my family there, living inside, laughing and sharing meals. This is the important point of it all: the ultimate WHY for our trip to Italy together, the last few weeks of extended family visits, the reason my husband and I both have the singular goal of spending as much time with our son as possible while he still lets us, and maybe also a major reason we are all here on this Earth. To build our castles of life experience. Meditating on this very idea brought me to this thought: when I turn and look at the castle I have built, I want it to be the most beautiful one I see. The one just for me. You only get one, so live it like you want. Spend money to have experiences that last a lifetime. Build a beautiful romance. Work hard at the job you love. Start now. 

Posted by globalmomma 12:46 Archived in Italy Tagged children travel meditation family bug nomads journey Comments (0)

Pompeii

Pompeii is an impressive sight. if you can get past the entry way. As you walk toward the ruins of the "Lost City', there are throngs of salesmen in tiny booths selling useless touristy items and guidebooks. "Signori", "Sir", "Madam", as they try to guess your nationality and draw your attention into their marketplace. Best to keep your eyes down and walk quickly as if you know where you are headed. I am having flashbacks to time spent in India with similar situations of sales people at every sight, grabbing hold of your arm, 'please', 'take a look'. Eyes averted, NO, thank you, No. You have to be firm, you have to be short and direct. I am not interested in this, it makes me squeamish and uncomfortable. It is a large barrier to seeing these types of mega sights, but this is one we have to see.

Pompeii was once a thriving metropolis that had changed hands in many wars before becoming part of the Roman Empire. It was finally destroyed and partially buried in 79 AD by a giant eruption from the volcano Mount Vesuvius that also destroyed the nearby city of Herculaneum. Mount Vesuvius still looms menacingly over Pompeii and the whole Naples area. In Pompeii, you can see remnants of ancient Roman life, from the villas that the wealthy people inhabited, to the Roman Bathhouses, to the Coliseum or amphitheaters and temples. It is really quite amazing, the sophistication of the buildings and the grandeur they once had. The size of the ruins, comprising an entire town, is also impressive. Definitely worth a visit, but like the guidebooks say, it is wickedly hot in midday and there is no shelter from the heat. Go in the morning or late afternoon, take your time, and savor the experience of palpable history.

Posted by globalmomma 07:58 Archived in Italy Tagged history ruins city day roman trip ancient lost naples pompeii Comments (0)

Buon Giorno and Aspetta

(Good Morning and Wait!)

June 15
Chris and I are debating which is appropriate, 'buon giorno' or 'buona sera'. When does the evening begin and the day end? One means good day (buon giorno), buona sera means good evening. I know that you do not use 'buona notte' until you are literally bidding your adieu for the evening, as in going to bed. Good night, period, final. But after lunch, is it still buon giorno or sera? Chris defaults to buona sera after noon. He thinks all afternoon counts as the evening. I tend to say buon giorno until the sun goes down or I am going out to dinner, then it is officially evening (sera). We both go about our days saying our respective greetings, and both get enough confirmations to keep going, and enough of the other response to be curious...which is it? When does the official conversion of giorno to sera occur? For instance, we went into a market for food yesterday around 1... the woman said buon goiorno. Then we went straight to a cafe/bar for a macchiato and got 'buona sera'. So I guess the official answer is that they are basically interchangeable in the middle of the afternoon. No one looks at you funny for saying either one and both are appreciated. The worst is to not say any greeting at all. In Italy, you say hello when you enter a store. You say goodbye when you leave. It's polite and they like conversational politeness. Our Italian slang has improved little by little too. Instead of saying 'arrivederci' like we did when we arrived six weeks ago, we now say "rivederch".

Long road trips with a toddler can be exhausting. For him, definitely. For us, occasionally... if we don't time them perfectly, they can wear you down. Especially when that trip takes a little more time than you anticipate. Yesterday we made the journey from the Amalfi coast up through the bay of Naples to Pompeii, the 'lost city'. After visiting Pompeii, we drove another several hours up to Rome. After arriving in Rome, we drove around in the rain in circles as our gps lost satellite reception... recalculating...recalculating...is it bad when I start thinking murderous thoughts toward this voice that has no embodiment?!) Our son is in a full whine (get me OUT of this carseat!!!). I am literally throwing toys over my shoulder, and finally pull out the Ipad that i know will provide five minutes of peace. But then he begins to bang it against the car seat. Oi. I really hope it doesn't break. Even more, I hope that I do not break. Snapping at a thirteen month old who is just hungry and tired from being in his car seat for five plus hours is not becoming. but I must admit I started to bark: PATIENCE! Shh. Aspetta. (WAIT) Wait. Just be quiet a few more minutes, I can't hear myself think. I am trying to direct the car...to get us there as easily and quickly as possible, to keep a baby occupied, to keep it all together. But those little moments happen on the road. And we have been on the road a lot... So we coordinate and prepare as best as we can, and hope for the best. Another big trip tomorrow, Rome is just an overnight stopover as we head North again up to Lucca (in Tuscany) tomorrow.

I want to smack the former me for ever thinking this parenthood thing was easy, or even something you can evaluate. I have pooled a good number of people now, and it turns out we are all just winging it.

Posted by globalmomma 15:33 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Expecting the worst

We have arrived again on the Amalfi coast...this time south toward Sorrento in the area of Massa Lubrense. I am trying to figure out how it became known as the Amalfi coast instead of the Sorrento coast, because Sorrento is basically a city by Italian standards, while Amalfi is only several streets long. Maybe it has a better ring to it. We only drove through Sorrento but I was surprised at how large and un-quaint it was, compared with Amalfi and Positano. Too much road noise. In Italy, pedestrian zones are like gold. Now when I hear a town (like Lucca, Siena, Positano) has a pedestrian zone where cars are limited, I automatically get interested. Hmm, that sounds nice. Relaxing, quiet, none of the buzz of mopeds and the franticness of wondering if the next Fiat might run over your toes.

Being in Italy is a continual lesson in patience, unpredictability, and surprise. It keeps you sharp, because you have to be. It is really no place to be groggy or sleep-deprived. My husband, who has to navigate the narrow corridor streets and avoid hitting any manner of pedestrian, bus, mopeds angling past, the occasional goat crossing... he needs his sleep to have quick reflexes to drive appropriately in this country. There is no such thing as cruise control.

Things we often take for granted, like predicatability and standardization, are totally foreign here. I read a passage in a book by Italian author Beppe Severgnini,about the psychology of Italian hotels.
"Unlike other people, we are not looking for predictability and uniformity in a hotel. We want to be treated as unique individuals, in a unique place in unique circumstances. The model Agip chain was Italy's boldest attempt at standardization. It was an interesting cultural experiment with a hint of nationalistic self-sufficiency, but today hotels have taken another direction.....boarding houses are even more Italian if that were possible." When things do not work, they see it as a challenge. It is part of the experience when a toilet does not flush, the lights do not turn on, the TV doesn't work. To me, I think, Why on Earth didn't they check the room before we checked in to make sure everything was in working order? But here, it is not expected that everything be just so, in fact, it is basically expected that things will not be standardized and functional, that changes will have to be made.

Remember my post about the Ischia hotel, about the air conditioning not working? Well, here, at our new villa, it is the Internet connection. I tell the owner my husband must have internet to do his job. I ask if he can have it fixed by this evening, because my husband has to be online by 4PM. He smiles at me, shrugs, and says, "yes, I hope it is possible". I am used to "it will get done"; but here, everything is somewhat left up to the forces of nature, and the whims of the only person in town who has the authority to fix something. If he gets back from his lunch break by four, then yes, perhaps it will be possible. I try to remain calm, but inside I have been infuriated again and again by this process. Checking into a new place that says WIFI, Sky TV, air conditioning, etc, and having it not be so. Waiting one or two days until the right person can fix it, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. The internet did in fact get fixed, by 6pm, which is in fact quite an impressive job, so I thanked the owner for obviously pulling some strings to get it solved.

Posted by globalmomma 12:20 Archived in Italy Tagged hotels coast air italian amalfi sorrento chain conditioning internet ischia patience massa lubrense Comments (0)

It's not about the money...

June 1
"It's not about the money, we don't need your money, we're just trying to make the world dance, forget about the price tag... we don't need no ch-ching ch-ching, we don't need no bl-bling bl-bling, we're just trying to make the world dance, forget about the price tag"
This is our theme song for the moment. We are in Tuscan wine country, enjoying sweeping views of olive groves, green-striped fields of vines, tall cypress trees.  Our money plan for continuing to travel is not going so well. We'll take it day by day and see how long we can keep going.

It's best here if you have no particular agenda. Today we drove into the mountains, then on the way back, we stopped to taste some wines. I have been seeing sign after sign advertising wine, olive oil, 'agriturismo'. Agriturismo is a word for agricultural-tourism, which means people from the cities come out to stay on a farm or in the country.  Here you can find typical products of the region: wine, cheeses, olive oil, spreads, etc. Farmstays are wonderful, but often a bit mysterious. For instance, where we stay they have a little farm shop, but it isn't open and I have no idea how anyone would ever find it. It is more of a glorified closet. So I keep seeing these signs for wine and olive oil, and I am wondering: can you just stop and taste? are they open? We drive into a place that has a BIG welcoming sign on the road advertising wine and olive oil tastings. We drive down a dirt road to a small house and there is no additional sign, no business-looking structure. We think we may be in the wrong place, but I decide to ask. A woman comes out and I ask in meager Italian: is this the place for wine tasting? Um, yes, but wait a moment and I will call. Utoh. She places a call and then hands the phone to me. I realize Chris has been right - this is just not how it is done. I apologize to the man that we cannot come back in several hours, and for bothering to call. We get in the car and speed off. I realize I have just knocked on the door of a winemaker and asked for his wines. I suppose you need appointments. Or maybe the general public does not do this... I have asked in a few towns if the wineries are open for tastings, and the people have seemed puzzled. Wine tastings? at the wineries? I am beginning to think this is a foreign concept here, and I am just desiring something that is not really the way wine country in Italy presents itself. We see another place along the road that has people lingering outside and looks a bit more promising. Stop! I am determined to try. We walk inside and I ask, can we taste? Just a moment. A old man comes out to greet us and brings us to a wall of wines. What would you like to taste? He goes through the varietals of the area in Italian and Chris and I are both stunned to find out that we actually understand everything he is saying.  We choose one - a Montecucco wine that is mainly sangiovese grapes (as this area is predominantly using) with a small amount of Merlot.  He opens it, pours two full glasses and disappears. He comes back with a full platter of local salami and cheeses. Hmm, this could be expensive. Chris and I are both wondering and slightly worried about what I have gotten us into here, but decide to just go with it and enjoy. We have a wonderful lunch/snack, and he asks if we would like another taste. We wish we could, but no, we'll pay the check. Do you want the wine? Yes, it was one of the best I have tasted. OK, he says, 9 euros for the wine. We buy some oil and leave after spending 13 euros. We are both shocked. Really? free tasting? all that? It was a perfect afternoon experience and I am, once again, glad I persevered to 'crack' the mystery of Italian wine tastings. It seems you find the right enoteca, and voila. 

Tonight Chris is learning to bake bread with Viola, the owner of the villa where we currently are staying. I just peeked in on them to see them slathering olive oil over focaccia that they had spread out by hand onto baking sheets, and placing cotton then wool coverings over the bread to keep it from drying out. Amazing, the smell of sourdough rising. Bodhi's hands were going a million miles a minute, I know he was anxious to get his hands into the dough and play. He got to hold a little of the sticky dough in his hands and move it back and forth. Now I understand the origins of playdoh. He was mostly interested in eating it, then when he found out it wasn't very good, he was mostly trying to drop it on the floor, but it continued to stick to his hands. They are baking pizzas for everyone, so tonight we eat all together, like I have wanted to do since we arrived in Italy. To sit in a pergola and eat under the moonlight with other guests and locals, talking, eating and having some wine. Especially to treasure the bread just made this afternoon, local cheese, and vegetable toppings picked fresh from the garden...it will be the best pizza regardless of taste. And with it, we bring our jug of rosso di montalcino, a 5 gallon jug of vino for 14 euro, to make it that much sweeter. 

Posted by globalmomma 10:23 Tagged villa wine pizza tuscany tasting siena agriturismo montalcino enoteca Comments (0)

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