I absolutely hate this time of year. This is the time of year that I wish I were one of a billion people heading off to Europe to enjoy everything Europe has to offer. In May and June of every … Continue reading
So you’re off to Europe and hoping to get in on the local sports, eh? I know the action of UEFA 2012 (Euro Cup) is kicking off summer nicely (no pun intended), but there’s another sporting event that shouldn’t be … Continue reading
A few summers ago I had the pleasure of spending an entire summer in the hills of Sicily with my friend’s family. They showed me where they grew up, introduced me to their friends and families, and I had the most outstanding homemade Sicilian cuisine one could ever ask for. I was included in many gatherings and outings that I otherwise never would have encountered had I not been in the company and comfort of locals.
One such outing started out as just a regular day. During my extensive stay in Sicily, I became very obedient and often just nodded yes when told that we were getting in the car to pick someone up or go off to run an errand. What did I care? I was in Sicily and wanted to see everything including how regular everyday life occurs. On one particular day, the gent who was kind enough to drive us around during our stay, offered to take his friend with us to pick up his daughter from her job at the hospital. We didn’t mind and in fact my hosts and I were happy to oblige.
Off we went, five people in a car equivalent to a Yugo in 95 degree weather, and drove 45 minutes through the winding hills of northeastern Sicily. (Note to self: don’t go back in July. It’s too damn hot for such togetherness.) We picked up this man’s daughter whose acquaintance I was so pleased to make and as it turned out, she could give a rat’s tukus whether I existed or not. I chalked it up to anti-American sentiment which I could care less about so we sat in the car during the drive back for about half an hour, arm to sweaty arm, totally indifferent. She wasn’t that young, probably in her mid-twenties but had the social graces of one of Sicily’s many ancient stones found around the hillsides. My friends in the car with me made a gesture implying that she had “issues” and I just laughed to myself at how such cattiness and people with “issues” are so universal. Crazy people and bitchiness run rampant throughout the world and I found it almost comforting. It took the staleness and the need to act proper out of the equation.
So there I was, sitting silent next to this chick who had nothing to say other than to herself (she was muttering to herself) when out of the blue, Silent Maria screams, “Basta! Una Festa! Una Festa!” (Stop! A festival! A festival!) Where the hell did that come from? This chick didn’t even say, “CIAO” to us when we introduced ourselves and all of a sudden, apparently she heard a band playing and wanted to see the Festa. (Festa’s are street fairs that run throughout many parts of Europe during the summer months, especially in very Catholic communities to honor patron saints.) Our driver hit the brakes and suddenly my new BFF grabbed my hand and said in Italiano, “let’s get to the front!” Seeing that this was the first real sign of life from this girl, we all appeased her by grabbing our belongings and running with her to catch the front of the parade coming down the main street of whatever walled village we stopped in. I believe it was Belevedere. I grabbed my camera, my friends grabbed their cameras and camcorders and we headed toward the front, ready to capture the bands and confetti in full color. Our mini-mob got to where we wanted, just in time for five cameras to snap away in unison at a coffin coming right toward us. Holy shit. How do you say faux pas in Italian? Should have known better than to listen to this wayward idiot who had been muttering to herself during a 45 minute hot car ride. Not only did we confuse a funeral with a festa, but because we all looked like American and Australian tourist trash dressed in flip flops, baseball hats, shorts, and armed with cameras, we ended up taking the poor deceased soul’s thunder away from him/her. Everybody was looking at us instead of the coffin. Talk about feeling like a stupid ass tourist.
Is it bad that our tasteless mob found this to be hysterical? Mind you, we all were raised Catholic and should have been absolutely mortified by not only our misstep but how we instinctively laughed out loud upon realizing that we were not at a festa. We laughed so hard we started crying. Welcome to tacky hell. However, we couldn’t stop laughing at how collectively stupid we all were. All we could do was pile back into the Yugo-like car and drive like Cruella Deville into the hills of Sicily just to get as far from the scene as possible.
But guess what happened? Crazy, Silent Maria loosened up and started chatting away. In fact, we all laughed so hard for so long that we all loosened up and let the initial uneasiness fall away. I still thought the girl was nuts but at least she became a nutbag having a good time. My lesson learned on this particular day was not to write somebody off after an initial bad first impression. You can still have a hell of a good time with somebody even if you think you have absolutely nothing in common with them. More importantly, if you’re ever in Sicily, don’t be fooled by a bass drum and a trombone. Check out the scene first to determine if you are about to wear black to a Festa or throw confetti unto a coffin.
I don’t like to climb anything. Nothing. Not a flight of stairs or sides of mountains “just because they’re there,” nothing. I’m not necessarily lazy, because if I were, I wouldn’t be in discovery mode all of the time. However, I came to the conclusion long ago that God created the people who created elevators, cog railways, and mountain lifts for a reason, and that reason would be to transport people like me. I know, I know. It’s utter sacrilege to be a native Californian and not want to test my physical limits but I simply wasn’t born with that “hoo-ra,” man against nature gene. If nature wants to work with me and not against me, then we’ll talk.
All of this ranting about what seems like an irrelevant issue to most or worse, an enjoyable form of exercise, came about because I ascend so infrequently without some form of modern transportation, that when I have had to actually use my 5’3” legs to do so, it has been memorable.
One of the few but certainly most notable experiences I’ve had in doing so, occurred toward the latter part of my molto extensive, holiday through Sicily and Italy. This nearly three-month Chianti & pasta-filled odyssey began with intentions of spending my 30th birthday traveling frugally, with the mind-set that I would experience summering in Europe like an 18-year-old college student. I guess you could say I was the poster child for “Oh, shit, I’m turning 30 and I’m trying to hang onto my youth.” However, it wasn’t long before I realized that it takes more than a denim baseball cap to mask the difference between the comfort levels of 18- year-olds, and myself. Yes, I’ll stay in hostels for three months, but nobody should mess with my contour travel pillow.
So there I was, in Bella Italia! Home of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Fellini, and most importantly Prada! Upon arrival, all of the good intentions were there. I had recalled the mantra I had planted into the minds of so many travelers who had asked for my advice in the past: taste food you’ve never had before, sample the local wines, and pick up enough phrases so you can at least order food and ask for help. The voice in my head shouted, NO FRIVOLOUS SHOPPING. YOU CAN DO THAT AT HOME! But then it started in Sicily. That damned little shoe outlet in Siracusa that all of those hot little dishes with their perfect tans were walking out of. Not just walking, but taking command of the pavement. The tan was in the works, but the shoes……THOSE SHOES….must be acquired now! I thought I was so above this. I always hated listening to those silly broads who would come home from their holidays and boast about the shoes they purchased. I’ve always dressed my piggies in respectable leather but then again, I didn’t realize how sheltered I was from true craftsmanship. I had seen the light and it was August, which meant the craftsmanship was on sale!
Consequently, my first full sentence I mastered in Italian was, “Mio scarpe numero e trent sette o trent otto”. (My shoe size is 37 or 38). And so it began…the Great Shoe Raid of Italy. It continued on through Messina, across the ocean to Southern Italy, Salerno, Rome, Florence, and most of Tuscany with a few stops in between, trying on as many pieces of shoe art as possible. I had no intention of becoming the American Imelda of Italy and to my credit I must say, I only gave up my credit card to this illness a total of nine times. At least with the shoes. Train hopping and shopping became a rather enjoyable sport for me but the casualty of this new skill was the youthful backpack I had been sporting which had to be scrapped due to it constantly getting impaled by the precious little martini shaped heels I picked up in Messina. No, no. This wouldn’t do. It was time for a big girl bag. Perhaps something in the form of a periwinkle-blue designer suitcase which would allow for proper packing and would roll around here, there, and everywhere. I also needed a small backpack since I had thrown out my larger one. Needless to say, back on the train I went, with stilettos, suitcase, and small backpack in tow.
Thus far in my journey, mio vacanza had been Bravo! Having started from the South, I continued Northbound, always with the intention of stopping to see the Cinque Terre-the picturesque five villages which are perched beautifully along the Northern Coast of Italy. A train ride through Italy with displays of sunflower fields, the azure sea, people strolling down the passegiatta enjoying their gelato, all find their own place in the mind which make for sweet reminiscing later. But let’s not get too carried away. There is the issue of the heat. You can keep that damn heat! I enjoyed myself in the hills of Sicily in spite of the heat, chugging my way north in somewhat air-conditioned trains from town to town, always trying to find a way to stay cool. Funny how the heat didn’t stop me from shopping. I certainly wasn’t going to let it hinder me when arriving into the Cinque Terre. After all, this was one of my dream destinations and after merely looking at beautiful posters on the walls for so many years of this spectacular place, I finally arrived! It was truly breath-taking, and more special than I could have imagined. Cars are not allowed, as the streets are barely wide enough to accommodate too many pedestrians at one time and its very existence is based on tiered living. Cultivating the land is done strategically and meticulously, like no other flat land farming I had ever seen. This indeed was every bit as special as the guide books stated. When I got off the train, I almost immediately smelled Rosemary in the air which I noticed was hanging over somebody’s balcony. Almost simultaneously, a lady passed me by with a bag full of tomatoes making me visualize what she would possibly be cooking in her cucina that night. A pleasant surprise came about when I noticed a juice bar in town, offering up smoothies and granitas which sounded like heaven considering how hot it was that day. By the way, if I could find any place at home that whips up mandorla granita (almond smoothies ) the way this place did, I would be there every day.
Tre Chic Hiking. Just Don’t Do It.
I honestly don’t remember if this took place in Vernazza or Manarola, since I bounced from town to town on this particular trip quite a lot. At any rate, before I got off the train, I had been chatting with other travelers who had finished the Cinque Terre portion of their holiday and suggested that I stay in a hostel in one of the five towns instead of staying at a hotel. According to them, it’s cheaper, you meet really great people, and the views are incredible if you are willing to climb a little instead of staying right in the middle of town. Great idea! I had great luck during previous portions of my trip by going off other traveler’s recommendations so I decided to stick with what was working. After stepping off the train and looking around for anyone who looked willing to be bothered by yet another tourist, I asked a local woman, “Dove ostello?” (Where is the hostel?) “Ah, si si. It’s up the hill a little bit.” How nice of her to assist yet another curious traveler, looking for a hostel which I’m sure was over-run with tourists at that point in the travel season. I thought, O.K. one small backpack and one large suit case full of beautiful size 7’s ….no problem. I can lug this stuff up one little hill. Up I went, 100 degrees in August, walking uphill with weight on my back, pulling my bellisima suitcase. Approaching the top of the hill I was instructed to climb, I planted the last two steps and thought, I made it! Right? I made it! Wait…..where is it? I kept walking, not knowing really where this thing was when I noticed another nice lady walking along side me, actually about to pass me at a pace like she was walking downhill. I asked, “Scusi, dove ostello?” She just smiled, waving in an upward motion which didn’t tell me definitively whether or not she was pointing up the hill to give me direction, or just waving me off. What else could I do but haul myself and my luggage upwards? Another deep breath sucked in, toes digging into the pavement to gain traction, and off I went. I was already feeling like a beast of burden but decided to hold off on being so dramatic. It’s not that bad. Don’t be such a wimp. I figured that I was almost there anyway and the view would be worth the effort. So I kept going. O.K. I’m here. At the top of the hill I THINK I was told to go to. I don’t see anything. It’s bloody hot out here.
Right on cue, a cute little couple was bounding down the hill, looking like they would know where a hostel would be located. “Scusi, dove ostello?” “Ah, si- up, up”, as they pointed to the hill they came from, up and around a bend. “Oh, grazie”. Fine. Don’t forget, tiered living, no cog railway, no lifts, no modern transportation in this area, and I’m here to partake in the preservation of this culture. Keep perspective. Right. I found that I was suddenly giving myself the mental pep talk that athletes give themselves when having to psych themselves up for an event. Take a deep breath, baby steps, time your breathing, keep walking, you’ll be there soon, and then you can lay down. Unfortunately, I’m not an athlete and my reality voice took over. Goddammit it’s hot and I’ve barely survived the heat today without having to climb these cute little hills. Not to mention, at this point my beautiful shoes and suitcase were starting to feel like 9 pairs of 20 pound bricks inside a stainless steel oven. Nonetheless, I made it around that last hill and… and…. behold! Ahh…the view! The village, the sea, the mountains! It was so adorable, so picturesque, I couldn’t wait to put my worldly possessions down and start exploring. But where’s the hostel? What the hell?! No hostel to be found anywhere. By then, it was time to find a door to knock on. “Por favore Signora, dove ostello?” “Ah, si si”, and she horrified me by pointing up. You’ve got to be joking. Everybody’s version of “up” is way different than mine. Maybe “up” in Italian translates to English as, It’s way the hell up there and you’re stupid to drag that crap behind you going uphill. After establishing that I was overly ambitious or indeed totally stupid, I attempted the athlete/therapy BS session again which started with, keep moving, you’re almost there. Which then turned into, I feel like a train with rusty wheels. This isn’t funny anymore. I’m almost at the top but it feels so far away. What did Lao Tzu say? Something about the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step? Did he walk up a hill in the heat with luggage before he said that? I used to love that quote, until THIS journey. But then…..Ooo…ooo. Flatland! This must be it! I was greeted with another gorgeous view of the sea and the mountains, and it was beautiful….and short lived. Where’s the hostel? This nice little man who was walking toward me was going to tell me what I wanted to hear. I decided that. I was sure. “ Scusi, dove ostello?” “Ah, cuesto”, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t point up to another hill. “Oh, mille grazie.” I kept smiling and waited for him to walk away, fearing that he could somehow hear my head screaming, FUCK!!!!! I hate this goddamn place! I don’t care how beautiful it is! First you have to survive it! Where the bloody hell is this alleged hostel?! Were these people doing this on purpose?! Was this a conspiracy to watch this stupid American woman have a stroke next to her oh-so-cute suitcase?! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK! Swearing with every step, at that point it was a toss up as to what would be the lesser of two evils in the stupid department…..walking back down after all of this or walking up until my head and heart exploded? Luckily, the sea wasn’t too close to the mountain, or the suitcase filled with my hand-picked purchases would have met a watery grave. Just then, through the haze of my exhaustion and disgust, a hostel appeared. It wasn’t a sick joke, it actually existed. Go figure. To reward my efforts, it was beautiful, perched elegantly on a hill waiting for yet another survivor to drag themselves through the entrance on a hot August summer day. But I wasn’t inside the damn thing yet. Oh no. Convinced that God himself was against me that day, proof of this theory emerged as I was greeted with what looked like about 100 steps going straight up into the entrance. Alas, this was my Everest. I was at the Summit with my fancy suitcase and at this Italian hill town Summit was where I would meet my fate and possibly my maker. Sir Edmund Hillary at least had the advantage of a cool climate when he tackled his mountain. This was a sick, tasteless joke from God. Very funny. How the hell would I conquer this?
And then he appeared. Tall, Blondish, definitely younger, and hot. Sounding like a native from ABBA country, he asked, “Do you need help with your suitcase?” Yes Adonis, I do. “Yes, thank you”. In that moment, that boy was Jesus and Buddha dressed in Swedish wrapping. I actually had the nerve to try to look “just so” at that moment. Which could have worked were it not for my face looking like Italy’s best tomatoes, sweat dripping off my chest and not in a good way, oh yes, and that oh-so-sexy heat rash that had developed on my arms from traveling in the heat all summer. Yep, he was going to be all mine. Interrupting my fantasy, he picked up the bottom end of the suitcase, told me to hang on, then dragged the suitcase with me attached to the other end all the way up those unforgivable steps. God bless Sweden and her native sons. I think I was actually saying the words, “huff & puff” as I was huffing and puffing. It wasn’t until many moments had passed and I regained my composure before I realized that ABBA/Adonis/Jesus/Buddha had disappeared before I could even say thank you. I either did deliver a proper thank you and blacked out or I looked too desperate and scary which caused him to escape at lightening speed before I could ask for more life saving assistance. He was gone as quickly as he appeared.
After the dust settled and I determined that God and Cinque-Everest were not out to kill me, I did indeed fall in love with the area and met some fabulous ladies who were also vacationing on their own. We chatted about what it’s like to be out in the world, traveling alone as a woman with no particular game plan. The general consensus was that doing so is both scary and liberating. It was incredibly validating to meet other women, some my age, some older, some younger, but women in general who were traveling on their own, open to sharing a room, a glass of Chianti, or the local cuisine with a stranger, based on an unexplainable kinship that sometimes takes place when traveling. I have met plenty of people I couldn’t wait to get away from while traveling but on this particular trip, I had some incredibly interesting conversations with people who were otherwise strangers to me. But I never forgot any of them. That’s when you know all of your efforts or struggles you may have had to endure, resulted in a successful trip.
Unfortunately, going into town meant having to go back down the hill, only to walk back up later. I have to say, it’s a much easier hike when doing so at night, after enjoying some vino rosso with new found friends and having only yourself to carry.
This little city is bustling with art galleries and great shopping. Old city, new shoes and hand bags!
The view of the valley from one of the towers.