Monday, September 20, 2010

“You Know I’d Do It All Again” - The Perfect Ending

We almost didn’t stop in Vernazza. We almost stayed on the train to the next of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre, thinking the dinner options in Corniglia would be more abundant.
But we decided to hop off in Vernazza with no real plan.
We almost didn’t eat at the small, outdoor café skirting the far left corner of the main piazza. We almost ate on the other side, closer to the sea, closer to the main thoroughfare. But that restaurant had no empty tables.
We almost missed the most memorable experience of our month full of memorable experiences.
But we didn’t.

The sun had already begun to disappear over the horizon by the time we sat down to enjoy our penultimate honeymoon dinner. The following morning we would drive to Milan and hold up in an airport hotel overnight, and attempt to manipulate our luggage in a way that would transport our myriad acquired objects back home. But before that, we had one more night in Cinque Terre, in all reality the last night of our honeymoon in Europe.

The piazza in Vernazza was mildly buzzing. Our waiter, who I also assumed was the owner, convinced us to order what was marked on the menu as simply, “House Appetizer.” He assured us, in Italian, that it was plenty of food for two. He was incontrovertibly correct.

First a plate of locally fished anchovies in lemon and garlic (sidenote: fresh, local anchovies taste NOTHING like the canned, salty slugs we have in America – they taste like delicious fresh fish, which is exactly what they are). Second, a plate of anchovies cooked differently. Then a came a flurry of plates, five, six, seven, of various local seafood cooked in traditional fashion, from stuffed mussels to rock shrimp salad to fried crab pockets that tasted and looked like Italian crab Rangoon. In tandem with carafes of Cinque Terre vino, the flavors were vibrant and unique, Mediterranean at the core with the very noticeable Italian edge.

We ate like the royalty of Atlantis and after the last lemon-doused tentacle was consumed, Danielle and I relaxed into our café chairs to digest the seaside scenery and remaining wine.

From the corner of my eye a street musician began unpacking his instrument in the village piazza about twenty yards away. The last bit of sun was just dipping over the horizon. The few streetlamps in Vernazza were warming up, as was the musician.

I refilled our wine glasses from the table jug and breathed in, savoring the freedom that comes with international travel. We talked about the past two weeks, the places, the people, the peace. A few notes from the musician’s guitar floated behind our relaxed conversation. He had begun singing a soft warm-up song.

Danielle paused to drain her glass, slouched a little in her chair and smiled. We were on vacation but we had accomplished something. Three countries, three languages, foreign driving – all good but what I knew she was thinking about was more the three weeks of no worry, no work, no responsibility other than to each other and to living in the moment.

And in that moment, a voice, a musical and delightfully raspy voice, tinkered from the piazza twenty yards away, accompanied by acoustic guitar.

“Yeah dumb and drunk as I was, you know I’d do it all again . . .”

I almost fell out of my chair. Danielle saw realization and excitement wash over my face and the musician continued.

“Back when I bought a switchblade for each of my friends . . .”

I don’t know how many times we both said, “holy shit, I can’t believe he’s playing this.” But I grabbed the two euro coin we had prepared as our waiter’s tip, practically hurdled our café table and headed for the edge of the piazza.

He was older, with his long dusty brown hair tucked up under a black bandana. The orange lamplight was like a spotlight on the old guitar he strummed. When I got to him he looked up and smirked at me. I tossed the coin in the guitar case open at his feet and said, “Keep the Roger Clyne coming!”

His smirk snapped into a full grown smile, a spark in his eyes lit brighter than the lamplight and although in mid-chorus, he nodded.

How did this street musician in a tiny Italian village that hangs from the sea cliffs like grapes from a vine, know the music of an American band that is considered obscure and underground in New England?

By the time I got back to our café table, he had fulfilled my request musically and answered my question lyrically when he broke into an acoustic version of the Roger Clyne song, “I Speak Your Language.”

Danielle and I both laughed at his choice of song but more so at the luck (perhaps fate) that put us in this town, at this moment on this, our last honeymoon night abroad with a musician playing the music of our favorite band.

We immediately walked to him after paying the bill and he had finished “I Speak Your Language.” By then he had been joined by two younger musicians. One had another acoustic guitar, the third a small keyboard looking instrument. The older musician thrust out his hand and chuckled. I shook it and said, “Roger Clyne? Here? How do you know Roger Clyne? This is amazing!”

Before he answered he pointed to the sticker on his guitar case. I should have recognized the Sonoran artist’s logo earlier. This guy was a true fan, I thought. And I was right.

Terry Gully, from Colorado, introduced us to his two sons and their love of local music. He had followed Roger Clyne since the beginning, an original Peacemaker, and he had just started playing “Switchblade” earlier to warm up before his sons arrived. He was beyond thrilled when I revealed myself a fellow fan.

“Roger’s music unites people all over the world,” he said.

“It sure does,” Danielle said.

We dove into a conversation about our trip, our honeymoon and immediately he asked what we wanted to hear.

“Anything,” we both responded. “But our favorite is ‘Beautiful Disaster.’”

By now a small crowd had gathered near us. We were drawing attention as those two random people chatting with a street musician. People – locals and tourists alike – were intrigued.

Danielle and I sat on a bench about ten feet from the trio and within seconds all the other people who were staring at us, followed suit. They must have thought, hey, these tourists like it, why can’t we?

Terry and his boys – both accomplished musicians in their own right – launched into a set-list filled with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Neil Young and of course, a full catalogue of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers.

During a Bob Dylan song an older couple got up and began dancing in the middle of the moonlit piazza, surrounded on three sides by Italians eating in outdoor cafes and on the fourth side by a row of benches and the sea. The only thing more adorable was the group of little Italian local kids that ran into the piazza and started dancing with each other, mimicking the older couple that had started the trend.

Terry knew we were on our honeymoon and immediately went into “Beautiful Disaster.” Terry and then the older couple and then the group of onlookers beckoned to us, and without really knowing what we were doing, Danielle and I were up in the piazza waltzing over the cobblestones to our favorite song.

There are moments that you never forget. Our trip had plenty. But then there are moments that you will always remember, that are on an infinite loop in your mind’s cinema. This was such a moment. I knew so when I felt the little tear on Danielle’s cheek and saw her beaming at me. This is why we travel.

We received a round of applause and a few women approached us when we sat back on the bench. Some were traveling Americans, a couple were Australian and said we danced beautifully (must be the Outback drinking water or something that skewed her vision). Another woman sat with us on the bench and revealed she was Terry’s wife.

She sat with us and talked while her husband and their sons played, in reality, a full concert. The majority were Roger Clyne songs, which pleased us and the growing crowd. They rattled off Mekong, Never Thought and Hello New Day, just to name a few, with the ease and energy of Roger Clyne himself.

Their family was on an extended European tour with a loose itinerary. They had been playing in town squares and village piazzas every chance they could. But this was, by far, their largest crowd.

By the time Terry announced, “it’s beer o’clock,” we had made fast friends. Before I could even thank him, Terry thanked Danielle and I. He thanked and said this was the best crowd they’d had. It wasn’t the money. It was the experience they sought. We had given to them exactly what they had given to us. We were grateful for each other and grateful for the music that had brought us together for an everlasting moment.

Just as quickly as the crowd had gathered, it dispersed. Terry and family went to find a beer and Danielle and I strolled up the cobblestone road to catch the last train back to our hotel.
Even though the music had ended, the streets were cleared swear there was a melody still dancing in the air – “Yeah dumb and drunk as I was, you know I’d do it all again . . .”

Friday, September 17, 2010

"They're Passionate" 9/14

With these words Danielle wisely finished a sentence that I began. This wasn’t one of those Hallmark moments when a swooning couple inserts romantic prose into each others’ lips. Although it began as such. No, not at all. Since I was about to insult an entire heritage in the midst of its shareholders.
It began from the beachside bar at Monterosso al Mare. Our view was ripped from a postcard. The smooth beach stretched in both directions pierced at even intervals by the bright orange umbrellas common to Cinque Terre. Being an offseason weekday, most weren’t being used, folded up to a point giving us a better view to the water and giving the beach a sort of upside down carrot patch affect. The sun was white hot but one of the few open umbrellas provided us shade and kept our pitcher of sangria ice cold.
(Remember this benevolent umbrella, it is a two-faced Judas!)
Traditional beach noises crashed along the relatively deserted beach until all at once from somewhere in the sand a dust storm of Italian children roared into view and earshot.
Three looked and acted related. The fourth did not and was being treated as such, shunned and mocked as the outsider but in a childish, playful way. They were entertaining to say the least. Running, digging, whacking away at plastic golf balls, all the while yelling and conversing (maybe cursing) at the top of their substantial Italian lungs, with both their mouths and hands. They resembled every group of Italian children we encountered during our trip: active, loud, unsupervised and fearless (My personal favorite of these groups was in Vernazza. They were hunting jellyfish along the marina with a long net. They kept yelling when they saw them, “Jelly pesca, Jelly pesca!”).
As it were, Danielle and I had arrived to Monterosso after a day of ridge hiking and the sangria break was our reward. So when the playful Italian children intensified their playful argument, my exhaustion intensified, unjustifiably, into annoyance.
The outsider wanted badly to join in but they yelled louder and after giving him a chance at their game and his subsequent inability to reach their probably unattainable standards, he was cast out. Some words were exchanged that I understood and sort of winced that children had uttered them.
Perhaps I felt bad for the kid. Perhaps I was just tired. But the next phrase I said and did not finish was, “Their kids are just like the rest of these Italians! They’re all . . .”
And Danielle wisely finished it for me.
“They’re passionate,” she said.
I’m not exactly sure what I would have said, how I was to stereotype my wife’s family, heritage, my own family and heritage and all the exceptionally amazing people we had interacted with over the past two weeks. It would have been an impulse.  It would have been wrong. But what followed was not Danielle chastising me for my hasty response but rather she launched into a story about her own childhood. The kids reminded her of herself.
“I was just like that,” she said, pointing at the oldest girl who seemed to be the ringleader and loudest. “We’re a very passionate people.”
And I had to laugh as she described her youth among her grandparents and parents and other kids her age. They thrived in tradition and culture and she embodied the same spirit that these present-day bambinos erupted with. I couldn’t help but remember my own youth, running around with my cousins with the volume at near deafening levels.
And as I scrolled my memory rolodex, forgetting the insult I almost tossed out into the Italian sea air, karma slapped me upside the head. Literally.

An almost mythic, strong gust of that sea breeze whipped off the ocean and yanked the aforementioned open umbrella right out of the sand, metal holder and all. The stand cracked my shin and ricocheted off my thigh as I swerved in my chair. Danielle said the heavy wooden pole missed smashing my head by centimeters. In the end the umbrella and its stand were both on the roof of the beach bar, several others scattered around the sand, tables and chairs in disarray. And me, thoroughly shaken.

Within minutes, though, the kids were back playing. Danielle was laughing a little. And me, I would think twice before almost insulting the Italian heritage, my heritage, again. It’s a passionate country with passionate weather. As she said, they’re a passionate people.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cinque Terre = The Land of Stairs - 9/12

OK, Some people, let's say 100% of them, say "Cinque Terre" means the 5 Lands. Let's agree to disagree.
I Should have known that a destination requiring you to corkscrew down one lane cliffside roads just to reach the top of the town would come fully equipped with endless staircases. We found our apartment building after going down steps. Then we ascended to reach the room at the top of the building, a view stretching unobstructed to the rocky marina.
Up, down, up, up some more, stairways around every corner and nary an escalator in sight. But for all the cracking kneecaps, Cinque Terre is a hidden treasure. Anything working this much for is worth the tight quads.
These five towns, built to protect its citizens from ruthless Mediterranean pirates, lays tucked in coves and clinging to the cliffsides like children in a game of hide and seek. Each town boasts its own unique personality (a castle here, a beach there). But each village builds upon itself, the houses are the multicolored blocks of an unfinished game of Tetris. But the precarious nature more resembles the teetering blocks of Jenga, every house swaying and staring into the sea. They are varying apstels blazing and staggering up the seaside walls, like maybe they had too much local limoncello. The rail line runs from town one to five like one of the grape vines that terrace the hills above the towns. And each village hangs precariously from it like a fruit laden bunch full of color and potential,  swinging with the sea breeze out over the azzure Mediterranean.
After climbing the steps to our room we stepped onto the balcony. An ocean vista from which we could spot any pirates marauding our way. I see the value in stairs.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fast Food Friends - Sept 11

The 7,000 acre Banfi vineyard estate has won countless awards, earned millions and revolutionized the Italian wine industry. At its center at one end of a ridge opposite the proprietor’s Tuscan villa, soars Castello Poggio alle Mura, or Castello Banfi. The castle’s 8th century charm and whimsy remain after intelligent renovation transformed it into a 14-room hotel of the most luxurious sort.

The Tuscan countryside heaves like a giant sleeping under a massive green patchwork quilt – and there are views of it from everywhere. The vineyards sprawl in every direction down from the castle hill and small ponds and forests dot the landscape.

But the castle itself is the temporary home to so few guests that it is impossible not to feel at least some of the communal camaraderie that the 8th century inhabitants must have felt – minus the plague, of course.

Friday evening we were lucky enough to be invited free of charge by the Banfi Estate – as was every other guest at the hotel – to the town of Montalcino’s annual Honey Festival. It took place inside the castle walls, which is the only time each year that part of the castle is actually opened to anyone, let alone the public.

Local officials and honey producers gathered for a 7-course feast celebrating the honey harvest, one of the important local products other than wine and olive oil.

We joined them at large banquet tables, albeit way in the back, but the community atmosphere at our table was no less joyous.

We met a young couple from Texas, also on their honeymoon who had more in common with us than many people we know in Massachusetts. She was sweet and he was funny and by the time the dessert wine was poured, we had become fast friends, or as I liked to call it because of the dinner, fast food friends.

We also met a nice older couple from Kansas City who had a daughter our age and an older couple from Toronto with Italian roots who gave us excellent travel tips and local recommendations.

In all, the amazing dinner of pastas and meats and honey took a backseat to the people and of course, the Banfi wine.

The feeling continued Saturday with a winery tour comprised of many of the same people as well as new friends. When we entered the 5-star restaurant on the castle grounds that night to enjoy our 5-course dinner and wine pairing, a few of the same couples were already inside the high-ceilinged castle room munching away on the first course.

It was a nice feeling to walk by tables and have people genuinely say ciao in between bites of black truffle ghnocci or roast suckling pig.

At dinner Danielle and talked about many things, one of them being travel and the experiences we’ve shared. We agreed many times but the most important time was when we promised each other to continue sharing them together and someday with our children. It is one thing to say you’re part of the world community. It is quite another to build a community of your own around the world.

(We are off to Cinque Terre! I dont know what the internet situation is there so check back with us soon!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Real Life Isn't Supposed To Be This Good

It is the silence that hits you, immediately and without remorse.

Perhaps silence is the wrong word. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is not silence you first encounter but rather silence dusted with the caucophony of sounds otherwise unheard by the unrelaxed and un-Tuscan ear.

The intermittent and almost musical creek of an unlatched iron gate;

Then nothing but the warm breeze from the distant Mediterranean.

A fig drops on the gravel, ripened; then no sound at all.

A few bees, noticeable burdened by the day’s pollen collection hum past in unison; again, nothing.

There’s the gate once more, letting out a long metallic yawn; now nothing but the breeze.

Far off on the horizon a mountain range is being battered by a storm. The rain is clearly visible from this castle’s high vantage point. But clearer is the rumbling thunder in the distance. Just over the mountains and past the storm is the Sea, where shortly the sun will silently set.

But here to the East, a hundred endless miles of rolling hills and flowing vineyards dip and crash like every shade of green waves, without a sound.

Except that flock of small birds that just burst from a vineyard below like flying fish from the sea. For a moment they chirped, then dove back under.

And now, more silence. The breeze stopped.

The iron gate might’ve latched itself. The birds and bees are muffled by the vineyards that lie in wait for the upcoming harvest, pregnant with hearty fruit.

The silence and the sun are comforting, like slippers on a cool terracotta floor.

Even with a clear mind, I can’t remember the last time I could hear myself think so clearly.

The sound of silence is the sound of clarity and the sound of Tuscany.

But what is that smell? It’s herbal and sweet, peeking yet another of my senses.

Ah, must be the abundant and overflowing bushes of rosemary that ring around this poolside garden vista. They are everywhere on the castle grounds - down the stairs from our luxurious room; in-between the frequent fig and plum trees; dotting the underbrush beneath the olive groves that grow within the castle walls. Tuscany’s version of Eden, protected by a Medieval fortress.

Here we enjoy very few sounds, but the sights and the smells are unforgettable.

Not in Kansas Anymore - 9/9

No Email, No Shower, No English, Oh My!

Just consider me Toto to Danielle’s Dorothy.

The whirlwind tour that blew us through Mondaino began on a twisting, pale cobblestone road, one another impossible incline or cliffside u-turn at a time. By the time we had climbed through the hills our brains spun in place (almost exactly like the little green arrow on the thoroughly confused GPS).
This tiny village sits high atop the Rimini Province, surrounded by similar hamlets, most with similar narrow streets, similar active residents and similar terracotta-topped homes. They all revolve around an ornate, beautiful medieval church, each one more beautiful than the next. It is a world to which we are wholly unaccustomed. It is a fairytale in a foreign land, the kind of place they write books about.
During our time we encountered our very own guide (sort of our Glinda). She is exactly what you’d expect an older Italian woman to be, only you’d never be able to fathom the amount of love, warmth and genuine, honest-to-goodness, not seen in the U.S. kindness bundled up in her petite package.

(Sidenote – It all makes sense now! Anna, and every relative of hers/Danielle’s that I met – and there were probably about 15 - was tiny! It’s very obvious where the Blanch girls get their stature from – it is all at once enlightening and awesome).

Anna spoke no English, although she humorously attempted a few words to draw laughter. But Danielle and I persevered and I must say, we did very well. I was able to understand about 75% of what people said to me. I can’t communicate back as well but it truly is wonderful how much people can communicate by interpreting words, facial expressions, hand gestures and context. We carried on full conversations about sports, politics, weather, travel, family, food, food, no more food, wine, wine, no more wine and the giant mutant bees that live in Anna’s ceiling (I’m not joking, they were the size of prehistoric birds, I thought we were in Jurassico Parco).
It was strange to be led around through these small towns along the cobblestone roads, looked at like giants in a land of Munchkins. But Anna was proud to show us off; we were immediately and infinitely her family.
There was our very own wicked witch (an old man at a bar who may have been named Pino or Tino or something else, I don’t know, who began arguing with Anna and insulted her to the point of us leaving); kind Scarecrow with a brain (relatives Sara, 19yrs old, Elizabeth, 18yrs old, and Giancarlo, 16yrs old who spoke some English and helped translate our way through several meals); a Tinman with a heart (Anna’s cousin Pino, a small jovial Italian man with a heart as big as his persona, spoke loudly, hugged genuinely and helped show us off to the rest of the extended family; and even our very own Wizard (Vittorio – an old business partner of Danielle’s grandfather, who is sort of like the rich man in the house higher on the hill, his home and family were breathtaking, his hospitality unquestioned and he sheltered us for a couple hours during a sudden and serious thunderstorm).

In short, this world was a circus mirror of our own.

(Another sidenote – in Italy we have now encountered the Italian versions of even our dogs! Vittorio owned a bigger, slightly shaggier version of Bond! Complete with big brown eyes, black fur and a white stomach and that look of simultaneous fear and mischief. We also saw Italian Phoebe and the most uncanny similarity, Italian Indy! In Verona we were eating at a streetside café when a little dog who looked exactly like Bren and Bethany’s dog Indy walked up and sat next to our table. He was slightly darker brown but had the same face, body and small goatee – he wanted food but eventually just laid down next to us then got up and sauntered around the corner).
Anna is Danielle’s grandfather’s cousin. She had never met us but took us in with open arms and gave us an unforgettable experience. By the time the whirlwind blew us out of Mondaino, I was never more honored to be a member of this new family. I see it not just in the Italy extendeds but in the entire Blanch/Mencaccini brood – they are warm and loyal, altruistic to the bone and wear their tradition proudly.
There may be no place like home but somehow I feel like I’ll always have a home in Mondaino.

Friday, September 10, 2010

F**K You, Katy Perry! - 9/9

Have you ever left the Spanish channel on for more than a few minutes? I especially enjoy the commercials, when you get the fast-paced Spanish speaking announcer that is flying through his words and then, suddenly, in English he’ll say something like, “McDonalds!” or “Coca-Cola!” That gives me a good chuckle.

Well, a similar situation occurred yesterday while Danielle and I attempted to navigate our way – in our rented Mercedes – through the streets of Verona to the Autostrade (super highway traveled by homicidal Italians) and beyond.

We had just pulled out of the rental car parking lot and Danielle flipped on the radio. The DJ was talking about something when suddenly he slipped out of Italian and in English said, “California Girls!”
To which I promptly responded, “No, no, no - F**k you, Katy Perry!”

Yes, folks, that summertime hit with the catchy beat and the inexplicable Snoop-Dogg intermezzo has saturated the Italian airwaves. Before leaving the States I was on Katy Perry overload – and I don’t even listen to the radio stations that play her music. The damn song just won’t go away.
In Paris, it was playing in a souvenir shop. In Switzerland, someone had it as their ring tone. And here en Italia we heard it twice on the radio while driving from Verona to Mondaino.
This morning while we explored this tiny hill-town with our gracious host Anna (more on her and the amazing Mondaino tomorrow), we stopped into the one gellateria in town to pick up some dessert. While Anna ordered I stared in awe of the narrow cobblestone streets and panoramic vista guarded by this quiet Italian hill-town. If one can ever be totally content with a place, it would happen to everyone in Mondaino. No English. No hot water. Barely any TV. I left America aiming to escape for a few weeks – success lives here.
Apparently, Katy Perry does too. “Ca-Li-For-Nia Girls, blah blah blah blah blah blah” popped on over the gellateria’s radio. If I knew how to swear in Italian, I would have.
So thank you Italian radio for reminding me how pervasive – and sometimes invasive – American Pop Culture can be. And to Katy Perry . . . F**k You.

(Note: We're in Tuscany - havent had internet since Verona, expect a few blog posts coming about our whirlwind visit with family and the gorgeous Tuscan countryside)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ignorant Europeans - 9/7

I've perhaps been a bit harsh to my fellow Yankee Compatriots over the past few days. Some of it deserving, actually most of it deserving, and some of it just silly observations from someone who is trending toward the idealized simple life he envisions in these small European hamlets.
I'm currently sitting in a lush courtyard at the University of Verona, stealing their internet (hence the two new blog posts) and a feeling I haven't felt much over the past week just began bubbling up inside: anger. Yes, the asshole Italian metrosexual leaning on the opposite side of the column from me just fired up a cigarette and, without hesitation, is blowing the smoke in my direction. Forget that I'm allergic to it, hate the smell or that I'm on a continent apparently immune to the myriad health concerns, that was just plain rude.
Normally this wouldn't be a huge issue for me. I'd move or wait it out. But this uomo's puff puff puffing is merely a catalyst and a reminder of the pure rage I felt last night, again caused by an ignorant European.
Danielle and I searched the outdoor bistros (by the way, I've been taking note that we have yet to eat a meal inside since we arrived here, every lunch and dinner have been at outdoor caffes or on the side of a Swiss Alp) for a quaint dinner spot away from the main Verona thoroughfare. Down a side street we stumbled upon a quiet ristorante. Since there are so many, I gauge the quality of these places based on the number of tables filled by people speaking the native language. I figure if the locals, or at least the country's natives, find it tolerable, why shouldn't we?
This place in particular had a good crowd and from what I could tell, most were locals.
That is, until we sat down at a table diagonally next to a group of Danielle's fellow conference-goers. She recognized one as a professor and former president of the organization that actually runs this international conference. Important guy. We gathered from their conversation that a few were Dutch, one Italian and one wonderful, perfect, Dame Judy Dench British Biatch.
For the story's sake, I'll call her Mum. Also, please understand that this became entertainment for us as we devoured one of the best meals I've ever eaten in my life - Osso Bucco with risotto and Danielle ordered seafood ravioli. This after an appetizer of fresh buffalo mozzarella and local olives - thats it, nothing else needed except the caraffe of Italian table wine.
Now Mum was clearly a participant in Danielle's conference, as were the others in her group so my reactions I am about to describe were understandably restrained due to my wife's dire need to get a job in this industry, perhaps backed by some of the people at that table. However, that Italian table wine loosens the tongue.
Mum was ignorant. Mum was not educated in what she was talking about. Mum committed the greatest crime of hypocrisy I've ever been witness to. In this process, she sparked in me an overwhelming sense of patriotism (pay-triotism, not PATriotism, as the Brits say).
She was babbling on about conference things that Danielle explained to me were waaaaay wrong, and even at one point insulted a methodology and project that the former head, the guy sitting directly behind me, was heavily involved in. The man noticeably said nothing and let her babble on in her annoying English way.
It wasn't until she began recounting her trip to "the States" that my ears perked up.
In a nutshell, as she reported to her fellow European xenophobes, Americans are all fat. Americans are all stupid. She had visited the midwest (actually it was not the midwest, she had visited the Southwest but did not know this) and the people she spoke to were exactly as you would think Americans are. At this point, I agreed that yes, we are fat, a good number are stupid. But I can say that because I'm one of them. She then told a story about speaking with some local Americans. They asked where she was from. She told them, Brighton. "And they didn't even know where that was in relation to a major city. How clueless do these Americans have to be?"
Then she went on to say that all Americans don't know anything about the rest of the world. To her Dutch friends, she said, "They think that you all wear wooden shoes and have windmills attached to your houses." This roiled up some laughs and more America-jabs.
It was then that I said, probably too loudly, "Well when your country hasn't been relevant to the world in 500 years, it seems unnecessary for Americans to care about your existence."
Mum didn't hear but I'm almost positive some of the Dutch did. They were silent for the rest of the meal.
She had several more gems highlighting the fact that she was accusing Americans of stereotyping foreginers when she herself was stereotyping Americans. The circular stupidity was mindboggling.
I might have said at one point, in jest, "I find it interesting that the only two good things England ever gave us were Shakespeare and Austin Powers."
I also might have started speaking loudly in a southern, Texas-like accent, sounding as dumb as I possibly could.
But what I'm almost sure Mum heard was when I said to my wife (whose loud laughs drew attention to us, purposefully), "What bothers me is that from a group of islands that gave the world such skillful witticists as Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift and William Shakespeare, this woman arrives here without a single interesting or insightful thing to say."
They left shortly thereafter so we didnt get the chance to stop at their table and say, "You know, not all Americans are as sheltered and stupid as you might think." But Im pretty sure I would have, fueled mostly by the wine.
I understand our place in the world. I understand the world has its gripes with us, and I agree on many points. But sometimes you feel pride in your country and it wasn't a bad thing.
Mum takes the cake as Ignorant European.
Funny sidenote - as Im sitting here writing this, a group of Italian students walked by and a girl said, in Italian (I understood her!) "I had to talk to an American boy today." Her male friend then said, in english and with a hilarious Italian twang, "Whats up bro. What is cracking" - he was immitating what he thought the American boy said and they all had a rousing chuckle.
Timing is everything, eh?

*** We leave Verona tomorrow and will probably not have internet until at least Friday - we'll be staying with Danielle's gradfather's cousin in Rimini - this will be interesting! Look forward to some interesting stories***

Lunchtime Journal Notes in Verona - 9/6

An older couple sat down next to me, apparently of similar mindset. They opened a few bags, revealing a small feast of fresh fruit and snacks they had just purchased at the open-air market buzzing about twenty yards behind me.
The ancient courtyard I shared with the couple is surrounded by vaulted arch walls, built in what I can only assume is traditional Veronese style - alternating horizontal layers of rich, burnt orange brick and fading white stone. In the northern corner an ornate stairwayruns up one wall then turns sharply left to rise higher along another. At the top, behind the dark-haired Italian girl posing for a photo, tower two massive wooden castle doors, painted black and pockmarked with the wear and tear of a thousand years.
I haven't gone through them, but I know they lead to a staircase, then another, then probably a spiral one that opens to the top of Verona, the torre (tower) di Lamberti and a panormic view of the citta.
Something crashes in the shadowed corner across from me, snapping my eyeline out of the clouds, back down to earth. A waiter at the tiny ristorante tucked into the corte's shadows (which I didnt even realize existed until just now) dropped a plate on the stone pattio. A few chuckles and one or two cheers from the locals passing through the courtyard gave me pause - there's very little taboo here.
That reminds me, I should check the time. 2:45pm. In a few minutes I'll pack up the small lunch I bought from a bakery around the corner from Piazza Herbe, the aforementioned open-air market. It may just be fresh tomato focaccia and a Coke, but I'm proud of it. I spoke solo en Italiano to the women behind the counter and left with exactly what I desired. Not bad, eh? I'll be sure to relay this story to Danielle when I meet up with her at 3:00 at our hotel.
After her day lecturing, working and networking at the University of Verona (her conference), she'll enjoy hearing and laughing at my little Italian excursion.
Tomorrow I'll have more time to myself. Perhaps I'll wander in the opposite direction and check out a ponte or due.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Forget Venice, Go to Murano - 9/5

Gondolas. Canals. Masks. Pigeons. If you need more, check out Wikipedia. Or better yet, go to EPCOT or Vegas, the lines will be shorter, there will be fewer tourists and you’ll get almost the same experience on a slightly smaller and cheaper scale.

Let me step back here – I enjoyed the Venetian experience for what I knew ahead of time it would be. I’m glad we saw Venice; it truly is a unique city. Once it was a pioneering, powerful, majestic city-state, long before the tower in St. Mark’s Square collapsed (1902), before the churches erected souvenir shops and pay stations amidst their pews and parishioners, before Piazza San Marco began waiting like a pained woman of the night for the next mega-cruise liner to sweep in and out, unloading hordes of photo-hungry turistas.

But every anecdote I heard proved true: go to Venice, they said, but one day is enough. We rolled in Saturday at 4pm – by our train’s 6pm departure Sunday, Danielle and I were yelling to each other over the throngs of noisy gawkers, “let’s get the fuck out of Venice.”

Venezia, however, did reveal glimmers of her former self. They were in the back alleys and quiet bistros we encountered when we purposefully got lost, wandering through a beautiful part of the city where locals – if there are any – would probably live.

On a whim we hopped a bus – a water bus – to the island of Murano about 30 minutes from Venice proper.

Since this is a blog about travel and marriage, full disclosure here: at this point in Venice we had our first little honeymoon tiff. It revolved around direction, which boat to take and me always being right. I won’t get into details but turns out, I was right. I just had to let Danielle think she arrived at the correct route without my help. To her credit, she admitted as much and gave this post her blessing, begrudgingly.

We arrived at Murano after the majority of its shops closed for the night. This island is famous for its glass products, which are beautiful. But what I’ll remember it for is the silence. A dog’s bark or a few local children playful noises were the only sounds fluttering above the intermittent low boat motor hum. Almost no tourists. The few that joined us there were seeking the same thing we were – authenticity.

That fell onto our plates, quite literally, at a small waterside restaurant, one of the few still open. Here we ate the best meal of our vacation so far. Grilled local king prawns (think uber-shrimp) and a frutti di mare I’d swim the Grande Canal for. I don’t know how they do it, but the Italians can take anything and make it delicious. Seafood pulled from the waters three feet to our left doesn’t hurt the process.

Venice also provided us with the best beverage we’ve had on this trip so far. After feasting in Murano, we slid into a small liquor store on our walk back to the hotel. The shopkeep let us try a few different after-dinner drinks. Mostly variations on limoncello. Our favorite? Pistachio. It was amazing, enough said. We bought a bottle to take home and a smaller (slightly) bottle to drink on our private hotel room patio.

Our Venice wasn’t the one buzzing and snapping along the crowded streets and canals on the other side of Hotel Bellini. Our Venice was just Danielle and I sitting at a tiny bistro table right outside our room, on a private roof deck, sipping pistachio liquor and taking in the quite side of Venezia.

Stupid Tourists: 5 - I can't name just one - just take my word for it here, people. Tourists are stupid - especially ones in Venice.

You Just Had To Be There - 9/4

Before we even ascended the Jungfrau (Europe’s tallest peak), I had a sense the Swiss have cornered the market on paradise. Little did I know, they secured Heaven for themselves, too.

From the Top of Europe, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the gargantuan peaks or the sprawling glacial ice beds. Immediately, my senses all focused on me, specifically, my breathing. It was like breathing in an icebox, cold and clean going in and visible coming out. My breaths were shortened, as expected, but as I stepped into the sun, those peaks and ice beds finally appearing in their fullest, they quickened to the pace of my racing heartbeat. It wasn’t the thin air exhilarating all five senses anymore, the scenery had taken over. From the observation point, The Sphinx as it’s called, Jungfrau peers down at you like Zeus from Olympus. There is nothing grander, nothing more imposing. From the Sphinx, we climbed to a snow-covered rocky crag where the red and white Swiss flag flapped proudly in stark contrast to the hulking gray rock summit in the near distance. Perhaps crawled is a more appropriate description of our movement along the icy walkway. Appropriate because Danielle wasn’t wearing the proper footwear and because there really is no other way to approach a natural deity than while genuflecting.

Like a couteur gown, the ivory white glacial ice beds, themselves hundreds of meters wide and unlike anything any American has ever seen in their own country, skirt the Jungfrau before flowing to the horizon. If you sit and listen carefully, I swear you can hear them lurching along underneath you, one meter per millennium.

Surrounding the Jungfrau the Swiss Alps pop like soft peaks of meringue and . . . you know what, I’m going to stop. I’ve realized something as I’m typing this. There is no way I or any other living writer, director, musician or painter could capture the experience I am attempting to describe. Hemingway, maybe? But he’s long gone. Perhaps Shakespeare way back when. But I am certain there is no living scribe who could adequately place you where I stood – the doorway to Heaven. Words can’t make you smell the cold air – yes, Swiss air has an odor, the smell of purity. Words can’t lurch your stomach when you peer over the edge into rocky oblivion only to have it lurch again when the hangglider swoops past your line of sight. Words can’t clang like the bells on the cows on the other side of the valley, just tiny, brown, grazing specs. Words can’t feel the gravel crunch under your hiking boots, the valley trail steeply declining and the all encompassing green foothills rolling in every direction. I could sit here all day weaving the most beautiful and elegant prose – and really I could, I’m on a train to Venice for the next six hours – and when you read this, you’ll still not understand the pure euphoria.

So I won’t try anymore. As Danielle said, everyone should make a trip to the Alps once in their life. I can only recommend the Berner Oberland because that’s where I’ve been. And I’ll echo her sentiment like the cowbells across the Lauterbrunen valley: you just have to be there.

Stupid American: The count still stands at 4 - we had no Stupid Americans in Switzerland. Maybe because they weren’t there or maybe because I was too encapsulated by my surroundings to notice, which perhaps made me a Stupid American? I’d like to think more like Awed American.

I will, however, mention a great experience, coincidentally at our favorite restaurant in Interlaken, Des Alpes. We ate dinner there last night and had a fantastic waiter. But when a couple sat next to us and blurted out something in a language even he didn’t know, he resorted to the next best thing. Our waiter looked at us and said, “I have no idea what he just said.”

“I don’t know what language he’s speaking,” I replied. Not that I could’ve helped even if I could ID the vernacular.

“Oh I may not know what he said, but I know what he wants. See?” And the waiter turned to the couple, who turned out to be from the Czech Republic and were speaking Czech, and made a peace sign. He said, “Two.”

The couple nodded.

Then he put his hands together in front of him, one on top of the other, and separated them to about a foot apart, up and down. “Large,” he said. They nodded again.

Then he made a fist, held it in front of his chest, brought it to his mouth and then abruptly down to the table, as if slamming an empty stein. “Beer,” he said. Smiles and ferociously happy nods. “Two large beers,” he said.

He turned to us and smiled.

“The international language of beer,” I said to him.

He replied, “Everyone understands it!”)

I Like Schnapps - 9/3

Twenty minutes ago the waiter at our favorite Interlaken bar, Des Alpes, brought over a complimentary bottle of house-made schnapps. It was to thank us for our patronage (i.e. ordering a few rounds of large local brew and a lot of food – August Gloop be damned, I would have swam in the chocolate fondue) and for the wonderful broken English conversation we had with him about how to pronounce my new favorite beer (bier), Rugenbrau (pronounced, Roogun-broy).

This is not your average American schnapps – this isn’t some wimpy-ass doctor mcgillicuddys Kappy brand schnapps you use as a mixer. This is the real thing. For those of you who’ve had grappa, it’s sort of like that – only Swiss, slightly herbal, possibly mint I couldn’t place it, and as impressively potent as the soaring Alps themselves. This is the stuff the St. Bernard delivers to you from that barrel around his neck when he finds you under three feet of avalanche snow. Today we did not get caught in an avalanche, thankfully (I’ll talk about that more in tomorrow’s blog post). But we did hike the Alps and right now, thanks to the un-labeled bottle of schnapps, I can’t feel the pain in my thighs, knees, calf muscles, ankles or feet that I should feel - that I did feel about twenty-one minutes ago. Thank you schnapps. And thank you Switzerland.

The Land of Chocolate and Cheese - 9/2

***We havent had internet since Paris, but I've been writing everyday so bear with me, here come a few posts all at once***

Europe insists on unveiling unforgettable moment after unforgettable moment.

This morning the French countryside slipped off her nightgown as we sped silently along the sunrise rail toward the German border. The rolling green hills pock-marked with self-contained villages were stolen straight from my imagination. By the time the Swiss border patrol asked for our passports, I was having trouble coming up with new images of what Europe could look like. And then, as she had done countless times since Monday, Europe slapped us in the face with pure beauty: Switzerland.

Take North Conway, New Hampshire with its imitation chalets and dwarfed-by-comparison mountain range, pump it full of whatever Barry Bonds used to make his head so circus-freakishly large, then triple it, cover it in chocolate, dip it in fondue and you have the Swiss Alps.

From Interlaken, we took a quick train ride up to touristy Grindelwald. We’re saving the hiking and the top of Europe (the Jungfrau) for tomorrow. The chalets, complete with Bernese Mountain Dogs frolicking in fields, nestled in clusters in a sprawling green basin at the foot of sheer rock faces that stretched high into a sky as blue as the homogenous local eye color.

We ate dinner at a restaurant on the ridge (I found my new favorite beer – Rugen Brau Dunkel, dark beer brewed locally in Interlaken – think Kappy’s will order me a case?). Upon return to Interlaken, Europe tossed me an easy one, one of those unforgettable memories that will be my favorite – until tomorrow when I get a new one.

Danielle and I closed out our day at Des Alpes outdoor café, munching on fresh apple strudel and sipping espresso. The people are friendly and jovial – if you take the French and you stuff them with Chocolate and Cheese (both physically and in persona – they’re still a beautiful people, though a bit heftier, a more sturdy people, and plenty more approachable), throw in some Munich-style, stein-clinking German hospitality and you’ve got the Swiss.

On Des Alpes’ patio a local 9-piece big band – the Groove Connection was their name – played away the day, clanging into a rousing version of the Pink Panther Theme Song as the sunlight evaporated behind the behemoth mountains. After what seemed like an endless string of songs that sounded suspiciously like 70s tv theme songs, that took us well into the night, they ended with an appropriate and upbeat, “My Favorite Things.” The Land of Chocolate and Cheese: my favorite things indeed.

Stupid Tourists: 4 – This is a special entry because once Danielle reads it, it could be the last thing I ever write. This morning, September 2, 2010, 6am Paris time my wife committed her first stupid tourist atrocity. That’s not to say I haven’t given her the, “really, Danielle?” stare once or twice since we’ve been here (e.g. tonight when she took a picture and immediately sounded the alarm that our camera was broken, only to be told that there was a tree in her way, that’s why the photo didn’t come out). I do cut her some slack because attempting to catch a 6:20am international train from Paris is not an easy task. Let me step back for those of you who have never been to France or do not ride public transportation often (shame on you, the environment hates you). The regular ticket taker machine has a turnstile and electronically opening slider doors that open as you go through the turnstile. It woks much the same as the D.C. Metro or any other modern subway entry, with a little extra French flare. Danielle and I are traveling each with a large backpack/roller bag and a small backpack. This morning there was one other traveler in the Paris Metro and she too carried a large piece of luggage. After watching that one other traveler sneak around the regular turnstile and slip through the handicap ticket entrance with ease, my wife – a phD candidate who turned down Harvard – forgot her common sense. She ignored the aforementioned example, slipped her ticket in, proceeded through the turnstile and as they say in Paris, voila! her large roller bag wedged into the turnstile. She then stopped short and the sliding doors slammed shut. Leaving the love of my life, radiant with newlywed glow, stuck between the turnstile and the now shut sliding doors. I’m not going to elaborate on what was said in the immediate aftermath but let’s just say the attendants opened the sliders manually, I pushed hers and my bags through the turnstile and we strolled away in silence. Do I dare label this one as a “Stupid Tourist” occurrence? I think it’s only fair. Stupid Tourist.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Don't Pity the Hunchback...

Dusk atop the Notre Dame bell tower and the river Seine makes her presence known. On the horizon she beings the charge, a silver glimmer ducking around towers and teapot domes, hidden at one curve, brazenly obvious around another. From this vantage point, the river’s importance is obvious. It has been Paris' greatest soldier and liberating cleanser. It has been a demarcation line between left and right, Bourgeoise and Bohemian and a friendly landmark for many a wandering visitor. Its current is near impossible to judge, ebbing and flowing in modern times with tourism barges and Gendarmerie police boats. The river seems the source of the City of Light. All walks of life gather near it, over it, on it and all Parisian monuments sit back at a respectable distance.

Its proletariat power is unmatched in the city limits.

And yet, I can’t help but notice the Seine – as it charges toward me filled to the banks with history – splits in deference to the island that houses Paris’ most enigmatic creation. The gargoyle hanging out next to me has a permanent, toothy smirk and I can’t help but wonder if he’s laughing at how great his view is or perhaps that the river Seine has to bow to him and his brethren, a bunch of water-gurgling stone monkeys.

Either way, Quasimodo and his immobile buddies had it good (despite the handicap). In every destination exists a place, a person, an experience that leaves you in awe, for whatever reason. Notre Dame left me speechless, branded, bitten by a gargoyle if you will. Our first day here we went inside (see a few posts back) but today Danielle and I spent the 30 minutes in line to trek the 300 stairs to the bell tower. Atop we made a few new friends, albeit very quiet ones, and when the camera battery ran out, all we could do was enjoy. Victor Hugo might have wanted us to pity his humble hunchback, but me, I envy him. Not just because of the view, but because he’ll forever be in the pages of Paris and me, well, I’m leaving here in six hours on a high speed train on my way to Switzerland, where I’m sure there are just as awe inspiring sights, perhaps more. And yet, it won’t be Paris. The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre (a whole other blog post, talk about awe-inspiring), Arc du Triomph, the list goes one. This city has taught me what 'ornate' 'grandeur' and 'opulent' really mean. And everything means something. That's what I love about Paris, each stone or statue has a significance I could never truly appreciate. And I'm fine with that, because I've heard the squawking paparazzi around the Mona Lisa, I've smelled the baguettes fresh-baked and I've seen a gargoyle smile at the setting sun. That's good enough for me.

Au Revoir, Paris! Merci!
Stupid Tourists: 3 – From atop the bell tower you can see a little shop on the Left Bank called the Shakespeare & Company. It is an old bookstore graced by the likes of Walt Whitman and countless other writers over the years. There’s even a small bed, desk, sink and typewrite upstairs free for any upstart/struggling writer to utilize. Danielle made sure we paid it a visit and I’m glad she did. For two reasons: one, because I purchased a copy of Shakepeare’s Othello & Cymbeline from the year 1900 – very nice addition for my bookshelf; two because Danielle was able to catch a woman with her fanny pack and loud voice, say this to her companion: “Oh, Shakespeare – I should get something for my son. He loves that guy. He likes the one that starts with an “O” I think. What’s it called? <pause> O, O, O Oh I don’t know, O well.” Othello was on the shelf in front of her. Stupid Tourist.