Venezia: The importance of improv

Picture this:

You’re walking through Venice. It’s sweltering hot outside, as you can see from the sweat stains on everyone’s back (I’m talking at least 95 degrees plus humidity). And by everyone, I mean all the tourists, since Venice is crawling with them. You wander through the narrow alleys of the city, gawking at the notorious mask shops and resisting the urge to dip your feet in the murky, green canal water (the canals also serve as the sewage, you know).

Suddenly, an American girl in a sundress and sandals dashes past you, almost clipping your shoulder. She’s followed swiftly by two other Americans, and the trio seems to be heading towards the bus station. Clearly, they’re late for something.

Well, here it is: I’m the American girl in a sundress. The other two are my gracious hosts while in Venice, Joser and Brittany.

You see, when Joser checked his watch for the time, we realized that the bus station was about a twenty minute walk away. And at that point, we had ten minutes before the bus left. I asked if anyone was opposed to running, and when there were no complaints, off we went. Which brings us to this moment in time, in which we are sprinting through the city.

We arrive at the car with a little less than a minute to spare. Brittany throws the car into gear like a pro while I frantically grab my belongings that are strewn across the backseat and throw them into my purse. Two minutes later, we’re driving through the bus station. I think I see the bus parked in front, but with this particular station, we have to circle around the building before finding a place to stop. Joser offers to grab my backpack from the trunk so I can run to the bus. The car comes to a halt as I grab my purse and throw open the back door, and I bound through the station like a frantic American tourist who’s about to miss her bus. But when I get the the curb, the bus is nowhere in sight.

Joser appears a few seconds later with my backpack in tow. “Did you miss it?”

Yup. Yup, I did.

*Rewind to two days prior*

When I first arrive in Venice, Joser and I spend a few minutes coordinating a meeting place over the phone (“Do you see a yellow crane?” “Maybe… I’m next to this elevated train track that looks like it has teeth.” “Uh…what?”). Eventually, I find the yellow crane and, standing nearby, Joser. “Would you like me to carry your backpack?” he offers. “No thanks,” I decline, “it’s hiding the sweat stains.” He nods understandingly. It’s two in the afternoon and the sun is beating down on us relentlessly.

In spite of the temperature and the crowds, we meander along the streets of Venice for the next few hours.

Afterwards, we relocate his car and drive an hour to their home in Caneva, where Brittany is waiting for us. Brittany and Joser are actually my fiance’s friends from back home, and today is the first time I’m meeting either of them. We turn on a movie as the three of us chow down on the pizza and gelato that Joser and I picked up on our way back.

The next day, Joser whips up a scrumptious breakfast of potatoes and eggs while we discuss what to do. We decide to visit the Grotte di Pradis, a series of caves about an hour and a half away. Upon arrival, we manage to slip through the exit (totally an accident.. all of the “Do Not Enter” signs are in Italian), but we find that the staircase to the caves is guarded by the ticket man. We spend the next few hours scouting out the caves, including a cave that they sometimes hold Catholic Mass in.

On the way home, we stop at a nearby church with a panoramic view. Then we spot a cool statue in the middle of a rotary (or round-about or whatever you call it), so naturally we park the car on the side of the road and take pictures of it.

Brittany turns to me, “So, how are you doing on energy?”

“Great, why?”

“We have another place to show you.”

It’s called “The Hole” at Gorgazzo. The pool of water is only a short walk from the road and has the bluest water I have ever seen in my life. The picture isn’t lying. But that’s not even the best part. Joser points to a sign nearby–the pool is actually an entrance to a cave that is at least 212 meters (695 feet) deep. I say “at least” because no one’s ever reached the bottom… they stopped letting cave divers go down after two divers died from running out of oxygen.

We finish the day with a stroll in the nearby woods. Joser and Brittany discovered this trail after they arrived here and wanted to share it with me. And now I’m sharing it with you.

The next morning, the three of us decide to wander the alleys of Venice once more before I leave.

Which is when we wandered a little farther than we thought.

Which brings us to now, where I’m staring down an empty bus stop, convinced that if I stare harder, the bus will magically appear.

EPILOGUE (Warning: after this point, there are no pictures. But it’s a fun story anyway.)

After discussing the available options, we decide that I’ll stay the night with Joser and Brittany, and the following day, catch a train to Venice in time to get another bus going home. After buying all of those tickets, of course.

The train isn’t that complicated. “You can buy your ticket at the station. They take credit cards,” Brittany tells me.

The bus is slightly more so. The website won’t let me purchase a ticket online, but the lady on the phone reassures me that the Venice office has a credit card machine. (Here’s the thing about Italy: no one uses credit cards. Ever.)

The next day, Joser gets ready to drive me to the train station since Brittany is already at work. The train station is 15 minutes away, but just to be safe, we give ourselves 25 minutes to get there. Right on schedule, we lock up the house and amble out to the car. Suddenly, Joser stops mid-sentence, “Did I really just lock my keys in the house?” I stop fidgeting with the door handle and look up. He’s being serious.

A few minutes later, Joser is shimmying up a tree to climb onto the roof, since the second-story windows are open. A branch manages to go up his nose in the process (“My nose still hurts,” he tells me later). Nose injury or not, he stealthily climbs across the loose tiles on the roof and makes it to one of the bedroom windows. Soon we’re driving down the road with 15 minutes before the train leaves.

We get to the train station and I purchase a ticket as the train comes to a halt on the track. Excellent.

And for my next trick, purchasing a bus ticket. The only problem with that is that the station in Venice doesn’t have a credit card machine and the nearest one is in Bologna, 3 hours away. Awesome. The ticket man, however, is extremely obliging and talks to the bus driver about letting me buy my ticket when we stop in Bologna. The bus driver taps his watch impatiently as the ticket man talks to his contact in Bologna. My eyes shift uncomfortably to the floor as I wag my finger at myself in my mind. (“You are totally being that annoying American tourist who gives other American tourists a bad rep,” I scold myself.) Ten minutes and a phone call later, we strike an agreement and the bus driver lets me onto the bus.

Once in Bologna, I scurry to the agency where the ticket is waiting for me to purchase it. The wait is so long that the bus driver actually comes to check on me. Finally, it’s my turn. “Twenty-five euro,” the ticket man says as he takes my card. “But the ticket was supposed to be forty euro,” I tell him, determined to redeem myself to these people through my honesty. “Don’t worry about it. Twenty-five euro.” Well, if he insists. That night, I pull into the bus station and breathe a sigh of relief as I slide into the front seat of the car.

Here’s to adventure.

Advertisements

Mm mm good

This is another post wholly dedicated to something we all know and love: food.

Eating is somewhat of a ritual here. I’ve never been in a place where food is so… respected. Mealtimes are generally adhered to, the family gathers around the table together, and the food is savored. Meals aren’t rushed and all courses are taken in stride: first, the pasta, then the meat, then salad and fruit, and sweets to finish it off.  The TV is usually on in the background, turned to the cooking channel (or once, we even watched an Italian-dubbed episode of “Cake Boss” that was showing). Conversation flows as hands reach across the table, snatching another piece of bread or grabbing the bottle of olive oil. At the end of it all, you can’t help but feel satisfied. And I don’t just mean your stomach.

Disclaimer: I should note that this has been my personal experience, so I can’t guarantee it’s like this across the board. But I hope it is. Because that would make the world a happier place.

Now it’s time for Round 2 of the pictures (Round 1 was back in Life of the Party). Brace yourself—there are quite a few.

Milano on a dime

Here’s the trick—don’t buy anything.

I know, I know… it’s tempting to get the Prada bag that’s on sale for a thousand-something euros. But let’s look at this from a logistic perspective: I’m a college student and, therefore, I have no money. What I do have is a few euros, so I have to spend the money on things that count, like touring cathedrals and buying gelato. And honestly, I think the gelato trumps the Prada bag anyway. But maybe that’s just me.

Vito, Arianna, and I arrive in Milan after a 3-hour train ride. Apparently, the train station is one of the must-see sights of Milan, and it’s not hard for me to see why.

Alberto, Vito’s cousin who lives in Milan, has agreed to show us around for the day and is waiting for us outside. First, we begin with a ride on the metro.

Even the metro looks classy.

Even the metro looks classy.

Shortly after we reappear on the city streets, Vito and Arianna vanish into store, leaving Alberto and me to walk around the city. I try mustering up something in broken Italian before Alberto stops me with, “Don’t worry. I speak English.” Maybe I shouldn’t rely so heavily on English here, but I have to admit that it’s helpful. Besides, I can always practice my Italian at the beach or with the grandparents.

Alberto and I begin at the Teatro alla Scala, a famous opera house. We aren’t able to go inside, but we walk around the piazza and admire the statue of Leonardo da Vinci. “Da Vinci was crazy,” Alberto tells me. “The man only slept for 10 minutes at a time and took several naps throughout the day.”

The world-renowned opera house.

The world-renowned opera house.

In the piazza outside of the Scala.

In the piazza outside of the Scala.

Next, we walk through the Galleria, a mall with breathtaking architecture. In the middle of the Galleria is a tile mosaic of a bull and there’s a hole where his (ahem) genitals are supposed to be. For good luck, you place your heel in the hole and spin around three times. Alberto watches from the side as I attempt it. How could I pass up an opportunity for good luck?

Yup, there is it. Or rather, there it isn't.

Yup, there is it. Or rather, there it isn’t.

Exhibit A for getting good luck.

Exhibit A for getting good luck.

We wait for Vito and Arianna in the Piazza Duomo, which is just outside of the Galleria. One of the buildings bordering the piazza is the Palazzo Reale, an art museum with a courtyard used for outdoor concerts. We try walking around the courtyard but don’t get very far, as a wedding is taking place and a throng of wedding guests crowds the entrance. Alberto announces that he needs his morning café, so we wander along the outskirts of the piazza until we stumble across a bar. As we walk, Alberto points at the statue in the middle of the piazza.

“Do you know why all four of the horse’s legs are on the ground?”

“Nope.”

“If all four legs are on the ground, the rider lived. If only one of the front hooves is off the ground, the rider was injured. If both front legs are in the air, the rider died in battle.”

I should probably pay more attention in school.

After Alberto gets his  café, we sit on the Duomo steps until Vito and Arianna join us.

We decide to do a little shopping before touring the Duomo. The only problem is that the stores are PACKED with people, as it’s the first day of a major sale. Luckily, we get out alive (and without buying anything).

A display made with plastic bags outside of Zara.

A display made with plastic bags outside of Zara.

Walking down one of the main streets in Milan.

Walking down one of the main streets in Milan.

Finally, it’s time to check out the Duomo. Although it costs a few euros per person, we decide to venture up to the roof. Climbing the 250 stairs to the top is cheaper than taking the elevator, so we opt for that. Afterwards, we go inside of the cathedral. Guards stand outside of the entrance, checking bags with a cursory glance and making sure everyone is appropriately dressed. I see the guards turn away a woman in a tank top and make another woman wait outside as she ties a sarong over her shorts.

We decide to get gelato before heading to the Castello Sforzesco, an old castle that houses and handful of small museums. On the way, we walk through the original marketplace. Alberto pulls us into one of the stores and orders macarons for Arianna and me to try. He hands us the tiny confectioneries and tells us to close our eyes before taking a bite. All I have to say is that Italians know their way around i dolci, or sweets.

Our last stop for the day is the Castello Sforzesco. We don’t pay to go into any of the museums, but we walk around the grounds for free. As we meander through the park, my right sandal decides it has had quite enough walking for one summer and snaps. I feel a bit idiotic tripping over myself as I keep walking, trying to play it off, but it’s painfully obvious that my shoe is broken. Luckily, vendors at a nearby food cart provide a rubber band, which I use to strap my shoe onto my foot. I feel quite stylish. I mean, what better place to walk around with a rubber band on your foot than the fashion capital of the world?

When the alarm goes off at 4am

ERR ERR ERR ERR

One eye peels open, glaring in the general direction of my alarm clock. Ugh. It’s still dark outside. Why did I set the alarm for 4am again?

Oh yeah. Because we’re going to Rome today.

After packing our day packs and eating breakfast, Arianna and I leave the house at 5am to pick up her two friends who are joining us, Elisa and Annalisa. We arrive just in time to catch the 5:30 bus. We’re scheduled to arrive in Rome a little after 9, so I use the time to catch up on lost sleep.

Once we’re off the bus, we head to the nearest metro station. After looking at the map, we decide to begin our trek through the city at the Colosseo and wing it from there. The metro reminds me of Boston and I feel quite at home underneath the city, even though I still can’t read the signs or the posters on the walls. Once at our stop, we lumber off of the train and climb the stairs to the exit. I catch glimpses of the Colosseum outside as we make our way to the door.

You know those moments when you see something for the first time and you just stand there and gape at it, pinching yourself every once in a while to make sure it’s real? Yeah. That happened. I mean, the thing is HUGE. Sure, I’ve seen it in pictures a thousand times, but you can’t understand the magnitude of something until you’re standing in its shadow, staring straight up at it.

My stomach reminds me that I haven’t fed it in a few hours, so the four of us navigate our way to an overlook with a cafe. Annalisa heads for the cafe while the rest of us unwrap the tinfoil covering our homemade breakfast sandwiches. We lean against the railing as we eat, soaking up the morning sunlight and the incredible panorama before us.

Then the real journey begins. We buy a map of Rome from a sidewalk vendor and start for Piazza Venezia after we finally orient ourselves with the map.

Anna figuring out our location.

Annalisa figuring out our location.

A fountain under construction that we passed on the way to Piazza Venezia.

A fountain under construction that we passed on the way to Piazza Venezia.

As we walk, I hear more English than Italian and it throws me off quite a bit. A family asks us for directions in English, then a couple of women ask us to take their picture. I almost have to remind myself to respond with “sure” instead of “sì.”

Next stop, Fontana di Trevi. For the largest Baroque fountain in the city (thanks, Wikipedia), the actual piazza is pretty small. Or maybe it just seems that way because there are so many people here. While we’re taking pictures, we hear several police whistles and watch a couple officers in uniform walk towards the fountain, motioning as if to say, “Get out of the fountain RIGHT NOW.” Curious, I look over and see a newlywed couple and their photographers near the base of the fountain. Apparently, they were trying to get a shot of the couple’s feet in the water, but it didn’t go over so well. Before we leave, Arianna hands me a coin so I can make a wish. Following tradition, we take turns standing next to the fountain and tossing the coins over our heads and into the water. And no, I’m not going to tell you what I wished for.

After that, we find the Piazza di Spagna and climb the stairs to the top. Arianna checks her watch and suggests we head towards the Vaticano so we can get there by noon. We skip down the stairs and walk down Via Condotti, a famous street in Rome that’s lined with designer shops. The road eventually leads us to the Palazzo di Giustizia where we cross the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River). From there, we can see San Pietro, the cathedral in the Vatican.

When we finally arrive in Vatican City, Annalisa, Arianna, and Elisa buy fedora hats from a street vendor. I watch as they haggle prices, talking the vendor down from 10 euros to 5. Apparently haggling is easy to do with the street vendors, but few tourists try it. Once we make it into the Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Square), Arianna tells me that  the Pope delivers a short sermon every Sunday around noon. We still have twenty minutes, but I’m surprised by how quickly the square fills with people. A few minutes before noon, a window opens and a red flag is unfurled. When Papa Francisco appears in the window a little later, the air fills with applause and excited cheering. He begins to address us, “Fratelli e sorelle. (Brothers and sisters).” I don’t understand much after that, but regardless, I still feel the sense of wonderment that comes when you know you’re having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We spend the rest of the day doing what we do bestshopping. We wander into almost every shoe store we see and also spend some time looking for new sunglasses for Elisa. While we’re walking, Arianna stops in a local store and asks the owner where we should get gelato. At his suggestion, we walk further down the street to Pompi, a small store known for its gelato and tiramsù. And while I’ve said before that gelato is incredible, this stuff is divine. The dark chocolate melts in your mouth and drips down your throat, leaving behind a trail of contentment and happiness.

For the ride home, our seats are split up. I watch Arianna, Elisa, and Annalisa head to the second story of the bus where their seats are located before finding my own seat on the first floor. There’s a girl sitting in the seat next to mine, and as I motion that my seat is next to the window, she mumbles a quick “sorry” as she moves out of the way.

Wait. That was English.

I wait for her to sit down again before I ask, “Sorry, do you speak English?”

A look of relief crosses her face. She’s from Malaysia (apparently English is the spoken language there… something I didn’t know before) and attends a university in Australia, although she’s in Italy for a month studying law. She’s on her way back from a weekend at Disneyland in Paris. We talk for the next three hours about everythingbooks, culture, shopping, religion, meditation, my fiancé, families, dreams, traveling, Forever 21, movies, Harry Potter, K-mart. Literally, everything.

Half-way through the conversation, she pauses, “Wait, what’s your name?”

Oh, right. I guess we skipped that part. “I’m Susie.”

She laughs. “Me too! But I spell it S-u-z.”

It’s a small world after all.

Little wonders

When I hear people talk about vacations in Italy, they always name-drop with cities: Rome, Venice, Florence… the list goes on. But sometimes the most extraordinary things aren’t mentioned in a travel brochure. I mean, the travel brochures are great, but they miss stuff.

Early Sunday morning, I meet Arianna for breakfast at the house. After munching on some biscotti, the two of us get in the car and begin  driving to Loreto, the hometown of the Basilica della Santa Casa, or Shrine of the Holy House. I first learned about the cathedral when I arrived here. Vito had pointed it out as we passed it on the highway, and he told me that it was a popular pilgrimage site and that I would be able to visit it sometime during my trip. That day is today.

Walking up to the cathedral.

Walking up to the cathedral.

The view as we make our way to the piazza.

The view as we make our way to the piazza.

As we enter the basilica, Arianna points to a sign just outside of the entrance. According to the sign, no photography or videotaping is allowed inside, and tank tops and short skirts are also prohibited. We take our seats  just in time for the mass to start. This is my first time at a Catholic mass, but it’s in Italian, so I don’t understand very much. As I listen to the organ, I gaze upward at the arches, the stained glass, the various chapels lining the walls. Once the mass is finished, Arianna and I walk around the basilica and look more closely at the chapels and the artwork. Before going outside to the piazza, we walk through a little chapel in the center of the basilica that’s enclosed in a marble structure. The name of this chapel is the Holy House, and it was constructed to be symbolic of where Christ, Mary, and Joseph lived while in Nazareth. In fact, the stones lining the walls of this chapel are from Nazareth. The chapel has a sense of reverence and respect, and most people stand there peacefully while gazing at the ornate display at the front of the chapel, where a statue of the black Madonna sits above the altar. Apparently, the black Madonna wasn’t always black. Initially, she was painted on wood, which was eventually replaced with a wooden statue, and the wood gradually became dark because of the smoke from all of the lamps and the candles. When a fire in 1921 destroyed the wooden statue, a new statue was made and the sculptor used a black tint in the coloring.  By this point, everyone was so used to seeing a black Madonna that no one noticed. (I wish I could say I knew all of that beforehand, but I actually get the information from an English pamphlet I pick up towards the entrance.)

Arianna and I leave the cathedral and walk outside to the Piazza della Madonna. Little shops line either side of the piazza, and Arianna looks for a candle to bring home while I walk around and snap some photos of the basilica and the fountain.

The front of the basilica.

The front of the basilica.

Later in the week, we drive an hour and a half to the Grotte di Frasassi, or the Frasassi Caves. We buy our tickets and wait at for the bus that will take us to the entrance. The change in scenery reminds me of vacationing in the Berkshires or driving through a canyon in Utah.

Some of the mountains outside of the caves.

Some of the mountains outside of the caves.

The ticket station for the Grotte di Frasassi.

The ticket station for the Grotte di Frasassi.

Waiting for the bus.

Waiting for the bus.

You know those little headphones you see at museums for people who speak a different language? Yeah, I get one of those. Honestly, I feel kind of cool carrying it around, but that’s probably because it’s temporary. A few minutes into the tour, Bianca decides she doesn’t love the caves very much and wants to leave. Vito volunteers to take her outside, since his shoes are soaked through, and Arianna and I finish the tour. It’s pretty cool inside (figuratively and literally), but pictures are prohibited, so I get a couple outside.

Finally, Vito tells me that we’re going to dinner at Montelupone, a small town in the mountains. There’s a popular restaurant in the center of town that serves you authentic Neapolitan pizza as you sit in the piazza. We arrive around 8:30 and sit at our table. It’s a pretty relaxed and informal atmosphere–tables are pushed close together, everyone is sitting in green, plastic lawn chairs, and the tables are covered with poster paper for an easy clean-up. Our waitress tells us that it will be a while before our pizzas are ready, so Vito, Arianna, and I take turns walking with Bianca around the piazza.

About an hour later, the pizza arrives. We each have our own 8″ pizza, and at first I wonder if they have to-go boxes here. I glance at nearby tables and notice that everyone has their own pizzas and no one is leaving leftovers. I can handle this. Ready, set, go.

A few blissful minutes later, there are two slices remaining on my plate. I’m slowing working on one of the pieces and eyeing the last one when Vito spots me.

“Is it too much?” he asks.

“Err… maybe. We’ll have to see how this goes.”

“Don’t worry. If you don’t finish it, I will.”

Let’s think about this for a second. I’m in Italy, sitting in a piazza at ten o’clock at night eating authentic Neapolitan pizza, and I’m not going to finish it? Pshh. Who am I kidding? A minute later, my plate is empty. When in doubt, eat the pizza.

Inception, Sicilian style

You know how Inception is about a dream inside of a dream? Well this is like a vacation inside of a vacation.

Around 6:30 on Monday morning, I haul my carry on down four flights of stairs and onto the street, where I meet Arianna, Bianca, Vito, and their friend, Patrizia. We pile into the car, head to the Ancona airport, and wait to board our plane to Sicily. We’re flying on Ryanair, a ridiculously cheap airline that flies throughout Europe. We scan our tickets and, as we walk towards the plane, I notice several people running. “That’s odd,” I think to myself. “Why does it matter when there are assigned seats?” Well, as I discover upon boarding the plane, there aren’t assigned seats and it’s a complete free-for-all. We snag two rows and let Bianca sit by the window, since it’s her first time flying. Once everyone is situated, the plane rumbles down the runway and within a few minutes after takeoff, I’m lulled to sleep by the whirring of the engine.

The next thing I know, we’re landing in Sicily.

A hop, skip, and a rental car later, we’re driving from the Trapani airport to our destination: San Vito Lo Capo, a small, seaside town in north-western Sicily. Upon arrival, we unpack our swimsuits, down a light lunch, and walk three blocks to the beach. The water looks like something straight out of a travel ad. I stroll along the shore and dig my toes into the pristine, ivory sand. Some of the sand is pink, and Vito tells me later that this is because of nearby coral reefs. We spend the rest of the day lounging around on beach towels and soaking up the intense Sicilian sun.

We wake up bright and early on Tuesday morning for breakfast, and by 8:30, we’re at the beach again. Arianna and I leave the shore to walk around downtown. We notice several light displays that line the street, and we decide to return that evening to see them lit up. On our way back to the beach, Arianna tells me how she likes walking through the back roads and side streets of a town, since that’s how you learn about its true personality. We decide to zig-zag back, and as we pass some of the locals, I ask Arianna if she can hear the Sicilian dialect. She smiles and nods. I don’t notice it—it all sounds the same to me. Later that night, we return to the downtown area. It seems as if everyone in the town has come to walk through the local shops and check out the restaurants. Before heading home for the night, Bianca rides a few of the attractions they have for younger kids, including a miniature mechanical bull.

Bianca riding the mechanical bull.

Bianca riding the mechanical bull.

Wednesday, we spend the entire day at the beach. As nighttime comes around, we pile back into the car and begin the 45-minute trek to the Sicilian town of Erice. Our final ascent is a road with some pretty serious switchbacks, and by the time we reach the top, we’re driving through clouds. The temperature is significantly lower than it is at our seaside getaway, and I become painfully aware of it as I stand there in my cardigan and sweatpants. The scarf wrapped around my neck helps a little.

The cobblestone streets are narrow and steep, but we navigate our way to a Maria Grammatico bakery near the center of the town. The display case is stocked with piles of delectable goodness, like biscotti, cakes, and pies. And then I spot them: the Sicilian cannoli. Vito orders two cannoli and two lemon tarts for us to split. The tarts are still warm, so we eat those first. Then I pick up my half of the cannolo. The wafer cracks as I bite down gently and my mouth fills with the creamy, sugary filling. They say happiness comes in small packages, and I’m convinced that I’m holding one of those small packages in my hand, wrapped in a fried wafer and dusted with powdered sugar.

I almost want to take a bite right out of the screen. Almost.

I almost want to take a bite right out of the screen. Almost.

As we leave the bakery, I notice a map of the United States and a list of cities that have Maria Grammatico products. To my delight, there are three stores in Boston. I ask the lady behind the counter about it as I leave, and she shows me the fudge bar that they ship to the States. Here, you can buy it for a euro (roughly $1.25). In the States, it costs $9. I guess I won’t be buying one when I get home. We return to the cobblestone streets and begin our hunt for the castle. After some detours and a few more hills, we find it. Words can’t adequately describe the view from there, but check out the pictures of it at the end of this post. They speak for themselves.

Thursday is again spent on the beach. In the morning, Arianna and I walk the length of the beach while waist-deep in the water (which is a pretty solid workout, as my legs tell me afterwards). As we walk, Arianna sings part the chorus of an Italian rap song,

“Sapore di sale

Sa-sa-sapore di sale,

Gua-gua-guarda là che mare

Gua-gua-guarda là che mare.”

Essentially, “the taste of salt, looks beyond the sea.” As I try to sing along, I keep saying sapone instead of sapore (“soap” instead of “salt”) and male instead of mare (“bad” instead of “sea”). It throws the meaning off just a little bit. Later, Vito and I walk along the beach and give each other language lessons. He teaches me about some of the dialect from his region, and I tell him about how Bostonians use “wicked” as a synonym for “very.”

“So, for example,” Vito says, “you could say that the water is wicked cold?”

Yes. Exactly. I can’t help but grin.

That night, we head back into town for a dinner of couscous with fish. Couscous is a dish made with small, steamed granules of wheat, and it’s usually topped with meat, fish, or vegetables. It’s traditionally a North African dish, but Sicilian couscous is also famous for its authenticity. After dinner, we walk through downtown one last time before returning home and packing our suitcases. Early on Friday morning, we wave goodbye.

The life of the party

No, I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about food.

Think about it, and be honest with yourself. When you arrive at a party, one of the first things on your to-do list is to locate the food table. Are there chips, maybe some salsa and queso? How about birthday cake? And don’t underestimate the popularity of the veggie tray (although I feel like every time I see one of those, everything is gone except for the cauliflower. What do people have against cauliflower??).

So let’s talk about food. Specifically, Italian food. Because it’s the most magical stuff on earth.

The first time I eat a home-cooked meal in Italy, I sit at the table and a heaping pile of pasta is placed before me. I drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over the noodles (olive oil goes on pretty much everything here), followed by freshly grated parmesan cheese. I bring a spoonful up to my lips and breathe in before taking a bite.

Ahh. So this is what perfection tastes like.

As soon as the pasta has vanished from my plate, Arianna takes my dish from me and asks if I’m ready for the carne, or meat. Oh. I guess they do courses here. Note to self: don’t fill up on the pasta.

Here are a few examples of the food I’ve come across so far on my trip. For a slideshow with descriptions, click on one of the pictures. Buon appetito.

I just wanna run

If you’re ever lacking motivation to go on a run, try scouting out a new trail. Or a new town. Or a new country.

When I first arrived in Italy, I made two promises to myself: (1) I would go running several times a week and (2) I would not use headphones. The second promise is kind of a big deal since I’ve never been comfortable running without them. But here we go, cold turkey.

Every time I go running in Porto Potenza, I feel like I’m frolicking through one of da Vinci’s paintings. I’m so busy gaping at the landscape that I hardly notice the uphill climbs. Birds sing and leaves overhead rustle in the breeze. It’s amazing the soundtrack that Mother Nature plays for you if you just listen for it. For me, headphones are definitely a thing of the past.

This morning, Arianna and I decide to do our normal route that takes us up past the cemetery to Casette Antonelli on top of the hill, and then make our way back down to the beach. The route is about 10 km (for those of you who are like me and don’t want to do the conversion in your head, it’s a little over 6 miles) and includes some decent hills and incredible scenery. And just to prove it to you, I’m bringing my camera.

After breakfast, we drop Bianca off at the nursery and start the uphill climb to Casette Antonelli.

The view during our uphill climb.

The view during our uphill climb.

As we run, we exchange vocabulary and pronunciation tips. “Horse,” I say, pointing to one that’s grazing nearby. Arianna repeats the word a couple of times, and then tells me the Italian equivalent: cavallo. I say it until my pronunciation is correct.

Welcome to Casette Antonelli. In other words, congrats on making it to the top of the hill.

Welcome to Casette Antonelli. In other words, congrats on making it to the top of the hill.

Casette Antonelli is a little village a few kilometers away from Porto Potenza. When we finally make it there, I get a little lesson in Italian pronunciation. “It’s not Casette Antonelli,” Arianna tells me. “It’s CaseT-Te AntoneL-Li. When there are two of the same letters, you say both of them.” I have to repeat it multiple times before I say it right.

A "children crossing" sign.

A “children crossing” sign.

This isn’t fair. Even their signs are cute. I mean, the girl has a BOW in her hair.

The view of the Adriatic Sea from Casette Antonelli.

The view of the Adriatic Sea from Casette Antonelli.

In the distance, you can see Monte Conero. The mountain is about a 30-minute drive from Porto Potenza.

In the distance, you can see Monte Conero. The mountain is about a 30-minute drive from Porto Potenza.

Yes, it actually looks like that. Everywhere.

Yes, it actually looks like that. Everywhere.

The run down the hill is just as picturesque.

One of the streets we run on.

One of the streets on our route.

As we arrive at the main road that takes us back to the beach, Arianna spots a tiny kitten sleeping next to the sidewalk. We initially jog past it, but we make it only a few steps before turning around and going back. Arianna picks up the kitty and, just like that, we bring it home with us. We get back with just enough time to shower before lunch. It’s only noon and I’ve already gone on a run, toured some of the countryside, learned a little Italian vocabulary, and made a new furry friend. And who says you can’t be productive on vacation?

C'mon, be real. You'd take the kitty home, too.

C’mon now. You’d take the kitty home, too.

A whole new world

Before you can blend into a new culture, you have to figure out some of the details. Most of that “figuring out” will happen on your own, and mostly on accident. The key element here is observing your surroundings closely. Like in the bathroom.

Let me introduce you to... the bidet.

Let me introduce you to… the bidet.

When I first see this sink next to the toilet, I’m little confused. After contemplating for a bit, I decide it must be for handwashing clothes, although I can’t figure out why it is so low to the ground and positioned right next to the toilet. Maybe it’s to save space? I dunno. But regardless of the reasons, I grab my running clothes and go to work.

After I pin them up to dry on the clothes rack outside of my front door, I head over to the house for dinner. Vito and Bianca are sitting at the table, and I take the opportunity to confirm that the sink is actually for handwashing clothes. Because, you know, I’m so smart and figured it out on my own.

I ask Vito what the small sink in the bathroom is for, and he starts laughing. I begin to get the impression that it might not be for handwashing clothes, after all. Crap.

“So you found the bidet (pronounced bee-day)? I don’t think they don’t have those in the States.” Nope.

He laughs again before continuing, “It’s called a bidet and all of the houses in Italy have them in the bathroom. It’s…” he pauses for a second, mulling over how to word what he’s going to say next. “It’s… when women go to the bathroom, they use the bidet afterwards to wash themselves. It’s a sanitary procedure.”

And I washed my running clothes in it? “You mean, they wash their hands, right?”

“No, no. Their bottoms.”

Ahh. Right. Well, at least no one has used the bidet in my bathroom yet since the apartment was just finished recently. But yeah… bidets. Good to know.

A couple days later, Arianna and I go for a run, our destination being Civitanova Alta. It’s a little town on top of a hill that overlooks Civitanova Marche, which is the town next to Porto Potenza. There’s a really nice trail for cyclists and pedestrians that snakes its way to the foot of the hill, and then there’s a relatively steep climb to the town.

Civitanova Alta from the trail.

Civitanova Alta from the trail.

We do some exploring once we get into the city itself.

Inside Civitanova Alta

Inside of Civitanova Alta

An alley and some houses in Civitanova Alta.

An alley and some houses in Civitanova Alta

One of the staircases in the city.

One of the many staircases in the city

During our run back to the car, I notice something else that’s different about the culture: Italians only take the personal space that they need. Let me explain.

When you’re on a run in the States and you encounter any other person on the road, you drift to one side of the sidewalk while the other person hugs the opposite side. This probably results in a good two or three feet between you two. If you’re feeling particularly bold, maybe you only leave a foot of room. But the point is that there is space.

That doesn’t happen in Italy. Anywhere.

At first, I give people lots of room on the sidewalk, and then I realize I’m the only one doing it. Everyone else maintains their course, whether or not they encounter someone heading in the opposite direction. When that happens, each party moves just enough to miss each other (I’m talking maybe an inch or two between their shoulders as they pass) and then they continue on their way.

Later, I notice that this doesn’t just apply to runners—it happens everywhere, like in the grocery store or when pedestrians cross the street.

On our drive back home, Arianna speeds past a hard-to-see pedestrian on the crosswalk.

“Oops, I didn’t see him,” she says. “Meh. Centi punti.” One hundred points.

I crack up. I don’t know why I’m surprised to find that they play that game here, too. A minute later, we pass a girl who’s jaywalking.

Più giovane. Mille punti.” Younger. A thousand points.

We laugh the whole way home.

The new stamps in my passport

“You’re actually flying out of Terminal C.”

Which would be wonderful, except for the fact that I’m talking to a Lufthansa agent in Terminal E. “The flight is being outfitted by United. It says so there,” she tells me as she points to a highlighted note on my itinerary. Oh. Maybe I should try reading the whole thing sometime. But I guess this is why I arrived at the Logan Airport two hours early.

Guided by her directions and an occasional sign, I troop down the escalator, past Dunkies, across the taxi lane, and through a rather sketchy hallway until I arrive in Terminal C. A couple uneventful hours later, I find myself on the plane bound for Washington DC. The man sitting next to me has little sense of personal space and reeks of alcohol, but I use my headphones to drown out his life story that he’s sharing with the passenger on his other side and I watch the cities below me flicker to life. My mind focuses on the journey that is about to begin.

The plan is this: a short layover in DC followed by a six hour flight to London, where I’ll stay for a couple of days with my mother’s friend. Then I’ll fly out of London, have a brief layover in Munich, and finally arrive Italy, where I’ll be living for the next few months as an English tutor/au pair.

When I exit the plane, I see that the flight to London is already boarding. Luckily for me, it’s only two gates away. After takeoff, the flight attendants serve us dinner, giving us the option between pasta and chicken. I opt for the pasta. The meal also includes a roll, salad, and some cookies—the perfect amount of dinner to send me into a food coma for the next three hours. I wake up as the flight attendants pull the breakfast cart down the aisle. The menu includes a croissant, a bowl of fruit (Mom, be proud…I ate the whole thing), and juice. I feel slightly disoriented when we land in London, seeing as my internal clock is practically yelling at me to find a bed so I can get some decent sleep.

Izi, my mom’s friend, meets me after I get my luggage. We talk about all sorts of things as we drive to her house, and the whole time, I’m staring at the oncoming traffic that’s driving on what I consider to be the wrong side of the road. Once we get home, Izi introduces me to Don, her husband, and then gives me a little snack before I head up to my room for a quick nap.

Seven hours later, I stumble down the stairs.

“I’m alive,” I announce, although it doesn’t sound very convincing.

“Ahh, look!” Izi announces to Don. “Sleeping Beauty’s awake at last!”

We decide on fish and chips for dinner, and Don leaves to go pick it up from the store. I amble around the house, becoming more accustomed with my surroundings. If there was one word I had to choose to describe London, it would be “quaint.” The people are delightful, the buildings are cozy, and, as I discover when Don returns with dinner, the portions of fish and chips are huge. We turn on an episode of Castle as we sit at the table and begin to feast. There’s a side of mashed peas that comes with the food and it’s roughly the same consistency as refried beans. I’m not sure what to think of it as I scoop some onto my plate, but I open my mind and my mouth and… it turns out to be pretty good. I go back for seconds.

During dinner, we begin talking about American politics. I come to the conclusion that I need to educate myself more on the subject—Don knows more about my country’s government than I do. After we talk for a couple of hours, I head upstairs for bed, and to my surprise (although it might not be a surprise to anyone else), I pass out within a few minutes, despite the seven hours I logged in earlier.

The next day consists of sight-seeing with Izi. The two of us pile into her car and we check out Windsor Castle and the Thames (pronounced “tems”) River in the morning. We also drive through Windsor Great Park and see about 40 of the royal deer sitting together on the grass by the road. In the afternoon, we drive by Buckingham Palace and through downtown London. On a whim, Izi asks if I’m interested in trying to ride on the Eye. Eagerly, I agree. We find parking in a nearby lot and head to the ticket station. We make it into the capsule and we see that we are the second to last group before they close for the evening. The view is incredible, and we are fortunate enough to see the sunset as we get to the top of the ride. We can see everything from up there—Waterloo Station, Big Ben, the House of Parliament, a new glass building called the Shard, and much more. It’s truly breathtaking. The city lights turn on during our descent, and from our lofty perch above London, we watch the sky become darker and the city glow brighter.

For your Gee Whiz collection: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, not the clock.

For your Gee Whiz collection: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, not the clock.

A backward glimpse after the ride

A backward glimpse after the ride

The following morning, Izi takes me back to the airport. A couple of hours later, I’m strolling through the airport in Munich. Everything is in German—the advertisements, the announcements, the signs—and while I can’t understand any of it, I feel very at peace. No, that’s not quite right…I’m in awe. It’s both humbling and mystifying  to be in a foreign and unfamiliar place.

On the ride to Ancona, I sit next to an old Italian man who acts like he has never flown on an airplane before. The announcements are first in Italian, then in German, then in English. Once we are airborne, I look out the window and see what I think are the Alps, but I’m not positive. I should ask the man sitting next to me. Does he even speak English? No clue. But you know what, I have two new stamps in my passport and I feel like I can handle anything right now.

Scusi,” I tap the shoulder of the old man. He turns to me. “Are those the Alps?”

Mi dispiace, non capisco.” Sorry, I don’t understand.

I point, “Gli Apli?” The Alps?

Oh, sì (some more Italian I can’t understand).

Sì, sì. Grazie.

He smiles. “Prego.” You’re welcome.

And that was it. My first conversation in Italian. Not the most glorious conversation ever, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

Vito, the father of the host family I’m staying with, picks me up from the airport. He knows a lot of English, so he tells me about Italy and about his family as we drive home. Arianna, Vito’s wife, greets us as we pull into the driveway and gives me a huge hug. I’m already feeling at home here. Bianca, their two-old daughter, is sleeping still, so I’ll meet her after I put my things in my apartment. We hike up four flights of stairs to the apartment where I’ll be living for the next few months and they  tell me that dinner is in an hour, but I can come later if I need to sleep. They leave me to unpack and I take a deep breath as I look around the apartment—my apartment—for the first time.

My bedroom

My bedroom

The living room and dining area. There's also a small kitchen in the corner

The living room and dining area. There’s also a small kitchen in the corner.

The bathroom

The bathroom

The view from my living room window. See that blue thing? That, my friends, is the Adriatic Sea. Boo ya.

The view from my living room window. See that blue thing? That, my friends, is the Adriatic Sea. Boo ya.

And so it begins.