Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mon and Jo`s Eggcellent Adventure (The Princess Diaries)

(MH) One of the best things a mentor once said to me was about the development of one´s conception of self. In his office four years ago, when I was planning on leaving a reality that I had no tangible reasons for needing to leave, when he could have been disappointed or disengaged, he decided on a different course. "You think there is a core, or a set of central elements that are you, that are the things that define you. And you settled there. Until, those change, or fall away entirely, sometimes without your even noticing." My twenty-four (and even now) wanted a stopping point: "Does that ever stop? Is there ever a time when you know for sure?" "No. There´s just different beginnings for the questions."

It started when Johanna sent me an email. Subject line: Hold the phone: HOSTELS. I puked a little in my mouth. I even remember waiting a few hours to open it. My powers of denial are...well...powerful. But I opened it and, since I´m a poor graduate student and all, I couldn´t really argue with the bottom line: hostels were way cheaper.

The thing was this: my family traveled a lot when I was young. My first big trip happened when I was four and we went to Italy. This was the first of many summers and vacations in Italy, or Greece, or Israel, or Morocco, or Spain, or Indonesia, or Turkey, or Curacao, or wherever struck my parents´fancy. I can see my little legs dangling over a chair in a marble-encrusted lobby, dress swishing against the upholstered antique chair, arms politely folded in my lap, waiting for Maria, Mom and Dad to finish coffee or after dinner drink, spending my time wondering at the chandeliers that lined the hallways, the smartly-uniformed bell boys, the bow-tie tied waiters. Perfectly pressed, perfectly polished, perfectly posh. That´s just what traveling was to me. It was more than comfy, it was about how much excess we could partake in. In no way am I mad at it, of course: it´s nice to be surrounded by luxe and my parents earned the chandeliers and marble tubs and plushy robes with every burrito they sold and every school function they couldn´t make it to.

But it happens that that much excess makes its way inside. And it happens that my stomach turned a little at the idea of bunk beds and shared showers and messy, drunk, tube-top wearing college graduates on their version of the Grand Tour.

But it also happens -- in line with the fact that you can always surprise yourself -- that the things you think you need (and need) all of a sudden, with no warning, become merely the things you remember needing. And more, in this case: I don´t know if I ever want to travel in that other, superficially comfier way again (nb: not that my current career choice allows forthis possibility. I'm just sayin'...if I had the option. Heh.)

In Firenze, at Dinner 1.0 at Acqua al Due, we were seated next to brothers who toasted perhaps the only toast that we should ever toast. The eldest (I´m making that up, but I want it to be true) raised his glass: "Because we are in Florence. Because we´ve worked so hard." He said it in Italian and I translated for Johanna. And what followed was the kind of silence I am blessed to have with my closest, dearest.

Not that we´ve really slummed it all that much, thanks to Venus. Mostly we´ve been in private rooms (aside from that night with the Night Shouter, whom I christened either Fritz, short for Friederich, or Hans) mostly we´ve had at least a toilet to ourselves, even if the shower was shared with other rooms. But my point and I´m having a hard time getting to it, is that this trip helps me leave in the past, the Princess. Or the part of my Princess that doesn´t know the riches of earning experience. Really, truly earning every moment of travel with past hard work, with present sacrifices. The Princess that doesn´t know that the world is generous, and more than meets you the more you´ve unfettered. "Que dejamos atras cuando cruzamos fronteras?" is one of my favorite quotations from _The Motorcycle Diaries_ and I´ve been thinking about it the entire time on our trip as we´ve crossed borders and oceans and ridden in planes, trains, little and big buses and with our foots. My favorite part is that I can´t anticipate what this - reframing my idea of travel - will mean. In five years. Or ten. Or twenty. But I´m sure only good things.

With one small caveat. Food. The thing that remains is my oldest, most treasured way of enjoying new places: smart food. Sometimes, but by no means all the time, this food is fancy and served in fancy places with fancy menus and fancy wine lists. (It can also happen that food masquerades as smart with all the fancy accessories, but luckily and thankfully I can tell the difference.) What I value is the intelligence that anticipates that small slices of ripe strawberry will compliment the gazpacho (like this afternoon at Attic off La Ramblain Barcelona's Barri Gotic); the wisdom of the Catalan region that would glaze a codfish filet (bacalao) with honey, then bakes it at the exact right amount of time so it retains its meatiness and loses none of its moisture -- in an iron pan with golden raisins and pine nuts at El Qatre Gats our first night in Barcelona; the insight that knew that arroz con leche was a potentially amazing flavor for gelato, the civilizations the world over that understand that sometimes, all you need is to gently, delicately fry some dough -- just enough to leave the memory of its former, smoother life inside: (thank you Cafe de la Opera). This part of how I was raised in travel stays. 'Cause it actually has nothing to do with luxury. It has everthing to do with a reverence for Craft and the right reasons for indulgence: celebration; gratitude; accomplishment; experiment; communion.

We´ve been thinking about why Barcelona feels so different. I'm still not sure, but it might be something about how it´s still a living modernist dream. Or maybe it's about the difference between Spain's modernismo and what my department teaches me about modernism. Either way, something in the air here didn´t quite take the turn with the rest of the world where "time flies when you´re having fun", where efficiency dictates the pace. I´m conviced, by the way, that that idea, of time flying off when you´re having fun started as a factory manager's mean joke. The day would whizz by mechanized lives and they´d fling it at the exhausted bodies, no longer each in their own time, taken, instead, by industrial, alien rhythms.

You might want to say - and I´d probably say it if I were you, too - that I´m fantasizing. That, as a traveler here with no agenda and no job and no commitments, I´m seeing life in Barcelona through my own escapist desires. Maybe. Except that I already live somewhere that deeply fulfills me. Except that I already do the thing that satisfies. Except that for the first time in as long as I can remember, I am as happy - as entirely, truly happy - as I´ve ever been -- and then some. So I´ve nothing to escape. And, if anything, I don't remember my vision ever being clearer.

And if perception is reality, like Johanna reminds me, then I say here in Barcelona there´s the space for the individual clock (which is no clock at all). For the individual who changes her mind. For the individual who changes. And there is a new space in this individual for the kind of travel that is not about checking things off lists (how is it a vacation if you are on someone else's schedule, replicating someone else's values?) but about ignoring time (which is stretching it) and savoring other air.

And now to thank yous. Because I'm left with too much gratitude not to...

To my parents for showing me early that the United States has nothing on the rest of the world. Part of the reason they urged me not to speak English was because their immigrant eyes already knew what I'd read as elsewhere (Country Cousin). We might have the air to explore all of it (not that nearly enough people take advantage), but more than that it´s dubious at best that we didn´t take it from other people and call it our own in a less poetic language.

To Mo for teaching my nephews this already by raising them in Guadalajara in Italian, French, Spanish and English. They´ll have so many more ways to express wonder and delight.

Thank you to the Powers that conspired to make my graduate school funded, the ONLY reason I could take this trip now.

Thanks to anybody who read the random musings here. That´s super kind of you :)

And a super thank you to my friend, Johanna. It couldn´t be any other way and I couldn´t be happier. I´m already psyched for the next ones.

Oh, and look out for Johanna´s new diet: How to Eat Your Way around the World and Still Lose a Few. Coming to your local bookstore next fall...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There Is No Spoon

(JP) Well, today, sitting by a Barcelona port, I realized through various senses that a mission had very much been accomplished. At first, it seemed merely a practical achievement: to have arrived safely in Barcelona, the final stop on a long journey that has felt even longer. To have made it to the water, to this breeze, breathing, in one piece (but not exactly--i'll get to that later), blissful (but not quite--see previous caveat), and watching life be simply, gently rich in its beauty was a zen I had hoped for when Mon and I first booked this journey. But to have attained enough 'far awayness" to learn so much more than just the feeling of completing (almost) an itinerary was the larger goal all along. The greater aim and much more difficult task was to remember serenity again, to see oneself more clearly for having broken with routine. To see what matters most to you, by virtue of encountering varied surroundings, walking through them, letting them be your new reality and thus break the habits of environments' past. Today was the first time I felt certain those larger aims had been achieved. I remembered that our concept of time is only a measure of how near or far we are to the present moment.

For instance, Mon and I have not been the uber-pscyhed (and hella annoying if you ask me) type of travelers on this trip--the ones who get up early, see all the sights, take all the pictures, know all the hotspots. If anything, we have eaten our way through Europe. Like termites. Happy, rolling, termites. If anything, we've gotten up obscenely late in the day, picked a few things we thought might be nice to see, saw them, or maybe not, depending on how long a meal and conversation we ended up having. And yet, with only 'so many hours in a day', my days have never felt longer. Eternally so. Amsterdam feels like 4 months ago. I have to scrunch my brain to remember exactly what we did there (good thing we blogged). In feeling this warped, stretched sense of time I've learned that freedom to make of your present whatever feeling feels right to go with is the easiest way to prove time doesn't really exist. We've been utterly present to our present; each step..and the vacation as a result has been not only true to its travelers, but eternally long as a result. That's money well spent. That's time enough to change.

Eternal time enough to change, however, I also learned is a doubled-edged beast. The other, painful, rendering side of eternal is when I find myself simultaneously and constantly homesick for the one I love, Daniel. Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder - but I think that line is for those who still have some fond left to find. It's been yet another proof of our limited definitions of time that I can be - in exactly the same moment and body - utterly blissful and utterly incomplete because he's not here to share it. These moments, all of them, couldn't be happier; and always could be. I've been fully present, fully engaged in this experience, and yet also fully present to his absence every step of the way. It's funny how clearly I know now you really can be in dual realities in the same moment. There is no spoon, if you reframe your coordinates.

Enough time to change. That, we discussed over churros this morning too. (Spanish churros are wise and better. You should all know that.) In terms of needing to break from routine, even if the routine is fulfilling, in order to *choose* your routine. So often, we are merely products of habits and schedules repeated. They're good after all, so why should we change them? But that's the danger I had forgotten having been travel-starved for so long.. we must break from routine environments every so often enough to remember to choose them. Not to simply make the best life out of them. We are dealt only a few cards in life; the rest is up to us as far as what we make of them once the dealer calls.

Today, then, also became a lesson on my habits, good and awful. My two closest people - Dan and Monica - occupying my simultaneous realities throughout this trip, helped teach me about the importance of journey to become, really, better at the end of it than you were when you began (note: I also learned this trip that Mon hates the word 'journey'. Aside from Journey the band, which we can all agree is the word's best association). Sitting in the last page of our very long (and detailed!) itinerary today, I can confidently say I've now had a trip that broke me from routine, made me see myself from the outside in, understand what needs to improve, what makes me tick and why, what I have to be grateful for, and what it means to be free enough to go where you choose, when you choose, as you choose, with those who choose you too, and emerge improved. Disassembled. Humbled. Peaceful. Shaken. Enormous. Miniscule. Great. Messy. Tested. Empowered. Enlightened. Wondering. Raw. Protected. Scared. Certain. In Love. Loved.

Those are the real mountains summited. To get there, it included summiting to the very top of the Vatican, overlooking Rome (claustrophobic winding indoor staircases included). So glad Mon urged me to see the inside of the Vatican; it communicates so many more intricacies about faith, praise, the sublime through architecture, and plain ol' organized religious greed/contradiction than I ever would have picked up from viewing the exterior. It's a palace. More than a palace. As well it should be. Or should it?

Rome also included the other must-sees, but more enjoyably included Fabro (short for Fabrizio), who we decided built Rome. He ran our hostel, but he also built Rome in his spare time because Fabro knows every detail there is to know about that 'large village' as he deems it. I would like it very much if Mon ends up with either Fabro himself (he's gotta be like 42 or more) or a soul-twin of sorts, and not just cuz he's a Scorpio. I may have thrown that wish in too at Trevi Fountain. Yay.

Didn't expect to get a pitstop in Ireland while in Rome either - but Scholar's more than brought home the bacon. And Mon's no liar...Romans are just plain beautiful. They glow like J-Lo. The whole olive-toned lot. It's not fair that the rest of us must fall short, but it's nice to know where the bar is now.

Rome also included sleep-shouting, thanks to the German dude who in our 'mixed hostel suite' woke the rest of us up via cardiac arrest by shouting something insane-like in his sleep in the middle of the night. Talking in one's sleep I get. But shouting? In German? Really? At 3am? Really? Creepy AND scary. The only thing that smoothed it out was his immediate coming to after he did it and whispering under his breath 'Oh shit' before hiding back under his sheet (I suppose; it was pitch dark but the sounds suggested embarrassment 101). Awesome. Sad though, in that we only know you as the Shout-Sleeper, as there were never any other conversations to be had. Whatev. We got him back when we had to get up at 530am the next morning to make the hike (yes, hike. in the rain) to San Giovanni metro stop to make our flight.

So it wouldve been fine if Barcelona was just a close second to Italy. That's what I expected anyway. But since touching down yesterday, I've realized that Barcelona is a city of cities, if not the city. Incredible. Dinner to cry for at Picasso's old spot. Again, we remained world champions at eating a restaurant to closing time. And that place was PACKED when we started. It's a skill I tell you. Clubbing til morning courtesy of the single greatest DJ of all time. And I have about as high a standard for DJ's as anyone on the planet. His set was not even funny. His set included every great song after another - including 'I Wish (I Was A Little Bit Taller)', Cece Penniston, Ace of Base, Biggie, disco, Hova... I can't put it into words. Just trust you shouldve been there. And that I want this man to DJ every important (and not important) event I now have in life. And that was just some Tuesday in Barcelona. Jesus.

We're about to find some more floor to dance on. I'm deliriously tired, but I'll sleep in other realities..if he's got room. In the meantime, I say hats off to saving the best city for last. Tomorrow day and night is the final stop before we return stateside. And just as I have learned today through places and people I love that to go far the right way is to go deep within and renew, I thank God for time enough to pull this off, and to put someone better on. Until the next stop. Better even, the next start.

(Oh, and happy birthday Kenny P. aka, Dad. Monica and you continue to share identical taste in music. It's scary, and great.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Something old, nothing's new (a few good men)

(MH) The thing is, I can understand Italian with about a 85% success rate. Add to this my ambiguo-ethnic face (my ma would disagree: 'Monica, tienes el nopal en la frente.') and the fact that I can speak just enough Italian and you get way too many episodes where I have to take English back out to make someone mercifully stop Italianing at me. The adorable older couple at the train station at Vernazza, who generously said I made myself understood and that was more than enough. The sweet woman who sold me my new gorgeous handpainted cameo ring (I've been looking for one I loved for about three years. YEAY!) who generously insisted I had a Tuscan inflection to my bootleg Italian. The taxi driver a few nights back who thought, because of however I said where we were going, that I would know how to get back to the hostel. I don't mind the compliment, obviously, but all this has meant that I've decided it's about time I turn my fake Italian into actual Italian. I'm especially looking forward to being able to have covert conversations with my sister, Maria (a.k.a. Mo).

But back to Italian episodes. We left Firenze and the Luna Rossa to take the train to Roma, but not before a quick pitstop to say goodbye to Marco Margarucci, the one and only owner of the Luna Rossa and several other hostels in downtown Firenze. This is important to say: Marco rocks. And not just because he's a Scorpio and I'll always have a crush on a Scorpio even if all he says to me is hello. Marco also rocks because he is the high-five master. When he checked us in and lugged BOTH of our toddler-sized backpacks down the stairs, several blocks down the street, and then up the stairs to our room -- to punctuate the meeting: a high five. In the cafe (degli Inocenti) where we might have spent several hours talking instead of scouring the streets doing sightseeing-y things, to show his pleasure at having run into us: a high five. And that last afternoon, to say goodbye, after saying he'd find us on Facebook: a high five.

Marco just turned thirty and was shy about saying so. He didn't know he was talking to peers. "It's just that, you know, with this job, I always meet the 18, the 19, the 20. And I used to be, when I started. I was twenty-five. So they stay the same, twenty, twenty-two. Cause you know, college ends and then that's the big trip. But they are still that old and now I'm not that old." Ain't that the troof.

Although we might have gotten off the bus a few stops early, we made it safe and sound to Hotel Lodi, our home while in Roma. The super decent gentleman (Persians really do have beautiful eyes) who checked us in let us know that they weren't sure if we were gonna show up, so they gave us a private room instead of the mixed room we actually reserved, at no extra cost. Thanks again to Venus for taking care of our housing needs :) After a quick change and a quick face, we ventured out to see what exactly Roma had in store for us.

We decided to aim for dinner in Trastevere, one of the main areas to go out in Rome. If I remember correctly, I had gnocchi melanzane e salami and Johanna had something I don't remember. The gnocchi was eggcellent -- and I have really high standards for gnocchi. But these were the perfect size, smaller than the beasts they serve you in the U.S. and more tender, with less obvious shape (cause they're handmade, ya see?) than dem oder ones as well. After dinner, we took a stroll around the neighborhood to take in the sights.

The nighttime sights in Roma are not exactly the same as the ones you might focus on in the daytime. At night, in all honesty and with no prejudice, the most beautiful things to look at are the people. It's possible our focus was on the inordinately sculptured faces of Roman men. How exactly to put this...god I don't even know. I feel like Johanna trying to talk about the sunset from the Ponte Vecchio. They could have all walked out of a magazine, first of all, for their clothes. Second, they have not exactly swagger when they walk, but a shoulder twist of sorts, as though they know, to be kind, they should grace you with every angle, just in case you missed it a second ago. I'm not even one to super gawk when a man looks like someone spent time and time chiseling to make it this good (I'm more of an internal flutter and silent sigh kinda cat). But you just have to here. Cause it's obscene, cause it's too much. Like honoring the food for its achievement. Someone, somewhere, achieved that basically every man who walks by looks damn, but damn good. Whew.

In one of my side glances, when we were almost about to throw in the towel, a red sweater and the face that went with it caught my eye. At the same time, Johanna's fun-gut read the bar as a possible stopping point. Sure, yep, sure. We sat by the bar and Ron (formerly of L.A.; been in Rome for 19 years) and his friend (also formerly of L.A.; been in Rome 7 years, came with her two dogs and cats and a desire to be elsewhere for a few months) made small talk for a few, while the red sweater and his friends moved from outside to play beer pong behind us. "Hey Ron, are they American?" I asked. "Who the fuck else plays fucking beer pong?" Right.

Fast forward to a few minutes later, when Johanna, cause she is the best friend ever, is making small talk with red sweater's friend and I get to talk to the red sweater only to find he's about to be too drunk to keep eye contact. "I'm not that drunk tonight though. You shoulda seen me two nights ago. I got kicked out of Scholars. Twice. I don't even know why. I wasn't being rowdy." "No, you seem like a mild mannered cat." "I'm the nicest, sweetest guy you'll ever meet. But if someone steps out of line, I'm not afraid of standing up for myself. In fact, I know I'm going to. But they kicked me out and I don't know why. I still don't know why." Sigh. But. Still. You're cute and I like your story. And. You're a Scorpio, so sure, we can chat and, sure, we'll come with you to Scholar´s, which doesn't close until 4am. Turns out his name is Jayson and the love of his life is named Monica. Ha. Life, you're funny.

But what's even better than all that is that his friends were awesome. Like really really awesome. Paulie (of Staten Island) and Mike (of Boston) joined in the fun and we all had a spectacular time at Scholar´s. Yeah we partied at an Irish pub when in Rome (when in Rome do as the Irishmen, do. Right?). Judge if you must, but "YMCA", "Shoop, Shoop" came on, so we were happy as clams. And, trust, if you had danced with Paulie, the incarnation of Tigger, you would have been happy as well. -- I may have also taken a shot...please don't tell my acupuncturist, she'll be really disappointed. They are all MBA students here in Rome and have been here for various amounts of time. Mike wants to do a JD next, Paulie does accounting for some cardinals while in school and Jayson apparently just needed to make his family happy by getting a second degree. ("You know how it is. My family is one of those who have been getting a second degree forever and it means a lot to my mom, because even when black people couldn't go to school, my family was getting professional degrees. I don't really care, but I want to make her happy.") So you see, not only cute and fun and hilarious, but also heart and smart. Ain´t that a treat? We hilaritied until the bar closed, then continued on the street and Jayson and Mike walked us to the taxi stand and waited with us until one came.

The bed and I met around 530am, the sun was about to come up, and one of the oldest cities was beginning to remind me why it's a place I should live. And soon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the David

(JP) Let me start at the end of this day, because I feel it's as important an element to world travel as any - if not the most important. Never underestimate the power of traveling with the right person(s). I say this because instead of going out to "ooonce ooonce" on a disco dancefloor as planned, Mon and I looked at each other in the same moment upon returning to our hostel room and opted for a quiet night "at home", watching TV (Mon) and blogging (me). This kind of understanding about pace and pleasure is not something you'd get with any travel buddy -- most would think this decision satanic and horrifying; but to us, it's the ideal cap off to another perfectly "YES." night in Florence. Acqua al 2 just had us for dinner again, and it was even better the second time around. Which, you should know, is not possible - but apparently perfection likes to try and outdo itself nevertheless.

Having started our day rather late today, it only took a few hours to be able to watch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio and its surrounding bridges. The plan: capture various images of a beautiful scene. The result: capture various images, yes; some inside a camera, others inside your deepest chasms of hope and awe, which you can only sense in first person real-time. As I stood watching yellow turn to blue to pink to rose to purple to navy in the sky before me I already flashed forward to any chance I may get to describe just how beautiful Florence was to the inevitable question "How was it??!". Then, my chasm dropped, shed a tear of sorts, snickered and kicked a few rocks in frustration because it already knew there is no way in hell I will ever be able to describe second-hand what I'm witnessing. The velvety sky. The lovers holding each other, kissing each other in this veiled light, the exact sway of the old man in neon orange suit pants paired with sky blue blazer as he strolled past parked bikes by the side of the river, the curiosity with which 2 men bent over one bridge's edge to peek at the water down below..perching their coupled butts up in perfect sychronicity, or the specific way everyone (and I mean everyone) on the old bridge smiled as the sun made it's way to the other side of life. It's a dream come true; literally. Not in a cliche sense - in the sense that you are in fact very there, camera in hand, neck going back and forth frantically trying to decide which beauty is better to behold in any given moment. And yet, you are standing within a dream nonetheless, in a place without lines, without definition, a textured, triumphant mixture of joy upon joy. The buildings, the river, the architects since passed all rejoicing together with we smiling ants-on-a-bridge at what we, in this moment, have made real together. It's that indescribable realized dream, collectively shared, that I will remember most about Firenze. And I can see my camera folding its arms and turn its back on me in a huff to stare at the wall as I publicize its limitations this way. Sorry buddy. You're the next best thing, but we both know your eyes and my words have met their match this time.

Michelangelo, however, remains unmatched having seen his David sculpture in its full glory. My God. I thought it was going to be so much smaller, so much more "eh, that's cool I guess" than it really was. In fact, it's towering. Huge and grand and strong and soft and a symbol of how truly amazing old short guys can be when they put their minds to it. Cuz dude -- anyone who can take solid rock and mold it into something so utterly human, fleshly even, serves as a David vs. Goliath in his own right. For Dave it was a slingshot, for Mike it was a chisel and some time. Together, the statue caught me so off guard on levels I wasn't expecting. And now, I get why people make such a big deal about it. That, or its my long-standing obsession with sculpture -- I totally wanted to be one in another lifetime. It's so sexy to me -- the journey from formless to form, hard surface becoming putty in our hands, creating movement where there was none, evoking the human from the inanimate. That's power if you ask me. And now that I think about the added layer in David's story specifically; how he used a rock to take down the big guy, how the inanimate doubles simultaneously as our saving grace and as this imposing force with which to contend. And in finding a way to partner with it (shot in sling, rock under chisel), we find a way to triumphs others never thought possible. Standing there, I felt as though my entire time in Florence has been repetition on that theme - the human and the concrete (the Duomo's size is beyond comprehension, and yet, we built it!; those bridges to the ineffable I referenced before - that was us too, finding a way to harmonize with the rivers below; and David being grandly huge, and yet, his creator being probably shorter than any guy I'd consider dateable.)

Somehow, Firenze represents this perfect marriage between the human and the constructed. It reminds me that we do rock sometimes (yeah I punned, get over it), and in some cities, that perfect balance CAN be achieved. When you witness it, camera or not, its unlike any feeling you've had before. Is there a word for being utterly proud and utterly humbled at the same time? Perhaps that's Romance. And as a true romantic I say: if you're looking for love - not in the SATC sense - in the sense of wanting to feel the FEELING that is love within yourself, go to Florence. You may not know exactly what it is you're sensing, but when you come out the other side you'll probably be smiling with us too, on that bridge, in a velvety sunset, realizing we do have something to honor. Something to do with this kind of beauty being a joint venture, that romance takes two, that between us and Mother Nature we've created some earthly treasures that are well worth the trip. Even if you can't take them back with you.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Just Yes

(MH) Before even arriving in Firenze, today I had already seen one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, hiked a hike I didn't ever think I was going to hike (see steep stairs/uneven terrain up and down a mountain and narrow trails lining cliffs for an hour in addition to my determinedly non-outdoorsy sensibility for more details), and eaten the *best* baked stuffed mussels of my life for lunch. Yeah, so I was really all set. I really didn't need any more amazing in my day. I'd overcome self-inflicted limitations and delved into my oldest favorite pasttime: eating. Life was good. Real, real good.

Then Aqua al 2 wanted to happen. I may only need to say the bistek al aceto balsamico brought me to tears. This is not a euphemism; I took a bite and teared more than several tears, hiding my face from the three brothers sitting next to us at the shared table, from the family to my left and the table of college girls to our right, fearing that they'd see the indecent faces I was making. It's sorta just the truth of me that all my feelings are connected to all my other feelings, so when I'm feeling deliciously in the taste zone, well, I'm feeling deliciously in all other zones as well. So. That. In addition to the fact that the assagiato di pasta had already made me silent (al brocoli, espinacci, pumpkin, ragu con carne, and marinara with red pepper. And don't think we skipped dessert. It was the torta di cioccolato that I can now thank for renewing my faith in faith. You can think I'm exaggertaing, but we ate every table out of the restaurant. Even those that got there after us left before us. And it's not because we ate more than them (although I don't want to deny the possibility entirely), it's because we ate every single bite deliberately, pausing to consider each contour of flavor, each resonance. Because you have to deal with food like that in that exact way, honoring it as the accomplishment that it is.

And in this way, I remembered why Italy everything. Why Italy always everything to me.

To go on (I need to, I have to): the thing with eating in Italy is not that the food is just better. It's really as though you are actually learning what food is supposed to taste like. The tomatoes here are not just fresher and sweeter -- though they are that as well. They reveal to you subtleties in a tomato you didn't know existed: about two thirds of the way in to tasting it, something almost smokey comes to life, a taste that has to be what it means to have been grown in the Mediterranean sun.

Today in particular -- before even dealing with Aqua al 2 -- I learned what a white peach is supposed to taste like. Living in the Bay, I thought I already loved white peaches. Turns out, a white peach is not just more subdued than a regular peach, but it's also more related to flowers, and roses specifically. This particular peach had been warmed by riding along in my bag on the hike I never thought I'd hike from Corniglia to Vernazza and the regional train from Corniglia to La Spezia to catch the train to Firenze. So that when I got to him, the fuzzy skin was just softened enough to belie the cool, sweet insides. I love that fruit can trick you like that.

Belly, heart and soul-full after Acua al 2 changed our lives forever, we walked to find Club Yab was closed. A nice (read: handsome) man with an adorable dog (Jo called it, a "chick magnet") let us know after we were wandering around the same 4 streets for 20 minutes. So instead we settled into a bar that attracted the exchange student set ("All right, Mon, tonight we're 23." "Yep. Totally. Totally") I agreed not just because Ali laughed at my 28 waaay too recently but because a sweet Korean church teacher named Jennifer on the train to Firenze said, "You look so young. And you sound like you've accomplished so much." I dunno about accomplishment, I said, but "I'm not that young, I'm 28." "Oh. I'm 26. So not that far off." Three minutes before it had been, "I was sure you guys were way younger than me." I'm sorry but when did 28 become the new senior citizen?

Back to the student-filled bar (nb: I get a little hive itchy when I hear too many Americans around me when I'm on vacation. Ever since I was little, traveling with my family, I was trained to never speak English abroad, so I find myself shrinking away from Americans when I hear them nearby, afraid they'll out me.) So we're in another hectic life converation at a table outside the bar that's on it's way to closing up, when Giuseppe wanted to come make the friendly. "I'm the Italian boyz. South Italy, Italian boyz. No worries. So beautiful. I am Giuseppe. Long in Firenze? Stay long? Giuseppe sonno. Italian boyz. No worries." It is very likely homeboy tweezed his eyebrows, or waxed. They were so well manicured, actually, I thought of asking him for his brow stylist, mine are getting a little bushy...

Giuseppe's best line, and the one we're bringin back to the States with us was this: he was doin the ole lean-in on my cheek, I was shying away cause I'm a lady (read: old fogie who has grown out of the idea that any affection is good affection; yeah that's right, I said it). He was responding to my shying away by insisting that he would not kiss me on the mouth. "Only here," pointing to my cheek. "No, no," I said, "I don't know you." To which he delightfully responded, "It's okay, I don't know myself." Which, you gotta give it to him, is pretty much the truth. And pretty much the theme, in the best possible sense.

Jo is neatly tucked in bed now and I should probably do the same. Except that bliss and Firenze have me wired. But goodnight for now. And just yes, to all of it.

Love is a Five-Fingered Thing

(JP) Peach juice down my finger as we hike across the sea. Stony secluded beach where we 'splayed' like starfish for hours. Napping cats on the Vernazza streetsteps who sum it all up better than I can. Tastiest mussels of my life in a happenstance cafe (Mon's food gut is wise and all-powerful). Drunken winos shout-talking in the narrow pathways of Corniglia. The upward stroll back to our dwelling we shared with some Virginians under a moon that just managed to peek out over the mountaincrest above us. A Riomaggiore courtyard with dozens of local children and elderly winding the day down, and at its edge a view into endless blue (sky and water), and a little lower down.. a natural cove harbor full of boats, seaside cafes, and I'm sure mermaids too. The most stunningly beautiful sights high above turqouise sea, just translucent enough to showcase stoney gems beneath. Green and yellow hills with vineyards and groves throughout. A blazing sunlight glistening across the Mediterranean, microscopic swimmers who made their way down there, and not a word left to say. Cinque Terre's five towns and the seaside hikes between them are nothing short of majesty. Each one with their own styles; all with perfect bliss in common.

Oh, and the sleep. How can I put this. Something on the wind here makes you travel various time-space continua. I can't tell you what I figured out while there, but I'm pretty sure it was a nice blend of the meaning of life, enlightenment, and levitation. Buddha and I had dinner, I think. Either way, I know my brain didn't stay put once the eyes went shut.

It all but erased the 'hiccups' in Milan, a stopover which certainly prepped us well for any Amazing Race challenge on Tuesday night. We got in Milan around midnight, and had to succumb to starvation at the nearby golden arches (the one good thing I can feel patriotic about - it may not really be food, but damn Mickey Dees is there when you need it). But the low point managed to get lower...we arrived at our hostel only to find they'd given our reservation away. Soooo, dude made a late-night call to cousin Ludovico (Ludwig as a name should really make a comeback), who took us in at the 'sister hostel'. One more taxi later, we stepped into room 2, but which we deemed 'Aunt Celia's room' much more apt a name. Thanks to Venus coming in to lighten the load when Mercury wants to eff things up, the room ended up quite nice indeed, with glass encased shower included. Hottest shower of life wiped away the snafu in a flash; shoot, even Aunt Celia left us a fan by the bed and a full-length mirror! Not even her dog barking at 2:30am outside could break me. But what almost did was the long hunt for a working ATM 3 hours later, when we had to get more cash to pay for Luda's grand hotel (they don't take cards, of course). ATM #1 wasn't having it, but luckily #2 was - which allowed us to not only have to hit and run without paying, but also to make our train to this bliss.

Thank you, Venus. Thank you, Cinque Terre. I put my heart in your five fingers, and remember utter relaxation. Utter joy in earthly speak. And utter shock at the thought that tonight, we get to top you off with Florence.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Courtesy of Sam the Die Hard Red Sox Fan

(MH) I'm posting from an alley in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre after an incredible meal at La Lanterna. Suffice to say I took pictures, Johanna and I shared grunts, and the choirs of angels sang throughout the evening. I had risotto con fruta di mare and Jo had mussels, but not before sharing a pizze con funghi. Ah, if only all of life tasted and felt this good. And none of that, but you need the hard parts to make the delicious actual. Not today. Today, only delicious and perfect and views and ocean and rocky shore on which to nap and small side streets on which to make conversation with Sam, who has been traveling for 5 months. It's his computer I'm using. People who can travel alone: go you. I prefer to share my delicious with a buddy. So glad you're here, Jo!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Things I Learned in Amsterdam

1. The Swedish chef is not that far off from how language sounds 'round these parts.

2. It's never a bad time for delicious Indian food; shout out to India for knowing something really important about flavor.

3. Waterways inside cities make me really happy. As does the ability to travel around and through a city on a boat.

4. Never tell the 22 year old Iranian Dutchman, Ali, at the bar that you are 28. He will think this is a hilariously old thing to say. He will also imply that you have a bad sense of humor because you didn't get his joke about San Francisco. Something about video games? ...

5. Do ask to get into the VIP-only high schooler party with the hip hop music busting out the doors. Do not expect to get in. Amsterdam's youth are picky about who they party with.

6. Cities built according to people scale feel different than cities built according to a car's scale. The cars are what's out of place here and the bikes rule the roads. It's not only that it's slower; it's that "pleasant" is ridiculously uninterrupted.

7. I can walk a city with a 25 pound backpack on my back.

Amsterdamn Good

(JP) Well, thus concludes 2 days in Amsterdam as we head to Schipol Airport en route to Milan. And I must say, Amsterdam is nothing short of blissful. But it's a startling calm, so immediate and breathable that you wonder if someone's tricked you into such a relaxed way of wandering. The trees rustle ever so lightly, softly protecting the canals that traverse the city throughout. It's the water among the urban, the corporate suits atop bicycles, all these seeming contradictions to the American sprawl that make it both ahead of its time and wholly unique in its blend of the modern and antique. Not antiquated by any stretch however; on the contrary, the Dutch have shown me just how incredibly far ahead of us they are. Sad, too, when you think that New York was settled by these very ancestors. With the same names, same colors, and similarly diverse to my surprise. But, as Mon put it just an hour ago, we are clearly the 'country cousin'..the relaxed, gentle sophistocation of Amsterdam is most certainly something we have yet to tap into.

A river runs through it, but we all but crawled. There's nothing to rush to, and there's hardly a sense you'd ever get lost (in the bad sense). Aside from the ridiculously good indian we ate last night, the highlight was being told we were the 'first Americans' 2 local students had ever seen in their favorite bar - De Geiter. Somehow, we managed to get away from ourselves! We found my holy grail - the locals' spot to hang. Ollie and Ian made small talk, asked if we knew Long Island, and pointed to the gazillion expired student drivers' licenses that line the ceiling above the bar. I tried to order a Heiny (I'm in Amsterdam after all), but bartender said 'Grolsch" gruffly in return, for that was the only beer one can buy there. So, I echoed his scornful command and seconds later tasted a much tastier beer than what we're dealing with on the other side of the pond.

Shout out to Mikey Scheer and the entire DTF crew. Not only did I find a sticker of his, I doubled its presence on one of the hidden alleyways in town. And now, Italia. I will miss this lightness of being though, as well as the stellar museum curation (both Anne Frank's hideout house and Van Gogh's setup are extremely visitor-friendly and informative). I will miss the dancing lights on nightime waters. I will miss never being honked at by bikes over bridges. I will miss it all, until the next time - because a return is surely due.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Saturn and Cantalope

(MH) Hi Jo! I'm glad you got on both your flights okay :) I'm waiting for you in Amsterdam, comfily settled in at a computer and actually you should be landing in five. This is after only a brief hiccup with the customs dude: turns out, I am my father's daughter. He *always* used to get stopped at customs. Big dude, thick curly black hair, darker beige skin, deep set brown eyes with marked undereye circles, and a healthy black mustache. Hell, even I sometimes thought he looked like a terrorist...No, I didn't. ... Yeah, okay, I did. Nah nah, just kidding. Or. ...

I also got to realize on my flight to Amsterdam that I experience an acute sense of panic when surrounded by white British men in business suits. Go figure. It's either colonialism's ghost that creeps me out or the acrid combination of repression, sharply-scented soap freshly scrubbed, cigarettes and tea. Whatever it is, yilg and good riddance.

And funny you should mention Mercury, cause at Heathrow, I was thinking -- again, obviously -- about Saturn. And how I've always been sure I hated cantalope. But in the proper middle of the Saturn Return I've made it a habit to reevaluate all long-held, even dearly held certainties.(Google it if you've never heard me or someone else pontificate on how important the Saturn Return is and how *essential* it is to take advantage of Saturn's energy especially then -- this means you, if you're between the ages of 27 and 29 -- even if it hurts, espeeecially if it's hard.)

For example, apparently I now love beets and sauteed kale. Like really, really love them in a way I could not have anticipated given previous fear and indifference, respectively (and given my notorious stubborn streak).

(I'm a little hungry with all this produce reminiscing and hope Johanna gets here hungry too...)

But cantalope. So I had a fruit salad while waiting for plane number 2 of the day and it had cantalope in it. I think you know where this is going: I not only ate it; I kinda dug it. I love that we can still always surprise ourselves. Thank you, Saturn.

[Important sidenote: The cat on the plane from Boston next to me was definitely reading Kafka. I thought, what a dark choice for traveling. The copy was brand new, bought special for the trip. He'd filled out his white visitors' card: not British, but staying at least a little while. And his Birkenstocks were new -- maybe to match his just-so disheveled curlies and his perfectly uncoifed (sp?) beard. Ethan or Evan or Aaron or Ian, I thought, Kafka? Not that I should feel quite so free to judge. I brought school books with me: Twain and Diaz. But let's be real: I think I've never quite believed anyone read Kafka for actual leisure. Maybe the old habit of mini-judging anyone earnestly (the new ironic) toting Kafka is an old habit even Saturn can't touch.]

PS: Re: my previous post's title: Right. So. Turns out the saying's about cats, not pigs. Jo told me at brunch yesterday and few thousand miles west. My child-of-immigrants shows most in my inevitably botched-up execution of colloquialisms. Whoopsies. (I hold "there's more than one way to skin a pig" sounds better. Furthermore, I'm no skinning expert, but I bet it's truer, too.)

Jo, are you here yet? I'm starting to crave pork and cantalope...

Sunday, September 6, 2009

If You Want to Make Mercury Laugh Tell it Your Plans

(JP) The beautiful Boston wedding wrapped. Brunch this morning was lovely. Dan's driving our planned-out selves to Logan and we're sighing and laughing like champs. Then, I pull out my itinerary only to find my brain had opted to remember Mon's departure time better than my own (we're on different flights). "Uh, guys. My flight's leaving in 50 minutes."

Right. So, in true Mercury-in-retrograde form I've already managed to miss a flight. Now, I'm on the next one out. Mon's en route. Remember my type-anxious stature? Well, it's hunching in puke position right about now. But, here's hoping for enough time to take a peek at Munich as my new stopover.

And I'm pretty sure I and the asian guy next to me are the only minorities going to Munich. Hey, at least I've got a friend while Mon waits patiently for her lame friend to get to Amsterdam.

God-willing, we'll laugh over this and a beer in due time.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Essentially Speaking

(JP) Ah, the Essential. Haven't seen that in God knows how long. Not when you cling to New York City - the ultimate staycation, and thus, something you can never truly rest within. The hustle, the bustle, the gum on your heels. The pedicure, the haircut, the laundry all still undone. And everytime it is done, it's for that cause -- the "event" of the weekend (although even the notion of ends to weeks is flipped on its head in this urban abyss). Nothing ends. It's all just beginning! And whatever you're doing downtown doesn't compare to up, Brooklyn had to wait because the UES was jumpin'. Somehow, we're in the center of it all and always still missing out.

So when you are blessed - especially in these days and times - to finally achieve some escape from the colossal jungle that is this town, the stress that goes along with it is nothing short of an abomination. Who submits to such a thing?? Stressing about vacation! Then why even take one? Where are you not when you keep panting and pining over the to-do that didn't get done? Well, you're in New York. Or you're in the Bay. Or you're just wherever you've been long enough to forget that getting away is hard; staying away nearly impossible; but if you can somehow trudge through the anxiety of grand planning, what you see at the peak is surely essential indeed.

That ever-elusive stillness. That sound of silence that hasn't hit my ears since sitting over a desert chasm in 2001. The hugeness of the world, which within these grey lines I cannot fully sense as I once did. That foreign feeling of not being needed in the place you left behind; but rather supported in your little venture, ideally missed, perfectly let go for a time. If only I can do the same.

Elsewhere truly is a Saint. So let us pray: That a type A-nxious planner remembers to pack her best eyes, her best ears, and her best heart. That these little things so big fall away for all that's bigger. That I forget who I am and let the world remind me who I'm not.

Still can't believe I didn't get my haircut for this.

Skin a Pig -- Packing

(MH) I like putting things that don't fit next to each other. It's a not so secret obsession. When I'm planning for a trip -- like the one I'll start tomorrow -- I make sure to leave all my errands until the last minute, make sure I have plenty of work to rush haphazardly through, make sure my room is a mess and needs vacuuming, make sure my linens all need a good washing, make sure the dry cleaning needs to be picked up, make sure I play an appropriate number of board games and sing at my local piano bar. All before I begin to think about what I should pack.

I think this packing tactic has actually made me an amazing packer and traveler. My credit card statements -- with their evidence of hastily taken cabs, missed-flight charges, and last minute (and mid-trip emergency) purchases -- might want to tell a different story. But when's the last time I listened to anything my credit card statements had to say about my choices.

It's the suddenness that becomes of the leaving moment, I think, that helps the travel. The furious flurry of a day and a half in which I'm forced away from my more comfortable and comforting thinkingness, then forgotten into the strange empty buzz of the airport terminal, when I start settling into the kind of quiet I like to travel in, where I get to really see Essential again.

It's noon. I'm leaving tomorrow night. I have a sushi lunch date in fifteen minutes (I haven't showered), a potential work date this afternoon to finish up my oral exam list drafts, a date with the gym around four, a dinner and movie date tonight, a late breakfast and wedding planning meeting (someone else's; don't get it twisted) tomorrow, a sushi dinner date tomorrow just before catching the red eye. The laundry's in the dryer. My room is a mess. I have several errands to run. I've edited this post a few times and might once more later.

And at some point, I suppose, it will have to happen that I pack.