Feeling at home in Florence, Italy

I’m in Florence. It’s barely rained at all since I’ve been here. It’s cold-ish, but not cold enough to need a hat, gloves, or scarf – just a coat is fine. The sun rises earlier, so it’s light out when I wake up. It’s not sunny all the time, but man have I enjoyed a hell of a lot of blue skies and bright sun, like needing-sunglasses kind of sun. the food is absolutely wonderful, people are nice, the customer service is great.

And yet I miss Amsterdam so much today, and it’s only been ten days. I’ve been away for longer than 10 days before, quite happily. But I miss my bicycle, and I am so jealous of everyone here on their bikes. I saw a woman on a dutch bike the other day and my heart almost broke, thinking about my rusty bike stuffed away in a closet for two months in Amsterdam. I love my bike. I miss it. I am doing something about it, tomorrow I’m going to walk 5km to meet a girl who will give me her broken bike (with locks and lights) if I get it repaired. YES PLEASE THANK YOU!!!! if it costs less that 50 Euros to repair it, it’s just as good as buying a bike, and I can help bring it back to life. This is a bike that has just been sitting there, unused, because of minor repair work. I want to fix it and fall in love with it immediately. I feel like this bicycle is like a guy you meet from a personal ad, having it all built up in my mind to be the most perfect thing in the world. as long as it has 2 wheels, a seat, handlebars, and it’s not too small for me, it will be the most perfect thing in the world.

I just can’t take it, being in this beautiful city and not having a bike. I’m going crazy. I like walking, of course, but… no. I can’t really Florence until I have a bicycle. People here ride bikes! It’s not quite like Amsterdam, but it’s a thing. Normal people ride bikes, not just “bike people.” 50 year old women get on their rusty piece-of-shit bikes and go from place to place. Kids sit on the back or in front. I’ve seen a few people riding double. there’s bike parking and bike lanes and the whole deal. gah, I should have purchased a bike on my 2nd day here, I hate that I’ve even waited this long. I hope I can solve this problem by tomorrow.

Other than lack-of-bicycle-in-my-life, Florence is going really well. I have never asked anyone “do you speak english?” since I’ve been here, and no one has switched to speaking english while I stumble over italian. The Florentine accent is killing me, so I do better with talking to people who aren’t from Florence.

In italian, C is a popular letter. the C in “casa” sounds just the way it does in english (or spanish), like a hard CA sound. “casa mia,” for example. Something you’d say a lot. Except in Florence they don’t use the hard C sound ever, they replace it with an english-style H. Casa mia becomes hasa mia. this goes for C’s in the middle of a word too. However, H is (usually) a silent letter in Italian, but here in Florence, coca cola is “hoha hola.”

Well, off to daydream about my bici.. I mean bihi.


Beautiful chaos in Rome

I am back in Amsterdam after an incredible long weekend in Rome. I left on the 21st of August and returned late on Monday (the 25th). I traveled on KLM – no complaints there, everything worked as it should, and it was easy to tell that I had landed in Italy by the clapping and cheering of all the passengers once we hit the ground. From the minute I got off the plane, everything was chaotic, noisy, and off schedule – and I loved every minute of it. I’ve been to Rome before, in the early summer of 2005. This time around, I was staying at the home of C. and A. and getting much better insight into “real” Rome. A. is from Sardinia but has been in Rome for over fifteen years, and is part owner of the bar/restaurant Ombre Rosse (in the Trastevere district) – and that is where I went directly from the airport.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the food, which is no surprise. I could probably write ten pages detailing everything I ate over the course of four days, but I can also just sum it up by saying that everything I ate was flawless and perfect. I followed the Italian rules and never drank a cappuccino after breakfast. I ate big lunches and drank wine only an hour or two after waking up, I ate dinner late and ice cream was a perfect mid-afternoon snack. Instead of filling up my suitcase with clothes or souvenirs, I came back to Amsterdam with 3 different kinds of cheese, balsamic vinegar, and other assorted food items that I wouldn’t be able to find at the local Albert Heijn.

As far as sight-seeing, I feel like I would need … a year, at least, to really feel like I’ve “seen” Rome. Whenever I go to museums or galleries anywhere, I don’t really like taking maps or guides or planning out my route – I would rather just wander around and figure out what I like, what I don’t, and not be bothered by trying to find my way to the stuff I know I will want to see. Being in Rome is like being in the biggest museum on earth, and since I was only there for 4 days I knew I couldn’t even scratch the surface. The one thing I really wanted to see was the Vatican. Despite the absurdly high entrance fee and the massive crowds of people, I really, really wanted to see the Cappella Sistina, the famous tapestries (I love tapestries), and absorb all the history. The trip to the Vatican didn’t disappoint and when I left after three hours, my brain felt like mush. To see all that famous art in person, rather than in a textbook or a replica – there are just really no words to describe what that feels like.

The Vatican was the only thing I really made a point of visiting and paying to get into during the day. I did most of my sight-seeing at night while walking around with friends, wandering from place to place. I lost track of how many monuments, fountains, churches, and beautiful old squares I wandered through. I was also fortunate enough to get out of the city for an entire day and drive off to lago di martignano (Martignano lake) with my friends, about 45 minutes north of Rome. We spent the afternoon and evening sunbathing and swimming in the perfectly clean water. I haven’t gone swimming since last summer, which was a sad realization. I adore the water, and I especially adore swimming in clean lakes and rivers (rather than the sea or in pools). I felt really lucky to be at such a relaxed place, with little kids running around naked and dogs jumping in the water after frisbees.

Cycling as a mode of transportation does not seem to be at all popular in Rome, which is a real shame, considering that it’s a huge city with a pretty lousy public transportation system. My only real complaint about Rome is that it seems like such a car culture – granted, the cars are small and fuel-efficient, but still, the most popular form of transportation for Romans is the automobile (or motorcycle/moped). While waiting for a tram one night, I saw a bigger car crash into a smart car and drive off without stopping (it didn’t appear that anyone was injured). I can’t emphasize enough how much I truly hate having to rely on a car while in a city – I firmly believe that cars should only be necessary if you live in a small town somewhere. Obviously, most cities are not going to be as bike-friendly as Amsterdam, which is fine – I’m usually pretty good an figuring out local public transportation. But I’ve honestly seen better public transportation systems in just about every other major European or American city I’ve ever visited, compared to Rome.

Anyway, enough of that. Though I was often in my friend’s car going from place to place, I also spent a lot of time getting around by bicycle (C. had one to lend me, which was great). Rome is hilly, with cobblestone streets, uneven pavements, cracked sidewalks – so it makes perfect sense that those who do choose to ride on two wheels choose mountain bikes! It was actually quite a bit of fun to shift gears and bend over the handlebars. C. and I rode from her place to the Vatican in about 40 minutes, and when we went out for ice cream later in the day we just happened to ride around the Pantheon. The moment I realized I was riding my bike past the pantheon on the way to eat the best ice cream in the world (San Crispino) was just as overwhelming as walking into the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

Even though I was sad to leave Rome, with all the sunshine and beauty and amazing food, I have to admit that being back in Amsterdam (and back on my own bicycle) feels great. The end of the summer is always a little depressing, but when September arrives it means more visitors, a new roommate, the return of Tuesday night movies at the OT301, and friends coming back into town from their holidays. I’ve been in Amsterdam just a little over four months, and it really, really feels like home.

A bicycle in Paris: originally published 16 June 2005

(written when I lived in Paris, 2005)

Last week I had zero bikes, now I have two! This is a great story.

I’ve been combing the for-sale ads since my first week here, looking for a good, cheap city bicycle. Much like everyone else in Paris, apparently. There¬†were tons of ads from¬†people looking exactly what I wanted: “good city bike wanted, under 100 Euros, asap.” I didn’t even bother to post an ad – for every 20 ads saying someone WANTED a cheap bike, there was one ad actually advertising a not-so-cheap-bike. The cheapest I could find was 120 Euro. Bleh. Until yesterday, when expatriates.com saved the day once again! Someone posted an ad for a woman’s bike, 50 Euros. I called immediately, and made arrangements to meet the woman (A) today at noon.

A. only lived a few metro stops away from me, or a 20-30 minute walk. Excellent! She’s a really nice grad student originally from upstate New York (Ithica) who is living in Paris for a few more weeks and then moving to Philly in a month. That’s a lot like me, except I’m just going to Philly for a visit. We had so much in common, I gave her lots of Philly advice (she’s never been there) and told her I’d look her up in August, when I’m back. She was relieved to hear that Philly is a good biking city. She’s into photography (me too!) and has her nose pierced (me too!) and is writing a thesis on prostitution (me too! oh, right, that’s not me).

Her bike is perfect. See, the bike that I had been borrowing is really too small for me to ride safely. I could ride it slowly around the park, but that’s about it – I felt nervous that I might damage it. The girl who lent it to me is about 6 inches (10cm) shorter. My new bike feels wonderful; it’s big and sturdy and has a basket and luggage rack. It’s a 3-gear road bike, which is unlike anything I’ve ever ridden but it’s perfect for Paris. The thick tires take the city streets well, the brakes and bell work, and there’s even a “One Less Car!” bumper sticker on the front-wheel fender. I’m in love with this bike, and I can’t believe I found it for 50 Euros.

I did already have a funny mishap. When I was close to home, I stopped for a baguette at the bakery where the guy is always flirty with me. I practiced my French for a bit, and then put the baguette in my bike basket and started to ride home. I was riding along, thinking about how damn cute I felt to be riding a bike ol’ road bike through Paris with a baguette sticking out of the front basket, when the bread flew out of the basket and tumbled down the road. Oh well. I stopped to go pick it up, and went to a different bakery for another baguette. And then I pushed the bike the rest of the way home.