One week left in Italy

I feel busy, almost too busy, but I know I’m not really. I wish I could find that happy medium, but I know I’m happiest when I have either no responsibilities (ie: traveling) or super busy. Right now I feel “in between” and it really doesn’t suit me. I’ve traveled a lot in these past two months – only in Italy, but man, I really think it’s possible to live in Italy forever and never run out of totally new places to discover.What’s my favorite thing about living in Florence? The fact that if I take a train for 2 hours, I am in a different region with different food, different landscape, different accent. I can also ride my bike for an hour and more or less be in the country, that kind of Tuscan countryside setting you have in your mind. That totally exists, and it’s beautiful. I love that I get get to Rome in 1.5 hours. I love that this country seems small by fast train and huge by slow train (because the train I take to get to Rome takes 4 hours, but costs a fraction of the price). My other favorite thing is the food, and here is where I will freely admit that the food in Amsterdam is generally awful. Sure, it’s possible to eat well in Amsterdam. There are great markets with fresh fish and veggies and seasonal fruit, I love the pastries and apple pie, there’s tons of ethnic food available, but the normal dutch attitude toward food is just simply best described as your average american attitude toward food, which is a shame. Going to a (normal, not-fancy, not-bio) supermarket in Amsterdam is a depressing experience and I can’t count how many times I’ve gone in and out without buying anything because there is nothing that appeals to me. This sucks, because ok, I can go to the markets, but what if I don’t have time? What if I just want to quickly go to a non-fancy supermarket and get inspired to make something for dinner? That doesn’t happen in Amsterdam, I have to go to the fancy supermarkets (ie: the dutch version of whole foods).

In Italy, the normal supermarket is not a depressing experience. I can buy food at my local supermarket that makes me happy! I love this! and I love italian food. I love Tuscan food. I love the meat and cheese and wine and everything they produce here.

What’s my least favorite thing about Florence? The fact that my boyfriend isn’t here. And other than that, this city is an awkward size. It’s too big to feel like a “town,” it’s too small to feel like a real city (about 350,000 people or so). there’s not a big alternative scene that I have been able to find. I think I might love it more in the summer – I can tell this city was meant to be enjoyed outdoors, in the squares with people drinking beer, on the banks of the river, etc. The weather is good for Jan/Feb, and when it gets really warm (it was about 65 F the other day), everyone is out, on the grass, having picnics, drinking wine, enjoying. The sounds of the city are beautiful. I also don’t love the fact that it is such a touristy place, and my god, I hear so many americans. The americans that live here are as closed of a group as the japanese are (there are tons of japanese as well), and I kind of feel that in the city, and I kind of don’t like it. In Amsterdam, being a foreigner is just that – you’re not dutch. that’s all. in Florence, it’s “you’re american, you’re japanese, you’re spanish,” etc. In Florence we spend more time talking about where we’re from which is a conversation that does become pretty boring after you have it ten thousand times.

I am very much looking forward to returning to Amsterdam. It’s not that I’m as crazy in love with the city as I was a few years ago, it’s just that that’s Amsterdam is where my life is, and I like my life there. I have great friends and a great bike and I somehow managed to find work as a freelancer, and I have health insurance and the cinemas are amazing and there is an alternative scene that isn’t very hard to find and people aren’t very snobby or exclusive and it just works for me. I don’t know. I have no idea where I’ll live next, as I expect Amsterdam won’t be the final resting place, but who knows, maybe it could be. maybe. But… ok, the food thing I can kind of work around, but the lack of consistently hot summers is a bigger and bigger deal. I mean, I like that the winters are mild(er than New York), but I need hot summers. The first year I was in Amsterdam, it was hot. I wore shorts to work, I went to the beach in June, it was great. But that’s not something you can count on, and this is really not okay with me. I want to tan in the summer and stay tanned all summer and sweat and have to only eat salad and fruit because it’s too hot for anything else.

This past weekend I went to Venice and it was a bit sad to have the waiters and hotel people switch to english with me. I get that it’s the most touristy city in europe, but still, that never happens in Florence. However, I could hold a italian conversation with the funny indian guys we met (another story), and on Sunday I went to my friends’ parents for lunch. It was really warm and enjoyable and I spent 4-5 hours with them only speaking italian (they don’t speak english at all) and it worked.

I’ll end this without an ending, but a picture. What a country.

Antique Venice


la fiaba – happy new year from Italy

Let’s say you’ve been on holiday for a few weeks, and it’s gone a million times better than you ever expected, and the whole thing has you so happy and optimistic about what comes next that you don’t quite know what to do with yourself. If you should happen to find yourself in that position, then please, get yourself to Siena, Italy.

When I arrived in Siena last night, it was dark and cold and I didn’t really do much exploring. Waking up today to bright blue skies and blinding sunlight was perfect, and I went about a morning routine that I’ve become quite used to. First, open up the blinds that keep the rooms in Italy pitch black at all hours of the day if they’re closed. Then, go for a coffee at whatever bar happens to be closest. Today I started with a macchiato, which I already knew would cost 90 cents. They’re all 90 cents, seriously, every place I’ve been. I stood at the bar, drank quickly, and headed out.

My first stop when I got into the center of the city was at a supermarket for some practical supplies and food. I stood in line at the meat/bread counter waiting for my number to be called. DIECI! the woman yelled a few minutes later, standing about 5 meters away with a million people between us. DIECI! I yelled back, and she ran over. I asked for a small doughnut, which I ate for breakfast outside.

I don’t usually like sweet stuff for breakfast. I’ve always preferred plain, simple foods like breads or cereal, yogurt, fruit, etc. After a a couple weeks in Italy, I’m now reaching for cookies, croissants, donuts, anything that has sugar in it. If I manage to sleep past an acceptable breakfast time, my first meal of the day becomes lunch, and my first beverage of the day is wine.

Anyway, this town – Siena – is the most perfect backdrop to go along with my mood today. Completely different than anywhere I’ve ever been. Absolutely beautiful. Peaceful, when I walked down the side streets where there were no shops. I bought a map but never bothered to look at it. When I got tired of walking, I would sit down on church steps or benches or on the ground in a pretty spot in the middle of a city square. Sometimes I would snap out of my daze and try to have a short conversation in Italian with someone at a cafe about travel or coffee or food. My very, very limited vocabulary has not yet stopped anyone from making small talk with me.

So a trip that has felt like a fairy tale the entire time ends appropriately. Tomorrow I’ll go to Pisa in the afternoon so I can catch my flight early Wednesday morning to Amsterdam. I’m hoping to go back and fill in this blog with bits and pieces of this trip in the next few days – I think it will take a few days to get back into the swing of Amsterdam anyway. But on that note, I saw a Dutch bicycle in Treviso, and I excitedly took a picture of it, even though I’m about to go back to a city full of identical looking bicycles. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends, even feeling good about returning to work, it’s just always hard to end a vacation.

Road trip: Amsterdam to Italy

The days that lead up to my road trip from Amsterdam to Aprilia, Italy were hectic and incredibly fun. I was very proud of myself for remembering to make a second set of bike keys before I left and get myself some insurance. Insurance in the Netherlands is easy and cheap, if you do it through your bank – or at least it was for me, I never know if these things are generally easy or if I just keep getting lucky. I ran into ABN AMRO on Friday afternoon at 4.30pm, and I left at 5pm with liability, travel, and apartment (renters) insurance. Basically, my apartment can burn down or get robbed, I can run over someone on my bike and injure them drastically, and I can lose my laptop and camera and all my clothes while I’m traveling and I’ll be totally covered, all for about 10 Euros a month. Amazing! All that combined with the fact that I have health insurance makes me feel like the safest person in the world.

Anyway, I had fun saying goodbye to Amsterdam. Even though I’ve been thinking for a while now that I really wanted to get out of the city (just because it had been a while since my last trip), the fact is, I always have such a good time being in Amsterdam that forcing myself away from the city doesn’t seem that urgent. However, after a few hours of sleep, I woke up on the 21st of December (a Sunday) to leave for a fabulous road trip to Italy. Joining me were three other great people I met through Couch Surfing, all of us on a mission to take V’s car back to its home in Aprilia (about 50 km south of Rome). So what’s one of the least fun ways to start a sunday morning road trip? Finding out the car you’re planning to take has been broken into! As far as breakins go, this was a “lucky” one. Someone had smashed the drivers side window and messed with the lock, but they didn’t actually take anything or mess with the car beyond that – and for once it didn’t rain, so the car was dry on the inside.

But obviously, it’s hard to feel lucky when you’re looking at a car that has a 1500 km trip ahead, in December, through Germany and Switzerland, and there’s no window.

That’s where our good friend plastic came in. We were all determined to go, window or no window, so we taped up some plastic to where the window had once been, the glass was cleaned up, and off we went. We all knew that the fact that it was Sunday was going to make getting the window fixed more difficult, and the fact that the car was insured in Italy and not the Netherlands made things even more complected, and of course the owner of the car didn’t have time to make a police report. After I finally managed to get a cup of coffee (the fact that I even left the house that morning without coffee was a very rare thing for me to do) and could start thinking clearly, I made a few calls and we all started to work together to call service agencies and emergency roadside repair places. I know a lot more about how to fix a car in the Netherlands on a Sunday now than I ever knew I would, so let me share a piece of information: it’s really expensive if you’re not insured in the Netherlands. If you are insured here, then you’re in good shape, because someone will come out and fix your car without a problem and it won’t cost you anything (I’m taking about a broken window of course, that’s where my experience begins and ends). But if you don’t have Dutch insurance, a temporary window – really just some hard plastic – will cost you €185 if it’s a Sunday. That’s a lot of money.

To make a long story short, we drove all the way to Freiburg, Germany with plastic on the window. And honestly, it wasn’t really that bad. We weren’t cold, it didn’t rain, and the only annoying thing was the noise. But no one pulled us over and the plastic held strong the entire way. The four of us switched around a lot in the car, except for me – since I don’t have an EU driver license, I was really only a “last resort” driver. I had a good time the entire way, but of course we were all happy to arrive at our destination for the night and meet up with our CS hosts. A dinner party was thrown together, wine was opened, and within 5 minutes we were all laughing and joking around and having a good time. I went to sleep that night in a comfortable bed and felt amazingly lucky and content.

After sharing a really nice breakfast with our hosts the next morning (Monday, the 22nd), the 4 of us gathered together again to head out for the day with a little bit of a delay. See, we had all assumed that Germany would be the answer to our car problems. I mean, it’s Germany! Germans love cars, they’re efficient, and they know how to fix things. But the first 3 places my friends tried didn’t work and they all sent us in the direction of a repair place a bit outside the city. The good news, when we got to that place, was that they could fix it, and fix it properly and perfectly. The bad news was that it would take a few hours – but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad. We had food, we all had books and computers, and there was a really comfortable waiting area. When we were asked if we wanted coffee, we all enthusiastically said yes – and about 10 minutes later, a wonderful angel from German Car Repair Heaven bought out 4 real cups of coffee (I was expecting something instant) with real milk and sugar and cookies and cakes. I have to say, that small gesture completely made our morning. Everything was fixed and ready to go by about 3pm, and we were back on the road. Fortunately, we had just enough daylight left to see some beautiful parts of Switzerland. The sunset was beautiful, the Alps are spectacular, and seeing a landscape that is the total opposite of Holland felt really special.

We had to drop one of our travelers off near Milan, and I was sad to see him go. When you spend 2 days in a car with someone, you do get this bond to them – I felt like we had all become a little international family (we came from the US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy). He headed off to Genoa and me and my two friends drove the rest of the night to our destination, arriving around 3.30am. I slept like a rock until 12.30pm the next day, and woke up to a beautiful lunch being served by my host. I was drinking wine before I even had a sip of coffee and I saw palm trees and sunshine when I started my day. I mean, if those two things aren’t the sign of a good holiday, I don’t know what is.

There where three specific things I wanted to note down that happened as soon as we arrived in Italy: everyone started to drive like a lunatic, a very thick fog surrounded us for hours and hours, and the food instantly became incredible. Honestly, a highway rest stop in Italy could be a fancy restaurant in a different country. We stopped a few times for coffee along the way and I give a lot of credit to the drivers of the car, because the fog was really, really intense for a really long time.

It’s Christmas Eve now (actually, Christmas day), and I feel nice and cozy at my friends apartment in Rome. Happy holidays!

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.

Italy, Greece, and why you should never walk to an airport – originally published 9 May 2005

(written when I was living in Paris, 2005)

Preface: The Sunday we were in Rome, my friend got her wallet stolen in Termini station, when we were on our way to the Vatican. Apparently, everyone in all of Rome was also on their way to the Vatican for some pope announcement, so the pickpockets were all over the place. As we fought through the crowds, my friend got pushed and then came up to us with a horrified look on her face, saying her wallet had been taken out of her bag.

This situation would have sucked for anyone, but it sucked ten zillion times more for her, since her U.S. green card was in her wallet. She wouldn’t be allowed back in the states without it. That put a damper on the day, but long LONG story short she decided to come to Greece as planned and deal with the green card on her trip home. While we were in Corfu, she learned that that the best thing she could do was go to the American embassy in London (that’s where her flights were connecting), and in order to do that she had to leave earlier than the rest of us. So! Instead of the four of us, it was just my boyfriend, myself, and my friend Jen that were traveling back to Rome from Corfu.

The ferry & train trip from Corfu to Rome was very long, but we made it and were in pretty good spirits. After eating some dinner in Rome, we decided to head to the airport. It was about 10:00ish on a Saturday night, and our flight was at 6:30am on Sunday. We figured we would be at the airport no later than midnight, sleep on the floor, and be on our way. We were already exhausted, and sleeping in an airport (instead of on the pool deck of a giant ship) actually seemed like an inviting idea. So. We walk around Termini station for a long time, trying to figure out how to get to Ciampinno airport. It turned out that the metro had stopped running (at 10:30pm on a Saturday night, mind you). One guy told us to take a bus, someone else told us to take a train, and we wondered if we would end up in a taxi that we really didn’t want to do. Taxis in Rome are a ton of money, and I knew from experience that getting to the airport could be a 2 Euro expense.

We really should have just taken a taxi.

Finally finally finally, I find some guy at Train Italia who says “oh yeah, Ciampino airport, no problem, you take the 11:30 train, that will be 2 Euro each.” Score! We waited around for about 45 minutes, and then got on the train, tired and happy to be on our way. Me and my boyfriend were so insanely tired, and I wanted nothing more than to cover him up with jackets and snuggle next to him on the airport floor. Really, that idea sounded amazing.

Ciampino was the first stop. We got off the train around 11:45 and found ourselves… nowhere near the airport. At all. We were in some bumfuck suburb town of Rome. A quiet, totally dead town. We asked around – there were some younger Italian people there that spoke some english – and realized that we were about 4 or 5 (or more, no one really agreed) kilometers from the airport. We found a bus stop that went there but surprise! The buses had stopped running. They wouldn’t start again until the morning. 5:40am, to be exact. We got nervous. Getting on a 5:40am bus for a 6:30 flight was not really an option, and I had my doubts that the 5:40 bus would be there at all.

Our new Italian friends told us that there wouldn’t be any cabs that we could catch in town, and calling one from Rome would cost us big time, since they start charging from the moment you call. Miraculously, a cab showed up (it was bringing someone home), and the Italians tried to see if the driver would take us to the airport, but no go. Again, I must reiterate that it was a Saturday night, we were in the suburb of a huge city, and it was only about midnight. Our friends wished us luck and headed out. We were left with the train station security guard. I tried calling the airport to see if there were any cabs there that might be able to pick us up, but they said “no,” and then my phone died. We tried using pay phones to call cabs. It didn’t work. We tried asking the security guard for advise, and he spoke no English, but told us using hand gestures that we should NOT try to walk to the airport.

Well, by 12:30am our options were looking grim. My boyfriend had tried walking around, looking for cabs, and found nothing… but he said he did spot a sign pointing to the airport. So, it was decided. We would walk. After all, it was only what, 4-5 kilometers? Even though we were beyond exhausted, our adrenaline had kicked in and we said “hey, we’re young and healthy, let’s do it.” Jen had a 50 pound pack, and I had my backpack and carry-on suitcase with wheels. My boyfriend had a backpack and a duffle bag. We started to walk.

We kept walking.

At first, we were laughing about our situation. “Ha ha!” we said, as we plodded along. “Won’t this be a funny story?”

And then we kept walking.

On to a highway.

Here’s the thing: you shouldn’t walk to an airport. Picture it. To get to the Philadelphia airport, you have to take 95 North or South. Highways. Highways where cars drive very very very fast, and then take an exit for “departing flights.” No one WALKS to an airport. Picture the drive to LAX or JFK or Newark or Charles de Gaulle or any airport and you realize – it’s not a walking kind of thing. Especially when you’re carrying luggage, and it’s now about 2am, there’s one bottle of water between the three of you, and it’s been a long time since anyone slept well or showered. It would be bad enough doing this kind of thing in your “home” airport, but it’s even worse when it’s in another country, far far away, no one knows where you are, you have no working phone, and everything is in Italian.

We literally had to run across 4 lane highways and duck into the weeds whenever a car or truck drove by in some areas. At one point, I was pretty sure we were totally fucked – we had lost our direction and only luckily walked the right way. We saw a cat get hit by a car and killed. And we kept walking. Trucks whizzed by. No one stopped. We passed by a restaurant and a bar (picture rest-stop type places) where we asked people in our terrible Italian how far the airport was. They would point. We would walk.

The most beautiful sight I saw that night was the gates to the airport. We made it. It was about 2:45-3:00am when we got there, and seeing as how we started our journey at 12:30am, we calculated that we walked at least 9 kilometers/4 miles. Probably more like 5 miles. We were drenched in sweat and totally frazzled. We arrived at the airport at the same time that a huge bus full of high school kids arrived, so that was fun. I changed my clothes in the bathroom and sat outside, waiting for 4am, when the airport would officially be open. When it opened, we checked in, and I got myself a nice, big beer. Everyone else was having coffee and breakfast, but I had been thinking about that beer for hours, and it hit the spot. I felt drunk for 20 minutes, and then delirious (from being tired). And then, finally, I was on the plane and able to crash.

I guess it still makes for a funny story, seeing as how it’s over and in the past. But dear jeezus, there was so nothing funny about it at the time. Thinking about it still sends chills down my spine. Yesterday, we were near a highway overpass (but safely within the city limits of Paris, exiting a Park), and the sight of the traffic wizzing down the highway made us both feel pretty awful – knowing that we had walked down highways very similar, late at night, in Italy.

So, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.

The end.