Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Art of Cheese

Yesterday we went on a Cheese Making Tour in Avellino.  About an hour east of Naples, we joined Aldo, my tour guide of choice, to visit a "caseificio."  The literal translation is closer to "dairy house" than "cheese factory" because Italians think of factories as being too industrial to make something like cheese.  Interesting note!  On the way, we saw the beautiful countryside and learned why there were so many fires on the mountain that day.  It turns out that it is hazelnut harvesting season this weekend and that many Italians who immigrated to other countries normally come home to help with the harvest of hazelnuts. 

To harvest hazelnuts, farmers burn the vegetation and lower branches of the bush.  It is important to note that Naples has fires daily, if not hourly.  The trash lying on the sides of the roads in plastic bags builds up with methane and ignites all the time.  That, and during riots, people will burn trash in downtown piazzas.  Needless to say, fire is something that we've grown oddly accoustomed to.  So to say that  there were a lot of fires in Naples yesterday will hopefully help the reader to understand just how many there were.  The countryside looked like fog had rolled in, the fog you see in Napa Valley, that sinks in and engulfs the hills. 
When we finally arrived at the caseificio, we piled out of the bus to find a two story house with a large shed next door.  This is where the family lives, makes cheese and sells it with 3 ratty looking dogs and an adorable 3 year old running around in Daisy Duck apparel.  When we arrived, 3 bottles of water, 2 bottles of wine and 10 plates of cheese sat on the table.  Machinery noise made it difficult to hear, so Aldo beckoned us to the eat while we waited.  He shouted "they can't stop in the middle of the process.  We must wait!!"  And so we did!  There is nothing like eating cheese and drinking wine at 9 AM!  The vat with the cheese in it was enormous!  Two men in jeans and t-shirts with white galoshes were scooping the ricotta from the vat into little plastic baskets on a steel incline with a rubber bucket at the bottom.  This allows the excess water to drain.  But they can't put a full scoop in every basket at once because that causes air pockets.  They have to plop about 1/4 of a cup into each basket at a time and let it settle.  Talk about slow food!

I bought some cheese, I'm not sure what it's called, with arugala inside.  Mmm!!!  And biscotti that you are to dip into limoncello.  (Which we did later that night and determined that limoncello is still not Tom's favorite drink, even with biscotti)  My 0.44 kg (nearly a pound) of cheese and bag of biscotti was 2,70 Euro!  I couldn't understand at first why he didn't want my 20! 

Buzzed from an hour of drinking wine and eating cheese, Aldo called "his children" back onto the bus to drive to the lunch location.  Da Rosa Ristorante was another 20 minutes east in the middle of nowhere!  Upon arriving, the rather hefty driver of the Nissan that had lead us through some windy back roads exited his car and Aldo remarked "The food here must be good!" 

Lunch was included in our tour price and I'm fairly certain that we got our money's worth.  Aldo told us that we would get a sampling for antipasti and 6 "tasting portions" of pasta.  Tasting portions in Italian are like the never-ending pasta bowls at the Olive Garden, except the food's actually good.  My favorite was the linguini in truffle cream sauce.  Oh my goodness!  It was SO delicious!  Then there was truffle ravioli.  Oh, stop!  Then there was a meat course.  Wait, what?  Five different types of meat followed by eggplant, zucchini and salad.  Fruit course then dessert.  And, because Aldo loves getting more stuff, the waiter brought us pitchers of peaches and soaked them in wine.  It was like really simple sangria.

Our section of the table had 6 bottles of wine between 6 of us.  We laughed our way through the 4 hour lunch and on the way out, took loads of pictures in the little garden on the side of the ristorante.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Churches AND Castles, Naples You're Fancy!

The problem with being an unemployed housewife living in a 200 square foot hotel room in the middle of a corn field is this: you start to go insane.  It's been 40 days since we stepped foot off of the plane in Capodichino Airport in Naples and I've done a lot.  A trip to Sorrento (and the Amalfi Coast), a trip to Berlin, tours of Downtown Naples and even gotten into an Italian (albeit broken-Italian) fight with a street vendor who tried to cheat me out of my correct change.  However, despite all of these fun and exciting adventures, I find myself having days where I hole myself up in this tiny hotel room, eat baked ziti and watch old episodes of the West Wing on iTunes or watching the remaining minutes of "The Sorcer's Apprentice" for the third time. 

To end the monotony and before I have to start gainful employment, I signed up for every tour that I could between last week and the second week in August.  So far, I've gone to the Open Air Market in Vomero (our soon/not-so-soon to be neighborhood), the Churches of Naples and the Castles of Naples.  I've also signed up for a three week Easy Italian class, forced myself onto unsuspecting wives who mentioned, if ever so briefly, that they were new to the area and found 1,001 ways to spend my first three consecutive paychecks.  The list includes outdoor patio furniture, a coat rack and entry table, various expensive Italian handbags and lest we forget, the new couches that Tom has promised me when at long last, we can throw out those horrid ones that his ex-girlfriend picked out. 

My trip to Vomero was made decidely humorous when a young lad who works for the local American newspaper, the Panorama, came along.  With his fancy camera, he took pictures of Brenda (please see aforementioned overly eager friend making note) and myself looking at shoes, dresses and jewelry.  Needless to say, he probably hated having to write this article.  On the plus side, several street vendors thought that he was a journalist for some really legit newspaper or tourist magazine (no offense, Jeff or the Panorama) and began jumping into pictures and offering us first looks at just about everything.  Far be it for me to correct them!  He is technically a journalist!  Every picture I took ended up with 3 Italian men jumping into the shot and throwing a thumbs up and saying "Go USA!  Go Obama!"  'Atta Boy!

I'd hate to bore my dear readers with too many pictures of castles and churches, so I'll just say this: I was oddly surprised by many of the beauties hidden beneath the surface.  Naples is known (and quite rightly) for being a dirty city.  It's true.  Sitting on such prominent real estate, there are views that take my breath away and then stenches of trash or burning trash that bring it right back.  Graffiti covers most every wall and makes you so sad to see the loss of something so lovely that withstood so many centuries only to see it covered in spray paint and urine.  It broke my heart to walk into the most gorgeous cathedral, Santa Chiara (St. Claire) and to see the marble stair case sprayed with "Giorgio <3 Maria."  Great, Giorgio.  However, once inside the sacred gates and in what once was the cloister for the convent, stood the most amazingly ornate courtyard.  Aldo, the adorable tour guide on both excursions, explained that the nuns we normally dropped off at age 8 and were never allowed to leave the convent walls.  Ever.  This courtyard was their only means of ever seeing the light of day and what nature is really like.  To that end, paintings and ceramic tiles cover the courtyard depicting scenes of what like is like outside of the walls.  Pristinely kept over the years, this was one of those moments that made you really appreciate the history of the city.

I'm heading to another Castle (the Caserta Palace) on Thursday and trying to find ways to keep myself busy until our apartment is ready.  I was told today that it failed the first inspection and will probably be another week.  Tick tock....


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Complete Idiot's Tour of Berlin

I've only taken 2 trips  without Tom since getting here  and I feel like my blog might turn into more of the lessons in what NOT to do when traveling...    Big take aways from this trip included: EasyJet is crazy, bike tours are much easier ways to see a city, check your ticket on mass transit.

Easy Jet

Easy Jet is what Southwest Airlines would be like if they were less organized.  Like Southwest, you don't have assigned seats on this airline.  So everyone rushes up to the gate and sprints (literally!  people are sprinting across the tarmac and up those stair cars to get into their perfect seat) to the stair cars located at the front and back doors of the planes.  It is utter insanity and then you realize that you are running too!!  Despite it being unorganized, it all happens very quickly, probably because everyone is running!  When Italians are involved, a group of people who don't see lines are being either steadfast or important, it becomes even crazier.  The stair car, probably wide enough for one person and their carry on, suddenly has 4 people squished in, their suit cases hanging over the side.  It's crazy!  During the flight, I was so surprised that people stood in the aisle for most of it.  They plopped into other people's seats when the flight attendants came past and then stood up again.  It made me think that American flights are so boring!  This was the noisest flight I've ever been on and when the plane landed, everyone started clapping and cheering!  Haha!  Good job, pilot, we survived!!!

Bike Tours

 On my first day in Berlin, Sarah and I walked about 9 miles!  Our feet were so sore at the end and we agreed not to do that again.  On day 2, we rented bikes through Fat Tire Bike Tours, not to be confused with the delicious San Diego-based brewing company.  Cairan, our cuddly-looking Irish tour guide, helped us all get set up on our bikes and off we went!  My bike was named Margarita and Sarah's was the Sistine Chapel.  Sidenote: when people say, "It's just like riding a bike" they forget that some of us haven't ridden a bike in like 5 years.  It took me a good 30 minutes to remember how to ride a bike!  I would change this phrase to be: "It's just like after you've ridden a bike for 30 minutes"

Sarah and I did the Third Reich tour of Berlin and it was fantastic!  It was almost 5 hours in total and cost 22 Euro!  That's a pretty good bargain in my book!  We learned so much and got to see so much of the city!  I'm trying to get a stamp in each of the four cities where they have franchises so I can get my *free* t-shirt.  (* included for the benefit of one Dr. Kristine Ehrich, lest she tell me the logic behind how the t-shirt isn't technically free.  See, Kristine!  Sometimes I learn things where we're drinking wine together!!!!)  We saw so many beautiful parks, hauntingly sad memorials and subtle reminders of the devastation of war, it was all very moving and incredibly interesting.

Public Transit: Not for the Faint of Heart

My Complete Idiot's Guide to Germany book said about 1,000 times that Berlin is a very tourist friendly city and the transit system is so easy to use!  I defy you, tour book!  I can get lost all on my own, thank you!  After taking the public transit system from the Schonefeld Airport to Zoologischer Garten and then switching trains and going to Wittenbergplatz all on my own on the way to meet Sarah, I thought I was an old pro!  We even rode the metro AND the train while we stayed there.  With my new cute shoes and my fancy Zara blazer, I felt chic and ultra European and got to the metro with confidence exuding from my every pore!  For tickets that take you outside of the city, you have to go a special travel office and they print you the ticket.  Mine was 3 Euro and had B3 15:59 on the time.  So I went up to the platform and stood next to a sign that said B3.  But noticed that many of the cities on the list were going further away from the airport so I asked an old woman waiting on the bench if this would take me to Schonefeld Airport.  She assured me that I was in the right place. 

Fast forward 45 minutes.  I was still on the train but it had stopped at Postdam, which on a map is like the exact opposite direction of the airport.  I wasn't super pressed for time, as I had assumed it would take me longer to walk to the train station and had a good 40 minute buffer, but recalling that time that I rode the DC metro to Arlington Cemetary instead of the Navy Yard, I thought to ask.  A portly family of Germans was sitting across from me and I asked the father if this train was going to the aiport.  He didn't speak English but his 12 year old daughter was learning in school.  So we started talking and she asked "Where is it that you would like to reach upon your final destination?"  My goodness, talk about formal!  When she showed me a route to take, a woman sitting behind her popped in and they began to speak at length in German.  She took the map, which I had given to the 12 year old and showed me another way to get there.  Then a German businessman took the map and he showed me a way to get there.  Then another man, who up until this time I had assumed was Italian (hereafter referred to at PI - Pseudo-Italian) began speaking in German.  So much German flying around!  So many people grabbing my map and pointing! 

In the end, PI grabbed my map (I was considering the number of germs on this piece of paper by this point) and pointed downstairs after the two business people had left.  I thanked the girl and her family and followed him.  At the platform, he yelled at a friend of his, some 100 meters (getting the hold of that crazy metric system ever so slowly!) ahead of us and they began speaking about my predicament.  The friend, in turn, grabbed the map (1,001 germs on the map by now) and told me to go down the platform and wait for the "small train."  So there I was, in the middle of a field with a train station, alone thinking "I'm going to be stuck in a random field in Germany."  Or take the most expensive cab ride of all time back to Berlin.  Either way, my 3 Euro train ticket wasn't seeming like such a bargain....

At length, three jolly German women walked onto the platform and, I think, assumed I was trying to mug them when I begged 'Do you speak English???'  'Oh... only a little.' one replied, hoping that I would take this as a failure and leave them alone.  Not on your life, sister!  In as few words as possible, I asked 'Schonefeld?  This track?'  Since moving to Italy, I have considered leaving my urban planning education behind and taking up miming as my career.  I've shown amazing potential in the last month and think with practice, I could flurish.  She nodded and smiled.  "Your English seems pretty good to me!" I said.

I finally made it onto the small train.  While it sadly was not child sized, it did only have two cars and took me, with relatively no speed, to the airport where I again partook in the absolute insanity of Easy Jet, the Italian Edition, and made it back home.  No stamps in my passport on that journey, but damn if I don't feel like I should get a gold star for making it back to Naples with all of my stuff and at the correct time!  Berlin, you were a pretty cool place, aside from the drunken German men who made a list for Sarah and I about all of the things that they don't like about Americans.  High on that list was: "You have too much of an emphasis on war."  Really, Germany?  Like you have any right to talk about world domination... I'm looking forward to going back with Tom, acting like I know all everything that I actually learned on our tour from college, and impressing him with my random facts.  Plus, I didn't have a pork knuckle while I was there and they are supposedly quite good.  Seriously, Anthony Bourdain said so!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fingers Crossed and a Manhattan in my Hand!

Today was the pre-contract appointment with the Housing Office.  Oh my goodness, if only I knew what that would entail.

The appointment started at 2:30, but in true Italian tradition, was 15 minutes late.  Giuseppe is the owner of the property and is an attorney.  Maria, the housing contract specialist, and Giuseppe began the appointment by speaking for 3 minutes in Italian.  Upon the completion, I think it was decided that the rent would be less than what the previous tenant had paid.  Because, the previous tenant was a single Commander and Tom is a married LCDR, they get different housing allowances.  It's pretty much always the case that the rent of your intended place is magically EXACTLY the rent of the housing allowance for your rank.  Go figure! 

We had agreed with the listing agent to pay an extra €200 per month for our two parking spaces in the gas station.  This set into motion what appeared to be a huge argument.  The gas station next to our place is operated by AGIP, kind of like Shell in the US, but they are one of the vendors through which we are able to purchase gas.  Legally, Giuseppe couldn't rent us the parking spaces in the lease because he doesn't own the AGIP.   So Guilia, the supervisor, came in and she and Giuseppe began yelling at one another.  For 22 full minutes (seriously, I timed it), Guilia and Giuseppe screamed at each other.  I picked up the words "parcheggia" (parking), "Americani", and "due mille" (2000 - our agreed upon rent).  The remainder, I picked up only in bits and pieces and when Guilia walked away quickly, I assumed it meant that things went badly.  Then Giuseppe got up and walked away and I was left, mouth open with Maria.  "Did that go alright?" I asked.  "Oh, si si si!  That's just the way that Guilia talks.  Her only volume is loud," said Maria.  Well bless you, Maria, because she had the parking spots guaranteed and got Giuseppe to agree to pay for our moving expenses if the parking spots are no longer available.

Sigh, it took over 2 hours for the agreements to be reached and upon completion, we signed three copies of 10 page documents.  At long last, I left the housing office feeling like one of those Asshole Americans that so many Italians think we are, wishing that I had the opportunity to say repeatedly, in Italian, "we're really, very nice people!" 

Moving forward, we have the housing inspection on the 22nd of this month.  From there, we will have the final contract signing and the presentation of the keys.  Maria expected all of this to take until about the 1st of August.  Which is kind of crappy because I also got a job offer today and was hoping to have our house all settled before I start working.  We'll see what really comes of it all!  Fingers crossed and a Manhattan in my hand, I think we'll be ok!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Maid"en Voyage

Our hotel room is a relatively good size but when you're in it for nearly a month, it starts to feel small.  It feels even smaller when there are two cats roaming about, scattering kitty litter and fur where ever they please.  Because of these two little vermon, as Tom affectionately refers to them, the maids won't clean the room unless they are crated and because they were so traumatized by their crates during their 12 hour incarceration on the flight over here, I didn't want to put them back into their crates.  So, we have kept a "Do Not Distrub" sign on the door for nearly a month and put the trash outside each morning and towels outside at other random intervals.  The system works well, the maids don't have to clean our room and we don't have to search for cats who are freaked out by the mere sound of Italian voices and rolling carts outside the door. 
Except that they are required to come in and clean the room at some interval, it certainly isn't weekly, maybe bi-weekly?  I don't know.  And so today, at long last, the one maid knocked on the door and said "Clean today."  Our maids, it must be noted, speak very little English and must hate these interactions with Americans who speak very little to no Italian.  Our maid, I can confirm, knows how to say the following:

1. No problem - There must be some Italian person telling all Italians that this is a very common English phrase because I have heard that from about 1,000 Italians.  No problem covers just about any situation, whether it's applicable or not.  Examples: 1) "We need to find a place that fits two cars" Response: "No problem"  2) "Can you wait for me to find my cats before you come in?"  Response: "No problem" but then they came into the room....  We'll come back to this

2. Clean today

3. No English

So, back to the fiasco, which in hind sight wasn't nearly as bad as some of our other fiascos, so I'll just call it a humorous encounter.  The maids were charging at the door and I turned to the most beloved and saving app that Apple has on the iPhone: Google Translate.  I cannot thank Nathan Jacobsen enough for telling me to get this app.  It seriously is my saving grace in a country where I barely speak the language and watching E! News in Italian is not really improving my skills that much.  I typed into ol' Google Translate "Give me 1 minute.  I need to find the cats."  "No problem"  See?  They love that phrase!

I found Sprout between the sheets.  She thinks if she hides under the covers that we can't find her.  This has become a problem as I've tossed my purse on the bed only to crush my 11 pound cat about 10 times.  Sorry, Sprout!  I flung her, claws out and making sounds like I'd just run her over with a pick-up, into the bathroom and began shaking the cat treats wildly to get Flit to come out.  No luck.  Searched under the bedskirt, no luck.  At this point, the 1 minute was up and the maids came in.  They are really sweet and super nice and I felt really bad that I had been asleep at 9:30 in the morning while they were busily doing their jobs.  Mi dispiace!!  (I'm sorry)

I was trying to tell them not to go into the bathroom ("bagno") but that didn't seem to come across.  I pointed to the door and said "gatto" and that seemed to solve the problem.  But here I was, sunburned, unbathed and in my PJ's, looking like the typical American slob with unbrushed hair, as two Italian maids were changing the sheets on our two beds.  This is when I began to worry that Flit, who was most likely behind the bed, would see them and freak out.  I typed "One cat is in the bathroom, the other is under the bed" into my phone and handed it to the maid.  She made the most horrified face in response.  "He is very scared and I don't think he will come out" I typed again.  She typed back "I am very scared of cats."  Oh hell.  The one maid made up the bed on her own, as her counterpart vacuumed the carpet and raced out of the room with deliberate speed.  I think it was the fastest room cleaning that they have ever done.  But, we now have clean sheets, a vacuumed rug, and fresh trash bags. 

It took the cats exactly 1 hour to determine that the room was safe again.  They are now roaming around, acting like bad-asses, and walking across the keyboard of my laptop to prove that they aren't afraid of me.  Congrats, cats, you have put me in my place but were terrified of a 90 pound Italian lady.  Great job all the way around.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

House Hunting Internationally!

Finding the perfect home in Naples is like finding the perfect home in Manhattan – you have to make sacrifices.  What you want and what you can afford are often very different things.  We've had to decide what's most important and how we can get to that point.  Today marked the fourth time that we’ve gone out with a realtor to look at potential homes and at long last, we found it!

Tom and I both made a list of required items for the house and, shocker, my list was full of warm and fuzzy things and Tom’s list was very practical.  My top priorities were 1) a view 2) a balcony that fit chairs so I can drink wine and watch my view 3) a good vibe 4) less than 30 minute drive so I can get home from work and enjoy my view while drinking my glass of wine on my fabulous porch.  See?  Simple!  Tom had these noble requirements like “safety” and “parking.”  Who is this guy?  So, each place that had a view I immediately began to plan out where our stuff would go and what additional stuff we would need to fit our stuff more perfectly.  I actually asked at one place if we could buy the curtains from the current tenant before Tom said “we haven’t decided yet, remember?”  In fact, I had decided but the Royal ‘We’ had not and alas, those curtains are not in my possessions.
But I digress… At 8:30 this morning, we wandered over to the housing office for our mandatory search.  It is required that you go look with them once every 10 days for them to keep paying for us to live in this hotel.  So, begrudgingly, and with a “this is going to be a waste of time” attitude, we trudged over to the Housing Office to meet Ciro (pronounced Cheero).  Ciro is a skinny, mid-aged Italian man who had helped us previously in a sit-down meeting.  Paolo, his associate, had taken us out to look at apartments last week and I was left with my very first case of motion sickness after driving with him.  I don’t know when, but at some point between nausea and the urge to leap from the vehicle, Tom informed me that we were going 180 KPH.  For those fuzzy foreigners who don’t use the metric system, that’s roughly 112 MPH.  It was a bit fast.
But I digress again… Ciro, thankfully, was a much more reasonable driver.  He drove at a casual 130 KPH (the speed limit is 80 by the by).  But then we got turned around and Ciro stopped in the middle of an intersection, which is totally cool to do if you are Italian.  He quickly stopped a Vespa (also in the middle of the intersection) and asked for directions.  A full conversation began with the instructions being given not once, but twice. Though it probably didn’t take as long as it felt, we did hold up an entire street of traffic and then proceeded to do an Austin Power’s inspired 27 point turn.  It’s a bit rash, but I’m guessing we were up for Most Popular Driver in Naples this morning.  The results are still out, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed extra tight!
At length (and u-turns), we arrived at a gas station.  Wait, what?  Ciro informed us that this gas station is where we are to park our cars.  The spot, which fit his Ford Whatever (Insert strange European model of Ford vehicle) fit and probably a Smart Car would fit behind it, but we had a Civic and a CRV.  “Is no problem.  Will fit.”  Ok….
The tiniest elevator of all time took up us to the 5th floor, which is yet another European misnomer.  The floor that you enter is 0.  So the American 2nd floor is labeled 1.  Our apartment is on the 6th and a ½ floor.  You get out at 5, but then walk up another half flight of stairs.  Then you scratch your head, turn around three times and whisper “fuzzy britches.”  I’m kidding here, but if a visitor does do that, I’ll give you a shiny Euro! 
The place is 2 bedrooms and a wide hallway that is considered the third bedroom but will probably be my office in the hallway to our bedroom…  I foresee my highest grades in grad school with the Hall of Wisdom for my study chamber.  Brian, the guy who just moved out, was telling us that the place was great and he had no issues.  This inspired confidence because sometimes that realtors will tell you that everything is perfect and then you find out that the “pizzeria” below you is actually a discotheque and your quaint little place is like the inside of a 1997 Rave.
Fingers crossed, no raves below our place!  We’ll be at the top of Vomero, a hill high above the City.  Funiculari, or cable cars that run up and down steep hills, connect us to the City so my mom won’t have to spend much time in the car with me.  I’m worried that a day in Naples traffic may bring about her early death.  To say it’s stressful is to underestimate stress.
We now enter the many stages of house paperwork in Italy.  We have a pre-contract meeting with the Housing folks, the land lord and us.  Our friends who just did that stage said everyone comes to a table and the landlord and housing folks spend 30 minutes yelling at each other in Italian, hands waving feverishly the whole time.  Then they smile, shake hands, you sign a piece of paper and you all leave promising pasta to the other.  (I also made up the last part, but in my dream scenario, it would end with someone offering me pasta.)  From there, someone does an inspection and then you do a contract.  Then you do a formal contract signing ceremony and then you slaughter a goat and someone offers you pasta.  Alright, I’m lying again about the goat AND the pasta, they just give you pasta at that point.  Ugh!  Then three days later you get keys and three days after that you move in. 
I tried to butter Ciro up by flirting with him, so maybe it won’t take so long.  Which is all pretty speculative anyway, because we found out today that all of our worldly possessions that we had packed up on May 18th are still sitting in a warehouse in San Diego and will take a minimum of 17 days to arrive in Europe.  Where they will be inspected by German customs, moved onto a truck and come to Italy.  All of which is supposed to happen by July 27th, but we were told “probably won’t make the required delivery date.”  Required is a loose term when you’re moving.  Kind of like theft.
We’ll keep you posted as stuff arrives, or doesn’t, and when we finally get those enormous Italian keys (no really, the keys are actually really big!  Like old fashioned keys that you see in antique shops and think “those don’t open anything!”  Wrong, friend, they open a house in Italy.  Probably the one from “Under the Tuscan Sun” which is not the house that we picked, for everyone who has asked me.  Also because she lived in Tuscany and we live in Naples….) to our humble abode and porch.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Vacanze Roma (Roman Holiday)

When at last Kristine had to return to the States, we decided to extend our fun-filled time with her by accompanying her to Rome for her flight. It was pretty last minute so Kristine, who had just spent three weeks there teaching a class, made us a list of “must sees” that could easily be accomplished in a day.

We all woke up at 4:15 AM to shower, pack up our stuff and stop by security to get Kristine’s passport back and be at the train station in time to catch the 5:47 to Roma Termini! Our idea to spend €9,40 per ticket might have explained why the train was so full, so loud and so uncomfortable. Still, we each got about 5 minutes of sleep on the 2 hour train ride and considered it a smashing success.

Arriving in Rome was like walking into Times Square for the first time. People were everywhere! Running with suitcases, strolling with cappuccinos, smoking cigarettes despite the hundreds of “no smoking” signs. I guess those, like speed limits, are only guidelines in Italy. Once we dropped Kristine off at the train to the airport, Tom and I broke out our map and found out way to Vittorio Emanuele II Memorial. We got there right at the stroke of 9:30 as the gates were opening. Mouths open, we strolled the grounds in awe of the size, detail and magnificence of it all. After getting obviously price gouged, we took the elevator up to the roof and took in the sights of the city from a bird’s eye view. It was amazing! One of those moments that will be registered in my mind when I think “Holy Crap, I live in Italy.” It’s like the very clear moment in college when I realized “Holy Crap, I’m in college….” Somewhere between the stress and the overwhelming urge to cry when people are yelling at you in a foreign language, you come to the realization that you’re stronger than you think, more awkward than you’d like to admit and more determined to prove to the woman who you are pretty sure is talking about you on the metro that you’re not a tourist. I’m not there just yet, but give me two months and I’m determined that I will be.

The rest of the day is a blur of Piazzas, fountains, steps and crowds. I feel a little ashamed when people ask me “Did you see the Sistine Chapel?” No…. “Did you see the Coliseum?” No… But we saw what we could and by the end of the day were completed exhausted.
While it might not be the most iconic, I can honestly say that Saint Ignazio di Loyola Cathedral was the most magnificent thing that we saw all day. I was so moved, looking at each item, reading each prayer, seeing each devoted soul in that vast space that I actually started to cry. It was the most moving place that I have been in. I felt so overwhelmed by the dedication to God, the desire to build something in such a noble goal and yet the opulent waste of it all. Offerings for the poor when thousands of dollars of gold and marble had been spent on this building. It all was too much and I sat in silent contemplation hoping to make sense of it.
In preparation for our next visit, I’ve purchased “Rome for Dummies” which I will undoubtedly highlight, tab, dog ear and otherwise devour before we are ready. Once it’s cool again, we’ll do it up right and we’ll have to spend more than one day.

Love and hugs to all from Napoli. Keep us in your thoughts, as you are ever in ours.
Lynne and Tom

Up and Down the Amalfi Coast

How to even begin telling about our trip to Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Amalfi! 

My very dear friend, Kristine, spent 3 days in Campania. After a bit of difficulty getting out of Luxembourg, for which we are thankful that we now know how to spell that nation’s name, we met up a bit later than expected in the Napoli Centrale train station. A hop, skip, conversation with a 17 year old girl from Portland who was living in Dijon for a year later, we got to Sorrento! Tired and sweaty from dragging out luggage, we made for our apartment at Residence L’Incanto. On google, it says it’s only 6K from the train station and we thought the walk would do us good. Except, it was straight up the hill and a €60 (!!!!!) cab ride later, we arrived at our place. Oh my heck! It was expensive. Heading back into town via taxi, because the buses were on strike, was €30. Right then and there we decided to rent a car. 

Enter the Fiat Panda. I got us a good rate because of my military discount and was incredibly confident when I told the girl that “of course I drive manual!” When the car was brought out front and we were told to inspect it, confirm that the gas was full and drive off, I got flustered because I couldn’t turn the car on. The guy working there saw our difficulty and came back to make sure we were ok. “Oh yes! The radio was just very loud and it got us flustered!” Kristine lied. Finally panicked by the possibility of dying, crashing or getting caught, I jumped from the car said “You do it” as I raced to the passenger seat. With the greatest of ease, Kristine got us out of the parking spot, down all one way roads to a parking garage. Phew! We toured around Sorrento for the rest of the day without significant difficulty or mishap. 

Day two began with a rooster cock-a-doodle-do-ing all night and into the morning. When we finally gave up on sleep and decided to head out, I punched the parking garage from the day before into my iPhone and off we went. Except, it took us down a strange road. And we got nervous as the road got increasingly more narrow. Half way down the hill from our apartment, Kristine and I decided that it was time for the Panda’s ears (sideview mirrors) to fold in after we had a love tap with a stone wall. Even in the tiniest of cars, with ears pinned back, our trek to Sorrento was plagued with difficulty. Again, we made it to our garage, parked the Panda and made for Capri.

Capri is a scenic, wealthy island with beautiful people, obnoxious American teenagers and an entire block of Ferragamo stores. After spending the day high on the hilltops, we took the Funicolare (a slow train that goes up and down the mountain) back to the ocean. Upon exiting the Funicolare, a man approached us to see if we wanted to rent a boat. Being unskilled at a manual transmission, I thought this would be a terrible idea but we haggled and finally agreed to go with the “English speaking tour guide” which was a highly prized commodity we were to understand. Antonino, our tour guide, was the kind of dreamy Italian with tight pants and a professional tan that most girls dream of. He spoke pretty good broken English and pointed out the 8 grottoes that we encountered in an hour tour of the island. Our trip around the island took about an hour or so and took place on a small inflatable boat called “Rent Whales.” Antonino loved to “go fast” and took each wave at full speed. Kristine and I flopped about the front of the boat like rag dolls, her laugh inspiring Antonino to do it again on the next wave!

On our first night in Sorrento, we tried to get dinner at a Trattoria which was located a few blocks from our place. It seemed like such a quaint mom and pop place that we thought we’d give it a try. But alas, it was closed. We wandered into a market across the street to see if they had any suggestions and the doppelganger of the killer, Buffalo Bill, from “Silence of the Lambs” explained to us in Italian plus hand gestures, that there was a ristorante down the hill 300 meters. Down a dark, narrow alley, we went. Through a barricade, that seemed like it might be sending us a message of “do not cross”, and down another dark alley. Eventually, we got to a fork, remembered Buffalo Bill pointing at his left hand and went up a hill. And there, like Shangri-La, was Zio Sam’s. The restaurant wasn’t much to look at and was almost entirely empty, but the waiter, Pascuale, who sat us was super friendly, asked if he and “Dolce & Gabbana” could come sit with us, and promptly brought two glasses of Prosecco and some bruschetta. We dined on a delicious meal, flirted with Pascuale for other free stuff and left, stuffed and elated. We went back the following night, after a day of touristing, and had another, equally amazing dinner.

On Saturday, Kristine, the Panda and I decided that the people who told us not to do it were dumb and we drove down the Amalfi Coast. Stopping first to take a picture in a turn out, we were approached by a woman selling produce. Feeling obligated to buy something; we chose 2 oranges and 2 apricots. Then she was showing us lemons and these huge lemons and kept shoving them in our faces. Eventually, to make her stop, we agreed to buy one of the huge lemons because it was big and kind of humorous. In Sorrento, we bought a kilo of apricots for €2. So when she said “dieci” I thought she must have meant something else and tried to give her a €10. At this point, she started yelling “carta! Carta!!” Upon Google-Translating this, some days later, I discovered that she was yelling “Paper! Paper!” because I guess she didn’t want coins. It was all very strange and we totally got ripped off but we left just the same and agreed that she was the angriest roadside vendor alive.

There are rules about driving in Italy. I’ll set up a whole blogposts about it one of these days, when I’ve actually done more driving, but the most important two rules are these:

1. If you are driving on a road that is narrow, whoever is going faster or is larger had the right of way. If you are blocking that persons forward progression, you are expected to put your car into reverse and move. On a road like the one to the Amalfi Coast, covered in Fiat Panda’s, the official tourist car, and approximately 1,000 Vespa’s, this becomes difficult.
2. When rounding a sharp corner, you are expected to honk to let the person coming from the other side know that you are approaching. Honking, most times, means “I’m here!” Unlike in America, you usually don’t honk when you’re angry, just when you’re going around someone or something.

By the end of our trip, Kristine was a master Italian Driver. I’m going to make her a certificate, possibly laminated, for her efforts. Through Positano, we saw shops, I bought an AMAZING painting and we had the most delicious mystery meat in the shape of salami (but not salami) ever. With a bottle of wine, fresh tomatoes and some bread, we were happy ladies.
I could write so much more, detailing each moment of our journey, but for the sake of those of you who don’t really care, I’ll stop here.