sleeping with strangers

I have a new favorite patisserie. Cannoli. Good cannoli, I must specify, cannoli assembled in front of you: tangy ricotta spooned into a crispy, fried shell and dipped in tiny chocolate chips or chopped pistachios.  

Cannoli tastes even better accompanied by a view of the Duomo, a cup of espresso, and a light rain. To fully appreciate the warmth of the moment, I would recommend trying the cannoli after the worst sleep of your life. It worked for me.

It was early January and my friend and I had been in Florence for a week. Our simple breakfast was picture-perfect, while behind the camera we sat bleary-eyed and bewildered, numbly chewing. We looked like we’d gotten dressed in the dark–and we had.

Let me explain. We had slept in a hostel: booked last-minute and chosen because of money constraints. It would allow Travis and I to stay a few more days in Florence and celebrate the New Year in a city I’d come to love in just a week.

I didn’t have much experience with hostels. Once I’d stayed in a Parisian hostel. I’d had a bright, white room, a big bed I’d shared with no one, clean crisp sheets.

This time around, I wasn’t expecting glamour, but, I also wasn’t expecting this.

In the rain (only rain, that week), Travis and I located the hostel after a lot of searching. It was on a seedy street near Mercato Centrale. We lugged the bags up three flights and saw a handwritten sign with the name of the hostel. The manager, a tall man with dark hair who didn’t seem to speak much English or Italian, met us at the door after a lot of knocking. He looked uneasy, reluctantly beckoning us inside.

He led us to the room. “One sleep there…” he waved vaguely. “One there.” This was no chocolate-on-the-pillow establishment. No, this smelled like feet. Our sheets, nubby from prior use, lay in bundles on the beds.

A single bare lightbulb, the sole light-source, burned from one corner of the room, lending a distinctive basement vibe. The windows, shuttered in the middle of the day, did little to impede the streetnoise: even four stories up, it sounded as if we were standing in il mercato centrale

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We followed our host to the kitchen: a long, skinny room with some cabinets and a fridge to which several passive-aggressive messages were affixed. On the table stood an open box of cornflakes. Was this the “free breakfast” we’d been promised?

The man interrupted my thoughts with a brusque: “You pay tomorrow?” We wouldn’t be leaving until the day after. “Uh, sure,” I said.

“What time? Cash only. Cash only!” He wrote the total down on a napkin and handed it to me.

I walked back to the room and looked around, sufficiently disillusioned. So this was it, the space we’d be sharing with six strangers for the next several days.

The other guests’ portable lives were stashed next to their beds or hanging out of the wall of lockers. There were phone cords, sweaters, bookmarked novels, and pajama pants. I saw a half-eaten bag of cookies on a nightstand and briefly considered what would happen if I ate one.

What would stop any of us from doing anything? How strange, this concept of forced intimacy and trust.

After a look in the bathroom (better erased from memory), Travis and I got out of there in a hurry.

That night I lay on my thin mattress and tried to will myself to sleep. It wouldn’t be easy: a bedspring cut into my spine. If I just concentrated, breathed deeply– just when sleep was on the periphery, someone crashed into the room, flicking on the reddish lightbulb mere feet away from my top bunk.

The night passed in a cacophony of street noise, snoring, buzzing cell phones and squeaking bedsprings. Every time one of us moved, an ugly eeeech erupted from the respective bunkbed, rendering the particularly restless among us Public Enemy Number 1.

Individual halos of cellphone light shone out from some of the beds. Others took phone calls or rustled around in the lockers: a sound like the antics of a large, particularly irksome rat.

By morning, I had identified a few enemies. Of course, they were none the wiser– I hadn’t even seen these people by daylight.

I stumbled to the bathroom where I discovered all the lights had burned out. Travis shone a penlight while I brushed my teeth. We grabbed some clothes at random and stumbled like drunks to the cafe.

At breakfast, we grumbled and talked a big game.

I would have been better not sleeping at all.

I refuse to pay for this.

We are not staying another night.

Of course we did, though. It was New Year’s Eve and there were no other remotely affordable options.

Quickly exhausted because we hadn’t slept, we returned to the hostel in the afternoon. There I talked with some of the other travelers. There was Mohammed from Togo, whom I spoke to in French. We listened to some Stromae songs and had an impromptu dance party. We had the teaching thing in common: except he was in Italy teaching French, spending his vacation traveling around the country.

Damien, from England, was an experienced hostel-goer. He was taking some time off from “uni” to travel around and work on a novel, he told me. He picked Florence at random: thinking all the art might inspire him.

There were a few Spanish students who were living in Paris and studying French. Altogether we formed quite the blend of cultures, origins, and reasons for starting out the new year in this pit of a hostel.

Sitting on my bed, I hummed Darth Vader’s theme–”The Imperial March”–annoyed because it had been stuck in my head for days (I don’t even like Star Wars). Damien, clearly the entertainer of the group, rummaged around in his things and pulled out a recorder: the instrument everyone “learns” to play in elementary school. He started playing the somber Star Wars song, the reedy notes wheezing and whistling in the air. It was shockingly atonal, pathetically bad, and absolutely the perfect fit for our surroundings. The room erupted in laughter.

I had tears in my eyes. Why does he even have that?! Sitting on the squeaking bed, my legs swinging over the bunk, I surprised myself by thinking: this really isn’t so bad.

There was something special about my first taste of real hostel culture: not so much the revolting bathroom and the torturous nights of sleep, but the summer-camp-camaraderie of it all. The way we were united by thrift, desperation, and dreams.

True travel, by my definition, makes you a little bit uncomfortable. This was true travel ten times over. I have learned to check hostel reviews before I book. I have also learned I am craving more travel like this: gritty instead of carefully-edited. Just, maybe, with a decent bed and a working light in the bathroom.

 

eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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bon vivant on a budget, or, how to be broke in Cannes

There are (literal) costs to living where everyone wants to be. When I learned I will be paying six times what I paid for rent last year with my modest teaching salary, I glumly reported the news to my parents over FaceTime.

“I guess being poor isn’t all bad.” Dad shrugged. “Makes things simple. Less choices.”

“Wrong,” I joked. “Plenty of choices. I’m currently deciding whether I should embark on a career as a streetwalker or just try my luck at the local casino.”

We agreed that neither path seemed a particularly sustainable option. In lieu of compromising my morals to afford a baguette, I should probably take the decidedly less-exciting approach and just learn how to budget.

Budget. Is there an uglier word in English? If it had a color, it would be an institutional tan. “Budget” is a room with drab carpeting and flickering fluorescent lights. The word brings with it visions of missed opportunities and crushed dreams.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they. On my first week in France this time around, in search of an apartment and unsure about upcoming expenses, even the cost of basic groceries posed a threat. So I didn’t buy them, and lived off of irregular meals of fruit and the occasional 2€ piece of boulangerie quiche.

Finally, awakened several nights by a grumbling stomach, I had to admit that feeding myself properly was worth the “cost” of budgeting, and wiser than the classic move of crossing my fingers and hoping everything turned out okay.

This year will be a challenge, and much less full of Mary&Jessica-Style Impulse Buys such as artisanal rose petal jam, Chanel nail polish, or a tutu. I am excited for the life skills this experience will undoubtedly teach me, though, of course, there will be sacrifice. The first thing to go is travel. I had big dreams. Italy! Germany! Portugal! That is quite clearly not going to happen. I have chosen instead (as if I had a choice), to see and do and enjoy as much as I can in this beautiful region.

Luckily for me and my lovely budget, my friend Erika, who is living and working near Paris for the year, decided to visit me for the first week of our mutual teaching vacances. She rented a room in the AirBnb where I’m still staying and we traveled up and down the coast, taking advantage of the South of France’s excellent train system to explore small towns and little-known spots and coming back to sleep in our own beds at night. We rarely ate out, instead splitting the grocery bill at Grand Frais and cooking up a storm throughout the week. We ate chanterelle omelets and creamy sage pasta and caprese salad and perfect tiny strawberries. We enjoyed Rosé, fresh plums and clementines, and a tempting array of cheese. With the money we saved, we were free to treat ourselves to some gelato taste-testing. See Erika’s post on our kitchen wizardry.

We spent next to nothing on entertainment, but instead indulged our inner flâneur. The idea was to get to a new place (by train, bus, or boat) and explore it on foot. Luckily, experiencing natural and architectural beauty is free, and the Côte d’Azur is filthy rich with it.

I’m learning that budgeting, that least-sexy of terms, a word that would wear tube socks and sandals and khakis, can actually help create a more conscious, intentional, and enjoyable (!) lifestyle. Really. There is freedom in learning to ask: do I really need this? Or even want it? Am I even hungry?

I’m learning that oftentimes, when you “deprive” yourself, you don’t even notice the sacrifice. We could’ve dropped 30€ on a couple of beachfront cocktails, but I am confident the bottle of inexpensive Prosecco we shared on la Plage des Rochers while we watched a brilliant sunset from a rock was in no way inferior.

And cheers, truly, to that.