from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

magic in the details: on noticing

When I think about leaving the Côte d’Azur (which by necessity will happen in about a month), every moment on a sun-soaked stretch of beach feels precious.

Something that interests and disappoints me is how easy it is to become accustomed to beauty. It’s hard to hold on to the wonder. Sometimes it’s only scarcity or the acknowledgement that you will soon lose something that rescues you from disillusionment or boredom.

I have never before lived somewhere that is–to my personal aesthetic sensibilities–so beautiful. The impossible blue of the sea plus the wild stubborn plants, the buildings in colors plucked from a box of Crayolas. Color and sun plus everything I appreciate about my adopted country.

I have to take pictures, though, because the pink sunsets and crashing waves and piles of houses start to feel just like any background. Somehow seeing these things in a tiny digital square makes them digestible, something I own a little piece of. Otherwise I am helpless in their bigness. acs_0300I am trying to recapture the wonder of my surroundings and the simple joy that comes from successfully having built a life somewhere new– while I’m still living it. The countdown is on, so sometimes I stop and actively consider what’s around me, activate my senses like in a beginning writer’s exercise. It’s not that everything is flawless or beautiful–I’ll be the last to sell you a guidebook impression–but it’s mine. I am in love with the details. acs_0293Notes from an average day:

What I smell: cigarette smoke, coffee, hints of fine perfume, the unmistakeable odor of a gooey cheese, salty breezes, French fries

What I hear: the mosquito whine of motorbikes, the musical chaos of layers of foreign languages, the industrial clacking of a train on the tracks

What I see: the aquamarine Mediterranean sea, sparkling across the street from my balcony. Craggy mountains. Ramshackle buildings in candy colors. The occasional island decorated with sage-colored olive trees. The bright white yachts in the port. Signs that point me to Italy, Marseille, or “the beautiful place on the sea.” Stooped old men clutching newspapers. Market shoppers carrying crates of clementines or bunches of yellow mimosa.

What I feel: freezing breezes off the sea, sand in my sneakers, sleep-inducing sunshine through my classroom window

What I taste: bitter coffee, the tart Prosecco they serve in bowls at Salsamenteria, the rich cream of a tarte tropézienne, that longed-for first bite of a croissant from the boulangerie down the street, endless cups of hot tea at night


Today, Easter, after a lovely last-minute picnic on the beach, I took a train to Villefranche-sur-Mer on a whim. Villefranche is tiny, a colorful strip that curves around a bay dotted with sailboats. If I was trying to do the guidebook thing, I would tell you that Villefranche dates to 1295, houses one of the deepest natural harbors on the Mediterranean, and contains the belle-époque mansion where The Rollings Stones recorded Exile on Main St in 1972.  acs_0303But, fueled by Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (more specifics on that soon), I’m trying to get away from that line of thinking. Botton’s theory? Guidebooks kill curiosity. They expect a person to (and I’ll adapt his analogy to Villefranche) maintain curiosity and interest for: 13th century history, marine and naval information, American rock music, the work of Jean Cocteau, 1750’s Italian baroque-style architecture, the Napoleonic empire, and the modern tourism industry. acs_0312Guidebooks tell you what you should care about, what is supposedly important. Botton urges the traveler to listen to his own curiosity. The layout of a street, the color of a house, a mealtime custom…any of these might invite wonder.

The point is, who is actually enriched by crossing items off a list? Travel isn’t about changing pace at great speed. It’s not about how many museum doors you manage to swing through.

I am trying harder to just be. (There’s a koan in there somewhere.) Trying to notice, listen, wonder. Though I like museums, churches, ancient citadels, I feel no obligation to go inside. img_1386This afternoon in Villefranche, I didn’t step foot in a building. Mostly I just listened to the rattle of the sailboats in the wind, counted plant varieties, and followed the sunshine. I climbed above the town and admired how the boats suddenly looked just like toys. I wondered why the water always seems bluer here, and considered how it is that dainty flowers can break out from rock walls. I badly wanted to order an aperol spritz (admittedly just for the way the tangerine-colored drink would look next to the water), but decided it was a bit chilly to sit outside. I watched tourists, and wondered about how and why people got here. I admired the way the train tracks shot into  a tunnel in the rock. And I realized one reason I love the coast: it’s like a cartography close-up. The lines and curves on the map make sense when you see coastline from up high. Maps now intimidate me less.

Shivering in the shadows, I hopped back on the train and went home. Nothing special.

On second thought, maybe it was.

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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.