floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

snowglobe city: alone in italia, day seven

In my last full day on the Ligurian coast, I found myself far from the crowds, in a village one could reasonably conclude was populated only by renderings of the Madonna and electric green lizards like flashes of light.

Maybe it’s Cinque Terre, maybe it’s Italy, maybe it’s luck, but my time here has brought a lot of getting lost in the best way. There have been no blisters or tears or sleeping in train stations, but rather a lot of unexpected, unplanned beauty in a place that seems to hold no wrong turns, only choices. Left or right: pick your pleasure.

Once again I had woken to a day where nothing was expected of me and where I expected nothing. Bliss. After lazy bread and butter breakfast in the common room of the hostel, with my dear view of the church belltower in Biassa, I went downstairs to write. Tired of typing out blog posts on my iPhone while lying in a bunk bed, I had since migrated to the computer near the front entry. It was a distracting but fun place to work that led to several good conversations.

I wasn’t long into it before Damiano asked what I planned to do that day. To my cheerful “nothing,” he suggested I take the train in La Spezia past the Cinque Terre villages to Levanto, where I could rent a bike and ride along the coastline.

I had missed the morning shuttle, so Andrea again gave me a ride down to La Spezia, right to the train station.

In Levanto, the air felt purely tropical. I followed the signs into town and found a bike rental place without trouble. For five euros, a cheery purple bike with a basket was mine until 6 pm. To find the trail, I followed some tourists on bikes until I saw the signs for myself. Levanto to Bonassola to Framura.

The trail is a renovated railway tunnel, which means it is cavelike and agreeably flat. The long stretches of dark and chill would be suddenly broken by openings in the rock every two or three minutes of cycling. They left me blinking in the sunlight and relishing the 15 degree temperature jump. acs_0859I followed the trail to the end, which didn’t take long as it’s only about 5km. I parked my bike overlooking a small port and started walking. I was at the end of the line, in Framura, which I later learned is a town composed of five separate villages. I took some steep stairs for about ten minutes and found myself in one of the five.

It was so quiet I could hear the brush of lizards through leaves, laundry flapping on lines, my own footsteps. The loudest noise was a stream that seemed to originate far above me and end near the sea. Other than my presence, there were no signs of modernity. A village preserved in amber, emptied of inhabitants and immune to the passage of time. A snowglobe city. Madonna stared at me from fountains and above doorways, and besides her ancient gaze, I felt completely unobserved.  acs_0876I crossed a church that I found unspeakably lovely, more so for how it hid in these hills, something so pure and sad about that. Time had barely sullied its facade–marble striped white and lavender–though vines wound up its bell tower. The area smelled of moss. Had the heavy wooden doors been unlocked, I might well have entered Narnia.

Attached to its side was the cheerful anachronism of a basketball hoop, a suggestion of life and play despite the quiet. acs_0849

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acs_0875acs_0877 After a good twenty minutes of enjoying the silence (à la Depeche Mode), I cycled back to Bonnassola and Levanto, where signs of modernity were rather more abundant. I ate really good arancini and accidentally asked the boulanger in Italian: what are you doing. (A whole new language to make weird and startling errors in, and boy am I excited about that.)

I braved the Cinque Terre crowds one last time, bidding adieu to my favorite of the villages, Manarola, with a final souvenir. img_5732

sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

kicking it in cannes

I will be living and working in Cannes, France, home of the eponymous film festival, through next spring. My new city feels classic “South of France” with its brightly-painted houses, palm trees, and abundance of signs advertising moules frites. Yet, considering its element of celebrity, Lonely Planet questions if it still has a soul. Posters and paintings of movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Brad Pitt stretch across the sides of buildings and dot the interiors of restaurants. Wealth and glamour live here (or at least play here).

It’s beautiful and surely complicated and I’m eager to, well, find its soul. Since I’ll be patronizing small cafés and corner markets much more frequently than the Casino Barrière le Croisette, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. (Though I’ll admit I did pack a brunch-with-a-movie-star dress.)

I have never lived somewhere with beauty like this. Somewhere that people choose to be. It makes me giddy. When I turn corners and see surprise views, or even step outside or see the pink sunset outside my window, I get a feeling in my stomach like the liftoff in an airplane.

On the train from Cannes to Nice, I stood with my substantial baggage, feeling a bit carsick and tired. Two women were mumbling about something and I heard a man interject: On est bien ici, hein? “Listen, we’re pretty good here.” He gestured grandly.

“To the left, we have the sea. To the right, the mountains.” He paused.

Et on va se plaindre? “We’re going to complain?” Oui, c’est vrai, the women agreed. Oui c’est vrai. 

I smiled. That charming French regional pride. Also the fact that I get to share in this. Those crashing waves, those mountain peaks. Whichever way I look, the reminder that I am small. There is freedom in that.

I have moved from a French town economically depressed, default color gray, cafés filled with unemployed men drinking in the daytime…to a town of color, sun, and warmth.

Each day so far has been filled with charm and surprise: Sunbathing in October. A huge piece of watermelon to eat on the beach. Hidden passages. Olive trees. Turning a corner to see a crew in the middle of filming a movie scene. Sitting there enjoying a piece of tarte tropézienne. Pure sunlight and a constant breeze. img_0601

Knowing firsthand how difficult moving to France can be, I didn’t expect all this. I expected the worst, and was ready for it. And I know I can handle the worst: I did that last year. But it’s looking like I can let my guard down a little bit.

When I arrived in Nice, I was warmly welcomed by the owner of the Le Petit Trianon, a charming little hotel in the city center. Manuela told me about the hotel and how she had decorated each room herself. She asked me about my situation, and upon learning that I’m looking for long-term housing in Cannes, gave me her phone number and told me she would call friends to see if she could help.

For at least a few weeks, I’m staying at an AirBnb in Cannes la Bocca, about a five minute walk from the sea. The two-story house with a big garden and blue shutters is also home to a cat named Mirabelle and an ancient pooch, Loula.

My host, Antoine (name changed for privacy), is the father of three kids about my age. He’s a math teacher, which means we both have the same vacation time. And he’s really kind. I purposefully chose to stay in an AirBnb with a stranger rather than by myself, and it has worked out even better than I imagined.

When Antoine welcomed me to the place, he gave me a beach towel and snorkel mask to use. I promptly ran down to the sea, looking for rocks and shells and swimming with schools of white translucent fish. Another day, he drove me around Cannes so that I would have a better idea of my bearings. I had mentioned I like to read, and on Saturday he drove me to a book festival in a nearby small town where I got to listen to French authors speak and even talk with some authors myself, including Cuban author William Navarrete. Being that neither of us is currently living in our country of birth (and we were both speaking a second language to communicate), we had a good conversation about cultural exchange.

After that, Antoine drove me to Gourdon, a tiny, 800-year-old town, to see the view. And last night, he invited me to dinner with his family. There were five of us and we sat crowded around a wooden table, talking and laughing and eating homemade lasagna. I could keep up with the jokes and the subtleties. It has been effortless talking to people this time around, and believe me, that was certainly not the case last year. I don’t take it for granted, though, so I’m really enjoying it.

I am spoiled by the beauty of my surroundings, and by this kindness. I am luxuriating in anonymity while also enjoying all these petits interactions with strangers and new friends. I am remembering why I travel.