travel notebook: (not so) alone in italia, day three

I’d rather not think about how little sleep I’ve gotten in the last few days. But as my lids lower–once again–of their own volition, it’s getting hard to ignore.

I’ve been turning in at a decent hour, but like a little girl stuck in the cheerful purgatory of the night before Christmas, I’ve been finding it extremely hard to get to sleep.

That’s why I’m just a little behind on these trip notes.

Monday was magical.

Great splashes of color. Turquoise waves crashing against cliffs. Sprightly flowers in unlikely places. Saltwater smell. Heady jasmine. Church bells.

More of the same, in other words. Not that I’ve gotten used to it. Au contraire.

Yesterday I was again bombarded by beauty.

It was a day of seaside cocktails, ambitious hikes, new freckles, and megawatt American smiles–spent among charming company.

But back to the beginning: a morning started the right way, with bread and butter and €1,20 cappuccino at the hostel.

At Ostello Tramonti, I’ve got a room with a view and a feeling they’ll have to drag me outta here. I read in the garden for awhile as I waited for Victor to arrive. Just back from a business trip, he made the four-hour drive at 7am on Monday to profite from the last two days of this long holiday weekend.

We met in France and both live close enough to the Italian border that an extended date in Cinque Terre was possible on a whim.

I was pretty excited about that (exhibit 1 in evidence for not being able to sleep).

Victor picked me up around 11 and we drove to Manarola, one of the closer villages. I had my eye on a stunning spot for lunch, but it was crazy busy, so we walked around and took some pictures amidst the scads of people doing the same. (Funny how this is so annoying until you’re the one doing it. Oops). img_4919-1

We then took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the furthest village out and the only one I didn’t get to on Sunday. Monterosso was unique in that in featured great swaths of sandy beach: by far the best swimming spot I’ve seen here.

After pasta and aperol spritzes with a view, I changed out of my dress and sandals and into a more practical walking outfit. Our objective for the day, in addition to eat a lot of pizza, was to make the fairly challenging hike from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia.

Along the way, I spotted two of my roommates from Tramonti. It was refreshing to see familiar faces amidst the stampede of strangers. The world felt really small for a minute.

The hike was just as sweaty as I figured, and just as rewarding as I’d hoped. We had just what we needed according to a sign I saw: water, good shoes, spirit of adventure, compliance.

We crossed hillsides with tiny vineyards, scrambled up stone steps and down muddy bridges, scratched our hands on cacti, and craned our necks for views of the next village to come. In Vernazza, we made up lost calories with a great slice of pesto pizza.

In Corniglia, we stopped for some of Rick Steves’ favorite gelato. Though he may be too tragically acquainted with khaki shorts, I must admit: the man’s got taste. The local basil gelato flavor was dream-about-it good.

It was getting late by then so we battled the bafflingly unorganized train station for a ticket back to Manarola. I still haven’t seen a train here that’s been less than 7 minutes late and crammed stomach-to-backpack with tourists. Ours was half an hour late just to inch a few hundred meters down the rails. Unfortunately, we were at one of the stretches of trails closed for maintenance.

Happily for my mental wellbeing, having someone next to me with whom to exchange eye rolls on the train platform made all the difference.

Back in the car, we saw the sunset on the road. We changed and had dinner in La Spezia.

I yearned to bottle this sunshine, these colors, this rosy happiness.

I have realized it’s hard to write about happiness without bowing to cliches and hyperbole. Since I do my best to battle idealism, sometimes I just avoid the subject of happiness altogether.

“The perfect day”

But what if it really was? I do think we get a few of those every once and awhile. Days we remove the glasses and the world is still tinted rose.

(More pictures to come at a time when I don’t have to hold up my eyelids with clothespins)

A presto, ciao.

travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

alone in italia: day one

I am in a BlaBlaCar, sitting snugly in the backseat behind two French ladies also on their way to visit Cinque Terre.

I met them at a roundabout in Mandelieu–just south of Cannes and the ‘world capital’ of the mimosa flower. Sitting on a patch of sidewalk just out of traffic, I felt more like a classic hitchhiker than ever.

BlaBlaCar has enabled me to take trips that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Today I’m using it instead of the trains to cut costs, cut travel time, and (perhaps most importantly) avoid the grèves–the nationwide SNCF railway strikes liable to put a serious hitch in travel plans.

Still, there’s always a bit of a niggling worry that the conducteur might show up late or even–worst-case-scenario: change their mind. This isn’t technically permissible, but the only consequence for the driver would be a bad review and the obligation to refund my twenty bucks. I picture sweating alone on the sidewalk for hours. I wouldn’t have another good option to get to Italy.

Happily, my two French hosts swing around the traffic circle right on time: early, actually.

The women point things out to each other, labeling what they see as we wind up and around cliffs on the road from southern France to southern Italy. They make the pleasant, unnecessary comments that flourish in good company. They’ve known each other for years; I can tell.

We are in Genova. The road is squeezed between clusters of melon-colored buildings with dark-green shutters and the edge of cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

There is much to look at. I am dizzy with palm trees, sunset, a grand ship in port, the whine of Vespas in impossible places, crumbling stone arches, mustard-yellow apartments with flagrant flapping laundry.

Regarde là-haut.

Un citronnier.

Les marguerites. Que c’est beau.

Putain, oui.

They comment to each other, to me, to themselves. They comment with matter-of-fact appreciation, nothing sentimental about it. They note orange trees and lighted tunnels through mountains and particularly shameful parking jobs. In the hills they spy a lighted glass cube, like a futuristic science lab. It sits strangely on top of an ancient stone bridge.

I listen and consider it a good exercise in vocabulary practice.

I appreciate this last stretch of comprehension before I will open the car door and–Italy.

I am already sufficiently new-culture-ized, at the point where the newness is felt and I don’t take communication for granted. We stopped before at an ‘autoroute’ complex off the highway. Tirare on the doors instead of the Tirer I’m used to. Donne and Uomini for the bathrooms. Ciao, grazie and the tre cinquanta I paid for salami, crackers, and a hunk of Parmesan with a cute white mouse on the wrapper.

Already I’m thinking about what language to assume. To apologize in. To fall back on. To confirm a number in. It’s strange to think that I have a choice. I can represent myself as an American speaking in a ‘female, upwardly-mobile dialect.’ Or. I can be something else. I have French now. Greetings and numbers and etiquette. I know how to sigh French, how to make sounds of frustration or apathy. I do these things every day. And crossing the border in a BlaBlaCar doesn’t make it any easier to stop doing this.

So, will it be pardon or sorry that comes out of my mouth when my (6 months of) Italian fails me?

I consider this and make my own lists, labeling. A gigantic “pirate ship” in the bay. Italian flags hung like laundry. Signs advertising Gelateria. Pasticceria. Foccacerria.

I think of the coffee I’ll get tomorrow and drool.

It’s getting late, around 8:30, and a fat pearly moon hangs over a yellow basilica.

Il y a la lune, one of the ladies says, predictably. There’s the moon.

The mountains, as we climb through them, have folds and wrinkles like some fantastic laundry. Like a lumpy green quilt hastily thrown down to disguise a mess.

I am inspired.

I am nauseous.

There are many more mountains and tunnels before we make it to La Spezia, where I have reserved a hostel.

We spend thirty minutes trying to find the place. Increasingly frustrated, my driver stops near a restaurant and wine bar on a lonely street. “Someone go ask if this is it,” she says. The other woman turns to me: allez !

This is certainly not the hostel, but if I don’t want them to leave me in an enoteca for the night, I should probably acquire some direction. So strange now to have to ask: vous parlez français ? (No one does, so it looks like my language question is going to have an easy answer. It’s straight back to la langue maternelle for me).

After some clarification, I’m back in the car and we are chugging up a steep hill with more hairpin turns in a row than I’ve ever seen, a child’s squiggle-drawing of a road, or something from a cartoon.

It’s a matter of faith, because we see no lights and the GPS quit working halfway up the hill, as if it were declaring- yeah, not in my job description.

Before long, we are all laughing. One of the ladies actually wheezes.

Imaginez, they say. “We get to the top and there’s nothing there.” They say if it’s not there we are done looking for it. I will come back with them and they’ll share a bed and give the other to me.

It was there.

I’m here in my comfortable bed. The place has spacious lockers, remarkably clean bathrooms, a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. It even smells good.

(Words can’t describe how different this is from my last hostel experience in Italy…but actually I did write about that, click here to read)

A domani !

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.