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 !

rainy colors: a weekend in Strasbourg

Last weekend I traveled to Strasbourg alone. I am head-over-heels for this Alsatian city: its bright buildings that remind me of a child’s drawings, its lovely street art, its warm, filling comfort food, cobbled streets, and abundance of bicycles.img_7721

I got in around four p.m. and had time to drop off my things and walk through the storybook scene that is Strasbourg’s riverbanks before the sun went down. It was entirely freeing to stroll in the sun with no bags in hand; to compress after a stressful day of travel.  img_7763

From Montluçon I had taken a train to Bourges, then another to Paris Est. From there I took the metro to Paris Austerlitz, then took the TGV to Strasbourg. It wouldn’t have been bad at all (I had snacks, water, a good book, and leftover metro tickets), except that I almost missed my first train. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that as I realized my train, the one I had to take to catch the other two that I had already paid for, was about to leave and that I was, as they say, on the wrong side of the tracks. I waved to the conductor from fifty feet away, desperate and unashamed, and then I flew down the concrete steps at a speed unprecedented by my heeled ankle boots and suitcase. I came to a fork in the road and looked up one direction hopelessly, knowing if I chose wrong I was out of luck. Luckily I saw a train attendent’s face peering down from the top of the stairs. C’est bien par là, mademoiselle ! I raced up the steps and into the train and sat huffing for all of thirty seconds before the doors closed and we sped away quietly.

That little adventure had me sweating all the way to Bourges. I took out my notebook and wrote my latest travel tipassume nothing. Check everything. Ask questions at the first sign of a problem. The problem: I thought I was taking an autobus to Paris, on the opposite side of the station. It wasn’t until I was about to board the autobus, four minutes before it was set to leave, that I decided to ask other travelers in line. I only asked because I noticed, finally, that the bus didn’t match the number printed on my ticket. Luckily, one man was an off-duty SNCF employee who called someone, typed in a door code to get me to the other side of the station faster, and helped me wave down the conductor, then yelled after me that they were waiting. That was the hope propelling me as I flew down those steps. Lesson: learned.

Just when I was breathing normally (a good hour later), we stopped in Bourges and I noticed everyone and their warmly-dressed dog getting off the train. This was supposed to be a direct trip to Paris, so I had nothing to worry about. I sat back and closed my eyes. Yet, a worry tugged at me and, so, having learned from the near-disaster not an hour before, I asked one of the last passengers leaving the train, a portly older man with a friendly face. “Excuse me, I’m going to Paris,” I said. “Do we…have to get off?” My ticket indicated nothing about what I should do. “Yes!” He told me. My heart hammered. That was close. “Well, uh. Was that written somewhere? I didn’t see it.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. Naturally. “Follow me.” We boarded another train, this one old-fashioned with skinny corridors and close-together seats set in individual cars with overhead baggage storage and curtains for privacy.

I could finally relax. Travel tipif everyone is getting off the train, get off the train. Or perhaps: pay attention to your surroundings. If I hadn’t trusted my gut, I have no idea where I would have ended up. Certainly not Paris.

I needed to decompress, and a walk around Strasbourg in the cool air and bright sun was the way to do that. After the river, I walked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s one of my favorites, jaw-dropping in its enormity, gorgeous in shades of orange and teal. It’s the sixth-tallest church in the world, described by Victor Hugo as a “prodige du gigantesque et du délicat.img_7715

In the next few days I climbed the 332 steps to the top twice, the view was so nice, and each time I could hear the cellist who often plays in front of the cathedral.

I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment on Place Gutenberg, a famous square that was familiar from when I visited Strasbourg for the first time with Mary in December. We were there for the Marché du Noël, and this same Place was then home to the Portuguese section of the Christmas market. There I discovered pastéis de nata–sweet custard tarts with flaky shells–and hot orange juice, and went back for seconds…and thirds… The city was gorgeous, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but I loved it just as much here in February. What it missed in Christmas decorations it more than made up for in lack of tourists.img_7555

The apartment was charming. I could see the building when I stood on the cathedral’s platform, and I could see the cathedral from the front door of the building: it was a thirty-second walk away. I heard the bells chime from my balcony. Travel tip: when finding lodging, prize location. It was quite cold when the sun went down and the wind (which terrorized most of France this weekend) ripped through, but my uber-central location made it easy and enjoyable to get dinner or drinks every night, and I would have easily traded amenities for the treat of having the cathedral practically on my doorstep.

Strasbourg’s German history makes this city unique, and unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled in France, in Strasbourg I heard German spoken all the time, saw it on signs, et cetera.

As a linguistics nerd, I also find the Alsatian dialect really interesting. The French spoken in Strasbourg shows phonological differences from standard French but is particularly interesting in its lexical variety.

I was surprised to hear my Alsatian dinner date speaking conversational German with the server at a traditional restaurant we went to. “Everyone knows some German here,” he said shrugging. C’est normal.

I had munstiflette for dinner, the dish that may have been partly responsible for my return to Strasbourg. Who knew that munster cheese is not necessarily a lifeless orange block from the grocery store? Not I, until I visited Strasbourg. Other French-German specialities include choucroute (sauerkraut) served warm with sausages; schnitzel, Alsace wine, pretzels, apple strudel, and tarte flambée. Basically a thin-crust pizza with cream, onions, and lardons, tarte flambée is like other French foods in that, if you try one at an average restaurant, you’re likely to be unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about. If you find the real thing though…you will wonder how such a simple combination of ingredients leads to something so incredibly delicious.

Eating out was also a treat because of the service. Everywhere I went, people treated me with surprising warmth and familiarity. I’ve heard that Northerners are known for their friendliness, and based on my first encounters, I’d have to agree.

Strasbourg (or Alsace) seems like a good place to live, and it might be even be a reality. With the program I’m currently here teaching with, I have the option to request a contract renewal, and I have one choice for place preference. We’ll see if this gets my vote!

For now, I’m glad to have traveled alone like this. I never have before, unless you count taking a few flights and being picked up at the airport. The sense of independence it affords is exhilarating. Until the next, Strasbourg!