first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

in pisa: the quirk no one could correct ((not so) alone in italia, day four)

“Pisa is shit.”

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This is how the Italian at the hostel’s front desk responds when I tell him where I went yesterday.

I blink. “Oh. Um, why?”

He tells me it’s a nothing city. Nothing to do; a village on the map because of a big tower, not worth going out of your way.

I appreciate the honesty of Damiano’s opinion. Stuffy hotel concierge he is not. And I can see what he means. Pisa is quite small, lost somewhere after miles and miles of highway. It’s not a place to build your trip around, but a worthy stop on the way somewhere else.

And I wouldn’t call it shit.

Yesterday featured gray, gloomy skies. I left the hostel and met Victor in the car. We had no plan.

J’ai une chose à te proposer, he said.

“I have something to propose to you.” (French syntax thrills me still).

“Would you like to go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” He had the route marked on Maps. “It could be originale. We’re actually really close.”

Delighted, of course I said pourquoi pas. Our proximity to Pisa was not something I had considered. The location, within Italy, of the city that houses the “world’s most famous tower” (their distinction), had never crossed my mind, truth be told. It could have been on the other side of the country for all I knew.

But here we were, just an hour and a half away.

After a lot of highway, we park in Pisa and immediately buy an umbrella from a guy hawking them in the lot. I’m already shivering, dressed for Cinque Terre sun. My dress, so nice for the beach, now looks like optimism or stubborn ignorance. Vabbè.

The streets remind me of streets in Florence, all mustard yellows, dark greens and browns, rows of windows with neat shutters. I wonder if these colors are a regional thing, or just an Italian thing. I haven’t seen enough Italy yet to know.

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We walk down a long shopping street to the river, crossing occasional proud churches, looming reminders of the past. My favorite is a paradox of lacy white marble.

We find a quirky gift shop–salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Vespas–and Victor buys me a mug with a Pisa tower as the handle. I can’t remember the last time I got a souvenir so unabashedly obvious, so I HEART NEW YORK. This mug is anything but demure. Its unjaded tourism appeals to me.

img_5146 We eat at a place named for Danté, outside near a heat lamp. We have Campari spritzes (way too bitter for this American), Tuscan cheese and jam on a bed of super-peppery arugula, and finally, pizzas that we can barely finish.

Then (it feels late but isn’t, so gray) we hunt down the tower. It hides pretty well for such a big structure. You can’t see it from everywhere in town, as we had lazily imagined.

Around a corner, there’s a peek. Then there it is, the tall clumsy structure that put Pisa on the map.

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Speckled with cold rain, we take absolutely no time to learn about the history or climb the steps to the top in the bitter wind.

“Wow, it’s pretty,” and “it really does lean” are some of my scintillating observations.

Not every trip has to be educational.

Victor and I amuse ourselves by watching hordes of people trying to ‘hold up the tower’ in what is now perhaps the most unoriginal travel photo op in the world.

Not everyone is a natural. An American woman sighs and snaps, “Jim! Move to the left! No!”

Finally he gets it right, arms craned towards the sky, squinting from the effort. “Oooh,” the woman crows. “That’s good.”

I snicker, but then Victor makes me recreate this photo. It’s as lame as I expected, my hands far from “touching” the tower.

“Well,” Victor says. “It looks like it’s falling and you’re ready to catch it.”

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acs_0760-1At home, I learn that the word “Pisa” comes from the Greek for “marshy land.” 12th-century architects apparently disregarded the area’s mushy subsoil while constructing this tall, heavy belltower meant to crown the “Field of Miracles,” where the city would display the treasures freshly stolen from Sicily.

In a case of pride before folly, one side of the tower began to sink during construction of the second story. It was too late to go back, so the builders continued with some trepidation. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the tower kept its stubborn lean, and baffled builders halted work for close to a century.

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I learn too that Mussolini hated Pisa’s leaning tower, considering it, in no uncertain terms, a disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. His plan to fix the tower backfired, as the grout and mortar introduced to straighten out the lean only caused the structure to sink more heavily into the ground–its awkward angle even more pronounced.

Learning this makes me appreciate the structure even more. Already I admired its stacks of columns, graceful and impractical as a wedding cake. Now there’s an emotional appeal. Sweet little underdog with a quirk no one could correct. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Source: Walks of Italy

embracing the absurd

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That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.

 

 

To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”

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mediterranean magic: a walk around monaco

Monaco sparkles.

That is my first impression, both times I’ve visited. Passing from the dark train tunnel and into the light, I see a scrubbed-clean city, feel the sun on my shoulders, and hear the many proud flags whipping in the breeze, the red and white color block stark against the blue sky.

These are, of course, the impressions of a mere visitor to this independent city-state, the second-smallest country in the world, of which millionaires comprise thirty percent of the population. I won’t pretend to know how much everyday life here could differ from where I live (or anything else, really). But I do know this: it makes for one hell of a walk.

From the train station it’s a quick climb to Monte Carlo Casino. Climb is surely the word: it’s unavoidable unless you know where to find the public escalators, established to make the hilly terrain more navigable. I’ve only seen a few, but there are 35 total: a great deal for a country the size of Central Park. Perched right between the mountains and sea and highly developed, Monaco has no agriculture to speak of: there’s simply no room.

The climb up is lined on the left by designer stores, labels with enough classe to entice with bold and cheeky window displays. Sometimes ridiculous, still they are fabulous (it must be admitted). There are skulls and metallic balloons and sea creatures, high heels like an art piece. These displays wouldn’t be out of place at the Pompidou.

On the right is the bay, and then the sea. img_6539-3

Entering the casino, I saw that the atrium and rotunda, which visitors are free to explore, were dressed for the holidays: draped in red and white diamond-patterned fabric. Artist Charles Kaisin designed the temporary installation to evoke both Monaco’s coat of arms and card games. The effect–to this viewer, at least–was of a surrealist dreamscape: something between Alice in Wonderland at Christmas and the Twin Peaks Red Room.

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Outside, palm trees and fake snow mingled with giant dice, the mirrored faces reflecting the blue sky and few clouds above.

Neighboring the casino is Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV, a super chic spot at the Hotel de Paris. The current menu includes pigeon breast with quince, milk-fed lamb, and Passe Crassane pears with ginger ice cream. Absolutely dreamy, but I wasn’t really dressed for it.

Back down the hill, I stopped at the Christmas market for a Savoyard burger. It was 63 degrees out, but the cold-weather Christmas kitsch lived on: a scary grinning Santa spun in a slow circle, children dressed as gold stars danced through the market, and the voice of Bing Crosby rose above it all. Stands sold plates of raclette and confit de canard, and a large pig turned on a spit.

My next stop involved a climb up the opposite side of the bay to the Musée Océanographique, an aquarium and museum set into seaside rocks, founded in 1889. The building is grand and palatial, with stately staircases, big windows, and the occasional giant squid hanging from the ceiling.

Downstairs in the darkness is the aquarium, where I saw piranhas and parrotfish and came face-to-face with the spectacularly ugly moray eel. I found a seahorse that wrapped its tail around a plant and hung upside down and a tank of bright clownfish as tiny as goldfish crackers. Starfish of all colors and sizes stuck like wall clings. I watched the jellyfish for a long time as they twirled around their ring-shaped tank, trailing their tentacles behind them, as translucent and impossible as ghosts.

Upstairs, in the Salle de la Baleine, the skeletons of sea mammals dangle overhead, poised in graceful flight. From their plus-sized skulls protrude long jaws with sharp teeth, and in the case of the narwhal, a fearsome tusk. Elegant and enormous, the specimens might drift away at any moment, inhabitants of some undersea underworld.

Outside the museum sits Jacques Cousteau’s mini submarine. Cheerful and yellow, its cuteness belies its significance. Built in 1966, it could reach a depth of 100 meters.

I continue my walk in the Old Town, quiet streets where graffiti and trash are notably absent, an area that also holds the Prince’s Palace of Monaco. img_6321-2 Suddenly twinkling with light as night fell, sparkling a soft pink, le palais recalled my first visit to Disneyland last fall. It was a fun, memorable day with a best friend, but wasn’t what I would describe as magical: not the long lines or screaming children or people stepping on the back of my shoe. The main attractions struck me as unsettling. A man-made mountain. A castle with no history: no bloodshed, no strife, no monarchs born behind its walls. (It is the Happiest Place on Earth, after all). I thought about castles and cathedrals I’ve visited in France, hundreds or thousands of years old. I thought about Paris, its patchwork of struggle and triumph and cobblestone, and then about Tianducheng: a Chinese replica of Paris in the suburbs, complete with an Eiffel Tower copy, created to cash in on francophilia. img_6310-2

There’s a difference. I tried to appreciate what I saw on a purely aesthetic level, but felt about fifteen years too old for that. Old enough for X-ray vision: I could almost see the sweating, tired human inside the Goofy suit. Maybe that’s when the magic goes. The beauty for beauty’s sake (for profit, really): it didn’t quite work for me. It happens all the time, I suppose, but rarely is it so transparent.

Monaco, like Disney, is pastel and lovely and speckled with flowers, but it’s real. It too has a palace that lights up at night, only this one dates back to 1191.

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I finish my walk as the sun sets, sparking color in the sky. It really is beautiful.

I’m no idealist. If I lived here, I know real life would surely creep in, like anywhere, the haze of la vie quotidienne dulling the wonder. Often, the scarcity is what makes something magical. It’s amazing to what extent we can become accustomed to beautiful things: whether that be love we take for granted or the Mediterranean sea on our doorstep. The New is easier to appreciate, with its power to surprise and delight, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised again. Of course, nothing can stay new for long.

That’s what I remind myself. Living in Monaco would be like living anywhere. Maybe with a better view.

But on a day trip, walking the paths overlooking the bay and the sea, wandering amidst the soft pastels of the Old Town, feeling the warm sun and crisp breeze and watching the lights click on as the sun sets, I forget that for awhile.

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