“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

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

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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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.