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 !

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.

 

 

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”

 

three-hour tour

I am lucky to live in one of the last true gardens in all of France.img_0714

Well, that’s what my landlord and neighbor would say. And did say, yesterday, on what ended up being an hour-long tour of the property followed by several glasses of Bourgogne.

Never did I imagine that gardening could produce such passion, such fervor, such urgency. And then I met Monsieur C, who, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, snuck onto someone’s property under the cover of night to snip off a branch of a prized cherry tree before racing away in his car. Hence the beautiful white blooms in my front yard.img_0748

He had been telling us for a week. You have to come see the garden! Now! Before it’s too late! 

My friend from the States, currently on a badass solo backpacking trip, was visiting for a few days. It seemed like a good way to show her la vraie France and le vrai jardin in one go. img_0702

Comment tu t’appelles mon petit ?! Monsieur C demanded. Je m’appelle Sherrell, she responded. Hein?! He looked to me. What’s the French equivalent? 

C’est pas très français, en fait ! I responded, repeating her name in a stronger French accent. After all, none of the sounds are foreign to the language. He shrugged it off. Hmm. I will call you…Suzanne ! He boomed. Anyway.

We followed him back to the garden.

So what exactly constitutes un vrai jardin? I wondered. There must be fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers! The flowers must be a certain distance from the vegetables! The fruit trees as well!  

He showed us around in what seemed a very intentional order, looking to me and Mary to translate to Sherrell when he said something he thought was particularly important. Here was the apricot tree, the apple tree, the white cherry tree that produces delicious fruit: filled with bugs. But c’est pas grave if you simply close your eyes!

Here are the tops of the garlic, the onions, the leeks that he keeps under a special screen to keep the flies away so that he can enjoy them for a longer season than anyone else.

He pointed out a baby pear tree with the fondness one reserves for a beloved pet.

He told us about the little birds–mésanges–that eat his asparagus, and about all the hacks he uses to avoid using chemicals in the garden.

With a kind of tenderness, he told us about his budding friendship with a crow he’s calling Coco.

We sat and had wine as he told us stories I tried to translate. Then it was time for his nap.

Au revoir Suzanne ! 

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Maman + Lyon: our trip begins

In February, my mom came to visit me in France for a whole two weeks. My dad had told me about his plans months before and I could hardly keep it a secret, but waited to let Mom find out on Christmas day.

We started off our trip in Lyon. Mom has heard a lot about it from my travels, but had never gotten to see it for herself. I strongly prefer this city to Paris, having been to both recently. I made the mistake of going to Paris during prime tourist time (Christmas) and it was enough to put me off for awhile. Lines for the vestiaire, lines for the bathroom, lines for my favorite bookstore. Crowded cafés revealing disappointingly average bowls of onion soup: another tourist trap. 45 minutes on the metro.

Paris is better if you know how to plan, and honestly that’s not my strong suit. Lyon feels a little more sacred, unspoiled by the over-commercialization of the romance of France (a place that becomes decidedly less romantic when it seems like half the world is there). Lyon is colorful, lively, warm, the stomach of France.

Mary and I went to Lyon a day before my mom flew in and got settled in at the AirBnb. In typical AirBnb fashion, this required codes and keys and the finding of a surreptitious flowerpot. Once inside, it was spacious and cool with big windows providing a view of the Saone river. By far our greatest AirBnb success.Lyon river view

We met my mom at the airport the next day and we spent a fun couple of days around le Vieux Lyon, mostly, eating and biking around.

I took mom to Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a big covered market now dedicated to the famous French chef (whose face can be spotted across the street, painted onto the side of a building). Paul Bocuse and the halles that bear his name are dedicated to the highest-quality ingredients. C’est où les produits sont roi (where the products are king. Things really do sound better in French, don’t they).

Mom was craving a croissant so we bought a few and then we bought a box of macarons from Sève, my absolute favorites after the famous Ladurée in Paris. macarons boiteVanilla bean, peach apricot, rose. The lady was patient, her gloved hand hovering over the pastry case as Mary and I scrambled to decide which flavors to order, each one individually. Deux roses. Non, quatre. Cinq, c’est bon.

Macarons are one of the few patisseries that taste as good as they look. They don’t look good for long, though, because they don’t last long. Delicate, ephemeral. If it sounds like I could write poetry about these little cookies, well. I have.

We got around almost exclusively by bike, and it was dreamy, although Mom may have a slightly different opinion. Me, anyway, I was flying. Lyon has a really nice, user-friendly bike system, and the bikes are big, with comfortable seats, baskets, lights, and working brakes. I had forgotten what it felt like to coast down a hill and feel adrenaline instead of terror.

One day we biked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we pedaled leisurely around the zoo and visited the botanical gardens.

We ate dinner almost exclusively in bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurants, and Mom had such Lyonnais and French classics as boeuf bourguignon and salade lyonnaise. img_8326-1Our unanimous favorite, though, was a place called Les Lyonnais.img_8346-1 We sat at communal wooden tables and ordered classic food a bit more originale (interesting, different), than other places we’d tried. The place has personality, largely due to the servers, one of whom, sixtyish, has huge black framed glasses and a white beard, always making droll, ironic comments in French (and a little English). He’s the kind of guy who’s always smirking, but you can tell he loves his job.

The menu itself has a sense of humor, promising such delights as the “Unforgettable Onion Loaf.”

Besides bouchon fare, we ate fair number of brioche aux pralines and tried fun ice cream at a popular shop. I had mascarpone and sheep’s milk yogurt flavors. Technically it was a little too cold to be eating ice cream cones outside, but I was also wearing four-inch clogs and riding a bike over cobblestones, so what do I know about practicality.

We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts just in time to see the last days of the Matisse exhibit. This was a real treat for me. I’ve gone to a lot of art museums this year, (including contemporary art museums in like five major cities), and I’m always on the hunt for the kinds of bold colors that Matisse prizes. So to have all this in one place was major eye candy.

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After a fun couple of days, we headed to the South of France, where we attended the cheesiest festival of all time.

To be continued, in other words.