Friday, December 31, 2010

Kittens in Casablanca

I have sorely neglected my blog over the holidays. Come the New Year, I will be back to regularly scheduled blogging. Partly because the holidays will be over, and partly because I will be back in France with British guy and it's not going to take too long before he drags me on some blog-worthy adventure. I think he signed me up for a ski mountaineering race. I can't be sure. I try not to think about these things till it's too late to back out.

Speaking of adventures with British guy, here are a few photos of kittens in Casablanca to tide you over till next year.

We arrived in Casablanca after a night spent in El-Jadida. Happily, our hotel (unlike the previous night) was not infested with roaches. British guy checked while I hovered in the background ready to make a quick getaway if any were found. It was a nice hotel, if not strangely decorated. The doors to all the rooms were padded on both sides.

But the breakfast was good (always a plus in my book) and we had a balcony overlooking a bike repair shop. While watching the man tinker with one of the bikes, we suddenly noticed that the bikes were covered with...kittens.

With their mother hovering nearby, the kittens were having a field day bounding from the handlebars of one bike to the basket of another. 

See the one on the handlebars investigating everything? That's British guy. 

See the one safely sleeping on the mud guard of the back tire? That's me. 

Now, see the girl locked out of the hotel room because British guy thought it would be funny to lock her out on the balcony while she was watching kittens? That's me.

I'll be back to more regular posting soon.

In the meantime, here are some guest posts I did for The Purple Passport.

Café du Livre (Marrakech, Morocco)

Meze-merized in Istanbul (Istanbul, Turkey)

Soaking in the Flavors at Burma Superstar (San Francisco, California)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How to spend 3 days in Rome with 85 euros

I was visiting Italy for the third time in two years, and frankly my neglect of Rome was just becoming embarrassing. The problem was not a lack of desire, but rather a lack of finances. Sitting on my friend's couch in a small town outside of Venice, I flipped open my wallet to find a staggering 85 euros.

I reviewed my options for visiting Rome with such an extravagant sum of money.

Partly because I wanted to see if I could do it and mostly because that's all the money I had. 

Option 1: Pay entrance fees and visit all things of historical and religious significance. Don't eat. Sleep on the streets.
Pros: Will become more cultured and able to slip things like "Well, when I was visiting the Vatican..." into conversations.
Cons: Might starve to death. Cardboard box not very comfortable. 

Option 2: Stay in cheapest hostel available. Eat nothing but pizza. Walk around everything without going inside anything. Limit gelato intake to 1  2  3 cones a day.
Pros: Place to sleep. Will not starve to death.
Cons: Will not get to sound cultured at cocktail parties. Sore feet from walking too much. Only 3 cones of gelato per day.

Option 3: Spend three days eating gelato. Sleep in train station.
Pros: Gelato
Cons: Copious amounts of gelato could result in love handles. Train stations very drafty. 

Option 1 lost its appeal when I stepped outside of the train station. A giant clap of thunder erupted from the clouds followed by hard pellets of frigid rain. Committing myself to option 2, I took the bus across town to the Orsa Maggiore women's hostel. Sorry guys. This is for ladies only. 

The hostel isn't too tricky to find, but if you take the bus (1 euro), you'll have to walk a bit. If you have a wheeled suitcase, it will likely lose the will to live as you drag it over half a mile of cobblestone.

The hostel, located in Trastevere, offers all of my most basic requirement for survival. It's clean, right above a bar, has free wi-fi and includes breakfast. 

The total for three nights came to 30 euros. Pulling out my travel journal, I meticulously subtracted that amount from my 85 euro budget. That left 55 euro for the next three days. Taking a deep breath and pulling a map from a stack near the front desk, I retired to my room and mapped out an itinerary. 

As I planned my onslaught of all things pizza and gelato-related in Rome, the rain continued to hammer relentlessly against the window.

I dumped the entire contents of my suitcase into the bottom of the locker assigned to me and waited for the rain to dissipate.

Eventually I got tired of waiting. Shrugging my raincoat over my shoulders, I marched out of the hostel determined to become more familiar with Rome, one gelateria at a time.

But I forgot the map. Which turned out to be a little bit of a problem.

Spotting a sign for the colosseum, I left the riverbank, skirting around buildings and trying to stay under the eaves in a last-ditch effort to remain dry. I spent 15 minutes standing underneath a tree before I decided that I didn't really want to see the colosseum. What I really wanted to see was dinner.

I scrutinized every pizzeria I walked by before succumbing to the one with the cutest server. Under the watchful eyes of the gorgeous man behind the counter, I devoured my first slice of Roman pizza. Subtracting 3 euro (I splurged on a Fanta) from the tally in my travel journal, I walked back out into the pouring rain with 52 euro left in my wallet.

After a pathetic attempt to window shop in the rain, I darted into a grocery store. Shaking the rain from my hair and coat, I grabbed a basket and spent the next 45 minutes wandering down every aisle in this miniscule corner market. I walked out with the following: (1) bottle of water; (1) salad; (1) package of mozzarella; (1) bag of chips; (1) packet of cookies; (1) tube of children's toothpaste (it was the smallest AND it had a dinosaur on it); and (1) super absorbent dishtowel (I forgot my towel and didn't want to borrow one from the hostel. I don't know...just go with it).

The total came to 8 euros and 56 cents. Although I now had cookies in my possession I was down to 43 euro and 44 cents. I consoled myself with one cup of kiwi gelato, and retired to the hostel with 41 euro and 44 cents in my pocket and two more days in Rome.

The next morning brought tolerable weather. Grabbing my map and my journal, I set out to find the pantheon.

I found it. Very impressive. Also impressive was the small café (caffè Tazza d'Oro) around the corner where I enjoyed an espresso (1 euro).

And even more impressive was San Crispino, a phenomenal gelateria just down the street from the Treviso Fountain.

 I tried the basil, pine nut, ricotta with chocolate chips, and ginger gelato. Go ahead. Judge me. I don't care. It was amazing.

It was also expensive (7 euros) so for dinner I sat in my room munching on my salad from the night before while my eccentric Aussie roommate expounded on all of the wonderful attributes of my country. I think I nodded in all of the right places.

My third day in Rome dawned bright and clear. I had visited St. Peter's the previous day and from there I  jumped on city bus #116. For 1 euro, this small bus makes its way past most of the city's main tourist attractions. Having seen a good portion of the city already-- including the previously elusive colosseum--I decided to devote the majority of my last day in Rome to exploring the neighborhood around my hostel.

This was my favorite part. I spent the morning across the river wandering around the farmer's market before heading to the pizzeria Frontoni for lunch.

Sitting at a small table, I savored a beer and two slices of pizza (6 euros) before slipping back out onto the quiet streets of this quaint quarter of Rome.

Enjoying an espresso (1 euro)  in the dark corners of a comfortable café, I stared out the window for an hour before ambling over to a bar to enjoy a glass of wine (3.50).

Eventually, hungry and in danger of freezing to death, I stumbled into Alle Fratte di Trastevere for a pleasant dinner at a cozy table looking out onto the street (15 euros).

Yeah, that's right. I spent the entirety of my last day in Rome eating and drinking. I didn't see one single tourist attraction. But sitting in the dusky light outside a small café in view of the Basilica di Santa Maria, I wasn't feeling any pangs of regret.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Budget Hammam: Not my best idea

If I could, I would spend a good portion of my life wrapped in Turkish towels with cucumber slices over my eyes and a masseuse coercing my muscles into a relaxed and pliant state. In light of this, it's not very surprising that before even setting foot in Morocco, I had already decided to dedicate at least one afternoon to visiting a Hammam.

After spontaneously signing up to run a marathon up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, the Hammam experience became more of a necessity. My legs had staged a coup d'état and I had no choice but to give into their demands and seek out a massage as quickly as possible.

Toubkal Marathon

So following our impromptu mountain marathon adventure, British guy and I headed to Essaouira: a beautiful--albeit extremely touristy--town on the Moroccan coast.

British guy in Essaouira

It's also a popular spot for kite-surfing, and British guy was looking forward to a few sessions of being bounced across the waves like a rag-doll. Actually, that's what happens when I go kite-surfing. Which is why I decided not to join British guy. I intended to park my backside on the beach and not get up until I could move my legs without pain.

Unfortunately we awoke the next morning to pouring rain and poor surf conditions. Perfectly content to change my plans, I set out to find a Hammam, and because he had nothing better to do, British guy tagged along.

We passed a variety of lovely, relaxing and pleasant-looking Hammams before budget constraints directed us instead toward a 10 euro all-inclusive Hammam experience.

Unless you want to be prodded and kneaded and scrubbed within an inch of your life, I don't recommend this option.

If we had known what we were getting into, we probably would have walked the other way or invested money into a more upscale Hammam package, but since we didn't, I waved good-bye to British guy and ducked behind a curtain. Stripping down to my bathing suit, I placed all of my clothing into a basket and handed it to the woman behind the counter.

"Please, go," she said, gesturing toward a few stairs in front of a small door.

I hesitantly pushed the door open and found myself in a dark two-room cave. Plastic lawn chairs stood askew next to a cement basin of water. Steam rose in curling tendrils.

A collection of red plastic buckets were stacked in the corner. I smiled at another woman already sitting in one of the plastic chairs, and sat two seats away from her.

Everything was dark and heavy, but the temperature had not yet become oppressive. It felt sultry and welcoming; a heat so tangible, its velvety touch embraced me. Droplets of sweat collected in the creases and folds of my body before sliding down in winding rivulets.

The woman and I sat in silence. Minutes passed. I stared at the ceiling where beads of water had collected, reflecting what little light shined from small lamps along the walls.

Another woman walked in. Dressed in a one-piece bathing suit with the top pulled down, she grabbed  a bucket and dipped it into the basin of water. Swinging it back to the floor with an air of familiarity, she beckoned me toward her.

After dousing me with buckets of hot water, she motioned me to lie down on a rectangular marble table in the next room.

Dipping a rough loofah into a bucket of soapy water, she began to scrub the first layer of skin off of me. I could feel the shade of pink I was going to be for the next few days. Pouring a bucket of water over me to rinse off the soap, she began kneading my throbbing calf muscles. Her breasts hung heavily, gently swinging forward whenever she moved across me to pour more Argan oil into her hands. The whole experience was reminiscent of childhood. A matriarch moving heavily over you as she repeats the bath-time routine of a dozen children and a thousands nights. Her hands are moving over you, but her mind is somewhere else.

Occasionally she tapped me, indicating the direction I should move. Flip over, stand up, come this way, sit down. A morse code of gentle shoulder taps.

The marble slabs are slippery, and I slid as I sat up. She laughed. The only sound I heard her utter. A gentle nudge toward the plastic chairs and I lowered myself carefully onto one. A pool of tepid water had collected and it felt refreshing in comparison to the heavy heat hanging over me, pressing down on my chest. I breathed deeply and deliberately, slowly sipping down oxygen.

Desperately uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat and wondered how much longer I would be expected to sit there. Suddenly, the woman who had scrubbed me down walked briskly toward me and threw a bucket of cold water over my head. I gasped. She smiled and I smiled back at her. It felt delicious.

I continued to sit there for longer than I would have liked. The minutes dragged by before I was eventually summoned back outside and handed my clothes. They stuck to my skin as I pulled them on. All I wanted now was a cold shower and a gallon of gatorade.

Walking back outside I found British guy waiting for me.

"So, how was it on your side?" I asked.

"Enh. Okay. Not very relaxing. Felt a bit like a piece of meat. You?"

"Yeah. Same."

The rain had stopped and we walked slowly back to the hotel. Children chased each other through alleyways; flea-bitten cats stretched themselves out under brightly colored displays of shoes, scarves, jewelry and spices; vendors waved to attract our attention.

I closed my eyes against the brightness of Morocco and all I could see was the woman in the Hammam, still moving slowly and deliberately through the heat, rubbing oil across tired skin and splashing cold water against her face.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An excerpt from my travel journal...

[Yesterday I bought a new travel journal, and as I am about to retire my old one, I thought I would snag the last entry I wrote in it before I put it to rest.]

Cornwall, ©Nikki Hodgson 

Dated: 29.11.2010 

Yesterday I sat on my suitcase in between the train carriages watching England slip past me in a series of verdant pastures scattered with puffy cloud-shaped sheep and sturdy farmhouses topped with smoking chimneys. Shaggy ponies cantered around in skittish zigzags amid uneven clumps of lush foliage.

I flipped the pages of a novel while munching on a homemade ham and cheese sandwich.

My life now is a complicated series of very simple experiences; humble scraps stitched together into an elaborate quilt.  

I thought of you and the haiku my life has become because of you. All fragmented thoughts and uneven punctuation. But beautiful nonetheless.

My entire life has been a love affair with the written word. My childhood spent climbing trees to read in peace. Then, as I grew older, escaping to coffee shops. Writing in hardbound journals and occasionally jotting thoughts on scraps of napkins; a modified poetic canvas.  

I stepped back from that dream, but I am not quite willing—it appears—to abandon it. Now I am caught in the cross-fire of what I wanted and what I thought I wanted. 

So I sit in a small cottage on the Cornish coast trying to reconcile the two desires. Tits and sparrows flit about the window—all feathers and sharp sudden bursts of flight. A robin perches on the windowsill, hopping back and forth, head and tail waggling. The sea is spread flat in the background—like butter on toast—the water smoothed over by an unseen knife.

The view sends me back in time, skimming the surface of Humboldt County’s grey lagoons, the lines running through the blocks as the wind fills the sails.
And the cormorants stand on purple rocks with outstretched wings.
Later I will stand on the shore in a similar fashion;
an open embrace for
an ocean seething
whispering waves of folded jade.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Learning to ski in the Alps: Part II

This is the Part II to this post. 

With one ski precariously placed in an ice-crusted track from an earlier skier and my leg shaking so badly that I couldn’t get my other ski on, I was as certain as I have ever been that I was moments away from falling to my death—or at least something similarly painful.

It was the second day of my first backcountry ski trip, and things had been going moderately well up to this point.

This was taken in the very beginning. I can tell because I'm still smiling.
Poor naive little soul

Well, that’s not entirely true.

British guy had already had to come back and rescue me at least once, but as I looked across at the slope we now needed to traverse and then down at the rocky drop-off below, my stomach churned and my legs were shaking so violently that it seemed physically impossible to take even one step forward. I didn’t see how British guy could get me out of this.

Seeing as how I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,
I didn't take any photos of what we went down. This is the side we went up.

I looked over my shoulder at the mountain hut we had just left. I could just go back there, I thought. I can stay there until the snow melts in approximately 4 months and then I can hike safely down.

At the mountain hut

It sounded like a fantastic plan to me.

British guy didn’t think so, but then British guy thinks being on a drop-off and about to fall to your death is something akin to fun so I seriously question his judgment.

Turning around with a graceful kick-turn, he skied back down to me.

I was crying, shaking, and I only had one ski on.

He leaned down and pushed the front of my boot down, snapping it easily into the binding.

Now I had two skis on. But I was still shaking. And crying.

Any degree of dignity I had left was shrinking as rapidly as my courage.

I didn’t care.

I just wanted my mom.

Who, thankfully, had no idea that I was halfway down a slope in the middle of the French Alps. Otherwise a minimum of five search and rescue helicopters would have already been circling around.

Still standing next to me, British guy tried to offer some words of comfort. If British guy is any indication, the British aren’t very good at this sort of thing.

British guy: You’re not going to die if you fall. You might badly injure yourself, but you’ll live.

Me: How badly do you think I would hurt myself? Like on a scale of 1-10. 10 being death and 1 being a blister.

British guy: Look, I’ll ski right alongside you. If you fall, I’ll stop you.

Me: No, you won’t. I’ll fall and then knock you over and then we’ll both fall to our deaths.

British guy: We’re not going to fall to our deaths.

Me: We might. Anything is possible.

British guy: Yes, I suppose --in theory-- anything is possible.

Me: So you do admit that it’s possible?

He evaded this question by suggesting that we continue skiing down, as the snow conditions were only getting worse.

If you’ve ever watched a child wobbling alongside its parent, taking small uneven steps and occasionally toppling to the ground, then you know exactly what I looked like trying to ski alongside British guy.

I shuffled my skis, sliding one carefully in front of the other, and then repeating this motion. Utilizing this technique I found that I was moving, and not falling. This was good. Very good.

But then I started going faster.

Muscles I didn’t even know I had tensed as my skis teetered over bumps and contours in the snowpack, launching my body weight anywhere but over my skis.

British guy suggested that I bend my knees a little bit more and relax my body.

I told him to shut-up.

As the slope evened out and I began to breathe again, I felt guilty for telling British guy to shut-up. Promising God, the Universe, Buddha, Zeus, and anyone else with any kind of influence up there that I would apologize for my actions if I made it down alive, I slowly skidded across the slope in a series of awkward and uneven turns.

Approaching British guy with all the grace of a giraffe wearing roller-skates on ice, I noticed the camera in his hand.

He had been filming the last half of my descent while waiting for me at the bottom. 

As I crash-landed at his feet, he slipped the camera into his pocket and smiled.

I told him to shut-up. Again.

(For the record, I’m rude and irrational when in danger of falling to my death.  I also break promises to deities.)

Helping me to my feet, British guy scowled at the snow.

“It’s just getting heavier, and it’s a pretty gentle slope from here on out,” he commented. “The rest of the descent is going to be quite slow.”

My spirits lifted. Slow? I like slow. I tried to appear disappointed for British guy’s sake, but joy radiated from me.  

We spent the next hour pushing ourselves through sticky snow. My arms ached from the exertion, but I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I had survived. There was no way I could fall now, and my skis stuck so well to the snow I might as well have had my skins on.

As we rounded a corner, I caught a glimpse of the road below us. With the car now in sight, the relief I felt was palpable. The terror of a few hours before was now simply a memory to fold neatly in the recesses of my box of “terrifying life experiences.” I’m running out of room in that box.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road home, I turned to British guy.

“That was really fun. We should do it again.”

British guy

Friday, December 3, 2010

San Francisco: Hippies, Hipsters and Coffee

On the corner of 24th and Folsom, Philz coffee is a vibrant cross section of the San Franciscan heart and home to one of the best cups of coffee you’ll find in this city of coffee connoisseurs.

Old leather couches are placed at various angles around the room. Stained purple chairs that look as if they were confiscated from the uniform décor of Holiday Inns across the country are placed around mismatched tables lining the windows.

Pages from old copies of the San Francisco Chronicle are folded up and stuffed under table legs to prevent table wobbling and spilled coffee.

A chalkboard menu hangs high above the counter and sports selections such as Ambrosia: Coffee of God; Anesthesia to the Upside; and Dancing Water.

My usual selection is either the Philz Mocha Tesora or the Tantalizing Turkish.

Outside, hipsters in beanies and tight jeans scan their iPhones while dragging slowly and deliberately on hand-rolled cigarettes.

This. This is San Francisco.

Where locals sit in front of their MacBooks typing with one hand while sipping specialty coffees with the other. Clad in a style that belong to San Francisco and San Francisco alone, this flannel shirt, nubby sweater, political t-shirt, Converse wearing group of bleeding liberal misfits are united by their love for the eclectic eccentricity that defines this foggy, coastal city.

Sitting at the front window, I clutch my coffee to my chest and relish the feeling of being home after a year spent away. Behind me a group of hipsters bash Glenn Beck’s latest musings and across the street a Mexican bakery is displaying pan dulce and polvorones de canele.  

Staring up at the ceiling, wispy clouds are painted against a backdrop of blue and the columns supporting the building have been transformed into trees; their painted canopies bleeding into the mural of the sky.

The bathroom walls of this coffee shop are covered with the scrawling messages of the Sharpie-carrying inspired. Some time ago, I fell under that category and was bemused to find my message to the world still spelled out in uneven letters on the green wall.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” –Thoreau.

I am.

One cup of San Franciscan coffee at a time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Breakfast in Nablus

Vendors were beginning to display their wares as I slipped into the morning markets of Nablus. Bypassing baskets of spices and stacks of tomatoes and ducking often to avoid scarves hanging from awnings, I soon stumbled across a vendor surrounded by a crowd.

Wedging my way in-between shopkeepers, farmers, and students, I joined the clamor and dropped shekels into his palm in exchange for a plastic cup of thick, Arabic coffee.

As I reached for my coffee, I noticed the circular pans of my favorite Palestinian dessert in a shop next door.  

Men sat crowded around flimsy plastic tables pushed up against walls lined with cracked tiles. Each had a slice of orange pastry oozing out toward the edges of the plate.

Crunchy and sweet on the outside mixing with the rancid sourness of the Palestinian cheese inside, knafeh is said to have originated in Nablus. Served as a dessert, but often available as a breakfast treat, its taste is a pleasantly acquired one.

These shops--set deep into walls of Jerusalem stone--are where locals often congregate around a precariously placed television set as bakers slides circular pans of knafeh in and out of the oven.

Balancing coffee and plate, I found a cracked plastic chair at a crowded table. Men moved to accommodate me without shifting their gaze from the television. As I took my seat, I fell into ranks with my tablemates, shoveling spoonfuls of knafeh into my mouth as fuzzy images flickered across the screen. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rome: The Vatican vs. Pizza

A few nights ago I found myself throwing back vodka with a bunch of Ukrainians in a small town in Umbria. How did this happen? I'll tell you. It's a very short story.

British guy.

This is exactly the sort of thing that happens when British guy is around. When he's not around I tend to retreat to my little hostel at around 8 pm where I can eat cookies and relax my aching feet while catching up on my favorite blogs.

Which is exactly what I'm doing right now because British guy is on a secret mission in Spain and I am spending a few days wandering around Rome in search of the absolute best slice of pizza known to mankind. I might also go see the Vatican. Maybe.

I do keep trying to go see things in Rome, but then I see a café or a pizzeria or a gelateria or a farmer's market and I get distracted. It happens. Often.

While wandering around Trastevere today I rounded a corner and stumbled upon a pizzeria so enticing that I couldn't continue walking. I shoved my way in through the crowds of Italians not lining up to place their order and pressed myself against the glass counter. That's what the Romans were doing.

Prego? the man behind the counter shouted in my general direction.

I pointed at a slice of pizza gorgonzola and a slice of pizza con patate and used my hands to show how big of a slice I wanted. He weighed out the pizza and then asked what I wanted to drink.

Sometimes when people ask me complicated questions like that I get nervous and just shout out the first thing that comes into my head. In this case, it was beer.

I enjoyed a split second of relief at having answered his question, but then he came up with an even more complicated question. What kind?


I couldn't see over the counter because I'm too short and instead of sensibly asking him what types he had, I told him to just give me whatever beer he likes to drink.

I thought this was a clever plan, but unfortunately it backfired.

He scoffed and responded that he didn't drink beer. Then he gave me a look that would have been justified had I asked for a glass of sewage water.

I panicked.

What did that scoff mean? Had I unwittingly broken some unspoken rule. The Italians, I know, are fussy about their unspoken rules. I have been chastised twice in Italy by complete strangers. Once for ordering a cappuccino after noon and then again for putting parmesan on a pasta dish that was not served with tomato sauce. Both instances left such a lasting impression on me that I have since incorporated these little rules into my life.

But I couldn't figure out what--if anything--I had done wrong this time. The man behind the counter eventually handed me a Nastro Azzurro and threw my pizza into the oven. All the while muttering in Italian and occasionally flinging out semi-coherent phrases that the other Italians around him seemed to agree with.

They were probably talking about football or Berlusconi or something totally unrelated to the ignorant American girl who had clearly violated some social code. But I couldn't be sure so I tried to look remorseful and ashamed of my ignorance as I slunk to my table with my pizza and beer in hand.

But then I took a bite of the gorgonzola pizza with fresh tomatoes and I nearly cried from happiness and nothing else mattered in the world.

The man behind the counter came over to check on me after I had devoured both slices of pizza. He raised his eyebrows and asked something that I hope was along the lines of "Did you enjoy your meal?" because I grinned and nodded and indicated my spotless plate as further proof.

If he was asking about something completely different-- such as my thoughts on Berlusconi or the Italian football league-- he nonetheless seemed satisfied with my response. Whatever social crime I had committed when ordering had been forgiven.

Happy, full and absolutely in love with Rome and all things Roman, I downed my beer, pulled out my journal and people-watched for an hour before wandering to a café 500 meters down the road in search of an espresso.

Tomorrow I plan on doing the same thing. And who knows, perhaps I will even make it to the colosseum. It's hard to say. There are a lot of pizzerias, cafés, and gelaterias on the way.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Firenze Fervor

Sitting in the waiting room of the Florence train station, I have all my layers on and a steady rain falls from patchy skies. My gloves on and furiously typing, I look up to notice that I have become the focal point of everyone’s attention. I smile. My audience smiles back expectantly, but I keep on typing all the while desperately wishing for some sort of reliable Internet connection. I am officially an addict.

I am sitting next to two old men passing a box of wine back and forth. They are clearly drunk, but as they aren’t bothering anyone, nobody seems to mind. Their attempts to burst out into drunken singing is constantly being upstaged by their tendency to erupt into laughter. The fact that I appear to be more of a spectacle indicates something, but I’m not quite sure what. I am still reflecting on my morning walk along the river and the church I stumbled across.  

I generally bypass the busy churches full of whispering tour guides and flash photography. Churches for me are places of hushed and revered refuge. I love the feeling of slipping into a darkened church. The light slips in through stained glass windows, and the devout or the desperate bow their heads, their lips moving in pleading prayers for peace or grace or truth or love. It is quiet and safe and I generally retreat to the closest bench and succumb to an enveloping sense of relief.

In Florence a stained glass window caught my eye and I slipped unnoticed from a busy street into a simple church.  Breathing deeply, I sank down onto the closest pew. The entire building is permeated with the sense of sacred that a thousand years of faith has imprinted upon it.  After sitting for awhile, I make a donation and light a candle. I always do.  I have nothing to wish for, but I place my candle next to one that is flickering. I turn to leave, but as I do the woman sitting at the small information desk approaches me. She has brightly colored squares of paper in her hand and after determining my origin and my language, she hands me one.

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Mark 1, 35.

I do not fall under the category of the religious devout, but I am touched by her sincerity and by the poetry of the verse.

I grab her hand in mine. Grazie I say as gratefully as I can. I want her to know that her heart has reached mine. And though I am unlikely to join the church, I am sincerely thankful for the gentle grace it has given to an otherwise gloomy day. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


About two years ago, I thought it would be fun to drive from California to Georgia. By myself. Why I thought this would be fun, I'm not sure. Probably for the same reason that I thought taking a Greyhound across the country would be fun.

It was a beautiful drive, but you can only sit alone in a car talking to yourself for so long. Also, I didn't have air conditioning which meant that I was driving across the desert, through the plains, and into the humidity of the south with no reprieve from the sweaty seat sticking misery.

Somewhere in Utah

And there is absolutely no good coffee anywhere in-between. I don't doubt that there is good coffee somewhere in-between the two coasts, but there is absolutely nothing along the highway. I stopped at a McDonald's. For coffee. I want you just to let that sink in for awhile. McDonald's. Coffee. Awful. 

This wasn't my first time driving across the country. When I was younger my Grandparents lived just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. I would spend a few weeks every summer visiting them and occasionally they would drive me back to California.

We would set off early in the morning in my Grandmother's white Chrysler LeBaron. My Grandfather would drive at a steady 50mph across the Interstate and my Grandmother would look at the map and determine the route we would take and which stops we would make.

Both my Grandfather and my Grandmother were British and my Grandmother in particular was fascinated by U.S. history. She would insist that we stop at the home of Daniel Boone or a hideout of Jesse James. We toured the museums dedicated to the pioneers of the Wild West and stopped at monuments in honor of the Oregon Trail or the Chinese railroad workers. But my Grandmother's true passion was the history of the Native Americans. These roadtrips were her opportunity to explore areas of the United States and learn more about the tribes and tribal lands she was so intrigued by.

While we drove across the Southwestern United States, my Grandmother would talk about the the Cherokee, the Navajo, the Apache, the Hopi, the Mojavi, and the Zuni. I would pipe in with what little I knew from school about Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims. My Grandmother would scoff. That's how I learned about smallpox and colonialism and the legacy of broken promises the United States had left the original inhabitants of North America.

My Grandfather was a composer and an accomplished pianist and organist. My Grandmother, prior to becoming a family counselor, had been a music teacher. Both of them adored classical music and this shared adoration determined the music that dominated the radio. I would lean back against the plush velvet seats and stare out the window while tapes of Chopin, Elgar, or Tchaikovsky played in the background. At the time I had wished that perhaps we could listen to something more normal like Garth Brooks or Tim McGraw.

But as I recreated these past road trips, I found myself skipping the songs on my iPod until I hit Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise. I was surprised at how little had changed since the last time I had driven down those roads. It was as if 15 years had simply never happened.

The same rest stops, the same wide open spaces, the same small towns. Even this sign in Utah was still standing. I couldn't believe it.

When I approached the outskirts of St. Louis, I had to stop. The arch, the city's monument, is now a symbol so representative of my childhood that I couldn't pass by without stopping. I dragged my Grandmother up that thing 8 years in a row. The woman was scared to death of heights, but that was the only thing I wanted for my birthday so she went. Every year.

That night I sat outside the hotel watching the lightning bugs. The air was heavy and sweet from the humidity and the meadow grasses. I felt like I was 8 years old again, trying to catch lightning bugs in a jar while my Grandmother sipped tea on the porch and my Grandfather played Greensleeves on the piano in the living room. Before too long a summer thunderstorm rolled in and I retired to my hotel room as the first drops of rain began to fall.

The next morning I had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. The first sign that I had officially left the West. After a glutenous and delicious American breakfast and still feeling slightly lethargic from scarfing down too many buttermilk biscuits, I climbed back into my car and continued my drive to Georgia. 

While Californians are carb-counting, Midwesterners
are asking if you want some toast with your butter...

My family owns hunting land in Kentucky (don't judge me) so I had arranged to meet them there before driving the rest of the way to Georgia. I would like to thank my iPhone and Google Maps for successfully navigating me through Kentucky's backroads. Well done. Kentucky in summer is beautiful, but it's hotter than hell and there are about 300 varieties of things with more than 4 legs that bite. 

Driving Kentucky's backroads

We spent a few days hanging out around the campfire eating s'mores and enjoying the stifling humidity and horseflies of Kentucky before packing up and heading to Georgia. 

Camping in Kentucky

On the way back to Atlanta, my eleven-year old little brother, who had opted to ride back with me, started looking a little queasy. I knew it was bad when he declined a donut at the petrol station. (British guy's influence has now prevented me from saying "gas" station. I'm also having a hard time with the word "pants")

"You doing alright over there, buddy?" I was starting to get nervous for the interior of my car. 

He shook his head. "Can...can you pull over?"

We were in gridlock traffic. There was no way I was going to be able to make it over to the shoulder in time.

So he rolled down the window and....threw up all over the side of my car. I received a mix of sympathetic looks and horrified glances from the other drivers. 

My brother turned back to me with a look of apprehension. He was clearly unsure about how I was going to respond and nervous that I would unleash my wrath upon him for being ill. 

I rolled my eyes. "I'm not mad at you. Are you okay? Here's some water. You want me to stop so you can get out and walk around?"

"No. It's okay. I feel better now."

In an effort to create a more soothing driving experience, I switched over to the classical playlist on my iPod. Two minutes into Elgar's Violin Concerto, my brother informed me that this music was incredibly boring music and he would prefer to listen to something more normal. 

In an effort to defend my music choice I informed him that my Great-Grandmother used to see Elgar walking about outside her home near the Malvern Hills. 

"What are the Malvern Hills?" 

"They're a range of hills in England. Near Worcestershire." 

"Ok. Can we still change the music? Cause this is really boring." 

I thought back to my road trips with my Grandparents and how I had begged to listen to something other than classical. I handed the iPod to my brother and told him to pick the music. 

But as we continued our drive through Northern Georgia, I kept thinking about my Grandmother. I looked at my brother who was busy searching my playlists for something he recognized, and wondered how our trip would be going if she were along. I knew exactly how it would be going. 

"Did you know that the Cherokees are originally from Georgia, but in 1830 the United States passed the Indian Removal Act and they were forced to relocate to Oklahoma which is where the Cherokee Nation exists today. Their forced migration is called the Trail of Tears."

My brother stopped fiddling with the iPod and looked up with a perplexed expression. "Wait, I don't get it. Why did they have to move from Georgia?"

I turned down the music. "Well, it's a long story. But luckily we've got a few hours." 

You know you're in Georgia when...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Haifisch, Sicherungsdose and other useful German words

It was during World Cup.
Everyone else was wearing flags...
I firmly believe that the key to learning languages is a willingness to make an idiot of yourself.

This has always come quite naturally to me. Making an idiot of myself, I mean. Not learning languages.

When I was in college, I decided to move to Germany for a year to study German. I reasoned that since I was already quite adept at making an idiot of myself in my own language, I had nothing to lose in learning another.

So off to Germany I went.

The first day was a disaster. I couldn't figure out which apartment was mine. Then I couldn't get the door opened. My flatmate heard someone fiddling with the door and answered it.

The conversation (in German) went something like this:

Flatmate: Hello? Can I help you? 

Me: Um. I think here I live? Have key. Door. Can open not. 

My flatmate responded in rapid-fire German-- of which I understood not one word. I smiled and nodded and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I nearly went home right then and there.

She showed me to my room where I proceeded to unpack and catch up on some much needed sleep, but not before blowing a fuse trying to plug my convertor into the wall socket.

The first word I looked up in my dictionary in Germany was "fuse box."

It's "die Sicherungsdose." In case you were wondering.

I'd like to say it got easier after that, but the next few months were simply a series of uncomfortable moments and social blunders. Even as I continued to progress I quickly found myself in that awkward position of understanding what's being said, but being unable to respond without sounding like a five-year old.

I made mistake. After mistake. After mistake.

I said please when I should have said thank you. I used the formal when I should have used the informal. I told a group of German students that I didn't surf very often in Northern California because I was afraid of "big fish that sometimes eat people." When a shopkeeper asked if I was finding everything alright, I told him "no, thank you" with a huge smile because I thought he had asked if I needed help.

I only ordered food that I knew how to say, kept quiet in most social situations, and spent most of my first few months with a pained and confused expression on my face. 

Except for ordering beer. I got that phrase down just fine.

I spent the subsequent months in intensive language courses and German university courses. I found a tandem language partner, and I tried as best as I could to communicate often with my flatmate. 

Which was not easy considering she spent most of her time in her room watching the Simpsons. This baffled me. She didn't have to shut herself in her room to watch dysfunctional Americans. She could have just come out into the kitchen. 

Everyone told me before I left that if I was serious about learning German, I should not associate with the other Americans. If I had adhered to that rule, I would have missed out on meeting some amazing people. I also would have gone insane during the first few months. I'm not saying that I didn't have German friends. Of course I did. But I didn't snub the other Americans either. Sometimes we even spoke German together. Usually when we were drunk.

But, aside from alcohol, what really helped my German was signing up for extracurricular activities. I joined a running club and a kayaking club. I took dance courses and signed up for choir.

And I found a part-time job as a kayaking instructor at the University. This was the best thing I could have done to improve my German. It was also the most terrifying. Once a week I stood in front of a group of German students and taught them how to kayak. In German. 

When I couldn't get my message across (which was often) I resorted to charades. In fact, I was so determined to teach my students the importance of river safety that I personally demonstrated how easy it can be to break your nose while kayaking. I'll spare you the pictures of my swollen face and two black eyes. For now. 

Learning German was a lot of work, and a lot of laughter. Often that laughter was at my expense. But that's okay. Most of the time, I laughed as hard as they did at the creativity my limited vocabulary often inspired. Or my poorly pronounced words. Or my charades. And if they laughed too hard at my expense, I just asked them to pronounce "squirrel" or "square" in English. That usually evened things out a bit. I know. I'm a terrible person. I can't help it. 

After one-year of studying German, I felt easy and at home in my adopted city. I felt like I fit in. Other people must have thought so as well because toward the end of my stay, an American tourist stopped me to ask for directions and--when I responded in English--he commented on how amazing my English was. I told him I had been studying it for 22 years. To which he responded, "Wow, they really start you young here, don't they?" 

Since living in Germany I have had the privilege to live in Switzerland, France and the West Bank. I've studied French and Arabic, and have made just as many mistakes in those languages as I did in German. 

Probably more. 

(Incidentally, the Arabic word for camel is surprisingly similar to the Arabic word for beautiful. Really important to get the difference between those two down. Trust me on this one.)

But learning languages has given me the opportunity to witness the patience, humor and willingness to help that people around the world express. German, French, Swiss, and Palestinians have all smiled encouragingly when I stumbled over their words, corrected me when necessary, and taken the time to converse with me in their language despite the fact that they speak far better English than I speak German, French or Arabic. Learning languages has enabled me to see a side of humanity that is not portrayed often enough, and it's a side I find incredibly inspiring. 

Heidelberg, Germany

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday Dad

Today is my Dad’s birthday.

I wanted to post a photo of him from the 80’s wearing acid-wash jean shorts and sporting the most badass mustache you have ever seen, but I wasn’t sure he would fully appreciate the hilarity of it. But then I remembered that he has photos of himself in drag on his Facebook page. In my Dad’s defense it was for a benefit and he does have the legs to pull off that particular tennis skirt. At any rate, this photo was pre-digital camera and has yet to be scanned so it’s sitting safely in a box in California. Next time, Dad, next time.

My Dad is a journalist. He traveled a lot when I was growing up and whenever possible I would tag along. This proved for some interesting experiences and my Dad has enough stories about me to fill a book. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was his primary source of inspiration for a book he wrote a few years ago titled Camping for Dummies. You’re welcome Dad.

I know I tested his patience levels on a daily basis, but my Dad put up with my quirks pretty well. Or at least he didn’t push me out of the boat when we did a weeklong tour of Yellowstone Lake in a double kayak. (I sort of paddled. Some of the time. ) And he didn’t send me to a psychiatric ward when I tied our yellow Labrador to a cardboard box using shoelaces and told everyone we were training for the Iditarod.

No, my Dad put up with me pretty well. And while he enjoyed teasing me (I once told him, while dancing to the music in the car, that I should be a back-up dancer. To which he responded, "Yeah. Way, way in the back"), he was always the first to stick up for me. 

One experience in particular stands out to me. When I was 12, our next-door neighbor’s son held me down and tried to kiss me. Being the ladylike little girl that I was, I punched him in the face. Not surprisingly, his mother was upset and she stormed across the front yard and up the walkway leading to our house in order to berate my Dad for my violent behavior.

My Dad listened to her quietly, nodding in all the right places and making sympathetic sounds. He let her go on for awhile and while he appeared calm, I could see his jaw clench ever so slightly. When she paused long enough for him to get a word in edgewise, he simply stated, “Your son kissed my daughter against her will. She punched him. I fail to see the problem here.” And with that he shut the door.

For the win, Dad. For the win.

My Dad always encouraged me to write. He was constantly bringing home books for me to read and always had time to glance over the stories I wrote about a little girl and the pony she received for Christmas. HINT HINT, Dad. My Dad is also a sucker for a good story. He completed the Eco-Challenge—one of the world’s most difficult and notorious adventure races—just for the story (now you know where I get it from...). The picture I had of him in my room growing up was from this race. He looks emaciated and haggard, but he’s smiling. I love this picture. Sure, it’s not the most flattering photo, but it sums up my Dad. The worse the situation is, the bigger his smile seems to be. I think he might be insane. Unfortunately it appears to be hereditary.

Take this situation, for example. 

One of our father-daughter trips was a weekend backpacking trip in California's Point Reyes National Seashore. It was cold and wet, I had blisters and bruised muscles, and we were testing out some backpacking meals that tasted like soggy cardboard with peas and carrots. 

Dad: Isn’t this great?
Me: No.
Dad: I love being outside.
Me: I have hypothermia.
Dad: This weather is so refreshing.
Me: I have blisters.
Dad: There’s some duct tape in the First Aid Kit.
Me: My backpack is heavy.
Dad: How many goldfish crackers do you think I can fit in my mouth at one time?

(37. In case you were wondering.)

It was during these sorts of father-daughter trips that my Dad also taught me some pretty important lessons:
  1. Don’t pick the M&Ms out of the trail mix. Seriously. Don’t do it.
  2. Duct tape is really effective for blister prevention everything.
  3. This is poison oak. Don’t touch it. (I touched it).
  4. This is a cactus. Don’t touch it. (I touched it).
  5. Kodiak bears and big boulders look surprisingly similar in the fog. Step carefully or bring enough salmon to share.
  6. Peeing outside in the middle of the woods is acceptable. Peeing outside in the downtown area of one of California's largest cities is not.
  7. Some stuff about navigation. (My Dad is a navigation expert. I take after my Mom in this department, but my Dad did try.)

My Dad also helped me develop a sense of humor, and taught me not to take myself too seriously. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you'll always be laughing, he told me. I'd like to say that he was making generalizations about humanity with that statement, but I think he was specifically referencing me. 

My Dad demonstrated to me daily the qualities and actions that comprise a good man and in doing so, he created a strong woman. Who..cries at Disney movies. Ok, bad example. Maybe I'm not strong in the sense that I cry when the Beast dies and Belle says she loves him, and that I get scared when I have to cycle up or down Alpe d'Huez, and that I sometimes make whimpering sounds when I'm trying to scrape down the mountain on skis after British guy.

Alright, fine. So I'm not a textbook case of a strong woman.

But my Dad's life and his actions have demonstrated to me the importance of putting yourself out there. I'm not anything spectacular, and I'm certainly not especially brave. Running up Toubkal, camel treks through Jordanfacing down rabid coyotes in the Negev, learning to ski as an adult, cycling down Alpe d'Huez, and all those other insane adventures I've had the pleasure to experience have not resulted from any special characteristic I was born with. Certainly not from bravery or athletic prowess. They resulted from my Dad taking the time to share his adventures with me whether by letting me tag along or sharing his stories with me after the fact. 

His adventures demonstrated to me that if you never risk being afraid, messing up, or making an idiot of yourself , you'll risk not living. And, in the words of Thoreau (whose works my Dad read to me at an early age), you might face your death with the realization that you have not lived.

My Dad encouraged me to take "the road less traveled and that has made all the difference." Sure it's cliché, but it's true. 

Thanks, Dad. I love you. And Happy Birthday.

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