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?

Dammit.

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

Roadtrippin'

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.



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Greyhound Blues

Last week I took a bus from Montpellier, France to Milan, Italy. I'm spending some time visiting a friend who lives just outside of Sacile (It's about an hour from Venice). And yes, I could have taken the train or the plane, but the bus was the cheapest option.

British guy came to see me off in Montpellier. I started crying. Don't feel too sorry for me. I hate good-byes. I always have. And--as my friends love to point out at every opportunity--I cry during Disney movies. Even the happy ones. Especially the happy ones. It doesn't take much to trigger my waterworks. It's because I'm a Cancer. (In reality I'm just a baby, but I like to have the excuse of an overly-sentimental zodiac sign. It lends more credibility to my case.) So I cried while British guy waved until I was out of sight. Then I leaned my head against the window and thought back to my last bus trip.

It was December of 2007, and in an effort to explore alternative modes of transportation in the U.S., I chose to take a Greyhound bus from Salinas, California to Atlanta, Georgia (and back again) in order to visit my Mom for Christmas.

Please don't do this. Ever. 

I arrived at the Salinas Greyhound station at 11:00 pm. Upon arrival I was informed that the bus was running a few hours late. No problem, I thought, as I settled into my seat and cracked open one of the 6 books I had brought along. After a few pages, the sole employee there told me he was locking up and I had to sit outside. I looked out at the empty parking lot in the middle of Salinas, the alleys alongside the station and the bar across the lot. I looked back at him. He couldn't be serious. He was not going to throw a young woman out at midnight to sit in an empty parking lot for a few hours. But yes, yes he was. I watched him lock up.

"I would stay next to this door if I were you. Last week some homeless guy was murdered just in that alley."

And then he got in his car and drove off.

Salinas

I called a friend in tears. He agreed to stay on the phone with me until the bus came. I noticed a man pacing back and forth outside of the bar across the parking lot. He kept looking over at me. Eventually he walked over to where I was sitting. He looked homeless and drunk and I was so scared I could hardly breathe. 

"Are you alright?" he asked. "Do you need any help? Do you want me to stay here with you?" 

Dumbfounded and ashamed for having judged this man too quickly, I simply nodded. 

He stayed with me until the bus came. He didn't say anything. He just sat and stared off into space. When the bus came, he simply nodded at me, and walked away. 

Stunned by this man's incredible thoughtfulness, I climbed onto the bus and my cross-country journey began. 

The thing you have to understand about taking the Greyhound is that having a ticket does not guarantee you a seat. As soon as you get off the bus, you hightail it over to where your next bus is scheduled to come in and you stand in line. And after you've stood in line for hours and your bus shows up, you hope that there is enough room left on the bus. If not, you watch the bus pull away and you continue to wait for the next one. This can go on indefinitely.

Salinas to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Phoenix, Phoenix to El Paso, El Paso to Dallas and Dallas to Birmingham, and Birmingham to Atlanta, I leapt from the seat of one bus to the line for another and then back again. I found it impossible to sit back and relax. I was constantly scheming about how I was going to catch the next bus and speculating about when exactly I would arrive in Atlanta and hoping that it would be before next Christmas.

And all the while I was making new friends. My problem is that I look nice. I mean, I am nice, but there is something about me that attracts people in a "I'm going to pour out my whole life story to you for the next 10 hours" kind of way.

There was the flamboyantly gay Avon salesman from Louisiana, who also happened to be legally blind. Halfway through showing me the Avon catalog he mentioned that he'd just gotten into an argument with his boyfriend. Then he leaned close to me and said in a dramatic half-whisper, "I don't normally tell people that I'm gay, but seeing as you're from California...." 

Then there was the Reverend. The Reverend was traveling from his native Alabama up to Georgia. He had never left his home state before and he was absolutely fascinated by me. 

"California," he exclaimed. "Bless my soul, California. Now, tell me. How do you celebrate Christmas there? And what sort of houses do you live in? Do you pay income taxes there? And did you go to school? How many celebrities do you know?" 

After three days, I made it to Atlanta. My family spent the entire holiday making fun of their crazy Californian relative who thought it would be fun to take the Greyhound bus. They were incredulous that I still intended to make the return trip, but I was determined to see my journey through to completion. Also I wanted to go through Tennessee.

After a day on the road, we arrived in St. Louis to rumors that a Greyhound bus had flipped somewhere in Colorado. Delays and cancellations were piling up in every direction. People were frantically speculating and planning and some had even taken to creating makeshift beds in the St. Louis bus station. It appeared that nobody was going anywhere any time soon. By some miracle, my bus through the Rockies and onto California was not being cancelled. Instead they had rerouted us to Oklahoma City. From there I would try and catch a bus to Los Angeles. Happy just to be on a bus heading in the general direction of home, I fluffed up my jacket pillow, chose my favorite iPod playlist, and closed my eyes. 

"Hi, you trying to sleep? Cause the lady I'm sitting next to is trying to sleep, but I want to talk so I was wondering if you were trying to sleep because if you aren't then I can sit next to you and we can talk."

I groggily pulled my earbuds out of my ears and looked up at the man who was already sitting down next to me.

"Oh, and can I use your phone? I was just released from prison. I was in solitary confinement for awhile. I want to call my sister to tell her when she should pick me up." 

In my stupor I handed him my phone. He spent the next 20 minutes chatting away to his sister before the call was finally dropped. Thank you, T-Mobile. For once your terrible coverage was in my favor.

Seven hours later we pulled into the Oklahoma City Greyhound station. This man talked the entire way. I am now in the position to write his biography should I so choose. 

I spent the next two days trying to make it from Oklahoma City to California. Anywhere in California. I promised God that if He or the Universe or whoever just got me to California, I would never take the Greyhound bus again. 

I made it back to California and I kept my word. 

My Eurolines bus trip from Montpellier to Milan was much more subdued. Nobody was fighting over seats or pushing to get on the bus, and the bus driver didn't get into a fight with any of the passengers (coughElPasocough). It was quiet and calm and everything went smoothly. Though-- despite how miserable I knew he would be trying to cram his 6'+ frame into the tiny bus seat for 11 hours--I missed British guy and I already missed France. I curled up into a ball on the seat and the steady hum of the engine lulled me to sleep.

When we crossed over into Italy, the official shook me awake from my fitful sleep.

Passaporto, he demanded.

I stared blankly at him, groggily trying to place myself as my mind jumped between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Passeport, he offered in French.

I fumbled with the zipper of my bag and fished out my passport.

He flicked through it and handed it back.

Grazie, he says.

Welcome to Italy, I tell myself, before curling back up on the seat to sleep.

A few hours later we roll through the fog and into Milan. I negotiate my way to the train station just in time to order a cappuccino and catch my train to Venice. I arrive in Venice with 15 minutes to spare. The last train into Sacile is crowded, and I opt to remain in the small space between the cars. I throw my bag next to a greasy window and spend the next hour sitting on my suitcase, watching the Italian countryside fly by me. This. This is the life. Racing at a breakneck speed to nowhere in particular. A cappuccino in one hand and my journal in the other.  

And, thank God, no Greyhound bus in sight. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

My favorite café in Montpellier

This past week British guy and I went down to Montpellier to visit his good friend, the Doctor. He has a name, but we call him the Doctor because...well, because he is a doctor.

At any rate, British guy was taking a two-day course so I spent my time wandering around and obsessively checking Twitter. I spotted Café Latitude while running errands with the Doctor and decided to spend the following morning there so I could scope out the place and catch up on some writing.

Café Latitude


I'm a sucker for a good café. I always have been. I blame my Northern California upbringing. In Northern California we take our coffee and our cafés very seriously. Just ask a group of resident San Franciscans for their opinion on the best café in town (Philz. In the Mission.). You'll be sure to incite a lively debate. Maybe some fist-fighting.

So I appreciate a good café, and as soon as I walked past Café Latitude, I knew it was going to be good. I got that warm, fuzzy feeling. (What? You guys don't get that when you find a nice place to have a cup of coffee?)

Café Latitude is the café that writers dream of. Open, airy, rustic. It's quiet and calm, but not without its local characters swinging by for their morning coffee and a political debate. As soon as I walk through the door I fall in love with the place. I track down the barista, order my café crème, grab a seat by the window and sit for two hours. I write. I stare out the window. I write some more. A man sits down next to me. "Bonjour," he says with a smile as he flicks open his newspaper. A couple sitting on the patio outside are sipping rosé as the morning sunshine filters through the trees. I glance at the clock. 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. I love France.

Here are a few photos.









The address is: 1 rue Ste-Croix. It's around the corner from the Cathedral, and just down the street from Don Peppino's. (One of the Doctor's favorite pizza joints in Montpellier. I haven't been, but he swears by it.) Basically if you find yourself in Montpellier and you don't go to Café Latitude, you will regret it. Go. We need more people in the world drinking rosé at 11:00 am. I should probably insert a "drink responsibly" caption here somewhere...

And speaking of cafés, check out my write-up of Stars & Bucks in Ramallah, West Bank on The Purple Passport. I'm a finalist in the Purple Passport writing contest. Voting starts soon...I'm just sayin'
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