Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Traveling, but not in a good way

"We're sliding," Dan woke me up in the dim predawn. Good thing he's just kidding, and that we live in the relative flats, because for a brief moment, I could almost feel us slipping. According to last night's news, all of Seattle that is prone to sliding is really prone right now. Thankfully that does not include us.

I have always had great respect for the power of falling water, and since we returned, nothing has been more obvious to me than how cranky everyone in the city is after enduring at least a month more of rain than we travelers have. We should perhaps stop telling people that while we traveled for three months, we only had two days of rain significant enough to keep us indoors (and that one of those storms--on All Souls' Day--was great fun) and were only caught out in the rain twice for less than fifteen minutes. (I actually racked up a third time: Tim and I walked home from Taco Chulo in Williamsburg in the raging gale of December 1 that lasted only about twenty minutes, but flipped a lot of umbrellas inside out. Our timing was perfect!)

It is strange to be back. For the first two weeks, we woke up not knowing where we were. Now, the rain is seeping into our bones, and we are back to being Seattleites, which means, growing gills and developing the thin skin of amphibians.

My neighbor, Richard, is bailing his garage. There is a man on the roof taking care of the blown-off shingles. And it is raining.

Today, I promise. Pictures. And then, since talk of the weather is dull and redundant, back to the really important things: cheese, travel, and knitting. Happy New Year!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Island Rain

Well, today, instead of immersing ourselves in radioactive volcanic mud of Vulcano, we are forced to take a day off. Dan's having a little nappy and I'm having my fun here in the cafe.

I am not kidding about the mud. Vulcano has very few permanent residents, because of the alleged nasty smell--sulphur--but has this nifty laghi di fanghi of 'therapeutic' stinky mud. For this I have purchased a Bathing Costume--my one swimsuit went AWOL before we left. This Fashion Treasure is navy blue, my least favorite color in the entire world, and is two-piece. I would love to say that all the walking has done wonders for my girlish figure, but that would be a bold-faced lie. My legs are steely, but the pasta has worked against removing any insulating layers atop those steel bands. The top of the costume is, shall we say, minimally constructed, and a girl like me might run into trouble if the tiny clasp on the back gives way, but it is a risk I have to take considering the other choice, a magenta one-piece with foam cones in the upper region, and very modest leg openings (near my knees). I just could not go there. So, tomorrow? I'll let you know just how it is--we are promised that we can also walk to the edge of the small crater, if we can stand the smell, and that there is a black sand beach with hot water springs for rinsing off.

We are also promised that our Bathing Costumes will never relinquish the fragrance they will acquire.

Yesterday, we were wandering the Marina Corta, trying to figure out if a trip to Stromboli and the hike to the crater might be feasible. Not much was happening there, but we did see someone mending fishing nets:

We were approached on the piazza at Marina Corta by a local seaman named Antonio, who offered to take us out in his boat Marea. We agreed on a price and an itinerary, and we were off. This is a view of the old, fortified part of Lipari town, home to a fine archaelogical museum and a museum dedicated to the volcanic history of the Aeolian Islands:

Antonio took us motoring around the SW end of Lipari, toward Vulcano, to see the Grotte Azzure, the Spiaggia da Vinci (spiaggia=beach) and around some huge stacks of volcanic rock whose name now escapes me. (Every time we cannot remember the name for something, we have been substituting 'funiculare' as a plausible replacement, and that would actually be pretty close, I think. )

The water, very deep, ranged from milky blue green to the bluest blue imaginable. The vegetation is cactus, gorse, and not much of it.
At one point, Antonio reached into the water and scooped out some floating ROCKS. "Pumice. Pumice." Say this like: poo-me-chay. It just had not registered with me yet that the major industry here is pumice, and that the pebbles that get loose are going to float, but there they were. The pumice here is pale grey, too, and that threw me off. The white foam in the water in this photo camouflages the pumice. You can replicate my experience looking at the photo, because you won't see any pumice, either:

I also noticed that he reached into a school of medusa--jellyfish--to retrieve the pumice, but he was not stung. He has loved here all his life, fishing, and taking tourists out to see places that cannot be seen from anywhere but the water. The volcanic pile is so steep and so inconsistent that it cannot be hiked or climbed, and the boat is the only way. Antonio is tan-burned deeply, and the back of his neck below salt and pepper hair is just redder than chestnut, a color like I have never seen before. He knows full well how beautiful his home island is, and is happy for the tranquility of post-tourist season. He carries a cell phone.

Out near the stacks of rock, he asked us if we wanted to swim. Dan rose to the challenge, but I did not have that pesky bathing costume, and frankly, since we'd left all our clothes to be washed, my underthings were not decent enough to pass for such, so I demurred. He went down the ladder in his blue silky drawers (his last and least favorite pair of undies, too), and lost his breath from the shock of it.

The water is cooler than it looks, and very salty, almost thick. The pumice dust makes it a little milky. Then, for a photo and despite the cold, Dan came out and dove BACK in so that I could capture the moment in digital:

I got it on the first try! Cold, but well worth it, and I am jealous, but I just did not want to be the talk of the fisherman's local bar scene, which might go something like: "You should have seen this lady--woof--American tourists seem to be so well off, but can't they afford underwear?"

It's a good thing that only after we were well into the trip back to port that Dan figured out that I was pointing to the medusas, and there were scads of them, though I didn't see any near the rocks where he had taken the dive.

The only other scary wildlife we've seen was just as we left Tuscany. I lifted up the bag I had packed the night before from the stone floor of the farmhouse and a cold, slow SCORPION about 2" long crawled out and headed away from the light. Fortunately, I'd already had my coffee, and I was quicker than he was, and despatched him with one of my Keens. Dan's now checking his shoes every day before putting them on. (He couldn't even look at a lake after seeing Jaws.)

Anyhoo, I see sun outside, so it may be time to see if there is another ferry to Vulcano. This is a view of Vulcano from the high road on Lipari Island. In the water below, you can see the funiculare, the site of Dan's historic dive.

Cannot wait to be irradiated!!!

In other news, Grandma has a new black Jetta! I called Tim and about all I got out of him is that he is "fine." Dan's tooth is perfect.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Underneath the Volcano

(Warning: map and Bulfinch's mythology will be helpful for this post)

We are on Lipari Island, in the Aeolian Islands, off the coast of Sicily.

This is the home of Aeolus, god of the winds. We arrived the night before last, after successfully escaping the Sirens, and then passing over the Scylla and Charybdis. The Odyssey did not take place in Greece, but in Italy.

The Sirens really did beckon, and they were irresistible (Sirens come from Sorrento--did you know that?). We spent our time in the Sorrentina Peninsula at Le Tore organic farm, run by the inexhaustible Vittoria Brancaccio and her husband Gianni.

31 October was a demanding but smooth day--we had left Contignano reluctantly. Our efforts to speak Italian finally opened everyone up, and we had the most wonderful conversations with the residents of our tiny town in Tuscany. I learned an old Tuscan proverb from the owners of the food market: "Tutti Sant, caputi e guanti." (All Saints Day--get out your cape and gloves.) And that it ALWAYS rains on the second of November, which is also an important day in Italy, when everyone visits the cemeteries to remember "i defunti, i morti."

Early on Halloween morning we drove to the train station, found the place to return our car--had to ask directions, and I'm finding I can speak Italian just well enough to get a response in Italian which I cannot understand, until I walk away and think hard about it, and then it comes-- and figured on a two hour wait for the train. Silly us! The time had changed, and the 9:35 had not yet left. You should have seen the look on the desk agent's face when I told him that surely it had left. He rolled his eyes and pointed pointedly at the clock. I had noticed the night before that the clock in Bar Franci said 7:30 while my watch said 8:30, but I figured that was just how things could be in Bar Franci.

Ten minutes later we were on our way to Salerno. Good thing--we knew finding our next destination in the dark would not be much fun. )

We arrived by driving the demanding (but not as scary as most Americans make it out to be) Amalfitan Coast highway--as the Salerno Avis agent said, "it's a good highway-double sense," meaning two lanes wide. This is debatable.

We did have to back up three cars on a curve when a bus could not pass, but Dan now has skills to be proud of--yes, he can drive a stick around a hairpin turn and take pictures at the same time--and we drove into the sunset, arriving at the green gate on the very top of the world just after dark. They were expecting us for dinner--7:30.

Dinner. One long table, six people, all of us fellow guests. Simon and Jane, a UK couple living in Poland, had just put 18-month-old Isaac to bed. Ruth and Marcus had arrived from Switzerland on a walking tour using only public transportation. And we were going to have conversation and a lovely organic dinner from local sources. But among all the six adults, and Italian, French, Swiss-German, German, Spanish, and English, there was no single language in common. So everyone had to translate for someone. We have never had so much fun (or such great food) . By the end of it Marcus deadpanned "Schwartzennegger for President," and Dan was making jokes in Italian, and he's only on Pimsleur lesson 24 because he keeps skipping ahead.

And then we woke to find ourselves in the middle of olive and lemon groves and espaliered annurca apple trees, with two lovely white cows.

The farm is near the tip of the peninsula, and near the very highest point. One stone house is for guests, and one for Gianni and Vittoria with a small self catering apartment. This is an agriturismo par excellence.

I wanted to find out more, or even work a little, so I talked my way into a tour of the farm, but just as we were starting out, friends of Vittoria's from near Naples came to visit, the D'Alterio family, and so we all went together, and then it started to sprinkle. I had noticed that looking west it was sunny, but looking east it was black, and I had already forgotten--it ALWAYS rains on 2 November. So we all headed for shelter in the dining room, peeled annurca apples--a remarkable ancient variety that keeps all winter if just left on the ground and turned often--and tried to keep up with the conversation. And then it REALLY started to rain.

By 1:00 we were snuggled in our room with intermittent lights and the howling went on all afternoon. It was great, a wonderful, exciting storm. And a great forced rest for us after a long travel day.

Is it cruel to leave you hanging now? When I could talk about touring the ancient olive grove with the 350 year old mother plants? And about being invited to join twenty or so Italian travel and food journalists for an educational olive oil tasting? I'll get back to this. . . promise. . .but for now, I'll just say that I am in love with the Sorrentina Peninsula, and tell you about Dan's day here in Lipari. Jenny! Take special note!

Dan is now on a first name basis with a Sicilian dentist! A molar with an old filling broke, and even though (thankfully) he was not in immediate pain, we decided better here than Prague, and found the local dentist. He was GREAT. Seemed like the happiest dentist I have ever seen, took Dan right in, and while they were still talking, I could see the assistant preparing the Big Syringe, and an hour and a half later, he had a beautyfull new ceramic-filled tooth. They were full-on modren, with dams and rubber gloves, and those syringes that they all use even at home that look just like apparati from the Inquisition. I'm sorry, I could have stayed to hold his hand, but I went shopping, because I nearly fainted at the sight of it. The only things not current were that there was no paperwork, and that the dentist only charged us €100, discounting his usual price of €150, perhaps just for the sake of international goodwill, or Dan's great popularity here in southern Italy. This translates to about $129.

But now I AM cutting you off, because I need to go check on the patient. Translate this as, I'm hungry and am going to go sweep him up and find something for dinner.

We're staying here on the island until the 13th, so I'll certainly have another post up in a day or two. Love you all, and miss you, and we will now be home soon.

Ciao! Tanti baci!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Night in Contignano

It's Friday night in Contignano, and I am in the teen center. There's a public internet site, and I thought I'd be standing in line for a computer, but the eight or so high school kids who are here are playing a rowday game of something like hide and seek. I hear counting, quiet, then running, shouting. They have left me in the dark computer room, and have forgotten me completely, and yikes! It's closing time!

Must run!!

All is well.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Slowing Down

Well, it has happened. We finally crashed and burned, and have emerged from the wreckage with a kinder, gentler plan. So many medieval cities in a row, all packed with irresistable art treasures and magnificent works of food, and yet, we've grown tired of packing, moving and learning a new city every four or so days. It does not sound like a fast pace, but it is. So we have cancelled our trip deep into Sicily for later in the month, and are going to chill in the Aeolian islands for a full seven days in low season. Palermo and Erice will have to wait for another day.

We are now in Florence, and I can see why the city made Stendahl swoon to the point where he needed medical attention. We have climbed the 435 steps to the top of Brunelleschi's dome, and have seen the Renaissance works that I taught in Humanities class years ago--the lovely frescoes of Fra' Angelico, Massacio and Lippi, the lovely Botticellis and Raphaels, too many Madonnas to count, and Michaelangelo's David.

And I've seen my personal favorites, Artemesia Gentilleschi's two paintings of Judith and her maidservant during and after the gory removal of Holofernes head, wielding the huge sword, pulling away from the spatters on her arms and neck, two sturdy and determined women. I loved that in the next room at the Pitti Palace is the sylph-like Judith by Cristofano Allori, gently holding the nasty head near her spotless golden silk gown, with a look of peaceful composure on her delicate face--this Judith could not squash a Florentine mosquito.

UNESCO says that 50% of the world's great works of art are in Italy, and I think that 96% of them are in Florence, and, silly me! I thought five days would be comfortable! Yesterday we retreated a bit--only two greats (David and the tiny Brancacci Chapel). We shopped a little on the Ponte Vecchio.

We found Beatrice Galli, who says she has "lived in the yarn all my life." She has a lovely yarn shop on the Arno, just beyond the Ponte Vecchio, and we just happened to see her knitting there through the window. She has lived and worked there for 39 years, fifteen of them doing custom knitting with a machine, before she gave it up and returned to handwork. Her grandmother taught her to knit when she was six. Now, she never leaves, not even in August, she explained, because her customers expect her to be there. She showed us the flowers on her deck, and let Dan take a picture of her stunning view. And she is on top of things--you can even order over the internet.

Someone will have a pair of socks for Christmas, because I bought some more yarn for our slow time in Tuscany and the Islands. Beatrice picked it out, and she knows who they are for, but I'm not telling you!

. . . and we took shelter from a tiny rainshower in a gelato shop--Dan finally found riso flavor, and I went for the limoncello.

And we capped off Florence with a dinner in our little Piazza San Pier Maggiore at Restaurant Natalino. Our waiter, Paolo, who we thought owned the place, but no, is "laborato, professionista, ma laborato," said it's been a restaurant since Napoleon. The ravioli with duck sauce, oh, my oh my! And the translation on the menu said 'meatloaf,' but don't you believe it.

So we're back on track. Dan's cold is waning, I'm getting it and getting over it in my typical fashion. I am the goddess of the four-hour cold, and am still proving to be pretty bulletproof.

Gotta run! Next train in two hours! But soon, I'll tell you about the burrata I missed in Venice.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Da Vero

I had my first conversation in Italian in the Milano Centrale train station.

Our late TGV from Paris caused us to miss our connection, and I stood under the board watching for the platform number for an inter-city train to post. I leaned on the gift shop's bullet-proof glass--it has revolving windows for payment for plastic cathedrals--and an older lady complained. I caught something like "manque del banco" and made my best guess, which was that they needed benches here. Thousands of people moving in every direction here, and not a seat anywhere--this had to be it. But how to respond, other than the mute nod, which is too timid. Long pause. "Da vero." I think that I remember that this means it's true. Then I try, "dové va?"--where are you going. She names a town, and I cannot tell what town it is, but I knowit is not one of the big ones near us, so it is probably a small one.

Pause. "Lei inglese?" "Si, inglese. United States."

Pause. "é a vaccance?" "Si, vaccance." Long pause, then I think: I can ask, is she Itailan? Not a hard question, and it keeps our little conversation going. "Lei italiana?" She thinks I am pretty funny now--she is so obviously Italian, at least to herself. To me, she is beige. She is wearing a beige sweater and skirt and shoes, her glasses are slightly deeper beige, and her hair has a blond beige tint. And quiet, and tired. She seems very sweet.

"Dové va?"
"Ah, Venezia! Bella città!"

Then the pause is pretty long, and looks as if it might tun uncomfortable. I turn toward Dan--he's contemplating the plastic cathedrals. And I wander off after a minute to have a question answered about whether I need a reserved seat for this next train, since it is not a TGV.

Then, I'm back waiting under the board, between my fellow traveler and Dan. Her platform has just come up, and she starts to leave. But she turns back to me, smiling and animated, speaking quickly and with energy: I catch: "Bella Venezia. . . va . . . Murano per . . . vietri; Burano per le pizze." There are a lot of little words I don't catch, but they don't seem important. I repeat back to her, "Murano, vietri, Burano, pizze!"

"buon viaggi, buon vaccance, buon viaggi!" She takes both my hands. It's really a tender moment for us both.

"Arrivederci, buon viaggi!"

And her lovely welcome carried us through two hours of standing on the train. We only found seats after the stop for Verona. In the meantime, I chatted (in English) with a businessman operating men's underwear shops. It was Friday afternoon, and Venice is a weekend spot. But we arrived happy nonetheless.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Have you ever driven a Yaris? It's not very aerodynamic, so driving with the windows cracked open at all makes you feel like you are being buffeted by gales, and even though it's snub-nosed it is hard to see the front of it, and it's tiny but not tiny enough to handle EVERY medieval cloister arch. So we might have put a tiny scratch on the back side of the rear-view mirror trying to park in that 13th-century enclosure in Arles, but hey, it came to us with a big dent from someone else's adventure. So we don't LOVE our rental car, but it goes.

Until, of course, you fill the DIESEL car with SANS PLOMB 95, which is unleaded. Then it does not go, say, more than 4 km from the station. How does this kind of thing happen, you might ask? The gas cap has in big letters DIESEL on it, but someone just ASSUMED she knew, someone who had driven many Toyotas in the past. . .

Fortunately, the hideous knocking that ensued caused the aforementioned idiot to pull over, and once Yaris stopped, she stopped for good. Fortunately, too, a sign pointing to Argeliers said only 0.5 km, so off we went on foot to make a call, since the same person who caused the little problem had not had the foresight to charge the useless cheap cell phone reserved for such times.

In Argeliers, La Tonnerie, a bar, was the only place open, because we timed our depannage for the mid-day naptime that all France adores. Loud American music was playing for the six or so men who were taking construction job breaks inside, so we borrowed phone from an unbelieving bartender, and headed outside. Turns out that our mistake was not a terribly serious one, and after the bartender kindly described our location for the tow truck driver on the other end of the line, who could not find Argeliers on any map, we found ourselves within the hour waving down a grand camion jaune, or, big yellow truck, with a big Saint Bernard decal on the front, and Bernard and sons had us loaded up and on the way to the garage.

So we were treated to a ride to St Chinian, a town known for its wines, deep in the Aude. It was clear from the distance traveled that M. Bernard had hopped in the truck the minute he received our call, because St. Chinian was a good forty minutes into the mountains from our breakdown spot on the D5 at Argeliers. During the trip, the entire landscape changed from vineyards stretched over rocky white limestone to vineyards stretched over red rocks, and the houses in St. Chinian are all built from these lovely red rocks. The panoramas were marvelous, especially seen from the height of the front seat.

Our saviour had us back on the road within an hour--he drained the tank and replaced it with Diesel--and charged us only 40€, plus fuel.

Our entire detour cost us some three hours, and I'd say improved our level of confidence in our own problem-solving, and I gained a few extra freckles in the hot Languedocien sun. Our biggest worry, since clearly the car was running just fine, was that our picnic might have suffered a bit--remember the cheese list from last time? It's been baking in the trunk of the car.

Because, the night before we had opted to eat dinner out in Carcassonne at a little restaurant inside the medieval walls, and to save our market treasures for the road trip to Avignon. The Jardin de la Tour is mentioned in the Guide Routard, and it deserves mention. Our hors d'oeuvres were a cucumber gazpacho, green and thick and carrying some spice or herb that I could not identify, and a terrine of zucchini, cold with a tomato confit and a few slivers of prosciutto; then our entrees were a chicken with olives and citron, and lamb skewers with a very piquant chutney; dessert a soft chocolate cake and an absolutely perfect crème brulée.

Next rule for travel: Get a good map. So here we are in St. Chinian, on the way to Avignon, and no real main road that does not take us through Nimes, which is like the ninth traffic circle of hell in rush hour. So we opted for back roads, saw many lovely little towns, turned around several times, passed through every traffic circle in the entire dèpartment of Aude, and crossed the Rhone and arrived in Avignon at dusk with a full moon facing us and a spectacular pink-and-blue sunset behind us. Our simple guidebook map took us straight to the hotel. These days "straight" means "going down fewer than three one-way streets the wrong way."

Parking in Avignon is outside the medieval wall, or just inside if you are lucky enough to score a blue-zone space. So off we went to get Yaris to bed after a hard day, and we strolled a little bit through Avignon, which only seems to get busier at night, in contrast to the othe little places we have been that roll up their streets and put them away.

Despite our worries about our picnic--we had it about 8 hours late, well-baked-- it was still excellent. The remains of our bottle of wine from last night's dinner went really well with our cheese and olives.

And this hotel has a computer for the hotel guests' use, so tomorrow I will let Dan sleep in again and catch you up on the next detour--back to Arles to retrieve the battery charger, or, How I Completely Missed the Fiber Fair. Today, Dan says he's not getting into a car. Me neither.