Friday, January 31, 2014

The Great Smokies

I fell back into my life in the U.S. so smoothly and so quickly it almost feels like Italy never happened.  I have my memories and my relationships to attest to the fact that it wasn't all just a dream.  However, when you have a life-changing experience, you almost expect the rest of the world to change too and when I came back everything was just as I left it!  I am glad to have the familiarity and close relationships that make my home, home but at the same time if things had drastically changed, moved forward etc. it would have put me a little off balance which is always a good catalyst for change.  And I'm once again getting restless for more change and adventure!

Anyway, I brought a little bit of Italy home with me, and the boyfriend and I made fresh pasta a few weekends ago.  Joe was a natural (he was better at rolling the dough out than me) and although it still took an inordinate amount of time, there were no catastrophes of the sort that plagued my last attempt at making fresh pasta (see full story here).  We enjoyed our fresh tagliatelle with bolognese ragu and some of the red wine I brought back...yum! Next attempt will be ravioli!
My little car entertainment center
I thought after Italy I wouldn't have anymore travels for awhile but this past weekend Joe and I made a spontaneous trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.  Saturday morning we made the 8 hour drive into the Smoky Mountains; although it was a long drive it was a beautiful one.  We passed through the rolling green hills of the Shenandoah down I-81 and through the misty blue Smoky Mountains.  Along the way we stopped at a pretty little scenic overlook and took some ridiculous photos (see below).  Sunday afternoon we arrived at our whitewashed rustic cabin that sat by a bubbling creek in the middle of the wooded hillsides near the National Park.

After settling in and exploring the cabin we set out on a hike to Fontana Lake.  The trail was snow covered and icy and it was  a bit circuitous getting there but once we arrived it was worth it.  The steep hillsides surrounding the lake evidenced the passing of many years through the visible layers of sediment (which was not only a neat Geology lesson, it was a beautiful landscape effect).  We witnessed the sun setting over the distant hazy mountains and then made the trek back to the cabin as darkness descended over the beautiful landscape.  What better way to keep away the darkness than a glowing grill and a cozy campfire?  Upon reaching the cabin I fired up the grill (my time building fires in Montefegatesi served me well) and Joe built a blazing campfire.  We grilled up some steaks and veggies for dinner and then had s'mores for desert, perfect!
Fontana Lake

We woke up Monday morning to a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter and we set out to catch dinner.  Neither of us had really been fishing before but we proved to be efficient fishermen; our first three lines out brought in three rainbow trout.  After fishing we hiked for a bit and then went back to the cabin and grilled up the fish, made some s'mores and enjoyed the amenities of the cabin (including the hot tub!).  Luckily we headed to bed early because we had no idea what was in store for us the next day...

If you've watched the news in the last few days you would have seen about the big snowstorm in Atlanta, GA.  Well Bryson City where we were is about 2 hours from Atlanta.  Although we headed out early (around 10am), pretty soon we were caught up in the storm.  Snow fell heavily, coating the roads in a thick layer of icy, wet snow.  Although Joe's truck had no problem cutting through the mess, that didn't help us get around the standstill traffic as people came to a near halt navigating the icy roads.  16 hours later and finally back in Virginia we were near to crazy from exhaustion as we pulled up to the house at 2 in the morning.  It will be a long while before I'm up for a long road trip again, but in March I have a trip to Pennsylvania with Cari!
Hidden Creek Cabin

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Series of Misadventures on the Way Home

Well I have been firmly back in the U.S. for two weeks now, but it was quite an adventure getting back...

Four days before I was scheduled to leave Italy I called Orbitz to make a change to my flight. My original itinerary was to leave from Naples, have a layover in Milan, another layover in London and then arrive in the states.  However I decided that I was much closer to Milan and it would make much more sense to leave from there.  I called Orbitz expecting them to say "you can't change it" or "it will cost $300 to change it" what I got was...

O: "Your flight from Naples has been cancelled... the next flight leaving from Naples is at 5pm"

Me: "Well I don't want the flight from Naples anyway can I just cancel it since it will make me miss all my other flights?"

O: "No, that would cancel all your other flights"

Me: "But I will miss all the other flights if I have to take the later flight from Naples.  Can I just not show up to the Naples flight?"

O: "No that will cancel all your other flights"

Me: Ok so what are my options?

O: Proceeds to tell me about 3 different options that all contradict each other.

(2 hrs later, most of which is hold time, they without warning transfer me to American Airlines who has a wait time of an hour)

So I get Joe to call them...

J: Explaining the situation.

O: She isn't scheduled on the later flight from Naples (aka I don't have a spot on the later plane).  

J proceeds to spend 3 hours on the phone with Orbitz while they try to call the international airlines to fix it but are unable to do so because it is the weekend; in the end there was no fix.

So the next day (2 days before I'm supposed to leave) my host mom spends another 2hrs on the phone with Orbitz...

HM: My friend has a flight out of Italy on Monday and she has been told her flight from Naples is cancelled and she doesn't have a spot on a later flight from there.  She wasn't told about this previously and we have spent 5 hours so far trying to fix it, what can you do?

O: We can't cancel the flight from Naples, you have to call the airline the flight is with and they can cancel it (which we had tried multiple times). We can't give you a direct line to anyone here so that you don't have to wait another 30 minutes on hold in case that doesn't work. 

Finally my host mom is able to connect with someone at the airline the Naples flight is with, and they are able to cancel just the Naples flight.

Visiting a friend in Montefegatesi

So Monday morning I head out at 6am (Italian time) to drive an hour to Lucca to catch a 4 hour train ride to Milan where I then catch a 30 minute shuttle ride to the airport.  Luckily things at the airport in Milan go smoothly and I arrive at the gate with plenty of time to spare.  However, unfortunately the trip from Milan to London takes about 40 minutes longer than anticipated and I end up with about 25 minutes to make my connecting flight to Washington, D.C.  

I dash across the airport to security... where I am held up for another 15 minutes while they check my bags (my fault, in my rush I forgot to take my kindle out of my bag).  Security can sense that at this point I am on the verge of tears so they take pity on me and help me repack my bag after inspecting it.  The second the last zipper is in place, I begin a full on run to the gate meanwhile trying to re-zip the backpack that is at this point exploding and attempting to disperse my belongings around the airport.  I sprint the last few meters and arrive breathless but triumphant at the gates which are preparing to close.  As I'm one of the last people on the plane, I have to quickly stow my backpack in the nearest overhead without time to grab my book.  "It's ok," I think, "I'll watch movies during the flight".  Alas, I seem to be the only person on the plane with a malfunctioning movie player... 8 hours later I have a new friend in my seatmate whom I discover is from California, is currently planning her wedding, recently visited Cabos, and spent her trip to Europe in Paris and Rome.

At long last at 10pm (2am Italian time) I am back on U.S. soil where after making it through security and customs I am greeted with ginormous hugs by Joe who comes bearing chicken wings (something I craved while in Italy).
Presents for the Family

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Spending Christmas and the New Year Right!

Happy New Year everyone!  

I've spent the last week and a half in Montefegatesi, Tuscany.  Montefegatesi, is a small village (population of about 130 in the winter) located in the rolling Tuscan hills.  I'm doing workaway here, although, the family I'm staying with hasn't really required me to do much in the way of real work.  My primary responsibilities seem to be hanging out with the family and once helping to pick vegetables in the garden. 

Since I arrived on the 22nd we have been busy celebrating the holidays.  Christmas we celebrated the Italian way; I think on Friday we are celebrating again with an English Christmas dinner as the mom is English.  There was loads of pasta (including fresh made spinach and ricotta ravioli, delish!), roast beef, salad and an English touch with fruitcake and trifle to end.  We ended the night at a local ballroom dance; I can't say I'm gifted at dancing and I had a hard time managing even the basic steps but I had a great time trying.

Last night we brought in the New Year at a community dinner where we ate lentils to signify wealth in the new year and more courses than I had room for, along with dancing and karaoke.  If the fun I had last night is an omen for the year to come than I am in luck!  My goal for the New Year is to get a bit more out of my element and partying and meeting new people in a place where you don't speak the language too well is definitely part of that.  In Montefegatesi I have found that less people here speak English so I am trying hard not to be too shy with my Italian!  This year has definitely been a growing experience.  Traveling on my own, finding the places I am happiest in, and seeing where I really feel the most like myself (which turns out is when I'm adapting to new places and meeting new people!).

Another interesting experience I've had here is going to a place called the "Stanza".  The Stanza is a hunting room where the men (and sometimes women) meet  to cook and share a meal together; generally, the meal is freshly hunted wild boar otherwise known as cinghiale (pronounced Shin-ga-li) in Italian.  You know it is fresh because often there are wild boar carcasses hanging up while you eat.  I think it is admirable eating food from natural sources and the wild, but I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a hunter considering how squeamish it makes me even looking at the carcasses.  However, I am an adventurous eater and pride myself on trying everything at least once so I definitely wasn't going to turn down the opportunity to try wild boar.  I tried roast boar, porchetta (which looked innocuous but was made from boar's blood, cheek, ears and nose), heart, liver and fried boar's testicles.  After getting over the squeamish bit I have to admit that everything was actually quite tasty. Boar to me tastes very similar to beef and anything fried of course is yummy.  

My only side trip so far from Montefegatesi has been to Montecatini for Father Christmas' House but tomorrow we head to Lucca!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cari's Birthday in Rome!

Cari and I arrived in Rome Wednesday evening! Luckily Rome was the one city where we didn't have to drag our bags across town and we arrived at Freedom Traveller within 5 minutes of leaving the station.  By 8:30pm we were settled in and by 9pm we were at dinner across the street.  We shared a delicious bottle of white wine from Orvietto (not too sweet and not too dry) and chowed down on hearty dishes of pasta.  In honor of our trip to Rome we ended the night with "When in Rome" and Baci from Perugia.

St. Peter's Basilica
Our hostel was very near the train station but as it turns out, not so close to all the tourist attractions.   We took the circuitous route past the Colosseum and the Piazza Venezia on our way to the Vatican Thursday morning.  Unfortunately we took a wrong turn and ended up walking about 30 minutes past the correct turn (the map wasn't much help either) however this luckily placed us in the Piazza del Popolo which we may not have seen otherwise.  2 hours later, already exhausted we found the Vatican!  However we had forgotten my guidebook and while we visited St. Peter's Basilica, we ended up walking around the entire Vatican without finding the non-tourist group entrance to the Vatican Museum (it appears we should have looked harder as we found it the next day).  All was not done in vain though as we ended up lunching at the exact same pizza place my father, brother and I had loved so much two summers prior.

The Roman Forum
On our way back from the Vatican and heading to a free walking tour at the Piazza di Spagna, I had the brilliant idea of stopping in the Piazza Navona where a large Christmas market was going on.  There were several spray paint artists there and we became hypnotized in watching how with a few strokes of paint they could transform a blank canvas into beautiful and colorful settings. We got a bit too caught up in the street artists, and ended up having to make a mad dash 6 or so blocks to the free tour meeting point.  All the while checking our useless map and asking random passerby (who were also mostly tourists) how to get there!  We arrived breathless and sweaty but we had an informative tour given by a passionate guide that passed by the "Spanish Steps" (which we learned should actually be called the French Steps given that a French King built them), the Trevi Fountain, Capitoline Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.  Afterwards we had a lovely dinner with some of the girls from our tourist group.
Trevi Fountain 

Friday went a bit more smoothly.  We trekked the 2 hours to the Vatican (we would make it this time if it killed us) hitting the Pantheon along the way and entered the Vatican Museum.  I had seen it two years ago, but this time around I saw somethings that I didn't remember seeing before and of course the Sistine Chapel was just as stunning as before.  No matter how long you look you always notice some new details or pieces.  The rest of the day we took a bit easier just hitting a few shops on Via Del Corso before heading back to the hostel.  After several 13 hour walking days in a row, we were beat and we still had Saturday to go!

Teatro Marcello
Saturday was a special day! Cari's birthday!  I can't believe I have known this wonderful and crazy chick for over 12 years now.  We always have a blast and I knew our last day in Rome would be no different.  We meant for Saturday to be a bit more relaxed but of course we also wanted to see everything in Rome so it wasn't destined to be.  We started the day with a free walking tour found through couchsurfing that was said to hit the off the beaten path sites of Rome.  It took us awhile to find our tour guide as at first we thought he was one of the bicycling Santas we were seeing everywhere. However once we found him we had a lovely walking tour past the Teatro Marcello, the Jewish Ghetto, Trastevere, some of the lesser known churches, the Knights of Malta and Campa di Fiori. 

La Traviata
After the walking tour we entered Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum; we were a bit worn out so we just took a cursory walk around the gardens and then headed for the Colosseum.  We made quick stops to re-visit the Pantheon and Piazza Navona then headed home to get ready for a special night!  Cari and I had managed to get tickets to the Opera, La Traviata, when we visited the Pantheon on Thursday and we were pretty excited to go to something that Italy is famous for.  After a quick celebratory aperitivo of tagliare and wine from Orvietto we headed to the Opera all dressed up.  La Traviata is about a courtesan named Violetta who falls in love with Alfredo, however his father convinces her to leave him and Alfredo essentially calls her a slut.  Alfredo then rushes to Violetta's bedside as she dies from tuberculosis. The 1st act was a little slow but it picked up and the last scene was especially beautiful.  We ended the night with Birthday Tiramisu and then hit the sheets early so that Cari could be up for her 7am bus ride to the airport and I could head out early for my train to Montefegatesi in Tuscany. Next up Tuscany....

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The City of Love and Crazy Coincidences

Bridge near our B&B
Cari and I stood outside the door ringing and ringing the doorbell.  We had tried calling, but one of the numbers was wrong and the other call wouldn't go through.  We were standing outside of a B&B in Verona after having tried 2 other B&Bs in the area with no luck.  At this point we were reaching desperation; we had dragged our luggage an hour and a half across town and seemed to be no closer to our destination.  Finally... I stopped a passerby and asked to borrow her phone for one last try. "Ring ring...Pronto" Hallelujah! Someone at the first B&B, Citta di Giulietta, picked up!  After explaining our situation the owner agreed to meet us there in 20 minutes...we were saved!  

After this near fiasco, we settled into our lovely B&B; we had the whole apartment to ourselves for a mere 20 euros each a night!  Our first tourist stop was Juliet's house where Cari and I wrote our names on the wall, although there was no wall where you can leave letters to Juliet, which was a bit of a disappointment!  At first we had a bit of bad luck getting into the tourist sites (as many are closed in mid-afternoon) however we finally got a Verona Card which is an amazing deal at 15 euros for 24 hours and it lets you into all the main attractions plus the bus. 

We visited the Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza dei Signori which were beautiful sites with magnificent architecture, Christmas markets with all sorts of brightly colored wares and hanging Christmas lights.  Then we visited the Roman Arena which was impressive and stunning; with the beauty it was hard to imagine all the bloodshed that took place there centuries ago.  We briefly visited the Castelvecchio and then headed to scale the Torre dei Lamberti for a beautiful panoramic view of the city at night, before heading back to Juliet's house to tour the museum.  In honor of our trip to Verona and Juliet's house we ended the night with chocolates and "Letters to Juliet".

A day and a half is a very short time to see an entire city so the next morning we rushed out the door to see the Chiesa di Santa Anastasia and the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore before catching a train to Milan.  
Cari and I arrived in Milan on Tuesday in the early evening; we were couchsurfing that night so we only toured the attractions briefly before heading to meet our host for the night.  We got a bit lost (aka searching for 30 minutes for the location), but when we arrived we shared a nice hot meal and had a comfy night's sleep.

The next morning we walked into the train station's baggage deposit and who should I see? My friend Demetrio from Pesaro on his way back from India! (Keep in mind Pesaro is about 5 hours from Milan). Not 5 minutes after I said goodbye to Demetrio I received a text from another friend from Pesaro, Elena, "Where are you? I'm going to Milan!"  I couldn't wrap my head around seeing two people from Pesaro in Milan on the one day I would be there!  I took this as a sign that Cari and I would have amazing luck in Milan... unfortunately Milan was not destined to be our city!

The Duomo
Everything we came across was closed! The Duomo terrace, La Scala (the Opera house) etc. However we did manage to visit the Sforza castle where we saw Michelangelo's final pieta before meeting up with Elena!  After seeing Elena our luck improved a bit and we were able to make the long climb to the Duomo's roof (just as we grew too tired to move anymore we reached the top!).  The view from the roof was absolutely breath-taking and the Duomo itself was a masterpiece of high turrets and massive marble columns.  Unfortunately our luck ended there; we had to take a later train to Rome which cost us twice as much!  Continued in Rome...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Non-Singing Gondolier

"Would you like to ride in a gondola...would you like to ride in a gondola" I repeated over and over to passerby, sounding like an advertisement for the pricey Venice attraction.  It was Cari and I's second day in Venice and we had been recruited by a family to share a gondola (you can have up to 6 people for 80 euro), however we were still missing one.  It is tricky to spot a lone tourist as groups often spread out as they take in the sites, so we creepily stared at people trying to figure out if they were on their own or not.  More often than not they were travelling with friends.  30 minutes later we decided to suck it up and split it between the 5 of us.  Our gondolier didn't sing or wear the striped shirt but it was great seeing Venice from a new perspective!

Cari had arrived Friday afternoon and we had spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the siestre (neighborhood) Castello.  It was absolutely freezing and very foggy as we strolled which gave the streets an eery but quasi romantic feeling as streetlights created silhouettes and shadows through the mist. Although, I did at one point compare it to something out of Jack the Ripper as we walked through an especially empty park.  It was highly recommended that we get "lost" in Venice and we did just that while in Castello.  Wandering without a goal or destination really is lovely since you can just experience the city as it comes at you.

Before our gondola ride Saturday we headed to the Basilica di San Marco in Saint Mark's Square.  After the gondola ride we decided to head to the Palazzo Ducale for refuge from the cold since we were told it would take two or three hours to make our way through...unfortunately they didn't believe in heating so the palace was just as cold as outside!  Apparently many of the paintings inside were designed to impress foreign dignitaries and they were definitely magnificent.  After the main rooms, we crossed the Bridge of Sighs into the prisons.  The bridge seems like it was cruel and unusual punishment as it was prisoners' last look at the outside world as they went into imprisonment or to their death.  After our tour of the main tourist sites in Saint Mark's Square we headed to dinner.  We never made it to dinner though as we came across a benefit event for the pediatric hospital.  They had an awesome band all dressed as Santas and a variety of snacks and wine!

Sunday we had an organized tour to Murano, Torcello and Burano.  Murano is renowned for its glass artistry, so of course we had to see a glass-making demonstration.  The translucent, glowing orb of liquid glass was quickly spun so that it lengthened and then with a few quick movements the master transformed it into a vase like shape.  With a few more deft movements of a bar the vase was capable of holding flowers.  In the second demonstration, the master transformed a similar orb of glass into a horse within under a minute; he adeptly shaped the horse's body and then with a few rapid snips of a pair of scissors created a flowing mane and the legs bringing the figure to life.  

Glass Demonstration
With a glance at my clock I yelled to Cari "We have to run!"  With our bellies full of an assortment of fried finger foods, arancini (rice and fish balls), stuffed olives and fried mozzerella we sprinted for the docks.  Our boat had just pulled in the plank as we arrived breathless and shouting "wait!".  We had been at our next stop on the tour, Torcello, enjoying a light lunch when I happened to notice that the boat was leaving in 1 minute and we were 5 minutes minimum away!  The most interesting aspect of Torcello is its minuscule population; as of right now, 11 people live on the island!  Our last and prettiest stop of the tour was Burano (pictured left).  The law there states that the inhabitants are forbidden from changing the color of their houses as the town is a rainbow of color, with houses in every hue imaginable.  Aside from their colorful and beautiful houses, Burano is known for its lace; delicate cloths as fine as gossamer spider-webs.

Our last tourist site in Venice was the Guggenheim in Dorsodoro.  To be honest, much of the works were a bit too modern to be aesthetically pleasing to me; I'm much more of a traditionalist, although I do love the impressionists. However it was a very worthwhile visit since the collection includes pieces by Dali and Picasso among others.  The next morning we left Venice at 7am in order to avoid a citywide strike that would shutdown all the vaporettos we needed to get off our island!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last Days in Pesaro

Well I am down to my last few days in Pesaro.  It is a bittersweet moment; I am so excited to meet Cari in Venice and explore but I am so sad to leave my host family and my friends here.  I have met some really awesome people over the last 9 weeks.  People who have shown me true Italian generosity and made sure that I saw everything I could see!

One such friend is Stefania who invited my friend Cristina and I to Rimini to enjoy homemade pizza on Friday night.  The pizza Cristina and I made was a simple margherita pizza but Stefania's boyfriend's pizza was an artful masterpiece of towering cheese, sausage and red onions and it was delicious! After dinner we headed to Rimini's bi-weekly language exchange.  We had fun playing the game where you guess what object/person is taped to your forehead (even though we looked a bit silly doing it --> see picture).  

Saturday the girls, Anna and I headed back to Candelara.  Since it was daytime there were all kinds of fun Christmas themed performances and activities.  There was live music; a concert where the singer sang in Italian, French, Portuguese, and English (all with perfect pronunciation) and a band with all kinds of unique instruments.  Dancers on stilts sashayed down the street, joking with passerby and playing drums and tambourines (see picture).  For the kids there were also games; mine and Elena's favorite was one where we hit each other with pillows to knock the other person off the balance beam.  As night fell, the lights went out and luminescent globes were sent into the sky, twinkling as they drifted up into the heavens.
Natale (Christmas) in Candelara

Another couple of friends who have always shown me a fantastic time here in Pesaro, are Fiona and David, as evidenced by how prominently they have been featured in this blog.  Sunday they yet again hosted me for lunch in their home, then they, some other friends and I wandered around the Christmas market in Pesaro where we tried samples from most of the vendors and almost made an additional lunch.  

The problem with leaving is that I'm going to miss everyone so much, so every time I say goodbye I end up planning to see them again!  So the rest of this week has been filled with farewell dates.  Stefania came by Pesaro on Monday to get hot chocolate. Michela and I went to the shopping center yesterday.  And today I had a goodbye coffee date with my dear friend Elena who introduced me to fashion shows and scooters.  Luckily she was also able to join Fiona, David, Cristina and I tonight for an after dinner passeggiata (walk) and gelato.  Fiona and Donato took me to a pugliese restaurant where I got to try a scrumptious, gooey, cheese-filled delight called a panzerotti (a much airier and flakier calzone) and pizza Americana (which is similar to a Hawaiian pizza).

I am in such denial about leaving that I haven't even started packing yet (I know it will end up being done around 10pm tomorrow).  Tomorrow is my last evening with Dana, Elena, and Anna whom I now consider extended family.  Workaway has been such an amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to spend it with them.  

Next time I will be writing from Venice with Cari... I always have so much fun with this chick and I can't wait!
Pesaro in Review