Saturday, November 28, 2009

On family...

My aunt and cousin came to visit me for a few days last week and we had an absolute ball. Their timing couldn’t have been better… they arrived in Rome on the same morning that I lost the apartment of my dreams so I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity. They just helped me clean up the SanLo apt, get the place organized and stock the fridge with food. And they convinced me that I was better off just where I was.

We didn’t do much touristy stuff—a trip to the Vatican for Sunday mass, a stroll through Trastevere, a nighttime walking tour of the major touristy sites (Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona), shopping on via del Corso and a visit to the Colosseum. One night we had dinner at Tram Tram in SanLo,
another night dinner and drinks at Etabli; but other than that we stayed home. My aunt is the typical Haitian mother and insisted on cooking three elaborate meals every day instead of "wasting money" by eating out— great for me considering that I was wiped out from my Amsterdam trip. So we spent most of the time in my kitchen, sitting at the table drinking wine & prosecco, eating and talking.

At one point, my aunt decided to cure me of my single status by teaching me how to cook (which is of course is the indicator of whether or not a woman is ready for marriage, lol).

She taught me how to make pork chops, rice & peas and potatoes (in lieu of plantains) and it turned out pretty darn good if I do say so myself, especially since it was my first shot at cooking something other than spaghetti.

When they left on Tuesday morning I was really sad to see them go. Being so far away I often miss my family so it was nice to have a little slice of home with me, even for a few days. Plus I haven’t laughed so hard in a long while.

For the record I must say (I'm a bit biased but so what): I think Haitians are hands down the best storytellers ever. I don’t know if it’s due to growing up in a country where most people don’t have regular access to other forms of entertainment (TV, movies, etc), but no one can tell a story quite like a Haitian can— the kind of story that has you on the edge of your seat, eager for more. Its the intonation of their voice, the colorfully outrageous choice of words used to describe the simplest things, the facial expressions, gestures, dancing and full out Oscar-worthy acting that leave you with tears running down your face, gasping for breath. Sadly I wasn’t blessed with the storytelling gene but I've been lucky to have been around it my entire life.

Though my parents came to America when they were teenagers and I had a very typical suburban American upbringing, our family was always intrinsically Haitian (much to my chagrin when, as a kid, I just wanted to be like everyone else). I remember lying in bed with my grandparents and my mother every Sunday morning, listening to them “by blag” (telling funny stories, the level of truth varying widely). And even though I could barely understand their grownup talk at that young age, I laughed right along—it was better than any sitcom I’d ever seen. I remember holidays and parties when all my aunts and uncles would get together, the shrieking laughter that would go on all night, and my cousins and I, the American-born kids, begging our parents to keep their voices down as we tried to watch cartoons in the next room.

These stories are meant to serve as warnings, teach lessons, share family histories, gossip about things going on “back home”, reminisce about the good old days, and sometimes just plain entertain. Translated into English it would lose its magic. Its a beautifully rich culture with wonderful old traditions and though I haven't been to Haiti in many years, its such a part of me. Its something I want my children to experience but considering my fabulous way with languages it probably won’t be me who teaches them :)

So it was in that world that I spent the past 4 days. The fun we had! It still makes me smile to think of it.

I’ll leave you with a little T-Vice, a popular Haitian band my aunt turned me on to… go figure.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A real Amsterdammer

Ahh, Amsterdam. How I love that beautiful city.

I met E’s sister-in-law at her wedding in Ardeche this August. She’s a super sweet girl and her husband (E’s brother) is also really great. We had a blast in Ardeche so when they invited me to come to The Hague to celebrate her 30th birthday in November I agreed. Even though I hardly knew the couple, I figured there would be a few other people at the party who I did know so it would be fun.

E, who lives in Paris, just signed on for a new film (she’s an Art Director) shooting in Amsterdam so she would be there; an old friend from college in New York happened to be in Amsterdam for a business trip and to celebrate his 28th birthday; I would get to see a bunch of friends who I haven’t seen since E’s wedding; I planned to take a train to Berlin afterwards to see a dear friend who’s been doing the music thing out there for the past 2 years; and I’d get to see another part of the Netherlands and visit my beloved Amsterdam again after a long 2-year absence.

In the end none of that worked out. The production on E’s film got pushed back so she wasn’t coming to Amsterdam after all. My friend in Berlin got a last-minute gig in Spain. A few of my Amsterdam friends were out of town or busy with work. My New York friend and I kept playing phone/email tag and didn’t end up meeting up. None of the people I knew ended up going to The Hague for the birthday party so it was just me with 40 semi-strangers. And it didn't help that by the time November rolled around I was broke from my train trip around Italy. Plus it was freezing cold and rainy every single day—which is such a pain in a biking city. It was just one of those trips. But when you travel you have to be prepared for everything to go wrong and just be determined to have a good time anyway. Not to say I didn’t have a great time—its impossible not to in Amsterdam—but if I hadn’t gone, things would have been much better on my wallet.

(Vending machine dining on Leidseplein at 2am. Surprisingly delicious)

I arrived on Wednesday and my friend picked me up from the train station and took me back to her place to drop off my bags before she went back to work. The absolute first thing I wanted to do was go to the movies to see ‘This Is It’, the Michael Jackson documentary. Rome being Rome, they only have a handful of random English-language movies playing at any given time. Everything else is dubbed in Italian. And I desperately wanted to see the film before it left theatres (by the way if you haven’t seen it yet, go immediately. I cried like a baby the entire way through. Then again I’ve been a die-hard MJ fan my whole life).

My friend lent me her bike and I spent the entire week trying to be as much of an Amsterdammer as possible. I wanted to relax on this trip, to see just how lazy I could be. I spent long luxurious days in the brown cafes, rode up and down the canals just to admire the scenery, went vintage shopping on the Nine Streets (I bought a fabulous fur coat and a great army tote bag) and the Dam, ate anything Dutch I could get my hands on, hung out in various English bookshops, had lovely dinner parties with my Dutch friends, met friends for drinks, checked out a couple music venues at night and visited a few sites (including the Anne Frank house which was incredible).

(Anne Frank House)

(Hotchpotch at Moeders restaurant)

I even became a local at Café Winkel—I went there so often that the waiters started saying “See you tomorrow!” when I left. They’re known for their delicious appeltaart and once I tasted it I kept going back for more. Plus its a super cute café in a great neighborhood—cozy and warm and I would stake out my favorite seat in the corner, order my pie and latte, read a book or write in my journal and watch the rain fall outside for hours. It was blissful.

On Saturday I left for the birthday party in the Hague. I was a bit self-conscious since the party would be full of strangers and people I barely knew. But I was determined to make the best of it. I helped with the cooking and the setup.

I was prepared for a lousy time but it actually turned out to be really cool. Nothing to write home about but a nice atmosphere. I mingled with the guests and met lots of interesting people—among them a renowned physicist and a rock musician and a Dutch guy who entertained us with stories about his trip to Compton (LA).

On Sunday afternoon we took a tour of the Hague.

Stopping by the beach for pancakes, and the city center for raw haring, a Dutch quick snack speciality. I'll try it once but that was more than enough for me (note: it does not taste like any sort of sushi). I guess its an acquired taste.

Then we walked around the city center, window shopping and checking out the Sinterklaas displays (is it just me, or is the concept of "Black Pete" very bizarre?). The Hauge is a really nice city but its no Amsterdam so I was happy to get back on Sunday night.

On my last afternoon in Amsterdam I went to check out the new Jimmy Choo collection at H&M (it sucks by the way) and happened to park my bike in front of a coffeeshop.

I’d never been inside of one before. The last time I was here my friends wanted to show me the real Amsterdam, minus the stereotypical touristy stuff so I skipped it. The thing is, I’m not a smoker but I always thought it would be interesting to give it a try in Amsterdam since its legal and all. I hesitated for a couple minutes before finally deciding to go in. I went up to the bar and looked at the menu while I waited in line. I felt kind of stupid trying to figure out what was what while everyone else just came in an expertly ordered their drug of choice. By the time my turn came up at the counter I was already feeling a bit lightheaded from the contact smoke so I decided to leave. I’m such a lightweight (this summer I tried pot brownies for the first time and spent an hour throwing up in the bathroom) Lord only knows what that Dutch weed would have done to me! lol, maybe one day I’ll finally try it but not this time.

So that was my trip. I had a great time and it was so awesome seeing all my friends, but by the end of the week I was so ready to get back to Rome. I’m not sure when I’ll get to go back to Amsterdam again... but next time it had better be warm out! That winter weather is no joke!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ain't that about a bit*h...

The past two days have been an absolute whirlwind! Intense highs and lows, all within a 24-hour time period. You know when every single thing that can possible go wrong DOES GO INSANELY WRONG?!

About 2 weeks ago, just before I left for Amsterdam (still need to blog about that, forgive me), I got an email from a woman who saw my Craigslist ad in search of housing. K is an American filmmaker who lives in New York and keeps and apartment here in Rome. She emailed me and said her place would be available from mid-Nov to late-Dec and from the pictures and description it looked great. Unfortunately it was also out of my price range and I told her so—she said she would email me in a few days and if no one else was interested in the apt I could have it for my price (I gave her a figure at the upper end of my budget). A couple of days later I got the “OK” from K and we scheduled a time for me to view the place. She was in Germany but her French boyfriend B could show me the apt the day after I got back from Amsterdam. I went to see it on Thursday evening and it was absolutely gorgeous. It’s a cozy 2-bedroom apt in a lovely old building near Forum Romano, beautiful indoor courtyard, amazing views of the ruins and a big slice of Rome, all white furniture, working fireplace, new electronics—it looked like a hotel. And the best part is that it would be all mine. I quickly agreed to take the apt and scheduled to come by at 8:45am the next morning to hand over the money and get the keys from B.

That night I was literally on cloud nine. I could finally leave the hellhole of an apt I was staying in and really enjoy my last few weeks in Rome (more on that later). I stopped by the ATM but it wouldn’t allow me to withdraw the full amount so I decided to do half that day and get the other half the next morning. But the machine spit my card back out, giving me the message “Invalid Card”. I didn’t think too much of it, just went home and called my bank. They said they would increase my credit limit so I could withdraw the full amount and my card would be functional again within the hour.

At this time L (the girlfriend of the guy I’m renting my room from) comes by to pick up the money for that month's rent. She didn’t get my text so I had to explain to her that something came up and I would be moving out in the morning. After a little protesting she left but 30 mins later I get an angry call from T (the guy who’s room I’m renting) from Ghana. He was going on and on about how I have to give him the money for the month anyway since I gave him no advance notice that I was leaving. I was going to tell him exactly where he could shove his stinkin’ apartment but once again my mom had (wisely) told me to be polite and calm and just say I was sorry for leaving suddenly but something came up. We ended the call with my telling him I would do my best to try to find someone to take over my room and we would discuss details later.

2 hours have now gone by so I went back to the ATM. Again, “Invalid Card”. I tried several times then decided to walk down the street to another ATM. Still no go. By this time its midnight and I’m starting to freak out. I tried to call the bank again but there was a long wait for a live person so I said to myself, 'Ok I will go to bed and wake up at 6am to try again'. Then I'll have 2 hours to straighten this out with the bank if my card still doesn’t work.

Meanwhile I did feel really bad about skipping out on T. He’s a really nice guy, its not his fault that his roommate is sh*t and he lives in a crappy neighborhood. So I prayed on the situation—I asked God if I had done the right thing and to show me some sign if I had made a mistake. The next morning I go to the ATM to try again: “Invalid Card”. I’m on the phone with the bank for the next 2 hours—alternately running to the ATM and back to my apt to frantically call and tell them its still not working. On their end they said there was nothing preventing my card from working—no block, no hold, my available daily limit had in fact been increased. And the weird thing is they didn’t even see any activity showing that I was attempting to make a withdrawal.

By this time its 8am and I have to head over to the Forum apt to meet B. I tried 3 more ATMs along the way, each one said “Your card is not valid for international transactions”. I was nearly in tears. When I arrived B was in a big hurry—he had to leave at 9am to catch his flight. He looked at me and said, “Where are your bags?” and that’s when I told him what happened. I told him I had my checkbook for my American bank account and I could write him a check for the amount in US dollars but other than that, my hands were tied. He told me that since it wasn’t his apt he’s not sure what K would want him to do. Understood. He said she was flying back to NYC from Germany that day but I could try to reach her. He would leave the keys with the grocer downstairs and maybe in the next day or two it would all be sorted out and I could move in then.

I called K and couldn’t get through to her. So I sent her an email asking her to let me know what we could do ASAP. Meanwhile, L had been calling me nonstop all morning, 15 times in a row! I ignored it. She was in the neighborhood and wanted to come pick up the keys from me. By noon I still hadn’t heard from K and the idea of being homeless on the streets of Rome just didn’t sit well with me. Plus I couldn’t dodge L’s calls and texts any longer so I took a deep breath, called her and gave an Oscar-worthy speech: I told her that I had slept on it and realized that I made a mistake in not giving them adequate notice that I was leaving. That they were really nice people and I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch so I would do the noble thing and pay for one more month. I wasn’t sure if I wouldn’t be able to stay for the entire month but I would let them know if I had to leave before Dec 15th. In any case, this would work out nicely for them as they would not have to scramble to find a replacement. It would put both our minds at ease. (Thank God I my mom made me be nice about it in the beginning or they could have thrown me out on my ear!)

And with that, the Forum apartment was gone. I was irrevocably tied to the SanLo apt until Dec 15th.

By 2pm K finally sent me an email saying she was at the airport but I could send her the money via Western Union and when it posted (next Wed) I could go pick up the keys and move in. Of course, Western Union costs 50 Euros and since I was already exceeding my budget for this apt, I just couldn’t afford the extra expense. Plus by that time it was too late. And there’s no way I could have stayed in the SanLo apt for another week while I waited for the money to clear. So I would have had to move into a hotel and that’s just way too much drama and expense. I tearfully wrote her back saying that I wouldn't be able to take the apt after all.

And wouldn’t you know it, by 4pm that very afternoon my ATM card suddenly decided to work. Now ain’t that a bit*h...

I believe that everything happens for a reason. Yesterday was a strange series of events that made it IMPOSSIBLE for me to get that apt:
1. My card stopped working the day I needed to withdraw money; in the 2 years that I’ve been in Europe (and the 3 years I’ve been with this bank) that has never happened.
2. B had to leave Rome at 9am, if his flight were in the evening instead, my card would have been working again and I could have given him the money.
3. K is traveling and doesn’t have access to phone or internet so I can’t contact her to find out how she would like to handle things. Maybe that US check would have been ok.
4. My cousin arrived from NYC with enough cash to lend me for the rent. But her train got into Rome at 10am, just one hour after B left.
5. By 4pm my card is working again, 7 hours too late.

I don’t believe in a vindictive God so I know it wasn’t that He was punishing me for handling things badly with T and my sudden move-out. God makes no mistakes so I know there must be a reason why I was meant to stay here in SanLo (to work on my patience perhaps?) or why I shouldn’t have been at that Forum apt. I have no idea what it is. And even knowing that everything worked out exactly as it should it doesn’t stop it from hurting (it was soo painfully close!). I just have to swallow the feelings of disappointment and keep it moving… I will stay positive and continue to enjoy my time in Rome regardless. As a wise man once said, “You can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Before I mention my trip to Amsterdam I just need to rant about my roommate for a bit or I may be driven to do something irrational...

Last night around 11pm I come home after a looong day of traveling. I’m exhausted and have the beginnings of a cold so I’m feeling pretty crummy, I’m just glad to be back in Rome and ready to climb into bed. As I walk around the front of the building I notice that the lights are off in the apt so I’m even more excited—great, my roommate isn’t home so I’ll have the place to myself. I unlock the front door and what greets me? An overwhelming stench of stale cigarettes and hot garbage that nearly knocks me right over. And it didn’t help that he left the heat on (meanwhile its 65 degrees outside), just to cook everything to the right level of putridness. I put my suitcase and bags in my room and went to investigate.

When I left for Amsterdam last week I said I would not throw out the trash or do the dishes this time. No matter that I use maybe one plate and two cups per day, I’m always the one doing the dishes. And the trash was just about full when I left so I was sure that by the time I got back, Asshole (that’s my roommate’s new name) would have been forced to clean up a bit. The dumpster is RIGHT in front of the building, its not that difficult. But no. Of course not. When I opened the cabinet the can is literally overflowing with garbage (I hate when people leave trash teetering on top of the pile. Its obviously full! Just throw it out!). Then I look at the sink and its full of dirty dishes (one of which is a cup of milk which has turned bad, adding to the delicious smell). Then I notice that the same ashtray full of cigarette butts and joints (can I call the police and get him arrested?) is STILL on the kitchen table. Then I notice a pot on the stove. I lift the lid and what do I find? Something that I imagine used to be tomato sauce is now a pot full of mold! MOLD for goodness sake! That was the absolute last freakin straw. All I was thinking was that this motherfu*ker better be murdered in his bed, there is no other excuse for the place to look like this (I actually went to check. No body).

But wait, it gets better. After the assault in the kitchen I escaped to my room, determined to leave everything exactly as it was and give him a piece of my mind when he got home... never mind that he doesn't speak English. Later I went to the bathroom and of course he had left the seat up… fine. I can deal with that 3 times a day. But then I went to use the toilet and stopped dead in my tracks. There was literally FECES smeared on the toilet seat. This disgusting, stupid, no-good, cheating, lazy, nasty ass piece of SH*T! I cannot and will not.

Do people seriously live like this??! I am not a clean freak by any means. I don’t mind leaving dishes in the sink for a day or two, my clothes may be strewn around my room from time to time, that sort of thing. But to live with someone who NEVER cleans up after himself? Who lets things get so bad that you’re literally gagging from the smell? I have to close his bedroom door when I go past b/c it smells so bad in there. I don’t know if it’s the Italian male thing and he thinks that since there’s a woman in the house, he doesn’t have to clean up after himself. I know he just moved in recently (the guy I’m renting the room from only said by way of an explanation, “He’s not the most interesting roommate but he’s never home so that’s good”) and I don't know what his level of cleaning participation was before I arrived but this is downright ridiculous.

Now you know homeboy and I already had some issues but this just pushed me over the edge. I planned to put the bag of trash in his bedroom, along with the pot of mold but my mom talked me out of it—she said, “You don’t know him. He could be crazy and kill you for doing something like that.” I guess she’s right. So I left the pot of mold on the stove (I cannot even look at that thing, let alone touch it. Just the thought makes my stomach queasy), threw out the trash, washed the dishes and opened the windows to air the place out. But would it be so wrong if I cleaned the toilet seat with his toothbrush?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day 5-7: Milano

And finally, Milan. The last stop on the trip and the city I was LEAST looking forward to. I don’t know what it is, but every time you mention Milano to anyone in any other part of Italy, they give you a look and say, “It’s the worst city in Italy. Don't go there, you'll hate it.” Consistently. Every single time, same response. Well all I have to say is that I didn’t hate it one bit.

I stayed with my friend Sonia who I met at M’s wedding in France in September. She works at an executive search company for the fashion industries and travels between Paris and Milan once a month… she also has a French boyfriend who lives in Paris and travels to Milan once a month for his own job. How perfect is that? Anyway, I arrived from Torino on Monday afternoon and dropped off my bags with her doorman (she lives in a beautiful apt in the city center) before starting my tour of the city at the Duomo. As I was exiting the station, I saw a sign for a ticket office for La Scala so I went over to see if there was anything available for that evening's performance. The woman I spoke to, Lucy, was an ex-New Yorker—she got her Masters from the photography school there and actually lived 2 blocks away from me downtown. She was dying to go back so we reminisced about the city for a while. And she offered me great seats in one of the middle boxes for a ridiculous price (5 Euros), “because I'm a New Yorker too”. Sweet.

After getting the tickets, I spent the afternoon shopping on via Torino in search of some warm clothes and a coat. It was cold and rainy in Milan and I wasn’t at all prepared. At one point, I went to H&M and left my umbrella by the front door with the pile of other umbrellas. Five minutes later I went back to get it and, of course, it was gone. I’m still kicking myself about it. Why on earth did I think I could leave my favorite, beautiful Samsonite umbrella unattended, even for a moment, in this country of thieves? Ugh. So I ended up buying a cheapo 5 Euro umbrella from H&M. Ok, I don’t want to think about it too much, it still makes me angry.

Anyway, that evening I went to a little bar near Sonia’s apt to get out of the freezing rain and wait for her to come home from work. Milano does the best aperitivo; I ordered a 4 euro glass of wine and ate a feast of food—caprese, prosciutto sandwiches on croissants, rice, salad, garlic bread… it was madness. Sonia joined me at 6:30pm for another glass of wine, then we went home to change for La Scala. On our way to the theatre, we stopped at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele so I could “spin on the bull’s balls for good luck” (lol Italians).

The performance was by Emanuele Arciuli, an Italian classical pianist. He was really very good but after the first hour or so, I was just struggling to keep my eyes open. Sorry. I do love piano but there’s only so much of it I can take. I was more interested in scoping out the audience and taking in the grandeur of the theatre, pretending I was Madame Bovary, back in the 19th century off to the theatre (don't ask, I just happen to be reading that book at the moment).

On Tuesday I spent the day sightseeing. I went to the Duomo, walked around the fashion district, that sort of thing. Then I decided to try to see if I could get tickets for the opening night of Giselle. I asked my friend Lucy from the ticket office about it the day before and she said that it would be next to impossible but I could head over to the theatre at 1pm and give it a shot. So around noon I went to La Scala and there was already a crowd of people waiting. At 1:30pm (after blocking a few latecomers from trying to get in front of me... what is wrong with people not understanding the concept of a line?? The French are the same way) I finally put my name down on the list, then I went off to see The Last Supper at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which I managed to get reservations for last minute. They only give you 15 minutes in the room but it was very cool to see this famous painting I've seen millions of times in art books and reproductions.

At 5pm I went back to the theatre and I was number 68 out of 120 people who received a ticket!! I was thrilled. But by the time I finally got my ticket (lots more waiting) I had about 1.5 hours to go home, change, go to Sonia’s office to hand over the house key and make it back to the theatre. As I was leaving Sonia’s office, all the buses going toward La Scala decided to be delayed so I jumped into the first cab I found. Of course my driver was a complete nut job (I knew it as soon as I got in, he looked crazy) and drove slow as molasses the entire time. And you know when you’re late you’re even more anxious and impatient. At one point, he even stopped the taxi so he could take out his glasses, inspect them for 2 minutes, wipe them clean, then put them on his face. That was the last straw. I told him to stop, it would be faster for me to run to the theatre instead of riding with him taking his sweet old time. He had the nerve to catch an attitude about it but I just threw my money at him, jumped out and ran down the street to the theatre in my dress and heels. It was a funny sight. I was out of breath and a bit sweaty but I literally made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

My seat was in the absolute furthest corner of the theatre, at the very top where you couldn’t see the stage at all. So I just kicked off my heels, propped myself up against a column and stood the entire time (for 10 Euros what can you expect). But the performance… OMG. My cousin has a membership at The Met in New York so I’ve been to the opera with her a bunch of times, but I’ve never seen a ballet. And to see Giselle, one of the most beautiful love stories/dances ever created, in one of the most important theaters in the world, with some of the most famous, most talented dancers in the world… I cannot even describe how incredible it was. For the first 20 minutes my mouth was literally hanging open. I was completely blown away, shocked by how beautiful it was and the sheer power of the dancers. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it. At the end of the first act I had to go to the bathroom to pull myself together, it was so emotional. During the intermission I spoke to an old man sitting next to me in broken English/Italian. He drove 2 hours to come see the show, it was his favorite ballet. He gave me his program, pointed out the royal family sitting in the center box, told me about each of the principal dancers and the history of the theatre, which he had been coming to almost all his life.

When I got home Sonia was waiting up to hear all about it. She was a ballerina until an accident at 20 years old forced her to quit dancing. But she spent the evening indulging my new found love of ballet and showing me videos of her favorite old dancers and a trailer for the new documentary on the ballet company at Palais Garnier in Paris that she insists I go see. It was a fantastic night, I'm still dreaming about it.

On Monday I met Sonia for lunch at a traditional old restaurant near her office, took a final tour around the city (visiting the castle and a couple more shopping areas) before settling into one last happy hour (aka getting a free dinner) before my flight back to Rome.

I enjoyed Milan. Its true what they say, that for every church in Rome there’s a bank in Milan—I’ve never seen so many in my life. But I didn’t find the people rude or anything. They’re city people focused on their careers, naturally they aren’t as warm and cuddly as folks in other parts of Italy. But I thought it was a pretty decent city to hang out in for a few days. Though I do think La Scala alone may have raised Milan up a couple of notches for me :)

So that was the end of my birthday trip. A nice way to celebrate turning a year older in a beautiful, foreign country. Tomorrow I'm off to Amsterdam and The Hague for a friend's 30th birthday bash so I'll write about it when I get back! Have a great week!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Last night I met a man

It's the first time since I’ve been here that I met someone who made my heart beat a little faster. At the recommendation of a fellow blogger (thanks for that fabulous list!), I went to Etabli for drinks with a couple friends. We arrived around 10pm and the place was practically empty but the décor was supercute so we decided to stay anyway. By the time we ordered our 2nd bottle of prosecco, the place was packed and we had the perfect table to watch all the action at the bar.

There was a guy I noticed standing at the bar with 2 friends—we called him The Scarf Guy and were gossiping about him, trying to figure out if he was cute or not. Then his friend (who we called The Short Guy) caught us looking, nodded in our direction and the group turned around, looked at us and smiled. For the rest of the evening, every time I looked up The Short Guy was looking my way and when our eyes met, he would smile or give a little wave.

Around 1am we asked the waiter for glasses of water and he said we had to get it at the bar. So Ana and I went up to the bar which, of course, happened to be right next to where these guys were sitting. The Short Guy waved again and then got up and came over to introduce himself. We all started chatting and then Ana tactfully excused herself and left us alone. I learned that he’s from a small town in Abruzzo but has been working as a derivatives trader in London for the past 15 years and was just in town for the weekend, meeting with a client.

Later, he and Scarf Guy invited us to join them at a club nearby. It was a great place, I wish I could remember the name (cute cave-like space and SO many cute men, my head was spinning)—we danced until 4am when we finally decided to call it a night and said goodbye to the guys. Randomly, as we were leaving, I bumped into a friend of Wendy’s that I met the night of my birthday party… unfortunately the Suit Guy wasn’t with him :o/

Its funny b/c I wasn’t at all interested in Short Guy at first, I thought Scarf Guy was more attractive. He isn’t bad looking but short guys just don’t do it for me (I’m short myself, I need to marry someone with a little height to give my kids a fighting chance! lol). But he ended up being really interesting and said all the right words. Not in that smooth-talking Casanova way, just sweet. Like at one point he said, “You have a beautiful smile, it lights up your whole face. Scarf Guy and I were talking about it earlier. When I saw you across the bar and I couldn’t stop looking at you. It just… I don’t know… made my heart happy”. I know that sounds totally cheesy but he said it in this shy, quiet way that totally won me over. He was really fascinated by my life, my travels, everything; New York and Paris are his favorite cities; We had a lot to talk about.

Anyway, as I was heading out he asked if he could see me again. He had a 1pm flight later that day and said he knew it was early but would I possibly consider meeting him for coffee around 9am. That was just way too early for me (it was after 4am by that point and I could already feel the hangover setting in) plus I didn't want to ruin the magic of that evening with a less than perfect reality, but I gave him my number and email address anyway and he said he hoped I would consider coming to visit him in London.

We spent all of 4 hours together, the night was so short. And I’ll probably never see him again but that’s ok. I think it was exactly what I needed. I’ve been feeling a little lonely these past couple of weeks. I don’t know if its b/c the weather’s turned cold and grey and the days are shorter and everyone’s coupling up, getting ready to hibernate for the winter... but I’ve been missing love lately—and all those deliciously warm feelings that come along with it. A fleeting encounter was probably all this was meant to be, but meeting him “made my heart happy” :)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Day 3-5: Torino

Last 4th of July I went to my old college roommate’s apt in Union Square (NYC) for a party on her rooftop. While I was there I heard a couple girls speaking in Italian so I started talking to them about my dream of living in Italy. Dani (from Rome) and Val (from Torino) were both working for an Italian company in New York. We ended up hitting it off and hanging out a few times before I left for Paris and Val invited me to come visit her in Italy. So when I was planning my trip to Cinque Terre I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to check out Torino, a 3 hour train ride away.

The walk from the station down via Roma was my first taste of the city and I liked it immediately. The best word I can use to describe Torino is elegant. It has this very regal, almost aristocratic feel. It reminded me a lot of Vienna. The wide boulevards and piazzas, the grand, historic cafes, the twinkling lights strung up everywhere...

I stopped at Mood Café for a cup of coffee and little snack, and read my book and people watched while I waited for Val who was picking me up around 6pm to go to her friend’s place where we would be staying for the night. Her friend and her boyfriend live in an apartment in a villa in “The Hills” of Torino, where all the noble families and celebs live. Apparently, a lot of these families are now broke so they’ve turned part of their homes into condos—you have to have an “in” to get one of these coveted apts. This particular villa was on a large, gated property, just gorgeous. I wish I could have taken pictures of the house itself but the owners are super strict so I didn't think it would be the best idea. They don’t even let their tenants walk on the grounds… not even to sit quietly under a tree with a book. There’s even a big dog roaming around just in case anyone gets any funny ideas (ok, the dog isn’t to keep the tenants away but I’m sure it doesn’t help that he’s there).

(my bedroom at the villa apt)

That night we met up with Val’s friends for dinner. She was sweet and specifically collected her friends who spoke English so I could converse with everyone. We went to a typical Piedmont restaurant and the food was delicious. We had about 3 bottles of wine, starters, entrees, dessert and coffee... the meal was quite an event.
(mixed appetizers: polenta, asparagus, artichoke, etc)
(Risotto w/ sausage, zucchini and truffles)
(Torino's famous chocolate)

After, we went to this bar called Pastis in the trendy nightlife area for drinks.
(It was Halloween, obviously)

On Sunday, Val and I took a tour of the city. She brought me to a historic café in Piazza Castello (the biggest in Italy) for breakfast and then to the National Cinema Museum at the Mole Antonelliana building, the symbol of Torino.

While we waited in line I was thinking “Ugh, I like film but this is going to be incredibly boring.” Nope, it was fantastic! One of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It’s such a thorough, concise collection of cinema. Starting from the very beginnings of the industry (the cameras they used, peep show boxes, etc) to present day stuff (the current exhibition was on Manga). And it covered everything from lighting, to studios, to directors, to advertising. It was so interesting and really cool to see all the props, costumes, photos and things from famous movies.

Later we went to the church that holds the Shroud of Jesus, the cloth He was reportedly wrapped in after the Crucifixion. They only bring it out on rare occasions but a photographic copy is on display all the time. Its incredible b/c there are blood stains in the places He was wounded (His head, His side, His wrists) and the faint outline of a man’s form imprinted on the fabric. Of course no one knows for sure if this is the real deal but its incredible to imagine that you may possibly be looking at the actual cloth that wrapped Jesus’ body.

That evening Val had to leave and I was invited to link up with Fede, one of Val’s girlfriends, for a pizza & beer night at her apt with a couple of her friends. We hung out chatting about life in the States (she spent nearly a year in San Diego learning English), dating in Italy, all sorts of stuff. It was a really fun, chill night.

The next day I had a long, lazy breakfast at a popular café in The Hills, just reading my book, watching the rain fall outside and ogling the hot bar guy.

Then I did a little shopping before heading to the station to catch my 12:30pm train to Milan. I really like Torino. Its a beautiful, clean, sophisticated city.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day 1-3: Cinque Terre

This year, my birthday gift to myself was a weeklong train trip around Italy. I decided to go to Cinque Terre, followed by a few days in Torino and Milano. I invited my friend Ana to come with me for the first leg of the trip and we were blessed with 3 days of beautifully crisp, sunny autumn weather (which turned cold and cloudy the day we left).

On Thursday we took a 9:30am train from Termini and arrived in Vernazza around 3pm. I found this cute little hotel right in the main piazza (being the last week of the season, we managed to book a room at a great rate the night before we arrived. In the summer you have to reserve a hotel months in advance). I read that Vernazza was the most dramatic of the 5 villages and as soon as we stepped off the train I could see why. You walk through the town, down this narrow, almost cramped street lined with shops and restaurants, and then suddenly you’re there: the road opens up into a big piazza overlooking the harbor with an unbroken view of the sea, colorful boats tied up at the dock, a huge bell tower, a peek of the next village in the background, locals milling around shooting the sh*t all day long.

We checked into the hotel then decided to do the 2 hour hike to Monterosso (the 5th village) that evening before the sun set. It’s the most difficult hike and considering I haven’t so much as climbed a set of stairs in the past 6 months, I was convinced they would have to send in the rescue squad to pick me up. Its nearly all stairs, mostly uphill and in some places, there’s barely a path to walk on—just a crumbling ledge on a cliff, leaving you clinging to the side of the mountain to inch your way across. But even with all that, the views were exceptional and so worth it.

We stopped every 5 minutes to catch our breath and take pictures… my first glimpse at Cinque Terre and I couldn’t believe how stunning it was. By the time we could see Monterosso in the distance, it was nearly dark so we picked up the pace. Imagine being stuck on a mountain with no handrails, no lights and just faint red& white markers to guide us in the pitch black night... yikes.

(Monterosso from the hiking trail)

When finally reached Monterosso, took a tour of the village then treated ourselves to some local wine at an outdoor café. We met a sweet, middle aged couple from North Carolina who were on a two week vacation around Italy and would continue to bump into them the entire trip (part of the charm of the area is how tiny it is. By the end you've seen everyone at least once and you're saying hello to everyone as if you've known them a lifetime). Back in Vernazza we went to a restaurant recommended by our hotel for the local specialty, trofie with pesto (my favorite dish) and of course, another bottle of wine. Afterwards we went looking for a bar and bumped into a really cute guy in the street. Ana stopped him to ask where we could grab a drink and he told us that we came at a bad time. Sadly, an 18-year-old girl had just died in a car accident and her funeral was held a couple days before so the village had pretty much shut down. But he was heading down to the harbor and could show us the one place that was still open. We ended up spending the rest of the night with him sitting on big wooden barrels outside of a little Enoteca, drinking wine and listening to his hilarious crazy travel stories (which included sleeping with a woman he thought was a prostitute in Vegas but who turned out to be a friend of his Los Angeles girlfriend… she found out and dumped him. And the time that he got high on LSD in Bangkok… lol, well he was a gorgeous, 23 year old bartender from a tiny resort town, I wasn't too surprised/shocked by any of this).

(Vernazza at night)

Towards midnight, his Norwegian girlfriend showed up and started acting all possessive and bitchy, ruining the vibe. And Ana had gotten into a strange conversation with a weird man who admitted that he’d been secretly watching her all afternoon. At that point we decided to call it a night—conversing with stalkers was not on the agenda.

The next day we had breakfast at a bar near our hotel before taking the train to Riomaggiore to hike in the opposite direction—the 3 villages that would lead us back to Vernazza. We toured Riomaggiore and stopped at a little café near the church for another cup of coffee (and to stretch!) before doing the nearly 3.5 hour hike.
(Coffee in front of the church in Riomaggiore. And yes, I hiked in a dress, sue me.)

The start of the hike is along Via dell’Amore (Lovers Lane), the easiest and most beautiful trail.

In Manarola, the fishing village, we stopped to fill up our water bottles and taste a few of the local specialties (mainly pesto, SOO good).

The hike to Corniglia was one of my favorites (also the wildest). We were inching along (mainly b/c I'm such a scaredy cat and kept thinking I was going to plunge to my death) and kept laughing at the fact that we had to step aside to let elderly people and little 5 year old babies walk ahead of us b/c we were too slow for them. A damn shame :)

When we got to the town we stopped for lunch and then explored the village with the North Carolina couple we met the night before.

There’s a panoramic view from the center of the village and we hung out there for a while, just soaking it all in.
(this guy napping on the ledge scared the sh*t out of me! If he falls its a straight drop onto jagged rocks. Who does that?!)

We finished with the 1:45 hour hike to Varnazza and stopped for a quick snack (
Focaccia di Recco, delicious!) before rushing down to the harbor to watch the sunset.

We sat on the jetty and watched the sun as it sunk into the Mediterranean right in front of us. It was so close, it seemed as if you could swim out and touch it if you wanted to. Everyone was quiet, some had brought bottles of wine and we were huddled together against the cold. We all cheered when it was over. After Santorini, its the best sunset I have ever seen. I couldn't help but think of B and how much he would love a trip like this.

That night we had dinner at a fantastic seafood restaurant in Monterosso (I had the trofie again, followed by mussels) and chatted with a really nice couple from Philly sitting next to us. Then went to a free sciachetra tasting (a dessert wine) before walking around the village, looking for a bar. Some random gross guy stopped us in the street and asked us to join him and his friends for drinks but we declined and walked around the village in order to lose him before ducking into “America Bar” (full of graffiti, dollar bills taped to the walls, music & movie posters and Britney on the stereo... naturally).

We were relaxing with our glass of wine when some older, balding man came over, sat down at our table and said, “Can you read this for me? I just received this report from my doctor but I don’t know what it says”. We looked at him blankly until he started laughing and said he thought we were doctors… apparently we “look like doctors”. Um, right. At one point he asked me where I was from and when I told him New York, he kept asking which country in Africa my family came from—I was not even going to start
this time so I just ignored him. So he continued talk to Ana in Italian until she suddenly gave him a dirty look, abruptly pushed back her chair, stood up and said, “Stacy, lets go”. At the same time, the gross guy who approached us in the street earlier had come into the bar (there’s only 3 bars in the village, he was bound to find us sooner or later) and came over to our table with two glasses of wine for us, thinking he could weasel his way in. He thought he was being slick by sending his friend in first with that stupid Doctor line. Ana said, “No thank you, we were just leaving” and the guy just stood there looking stupid with the wine in his hands. We went over to the bar to pay and the bartender asked, “How come you’re leaving so early?” And I said, “Um, its just time for us to go” and he laughed and shook his head, understanding that we were escaping those crazy men.

As we were walking back to the station to catch the train to Vernazza Ana gave me a quick translation: apparently the guy was asking her about her background and she told him she was Brazilian but that her great-grandparents were from Italy. He asked where in Italy and when she told him the name of her family’s city, he said, “Ahh, good. You’re from the North, the real Italy. Not like in the South. That’s not really Italy, that’s Africa. Its terrible.” Ana was horrified. Its a good thing I couldn’t understand him or we would have had some problems. He had some nerve to actually say that ignorant, racist sh*t as if Ana was supposed to agree with him, especially considering that 1) she’s from Brazil which is such a mixed country, and 2) she was with me. Well, what can you do? Small town mentality.

So we went back to Vernazza to hang out in the piazza in front of our hotel, just watching the boats bobbing in the dark and the light reflecting on the water (the town is very romantic by the way, we were saying that it was too bad we didn't have boyfriends with us!). Then we started chatting with two American girls who were drinking wine on the bench next to us. We decided to get another bottle for the 4 of us to share (meanwhile, the piazza was full of young locals) and ended up talking with them till nearly 2am.

The next day, our last in Cinque Terre, we had breakfast standing at our little bar (by this time, we were friendly with the barman) before picking up last minute souvenirs, then sitting out on the jetty in the sunshine to read and eat lunch until noon, when we had to leave Vernazza for our next (separate) destinations.

(Vineyards in Corniglia)

I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the hype but Cinque Terre is incredible. Its been such a tourist hotspot for the past 10 years, I wasn’t sure how it would be now. I don’t know if its because we came in October instead of August but it was absolutely perfect. It didn’t feel too contrived or commercial or like the town had sold out. It just had that idyllic small town feel, beautiful views and a deliciously slow pace… it was like something out of a postcard. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how its possible that I’m able to witness all these incredibly breathtaking places. I just don't understand why. I feel so blessed, so undeserving of this life. But I love the feeling of traveling to beautiful places and having these experiences... seeing things that take your breath away, that startle you. It makes you feel so alive, like the world isn't so bad after all, like anything is possible, like the sky is the limit...

Things I remember most about Cinque Terre:
*The intense smell of flowers along the hiking trails, particularly between Corniglia and Monterosso. It reminded me of my childhood days picking honeysuckles in the woods with my friends.
*The sound of the waves breaking against the rocks.
*The peaceful silence that you could always “hear” in the midst of all the sounds of nature and the gravel crunching under our shoes.
*The color of the sky as the sun set over the Mediterranean.