Sunday, December 09, 2012
quintessential Italy: the Roman Coliseum.
in august, i got a call from my friend Kiana saying that she was turning 40 in september and wanted to spend her birthday at an Italian villa with her girlfriends. i don’t think she finished the question before i screamed “YES!” into the phone. the next day, i applied for an expedited passport, scheduled the days off work, secured care for my dogs and began packing my suitcase for a 15-day trip to cities i had never visited before.
i’ll just skip to the punchline now: the trip was awesome in every way. i don’t know how to describe it without sounding like a bragging asshole, so i’ll just describe it as it was (and sound like a bragging asshole). but it was pretty perfect as far as trips go and could only have been made better if i had stayed longer, had more money to spend and the two girls i traveled with were one gorgeous man who was madly in love with me.
but as you go to war with the army you have, you take a trip to Italy any way you can and this was not a trip i would ever miss. “i don’t care if you’re only calling me in a pinch because other girls have pulled out and you need bodies to help pay for the villa. i’m going and you can’t stop me,” i told Kiana.
first meal in Rome: this pizza three times the size of my head. the challenge was accepted. i ate it like i was mad at it.
the arrival: i landed in Rome via Madrid on a Thursday night and arrived at Patti’s house an hour later. Patti is a former New Yorker and proprietress of Expats in Rome, which i had found through an internet search — when i typed in “expats in Rome” — looking for english speakers to hang out with. Rome bookended my trip and Patti played perfect hostess both times by offering me a place to stay, a map to consult and expat events to attend. the photo above is from our first dinner, which had me eating pizza while flirting with cute Italians and then finishing off the night with cigarettes and limoncello.
cougar alert! Amber is the blond (obviously); Kiana is the dark-haired one (who also goes by the name of Stacy, though most times i just call her “Yosh”) and me.
the next morning: i met Kiana and Amber at the Termini train station, where we took a high-speed train to Naples and then boarded a ferry for Capri. Kiana and Amber both live in Chicago and work as flight attendants for American Airlines. when she lived in Los Angeles and was married to my friend Juan, Kiana and i spent plenty of time together and even took a trip to her home state of Hawaii. i only met Amber on this trip but we became fast friends, especially after finding out our birthdays were a day apart. the three of us enjoyed a relatively drama-free vacation together, save the usual noise that comes with three girls sharing enclosed spaces with one bathroom. we also made fun of each other’s farts A LOT.
Italy or Titaly? D cup and up required to get into this exclusive club.
the dock at gorgeous Capri, home of the lauded Capri pants (but not the cigarette).
approaching Capri: oh, my god, Capri. definitely one of the most exquisite places i have ever been to. the island is a playground for the rich and there was certainly plenty of flash on display, some of it stylish, with the rest being of the short-skirt-and-too-much-makeup variety found on the Jersey Shore. but more interesting was the scenery, which included hill-hugging, narrow roads that caused constant traffic delays, lush gardens with the most perfect landscaping, a view of the sea from every angle, and, of course, the magical blue grotto.
taken on the walk to the Blue Grotto, made at dawn to beat the tour boats.
Kiana checking out the grotto. entrance is at the right. she swam in it as a 21-year-old and wanted to again on her 40th birthday, which she did. this photo was taken the morning of.
“stricktly” forbidden. got it. if you spelled your sign right, i might have obeyed. (nah, doubtful.)
me + the Mediterranean = best friends
the grotto: the grotto is tiny, with dark corners, jagged edges and no place to sit or support yourself. there’s a chain near the entrance, probably to keep people out, though it helped us get in across the rocky coral and provided relief when treading water became tiring. i wish i had a photo of the inside to substantiate my claim that it was one of the most amazing things i’ve ever seen and done, but i didn’t think to bring a waterproof camera case. the water looked dark blue (cerulean?) and made me feel as though i were swimming in a precious stone. just being there, in Italy, my first trip to Europe in nearly 10 years, in the warm water of the Mediterranean, with the jetlag and early morning and empty stomach — it made me delirious with joy. absolute perfect moment.
finished our swim just before the first tour boat came in.
goodbye, grotto: we spent just one night in Capri, which was plenty of time to see most of what the four-mile island had to offer, though i’d gladly visit again. we left soon after our grotto swim and boarded a ferry for the Amalfi coast, where the villa awaited us. we would be staying a week.
on the ferry ride from Capri to the Amalfi Coast, about 40 minutes.
the jaw-dropping beauty of Positano. i couldn’t believe this view when i first saw it. it looked like a cardboard facade that would tip over if the wind blew too hard.
approaching Positano: the Amalfi Coast is on the southwestern side of Italy and is comprised of Positano, Praiano and Amalfi. our villa was in Praiano, the most quiet and least touristy of the three, sandwiched right in between the other two, each about 20 minutes away by bus. all three cities are built into cliffs, impossibly stacked on top of themselves with only a few main roads connecting them — all narrow, frightening and facing the sea. a labyrinth of steep alleyways and staircases connect everything else, which made this a very aerobic vacation.
plenty of scooters and scraped up cars on the coast, many missing their side mirrors.
stairs leading out of the villa and into an alleyway with more stairs. the amount of exercise i got during the week far exceeded anything i would normally get in a week at home. total weight gain: zero pounds despite consuming my own body weight in pizza, pasta and wine.
the Pink Palace.
the villa: Kiana found this place, nicknamed Casa Rosa, and props to her for a job well done. we had the whole bottom floor, which contained a full kitchen, two bedrooms, wifi, a washing machine and a gigantic terrace. the beach, bus stop and market were just a 10-minute walk away. we went during the last week of september, considered the off-season, which offered a much cheaper rate than the summer rate, and when split between three people, the deal was incredible. the weather was also perfect, with rain only bothering us on one day.
the owner set out three glasses and wine for our arrival in addition to filling the place with fresh flowers and fridge with food (per our request).
mission control for the week.
the bugs: the terrace faced the sea and served as the perfect backdrop for wine drinking, shit talking and tanning. though at night it became a hub of mosquito activity. the only word i learned in Italian was the one for mosquito: zanzara. they are definitely the downside of paradise. it’s no exaggeration to say i had at least 30 bites after a few days. Kiana must have had a good 60 bites, several of which filled with fluid and produced an allergic reaction that had her seeking medical care at the pharmacy. we must have bought every mosquito cream, spray and pill available in Amalfi during the trip, yet the bites kept coming. some of the sprays produced an allergic reaction in me, including a lovely rash that lasted weeks.
the nightly scene: laughing, wining and whining it up with Amber.
wine shop in the city of Amalfi. i’ll take ALL of it.
the agenda: there is certainly a lot to see and do on the Amalfi Coast, but the agenda item at the top of our list was to RELAX. this vacation was no episode of “The Amazing Race.” we were there to sleep late, lounge in stretchy pants and eat until we burst — and we did plenty of each, rarely leaving the house before noon or going to bed before 1am. the wine flowed, men were dissected and naps were taken. this is how forty-something vacations go.
Kiana dancing on the terrace right before our first dinner at the villa, a catered meal prepared by a local chef to celebrate Kiana’s birthday.
Marina di Praia beach in Praiano, with stones instead of sand. easy on the eyes but hard on the feet.
the beaches: when we did venture out for more than just replenishing the wine supply, we mostly hit the beach or took the bus into town to sightsee and shop. i am not normally a beach person as my siberian genes have rendered me and the sun bitter enemies (plus, the whole swimsuit thing), but i spent plenty of time in the water and lounging on the chaise in a state of bliss, my soul at ease and head empty when not filled with thoughts about how i could remain on vacation permanently.
cocktails and literature at Gavitella beach (best beach in Praiano, IMO). the book for this trip was Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell. i had it on my shelf for a while and chose it primarily for the title but it proved a great read and the hilarious title essay does involve a trip to Italy.
bitches, boats and brews. taken on the ride from Sorrento to Positano.
the boats: we also spent as much time as we could in boats, our ultimate joy-maker. considering the winding roads between towns, water taxis often made more sense. many days started with discussions of “what plans can we make today that would involve a boat?” one day, those plans involved taking a boat from one beach to another.
on the “bus” between beaches.
me happy on a boat (and rethinking my long-standing disdain for beaches and water).
tuna pizza that is making my mouth water as i type this.
the food: christ, that food. it’s delicious enough to make you come in your pants after the first bite. prepared with the freshest ingredients, it always tasted PERFECT. i can’t count how many times i declared at the end of each meal that “this is the best meal so far in Italy!” but it happened enough times for the girls to start mocking me about it. the pizza and pasta are a given, but i fell most in love with the tuna and had an Italian market in my neighborhood already picked out by the time i landed in Los Angeles so i could score some of that goodness stateside. piss off, Chicken of the Sea. my tuna is only always going to be As do Mar from now on. the Amalfi Coast’s specialty also includes tons of fried fish and when you add a little lemon and aioli... ohhhh, i need a tissue.
fried sardines and calamari.
porcini mushrooms sauteed in oil and garlic, truly one of the best dishes from the trip because these shrommies came fresh, not dried.
unbelievably delicious Italian gelato that is rumored to be less fattening than conventional ice cream despite tasting a million times creamier.
purchase suggested by the wise neighbor who watched my dogs for me. i brought enough home for the both of us.
the seeds: i brought back a bunch of native seeds to grow my very own italian zucchini, two types of tomatoes, arugula and red peppers. considering my brown thumb that has killed every plant i’ve owned that hasn’t been a cactus, i have a lot to learn. and considering my lazy streak, i mean, my heavy workload, i’ll probably hire someone to handle it all for me.
octogenarian neighbor in the villa below who gardened every morning and gave us baskets filled with his spoils.
best fig of my life from the neighbor’s garden.
my new Italian sandals. cost: 50 euros.
the shopping: though a strong dollar made it more tempting, my house debt didn’t allow me to go wild with the purchases, but i made a few here and there. i usually buy jewelry when i travel and searched Amalfi for a nice cameo ring, but all the ones i found were prohibitively expensive, so i bought the next best item: shoes. specifically, italian sandals that were made on demand by a lovely lady named Eva, who measured my feet to ensure a snug fit.
as you all (should) know, Pinko is my dog’s name and i ran into this store as soon as i saw in hopes of finding a shirt with “Pinko” emblazoned on it, maybe in sequins or glitter, but no luck.
Amber in a Limoncello store in the city of Amalfi.
the Limoncello: i also brought back a couple bottles of Limoncello, the lemony-tasting, 150+ proof Italian digestif. despite drinking it almost daily, i can’t say i really loved it (i especially hated the fennel-infused version). it just tasted too damn sweet, but the potency made me forget about that after the first sip, so i finished every serving — only to be greeted with a sugar headache 10 minutes later.
the nightly ritual. i had a theory that the Limoncello could double as that barium drink people having stomach MRIs need to ingest prior to the procedure. i think it could light you up from the inside just the same.
the city of Amalfi, the largest of the three main cities on the Amalfi coast. though its facade is not as jaw-dropping as Positano’s, it’s flatter, less crowded and much easier to get around in.
the towns: daytrips took us to nearby cities, including Sorrento, where we walked around aimlessly, sat lazily at cafes eating pastries, browsed old churches and shopped. we made sure to eat a meal in each town, even if that meant missing the last bus out of town, which happened once. all the people we encountered were incredibly friendly, the waitstaff in particular who didn’t seem to resent our status as tourists. what’s nice about Italy is that the hospitality industry is seen as a reputable career, not just a stepping stone to becoming an actor. we talked to waiters whose families had owned restaurants in the area for generations and who spent winters in London studying English so they could be better at their jobs.
streets of Amalfi.
main square (with the requisite old cathedral) in Amalfi.
smoking kills, don’t you know?
the smoking: i should confess to smoking cigarettes on this trip and not only on that first night in Rome when, in my limoncello haze, i announced to my companions, “when in Rome, smoke cigarettes like everyone else does, right? may i have one, please?” to my surprise, my throat did not hurt the next morning despite the fact that one cigarette turned into five. by my third day, i was smoking half a pack just as i did in my smoker days, more than 7 years ago. i could hardly believe myself and offer no defense beyond, “i was on vacation, OK? let it go, mom and dad.” thankfully, the habit has not continued since i arrived home and won’t ever again. i vow to contain my smoking only to nation states in the European Union.
streets of Praiano.
paradise lost among tunnels, tiny roads and impossible cliffs.
ran into a JV soccer team and their coach during a photo shoot. i’m still trying to pick out my favorite (though i think the two in the foreground favor each other).
the men: despite the indulgences of this trip, men never made it off the menu beyond a little harmless flirtation. the men in Italy were... how you say?... weird. (though i’m sure i seemed weird to them as well.) Italy is a very patriarchal society and, as you can likely guess, i don’t fit in too well with this paradigm. i actually had one gentleman in Rome ask me whether i knew how to cook and iron, before adding that i would need to travel to his mother’s house in Sicily to learn how to cook his favorite meals if we were to marry. (i told him politely that he would be making that trip, not me.) and though many of the men looked like Armani models stepping off a magazine page, with their stylish clothes and chiseled faces, too many more looked like Chef Boyardee, with their pasta bellies and sweaty foreheads. chivalry is also dead in Italy. i can’t count how many times i struggled with a bag, only to receive no help from the men nearby, or had sneezes go unblessed and doors not held open. so, sadly, i don’t foresee an Italian husband in my future, but the food more than makes up for it.
cutie pie waiter opening up a bottle of wine. i kept telling the girls to slip him our key.
last night on the Amalfi Coast spent at the famed Africana nightclub that’s built into a cave. it was kinda dead inside but we got our drink and dance on anyway before stumbling back to the villa drunk and packing up for the next destination.
taken on the ferry ride from Positano to Ischia, about 2.5 hours.
approaching Ischia: i never even heard of the island of Ischia before this trip, so imagine my surprise when i found myself spending two nights there, enjoying the thermal pools and hot springs it’s known for. Ischia appeared more working class than Capri or the Amalfi coast and seemed more for the locals than tourists, but its big draw is Negombo, a therapeutic spa center that is the size of a small amusement park.
directory at Negombo with its 20+ thermal pools.
one of my favorite pools at the park, the Life Spring pool.
the Disneyland of thermal pools: this place blew me away. more than 20 thermal pools of varying temperatures for various ailments made up Negombo, where people just walked around in swimsuits dunking themselves. some pools had mini-waterfalls that would beat down upon your muscles for a massage; others had steam areas to sweat out the toxins; some pools were super deep, others shallow; and still others had a prescribed courses to follow where cold pools came on the heels of hot pools. all this just walking distance from the beach and regular chlorine pools. i could have stayed for days, maybe years. another big highlight of the trip.
also loved this pool, with one side super warm water, the other ice cold. i took my last dunk here.
thermal pool in the hotel basement. i spent a lot of time here, too.
the hotel: next time you find yourself in Ischia, Grifo Hotel is where you want to stay. not only were the rooms clean and affordable, but the hotel has a basement with steam room, sauna, lounge and thermal pools. they also offer spa services, including massages that will relax the hell out of you and the most thorough pedicure you’ll ever receive. free shuttle service, too. super recommended.
statues enjoying the view.
one of our last dinners together in Ischia. sad we would be parting ways but sadder that we reached the end of the wine bottle.
almost over: after our two nights in Ischia came to an end, the girls and i reluctantly parted ways, with them returning directly to the airport to catch a flight back to Chicago and me returning to Rome via ferry and then train for my final two days in Italy — days that were spent walking around the cradle of Western civilization with my heart happy and senses overloaded by the amazing everything on display.
the Italian countryside, taken on the train between Naples and Rome, about 1 hour.
the Roman Forum in the city center.
the city: what can be said about Rome that isn’t said elsewhere and better? it’s quite remarkable (and huge) with its blend of old ruins, newer construction and an intense alpha energy that rivals New York. it’s a hard-working, ambitious city where you need a doctor’s note to take a sick day. people definitely seem to be on the go, though they move at their own pace, an Italian pace that’s as leisurely as it is frenetic. it’s what i imagine Los Angeles would be like if you dropped New York City into its center and tempered the rat race with a relaxed attitude.
fruit stand in Rome where i bought the best peach of my life.
this “gladiator” initially scared the hell out of me by running after me and asking if i were jewish. i said, “umm... yes. is that OK?” he replied with, “i’m jewish, too. my name is David.” he then told me there were a lot of Jews in Rome and i should visit the jewish ghetto (which i couldn’t find, unfortunately). a nice gesture, to be sure, though i couldn’t stop staring at his nipples.
closeup from the Arch of Constantine.
the surprises: a lot surprised me about Rome (and Italy, in general). i suppose i expected it to be like other European cities i’ve visited — where drugs are legal and people are practically dry-humping in front of you on the metro — but Italy seemed far more conservative. i saw no PDA on display and was told that it takes five years to get a divorce. and despite the well-known caricature of the animated, boisterous Italian (which i sometimes saw), most Italians i encountered were private and reserved. definitely not the most fun-loving culture i’ve come across in my travels (i think the Spanish take that prize), but not as stuffy as the English.
St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, where i tried to get in a word with the Pope (unsuccessfully). Rome is the land of a million churches, and there are nuns everywhere.
everyone is talking on cell phones at all times in Rome, even the nuns.
streets of Rome.
more observations: in Rome, so much seems to happen in storefronts, where shop owners hang out on their stoops with a cigarette while either talking on the phone or with neighbors and friends who’ve stopped by for the daily deal. even when on the phone, Italians are gesticulating wildly with their hands, which is hilarious to watch. at one of the expat events i attended, the locals taught me how to tell someone, without uttering a word, to fuck off, to give me a break, to quit bullshitting me, and to keep what i’m about to say a secret.
the Tiber River outside of Vatican City.
even the horses are overwhelmed.
two days was not enough: i’m not sure that two weeks would be enough to see everything in Rome, considering all the ruins, churches, museums and landmarks. i spent my one full day in the city walking around until my feet felt as though they would fall off. i didn’t have the time to wait in long lines so i never saw the inside of anything, just covered as much space as i could before getting on the right bus going in the wrong direction, which gave me the opportunity to see even more. this means i must return to do a proper tour.
Roman punks pissed off at all the beauty that surrounds them.
new friends made at an Expats in Rome event. only the gentleman at the left is an expat (Frank from North Caroline). the two others, nicknamed the Priest and Stifler, are locals who attend the events to practice English and joined me in a hilarious and thoughtful conversation i can’t at all recall.
the people: despite the earlier shit i talked about the patriarchy of Italian men, i want to emphasize that everyone i met on my trip was polite, warm and gracious (save a few cabbies who ripped me off). people were welcoming at every locale and never acted put out when i stopped and asked them for directions or advice. i exchanged info and Facebook friend requests with some of the folks i met and intend to nurture those relationships for future visits.
ciao, Italia! grazie per un meraviglioso viaggio.
whatever i discovered about Italy is no well-kept secret. in fact, everyone i’ve spoken to who’s also visited has agreed that, yes, there is something magical about the place that has a certain effect on people that few other places do. there’s a sense that life is perfect in Italy and lived as it should be: eating great food, drinking wine at lunch, and enjoying leisurely siestas in the warm sun and fresh air. there’s a simplicity about it that appears low-stress and inviting.
of course, vacationing in Italy is different from living in Italy, and i heard many stories about the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the Italian system, with people having to pay their electric bill with the butcher and city officials giving different answers to the same question. yet from the outside looking in, Italians have it easy — the scenery is perfect, the food is the best in the world, and life moves along at a serene place.
this takeaway made it challenging to return home to the bustle of bills, deadlines and unanswered messages awaiting me. though i love traveling, there is always a touch of relief about returning home to see my dogs and sleep in my own bed again, but i could have continued on this vacation in perpetuity without missing much from home. it was that good.
and like any good vacation, stepping away from my life in Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to reflect on it. it let me hit the reset button and evaluate what’s been going wrong and right, to form new habits that incorporate what i learned abroad, to understand what was really important about life — chiefly among them: learning how to prepare food the Italian way. (i plan to take a cooking class next year.)
the time away also made me understand that i really need to slow the fuck down. perhaps it was that warm Mediterranean sun, leisurely Italians or just the lazy nature of this vacation that forced me to disconnect, sit quietly and watch the sunset, but i came home resolved to incorporate more lazy beach days into my life. i promised myself i wouldn’t feel so guilty when my days were unproductive. i told myself i could have that extra glass of wine and stay up late if i felt like it and eat dessert if i wanted it and just enjoy the hell out of life because that’s what it’s there for.
my biggest issue has always been my restlessness, which has thankfully mellowed with age and maturity, but still manifests itself as a drive that compels me to produce and achieve and produce and achieve — without ever taking a break. most days, this is far from being a bad thing and i do generally love my work, but underneath it lies a fire that keeps me moving when it’s time to sit still.
now i know that i need to sit still more, to vacation more, to give myself unstructured days off, to stay in my pajamas all day, and to not feel bad that it’s taken me two months to write the blog post about my great Italian vacation. so far, i’ve been delivering on these promises — perhaps too much given the amount of dessert i’ve been eating — but if i should find myself losing my way and getting too wrapped up in the merry-go-round of modern life again, which is likely, i’ll be sure to plan another visit to Italy.