Saturday, July 29, 2006

If It's Tuesday It Must Be Zagreb!

More about the journey to Croatia: Zagreb is probably the most enigmatic place I’ve ever been. We crossed the border just outside of the port town of Trieste (pronounced Tree-ay-stay), Italy, a charming, blue-collar ocean resort/port that grips cliffs sloping toward the sea. Trieste was the first town we encountered that did not feel Italian—there was a new influence here, something more Slavic, more Greek perhaps.

When we crossed from Trieste into Slovenia the atmosphere changed physically and metaphorically. The skies opened into torrential rain, thunder and lightening such as we hadn’t seen since our first day in Rome. Our GPS went blank (apparently they did not load this leg of our trip into the computer, a rather inconvenient mistake). The countryside turned clean, green, rugged, and untouched by the passing of time. We passed village after timeless village … it could have been a place from the Renaissance, or a place from today, the architecture was simple, rustic. The border guards were unfriendly, suspicious—they simply stamped our passports, barked out a question or two and waved us along. I thought about the reverberations of the civil war, not too much more than a decade ago … felt the scars, the legacy of ethnic unrest. Everywhere we passed there were villages, almost pristine, but echoing hollowly in the distance. I swear you could still feel the death that we later heard from the few people we engaged in conversation in Zagreb. Finally, after spanning the length of Slovenia, we crossed into Croatia (another tense interchange as Aaron accidentally blew past the second border guard) which is not as physically beautiful as Slovenia, but seems a tad less somber.

One of the strangest things about Zagreb is its utter pride in maintaining inner-city cleanliness (cleaning teams everywhere), this juxtaposed with arms-reach high graffiti on even the loveliest of buildings. There is graffiti nearly everywhere. I asked a young Zagreban in our hotel about this and she shrugged and told me it is really cultural … pop cultural she asserted when I pressed her. Zagreb (accent on the Za) has a comprehensive tram system, and is lined with boulevards of buildings/townhouses of nearly uniform height (just varying slightly in color or architecture). The layout (and echoes of a recent war) reminded me of my young memories of Berlin.

I confess that I felt uneasy in Zagreb. It took a concerted effort to move myself out into the streets. Aaron seemed fine, in fact he says Zagreb might have been his favorite city so far, but I saw something in the faces of the citizens that indicated trauma to me—perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. We spoke to a few people, waiters and such, and they all spoke of the war as more of an inconvenience than an historical legacy—in other words, they seemed eerily “over it.” Most people said the killing never really permeated Zagreb, then they would qualify this assertion saying "yes, there was murder, but not like elsewhere, like in the smaller villages." Our general impression is that people would rather not talk about it, so we were very careful about how we engaged the topic--couching it in other observations, for instance.

In the old-town section of Zagreb there are narrow, winding streets that creep up the hill above the main square. Some buildings are clearly ancient with peeling, faded stucco and old-style roofing or windows. According to the literature we read, the old-town area dates back to the 15th century. We walked up the old town and to the Cathedral which had remnants of its most ancient 12th century foundations. We wandered through the market and bought fruit and cheese, then shopped along the main boulevard. This area of Zagreb is extremely charming. We bought bread at a tiny bakery where women of all sorts lined up behind us … this is clearly what happens in the afternoon in Zagreb, the women buy their daily fresh bread.

Our hotel, the Regent Esplanade insists on an antiquated interpretation of hospitality. There was an effected snobbery everywhere (we got a great rate on Travelocity), and an old-fashioned “sir, madam” interaction. Apparently a good number of governmental officials from the world over stay at the Esplanade—it felt that stuffy. It bothered me when our waiter referred to the civil war as an economic disaster. He affirmed that the conflict was ethnic, stewing resentments set free upon the occasion of “democratic reform.” But his big irritation seemed to be that the war cost so much, that opportunities to make money were lost in the conflict. I was interested in how a fervor for capitalism (the young people were quite fashionable and adopted a certain gothic/fashionable angst).

We are now in Vienna, a city which I love. I hope to write about my afternoon at the art galleries of the Belvedere Palace—where I was so overcome with emotion at seeing the original canvas of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, that I teared up! This museum housed works I’ve read about and admired since I first nurtured a clumsy art sensibility. I felt many emotions today, have much to express, but I’m going way long here. More to come ...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gelato is Not My Friend

We have arrived in Zagreb amidst a day of confusion, cloudbursting thundershowers, and stress. We weren't prepared for the profound difference (otherness) of a former eastern-block country.There is undoubtedly still a haunted sensibility about this area. It is well-traveled and safe now, but the memory of how violently the Yugoslav Republic splintered is still echoing through this country, I can distinctly feel it—and you can see it in the torn balconies, bullet-ridden barns of the countryside, and wall-to-wall graffiti throughout the city (and in the stone-cold faces of the Croatian border patrol). There is so much going on in the world right now that I can’t ignore. The conflict in Lebanon, and our “official” US response to it is extremely distressing. Aaron’s brother in law is Lebanese, and I have learned that one of my friends had family in Lebanon at the time the conflict began (good luck in reaching your aunt, Sam). When we were in Tuscany an Israeli family was staying at our B & B. The two young men we met had already served their mandatory stint in the army, and were telling us how they had explained to their younger sister during dinner the necessity of the invasion (which no one is calling an invasion). They were so earnest, so sure of the righteousness of all of Israel’s moves. It wasn’t the time or the place to attempt to unravel or argue with them, but it was difficult for me not to.

On a lighter note, can we spend just a minute talking about food? I must reiterate that the Italians know how to eat. The food there is flavorful, simple and generally local. We had a good meal every time we ate with only one exception. The tasty meals have taken their toll on yours truly because suddenly none of my clothes are fitting me. When I tried on a dress at a small boutique in Venice, I emerged from the dressing room patting my protruding belly, when the proprietor of the boutique chuckled and muttered “gelato” in a knowing sort of way. I wouldn’t mind so much if we were all in it together, but these young, gorgeous Italian women chow down on gelato or a panna cota while sipping on hot chocolate and still somehow remain bone thin. The Italians really get what it means to have sex appeal, it isn’t obvious or surgically obtained, it’s internal, embodied in movement, style and confidence. Anyway, in the extraordinary heat that persisted during our time there, clothing was necessarily minimal and unforgiving.

But back to the food for a moment. Here are our hits and misses:

* Wild boar, delicious (a tad pungent, but really lovely when prepared well).
* Sheeps cheese, creamy, flavorful, wonderful.
* Panna Cota, a simple milk pudding which—when prepared properly—is a textural and tasty sensation.
* Truffles—America needs to adopt this fungus in our cuisine, it rocks!
* Prosciutto, this is in everything, from sandwiches to breakfast platters to pizza, for good reason.
* Good, hard, shaved parmesan cheese—ours comes close, but not quite.
* Smoked goose breast … from La Vigne, served in truffle pasta, yummmm.

* Squid ink pasta—I’m an open-minded eater, but I couldn’t fault Aaron for leaving his charcoal-toned platterful viritually untouched. This is one Venetian delicacy I could do without.
* Uncertified chianti wines. You know, the ones that come with baskets attached to the bottom of the bottle … there’s no need to buy this swilly wine when certified chianti, which is far, far better, and can be just a euro or two more.
* Raw, shaved goose breast. Fatty and soft, not a good version of the goose.
* Buffalo mozzarella, I just don’t get it, it’s lumpy and nearly tasteless—one must soak it in olive oil and seasonings to give it some umph. In my opinion it is basically Italian tofu without the positive protein quotient.
* Lettuce in panini sandwiches. They do this all the time, and then grill it! Warm lettuce, bad!
* Mint Italian ices, if you like the taste of toothpaste, you’ll enjoy this unhappy flavor choice for a refreshing snack--I found it unpleasant (and the Kelly green color stains your mouth). BTW, I switched to ices after the gelato weight-gain was revealed.

Our only two rip-offs so far occurred in Venice, so we weren’t too broken-hearted when we left. We were charged about $35 for a carafe of some really awful house wine at a grimy, sub-standard restaurant (our one bad food experience in Italy), and 65 euro (about $90) for a 15-minute water taxi ride to the parking structure as we were leaving. You live and you learn. Between the toll roads, the price of petrol, and service charges, we are definitely doing our share of learning. Venice is truly something to see, however, and I recommend it--but prepare for the onslaught of fees.

I’ll be back with more on Zagreb soon. It’s 90 degrees out, with moisture in the air so thick it’s like walking through a steam sauna. Should be an interesting day of sightseeing … I’ve barely anything left to wear, but laundry in our hotel is charged by the piece, shirts costing nearly $3.00, trousers $5.00! Don’t think I’m not learning to appreciate our economic heft in the US as I continue my travels!

P.S. Official dolce (sweets) count after leaving Italy, 6 gelatos, 3 Italian ices, 2 cheese cakes, 6 panna cotas, 2 tiramisus, 1 strawberry cake thing, 3 fruit tart things, 1 pear tart. I may have missed something, but you get the drift! Add sweet breakfast croissants every morning and there's no surprise as to my new dolce bulge.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Passion - Venezia

I write to you from our charming room at Al Teatro B & B in Venice. As my fingers tap the keys, gondolas are passing below me. They are cliché, yet slightly individualistic, some hosted by accordion-playing Venetians, some navigated by quite talented operatics, others by serious Venetian history buffs (or bullshitters depending). Venice is another of Italy’s sensual feasts. What a culturally rich country Italy is! Each locale we’ve visited with its own nuances, its singular tone.

Yet today I found myself both charmed and disgusted by the Venice that is presented for (probably demanded by) the tourist. I wonder what I can do to try to sit within the experience, rather than observing it from the vantage point of a spectator at a zoo. My sardonic impulses suggest that colonizing countries (the ones most predominantly representing the tourist, the U.S., England, Spain, Germany and Japan) are programmed for a sort of “experiential presentation.” The performative aspect of that “charming” expectation of touring a country is sought and fulfilled. And I, too, often find myself “ooohing” and “ahhhhing” at the theatrical. But I have learned to step back occasionally and contemplate the themes … I turned to Aaron this morning from our open French window where a gondolier was regaling our small rialto with a standard Italian opera tune, and said, “isn’t it lovely?” We both paused for a moment, and then I said, “but it feels a tad like a dog and pony show, doesn’t it?” He agreed.

That said, Venice is wonderful. It must be seen, because it is, as Rick Steve points out, a precious, enigmatic, one-of-a-kind city in decay. The city is being reclaimed by the Adriatic, and nearly all literature you receive makes this notation. Our B & B has only three rooms to let, and the owner, Eleanora, tells us the building has been in the possession of her family for at least 600 years! This can be ascertained partially by a lovely fresco that we eat beneath every morning at breakfast.

As we wander through the narrow alleyways and over bridges curving us into areas we have to chance out of, I think of Jeanette Winterson’s evocative historical fiction novel, The Passion. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The setting is Napoleon’s Venice, and I am reminding of the heroine who viscerally knows the ins and outs of the labyrinth that is Venice.

Speaking of labyrinths, we arrived yesterday in approximately 103 degrees heat, with about 80% humidity, and toting a good amount of luggage (although we merged two suitcases into one). We had no idea how to catch a vaparetto, or really how to get to our lodging. To give you an idea of the chaos—paying our toll to exit the expressway toward Venice took over 30 minutes, and once that was accomplished one had to weave through a wall of cars, trucks, vespas and tour buses all aiming in opposite directions. At that point I found myself praying, and I’m not a religious girl! Then we had to queue at the parking structure and watch a man who looked like an escaped inmate of an insane asylum direct you to a parking spot and eyeball you eerily. Aaron, ill-advisedly, asked the guy for information on public transportation, and he immediately launched into the line of B.S. that every travel book warns you about, suggesting that you must take a “water taxi” which costs about 50 euro a person and 5 euro for each bag (and he counted my purse as a chargeable bag!).

• sidenote: Aaron just told me that 7 gondolas are backlogged waiting to get through our rialto, and I just heard an accordion start up, playing at a rather frantic pace. Later I’ll tell you about the way the vaparettos and water taxis drive—just think Roman drivers on the water!

Anyway, after realizing that we were parked as far from the vaparetto stop as we could possibly have been, and trying to decipher the vaparetto map which brought to mind the algorithm problems I had to solve in college algebra, we finally boarded the correct line. It should have been a relatively simple excursion, but apparently every so often, the vaparetto simply does not go all the way. Before our destination we were all shuttled off the vaparetto, and then the trouble started. Suffice it to say that Aaron and I saw the same section of the Grand Canal about 3 times, and that by the time we arrived at our B & B, we had each unwittingly participated in the ritual the American Indians call “a sweat.” We were literally devoid of any remaining bodily fluids.

But then the universe shifted and we got cleaned up and went out into the cooler evening bustle. It was wonderful, vibrant, invigorating. The shopping is pretty spectacular with most of the finest stores of the world represented. We passed all that (although I made a few yearning stops—Missoni, Valentino, Frette) and headed toward a small, charming, off in some alleyway little bistro recommended by Eleanora and had a wonderful, reasonably-priced dinner. Better yet, Aaron befriended an Italian from Milan who was dining alone next to us. He was a fashion merchandiser for Gucci, and a wonderful font of information about European fashion (up my alley) and Italian culture. Aaron got a big kick out of asking the waitress in halting Italian if it was OK if we washed the dishes when she presented the check. This sent our new friend, and the waitress, into peels of laughter.

These are the evenings you cherish as you travel. Chance meetings, good food, universal humor. We’ve met some people I hope to hear from again. Every day is an adventure, every challenging (stressful) experience a chance to use one’s facilities and problem-solving skills. And there are so many surprises—small moments of kindness or extraordinary patience in explaining the everyday or obvious.

I feel continually stimulated and full. But I also feel small and finite … a miniscule speck in some infinite continuum (is that an oxymoron?). But more about that later, we must go seek out some dinner!

So much to tell, so little time. I so wish I could download some photos, we’ve taken some beauties.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Hill Country of Toscana

Must keep this short as this internet point is strange, and I have no options for color or even an English oriented keyboard. A contingent of Russians have used this prior to me, and I cannot get any of the symbols as they are presented on the keyboard! Well, there is one that worked, but dashes, parentheses, hyphens, at signs, etc., are impossible.

Since I last checked in we've seen a number of the fascinating hill towns that characterize this region. We like to skirt the city centers and walk around the perimeters, far more interested in architecture and city geography than we are in the multitudes of tourist oriented shops and cafes. Although we did have the best gelato I've ever ingested in Volterra, pistachio for me, peach for Aaron. In addition to Volterra we've been to Radda, Castellina, Greve, Panzano, and beautiful as it looks in pictures, but extremely crowded and the weather did not cooperate, hovering around 100 F! If the food was not so extraordinary in Italy I think I'd have lost 25 pounds by now, at times I've been so saturated by the heat I felt like I'd just stepped out of the shower (hey just found a few symbols!).

We did not go to the Uffizi, as precious as it is. Perhaps we'll go next week. Instead we opted for a more unique experience at the Palazzo di Pitti apartments, and were happy that we did. It is so authentically unpreserved that it felt a bit like wandering into a Great Expectations experience ... I half expected an Italian Medici-related (found some more) Mrs. Havisham-type to wander through the palace as we gazed at paintings hanging askew from old ribbon-style bands. Did I mention that there was NO AIR-CONDITIONING!?!? Good God it was sweltering.

Later the views we saw from the Piazza Michelangelo were beyond translation. The sounds of the city wafted up, muffled by the thickness of the summer air, and the Arno river seemed as if it were a river of olive oil, so thick, green and languid. Really, so many of our experiences evoke some painting, or some moment in literature--we are constantly inspired by our intersections with history.

It is so good to get some e-mails from home (thank you friends!), and good to know that my adventures are being processed by minds more focused than my own!

Some final impressions to leave you with:

* One can really understand the color inspirations that typified the paintings of the Italian Rennaisance. There is a contrast and pastel undertone that tones everything in a very particular way ... clouds have an ethereal quality, smudged by soft peachy, cream, and aqua tones.

* The food in Tuscany is relatively simple, but wonderful. I have eaten a pasta with a black truffle component twice now. Why don't we use those more in American cuisine, they are DELICIOUS. The cheesecake with fresh berries I had for dessert last night was served warm, and with a fluffiness that even beats my mother's.

* On one night we experienced an orange moon rising, which is not like anything I've ever seen. I mean orange, like a huge pumpkin in the sky--quite amazing.

* I feel good in Europe, there is something here ... something vaguely familiar-an ancestral memory perhaps?

* It is clearly impossible for me to keep anything "short," isn't it? :-)

I dearly miss you, all my friends, and cannot wait to host the end-of-summer bash when we return!

P.S. The Russians (I'm talking 16 of them) have taken over our agriturissimo. They are raucus and surprisingly unfriendly, and this will make leaving here on Sunday a bit easier. Other than that, and the nasty wasp sting/bite, this place has been heaven.

Monday, July 10, 2006

La Dolce Vita

Yes, Rome still has vestiges of that Fellini sensibility, yes there are streets one can wander and begin to feel that sense of lightness of being in the midst of such history. Personally I have a bias toward a lesser-known Italian expression, “il dolce far niente,” which means, “the sweetness of doing nothing.” This is not to say that Italians are lazy, and anyone who might assert this ought to watch an Italian waiter working, or get a load of how far the Italians walk (and at what pace) each day as Americans, such as myself, whine about walking from the Marylhurst’s parking lot to a third story classroom on a rainy day. These people are full of life and energy, warmth and temperament.

This is what I wrote in my travel journal on 7/9: Have fallen head-over-heels in love with Rome, in the same vein that a teenage girl falls in love with a sexy, bad-boy, rebel who her mother cautions her against. Italy has just won the world cup and the city has come unglued. After four hours of pre-game coverage, Italy beat the rather ungentlemanly game played by the French, and bid adieu to the French team in a nail-biting, kick-off final. An explosion of fireworks, horns, whistles, car horns, and shouts instantaneously filled the streets. It sounded like shock and awe, only without the eventual political and human life ramifications. We were many miles from the city center, but all around us people were on their balconies and running in the streets in celebration. What a stroke of luck to be here during this monumental event! Italy’s win seemed to extend the run of celebratory sentiment that has followed me since I was inducted into Mu Omega. The world feels so alive to me. What a summer this has been.

We’ve seen the most exquisite sculpture I’ve ever seen at the Villa Borghese Gallery (all I can say is Bernini was definitely channeling the sublimity of the muses), we walked amongst ruins and over stones that Julius Caesar wandered through, we viewed the rooftops of Rome in a nearly 360-degree panoramic from atop Palatine Hill. We rested on marble slabs so eroded and weathered they looked like foam set pieces, we sat in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica and contemplated the almost profane grandeur of the papal tradition. History, and a feel for the evolution of culture, is slam-banging me everywhere,

Today Rome was uncharacteristically sedate, as if there was a collective hangover, and I suspect there was. Half of Rome was in slo-mo, and the other half was queued, along with us, in the Vatican city. Imagine 87 degrees of direct sunlight reflecting off of marble pillars the size of Godzilla, then imagine slipping a hoodie over shoulders so drenched with sweat that it stuck to you in small glumps. The art and treasure of the Vatican is mind-boggling, the Romanoff’s had nothing on the Papacy. And there is such an interesting, paradoxical game of one-upmanship from Pope to Pope. Nevertheless it has become one of the memorable sights of my life, the Vatican reverberates with power—it’s palpable.

A few miscellaneous highlights of Rome:

- an elegantly beautiful young cat walking out from among remnants of antiquity, sitting in front of a group of us in order to casually clean herself and then return into the ruined bits of columns and tablets.
- The eerie sensation, almost like echoes of screams, that blows through the colloseum. I know I wasn’t the only one to feel it, several of us stared into the slave and gladiator pits with utter revulsion.
- Viewing various likenesses of Sophacles, or Sappho, or Euripedes, or Calliope, and being aware of their stories. As my professor noted, Sophacles was a physically unattractive man, and I was struck by how similar the likenesses were—I presumed therefore that the likenesses were accurate.
- The sense of accomplishment Aaron and I had upon conquering the Roman metro system, very easy, very fast, very smelly endeavor!
- The view from the cupola (I did not partake of the 323 winding, narrow stairs it took to get up there to view Rome from a vantage point not too different from God’s)!
- The Duomo and its magnificent mosaic adornment.
- Aaron watching the World Cup in the kitchen of our favorite north Rome restaurant, La Scala, with all the chefs and waiters who he befriended. Tonight they greeted us back into the restaurant like old friends.

Tomorrow we leave this city with heavy hearts and aching feet. I am ready for the serenity of Tuscany—Rome could undo you after a while. But this is a city to be seen and pondered. A molto buono beginning to our trip.

Hello Moto!

Days 1-2 (Rome): What can one say about the tidal wave that is Rome Italy? Rick Steves characterizes it as both great and brutal. I think he nailed it. It’s like a movie set, or a large, pulsating, breathing, kicking metaphor. It is antiquity at its most sophisticated and decadent, it is now at its most elegant and chaotic.

There are continual juxtapositions here: certain antiquities marred with graffiti, a store that sells uniforms bearing a most elegant, meticulous storefront window. There is graffiti everywhere, we are in the embassy district and it mars to front of multiple outer walls of elegant residences. But the Romans revere their treasures as well, because at the Villa Borghese Gallery yesterday (truly one of the world’s great museums) the majority of viewers were Italian. .

The young Italians are a lithe and frantic bunch. They walk around with their cell phones affixed to the side of their faces, while smoking a cigarette and steering a Vespa. Stephanie warned me about Roman drivers, and she wasn’t exaggerating! “Always listen for a motor behind you,” she suggested, “and if you hear one approaching, get out of the way as soon as humanly possible!” Aaron and I are both quite aggressive drivers but nothing prepared us for the gauntlet of walking, or being driven, around Rome!

This is an elegant people—they are extremely well-dressed. Their clothes and leather goods are exquisite. The side of me that is driven by consumeristic impulse was lathering at the mouth yesterday walking along the streets of the fashionable districts and staring at gorgeous, meticulously-constructed leather shoes of a type and quality we rarely see in the US. The small, local store is alive and well in Rome. As I noted, store windows are often works of art. Shopping does not seem to have an American mall influence, thank God.

The Italians know how to eat, and laugh, and argue. They are not driven by time issues, they will talk to you at length IF, and this is a big IF, they like you. Aaron and I were walking on air yesterday when twice we were spoken to in Italian. OK, it was perhaps just a gesture on the part of a kind Italian waiter, but Aaron has been dressing somewhat like a local, and we’ve both tried to adapt to the culture as best as two floundering, intimidated, exhausted Americans can.
On Sunday we headed out toward the ancient city, requiring for the first time, a metro ride. This was an interesting endeavor, as we were public transportation illiterates. I’ve used the metro when I traveled in the past (over 20 years ago), however not the Italian metro, so it was an interesting experience. In the end it was quite doable, and we now feel ready to conquer the city.

I’ll complete this entry at that juncture, and comment that yesterday afternoon, just before Italy won the world cup, and the city literally EXPLODED with the ecstasy of a once-in-a-lifetime celebration, Aaron turned to me and told me he could live for a while in Europe. There is a world out there, a world of people who decidedly aren’t frothing at the mouth to move to the U.S—who don’t live in utter awe and envy (our culture is so motivated by a desire to enact covetousness of what we “have” in the other) of us and don’t mourn on a daily basis that they weren’t born American. I have heard this statement a multitude of times in the US, “everyone wants to live here,” or “at least we are the only place in the world that is free.” This sort of ethnocentricity does not serve us, as it fundamentally suggests an inherent lack in all non-Americans.

We sat in a restaurant on the second night, a phrasebook clutched in our hand. The waiter was so patient with us, helped us and spoke relatively decent English. Next door sat a table of four Texans. They never once even attempted a word of Italian. Not even a polite “Buono Sera” greeting, or “grazie” thank-you. On another occasion a local Italian addressed a table of Americans and an older man in the group barked at her “speak English.” The point being that out here in the big, magnificent world, it is distressing to see how our indoctrinization of national arrogance does not serve us, exposes an element of the US that can be ugly, and so isolationist. Community should be both locally and globally expressed in my opinion.

Anyway, tune in soon for a second installment on Rome. Wireless access is sporadic, and tomorrow we head out to Tuscany where I suspect it is non-existent. That will be a 10-day span, but I will check in again in Venice (Venezia) as I know we have wireless access there.

Ciao bellas!