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Myanmar Lesson #4: Wake Up Early

I am the epitome of a morning grump. I absolutely hate waking up, I hit snooze an embarrassingly high number of times, and if I haven’t had any caffeine, you better not attempt conversation. Regardless of the previous night’s activities or the day ahead, every morning is an uphill battle. It is only because I’m a Gemini that I can also say with a straight face that dawn in my favorite time of the day. It’s the magical moment when the world wakes up, slowly and gracefully transitioning from night to day.

So when the alarm rang on Sunday morning at 5:15am, despite wearing my grumpy pants, I rolled out of bed, put on my layers and braved the frigid walk to the docks (while telling myself, “this better be *#&^-ing worth it”). We climbed into our hired boat and cruised through the fog to the middle of Inle Lake, just in time to see the sun creep over the mountains. Coffee or no coffee, it was the best decision we made during our time in Myanmar.

The combination of the dim, early-morning light and the fog was so surreal that the Intha fishermen, working with their unique rowing technique, looked like ghosts of the past. With one leg planted firmly at the stern, they wrap the other leg around the oar and carefully maneuver the long-bottomed boat. This method leaves their hands free to cast their nets. And the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Inle lake is unusually shallow and reaches its maximum depth of 12ft. (3.5 meters) only during the rainy season. The lake floor is covered with tall reeds, making it difficult to see below the surface. By standing upright the fisherman achieve an angle that enables them to better see any signs of fish hiding in the reeds; and with their hands free, they can act quickly to maneuver their nets.


Myanmar Lesson #3: Slow Isn’t Always Steady

…and it most certainly doesn’t always win the race.

After having spent a week in Myanmar, we were accustomed to the feeling of going back in time. We were used to seeing horse and ox carts on the streets. We had learned not to expect hot water and stable electricity. We weren’t surprised when the bank told us at 10:30am that they were waiting for the official exchange rate from Yangon and so we couldn’t exchange our money. Buses without doors, bathrooms without toilets (just a simple hole), dishes washed in a river or lake, bicycles with sidecars, cars with diesel engines spewing out black smoke…after a while, you adjust.

And that’s precisely when Myanmar throws you another curve ball:

  • The Journey: Nyuang U (Bagan Valley) to Mandalay
  • The Distance: approx 200km (125 miles)
  • Duration: 7 hours
  • Average Speed: 28.5 km/h or 18mph
  • Method of Transport: train
  • Departure Time: 7:00am

Our adventure started at 6:30am at the ticket office inside the Nyuang U train station. It’s not possible to purchase tickets in advance, online or otherwise, but we were told that a half hour was needed to obtain tickets and board the train.  We were only 4th in line, so we had more than enough time, right?

Wrong. 25 minutes and 3 customers later, we approached the window, handed over our passports, held up 3 fingers and said, “Mandalay?” at which point we figured out why this process was painfully slow.  The man behind the counter, working by candlelight, started to handwrite our tickets on carbon copy paper – something I haven’t witnessed in at least 20 years. And since the Burmese alphabet has absolutely no resemblance to our own, watching him write our names and passport numbers in English was nothing but torture. Once at the counter, it took 10 minutes to buy our tickets.

Ticket

Luckily, they held the train for us and for the remaining people in line. We climbed into our “Upper Class” cabin. Normally I don’t splurge on first class treatment, but we heard stories about the normal class: wood benches, enormous bags of produce, seat-less passengers filling the aisles and thereby making the bathroom inaccessible. I could handle that for an hour or two, but 7 hours was a bit much.

We departed after settling into our spacious, permanently reclining seats. And we shortly discovered that no “Upper Class” comfort in the world could have prepared us for this journey.  At times it was like being in bed when my younger sisters were jumping all around me.  At other times it felt like trotting on a horse while swaying side to side like a ship in a storm.  Bumpy, shaky, jerky, rocky, noisy, and likely to cause panic attacks. I took this video in an attempt to capture the motion of the train, this wasn’t even the worst of it:

Why did it take 7 hours to go 200 kilometers?  We had thought it was due to the number of stops, but in reality it was because the train could not physically go any faster without risking derailment. We were lucky that we all have strong stomachs. And thank god we weren’t on wooden benches!!


Myanmar Lesson #2: Watch Your Step

Betel Stained

Both the Thais and the Burmese love to smile, but there is one striking difference. Don’t expect any pearly whites because Burma is a betel-chewing country, and wow does it leave its mark! Described by my boyfriend as “an explosion of spice that gives you a light, airy feeling and makes your mouth go numb,” chewing the betel nut has another side effect: it turns your lips, gums, and teeth red. Luckily for Eugenio, it doesn’t appear to be permanent, at least not for a first-timer.

Betel Nut stand

To fuel the Myanmar’s biggest habit, betel stands are on every street corner and in every market. Operated by one person, each stand contains a pile of bright green betel leaves, a bowl of chopped betel nuts, a jar of slaked lime (used as glue), and several containers of spices including: anise, cardamom seeds, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, rose powder, tobacco, etc. The Chewer approaches the stand and selects his choice of spices, and the Betel Man gets to work. He applies the slaked lime paste to the leaf, places the spices in the middle, carefully folds the leaf into a nice package, and places it in a small plastic bag. Each bag contains 4-5 of these betel packets, to be consumed throughout the day. We were told that similar to smoking, betel-chewing helps curb hunger and keeps you awake.

Street SpitBut the real fun begins after a few minutes when the chewing has stimulated the excess production of saliva. Loogie hocking is apparently a form of art, and the Burmese are professionals. The sound of snorting & gathering of phlegm is constant and the streets, sidewalks, and buildings are covered with these red, chunky splatterings. So you best watch your step.


Myanmar Lesson #1: Use Your Head

When it comes to using your head, Burmese women have got to be some of the most skilled on earth. Anything regardless of shape, size, or weight, could be balanced on their heads and carried throughout town. External distruptions to one’s balance, like a squirming baby or a ridiculously bumpy train (more on this later), didn’t seem to disrupt their poise and elegance. Being the clumsy oaf that I am, all I could do was marvel. And step out of their way.

Here are a few photos I was able to snap on the streets and in the markets throughout the country:


Myanwhere?

Flipping through the first few pages of any guidebook, you’ll usually find some sort of list which explains all the reasons to visit a particular country: art, national parks, museums/monuments,
people, nightlife, traditions, food, etc. I found an exception. The top of page 28 of the Lonely Planet – Myanmar (Burma) reads something like this:

Don’t Visit Myanmar If…

If you don’t like to compromise on such things as food and hotel quality, and/or have a low tolerance for last-minute changes of plan or being denied conveniences such as guaranteed round-the-clock power, use of ATMs and credit cards, your mobile phone and the internet, then perhaps Myanmar isn’t for you.

Call me crazy, but I was intrigued rather than discouraged.  A third world country whose government was determined to isolate its people from the outside world (more on this later)…what would it be like?  What types of customs do the Burmese practice, what traditions do they honor? What do they think of their government, considered to be second only to Somalia as the most corrupt in the world? What do they eat & drink, and how? What do they wear? What is their day-to-day like?  How would they react to me and how could we communicate?  My list of questions and curiosities was endless, and I knew that the answers couldn’t be found without firsthand experience. I needed to see it for myself, so at that point I got my favorite travel buddies on board and booked our flights, unsure of what to expect…

…we returned last Sunday (Feb. 3rd) battered, bruised, exhausted, dehydrated (massive loss of bodily fluids, won’t go into details), and overwhelmed. But I truly believe that the most difficult travel is also the most rewarding; Myanmar was no exception. We took ourselves off the well-trodden, wide, smooth, paved SE Asia Tourist Trail and chose Myanmar’s rocky, narrow, dusty path with blind corners and obstacles around every turn. A very trying adventure, but we were greeted by a people and a way of life that in absolutely no way resembles anything from home (in Italy or the USA). And those experiences, those moments with a beautiful people, made it all worthwhile.


Viva Viva La Befana!!

La Befana

La Befana (Americana)

La Befana vien di notte

Con le scarpe tutte rotte

Con il vestito alla romana

Viva viva la Befana!**

We decided to throw party for all the neighborhood kids last night and yours truly played the role of La Befana, an old haggard woman who goes from house to house delivering stockings full of candy (if you’ve been good) or coal (if you’ve been bad).

A loud *CRACK*, a cloud of smoke, and a flash of red light announced my arrival on the terrazza. I got off my broomstick and dragged my sack into the kitchen where nearly 20 kids waited eagerly for their stocking which, by magic, had their names written on them. Half woman, half witch, La Befana is old, extremely ugly, and known for startling children by coughing and sneezing when they attempt to give her a kiss…which they must do in order to receive their stocking.

This was by far my favorite of the Italian Feste during the Christmas Season, and it’s really too bad that La Befana never made it into American culture. I know a few dads & uncles who would leap at the opportunity to dress up as an ugly witch and scare little kids!

**Translation: La Befana comes at night with completely broken shoes and Roman dress. Long live La Befana!!  As with most poetry, this chime is ten times better in its original language.


Video

Buon Anno 2013!!

Last night, after eating more than I thought was humanly possible (again!) and drinking copious amounts of prosecco, we decided to venture up to Piazza Garibaldi on the Gianicolo hill to ring in the new year. It seemed like a brilliant idea, a panoramic view of the city at midnight, but I can say with certainty that I will never do that again. The reason: I value my life.

Italians don’t appear to have any regulations on the types of fireworks available for purchase, and even this pyromaniac was unnerved by the intensity and frequency of explosions. Fireworks were being launched in every direction, even from the windows of apartment buildings 3-6 stories above, which made it incredibly unsafe to walk in the street. Open spaces, which I normally seek out to get away from the crowd, now seemed like minefields. You’d have to be stupid to walk across one, that was where most people lit/threw their fireworks. And shortly before the countdown to midnight, I saw a green flame streak above our heads and land in a group of people under the statue of Garibaldi. They were able to put the fire out, but I couldn’t tell if anyone was badly injured.

We were a group of 7 in a crowd of thousands, so the odds were in our favor, but it definitely wasn’t the sort of risk I like to take. But now that I’m safe at home and the worst of my battle scars is a throbbing headache, I can say that it was absolutely worth it. Firework shows in every piazza and neighborhood in the city, bursts of color for as far as the eye could see. Definitely a once in a lifetime view.

AUGURI DI BUON ANNO!!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!


Wandering Ancient Palaces – Split

Pedestrian-only streets paved in white marble, lively bars built within ancient walls, boats cruising the glittering Adriatic, old men strumming mandolins to the tunes of classic folk songs, what’s not to love about Split??

The Roman Emperor Diocletian seemed to agree.  After 21 years of ruling the world’s largest empire, he decided it was time to cash in his pension and enjoy his golden years.  He chose Split as the location for his retirement home and spent 10 years building a massive palace right on the sea. After Diocletian’s death in 313 A.D., Roman Emperors continued to retreat to this heavily fortified paradise across the Adriatic. Not a bad vacation spot, eh? The only problem was that the Empire eventually fell, and the palace was abandoned.

Having lived in Rome for a year, I’m used to being kept at a distance from monuments. These treasures of antiquity are usually preserved and protected behind glass panels, bars and railings. Not the case for Diocletian’s Palace. After the fall of the Empire, people from neighboring villages sought refuge in the palace and over the centuries, a city literally grew from within its walls. Markets, shops, art galleries, hostels, and restaurants flourish today within the architectural framework of the ancients.

Favorite Split Moment: while strolling the narrow streets after dinner, we stumbled upon a central piazza filled with people; naturally we planted ourselves on a marble step and took in the scene. It was such a mixture of culture and generations: little British kids running in circles and playing tag while their parents plan the activities for tomorrow, local teenagers awkwardly trying to flirt, old men chatting over a drink, street performers dancing to live music…I could have stayed for hours.

The following is a collection of my favorites from Split:


Slowly Answering Questions

Last Thursday marked the 20-month anniversary of the day I left the U.S. on a one way ticket. And I’m now starting to feel pressure from my loved ones across the pond…surely you can’t keep hopping around forever, when are you going to settle down? When are you coming home? Aren’t you interested in finding a job that’s more secure?  You’ll be turning 30 soon, when are you going to start laying a foundation for the family you say you want to raise?

My answer is exactly as it was this time last year – I don’t know. In the past year, I’ve become much more comfortable with the fact that I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what my life looks like in 2 years, 5 years, or even next month. I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. But I do know one thing for certain. The life that exists for me back in the States is not right for me, certainly not now and possibly not ever. I am doing exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing: wandering this great world of ours, open to anything that comes my way. If I took myself off this course so that I could prepare for the future, I’d be forgetting everything I’ve learned since I left home.

To look at life as a question to be answered or a goal to be achieved is missing the point of living. Life is about finding your passion and pursuing your dreams, wherever that may take you. And that is precisely what I’m doing. So if living paycheck-to-paycheck with a free spirit and a happy heart today means that I might struggle more in the future, so be it. Onward!!


Foto del Giorno#4 – Family Distractions!!!

My sorellina (little sister) brought some much needed good luck to the stadium!!

My sorellina (little sister) brought some much-needed good luck to the stadium!! Roma 2, Torino 0!

Please excuse my absence…I’ve been hosting visitors over the past month! I’ve got many posts coming, including my photos from the Balkans, my arch theme, more fun with the Italian language, etc…stay tuned!

 

 


Parola del Giorno #6 – Cappuccino

The cappuccino: Italy’s favorite breakfast beverage. One part espresso, one part steamed milk, one part foam. Though the simplicity of its ingredients should not to be taken lightly; it’s all too easy to burn the espresso or overheat the milk. In this country of food-snobs, a great cappuccino is an acceptable reason to be late to work while a bad cappuccino is an acceptable reason to boycott a certain bar. Considered to be a delicate form of art, the cappuccino is most enjoyable when your favorite English student demonstrates his confidence in using the Present Simple and Object Pronouns:

But what does the word “Cappuccino” actually mean?

We know that the suffix -ino is a diminutive which communicates the smallness of an object. And the word Cappuccio means “hood” in Italian, as in Little Red Riding Cappuccio. So what does a little hood have in common with a coffee drink? A 16th century Order of Catholic Friars, obviously.

The Cappuccin Order was a group of friars who broke off from the Franciscan Order. St. Francis of Assisi renounced all material things and in dedicating his life to serving God, he lived in extreme poverty. The Cappuccini took these ideas to the next level: the monasteries were not allowed to possess anything, the friars practiced regular fasting and were only permitted to store food sufficient for 2-3 days. Everything was acquired by begging and the friars were not allowed to touch money.

Still, how does this all relate to coffee? Their dress code. The Cappuccini were so named because of their unique tunic from which hung a large pointed hood – a cappuccio. The tunic was a rich, warm brown color and accompanied only by a wool cord wrapped around the waist.

The combination of colors, the brown tunic and the cream-colored cord, was the inspiration for the name of our favorite frothy cappuccino.


Foto(s) del Giorno #3 – Sagra dell’Uva

Last weekend, Marino threw a party and everyone was invited.  The tiny, medieval town 20 minutes outside Rome hosted its annual Sagra dell’Uva – Grape Festival – in honor and celebration of the Battle of Lepanto (1571). How that relates to grapes or wine, I have no idea. But if there’s one thing Italians know how to do, it’s throw a street party.

Local vendors set up stands offering porchetta (a regional specialty), arrosticini (grilled lamb skewers), cheeses, cookies, and of course wine…lots and lots of wine. On Sunday afternoon, after a weekend full of jousting tournaments and parades, all attention is turned to the central piazza as thousands wait anxiously for the “Miracle of the Fountain.” Water turns into wine, literally, and chaos ensues. The thirsty crowd, armed with plastic cups, pushes their way toward the front hoping to get their share of the golden nectar.

I know, I know…Only in Italy.

While a very healthy glass of wine could be purchased for 50 cents at any of the stands surrounding the piazza, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drink wine directly from a city fountain. Eugenio and I braved the masses and we squeezed our way to the front to take part in the miracle. And believe me, the happiness of holding a half liter bottle of fountain-wine was worth every minute of the panic and fear of being trampled!!

Marino’s Sagra dell’Uva goes back to 1925, with the most infamous year being 2008…the countdown to the miracle…10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1 AND………………..water. Imagine the disappointment on the faces in the crowd and the embarassment of city officials as this miraculous fountain ends up giving water. A few minutes later, a woman ran to her balcony overlooking the piazza and screamed “Miracolo!!” A plumbing error resulted in wine flowing into the pipes of neighboring houses instead of the main fountain.

Marino, where wine is so abundant that it flows from your kitchen sink!!!


FantaCalcio

Question: What do 13 Italian men do in the back room of a café/bar from 10pm-2am on a Thursday night?  Yes, it’s perfectly legal…and no, it has nothing to do with the mafia (at least I don’t think so, though I’m learning that the mafia is a part of everything in this country).

Answer: They draft their FantaCalcio teams.

Seasonal depression hits Italian men hard during the summer months. The heat, the humidity, the mosquitoes, and even the tourists would all be bearable but for the fact that there is no soccer from mid-June until late-August. No Sunday or Wednesday games. No Champions League. No betting. No Derbys (games between rival teams). What is a poor tifoso – fan – to do but slip into a state of utter apathy? In fact, it must have been clinically advised by American doctors to overlap the football, basketball, and baseball seasons so that no American man would have to suffer this between-season slump.

But all is not lost!!  August comes and the country shuts down for vacation. After a week or three of soaking up all that this Mediterranean sun has to offer, Italians return home to prepare for the FantaCalcio draft. These soccer fanatics dedicate hours upon hours to the careful study and assessment of the 450+ players in Serie A – Italy’s highest national league. I imagine that this transition from absolute ambivalence to freakish obsession is the #1 cause of autumn breakups, marital disputes, shirked responsibilities and missed appointments in the country.

If only girlfriends and wives could understand the significance of the FantaCalcio draft! It cannot be underestimated; you’re bound to its outcome for the entire season. And in your tight circle of friends, cousins, and brothers, any mistake will likely haunt you for an eternity.  My poor boyfriend is still the butt of numerous jokes for a player his “co-manager” chose several years ago – a no-name rookie who was believed to be “a secret weapon.” This player proceeded to enter his first Serie A game, played horribly, and remained on the bench for the rest of the season, a dead weight his FantaCalcio team. Despite the years that have passed, I’ve witnessed numerous occasions in which, one way or another, this player’s name comes up and everyone has a good laugh at Eugenio’s expense.

Sidenote: he has since decided to fly solo and manage his own team.

But back to the draft. Being the ragazza of the bar’s owner certainly has its advantages. In addition to cappucini with my name written in chocolate syrup, I was granted “press access” to this intense, testosterone-only, annual FantaCalcio draft.

The object of the evening was to place 26 players on each of the 8 FantaCalcio teams – 208 players total…TWO HUNDRED EIGHT!! Given that number, it should come as no surprise that the research and analysis starts weeks in advance. These guys carefully create their strategy, giving every desired player an appropriate value and maximum purchase price; after all, with a limited amount of money, it might be prudent to pass on a phenomenal player if you can get 2 or 3 great players for the same amount.

Next, each manager needed to decide which players from last year’s team he wants to keep. A responsible manager should evaluate each player’s performance, age, health, attitude (red/yellow cards count against you), and liklihood of seeing a lot of playing time. In order to keep a player, the manager must pay the same price as last year.  All other players are sent back to the market as free agents. Once the market is set and everyone knows which players are available for purchase, the draft begins. Each team has 800 “euro” to spend (likely representing 800,000 euro), less the amount paid to keep players from the previous season.

Starting with goalkeepers, one at a time a manager calls out the name of a player – any goalkeeper on any Serie A team. It’s then an auction process, and the player goes to the highest bidder.  The next manager calls a goalkeeper of his choice and there’s another bidding session. This continues in a circle until every coach has 4 keepers on his team. At this point, it’s time for a cigarette and definitely an espresso…the night is young and we still have 176 players to go..

After strategies have been assessed and tempers calmed, the bidding process starts for the defense.  Same protocol as before until every team has 8 defenders. Another cigarette, another espresso. Then the auction for 8 midfielders…smoke and/or caffinate…and lastly 6 forwards.

Finally every manager has his dream team. Sleep deprived, red-eyed and mentally exhausted they leave the bar holding onto the hope that this year is going to bring them glory and bragging rights. And thus begins the FantaCalcio season, a “friendly” competition which lasts the duration of the season and just another reason why Italians are out-of-their-minds obsessed with the sport.


Croatian Islands – Done Right

Croatia has over 1,100 islands along its coast. So how are you ever supposed to choose which ones to visit?!?  The lack of a personal yacht and the limitations of a seemingly random ferry schedule can certainly help narrow down the criteria. Still, with the sheer number of islands between Dubrovnik and Split alone, it’s tempting to chart out an island-hopping adventure to give you a little taste of everything. But the more I thought about it, the less the idea appealed to me. Like a meal consisting of only samples, I was sure that a “3-4 islands in 5 days” type of adventure would leave me unsatisfied and still feeling hungry.

So after much thought and deliberation, I determined it would be better to plant on one island and really experience it rather than spread ourselves too thin. And it was by far the best decision I made in those 5 days. We decided on the island of Korčula – best known as the birth place of Marco Polo.  While Korčula town can be seen in a matter of hours, the island itself is massive with numerous hidden beaches and fishing villages waiting to be discovered.

We rented a scooter for three days (60 euro) and found just about everything Korčula had to offer: wine & grappa tasting in Smokvica, agritourismo dinners, the sandy beaches of Lombarda, stargazing in Zrnovo, discovering all the shades of turquoise & aqua at Vaja beach, tropical beverages on top of a medieval city wall, and the sleepy fishing villages of Račišće and Zavalatica.

These photos highlight my time in Korčula, with the addition of a few from Mljet Island (an easy half hour ferry ride from Korčula town).


On ignorance, culture, and technology

I don’t usually write about current events, nor do I like to express my political and religious views outside of dinnertime conversations.  My writings are focused more on my experiences and observations as I dive into other cultures. That said I refuse to stand in silence as the Middle East erupts in anti-American riots and attacks US Embassies. I am disgusted by this anti-Muslim film and I’m incredibly saddened that it has prompted violence which will only add to the Western fear of Muslims and of Islam.

Look, the debate between free speech and incitement of imminent lawless action is nothing new. There are numerous U.S. Supreme Courts cases in which we’ve established limits to the extent of one’s ability to speak freely.  Fear, intolerance, and hatred of another person’s beliefs are also nothing new. We’ve seen the Inquisition, witch-hunts, the Holocaust, and the recent genocide in the Balkans. What is new is the ability of an individual to broadcast their views to all corners of the earth in a matter of seconds. The fact that a low-budget, poorly made and little known film in California can spark riots halfway across the world is unprecedented.

We are more connected now than ever before. Not just with friends on Facebook or to our families via Skype while we travel, but as a people across languages and nations, technology has brought us closer together. We have gained an incredible ability to share ideas and learn from one another; we also have the means to share our experiences with loved ones back home who don’t have the ability to travel themselves.  However, in an effort to become connected as one global people, we are losing our own individual cultures. The McDonaldization of the world means that any capital city in any country around the world feels less foreign. Rome feels more and more like Paris, New York, Beijing or Dubai every day.

Walking along the boardwalk in Split, Croatia, my boyfriend and I saw a group of elderly Croatian men and women sitting together, sharing wine, strumming a few mandolins and singing classic Croatian folk songs.  We sat and listened for the better part of an hour, taking in the beauty of their song.  Eugenio commented that Romans used to do that in Rome too, but it hasn’t been around for decades.  Sadly, it’s a dying tradition in Italy and likely in Croatia as well.  There are so many trades, crafts, songs, and traditions that will die with the passing away of a generation. And these customs are being replaced by a desire to have an iPhone in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other regardless of whether you’re in Istanbul, Singapore, or San Francisco.

The beauty of humanity is in our differences; they are to be celebrated, not feared. The Taj Mahal, Pyramids of Egypt, Coliseum, and Angkor Wat wouldn’t be as majestic if they were all built by the same hand in the same style.  And that’s what we’re risking here. By seeking the familiar and fearing the unknown, we’re turning into a homogenous, boring society.  And that is nothing short of tragic.

We have to try harder to go off the beaten path. We have to seek out uncomfortable conversations with those who don’t share our ideas. And we must do so with an open heart and an open mind, ready to accept our differences and respect each other.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, Sarajevo

I have encountered numerous American travelers who’ve told me of their fear of Muslims. A friend of mine even dared to say that it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t know any better; he said the U.S. media was to blame for his fear. Anyone who knows me can imagine my outrage at that statement. It’s one thing to be ignorant and unaware of your ignorance. But if you’re ignorant, you acknowledge your ignorance, and then you proceed to blame the media for giving you a bias, then that’s just being lazy and stupid. It’s this laziness that is perpetuating the American fear of Muslims, and it makes me sick.

With regard to the film and subsequent riots across the Middle East, I have no immediate solution to offer.  Clearly the film was founded in hatred and was produced with the intent of inciting rage. It worked. Further, the film is protected by the first amendment, as are numerous other forms of distasteful and hateful ideas. It’s not the first video of its kind, it certainly won’t be the last, and we can’t expect or allow the government to censor every piece of information circulating the internet to determine whether or not it may spark riots.

On both sides, I believe it all comes down to ignorance. Ignorance on the part of the West for failing to study and appreciate the Muslim culture; for all the Muslims I’ve met, whether they were Egyptian, Moroccan, Bosnian, Turkish or American, have been the most generous and humble people on earth. Ignorance on the part of the Muslims for failing to study the principles on which America was founded; if they learned about the sacrifices made by our Founding Fathers in order to give us the gift of free speech, no matter what our beliefs may be, perhaps they could understand why this film is protected speech.

If the problem is ignorance, then the answer is education.  Don’t simply buy into what the mainstream media portrays.  Dig around a bit, do some fact checking of your own.  As Malcom X warned, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”  Whether it’s reading, watching, listening, or debating, we have a duty to seek information to destroy our own bias and prejudice.  Exercise that brilliant organ residing in your skull. Rather than devolve into a world of fear and hatred of all that is different, let us use the technology at our fingertips as a means to learn about one another so that we can love, preserve and appreciate those differences.

~Rant of a Wanderer, 9/18/2012


Third Time’s A Charm

While preparing for my semester abroad in the Fall of 2006, I learned that I had a one-week break in September. Having already backpacked the majority of Western Europe, my first thought was “CROATIA!!” A newly independent nation untraveled and, better yet, unheard of by most Americans. Cheap and off the beaten path? Just my style.

My initial research started as it always does – a search on Google Images to get an idea of some of the natural wonders of the region. My search for “Croatia National Park” led me to this photo:

Sold.

I took an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia and spent that mid-September week exploring Split and Dubrovnik, hoping to take a day trip to see Plitvice Lakes National Parks. I should have looked better at my maps. With the limited time I had and the infrequent bus schedule during “low season,” I couldn’t get there. Disappointment.

Croatia Round Two – I had 3 days in Croatia at the end of August, 2011 and I put Plitvice Lakes at the top of my To Do list thinking that this time around the bus schedules would be to my advantage. But the downside of travelling in peak season is that you’re subject to peak season pricing. Croatia had been discovered and prices had skyrocketed in the booming tourist economy. To see that National Park I would have spent 5+ hours in the bus each way, for no less than 100 euro, no thank you.  I opted instead to take a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia, an experience that moved me more than I expected. Still no waterfalls.

Croatia Round Three – I found myself approaching August, 2012 with a gaping hole in my work schedule. Most Italians take their 1-3 week vacation in August and head for the beaches; those who stay in Rome aren’t too interested in English lessons. I took the opportunity to head to the Balkans for 5 weeks, making Plitvice Lakes National Park my absolute #1 priority. It wasn’t easy to organize, but I’m happy to say that after 6 years, I finally made it to those waterfalls!!! And they lived up to their hype, see for yourself (and imagine their beauty & power in April when the water’s high):


Photo of the Day – Bosniak Cemetary in Sarajevo

Sunset in Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) Cemetary overlooking Sarajevo

Some statistics:

1,425 – number of days Sarajevo was under seige by Serbian forces wishing to create a Bosnian-Serb state

11,000+ number of deaths in Sarajevo alone

1,500+ number of child deaths

500+ estimated number of people a skilled sniper killed during this time

329 – average number of shells fired per day (maximum was 3,777 in July, 1993)

159 – number of grams of food distributed per person per day (for nearly 4 years)

67 – number of people killed by a shell fired into an open-air market

16.5 – number of years that have past since the Dayton Agreement which ended the war

4 – number of religions that co-existed for centuries in Sarajevo (Eastern Orthodox, Islam, Catholic, Jewish)

Sarajevo is currently considered to be safe and has quite a thriving atmosphere. The city has tried hard to show the world that it is once again a place of multi-cultural acceptance and religious tolerance. But I can’t help but wonder how much pain and hatred remains in the hearts of its people. After what they endured, I can’t say that I blame them. They surely won’t forget, let’s hope nobody does, but can they truly forgive?


Copy Paste

Zadar, “Zara” for the Ancient Romans, is a small port town in the northern Dalmatian Coast.  It is classically Croatian with blinding white marble streets, narrow alleyways, and charming cafes. The city is not exactly a “must-see” as the main attractions are few, but I chose to stay a few days to catch up on some reading, researching and relaxing.

I covered all the tourist sites on my first afternoon stroll through town. The cathedral, the ancient forum, the sea organ which hums a few notes with every passing wave…check, check, and check. And just when I thought I had seen everything, I stumbled across a fast food joint that made me do a triple take. Identical in logo, color, and slogan; this was a photo opportunity not to be missed.

The worker asked me something in Croatian. Having no idea what he said, I simply pointed to the name written on the awning and said, “very famous in the USA.”  He laughed and responded in very broken English, “Yes. Google. Copy Paste.”

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Without a doubt, the internet has made the world a smaller place. Because of it, we can now add In n’ Out to the list of Fast Food joints operating internationally.

No, I didn’t eat there. Tempted as I was, I didn’t think it would quite live up to the name.


Kids These Days

A Croatian Experience

The old man started his work as soon as the wheels of the 8am bus rolled out of the Zadar station. As he worked his way through the front half of the bus, I realized that his work day started 3 hours ago in Split and he still had 7 hours to go until Pula. Quite a long day for an elderly man, I decided to forgive him for his lack of warmth when asking me for my ticket. Without a word, he moved on to the person sitting next to me.

I know precisely 6 words in Croatian: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, wine and beer. Hey, I have my priorities. But I didn’t need fluency to gauge the gist of the conversation that unfolded between the ticket man and my seat-mate, a teenager in every sense of the word. It went a little something like this:

Ticket please?

       Yah. Look here. (holds up his computer with confirmation of online purchase)

Fine, but do you have a ticket?

      Yes, it’s here. (Points again to computer)

No, I mean a ticket. Holds stack of bus tickets he’s collected from the front half of the bus.

      Yes, look. See here? I paid using visa.

NO! A ticket must be on paper.

      But here is the logo of the bus company, and a confirmation number of my purchase!

The ticket man, shaking his head and muttering under his breath, wrote down the boy’s confirmation number and continued to the rest of the bus. A half hour later, he came back with a receipt in his hand, nodding his head that the company confirmed via telephone that this crazy “purchase confirmation” was in fact valid. The boy is free to ride the bus without a fine.

Kids these days.


What I learned at Summer Camp

How does a Wanderer end the school year and kick off the summer? She heads for Umbria to teach English at a Summer Camp for three weeks. Just me and five others against an army of 30 of Italy’s most darling little angels. In addition to losing my voice, teaching the importance of sportsmanship, and pulling out 8,000 splinters, I made several observations about the lifestyles and habits of Italian youth.

Things I learned at Summer Camp:

  • Italian mothers are master packers – daily outfits, including morning and evening attire, are put in separate plastic bags and labeled with the day of the week.
  • While Marco Polo was Italian, the swimming pool game named in his honor is not internationally recognized.
  • Six kids will overcome two grown men 100% of the time in tug-o-war.
  • All Italians fear death from the phenomenon known as “La Congestione” (no available English translation), caused by swimming too soon after eating. And most kids will tell you that they know someone who died from it.
  • If the Azzurri (Italian soccer team) are playing, you better be prepared to reorganize the week’s schedule so the kids can watch the game.
  • For every 30 kids, at least 1 will actually like the flavor of Marmite (same as Vegemite).
  • In a Bake-the-Cake competition, the real battle is a debate over who’s nonna – grandma – has the best secret recipe
  • Any means of retaliation (physical, verbal, or psychological) is fair game if someone has insulted your mamma.
  • As a counselor, your best weapon to prevent attempted room-escape is a deck of cards or a magic trick.
  • Any Italian can tell you that there are only 6 continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, Antarctica, and America. North, South, and Central are all one.
  • Mascaccia – means tomboy, and according to the kids, I am still one of them.
  • Everybody loves dodgeball.

Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy’s ruined me

The next time you come across an Italian, ask about their experiences eating food outside of Italy and be prepared for a half hour rant about the horrors of foreign cuisine.

It’s a well known fact that Italians are masters of the culinary arts, and we love them for their ability to take an empty refrigerator and somehow come up with a mind-blowing first & second course meal. For the past year, I have had the pleasure of listening to many spontaneous lectures on topics ranging from “Pasta: the proper way to boil water” to “Food Pairing Nightmares: a sure and sudden death when mixed.” Seriously, just the thought of adding a glass of orange juice to your breakfast yogurt is enough to give an Italian a side cramp. Apparently acidic foods and dairy should NEVER mix in your stomach.

And when it comes to eating non-Italian cuisine, Italians are the worst. Food Snob or Picky Eater doesn’t even come close to describing their attitude toward foreign food. Plain and simple, taking an Italian to a restaurant outside of Italy is like trying to make a 5-year old eat caviar. A simple cheese plate appetizer in the fisherman’s village of Racisce, Croatia resulted in the following look of disapproval:

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While he is a trooper and quite an adventurous eater for an Italian, I knew that it would be difficult to meet my boyfriend’s expectations when it came time to eating in Croatia. For that reason I did my homework, consulting and cross-referencing 3 different guidebooks as well as Trip Advisor – I was careful and deliberate in my research and was very excited to show my Roman that fish can be cooked well outside of Italian coastal towns.

What I did not consider was the fact that the authors of the books and internet reviews were all American or British – it doesn’t exactly take much to impress us. To a Brit, a gorgeous red tomato is about the best thing on earth. But that same tomato is finto – fake – to an Italian, lacking not only flavor, but also the proper texture and juiciness. The result of my hard work was 4 consecutive nights of looking at the same Italian face of utter disappointment.

But the incredible thing was that Eugenio was not alone. I found that I was also surprised at the fact that our grilled fish had been coated in salt and olive oil – fresh fish on a grill has a flavor so brilliant that it needs no seasoning. Why would they destroy that flavor with herbs and spices? Was it to mask the fact that the fish wasn’t fresh? Our scampi, squid-ink risotto, and calamari were all decent, but certainly not of the highest quality. Come on, this is Croatia! It doesn’t exactly take much to pull fish out of the Mediterranean. They practically jump into your boat, begging to be eaten! And don’t even get me started on the octopus salad, a staple dish on the Dalmatian Coast. We ordered it 3 times in 2 different towns – the octopus itself was usually good, tender instead of the rubbery texture you often find in the States. But after I finished the salad, I found myself with a mountain of red onion on the side of my plate. They put WAY too much onion in this dish, and it completely overpowered the flavor of the octopus. UGH!

Now wait just a minute…what am I saying?!?!? Too much red onion? Olive oil and salt to mask the lack of freshness? Here I am, in Croatia, reluctantly ordering from a menu with my fingers crossed, hoping that perhaps this time the dish might meet my expectations. Damn it – I am criticizing foreign food like an Italian!!!! Italia mi ha rovinato – Italy has ruined me. Am I ever to enjoy food outside of Italy again?

The answer is yes. The best meal I’ve had so far in Croatia was night #5 in Korcula. The restaurant: our studio apartment. The food: mussels, scampi, and spigola (sea bass) purchased by yours truly at 6am on the docks. The chef: my Roman. I suppose I better get used to eating better at home than I do in a restaurant.


Parola del Giorno #5 – Tiramisu

Every once in a while I have a moment when something just clicks. And it’s always something incredibly obvious. Call it a brain fart or a blond moment (because by Italian standards I am actually considered blond, seriously) but for whatever reason it’s a connection I never made before. In retrospect it’s always “oh duh, how did i never think of that?” But in that one moment, that moment when it clicks, it’s an incredible discovery.

My most recent revelation happened on a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the park. I was having a picnic lunch with my ragazzo Romano (roman boy) and he was in the process of cutting some fruit. His sleeve was falling down and since his hands were sticky, he asked me, “Puoi tirarmi su?” Without registering the words he used, I helped him pull up his sleeve.

And then it clicked.

Tirare, the verb “to pull.” The imperative form tirami means “pull me,”  and su simply means “up.”  Tirami – pull me – su – up….tirami su…pull me up.  Tiramisu…….yummmmmmmmmmm.  The dessert that never sees an oven, impossible to consume without feeling instant bliss. Key ingredients include espresso, chocolate, mascarpone cheese, and a liqueur of your choice (my favorite is Chambord). Delicious. Or in the words of a dear friend in San Francisco, amazeballs.

So there you have it, my “oh duh” moment was the discovery that Italy’s most famous dessert is appropriately called a “pick-me-up” in Italian.


Day Trip: Underground Narni

Rome can be excruciating in the summer months. Scorching sun, scalding pavement and unbearable humidity – it truly is an inferno. So what do the Romans do?  They leave their city to the tourists and get the hell out of here. And being the groupie that I am, I followed suit. Last week, my Roman and I took the train one hour north to the Umbrian hill town of Narni.

I had never heard of Narni. I suppose when competing against Assisi, Orvieto, Perugia, and Spoleto, Narni doesn’t exactly make the cut as an Umbrian “must-see.” But after having spent the afternoon wandering its charming medieval cobblestoned streets, I can truly say it made an impression.

Most notably was the Narni Sottoterranea – Narni Underground – tour, an eerie glimpse into Narni’s hidden past.  Our guide explained that these underground chambers were discovered in 1979 by a group of amateur spelunkers (a.k.a. bored teenage boys). The boys thought that there may have been something of interest beneath the existing Church of San Domenico and asked permission from a local farmer to knock down a wall of his chicken coop to start digging.

They were right. Almost immediately, they discovered an 8th century church with frescoed walls and ceilings. Further excavations have revealed human bones under the church floor – our guide casually informed us that it was a common practice to use dirt, rocks, and bones as filler. To describe it as unsettling is an understatement.  The last time I saw human bones, they were on display at a museum, protected by several inches of glass. I’m not exactly accustomed to walking over human skulls or femurs sticking out of the ground. This tour had already sent chills down my spine, and we had barely begun.

From the wall of the chapel, the boys continued digging and ended up in an ancient Roman cistern used to store the city’s water. The replicas of the tools used to ensure straight and level digging is testament to the Roman genius in architecture and design.

While the discovery of an underground church and ancient cistern would be enough for me, the boys thought there could still be more. They dug from the cistern along a corridor which emptied into a dark, windowless room.

The Inquisition was here. That dark period of history in which prisoners suffered through inhumane and excruciating torture methods in the name of uncovering the truth. A few of the devices, including the infamous “stretcher,” were reconstructed to give us an idea of the setup of the Interrogation Room. The imprisoned was placed lengthwise on the table with his hands and feet bound, the ropes wrapped around a wheel. During the interrogation, the wheel would be cranked slowly and methodically to dislocate or completely sever the limbs. Amazing what the human race is capable of, isn’t it?

Adjoining the Interrogation Room was a small, dark cell which held prisoners for what must have seemed like an eternity. What our amateur spelunkers found in the cell was straight out of “The Da Vinci Code.” The walls and ceiling of the cell were completely covered in graffiti. Their artist was a soldier accused of ties to the Freemasons, equivalent to heresy in the eyes of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition.

My knowledge of the Freemasons is abysmal at best. But the repetition of cryptic messages, key numbers, and Masonic symbols in that room, along with their undeniable connection to Christianity, left me wanting to learn more.

Puzzles and cryptograms aside, one of the more interesting historical aspects of these two rooms is the amount of effort and luck it took to unveil their purpose. In 1979, there was absolutely no known documentation of their existence. Imagine digging underground with your friends, stumbling across a prisoner’s cell filled with Freemason symbols and then not being able to find anything in court documents, town records, history books, niente, zip, zilch, nadda. It seems as though the Catholic Church tried desperately to erase all evidence of this chapter in Narni’s history.

It took some pretty incredible coincidences involving the right people at the right place and time to locate documents detailing the trials which took place in that room. A team of researchers were able to link papers in the Vatican Archives with the Narni municipal archives. But oddly enough, it wasn’t until they were connected with a professor at Dublin’s Trinity College that they were able to really put the puzzle together. It really makes you think about what other stories have been hidden underneath Italy’s hill towns. Anyone feel like spelunking?


Spiaggia di Notte – Beach Nightlife

I have a lot to thank my grandmother for: my height, my love of crossword puzzles, my addiction to travel, my thirst for knowledge, and my appreciation of a good stiff drink. One thing I am less than thrilled about is my fair, Irish skin. Sure, I can build up a tan, but it takes several weeks (if not months) of patient sunscreen application…slowly but surely working my way from SPF 50+ to 30 to 20 and finally to 15. I will let Nivea thank my grandmother for that.

While I can’t partake in the #1 Italian Summer Pastime (spending hours at the beach worshipping the sun gods), I am lucky in that the Roman beaches are also fantastic at night. A quick ride on the trenino will take you to Ostia, and to a boardwalk packed with people taking a passeggiata – evening stroll. Stop by any of the beachfront establishments to enjoy a drink, dinner, or discoteca.

ImageIf you’re looking for a mellow evening and just want to chill on the sand with a group of amici, head to Vittoria Beach Bar. The bar itself is a mere 15 feet from the sea, and they’ve wisely chosen to keep their umbrellas open and lounge chairs out all night. Throw in some good music and the sound of Mediterranean waves and you have yourself a little slice of heaven. Let’s just say it’s swiftly becoming my late-night favorite.

And who wants to do laundry on a Sunday night when you can go to Apericena at Tibidabu Beach? It’s an aperitivo, turned into dinner – 15 euro gets you a drink and access to an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet, complete with prosciutto, salami, pizza, grilled veggies, and pastas. Once you’ve had your fill, head to the dance floor which really gets going at 10pm. Romans of all ages, shapes, and sizes get their groove on to the best of the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s. It is pretty much impossible not to dance when you see a 70+ year old man imitate his teenage grandson doing the YMCA. The fun ends at midnight, and you’re at home and asleep by 1am. A perfect way to end the weekend.

p.s. I am fully adjusted to the Italian practice of eating dinner at 9pm (or later), going to sleep at 1am, and waking up at 8am. In the case of a later-than-usual night, or one-too-many drinks, well…that’s what cappuccini are for.