Tag Archives: travel

Venezia

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Three and a half scorching days under the Mediterranean sun have turned the tops of my shoulders and cheeks into the color of ripe nectarines. My hair has remained a mess of windblown curls, liberated by the heat of the sun instead of an infrared ceramic coil of a blow dryer. My feet are enjoying a break from the uneven cobblestones of Prague, but I still managed to break a pair of sandals and detached the sole of my favorite pair of flats (which, in all fairness, have now been superglued back together three times). In this heat, where you can nearly feel the melanin bursting under the surface of your skin, it’s all strapless bras and hair ties.

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Crowds congregate near small water spigots, dipping their heads under the cool water and filling water bottles while dogs lick puddles around the drain in their own effort to cool off. A large group of teenage boys are splashing and laughing in a language that sounds like Dutch. One reaches in his pocket for a phone and begins lip synching Marvin Gays, Lets Get it On as it plays from his iPhone. We can’t help but blush a bit and laugh along with them at the silliness of it all. We don’t understand the words, but our shared laughter is universal and unmistakable.

At dinner, we ask for a table outside by the canal so we can watch the sunset. Instead of making us wait, we are brought a table and chairs from inside. We are sitting next to a woman and her son and his grandfather. They speak very quickly, laughing and singing in the way that Italians do when they speak. A man with an accordion comes up to our table and plays, while the little boy dances and gives him euros, one coin at a time, slowly sucking the pulp out of the moment so it isn’t over too quickly.

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The next night, we go out with Mei, who we met at the hostel, and have cocktails by the water. She tells us of her travels, her home in Malaysia, and all of the places we must visit in Asia. We ask a French filmographer seated at a table next to us to take our photo. We ask about his work, but he is short and rejects our offer to join us. (He did take a good picture though.) To our left is a man Lauren quite accurately refers to as “Fabio”. He has long Italian features, muscles bursting out of his clothes and a thick accent which he over apologizes for. He has a chihuahua named Papi who we pet and baby talk while we ask him about Venice and share the few words we have in common. I ask how he feels about the endless crowds packing the streets and he says, “Tourism is very good no? Good for Venice” he rubs his index finger and thumb together and smiles widely, his bleached teeth in complete contrast with his dark, sun soaked skin. He picks up our drink tab at the end of the evening, and after our profuse thanking dies down, he touches the tips of all his fingers together and kisses them in a sweeping motion “tourists!” he says.

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After the sun sets, we walk toward the center of the city in hopes of finding a lively bar and more friendly Italians to usher us into the early morning hours. We come across one of the few open bars, order spritzers, and take them outside to sit on the steps of a fountain. We are next to a group of college students who are laughing and drinking and passing joints around between them, mumbling and teasing each other and filling the square with echoes of laughter and the rising and falling of the language. I begin talking to a 19 year-old girl next to me who is studying Arabic at the university. Her friends quickly join in after they realize we bought her second glass of wine. And so, our laughter and linguistic twangs blend with theirs and hangs in the air somewhere between the drifting smoke and the edge of the ozone layer. We drink together, share small pieces of our lives, and exchange curse words with each other, laughing and saying them too loudly through the empty streets.

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So once again, Italy leaves me feeling full. Full of spirit and life and excited for people and these mini relationships that are fleeting in the physical sense, but linger in my mind. People see pictures of Venice and imagine themselves floating down a canal in a gondola and eating gelato from a still-warm waffle cone. And it is that. It’s sherbet colored sunsets and calzones as big as your head and overpriced cocktails. But it’s also a people, a slower pace, a love for food, and passion for life that no photo or blog can sufficiently capture.

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The Prague Metro

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It’s a Tuesday. I look out the window, up at the sky, contemplating if I should go with rain boots or moccasins. Typical overcast day, the sun trying its best to break through the thick ceiling of clouds and failing to do so. I see the people four floors below, walking to whatever it is they try to convince themselves matters. Slowly marching toward the unavoidable underground fate that awaits us all. They are wearing hats and scarves and boots, so the march today is a cold one. I go to my mirror boudoir, and stare into the eyes looking back at me. The light from the window behind me, pouring into my room, casting a halo around my reflection. These eyes are so much older than the ones I remember. I curse myself for not being braver, for not seeing more than I have, for not accomplishing something great. Not loving enough, or hurting enough or helping enough.  The blank expression of the person in front of me isn’t the person I thought I’d become. I tell myself that today will be the day that I become something, but it’s only Tuesday. Seems like the weekend would be better for such dreams.

I open the mirrored door, ridden with oily fingerprints, and reach for my winter coat. I run my arm through one sleeve, then the other, finick with the broken zipper until I get it binded, then zip it up to my neck. I reach for the brown suede boots and slip my feet into them, heading toward the door with key in hand. Then, down the four flights of winding stairs and automatic lights to the front gate. Someone’s left it open again, so I pull it open without having to use the key. I slam it hard behind me, harder than I meant to.

Although the air has a hue of grey and the cold is biting at my earlobes and finger tips, I’m happy to be here. To be outside, the crisp air filling my lungs, recirculating my blood. I’m walking up the hill toward I.P. Pavlova. Past the small potraviny that charges too much for bread, past the large non-stop potraviny where I buy most of my groceries. I see strawberries in the window. Still overpriced and out of season. I begin salivating for spring time and fresh produce and the promise of a sun that will break through the clouds and warm my face. I long for the feeling of a hot sun beating down through chilled air. I take a sharp right turn and run across the street toward Namesti Miru; the green line. I cross when the pedestrian walking signal is red because I know it’s about to change. I’ve only been here a few months, but I’ve figured out the traffic enough to know when it’s my turn. The Czech people stand waiting at the same light, knowing better than I, yet they stand obediently waiting for the little man to turn green. Bred by communism, afraid to step before the little green man grants them permission.

Up the hill toward Namesti Miru, walking quickly, passing up the clicking of women’s heels against cobblestone streets. I defy another red man, walking into the park toward the metro entrance. I pass a man sitting on a bench, his hands cupped in front of him, a hat covering most of his face. He’s smiling slightly, lips bent up with admiration and jealousy,as he watches his dog chase pigeons through the grass. Fat birds teasing the Labrador by flying just out of his reach. They are bored, unamused, yet desperate to collect the microscopic crumbs around the garbage can. The dog runs, his tongue hanging out of his smiling mouth, jumping and spinning and playing the way that dogs do. It makes me smile unintentionally as well, joyous envy for his carefree leaps. I think to myself that there is a lesson here somewhere; the fat rummaging pigeons, the crumbs, the careless leaping dog and the old man with the hat.

I walk past the people standing at the tram with their briefcases and backpacks and morning cigarettes. Past the hotdog stand that smells like a highschool football game. Soggy wieners steaming in metal, filling the air with the smell of cooking flesh, mixing with the choking smoke of tobacco. If you ask me what Prague smells like, that would be my answer: sausage and Marlboros. It sounds repulsive, but the smell soon becomes addicting. It becomes morning, afternoon and night. It is the vivaciousness of the city and the people and everything that life here embodies. Burning meat and smoke.

I quickly move down the stairs into the metro, the cold air rushing past me, chilling the sweat around my hairline. On the escalator, and a long journey down. Some days I run down the stairs, but today I’m just standing, watching the people on the escalator on their way out. A young man stands on the step behind a woman, equal height. He kisses her on her cheek, and her eye and her neck and she smiles and kisses him on the lips. I glance at them, catching eyes with the man and becoming embarrassed, waiting for his gaze to fall back on her so I can look at them again. I can’t help but stare, to watch them, their delicate kisses, as if they are the only ones in the world, as if their touch will last forever. I remind myself it won’t and move my gaze in front of me, looking down to the end of the escalator and the still ground waiting below.

When I step off the escalator and onto the platform, I turn lazily, waiting for the metro that will take me into town. The clock says 8:54. The car clock says that it has been 1:52 minutes since the last car. It’s Tuesday, so another will be along shortly. To my right, an old woman stands, her arms crossed in front of her, lazily staring at the walls in front of her without really looking at anything. Just past her, another young couple stands in embrace. The girl this time, pushed up against the wall and the boy with her, burying his tongue deep in her mouth. Their heads swaying back and forth, shamelessly, as if everyone in the metro is doing the same. I wonder what it’s like to feel that free. To feel such a passionate burst of affection so suddenly and ardently that you cannot wait until you are alone. We must act now, in this moment, without shame. I wonder if that’s love. I tell myself it’s just two stupid kids.

Then, the cold air starts moving past me, brushing my hair slowly across my face at first, then with more force. That’s the thing about the metro. You feel it before you see it. The breeze becomes heavier and colder and stronger, my hair is blowing wildly over my shoulder and across my face and I let it. I close my eyes and breathe in the cold air and let the stray hair tickle my cheeks and nose. Then I hear the rumbling of the car coming down the tunnel, subtle at first, then louder and more intense. Then a small flicker of light bounces off the walls, until the headlights are in view. The people step closer to the platform, nearly in sync, anticipating the opening doors. The car pulls before us and screeches to a stop. The doors open, and the busy people with their briefcases and backpacks step out, going wherever it is that people go on a Tuesday.

The old woman with the lazy stare is standing across from me, waiting to step on the car. She’s older than I realized at first. The roots of her hair white, the thin skin of her hands hardly able to contain the veins standing above the surface of her skin. She has no wedding ring, and I wonder if she is a widow. I wonder if that’s why her expression is so lazy, as if she’s seen all that she expects. As if she was once a young person on the metro, embracing her love, having her eyes and nose kissed, and now she has no one. She steps onto the car, revealing white sox and black tennis shoes under her long skirt. I step on behind her, disgusted with her, feeling sorry for her, and I tell myself not to look on her anymore. I spin facing the doors I just stepped through. They close, and I see a reflection in the glass windows of the doors, a pair of eyes much like those of the old woman staring back.

I’m startled when I realize they are my own, and the car slowly pulls away from the platform.

Buongiorno Milano!

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Shopping Center

Milan’s cobblestone streets are flooded with Italian women wrapped tightly in fur coats and men in designer jeans and studded belts. Nodding heads on subway cars look more like Ralph Lauren billboards than tired passengers heading home from a day of work. This city has a pulse and it beats rapidly, deeply through the night and early into the morning. Where I can pass as a local in some places, Italy knows better. My pale skin, pale hair and blue eyes cause long stares and incoherent words under soft breath. Men whistle as they pass by, staring too long with eager lust in their eyes. But even the greatest offense sounds beautiful when it is muttered in Italian.

This language shakes and breathes and dives in and out and up and down. Every word sounds like a call to action, a battle cry, a plea to join a cause. And the people lift their arms high, and put their hands close to your face and speak with a passion I’ve not experienced in my most heated moments. Hymns sung to Beethoven’s Fifth in an intense and frightening way to an ear that knows no better. The metro hums with chatter and booming laughter and a sense of famiglia encapsulates the city and all of the people inside it.

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

We visit the Duomo, a beautiful, skyscraping cathedral, if there ever was such a thing. Never have I seen so much art in one place. Every inch is ornate and ironic in the most beautiful way: the walls, covered in sculptures up to the ceilings, which you can barely see with human eyes; stained glass windows stretch beyond my grip of sight; the floor, a maze of complicated patterns and colors; paintings hang, two-up all the way down the church on either side. We try to make sense of everything our body is trying to absorb, but we fail and become overwhelmed, groggy from the dim lights and evaporating holy water. We leave the church, letting ourselves get lost, wandering narrow streets; every turn a new discovery, a new way to get lost again and again. We are asked for change, harassed by people on the streets collecting money for ‘Africa’ or to feed their hungry babies. We push past, pretending not to understand, and stop at a tobacco shop to enjoy a freshly rolled cigarette on a cold patio, surrounded by like-minded  locals.

And on a Thursday night, we walk into a small bar, where we are greeted by a group of men, laughing and eating cichete and drinking the local birra. Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!! echoes around us in a room with walls covered in old newspapers, slot machines lining the back perimeter. We swiftly and quietly order “due birre” from the bar and take our place at a small table in the corner. We quickly learn that’s not how Italians make friends. We are stoned to death with questions, and brought endless plates of formaggio and freshly sliced prosciutto,  deviled eggs, cheeses, salami, bread and  chips and dips. Every time we finish one plate, another one comes to replace it. Arthur works on a computer in the corner, ridden with unnecessary programs and a long history of user error. He tries to navigate Windows in Italian, and the men joke, calling him Bill Gates, gesturing to his over-sized head. They string together sentences in Italian and broken English, furrowing their brows when we don’t understand, then burning paper and building charades with toothpicks to help us along. They laugh because we don’t understand much; Armando, who knows the most English translates what he cans, and makes inappropriate gestures to either party in between his translations. The men tease each other with gay jokes and pepper their sentences with ‘fuck’ as often as possible. They apologize because I’m a girl, and immediately joke that they will take me home with them; their wives will forgive them tomorrow, they say.

IMG_0786Then a free round of beers come before the bar closes, but we stay inside, laughing and eating, filling the room with the sweet, choking smell of competing tobaccos. The owner pulls out his camera, points to his wall of photos, and we spend the next 15 minutes posing for pictures we’ll never see. We part ways, but not before receiving an invitation for the next night, which we know we will accept. And we will come back the next night, but it won’t be quite the same. These fleeting moments are never able to be repeated, and so we cherish them even more.

As unromantic as I know how to be.

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I’ve been avoiding writing about Prague… I know it’s going to turn into an 19th century Bronte excerpt, and I’m going to look like an asshole, but there is no other way that I can adequately describe it. Because every day, walking along the cobblestone roads, I’m narrating everything I see- every movement around me. . I’m telling stories to myself because none of it seems real enough to be my reality. It only seems able to exist in narrative. Everything is something new, every step a little closer to something, somewhere. Every corner a new challenge, another mystery. Even though I can’t understand much of what anyone says, and I get scolded by a Czech person daily for doing something wrong, I feel strangely connected to this place.

The untrained eye, or perhaps the rational eye, might see things differently. But my Bronte mind allows baroque apartments covered in graffiti to be beautiful. I pretend to understand it. Because it’s more than spray paint on a door. It’s an act of defiance, a declaration of expression. Twenty years removed from communism, and yes, I think it’s beautiful. Perhaps only the bud of expression, but progression at all seems to be great growth. Every once in a while I’m surprised by how a simple word or picture can stop me dead on a busy street. Every inch of the city another chance to connect to something just beyond my grip of understanding.

And every moment of the day is like that. My senses are confounded, at maximum capacity before I’ve even made it to the tram stop. Last week, I was overwhelmed by the thick smell of freshly snuffed cigarettes and sweat and perfume during my morning commute. This week, it just smells like morning. The contrasting smells claw at my senses, pulling me in zigzags across the pavement. The aroma of freshly baked bread grabs me by the wrist and forces out me wallet. Little armed baguettes, thieves with good intent. And then I go into an espresso-carbohydrate trance, and wake up a few blocks away with an empty cup and crumbs on my face. And the air is burning cold, but my blood is burning hot while I listen to Regina Spektor, instinctively marching in time across a 600 year-old bridge.

Flaming martinis and other things of non-importance.

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Newark: I had a three hour layover with a seven and a half hour flight ahead of me, so after going to the bathroom twice out of boredom, I decided to get some food and drink that would make my eyes water a bit. So, I bought an overpriced panini and an extra dirty martini; the type of martini I ordered back home on a Friday night with the girls to wash away the agony of a week passed, and the dread of another to come. Only, the bar olives were stuffed with red chilies,  and the waiter cautioned me several times that my drink “wouldn’t taste right”. But I like the idea of a mingling of things that don’t seem quite right together, so my dirty martini became a sweaty, dirty martini. The red chili, a burning flame in the murky shallows of vodka. The taste a symphony of salty, smoky and spicy. Not overly complicated – just an added bite to an off-the-menu sort of drink. And I thought to myself -the way I always do when some form of symbolism strikes me- “There’s a bigger picture here.”

Things started out a bit rough at the airport several hours before. I couldn’t even find my airline – it was an affiliate of United with no mention of United anywhere – and it took over an hour and a half to check in because of countless issues. By the time I finally did, I was charged nearly $500 for two overweight bags. I reluctantly paid, fretting as a I always do, making calculations, thinking about paying what I did for 20 pounds of hairspray and nail polish. Then I literally ran to make my plane; I was the last one to board.  And then I decided to let it all go. Because it was done and was now a thing in the past. The simple past, for anyone who knows much about grammar.

Sitting in the airport in Newark, I was looking around at the people walking by: kids in marshmallow jackets being tugged by their parents, young couples holding hands strolling along kiosks of neck pillows and packs of gum, friends laughing and teasing as they sat lined along their terminals, eating Pizza Hut and sharing headphones with one another. That’s the candid beauty of an airport – the unexpected calm. Everyone is moving and sitting, rushing and waiting. Unknown sounds swarm through a sea of nationalities, humming as they float up through a ceiling of sun-stained glass. I pretend to know what country the words are from and laugh at myself for not having the slightest idea. They are just sounds to me and I can’t distinguish where one ends and another begins. I wonder if English sounds the same way to someone who doesn’t know it. I convince myself that isn’t the case.

I slept a little one my last flight – the only way I know to sleep on a plane: with my head tilted all the way back, mouth wide-open, mouth-breathing, my $20 neck pillow sitting on my lap. Then I heard the wheels, then felt the bump-bump-bump of an amateur landing. Careful as items in the overhead bins may have shifted during flight. Follow the signs to baggage claim.

I can’t completely convey the sinking feeling that takes place in the pit of ones stomach when luggage never makes it to the conveyor belt. Once you realize luggage is no longer coming up, you look around the belt with the conviction that you simply did not see your bag. Then panic slowly sets in, and you scour the area, walking around the entire belt. Then you start giving people dodgy looks, wondering who would take your bags. You make lunges at a few strangers before realizing that isn’t necessarily your black duffle bag they are wheeling behind them. Then there’s a calm sense of purpose as you walk up to the baggage help desk. Then anger as you realize the form you are filling out has been filled out a million times before and your things are no more important that any of those other times. Then the realization that those are your things. Then a returned sense of hope as, surely by now, your bag has been returned. Then more anger. Eventually, apathy takes over as you realize you can live without it all but secretly hope you don’t have to. There is a sense of victory once that bag arrives though.

So it has all been perfectly dramatic. The type of drama we all secretly crave so we have exciting stories to tell, the tools we use to keep our listeners on the edge of their seats. The way we leave 5 minutes after we should, tempting fate and congratulating ourselves when our bets pay off. And there have been more of these dramatic encounters, even in the last day, of tight deadlines, missing money, and getting lost in a city I know nothing about. But, tonight, after sitting on a tram 11 stops too long, getting dropped off somewhere on a bridge in the middle of nowhere, and eventually taking three trams to get back to my apartment, all I could think about was a little red chili that fit so unexpectedly well inside an otherwise ordinary martini.

Day 61: Check the Plan Holiday Box

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I made some major strides in my holiday plans today. I know it’s August and a lot of people wouldn’t be worried about such things quite yet, but I’m crazy. I’ve spent the last week researching what cities I want to be in when. I ended up with a wonderful little trip consisting of Milan, Barcelona, Geneva, Amsterdam over 13 days. Purchased airfare, which was only $165 total, and now am working on hotels/hostels. There’s something about not having to share a bathroom that I like the idea of, but I know hostel living means lots of new friends. So I’m still working out the details. Who knows what will actually happen.

Let’s be honest, I will. Probably by the end of the week. I’m a planner. It’s a chromosome I can’t seem to isolate.

Day 46: The Miracle of Flight

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The way home was much better than the way there. I complained (twice) about my seat being “limited leg room and recline” and got upgraded to an Economy Comfort seat, which basically means a regular seat with the words “Economy Comfort” stitched into the headrest for an extra $59. But, it was by a window and it reclined and I didn’t have to pay for it. Yes, the boy next to me smelled like cigarettes and he either had headphones he got from the ticket counter at Chucky Cheese or was very close to being completely deaf. But he was nice. He left his phone in the seat so I chased him down, knocking over women and children to get it back to him. It was an iphone – I’ve felt that pain.

I had an hour or so layover in Atlanta and paid $9 for a bagel and orange juice from concentrate. The plane was almost empty so I stretched out in two seats. I guess I didn’t hear the “turn off your electronic  devices” warning because the wheels hitting the ground is what woke me up. And then off the plane, and my dad waiting for me at baggage claim. It’s nice to have someone at the airport waiting for you. I know a lot of people don’t.