Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Traveling and Culture

One of the things I most love about traveling is immersing myself in a different culture. I do not go into my trips expecting to like everything, or having it be like it is at home. Inherently, it isn't, or people wouldn't feel the need to go explore the world at all.
I notice things reading other websites and blogs, mostly in reviews, about people's expectations not being met. Whether it's poor service at a restaurant, a hotel not being up to par, or just generally not understanding the people to begin with. I think this comes down to poor preparation. Especially when traveling in a pre-packaged tour. There are very few I would do, and among those I respect would be the Rick Steves tours because I know at least he explains how things are where you're going. This is an important part of your trip and, in my opinion, can make or break your experience. Here's an example:
Recently, we had a temp co-worker in my office who overheard Boy Wonder and I discussing our trip to Italy. She made remarks about how her daughter went the year prior and had a horrific time, that it was the worst thing she'd ever done, and she'd never do it again. Now obviously I'm going to take this with a grain of salt. I'd been to Europe a few times, and not just to English speaking places, so I asked what it was that was so awful. It came down to, you guessed it, poor understanding and general ignorance. First off, this girl is in her early 20's, and old enough to do her own research, as is her mother. (Plus having this nifty internet thing now!) So the first thing she complains about to me is that they wouldn't take American money. I said, um, Europe has been on the euro for 10 years now, why would you assume that? She said well no one told us. I responded, but why wouldn't you look up basic things like money and weather? No answer. Second, she said her daughter and her boyfriend were "mugged". Well, safety and security are pretty important. Its one of the first things I research. Where are the danger zones? But really, just don't look flashy and wear huge jewelry. It's that simple. Then she complained about the hostels they stayed in. They were dormitory style. I said how do you think most students can afford to go?
The lesson here is this: do enough research so most things like that won't surprise you. For instance, when I read complaints about restaurant service in Italy, its mostly due to people not understanding how the eating experience is there. A great audio piece on the Rick Steves site (which you can also download the app Rick Steves Audio Europe for free and get it also) is on Italian food culture. The different between American restaurants and Italian is that they don't rush you. Eating is part of the bonding experience for them. The waiter isn't going to keep hounding you, or bringing you the check to get you out of there quicker. They savor the food, and the conversation. Relax! You're on holiday for Pete's sake!
Little things like learning a few words in their language is also appreciated. We received very good service due to that, even though my Italian is far from perfect. You're spending some significant money to go see these places. It's up to you to cover your bases and lessen your worry. Take the time to look things up and if you need some help, there are links on the right side of this blog.

Remember, your holiday is what you make of it. Don't let it go sour because you didn't do your part!

Ciao and buon viaggio!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last Day in Italy and Our Layover

We woke up to a beautifully sunny day in Napoli. Since its Sunday all the shops are closed and it was eerily quiet as we walked to the metro. Napoli sort of has a trash issue (/sarc) and it was like a garbage bin threw up all over the Piazza Bellini. There was trash everywhere from whatever party they had going last night.
By the time we got on the Circumvesuviana it was quarter to 11 and we still had to get to Sorrento for the ferry. We made our way through Sorrento to a very steep stairway down a gorge to get to the port. If you've never seen Sorrento on a sunny day, its absolutely stunning. The water is a dark sapphire blue that meets a sky that's robin's egg blue. White puffy clouds like cotton float randomly as a nice breeze blows through town. We had lunch at a place right next to boat dock #9. The reason I mention this specifically is you should NEVER EAT HERE EVER EVER EVER. The service was awful. The waiter called Boy Wonder "white boy" and then gave me attitude when I asked for the check. And they have the nerve to offer fast service menu items (which is what we ordered) because people who eat there are getting on the ferry! So do youself a favor and not go there. There's plenty of other places to eat around here.
Above the Port in Sorrento
We hopped on the ferry and were quickly underway to the island. Our plan was to see the Blue Grotto, but alas, fate was against us this day. As we approached the ticket window on the pier, I read it was suspended today. I asked the booth guy if the water wasn't good and he said it was too choppy to get a canoe in. We changed plans and jumped on a boat for a tour around the island instead. This place is beautiful. The water glows in some places like turquoise jewels just under the waterline. It's very apparent why the Roman emporers Tiberius and Augusts built palazzos here. The soaring cliffs make easily defensible forts. Anacapri is filled with fancy private villas where celebrities and the Euro-riche spend their visits. As you cruise around the island you can see the massive personal yachts anchored right off the shore. When I say massive, I can almost say ships. These things look like they're made to have a permanent crew of at least 10-15 people, and host huge parties.
The cliffs of Capri
The town of Capri, on Marina Grande, is filled with shops and eateries. You can also take the funiculare up to the top of the mountain for spectacular views of the island and the sea. You can even see all the way to Amalfi on a day like this, not to mention Sorrento and the island of Ischia. Capri is known for their ravioli, so we found a place to eat and sampled it. Very good! The cheese inside has a tangy flavor almost like a peccorino so it balances the tomato sauce nicely. Also, the house wine in every place we've eaten is so good we've never ordered anything else!  After eating, E and I went to buy a pair of custom made sandals that Capri is known for. They measure your foot, you pick the style of the straps and the color of the leather straps, and they make them while you wait! We ended up getting the same style but different colors of straps. I can't wait to take them for a spin.
Me on a Boat!

Blue waters of Capri

At the end of the day in the sun in sunny Southern Italy, it was time to go back on the Circumvesuviana to Napoli and pack. We said goodbye to our B&B owner, Luca, and he arranged a taxi for us for 5am the next morning. I'm still considering opinion of Napoli. There are parts of it I dearly love: the people, the buildings, the pizza! And others that I don't: the graffiti, the trash, the sort of "given up" state of things. I loved walking on the streets of Napoli and knowing it still used the original street plan developed by the Greeks when it was started as their port city. I did not like, however, attempting to figure out their subway system maps which make zero sense. Along with their traffic habits. Holy cow, more than once I had a close call. Red light? HA! They scoff at your red lights! Cross-walk? Huh? Do like the Napolitans do and cross when you can, where you can, light or no light.
The next morning came too fast and we found ourselves slugging off to the airport in the dark. After a short flight to Munich, we had a 7 hour layover. E and I decided to take the train to town and have lunch, walk around and the like. Munich is a really pretty city. Gothic buildings, twisting streets. The people are much different than the Italians. Not really outwardly friendly at all, the people working at least. Randon Germans on the train? Totally nice, which is sort of weird. After an 11 hour flight back to LA, I was pooped. Even through my fatigue, though, it was nice to get back home to my own bed, my pets, seeing my parents and my co-workers.
Soon I'll start the next summer's vacation destination: girls trip to Spain. Hollah!

City Hall and Glockenspiel- Munich
Inside Munich's Cathedral

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Day Out in the Country with Family

AKA The Feast....
This morning I went over to nonno's to pick up the sfogliatelle to bring to my cousin's house. Anyone raised right knows not to come for a visit empty handed. I don't think that's expressly an Italian thing but its definitely important when you ARE Italian (and in Italy!). Of course nonno tried to feed me but I had to tell him we have a train to catch. Just in the nick of time too, we had four minutes to spare for the train out to Sessa Aurunca. Without googling, its north and a little inland from Napoli, and takes an hour to get there with all the stops.
My cousin Adele was waiting for us at the train station and she drove us to the little town where my great-grandfather is from. Let me tell you about Casale di Carinola. It sits in a fertile valley up against hills and its vineyards, farms and olive groves as far as the eye can see. The air smells like the rich soil, especially at night. The village itself is made up of buildings that are a couple hundred years old. There are only three main streets that meet in a piazza where there is a monument to those who died in WWI. I looked to see if there were any V's on there, which there was.
We parked and walked to my cousin's house. You can't call it a street or a sidewalk. Its an uphill twisty walkway that leads to other front doors. My cousin's mom Olga came to the door to let us in and it was a nice greeting. I've been writing to them for years but I am the first of our American family of V's to visit the village. So here's where it gets fun. I speak some Italian. My cousin speaks some English. Olga doesn't speak English or proper Italian, she speaks Casalesi or Napolitan. You see, southern Italy has a dialect for pretty much every town. They're all branched from Napolitan, which is identified by linguists as its own language. I can understand Italian but Casalesi is fast and the vowel sounds are cut off at the end of the words. My cousin L who was also with us can understand it, so she also did a little translating. We got through the day with a lot of laughter, hand gestures, Italian, Spanish and Casalesi. But I digress.
Adele went down into the cellar to get a bottle of wine. They make their own wine. Pretty much everyone there does. Olga set us out antipasti of bread, olives stored in oil, homemade salami, a mix of peppers and black olives, and small balls of smoked scimorza (a kind of mozzarella) with peppers in it. And a homemade apertif drink. The next course was pasta with a tasty meat sauce. The course after that was eggplant parmigiana,  which Olga knows is my favorite. The course after this was bistecca filetto, fried. Then there was the cheese course of bufala, which I love. Finally out came the tarts that Adele had made. One with apple, one with grapes, and one with cherries. I could barely move. But you better clean the plate or else mama is going to point at you, wave her hand and say "mang" (sounds like monge).
This is what it means being Italian. Food and family and welcome. I'm proud to carry the same bloodline as these people. Everywhere we walked after lunch it was "cugini Americani". Everyone knows Adele. And her cat Kika who followed us everywhere. Ha.
We went down to the little chapel of Santa Maria della Grazie where local belief is the Madonna appeared to a little girl who was washing clothes in a small river there. And the Madonna is all over town, on everything. In two weeks, when the vendemmia (when they harvest the grapes for wine) happens she'll probably be present too.
And the end of the day we said goodbye to Casale and my family and headed back to Napoli on the 10:30 train. We were all exhausted. We needed our sleep for tomorrow's adventure: Capri!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Adventures in Sorrento

Our first experience with the Circumvesuviana train was a car whose doors wouldn't shut. Everyone on the train had to get off and wait another 15 minutes. When we finally boarded it was like a cattle car and we had 30 stops before we got to Sorrento. That is not an exaggeration.  Its literally 30 stops. There was no room to sit until we got to Torre del Greco,  and we sat with a kindly old nun who told us in Italian the history as we went along. She also warned us about watching our purses. The first nun not to give us the stink eye! Yay! So about four stops away we were invaded by gypsies playing drums and tambourines, using their kids to beg for money. Ahhh, my ignore skills have sharpened to a steel edge in this place! I wonder what will happen when I go back to work and start accidentally ignoring annoying
We get to Sorrento and dark clouds began to roll in. We walked in the rain along the cliff walk until it started coming down so hard we had to duck into a restaurant to get out of it, into Ristorante Tasso. E and Boy Wonder both had a lemon risotto with shrimp and chives that was super tasty. I had carciotta cheese ravioli that was really good. All very light and we topped it off with wine, of course!
Unfortunately our site seeing was ruined by the rain. We ducked down a narrow alley and did some shopping to make up for it. So far I've bought wine, olive oil and balsamic to bring home. Yay! Also some lemon marmalade, chocolate with orange flavoring, and more Italian coffee.
Tonight we went back to Bar Fiorello on Piazza Bellini for dinner. The thing with this is you have to be ok letting "nonno" do all your decision making. You don't have choices here, you get what he gives you and you mangiare tutto whether you like it or not He won't let you leave hungry that's for damn in fact you're more likely to waddle out. I've probably gained ten pounds since coming here but I'm ok with that. Its was worth the good food! I ordered ten of the Napoli specialty sfogliatelle to pick up in the morning to take with me to my cousin's house in Casserta. YUM!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Around Naples

<p>This morning it was back to Bar il Fiorello for cappuccino. True to form the proprietor just put plates in front of us: fresh ricotta biscuits, sfogliatelle and shots of cafe di nonno, which is some kind of high powered frappuccino thing. After that we were served our cappuccino, and cold espresso shots. Full of high octane caffeine, we set off for the Capella di Sanservero.
This baroque chapel for the princes of the Sansevero family crypts was designed by the artist/architect/alchemist Raimundo di Sangre and features his famous "Veiled Christ" sculpture. It completely baffles me how these sculptors were able to make marble almost look liquid. The marble flows so fluidly over the body it really does give the impression of a thin veil over the body. Theres also another sculpture that features a fisherman's net over the subject and that's carved out of marble too! Simply amazing.<br>
Today was rainy in Naples and we were brave little travelers. We saw the Museo Nazionale ( where they have all the artifacts from Pompeii) and then walked down the Via Toledo, which is the main street through Napoli. Its crowded, really crowded. The police are everywhere since it leads right into the banking sector. There are some beggars and the third worlders about.<br>
We walked toward the port and toured the Castel Nuovo, a 15th century stronghold of the many dukes and barons who ruled Napoli. As we left under the dark grey sky, heading back up the street, I was treated to a furtive ass grab by a teen age boy. When confronted, said boy took off running down the street. Look, I know I'm a little too bootylicious but COME ON. NON TOCCARE!!!!! My auntie warned me but since all the men have respectful so far I guess I was spoiled. Most of them just stare.<br>
After a small dinner we headed in for an early night. Tomorrow we go to Sorrento! </p>

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Napoli Above and Below

After a bittersweet morning leaving Rome, we jumped on the Regionale train to Naples. We passed miles and miles of gorgeous and green farmland. Campania is like the central valley of California used to be. Lush with farms and agriculture. We passed the station in Gaeta where we saw the Mediterranean sparkling in the morning sunlight.
Pulling into Napoli Centrale was like being thrown into havoc. People everywhere, nothing orderly like the other stations we've been to. We finally hopped onto the line we needed to Museo station. Our first glimpse of Napoli traffic scared the crap out of me, and I'm from Southern California! I asked a little old man outside the station in Italian where we could find a street and then he told us to just cross anywhere. What??!!! Really??!! Taking our lives in our hands we ran dragging our luggage behind us. Our hotel is in a 17th century building on a piazza with an old church.
The streets are narrow, high buildings keep it a little cooler at ground level. Cars and Vespas plunge headlong into the foot traffic and you better move or they'll just keep going.
We picked up my cousin and decided to get pizza at a place one of my other cousins recommended as the best place in Napoli: Sorbillo. Omg this place was good! We stuffed ourselves silly for about €8 each. Now that's a deal!
Afterward we decided to do the Napoli Sotteraneo tour underground. A great lesson on the Greek origins of the city, and a trip thru some extremely narrow tunnels with only a candle to light the way. So awesome! Boy Wonder and I did the narrow tunnel trip to see two Greek cisterns that are still filled with water.
The day cooled to a beautiful evening and we went in search of grub. We stopped at a little cafe for a quick panino and this is where we discovered that old Italian just love me.... ha ha. We ordered only sandwiches and a coke. What we received were sandwiches, slices of ziti pizza, little cakes filled with banana and sour cherries and a limoncello granita to top it all off. All this and we only paid for the sandwich! I guess being nice to sweet old guys and speaking very imperfect Italian pays

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trapped in the Vatican (aka The Ceilings and A Church too)

So today E and I were on a mission to see the Sistine Chapel. Boy Wonder was pooped so he stayed in the room while we went.
Line to get in the Vatican Museum went very fast. Actually inside the museum is another matter entirely. You're herded like cattle on THEIR pathway. There is no express lane to the Chapel until you're right there. So we spent a lot of time looking at ceilings and being trapped in between tour groups. As we got into the Chapel we heard "no foto!" And of course no one was listening. E and I took our obligatory pics and got the heck out of there so we could browse the rest of the museum. This is when we found you can't get out until the end. Done browsing after a couple rooms? Too bad, visitors! Abandon all hope of an easy exit all ye who enter here! It takes you right back to the Chapel whether you like it or not.
Ok. So the Chapel IS pretty great. Its easy to see why most people think no one can top Michelangelo. I mean, the guy both paints AND sculpts, he even worked with bronze! I don't think we can deny the man was blessed with huge talent.
We saw some interesting classical pieces, 14th century tapestries and the Borgia Apartments. They do have a contemporary art collection (Blech) which I'm sure someone other than myself can have appreciation for. All in all we felt we got our €15 worth.
Back on the train we headed over to the Cavour stop on the Line B to go see San Pietro e Vincoli church. This church has the holy relic of the chains that bound St. Peter before he was martyred. They also have a beautiful though lesser known Michelangelo sculpture of Moses.
Tonight is our last night in Rome. I will sincerely miss this place. The food, the people, the crazy parking jobs. I definitely will be coming back someday!
So without further ado, the ceilings: