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europe

Europe, Food

Olive Oil on Everything—A Gastronomic Diary of Italy

Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.
Florence, Tuscany
Gnocchi with fennel, mint and gorgonzola. A generous drizzle of olive oil (the frisky, green, good quality kind) on plain, unsalted bread.
A lake near Rome somewhere
Tiny fried fish, fresh marinated anchovies, mussels, salad with potato and octopus. Gnocchi with clams. Zucchini with mint. A drizzle of olive oil.
Perugia, Umbria
Hands dry from chalk after climbing. Spaghetti with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes. Olive oil from my host’s grandmother’s home. On the pasta—and on my hands.
It was in Italy that I learned you can truly put olive oil on everything. 

This most recent visit was no different.
I mean the good stuff, of course. The fresh, tangy-green and gorgeous kind. The kind with bite and soul that tastes like it came from somebody’s grandmother’s farm (it probably did).
Here is a short list of ways I have seen olive oil used to perfection:
  • Drizzled (well, poured, really) into tomato sauce after it is cooked and off the heat.
  • Applied to dry hair, skin and lips—best directly after the shower while skin is damp.
  • On a plate with sea salt and balsamic vinegar, for dipping (soaking) bread.
  • Drizzled over pasta, salad, cut vegetables, meat, pizza—everything, I’m serious.
  • Straight from the jug—just a taste, a drop.

Olive oil is everything. Condiment and cooking base. Start and finish. Salve for the body and soul. I suspect it could heal a broken heart, too, though I haven’t tried yet.

In the North, butter features prominently in many recipes—but in the South, it’s always olive oil.
And that’s really it. I mean, I could keep listing mouthwatering Italian meals. That never gets old for me… but I suspect others might have a shorter attention span.
Olive oil. On everything. My time in Italy, in a nutshell.
Try it. Don’t be moderate. Italian grandmothers never are. 
Find the good stuff. Apply liberally. Buon appetito!

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Europe, Food

What Makes this Mountain Different from all other Mountains?

Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome
Valle Aurelia, Rome, Italy
This could be any street in any city.
Mixed-era apartment buildings. Imposing stone architecture at turns. Cobblestones and pavement following no particular logic. Crush of cars and scooters. Cafes. Hairdressers. Passerby dressed in scales of gray.
So, what makes this different from any other street—any other city?

***
As we made our way along a dry riverbed, through native South African fynbos vegetation, toward a spectacular (but, again, arguably nondescript) stretch of shoreline, my friend put to me a similar question. Not quite verbatim, it was this:

Most mountains are pretty similar. Most cities are pretty similar. There are trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. There are streets and cafes and passerby in scales of gray. So, what makes these mountains different? If we can go hiking at home, why ever go anywhere else? And if we do go, how do we choose? 

Why these mountains?

The question was philosophical in nature. My friend is nearly as avid a traveler as I.
I would like to offer three answers to these questions—one of which sounds nice, one of which I believe most strongly, and one of which I feel, irrationally, to be true.
It doesn’t matter which is which.
First, terroir. Terroir is a French term I fell in love with while studying the anthropology of food. Essentially, it claims that taste is deeply rooted in place—territory. The elements unique to a given locale—water, specific bacteria, culture, human traditions, soil, weather, everything—combine to create the particular circumstances in which a given food item is produced. And we can taste it. While terroir is a culinary concept, I believe it can just as easily apply to cities, landscapes and really anything else.
Thus, these mountains are made unique by an intangible yet undeniably meaningful agregate of water, culture, air, bacteria, soil, and human idiosyncrasy. 
Why go anywhere? Terroir.
Second, intuition. Some part of our deepest self knows where we need to be. It doesn’t make sense, and it can’t be proven, but those who have experienced will swear that the voice of intuition is real—and that it is always right.
So, how do we know, how do we decide where to go? Instinct.
Or third, the difference isn’t out there at all. It’s us. The mountains are, more or less, all the same. Trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. The cities, too. We, however, change, and we can understand that change by observing its reflection in the places we visit—or rather our experiences of them.
What makes these mountains different from all the rest? We do.
Or, most probably, the answer is some combination of the three.
What makes these mountains different from any others? Nothing, or precious little. Yet, they will be different, because we will change—always.
Why go anywhere else? Terroir. 
And if it’s all the same, how do we possibly decide on one mountain, one city, one street over another? Oh yes, intuition.
Maybe this could be any street in any city, but it isn’t. It’s this one—the one I’m in. And it is utterly unique, both for its composition of individuals, elements and other intangibles, and for my experience of it, in this particular moment. No other street in any other moment will ever be this. I don’t know why I’m here—and not in another street, city, mountain—but I trust the voice that called me.

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Europe

Helsinki Snapshots


Monday, 11 January 2016
It is 2:30 pm, and the sky already seems to be getting dark as I make my way to the Helsinki airport… in a taxi (gasp! I know! But my tennis shoes and single layer of pants just aren’t going to make it to the bus stop in this -20º C weather). 
Somehow I have managed to visit this city three times over the past several months, for a total of six or seven weeks, and it’s about time I shared some snapshots of life here. What I lack in photos (I’ve taken very few) I’ll try to make up for with riveting description…
The in-between bingo sets show… it’s pretty much what it looks like.
Sunday nights find me at Mascot cafe with my friend Ella (and her friends) for bingo. A young, rambunctious crowd plays for free drink vouchers and the satisfaction of winning. They sing along with the flamboyant host (an out-of-costume drag queen who hardly looks his 40 years) for certain numbers—“I am 16 going on 17…” “when I’m 64…”—and cheer loudly whenever a player gets Bingo! I begin to get a solid grasp on Finnish numbers just in time to leave.
Two locals sitting outside the fray stop me this week on my way to the door to ask what’s happening. But isn’t bingo just for old people? They say. Sometimes not, apparently! It is always when I can tell a local something they didn’t know about their own city that I begin to feel I have really settled in.
Mascot, a down-to-earth bar with a lobby plastered with graffiti-letter posters advertising underground events, also plays host to Helsinki’s first spoken word festival, among other things.

German Sparkle Party capture (not mine).
My friend’s house in Käpylä, where I am very kindly welcomed as a long-term guest (maybe there is no Finnish saying about houseguests and fish…) is green. Snow covers the front lawn; when I first arrived it was autumn leaves and apples instead. Seven unique individuals coexist there with surprising harmony, and instantly make me feel at home. We practice jiujitsu on the tatami mats in the attic (later we will move the mats to make room for a massive “German Sparkle Party” (warning, click at your own risk) complete with mojito bar and black light dance floor.) and we play pinball on a vintage machine in the living room while sipping Salmiakki (licorice liqueur). In proper Finnish fashion, I become thoroughly addicted to the sauna in the basement. I learn that if you add a splash of beer to the ladle of water before tossing said water onto the hot stones, it makes a delightful smell (really). 
Elephant journal HQ, Helsinki—my coworker, Sara and I working at the kitchen table.
From the small kitchen table where I work, I can watch the light changing outside, fat snowflakes drifting lazily past the window or bunnies appearing from behind trees.
The bouldering gym where I go to climb a couple times a week is small, but intense. Typically crowded and obscured by a haze of chalk, its routes challenge me and always hold my interest. In an open loft workout area, I observe people displaying more varied exercise routines than I have ever seen in my life. I become noticeably stronger over the weeks that I train here.
At my favorite supermarket, I learn to distinguish between smoked and raw salmon, free-range and organic eggs, full fat and lactose-free milk, and more kinds of berries than I can name even now. My Finnish vocabulary seems to consist of equal halves food words and profanities.

The hill.
Finally, a quick walk from the house I briefly call home brings me to the top a small hill (the highest in Helsinki) topped with crumbling bunkers and criss-crossed with paths. When I don’t want to go anywhere else, I step outside, turn right and then right, and make my way there.

***

Welcome to (what was) my world for a short while, I hope you enjoyed the tour! As of yesterday, I am now in Cape Town, South Africa—currently settling in, but lots more on this new place to come!
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Culture, Europe

Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?

“Joulupukki” by Lauri Rantala from Espoo, Finland – Santaclaus at Helsinki Cathedral.

Consider this my holiday blog post. I could talk about Hanukkah (the holiday I celebrate), or Christmas markets (delightful all around the world), or any number of things. But why would I when scary monsters and mythology are on the menu?

***

It is September, and I am walking through the the Finnish tunturi (mountains in Lapland, way North), the setting sun to my right. Low bushes, a few turned to orange, carpet the ground. The trail is wide and mostly flat, and it carries me and my hiking partner past Pyhäkero (Sacred Mountain), herds of reindeer silent as dusk and rocca (unique shards formed by the freezing of water in crevices of rock and their subsequent explosion).

As the colors in the sky deepen and a nighttime chill settles over this landscape, I learn the real story of Santa Claus and his Nordic predecessor, Joulupukki (Yule Goat).

A terrifying creature with a goat’s skull for a head and flaming eyes, Joulupukki—so it is said—appears at homes during the Christmas season, demanding food, occasionally taking away those who have not been good. He dresses in gray furs and sows fear wherever he walks.

Jolly Saint Nick, is it?

Eventually, this Joulupukki became more or less synonymous with the Christian Santa we all know today. Funny how we always seem to do that to the less cuddly figures of mythology.

As I listen to this alternate (and, I must admit, much more interesting) Yuletide legend, I consider the gray, shifting light of this place and conclude it is much better suited to such a dark and mystical creation than a rotund, white-bearded figure in red.

Near Rovaniemi, where the train from Helsinki leaves us and we begin our journey, there is a place called The North Pole, where tourists seeking a merrier experience can visit Santa Claus’ Village.

I opt out. Biting wind, icy mountain lakes and ever-so-slightly magical mountains do so much more justice to this fascinating culture.

As for Joulupukki, the “real” Santa Claus? No, I didn’t run into him. But, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had…

***

{Update: Family matters brought me back to the U.S. sooner than my planned visit, and I have been quietly and busily staying under the radar in Michigan these past few weeks. I’ll be in the Northeast a few weeks longer, then it’s on to the next adventure. Where is that, you ask? …I’ll let you know when I do!}
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Culture, Europe

Tallinn Snapshots

Greetings from Tallinn!

On Monday, my friend and I took the 2-hour ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.

Our mission? Like nearly every other passenger on board, buying alcohol. Tallinn, evidently, is the everyman’s solution to avoiding Finland’s high taxes and stocking up on liquor for parties and general consumption.

With a house party coming up this weekend, we had an important task to complete, and an extra seven hours to explore Tallinn… Here’s just a taste:

The ferry itself is six stories tall, boasting its own liquor store, luxury “trends” store and nightclub—where drinking habits go to breed and a night out consists of a round trip to Tallinn without ever leaving the boat.

The breakfast buffet offers Karelian tarts (hailing from the Finnish region of Karelia, pastries full of rice, topped with a special “egg butter”), smoked salmon and cold cuts, mysterious meatballs and an assortment of very particular cured fish. We spend the entire trip to Tallinn slowly working our way through it all.

My favorite poster from the day.

Tallinn’s Old Town winds away from the harbor, a pleasant mix of cobblestones I’m still feeling in my sore legs, kitsch tourist restaurants loosely modeled after medieval times, posters that seem stuck in another century, souvenir shops and folk art galleries.

My friend, travel sister and current host, posing with an eye-catching door.

Outside one of those restaurants, bored waiters crouch down to scatter crumbs to a few pigeons. Next door, a woman in full-on (presumably) traditional Estonian garb acts as a human signboard—brightly colored embroidery, tightly braided pigtails and elaborate headdress demanding the passerby’s attention. We try to covertly get a picture of her… and fail:

I think she saw us…

But, we are photo-bombed brilliantly by a passing stranger, which makes up for it:

Never seen this guy before in my life.

I spot Captain Jack Sparrow walking down one of the main streets, swagger and all. I get a little bit too excited, fumbling with my camera and missing the photo op. I still wonder what restaurant he was promoting.

As Jack Sparrow disappears down the street, we follow the sound of a Steel HandPan to a busker, and I meet my soulmate in puppy form:

More puppy pictures to come.

As is the case in dedicated tourist towns the world over, we are met with considerable indifference by a considerable portion of Tallinn’s population, with some friendly exceptions. As dusk falls (around 4p.m. in this part of the world), exhausted from some combination of cobblestones and cloudy skies, we settle in for a dinner of Modern Estonian Cuisine before making our way back to the ferry.

Tallinn at dusk—beautiful.

It’s a good day.

***
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Europe

Stockholm Snapshots

Believe it or not, this is right in Stockholm!

I’ve fallen behind. There are several cities I have seen and enjoyed without writing a single word… And so now I’m revisiting not only in person, but also in spirit as I backtrack to bring you these snapshots.

Stockholm first.

(Evidently I have almost no pictures, so these will mostly be word snapshots.)

I arrive in Stockholm in mid-September to visit my oldest friend (for all intents and purposes my big sister) in her new Swedish life. She and her boyfriend graciously share their one-bedroom apartment with me for a week, and I get in what sightseeing I can between work and catching up.

We bake miniature apple pies for fika, Sweden’s infamous coffee and cake time, and cook kugel (noodle casserole) and brisket (Jewish soul food) for a belated Rosh Hashanah celebration.

Based on the tradition of fika alone, I should probably move to Sweden.

I also discover morotsmuffins (the most delicious carrot cake muffins in existence, with cardamom and cream cheese frosting), of which I unfortunately have no photographic evidence. (Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, I find myself morally obligated to document—the VT brand has officially gone global.)

Ben & Jerry’s in Stockholm? Oh yeah!
(No, I didn’t buy any. Morotsmuffins, remember?)

I dip my toes into my friend’s life here, meeting friends and learning a few useful Swedish phrases: “tak” (thanks), “hey” (you guessed it, hey) and “var festin mit fulla killor?” (where’s the party with the drunk guys?) I think I should be all set, no?

We also discuss politics and the refugee crisis (with Sweden poised to take in 200,000, it’s a particularly salient topic), but that is a far more serious discussion for another time.

Entrance to Haga Park.

Haga Park, just minutes from my friend’s Solna apartment, is a sprawling oasis sprinkled with a few architectural oddities. “Am I really in Stockholm?” I write as I watch the shadows grow over a massive lake. Difficult to believe.

Haga park—attempted dusk capture.

And lastly, wandering through Gamla Stan (Old Town) on my rainy day off, I stumble upon a marching band playing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” as a motley group of protesters waits to march through the square—one of many wonderfully incongruous details I observe over the course of the week.

I might as well stop there, as nothing could be better…

***

(Stay posted for Helsinki and Amsterdam/Haarlem snapshots!)

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Europe, Nomadism

Revisiting

“Revisiting” Sicily

I have rarely been one to visit the same place twice.

I always used to squirm uncomfortably when new friends, by way of goodbye, would ask when I was coming back, because I knew I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I would, indeed, be coming back.
Lately, however, I meet those new friends’ eyes and say with confidence, “I’ll see you next time,” because I’ve since learned that the universe likes nothing more than to send us what, where and whom we least expect. (It seems to particularly delight in setting me down on the same path twice.)
I can never say when or where or how this next meeting will occur, but it no longer seems so far-fetched to expect that it will.
You see, though I was never one to visit the same place twice—the pull of the uncertain new always stronger than that of the friendly and inviting known—I can no longer claim this to be so. In the last two and a half months, I have revisited: Rome, Sicily, London and Amsterdam. I have seen friends made in Serbia, Kenya, Germany, India and Vermont.
As I write this, I am en route to Helsinki for visit number 2.
Lonely shoe, Helsinki.
For a serial seeker of new places, it is an odd thing to go back to—to revisit—a place.
And then, as most strange things are, it is also wonderful.
I find, in revisiting, that such an act does not in fact exist; it is impossible to visit the same place twice. Friends cut their hair, or grow it; beloved restaurants close, and new ones open; memories, friendships and connections are planted, and new experiences grow from those seeds.
More important than anything, my perspective—ever evolving, never exactly the same—makes of each “known” something entirely new, and so, in going back, I find I am always going forward, after all.
The repercussions of this fact are almost terrifying in their magnitude. For each step that I take, there are infinite possibilities, not only ahead of me, but behind me as well. The tree that I see in summer might present itself entirely anew stripped bare in winter; the rose in bud another matter altogether in flower; the city of my 17-year-old travels lent a thousand shades of nuance by seven years’ distance.
And so?
And so.
Sunset on the plane…
Always moving onward, but am I?
Maybe I am no longer “not one to visit the same place twice.” Maybe only now does it truly sink in that “everything” or “everywhere” is a receding mirage, the pursuit of which can carry us in endless circles.
And still, I pursue it—encouraged, not dissuaded by the ever-expanding nature of the illusion—I willingly, obligingly circle back, and forward, and back again.
Moving forward, or backward, exploring the new, or revisiting the old, I find the unknown in everything everyone everyplace, and I am inspired, in-spiralled, enthralled…
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” — Lewis Caroll
 
***
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An Incomplete Guide to Sicily in Quotes & Pictures

Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), Agrigento, Sicily

“The climate’s delicate; the air most sweet.
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.”
— Shakespeare

I could write—and, indeed, have written—many pages about Sicily. However, I’m hardly the first person to be taken with the island’s complex history, natural beauty and unique charms, so for a change I would like to share the words of other writers, whose perspectives, combined with pictures from my recent visit, make for a woefully incomplete (but very poetic) look at the place. I hope it may whet your appetite for more, as I never tire of convincing people to visit!

Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks), Realmonte, Sicily.  
“Ho capito che la Sicilia è molto più complessa di quello che si può pensare: la paragonerei ad una cipolla dai molti strati.” — Paco Ignacio Taibo II
(“I have understood that Sicily is much more complex than one might think: I would compare it to an onion of many layers.”)
Cattedrale di San Givanni Battista, Ragusa.
“Sicily has suffered 13 foreign dominations from which she has taken both the best and the worst. The sequence of different cultures has made Sicily a fascinating place, quite unlike any other.” — Andrea Camilleri
Valle dei Templi.

“This is the homeland of the Gods of Greek mythology. Near these places, Pluto abducted Persephone from her mother. In this wood we just walked through, Ceres ceased her swift running and tired of her fruitless search, sat on a rock, and despite being a goddess, she wept, the Greeks say, since she was a mother. In these valleys, Apollo pastured his flocks; these groves, stretching down to the seashore, have echoed with Pan’s flute; the nymphs got lost under their shade and breathed their scent. Galatea fled from Polyphemus and Acis, close to succumbing to the blows of his rival, enthralled these shores leaving his name here … In the distance you can see the lake of Hercules and the rocks of the Cyclops. Land of gods and heroes!” — Alexis De Tocqueville

Valle dei Templi.

“Sicily is more beautiful than any woman.”
Truman Capote

Valle dei Templi.
“Il siciliano è il prodotto di un territorio che non è un pezzo staccato d’Italia, che non ha mai fatto parte di alcuna parte del mondo in epoca storica, che è stato occupato da nord, sud, est, ma mai è stato assimilato, l’isola in cui niente è stabile se non il movimento, il non-stabile, dove un giorno distrugge quanto l’altro giorno ha costruito, dove vulcanismo e nettunismo sono continuamente all’opera, dove un giorno trasforma la storia di secoli.” — Paul Yorck von Wartenburg

(“The Sicilian is the product of a territory that is separate from Italy, that has never been part of any part of the world in any period of history, that has been occupied by the North, South, East, but never assimilated, the island in which nothing is stable except movement, non-stability, where one day destroys that which another the other day built, where volcanic and marine forces are always at work, where one day transforms the history of centuries.”)

“Sicilians build things like they will live forever and eat like they will die tomorrow.” — Plato

Valle dei Templi.

“For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own.”

This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.”

― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sunset from a lighthouse.
“I was enchanted… the limpidity of the sky, the restless splendor of the sun, the beauty of the countryside, a certain excitement of the fantasy…which brought to mind the time when in the fields one encountered the divine.” — Jean Houel

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

“In Sicilia abbiamo tutto. Ci manca il resto.” — Pino Caruso
(“In Sicily we have everything. We’re just missing the rest.”)


Valle dei Templi.
“Noi fummo i Gattopardi, i Leoni; quelli che ci sostituiranno saranno gli sciacalletti, le iene; e tutti quanti gattopardi, sciacalli e pecore, continueremo a crederci il sale della terra.”

(“We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who will replace us will be little jackals, hyenas; and all of us Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”)
― Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Macalube, Aragona, Sicily.

“Per me la Sicilia ha una luce particolare, qualcosa di primordiale. Io non sono nato in Sicilia anche se mia madre è di Palermo. È come se con questa terra ci fosse un richiamo anche più lontano della mia esistenza, che appartenga alla mia memoria. Scrivo volentieri qui, c’è un’aria speciale, istintiva. Non mi va neanche di dargli un nome sennò darei dei confini che non ha.” — Emanuele Crialese

(“For me, Sicily has a particular light, something of the primordial. I wasn’t born in Sicily even though my mother is from Palermo. It’s as if with this land were a recollection even further back in my existence, which belongs to my memory. I write often here, there’s a special atmosphere, instinctive. I do not even give it a name, as to do so would give it boundaries which it does not have.”)
Scala dei Turchi.

“There it was again: the sweeping verbal gesture magnified in the prism of Sicily, the pronouncement so poetic it nullified any arguments before they could take their first breath. The vines, the amphorae, the thousands of years of history, the palmenti, the volcano, the beauty, the power of it all. In Italy, of course, beauty is next to holiness. Sicily was long the most treasured daughter of the Mediterranean. So who can teach Sicily anything about beauty?” — Robert Camuto

Fountain, Ragusa, Sicily.

“All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination.” — Leonardo Sciascia

“Raccontano, infatti, che secondo il mito la Sicilia è sacra a Core poiché qui avvenne il suo rapimento e perché l’isola fu offerta alla dea come dono di nozze.” — Plutarco
(“They say, in fact, that according to legend Sicily is sacred to Persephone since her abduction took place here and because the island was offered to the goddess as a wedding gift.”)

Train tracks at the edge of the Valle dei Templi.

“And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.” — D. H. Lawrence

*** 
[All translations mine. :)]
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Europe

Being versus Seeing


So, what are you doing here?

They say it kindly—with honest curiosity—and they say it in Italian, but that is the question.

The woman at the cheese shop who patiently helps me taste 10 local varieties before wrapping up my selections. The barista at the cafe on the large piazza near my apartment. The elderly gentleman who insists on guiding me through the steep valley from Ragusa (the newer city where I stay) to Ragusa Ibla (the old medieval part of town).

They want to place me, and I want to help them.

Entering the valley.

I explain, in as few words as possible, my work-travel creation. That is, more working than traveling; more living than exploring.

And, sheepishly, I recall inwardly how disappointing a tourist I have been…

I managed to climb the bell tower of the main cathedral. I spent an hour in Modica, one of the next towns over, tasting chocolate made the traditional (unbelievably delicious) way and eating granita. I’ve visited a few beautifully restored churches (a huge earthquake in 1693 destroyed most of the older architecture, and I’ve wandered many of the small, hilly streets, eating gelato, canoli or any other treats I stumble upon. I have the good fortune to be staying with two teachers, and have attended a few dinners, lectures and expositions with them, too.

Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista (and the piazza)

It’s not nothing, but it’s not much, considering I’ve been here 10 days already. Compared to past trips, when I managed to cover as many countries in a month and spent entire days on an expedition to see a city from top to bottom, it’s not much at all.

What’s changed? Quite a bit…

These days, I don’t have so much free time.

Between trying to regain a daily yoga practice after injuring my hip, working six to seven hours, chatting with my hosts (my Italian gets better by the minute!), cooking all my meals and trying to write besides, I watch my days fill up fast.

Most days, I’m happy to get a walk in, a visit to the market and maybe an hour at a cafe.

In the valley: gate to nowhere.

So when I feel “guilty” for not doing or seeing as much as I can while I’m in this new town—this place I’ve never been before—I gently remind myself that actually, I’m not here to visit, to tour, or to see.

I am here to be.

Not, I am in Ragusa to ____.

Rather, I am in Ragusa.

That’s all.

Ragusa Ibla.

It’s a subtle shift, but it relieves some of that odd pressure of being a tourist or traveler—here to see, absorb and record as much as possible.

And I find I am only capable of this shift because I have “an excuse.” I’m working, I’m not on vacation, I’m girando (moving around), but I’m not a tourist… blah, blah blah. Excuse or no excuse, maybe this is the way to do it—for me. (You can do it however is the right way for you, of course.)

Seeing what I see and doing what I manage to do, but moving my focus away from quantity of recordable events, I can experience my existence here without expectations. The same way I would anywhere, without the badge of “travel” tacked onto the box where I store and process those stories.

What does it mean to focus on “being” in a place, rather than “seeing” a place?

Well, that’s what I’m figuring out right now… I’ll let you know.

Ragusa Ibla.

***

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Culture, Europe, Food

Snapshot: Bar Willy

8:30a.m., Trastevere, Roma — 24 August 2015

I begin the day with that most Italian of concoctions… il bar.

Bar Willy sits at one corner of a busy plaza in Trastevere—at the edge of Rome.

Its staff are a typically diverse mix, representing Asia, Africa and “the Continent” too. (Rome is a massive epicenter for immigrants to the country.) They joke about regional linguistic variations, for which Italy is famous.

At 8:30 on a Sunday, the bar (anywhere else it would be a “cafe”) is buzzing with activity. The tables outside, however, are mostly empty, for—in typical Italian fashion—most of the patrons prefer to take their morning coffee and cornetto (croissants, but, sorry, not as good) standing up.

And so the bar pulses with the ins and outs of customers on their way to the Sunday market just outside.

They order a caffe’ (espresso), cappuccino or latte macchiato (hot milk with a touch of coffee), and the sounds of their orders rebound from barista to cashier to my ears and back. The clatter of tiny spoons on plate, plate on bar, cup on plate; the rustle of pastry on napkin and hands on newspaper; the din of shouts, greetings and laughter—all combines to a decibel of energy to which I am unaccustomed so early in the morning, but which, for some strange reason, pleases me.

It is good-natured—all of it. It is pleasant, honest cheer—a thing the Italians (I find) do better than any others. It is the thing that pulls me back to this country again and again. It is the lushness of fresh pressed olive oil on green figs (speaking of which, the food I’m eating will have to wait for another day…).

It is magnetic, for me—and clearly I’m not the only one.

***
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