Saturday, February 13, 2010

Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game.

If you know me at all, you probably know at least a handful of Absolute Truths about Alison. And probably one of the best known Absolute Truths is (was?) my overwhelming fear of being alone.

Since moving to New York, the fear morphed to discomfort, and the discomfort has now settled into a considerably more tolerable "feh. I'd rather not." That being said, when I took off for Italy, I knew there'd be a solo day or two, and I knew my old fears would likely reappear when introduced to a strange new setting. I gave Taryn a preparatory talk instructing her that, under no circumstances, is she to allow Old Alison to seize control of Alison v.2.0. I would spend time alone in a foreign country and I would like it, dammit.

After our Rome adventure, I did spend a day of rest and managed a walk into Ponsacco only to discover everything was closed. But since Tuesday promised pretty blue skies, Taryn dropped me off at the train station en route to work, and I set out solo for Cinque Terre. This involved an hour or so train ride to La Spezia, and then a transfer to the "local" trains that run through these adorably quaint little mountain-on-the-beach towns.

Despite the fact that I hadn't packed proper mountain gear, I decided to take the train all the way through to town number 5, Monterosso, and then hike my way back through to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. How hard could it be?


How lucky am I to have experience it?


There is nothing - nothing - like taking a train from anytown, Italy through a mountain tunnel and arriving in a place that feels like it just may be on a completely different planet from anything you've ever known. And there is nothing (nothing) like a 2 hour hike over mountain cliffs dangling over the sea.

As I hiked, I laid little pieces of my former self to rest along that trail and bid them a long, eternal sleep. I said goodbye to alone-aphobic Alison, because she never would have had the guts to take in this view:

And I gave peace to 300 pound Alison, who never would have made it across the narrow paths and up and down the mountains.

I giggled at workaholic Alison and thanked her for loosening the reigns on her blackberry long enough to take this picture:

And I wished luck to bitter Alison and said a quiet prayer of thanks for the opportunity to stroll Lover's Lane at all, even without my hand in someone else's.
(And I wished luck to future Alison, in the hopes that someday, she'll get the chance to clasp hands, hearts, and clang down a lock over there here bars.)

Cinque Terre ranks high on the list of coolest things I've ever experienced. I'm glad I didn't let fear strap me to the couch that day. And in some odd little way, it's something I'm almost grateful to have experienced alone because nothing can quite touch the feeling of learning something new about yourself while you listen to your feet thud and heart race between the hills and sea.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's got to happen, happen sometime...Maybe this time I'll win.

You know, maybe there is something to be said for this jetlag business. I was pleasantly snoozing by 9:30 last night, and wide awake at 3 this morning. After an hour of fighting it, I tossed back the covers, bid good morning to Maggie (who is still quite upset with me for abandoning her) and started my day. I've already responded to work emails, chatted with Taryn, brewed a pot of coffee, toasted a bagel, done a little light pilates and stretching, showered, and straightened my hair before the time I'm usually even out of bed. So now before I dust off my suit and prepare to fight the elements en route to the subway (there's a blizzard out there, y'all) I'll talk to you for a bit. Several people have asked when the stories will begin, and I can only get away with the "I'm re-adjusting and decompressing" excuse for so long.

So, Rome. After the previously detailed prosciutto-in-the-throat incident, we returned home, reviewed maps, and clamored into bed. We awoke the following morning to a hotel-provided continental breakfast, once again consulted the map, and set off in search of a "Roma Pass," as directed by Rick Steves.

Side note: before you go trapsing all over Europe, get yourself a guidebook. I highly recommend Rick Steves, as he as an uncanny ability to make history and mundane details funny and he does a great job of pointing out strange new customs you'll want to be familiar with before traveling.

So, Rick tells us to go back to Termini, find the Tourist Information (which I never would have found without his directions) and invest in a Roma Pass. 23 Euro, and it covers your public transportation for 3 days, free entry for the first two sites you visit, and discounted entry for all sites thereafter. Being that the Colosseum/Roman Forum are two of the most expensive sites to visit, we hopped on the metro and hit them up first.

Behold, the Colosseum. Glorious, huh? 1500 years old, and still packin' in those crowds daily. We had just enough time to arrive, point and laugh at the crowds waiting to BUY their tickets, scan in with our Roma Passes, walk into the main circle...and then run right back under cover due to a pretty heavy albeit brief rain storm. This happened the entire weekend. Little rainstorms peppered with bits of blue skies and sunlight. Thankfully, we were usually near some kind of shelter to dash under, wait five minutes, and then re-attempt our Roman exploration.

So after the Colosseum comes the Roman Forum which we mainly used as a way to get even more kickass shots of the Colosseum. Am I right?

Don't get me wrong - ruins are cool, but once you've seen one ruin, you've basically seen them all and I could only gasp "I can't get OVER how OLD that slab of ROCK is" so many times. Although, we did see the place where Caesar's body was burned after his death, and that's pretty nifty. Marching on, we hit up the Victor Emmanuel monument and found a place to stop for lasagna (Taryn) and pizza (me). Bellies full and bodies rehydrated and recaffeinated, we consulted the map a dozen more times and set off in search of the Pantheon. Which looks like this:and should not be confused with the Parthenon, which is in Greece and looks like this:

Right, Taryn?

So the Pantheon is also called "Rome's Umbrella" (at least according to Rick Steves) and as it was time for yet another rain shower, we used it for precisely such before heading inside to St. Maria's Basilica, final resting place of Raphael and home to one incredibly large duomo.

From there, we headed over to Trevi Fountain which was crowded and incredible and we stood entirely too long snapping pictures and listening to the water bubble and the crowds delight in goodness knows what.

Next up, I got us good and lost, Taryn rescued us, and we made our way to the Spanish Steps and Shopping Triangle. As I do not shop at Gucci and Armani in New York, I elected not to in Rome, either, but it was still fun to see. And take too many pictures of.

Back to our faithful hotel, where we cleaned up a bit. After the disaster known as last night's dinner, we decided to consult a more reliable source - yup, Rick Steves. He pointed us to a restaurant not at all far from the hotel and boy hidey, once he once again right on the money. Delicious, incredible, and wonderful, with a kindhearted staff and amazing food. In Rome, it seemed that no one wanted to practice Italian with us or introduce us to their customs. They heard an American accent, and they immediately wrote us off as dumb tourists. But not at this restaurant. I could tell the waiter loved Taryn's anxiousness to learn and to try. I just sat back and smiled. And reveled in the perfect food and wine. And thanked GOD that this place was the polar opposite of the last night's "find" in every way, from the way there was plenty of time between courses to the way the waiter took made polite suggestions to the way we actually wanted to stay for dessert to the way the prosciutto slid right down my throat.

Sunday was a little more tedious and a little less adventuresome. We went and stood in line to get in free to the Vatican Museum. And spent the following two hours battling idiot tour guides who stopped their groups in doorframes and stairwells, all the way up to the Sistine Chapel. Which was beautiful, but also packed with grown-up lunchroom monitors who suuuuuussssshhhhhhed all too often. Rick Steves suggested we exit at a little door to the back right of the chapel, which led us right up to St. Peter's Basilica. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Rick Steves? So we did. And we were greeted with the Pope's voice, hosting his Sunday Papal audience to the anxious crowds gathered under umbrellas inside the Vatican City's walls. Pretty neat, huh?
Onward and into St. Peter's. Which. Is. HUGE. (Thatswhatshesaid.) I mean, this space could easily lodge about 20 of my hometown churches. And even though I'm Lutheran, which is about as anti-Catholic as Christianity can get, I don't know. There was certainly something magical lurking here. I loved every second I spent inside, and it certainly calmed all the frazzled nerves brought about by the idiot crowds of the Museum.

Outside Vatican City, Taryn managed to locate a Chinese restaurant. Being that her favorite cuisine before she moved to Italy was Chinese and that Chinese (hell, anything other than Italian) restaurants are few and far between where she lives, I indulged her. It was bad, but I got some gelato later so I don't really care. Then, it was time to head back to our hotel, grab our bags, and catch a train back to Ponsacco.

Up next: Cinque Terre and Florence!

Monday, February 8, 2010

But I don't know no love songs. And I can't sing the blues, anymore.

I really was going to blog.

I was going to tell you lots of stories of losing myself in the beauty and finding myself, and finding God and happiness too. And I hope that once I get back, I'll be able to remember clearly enough to articulate how exactly I felt while climbing in the mountains of Cinque Terre or trapsing along the rain-soaked cobblestones of Florence, how good the food and wine were while we enjoyed them for hours high atop a mountain somewhere between Livorno and Ponsacco, and what if felt like to experience Paris for the first time with two of my nearest and dearest. I hope I do, but perhaps I won't and perhaps all we really need to know is that for the past two weeks I've been just plan happy, and full of life and love and too much cheese.

Don't worry. There will at least be pictures. That, I can promise you. Sometimes I think the reason I take so damn many is because they do a much better job of doing justice to things words never can. Of course, the pictures can't come close to the memories, but I at least like the opportunity to try and share something with you.

But for now, I'm off in search of vampires. Yup.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Before anybody gives me any sort of crap about "wasting" time online while in Italy - let me make something very clear. This is my vacation. So even though it will be spent largely in part by trapsing all over this GORGEOUS country, sometimes I do just want to sit down and veg out and tell you all about my adventures.

It's about 10 AM here in Ponsacco. I'm sitting here with fresh coffee and biscotti and yes, I have just done a tiiiiny bit of work. Taryn and I returned from Rome last night and boy, will there ever be lots to tell you (and show you!) in the coming days.

After 7 hours on a plane across the Atlantic Ocean (and with a rude European's seat fully reclined into my lap), 3 hours in London's Heathrow airport, and 2 more hours on a much much tinier plane, I arrived in Pisa. And luckily, finally engaged my travel instinct and found Taryn. (How in the WORLD did people live before cell phones???) Europeans are funny people. Heathrow was out of control at 6:30 in the morning, full of loud people and a myriad of languages and absolutely and positively NO QUEUES and yet somehow, things get done faster and with more expertise than any American way I've ever seen. I ordered a coffee with milk at Pret a Manger and was immediately corrected "FILTER! WHITE!" before being asked for payment. And yet, somehow, none of this was done in any sort of rude way. Europeans are just generally faster and more passionate in any crowded situation. The gate for my Pisa flight was not even announced until 10 minutes before flight time and, by-george, we still took off on time and landed early. American and their lines and 45 minute boarded processes have nothing on these people.

But I really didn't come here to talk to you about airports and queues. Upon landing in Italy, Taryn treated me to a cafe macchiato which is NOT that very large caramel flavored thing you order at Starbucks. "Cafe" means a shot of espresso, macchiato means steamed milk. Cappucini simply have even more milk than a cafe macchiato and are ONLY to be consumed at breakfast order any time post noon will certainly draw gasps of exasperation. I spent the next few hours volunteering at Girl Scouts North Atlantic Headquarters, where Taryn works. Her darling coworker apologized for welcoming me to Italy and putting me to work. My take? If I have to do something mundane, might as well at least do it in Italy. Taryn drove us home and I marveled over her new Italian driving skills and mastery of traffic circles. She then welcomed me with a lovely little antipasti platter before her friend Rachel joined us. Dinner that night brought "real" pizza (yuuuum!) and a stroll through Ponsacco before limoncello and a pastry. Home again, I gotta say, having not slept in 48 hours, a bed and pajamas have never felt so good.

I awoke Friday morning and again accompanied Taryn to work, as we had planned to catch a train in the afternoon for Rome. Some packet assembly kept me nice and occupied, and then it was off to Livorno to park the car and hop a train. Taryn took some time to explain the Italian train system so that I'll be prepared for this week's solo daytrips. 4 hours later, we arrived in Rome and navigated through Termini (Rome's main train hub) and onto the rainy streets, where I navigated us to our hotel without much fanfare. (Travel tip - Romans apparently consider some streets optional and therefore elect to not put them on maps, leaving dumb tourists to wonder "Am I going the right way?" far too often. Also, this New Yorker CERTAINLY missed her gridded, numbered streets.) We checked into the Hotel Stella, which had offered a nice and low rate and proved to have clean (though tiny) rooms, private baths and ample accomodations for our needs. Being a concierge meant my first instinct was to ask the front desk for a dinner recommendation. We set off (in the rain) for La Famiglia, and were greeted with a multi-lingual menu and grumpy staff. Though the food was tasty, this was clearly a tourist trap, start to finish. Over-priced, and courses were served on top of each other, which is NOT the way it had been promised to me. My gnocchi was divine, but my cut of lamb was a joke and resulted in MAYBE 10 good bites, as the rest was all fat and bone. Also, I got a piece of prosciutto stuck in my throat during the antipasti course, which left me very uncomfortable for the duration of the meal. It's funny now (hey Alison - remember that time you got a piece of ham stuck in your throat??) but seemed a disaster at the time.

We left without bothering with dessert or cafe (a sin in Italy) and headed home to study the map, set the next day's agenda, and fall into bed. And as this entry has grown too long, I'll pause here to allow you to digest this tale's antipasti and pasta courses before I dive into the much heavier secondi pasti and meat courses. (Did I really just compare a blog entry to an Italian meal???) Besides, I'd really like to locate a camera cord so that I may begin to punctuate these stories with pictures!

And, it's high time I showered and started my day, anyhoo. You know, this is my first "grown up vacation" where I didn't just fly to Charlotte or Birmingham or simply head to the beach for the weekend. It still astounds me that I have over a week in this lovely place!

But for now, ciao ciao!