Friday, July 16, 2010

Feelin' French for Bastille Day (+ video)

My wife and I both have a mantra that we often have to repeat not only to ourselves, but to others: "I'm not an expat, I'm an immigrant."

While technically speaking there may not be much of a difference, we often find a mentality gap between those who consider themselves "expats" and those who'll admit (so to speak) they're an "immigrant." Socially, the term "expat" often implies white collar work or wealth, that someone has moved to another country other than theirs at their own volition and stays on their leisure. "Immigrant" is often perceived to mean someone who moved out of necessity or to forge a more livable life.

Though we're most definitely white collar and came to France purely of our own volition, we definitely put ourselves in the latter category. We're actively trying to integrate into the culture while fiercely holding on to what we like about our own, as all immigrants should. We're most definitely not living some fabulous life of luxury. In fact, almost every day is a struggle.

A month doesn't go by where we don't worry about making enough money, visa statuses, sending enough money home, better mastering the language, figuring out new ways to make ends meet... Anyone back in the US who thinks immigrants come in (anywhere) to live a fat, lazy life is an asshole.

Yes, we do travel, and yes, we do some fabulous or frivolous things, and you see those things on the internet because those are the memories we're trying to forge. I don't bother photographing or writing about the weeks we have to spend stretching one sack of beans, four vegetables, and 200 grams of meat into five meals for two people. (I'm saving that for the book, which will help pay 2% of our rent next year, of course...)

All that aside, after about two and a half years here, things are gelling. We've already felt Paris has been our "home" for quite some time now, but things are really kicking in. I complain as much as any natural-born Parisian (of which there are maybe 6). I curse the government and pray for revolution as much as any 68'er. I will declare something "merde" or an "arnaque" immediately upon hearing about it. I coo at the first sight of babies or puppies.

Ok, so I was always like that.

But there are little everyday things that make us feel more in our skin now than ever before. Nary a day goes by when we don't see someone we know in the street, at a shop, getting coffee, etc. Alannah now feels more comfortable speaking French with strangers. And just the other morning at 5 a.m. I called the cops (!?) to complain about noise from a huge fight down the street, and not only did I not have to repeat or awkwardly re-explain anything in broken French, but... They actually showed up and took care of it!

Furthermore, our local know-how is getting better and better. On the eve of the Fête Nationale, we turned up at the Bal des Pompiers (the fireman's ball to celebrate Bastille Day) at the Rousseau fire station in the 1st arrondissement just early enough to spend two minutes (as opposed to two hours) in line, but just late enough for it to be lively inside – where, of course we ran into some familiar faces from around town.  For the 14th of July itself, we dispensed with the picnic amongst 1,000,000 people on the Champ de Mars (mostly because it pissed early on in the day) and instead watched the fireworks from a more serene locale on the river. For probably the 90th time since the weather got nice this year, we very economically popped open a bottle of wine and watched the Seine flow underneath us...

It's a long process, but we're figuring out the system and almost fitting in. We don't shun the anglophone community entirely: You gotta stay true to your roots, you can't discriminate who your friends are, and there are some cool expats who aren't on the same immigrant wavelength that we love nonetheless. And we know we'll never really be French (maybe on paper, someday...). But as much as we miss American work ethic (no, really), California cuisine, and Mexican drunk food, we feel very lucky – and dare I say proud – to be here.

Now enjoy the fireworks.

(Sorry 'bout the video quality. It was taken with a mobile phone from a distance.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010


That's the Twitter hashtag the wife used the morning of July 4 as we were getting our asses up way too early, all in order to go to Disneyland and see some fireworks or something.

It's just a model.
Yeah, that Disneyland, the one near Paris.

We don't do inane touristy things like go up the Eiffel Tower or the top of the Arc de Triomphe, even when we have visitors in town. But there we were, just the two of us, going to freakin' Disneyland. Because it's the only damn fully American thing you can do in Paris. Not that we often want to, but sometimes – especially on the national holiday – we want a taste of the nation formerly called home.

Sure, you can go to some American-run coffee shop/juice bar and pay €6.50 for a lackluster bagel sandwich that would be panned by any New Yorker with half a palate. You can go to an "American" restaurant and spend €65 on a more than regrettable meal of questionable provenance and even more questionable culinary merit. Or (providing you can hook up a discount pass) you can spend practically nothing to while away a full day of 100% genuine USA! USA! USA! Americana at Parc Disneyland Paris. Or whatever they're calling it now.

Yes, the food is crap. And yes, once you're inside – pass or not – they're going to milk you for every crisp Euro note in your pocket. But isn't that what it's all about? For one day, you can take in the crass commercialism, mass merchandising, and continuous hard sell that is America's gift to the world. And hot damn if it isn't FUN.

Very old San Francisco
For something like 14 hours straight we did seriously American stuff like have our spines realigned by Thunder Mountain, queue forever for Indiana Jones, watch janky video that hasn't been updated since 1987 on Star Tours, and sample all the marvels of hallucinogenic-inspired psychedelia in any attraction having to do with Alice in Wonderland. Pirates of the Caribbean brought back a flood of adolescent memories from Southern California, with the plastic artifice of SoCal (minus all the fake boobs) quickly replaced by the genuine faux San Francisco veneer of the Victorian Arcade alongside Main Street USA. It was disturbing how comfortable it all felt, especially the little vignette of San Francisco.

While others were rushing to their favorite part of the park or lining up for one of the umpteen parades down Main Street, I found it perfectly acceptable to park our asses in a booth in the Cable Car Bake Shop and futz around with my camera. Surprisingly, the cheesecake and carrot cake we had were much more authentic than almost all others we've had in Paris and – y'all ready for this? – cheaper.

Alannah about to take her first – and last – bite
of a candy apple. Thank goodness we have
an awesome dentist.
This set up the order of the day. As others ran berserk trying to get on to every ride and see every show, we took it easy and soaked up the America all around us. Cartoonishly giant hot dog? Check. Disgusting, tooth-rotting candy apple? Check. Rolls of fat pouring out over elastic-waisted shorts? Double, triple, quadruple check.

To be fair on that last point, we weren't surrounded by stereotypical fat Americans. Not the whole time.

(Which begs the question: Why do so many Americans come all the way to France to see a carbon copy of what's in California or Florida?)

Because when you leave the rarified air of Paris for even more touristy locales, you will inevitably run into our European cousins, who seem to have equal love for huge waistlines, racing team baseball caps, and talking loud. Really loud. In fact, over the course of the day, I started to suspect that the reason they stopped calling it "EuroDisney" and simply changed it to "Disneyland Paris" is because the former made it too easy to lampoon the park as "EuroTrashDisney." It was like People of Wal-Mart, only we're in Europe. Yet it was all so middle America.

Despite a few chuckles here and there, though, we didn't really mock that much. Yes, I sent out a few snide missives with the #americaFyeah tag throughout the day, but really, we did just have a lot of fun setting aside all the Parisian bullshit pretense and being as American as we could be.

Steampunky Discoveryland
One exception to all the USAiness of Disneyland is Discoveryland, the French version of the woefully outdated Tomorrowland from the original theme park. In a very smart move, Discoveryland is almost completely themed after French sci-fi master Jules Verne's aesthetic – call it Victorian space-age or Steampunk or Art Deco Futuristic. Rather than a stark 1960's-1970's vision of the future, Discoveryland is an almost romantic, dreamy vision of copper and brass and swooping lines and shiny rivets and... Well, it's just pretty. And the adapted version of Space Mountain to go with it is possibly the most awesomely insane roller coaster I've ever been on in my life. Without a single loop or suspended car or stand-up gimmickery, it kicked my ass every which way and then back several times again, combining the classic charm of the original ride with the how-many-Gs-can-you-stand brute force of modern amusements.

Space Mountain – like so many of the things we did – made me giddy all over. And I needed it. We spend so much time in Paris finding the best foods, visiting the coolest galleries, queuing up for sold-out shows, or simply trying to make ends meet. It was liberating to get barely 40 minutes away and suddenly not give a shit. Alannah made fun of me that evening for how I jumped up and down like an excited little kid upon seeing Remy from Ratatouille (or rather, some pimply kid in a furry suit) on one of the parade floats.

I can't remember the last time an exclusive run at an art exhibit or an amuse-gueule at a fancy restaurant made me feel that way. But this is to be expected. Cuz you can take the boy out of America, but you can't take the America out of the boy.

And for one day, all this boy wanted was an ice cold Coke, ballpark quality food, thrill rides and some big fuckin' fireworks. Check.

You can see the whole set of Disneyland Paris photos here:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Italy: It comes down to style

This is three weeks overdue. I've been back in France for 20 full days now, and I've barely bothered to do much chronicling for myself. It's not that I'm overloaded with work. Or too busy. Or have better things to do. It's just that since being in Italy, I went from do-everything-at-a-breakneck-pace American style to a bit more of a Mediterranean tempo. Maybe it's the heat. Or maybe my head's still in the clouds a bit. Never mind that there were hardly any clouds.

Or maybe it's because I enjoyed Italy so much this time around, that the old lady and I have been chasing that high, a futile endeavor as any addict will tell you. It's never as good as that first hit... or the second, as the case may be.

Biking around Lucca: Far more rewarding than any
museum packed with tourists.
The first time we went to Italy, we didn't particularly love it. Some parts of it we just hated. The constant fleecing by vendors and restaurateurs. The hidden charges. The lines. The lines to get in line and be fleeced by hidden charges. Italy was like one big tourist trap. It was up and down for me last time around, but mostly a downer for Alannah as she stayed on for another week, playing tour guide for my mother and aunts who'd come from Japan.

The difference, this time, was major. No, it was not my mom and aunts – they're wonderful to have around. We'd want them to come visit every year if they could. Rather, it was the style of travel. Whereas in the presence of middle-aged Japanese ladies, one has to hit every attraction in the guidebook and eat what's supposedly "typical," this time we did it our way: No big museums, no cafes on main piazzas, and most certainly not any place with an English or Japanese menu. We just hung out, ate, cooked, and most important of all, spent time with our friends and family and locals instead of dashing from point to point.

Granted, we did get around quite a bit. We blazed ourselves a nice rail-trail from Pisa to Portofino to Cinque Terre to Florence to Lucca, back to Florence and Pisa again [click links for photo sets], but with no stress. No real schedule. No must-do's. Other than eat, analyze, and rate gelato at every place possible, of course.

The ginormous brioche gelato. A little bird told
me this Italian treat will be served in Paris soon.
Like last time, we stopped near Portofino on the Ligurian coast to see my cousin, the rockstar sushi chef. This time around, he's got a wife and new baby – it's amazing how much can happen in a year and a half – which made the family time that much more special. Since we'd already done the tourist thing of strolling the entire windy coastal route between Portofino and Rapallo last time, it gave us more time for family bonding over beer, wine, sushi, and more beer. I'm not sure anything can match the sushi-high we got there, so we haven't even bothered going to our favorite joint in Paris since we've been back. (Sorry Andy, we'll be back soon!)

We left Santa Margherita bummed that we only had one night to spend with our growing family, but we knew what was next: The awesome beauty of the Cinque Terre (see previous blog post).

Vernazza - one of the five towns that comprise the Cinque Terre
His royal gawkiness Rick Steves may have blown the place up, but even with gaggles of tourists hunched over their guidebooks, the rugged natural beauty and fresh ocean air trump anything the ugliest of mankind can throw at it. For centuries these five villages were the symbol of steadfast resistance to Genovese rule in Liguria. Now the vertical-gardening rabblerousers are holding their own against millions of tourists, and they're doing a damn fine job of it. The whole region was even declared a national park to keep it from being spoiled by t-shirt vendors and faux Prada bag hawkers.

Only half a day was spent there, hiking the stone steps and paved seaside trails and smelling the ocean mist and lemon trees on either side. But we took note of all the vacation rental signs – in the stunning Vernazza and Manarola in particular – vowing we'll have to spend one of our long, French-style vacations here in the future. At the very least to eat Ligurian-style seafood again...

Spaghetti all'inferno at La Scogliera, Manarola.
We've recreated this one perfectly at home,
except the octopus isn't nearly as fresh this far inland.
Chase, chase, chase the dragon...
Alas, we had places to go and people to see, so after a brief stop to change trains in sad little La Spezia – where at least there was a so-so gelato shop open – we got into Florence by evening to see my other cousin (from the US) and family.

We had a blast in Florence. (See previous post.) Reunited with one of my lifelong best friends, his lovely wife, and two adorable kids, it was at once a bit odd (I feel so old!) and at the same time refreshing (it's a whole new gig!) playing the family role as a traveler. That, and we had our own kitchen.

The best meals are the shared ones. Cin cin!
There was nothing more inspiring than to have the Mercato Centrale just steps away from the front door. It's not that we lack great markets in Paris, but to have one gigantic one that's open every day (except Sunday, of course) was fantastic. Each morning, I'd get up with the burning desire to go to the market, if only to get a couple of items. Of course, I was largely motivated by the fact that Nerbone starts serving lunch at 7:00 am.

Nerbone is a Florentine institution that's been feeding market people for years. That means having lunch in the morning. Their traditional best-sellers are bollito (boiled beef) and lampredotto (tripe, from the fourth stomach of a cow). And while neither may sound appetizing to the typical palate, believe me when I say I still wake up in the morning wishing I could run downstairs for a sandwich made with these.

This dragon, by the way, has been halfway chased down. While I haven't yet found a proper triperie in Paris to make my own lampredotto, I was able to recreate Nerbone's panino bollito, albeit using baguette for the bread. In fact, I've been able to pack it and assemble it for lunch at work in times of need.

In addition to laying waste to some ginormous bistecca alla fiorentina and mountains of gelato, we also drank like kings – and for cheap. During one of our hunts for local foods, we stumbled upon a mescita (stand-up wine bar) and bottle shop that I found highly reminiscent of my favorite Parisian joint. The guys at Fratelli Zanobini, while perhaps less bearded, are a lot like the guys at Le Baron Rouge: Friendly, happy to recommend plenty of wines (many of small, local production, and most at below 2 euro a glass) and willing to humor tourists.  Needless to say, we ended up making a pitstop in here every day.

To burn off all the calories, we did some biking in under the sweltering Tuscan sun in Lucca. A remarkable change of pace, the town was almost moribund, and it seemed almost everywhere we went short of the central luxury shopping district (ugh) we had to ourselves. Our group took over a backyard patio and scarfed down lardo pizzas and huge German beers (a happy alternative to the Heineken-owned Moretti pisswater that's all over the place), cooled off in a gelato shop (of course), and freewheeled all around the ancient city walls on our baby seat-equipped cruisers that cost hardly anything to rent.

Cousins and the kidlets and cameras.
I swear, I'll get back to shooting myself bungie-jumping
and partying with half naked drunk chicks again. Maybe.
After a couple more days of Florence, we went our separate ways, with family off to Rome and beyond, and us to Pisa before catching our flight home. It was lucky that we'd decided to spend our last night there... I had thought of maybe going back up to Liguria – it's not very far – for one more night (and more sushi), but we thought better of it and stuck around Pisa. It's best not to rely on Italian regional train schedules when there are flights involved, after all.

This was the best decision, because Pisa fucking rocks. Simply doing a day-trip to Pisa to see the leaning tower – as most people do – really doesn't do the city justice. Granted, we were gifted a killer room in a luxury bed-and-breakfast due what may have been a booking mix-up (I can hold my own in Italian, but not enough to know what a front-desker is furiously discussing with a hotel owner), but all we did there was sleep anyway.

And even then, if I'd had any energy left, I'd have opted to stay out all night... on a Sunday, at that!

Once you've seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Battisteria and the Piazza dei Miracoli (which are all in the same place, hence why it's such a simple day trip), Pisa begs not to be explored for its sights, but to be thoroughly enjoyed. It's a university town, so it leans toward being funky, alternative, and affordable. The Piazza della Vettovaglie, which serves as the central market during the day, becomes a hub of affordable but hoppin' bars and restaurants, bustling during aperitivi (early evening drinks and happy hour buffets) and beyond.

Aperitivi in Pisa. Excellent wine at reasonable prices,
all the happy hour food you can handle, sunshine in the evening.
We drank there. We nibbled there. We had late night drunken street food dinner there. And in the morning we had breakfast there.  And all that on top of a marathon of going out elsewhere... The finest Italian microbrew (as in, brewed on premises, hoppy, and not Moretti or Nastro Azzurri) at Orzo Bruno. The reputedly best cecina (chickpea galettes, not unlike socca from the south of France) in all of Italy at Il Montino. (Their pizza was only so-so.) And – naturally – the most amazing gelato at De' Coltelli, an ice creamery run by descendants of the man who first sold ice cream to the public in Paris.

Again, we avoided the tourist traps (save for the leaning tower and trying the Bottega del Gelato) so we could simply hang out instead, and we were rewarded mightily. We skipped going in the Duomo – one of a gazillion cathedrals in Europe, whoopie – and dispensed with getting pastries at the well-known but overrated Salza. Instead, we followed our nose – and admittedly some pointers from Lonely Planet – and wound up having a brilliant night.

By the time we had to catch our 8-minute train to the airport the following afternoon, we were sad to leave. Sad to leave our family and friends. Sad to leave Italy. And surprisingly enough, sad to leave Pisa. Most people only give it a few hours, and we found that even one overnighter isn't enough.

Drinking chilled beers with the arty kids... Cooling down with a cup of gelato while sitting on the banks of the Arno... Walking under the yellow-tinted streetlights over centuries-old cobblestone... Sipping wine in the piazza... Talking with local artisans about things as simple as coffee or cured meat... Watching the local pizzaiolo blow his top and start yelling at someone in the way you only see in movies... (That last one was awwwwesome!)  We were able to take in all these stereotypically Italian things in one place, without the hassle of trinket-vendors or cover charges or multilingual menus. And yet there was plenty more I still wanted to try out.

This time around, we were able to enjoy Italy on our own terms, in our own style: Eating and drinking our way through it.

Along the way, I think I picked up some insight and expertise.

Insight: The way and the reason I travel continues to evolve. Whereas I used to hunt for adventure and new experiences by going out of my comfort zone (bungie jumping, swimming in crocodile-infested or shark-infested waters, eating bugs), I now find that it's perfectly fun and rewarding to do more "family-oriented" things. Perhaps because for such a long time, that's what was outside of my comfort zone. Playing with infants and making sure the little ones like what I prepare for dinner is a bigger test to me than launching myself off a bridge. I can throw myself down the side of a mountain for no good reason, but can I rise to the challenge of keeping a child entertained or quiet on a two-hour train ride? I can party past dawn with a bevy of hot Scandinavian backpackers, but can I actually be happier going to bed after a quiet bottle of vino rosso with my wife?  Yes, on both counts.

Expertise: The search for authenticity is often bogus. You can look for what's "real" based on your experiences or a particular paradigm, but does it matter? It really boils down to what you like. This trip I hunted down and tried what's supposed to be the best of the best food and drink from the best purveyors. Pesto from Liguria. Limoncello from Cinque Terre. Lardo di Colonnata. Prosciutto di Parma. Salsiccia di cinghiale. Brunello di Montalcino. Gelato from every freakin' reputable gelateria in Tuscany. And I gained an appreciation for new flavors (lampredotto, for one). Through it all, I learned the paradigm for what is best: Whatever is the freshest, simplest, and most true to the base ingredients. Because that's what I like.

So in coming back to Paris, despite how hard we chase the high, we're never really going to catch it.

The things you enjoy when you travel are often satisfying not only because of what, but when and where. The panino lampredotto is good not only because Nerbone makes tripe, of all things, taste like heaven,  but also because you're having it at the unusual hour of 7:30 am with a €3 carafe of red wine on the side. The Chaianti classico riserva is enjoyable not only because it's well made, but because it's the man who made it pouring it for you.

That said, we have run into some success in the dragon hunt.

After our long project of trying every gelato shop in Paris (a lot of which are barely edible garbage), we found one that fit the above paradigm of freshness, simplicity, and respecting the ingredient. (I wrote about it, Mary - the Gelato Shop, for VINGT Paris magazine as soon as Alannah had sniffed it out.)  The snowball effect of others catching on to it has apparently been really good for their business, and although we have to wait a little bit longer to get a scoop, we still get the individual treatment and passionate talks about the ingredients that made us love the spot in the first place.

Our neighborhood Italian favorite Rossi and Co. – fully subscribed to the fresh/simple paradigm and on the newly-appreciated family-friendly tip – was recently discovered by the trendoids at Le Fooding. This means that while they'll probably be inundated with the foodie version of mindless fashionistas, they'll probably also keep their 5 little tables occupied and be raking in the dough to keep them in business. Their food is dead simple, but it's – bringing in time and place again – the hours you spend yakking with the proprietor and his wife and making faces at their baby that makes it that much more like what we loved about Italy.

In all, via the latest travels I've stopped looking for what's real, but instead for what's good and provides a good experience. What traveling and sampling and tasting and talking has done is help me establish my own baseline for good.

And that's starting to be what traveling and visiting are all about for me: Not where you go, but what you bring back.

(For the record, I brought back a huge supply of cuore di prosciutto and lardo di colonnata. Come on over.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Have you met David Wang?

Two nights later, I'm still haunted by one striking, iconic image of renaissance art. It's everywhere in Florence, from the original at the Accademia to reproductions around town to tourist stands to the side of buses.

Yes, you could say Italy has a rejuvenating effect: It has turned me into a 14 year-old boy again.

Monday, June 07, 2010

I Like Pisa. A lot.

Before I make my usual trip retrospective – which may take a while to compose – I'd like to say that Pisa is highly underrated as a destination, and that it merits more than just a day trip to see the Leaning Tower (Torre Pendente).  It really has a lot going for it, from excellent microbrew to cycle-friendly paths.

That said, here's my take on the the typical stupid tourist photo of the Leaning Tower:

What, you thought I'd actually stand there and pretend I was pushing the thing over?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Manic Florence

The last time we came to Italy, I had to bail on the trip early to go back to Paris and work. Alannah continued on with my mom and aunts whom – while nice – are about as fun to travel with at three older Japanese ladies can be. Which isn't to say that they're lousy company. On the contrary, they're fantastic. But they're of the see-every-monument-and-museum mindset.

When she found an unsecured Wifi connection, Alannah got on to Facebook and posted:

Without constant November rain & with my sweetheart, Firenze is a bit more enjoyable than last time (view from my bed)
I hope she was talking about me.  Inspired by her picture-says-a-thousand-words mentality (and because I rambled on and on and on in the last post) I present to you the expected sadness and the surprising joy that Florence has brought in the last couple of days.

Being in an area packed with tourist-trap restaurants makes us sad.
The poorly timed thunderstorms make me sad.
Sudden sunshine and having to borrow cheap ladies' sunglasses makes me sad.
Going from rainy to hot-enough-to-instantly-melt-your-gelato makes Alannah sad.
Some loud Spanish puta getting in the way of all my shots because her
dumb ass kept dropping her coat in puddles makes me mad.
Sharing an ice cold Duff beer with my cousin makes me happy.
Peering out the window and seeing our neighbors drying bacon and other
piggy products makes me happy. And hungry.
Boiled beef (bollito) or tripe (lampredotto) panini at Nerbone make me happy.
Especially with a carafe of wine for breakfast.
Bistecca a la Fiorentina makes us 1 kilo and 50 grams happier.
(We shared it.)

Making dinner for the family makes me really happy.
(And hopefully them, too!)
Being the dynamic duo of Aunt Alannah and Uncle Omid makes us happy.
But above all, seeing my gal happy makes me happy.
I'm going to bed. Happy.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

As Advertised

When does the 3-hour journey from Rapallo to Florence take over 11?

When you do the right thing and catch a bit of Cinque Terre along the way.

I've been wanting to go to Cinque Terre for years. Ever since I first saw Europe Through the Back Door (which wasn't at all what I thought it would be, but instead a travel show by Rick Steves) I thought, "If I ever get to Italy, I'm going to Cinque Terre."

Our train ride from Rapallo to La Spezia (the nearest city with left luggage facilities, we were told) was nothin' but class. Three minutes before the fast train was set to depart Rapallo, I rolled up to the ticket window. "Due biglietti per La Spezia per favore," I asked. The lady behind the bullet-proof glass machine-gunned something back. Uhhh... "Lei capisce l'inglese?" I sheepishly replied.

"Dee tren leaves now. Impossible to sell tiiiicket! You take next train. A el dieci. Ten."

I felt as though I was being scolded. It's not my fault Ligurian cab drivers take their sweet time getting you to the station.  I bowed my head and bought the tickets for the upcoming slower train.  For 2 euros or so, I couldn't complain.

Alannah had already made her way to the platform with our bag. The idea was if I could buy a ticket quickly enough, we'd hop on the fast train. I passed under the station and got up to the platform to deliver the bad news, but the 9:23 express to La Spezia was still there. A conductor was walking by.

"Scusi, scusi!" We ran after her, waving our ticket and asking, "This train – go – La Spezia?"

"Yes, but not with this ticket."  We fully knew this and put on our dumb American sad puppy faces.  "You can pay supplement. But you must get on now. Follow me."

We followed her to the front of the train and hopped on. She punched something into what looked like a relic of a Palm pad, accepted a 10-euro note, and set us on our way. "This is first class car, but it's OK. You can stay here."

Thanking her graciously, we installed ourselves in a private compartment with its own sliding glass door, reclining seats, electronic blinds, and blessed air conditioning. All of a sudden, we wished this was the slow train all the way to Florence.

La Spezia was a mess. The train platform was absolutely packed with every American with a passport who'd heard of Rick Steves, sporting Nikes and clutching their copies of Europe Through the Back Door. (Again, not nearly as enticing as it sounds.) The left luggage service took forever and two days for me to drop off one article. And by the time our local train that would backtrack us into Cinque Terre was ready to board, it was already hot and packed with loud Americans. As if hearing the repeated "Oh mah gawds" of a bunch of Florida sorority sisters wasn't enough, imagine putting up with it when getting stuck in train tunnels over and over.

So far, I was not impressed by my Cinque Terre experience. Thanks, Mr. Steves.

Any and all disappointment melted away after peeling away from the train platform and into Vernazza. After about three minutes, it was already decided that our next Italian vacation travels require at least a few days here. A cove with a tiny beach and turquoise water... Cute little pasticcerias with delicious little pastries of which we had to partake right away... Twisted little alleys and stairways... Despite being firmly on the tourist track, it was a place I was happy to explore. At least while waiting for our ferry to the next town. No more hot trains, thankyouverymuch.

What I really wanted was to tuck into some seafood at one of the numerous – get this – affordable trattorias and ristorantes along the cobbled streets. "It's as slow as France," Alannah warned me. "Maybe slower. We would miss our boat."

Mia moglie
Curses! Foiled again! We'd have to eat in the next town along the way, but at least I had a boat ride to look forward to. I'm not sure the boat had a name, but if it did it'd have to be Italian for "The Vomit Comet." This boat was so buoyant, it would pitch up and down at the slightest ripple in the water. Despite having pretty decent sea legs, I was almost ready to hurl off the side of the boat as we made our way along the Ligurian coast to Manarola. Between the bouncing and the diesel fumes of the engine, I was feeling a bit queasy. Yet, somehow, it was all still fun. Probably because watching a bunch of old pensioners hang on for dear life while a vessel rocks violently is, well, funny.  And because my wife looks awesome with a sea breeze blowing through her hair like some 80s rock video.

The rockin' boat tugged and pulled at its ropes when we arrived at port, and the gangplank nearly kept popping off. It's as though we were on a stormy sea, all while enjoying warm, gorgeous weather. It didn't make much sense, but I was happy to be off the boat and ready to find some food.  Manarola seemed a touch more modern and a tiny bit less charming than Vernazza, but that's like comparing Greta Scacchi and Isabella Rosselini. You'd find nary a captain who wouldn't still dock his ferry there.

And while Vernazza's a touch sexier, Manarola's where you want to eat out. At least, so we felt looking at all the menus. We finally decided on La Scogleria which, eye-rollingly enough, has a little temple to Rick Steves out front. But the man knows his stuff, and the food was spectacular in that simple-but-astounding way we've come to expect in Liguria.

A bombing run of rain
We sat on the covered terrace, sucking down various seafood, pasta, and Cinque Terre specialties and polishing off a bottle of the local white. Then we realized why the boat was rocking earlier: A giant thunderstorm moved in, dousing the coast with a torrential downpour. The waiter brought us our check and told us we can stay as long as we like. No one else would be coming in in this weather!  "This is like one of those summer storms," I assured myself. "It'll go away in five minutes. Ten, tops."  But it didn't. It just kept pouring and pouring. The thunder and lightning getting bigger and bigger.

And finally, as if by magic as is usually the case with these things, it went away. And thus we could start our walk along the Via dell'Amore (Lover's Lane) to the next town. While utterly cheesy, it's appropriately named. The 1km paved walk between Manarola and Riomaggiore is disgustingly romantic, with a beautiful vista along every inch of it. There's even a bar mid-way, perched over a cliff with views of the swirling ocean below, and local grappa and organic limoncino at enticingly low prices. Add to that some obscure 80s new wave on the sound system, and you had my ideal bar.

With a grappa buzz and gorgeous sunshine – that's how you enjoy Lover's Lane. Of course, it helps to have someone you love with you.  We didn't do the cheesy thing and buy an 8-euro padlock to put our names on or anything like that, but we did get pretty gross with the picture taking and all that.

Locked in
The path led us to Riomaggiore, which was.. umm.. there's a train station there. And – contrary to all the info out there – a left luggage office. Exciting.

Sleep train
Fortunately, the train back to La Spezia – while still packed with fellow Americans – was a bit more roomy and a lot more air conditioned. Despite the trip back being only 10 minutes, it seems everyone took advantage and took a nap.  Again, I wish the train could've been longer.  La Spezia was hot. It was dry. And with Wednesday being a national holiday, everything was closed.

Well, almost everything. We managed to find a gelateria that was open. And if there's anything Alannah won't say no to, it's an offer of gelato. I had something that was like a marshmallow fluff meringue. She got the golosone, which means "gourmand" or in some cases "fat kid."  Maybe that's more my flavor!

The main drag in
La Spezia
The most excitement we got in La Spezia was at the left luggage office. While we got back to the train station in time for our 5:41 to Florence, the guy holding my suitcase hostage had other ideas. As is often the case in Italy, the left luggage job isn't a busy one. Which means a lot of smoke breaks. Or really, it's a day-long smoke break punctuated by occasionally having to take or give back people's luggage.

I rang the buzzer once.  A minute later, a second time.  Two minutes after that, a third time.  I told Alannah she'd better just go to the platform with our ticket, and I'd run over if I ever got the bag out.  Five minutes later, I started pushing the button repeatedly.  The trouble with a remote buzzer is you don't hear it. You don't know if it's working. Or if someone on the other end is listening. I buzzed a few more times.

Eventually, a man in a green Trenitalia shirt started walking down from the other end of the platform, waving, "I'm coming!" He certainly didn't look like he was in a rush. Never mind that he works at, you know, a place that works on tight timetables.

Well, we made it on the train. Barely. But we made it.

Having enjoyed our experience in the morning, I bought first-class tickets to Florence. We'd enjoy reclining seats, air conditioning, and our own private compart –– what the? For the next 2 hours and 40 minutes, we enjoyed stifling heat, stiff seats, and Italian youth with no concept of voice modulation.

Oh well, you can't have it all. And despite some wonky transport, we'd had an ace day. We arrived in Florence in the evening, in time to meet up with my cousin Neema and his family (who've come from California) at the apartment we've rented for the rest of the week. They'll mind the kids. We'll cook. But for now, we sleep.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Nessun dorma

It's currently 1:45am. This will likely not be posted until I can get to the room with the CAT5 cable. Maybe check my email.
Sushi in Italy? Si, signore!
The plan is to get up early in the morning and hike (part of) the Cinque Terre.

The trouble is, I'm still sleep deprived, dead tired, and sloshed on a melange of Ligurian white wine, northern Italian Gewurztraminer, and Japanese beer. All at the hands of my cousin, who beyond being a kick-ass sushi chef apparently makes the best Genovese pesto and trofie around. Needless to say, I'm stuffed.Yet I'm a bit restless. After sunset aperitivi overlooking the Ligurian coast, the most amazing salmon sushi I've had in forever (the finest salmon in Paris pales in comparison, even though it's all from Norway – must be magic fairy dust), and bonding with new family members, the first day of this holiday has set the bar pretty high. Tonight's sushi exemplifies what we ideally want from our experiences: Simplicity of purpose, clarity of expression, and the need to say "wow."

Cinque Terre better be as cool as advertised. The leaning tower of Pisa better have some gangsta lean. And Florence, well, I better to go into an actual food coma there. Or I'm just going to come back here and eat sushi.

Besides sushi, my cousin
serves up cute baby.
All posturing aside, I could pack up and go home tonight and not be disappointed. Despite the impossible roads, dearth of internet, and some of the most horrendous fashion sense this side of the Châtelet-Les Halles train station, the Portofino area is without a doubt somewhere I could come back to over and over, even if just for one night. The Mediterranean gently lapping at the rocky shore... The colorful sailboats and even more colorful beach huts... The walls of star jasmine and various other flora allowed to grow wild... The friendly locals who won't hesitate to introduce themselves. (I must've said "Ciao!" at least 96,000 times tonight.) If anything, for a cranky city boy like me it's all very humbling and, as I sit up in bed meditating on plans for tomorrow, a little bit zen.

Santa Margherita di Ligure
I have a tendency not to relax nor – as you can see – unplug on vacation. If it were up to me, I'd probably be cliff diving or free climbing at every opportunity. Luckily I'm surrounded by people who are ensuring I simply go with the flow.

Hmm, isn't one of the villages of Cinque Terre perched on a cliff?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ran off to Italy

Crazy Train
I'm writing this on a rather nice Trenitalia "Eurostar" train (not to be confused with the Channel Tunnel train) making its way from Pisa to Genoa. There's air conditioning, a set of power outlets, reclining seats, and just about everything I've come to expect from France's high-speed TGV. Only it's slow. Butt-ass slow.

But that's how it is in Italy. While it may be the home of Ferrari, it's also the home of Fiat, which as everyone knows means "Fix it again, Tony." They say that because it doesn't work. Much like the train ticket machines here. Or the bus ticket machines. Or the ticket validators. So you take your sweet time. Which is fine, because so far it means we've skipped waiting in line, ridden transit for free, and despite being way behind schedule, I'm feeling like I'm on vacation. Because I am.

We've been on the ground for less than two hours now but I'm already immersed in stereotypical Italy. Old men of few words. Public employees who don't give a damn. And getting hook-ups for speaking Italian. Never mind that I don't, really. I just know enough words to come across like those old men of few words. My little bit of Italian is delivered in a curt manner but properly accented, with a goofy American smile. I probably look psychotic. Which in local terms probably translates to "cut me a deal or I'll cut you." Or perhaps I've watched too many spaghetti westerns.

At any rate, I'm proud of my ability to communicate. Which will really be put to the test tonight. Before the train reaches Genoa, we'll get off at Rapallo on the Ligurian coast, spitting distance from the ritzy Portofino. He're we'll meet up with Makoto – my cousin who's appeared several times in this (suddenly realizing it's very old) blog now – which makes him a bit of a recurring character. We're about the same age, sharing the same love of food, drink, and travel, and some crazy people say we even look related (no small feat for mutts).  The one thing we don't have in common, though, is language. His English and French are about on par with my Japanese and Italian. Which is to say we're going to sound like old men of few words. Luckily, I imagine there will be a lot of food or drink between us.

Our wives, who probably don't share any common languages with one another, will fortunately have a baby between them. (Theirs, not ours.)

All in all, it's the start of a week with family from afar, all converging on one magical, boot-shaped wang dangling into the Mediterranean. Of course, I may not get to actually post this until the end of the week. Because like change machines, ice cold drinks, and classy sunglasses, internet is hard to come by in Italy.  Which only means you have more time to actually enjoy it. And I'm going to start doing that by closing the laptop cover, and staring out the window... NOW.


P.S. - Wow, I'm able to post this mere minutes after arriving in Rapallo. There's DSL at this house! Only I'm tethered to a little stool in the corner using a CAT5 cable, as fully functional wireless is a distant dream. :-/

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The End of the Universe

The previous post wrapped up with "it was exhausting, so you'll have to wait 'til I recover a bit if you want to know more about the trip itself."

Well, it's been over a week and I'm still exhausted.

Going from not traveling nearly enough to suit my tastes to two foreign trips in two consecutive weeks can take it out of you. Follow that up with a pretty busy week (work, marathon eating and drinking events, and more concerts) and you've got a pretty tired boy. Add to that the dangerously low serotonin levels brought upon by devastating travel withdrawal, and you've got yourself a worn-out addict with a case of the DTs.

And all I did was go to two neighboring countries. (Three, if you count a couple of hours grabbing a beer in central Brussels.)

But going to Germany, despite the transit hassles we encountered, may have saved my sanity. Because I needed a fix. I needed an encounter with the unfamiliar. A language I don't quite understand. Social mores different than my own (and those I've grown accustomed to). Food and drink I can't easily get. Figuring out how to get around. Ümlauts över vöwels.

Our arrival in Cologne (Köln if you like the aforementioned umlauts) was unspectacular. You learn after you've gotten off most European trains a number of times that it's the same drill... Find the exit from the platform, go to the main plaza in front of the station, scope the old town center architecture, and try to find some overpriced place to grab a bite. This is made extra de rigueur when you're carting around a wheelie bag over cobblestone for the umpteenth time.

Then you look at the ornate detail of the Dom, its unpolished facade of hundreds of years of rain and grime, its massive size, and you stop thinking of how, yes, it does like every other cathedral in Europe, and actually take in its glory, its unique spot in time and space, that you are indeed miles away from home.

And then you take your first sip of a freshly brewed Kölsch beer, and order another glass, and another, and yet another... You're only a few hours from home but in an entirely different dimension when it comes to beer. And sausage. Bring on the Leberwurst. Bring on the Blutwurst. Bring on anything that's been cured for cryin' out loud. We're in Germany!

That's just the first stop. A few more beers and a Bratwurst later, we were traversing the plaza in front of another train station, in another town center, making a beeline for Düsseldorf's... Japantown. (As mentioned previously, the city is home to Europe's third largest Japanese community.)

I'd handled myself just fine in Köln, mostly squeezing out what little I remembered from my year of German in high school. (Please don't ask how many deca-- er-- years ago that was.) Besides, ordering beers is a matter of holding up the right number of fingers, starting with the thumb, as any fan of Tarantino movies probably knows. After all, how hard is it to hold up your thumb and index finger every five minutes to have two fresh beers brought to you?

Ordering at a Japanese restaurant is another story. The thumb-index finger thing will only go as far as getting you a table for two. I stammered and stuttered and stalled, failing to get out enough German to order two kinds of ramen and a large bottle of still mineral water. Then it hit me: Speak Japanese!

I was relieved I could actually complete my thoughts (despite my 2nd grade-level skills). The very Japanese waiter also seemed relieved not to have to speak German. Alles klar, ウエイターsan! At this point, it officially became one of those days: French in the morning, Dutch (or Flemish if you swing that way) at midday, German in the afternoon, and Japanese in the evening.

(We went back for more German at night by downing a bunch of Altbier at Brauerei Uerige.)

By the time we were making our way to Dortmund late at night – hooray for 24-hour train service – my brain nearly hit language overload whilst overhearing some passersby speaking Farsi.

Beer of the Universe
Our Dortmund-based friends Alex and Thomas were real champs for hosting us, as well as Amanda and Tara who'd come over from California and Canada, respectively. We got a little sleep after a (very) late night chat session – something at one point dubbed a "DM Pajama Party" by one of our motley, sleep-deprived crew.

The next day saw us getting up early (well, noon is early when you get to bed at 5:30 in the morning) so we could get back to Düsseldorf for lunch. The mission: Meet up with more of the Black Swarm for a pre-concert session at the local Brauerei.

The venue was Braueri Im Füchschen, the beer was Alt, and the Leberkloße was pretty damn good. (All the food deets and pix can be found here.) And I never thought I'd say this regarding a trip to Germany, but the service was – at all points during our sojourn in the Rheinland – warm and friendly. Germans have a reputation for brusqueness, and it can definitely come across that way, but I can see right through that facade, dammit. Well, at least *I* think it's funny when you order a Coke and the waiter repeats it back as Amerikaner Champagne. But maybe I've already become a haughty Frenchman at heart.

As most of the group made their way to the concert venue to snag good seats, a handful of us walked through the Aldstadt and to the Rhine, taking in the glorious sunshine and the surprisingly magnificent views.

Before this trip, all I knew of Düsseldorf was that Augustus Gloop, the fat boy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was from there. And he's not even real. After strolling the old town, Japantown, the fashion district and the waterfront, I'm now sure I want to come back and explore a little further.

Naturally, the abundance of beer and sausages is a bit alluring, too.

As much as I could've spent all day and all night trying to immerse myself in Düsseldorf, we did have a concert to catch.

The Depeche Mode concert was the focal point of this trip, as it was the raison d'être of pretty much all my non-business travel in the last year. It's something I find a bit shameful. Here I am, a travel junkie living in one of the world's greatest jumping-off points for all kinds of adventure, and what drags me out of my Parisian hermit cave? A freakin' band I've seen a gazillion times since the 10th grade.

But in all, I think it's a good thing. After over two years of being beaten down by French bureaucracy, adjusting to life in a new country and culture, and having little to no "fun money," it was good to have a motivator to get out and do what always brought me so much joy, and to share it with my wife. So what if they practically never change their setlist? Who cares that over the last three tours, we've seen essentially the same show day-in, day-out? My favorite band going on tour gave me the push I needed to get back on the proverbial travel horse again. A show goes on sale, I buy my ticket, then I worry about how I'm getting there.

And it turned out really well. Our first show of the tour was the band's first, too: The warm-up gig in Luxembourg. On the home front, we saw them at the ridiculously huge Stade de France, and then made our first trip to the Alsace region for the show in Nancy with a busload (literally) of French (edit: and South American and English and East European...) fans. The sudden addition of a charity gig in London made for not only the best Depeche Mode show ever (with insane surprises and actual setlist changes), but also helped me fall back in love with London after a few years of discord. And the Düsseldorf trip only happened because the re-scheduled gig became the last one of the entire tour. This made it a special night for the band, the culmination of a tour that at the beginning started to bear the nickname "Tour of the Uni-curse." It was also a very special night for the fans, who were treated to the band's most energetic performance ever, on a stage uncommonly loaded with humor and emotion.

Though it was exhausting (and I only went to a handful of dates!) and though I'd gotten more than my fill, I was, as the picture might indicate, a bit bummed that it was all over. Because as with all the bands I follow religiously and with all travels on which I embark, it's never so much about the activities as it is about the people.

Depeche Mode could break up tomorrow and I'd be upset because it'd mean fewer opportunities to meet and commune with the fans I've come to know, love (and sometimes loathe) over the years. It's like a really big, often dysfunctional family that see each other every few years when a new album comes out and we figure out which shows we can attend, who can crash where, and which will be the "special" must-go gigs. We're like Deadheads, only we have jobs.

It may be the music of Martin, Dave and (I suppose) Fletch that bring us together, but when I play back all the tour experiences in my mind, it's the folks on this side of the stage barrier I think of most. So thanks to the Tour of the Universe, I'll be looking back at memories of Alex, Thomas, David, Robert, Jean-Baptiste, Christian, Jan, Tara, Amanda, Mike, Sandy, Carsten... you get the picture.

Most of all, I'll remember one night at the Royal Albert Hall, hearing an unfamiliar voice, and turning to my left to see my wife. I felt like a proud father. Or perhaps a successful cult recruiter. Because there she was, singing along to every song.


Just before the start of the Düsseldorf show, I tweeted this photo and message. I'm not sure if Alannah got how sincerely I meant it. Putting up with my travel jones (and often punishing pace) is one thing. She knew about that coming in. Finding out your husband is an obsessive fanboy and accompanying him to shows, waiting in lines, getting crushed amongst fans, walking home from venues that let out well after public transit has closed... Well, that's just a sign that I've truly found the "Somebody" that Martin Gore sang about (with Alan Wilder on piano, of course).

Monday, March 01, 2010

Everybody's Jumping Everybody Else's Train

Legroom (on the Thalys
from Köln to Paris)
Several years ago, I was interviewed for a USA Today article about why I prefer flying over taking trains within Europe. Young, single, impatient me expounded the virtues of speed and price. Less time in transit meant more time to drink the local libations, after all.

Fast forward to 2010. I'm older. Married. And wiser, though that's debatable. What's not debatable is that flying sucks, almost without exception. If it's not the airlines nickel and diming you, it's the security establishment mocking your sensibilities by putting you through its theatrics.

The 45-minute flight from the aforementioned article now takes at least 4.5 hours door to door, will cost you at least triple in hidden fees and surcharges, and will generally be an unpleasant experience. The 5-hour train ride it was compared to may still be slow despite the greater number of high-speed services, but nowadays, it will likely cost less, make it on time, and allow you to get on board with all of your luggage, your own lunch, and your dignity.

Furthermore, with most rail services being nationally owned (or at least government subsidized), there's little chance you'll be left high and dry by a bankruptcy. You know, like when a group of you book tickets to a bachelor party on a discount Slovak airline, and due to said airline's bankruptcy, leave the bachelor and the best man high and dry in Bratislava. (True story. Ask the assholes at SkyEurope.)

Beyond all that, as I mentioned in last week's post on Hungry Amateurs about eating in London, trains are bringing glamour back to travel. Maybe even a little romance.

A first-class ticket on a high-speed train is certainly nice... Our Eurostar trip to London in late 2008 was an absolute pleasure, however brief, with champagne, lunch served with proper silverware, and chatting with a few dozen of our newest Welsh geezer friends.

Being on a Belgian train network
means big Belgian beers.
But you don't need all that to have a relaxed, comfortable, and leisurely ride through Europe. If you're looking to move about freely, chit chat with other passengers, and even get a little boozy with your honey bunny, I've got two words for you: Bar car.

Not that anyone doesn't know about the bar/snack train that's available on just about every main line in Europe... But on this past weekend's trip from France to Germany and back, we found serious bliss in the bar car.

First, there are often (as is the case on Thalys trains) four sets of quad seats on the bar car. If you can get these seats (and don't mind a bit of noise and passers-by around you), take them. Being with a maximum of 15 other people in the car – and likely no snotty kids – you're better off than even the 60 people per car in first class.

Even if you can't land these seats, don't worry. Hang out in the bar car anyway. If you're paranoid, you can bring your luggage with you, and if you're somewhere in between, you can leave your luggage in the rack at the end of the car, looking up from your Duvel or Leffe or champagne once in a while to make sure it's not gone.

The clusterfuck at Cologne (Köln) Hauptbahnhof after
most regional trains were canceled due to Atlantic
storm Xynthia on 28 February.
Of course, train travel isn't without its share of headaches. While they don't get up in the air, they're also subject to delays and cancellations during storms, what with trees falling on tracks, building materials flying through windows, and snow shorting out entire trains.

Yesterday, for example, our scheduled 4-hour trip from Düsseldorf, Germany to Paris, France (via Cologne, Germany and Brussels, Belgium) took somewhere in the neighborhood of seven hours.  This was due to the massive storm raging all over western Europe, as well as unrelated delays caused by the previous week's head-on commuter train collision in Belgium.

On a plane, this sort of delay would've been a nightmare, an irritation, and a royal bitch all rolled up into one.  But thanks in no small part to the bar car, it was still a pleasure – more time to spend with my squeeze, and with some good beer.

Of course, it was exhausting, so you'll have to wait 'til I recover a bit if you want to know any more about the trip itself.