Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

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Finding New Life Currencies

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started this blog, and things have changed quite a lot.  

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve seen over 30 places across 14 countries, some multiple times.  95% of these places I’ve visited have been first time visits to new countries or new cities for me.

What happens when you go from seeing 1-2 new places a year to 30+?  You get used to it.  Just like a fish that grows bigger in a bigger fish bowl that it is given, or people whose “needs” become inflated when their income rises, everything in life normalizes around your new level.  I find myself having to watch for how I present travels to my friends and family at home. I have to remember what it was like before I moved here, to hear what people that had these opportunities or this access sounded like to that version of me.  I have to put myself back in my old shoes.

You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it is your new normal.   I bounce greetings and thanks across different languages without being ashamed at my poor accent. I meet new people from countries around the world regularly, and I learn new cultural nuances, witty phrases, political stances, and social sensitivities. On a more practical level, I don’t think twice that I will not understand emergency announcements or delayed train explanations on a platform. I am comfortable that my iPhone may very well not work, and that I’ll need to find my way without the blue dot of Google Maps.

This concept of normalizing to new levels, spun negatively, feels like you are never satisfied.  Spun positively, you can always handle what you are given.  Other things that happened this year that are pretty major: I got engaged, I’m planning two weddings (thanks to my marriage to an Australian, I get a legal we-need-to-apply-for-a- green-card-stat ceremony with family, as well as our dream wedding in France), my father died unexpectedly when I lived across the world away from family and friends, and as a result of the overwhelmedness, lack of motivation, and severe lack of focus, I’ve decided to reevaluate the career I’ve been had for the last 10 years.  

So I’m in a place I never saw myself in even 3 years ago:  in a loving and committed lifelong relationship, fatherless, and questioning my career.  Re-defining who I am now is quite a feat; I call it, “finding my new life currency”. What is that thing that now defines my value?  I thought that once I “made it” in my New York career, that I had everything figured out.  I figured out how to define my value in life, and anyone doing it differently was not as smart, not as motivated, not as strong-willed.  Having my job and excelling in my career defined me. Working hard and late, having many projects running at the same time, spending my hard earned money on rent, eating out, and drinking defined me. Being a New Yorker defined me.  

I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a time limit to this way of living for me.  Once I hit a certain age or time of my life, I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually care about the job I was doing; I was just really motivated that I was really good at doing it.  I realized that this was not enough for me – being really good at something I really didn’t care about.  It was time to move to a different place and change my perspective.  

Throughout this process I am finding a way to learn and believe that parallel or sideways growth is just as much a movement upward as moving upward in your job or your income level. My first mentor once told me that a great and fulfilled life does not look like a ladder that only climbed up in the end, but instead is a mosaic of different points, skills, jobs, and experiences.  And when you stand back to look, it has actually resulted in a beautiful piece of art.

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

For years, I’ve been tracking my travel adventures against Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights, a book that lists well-known and less-known places to see around the world. In this book, there is a full color photo about Preikestolen, or the Pulpit Rock, a cliff at the fjords of Norway.  Ever since I first paged through this book, I’ve been pausing on this image, marking it in my head as a place I’d one day like to visit.  Before living in Europe, it seemed too random and off-track a place to ever see, but luckily, the airports in the southwest of Norway are a 1.5 hour flight from Amsterdam, and visiting the fjords area is quite an easy and popular trek to make from here.

Day 1 (Thursday, August 13, 2015) — Stavanger

Uri’s brother is on a travel holiday from Australia for a month, and the fjords were on his list to visit as well, so he joined us for this trip.  We met up at Stavanger Airport (Sola), rented a car, and drove about 15 minutes to our hotel in Stavanger city.  Stavanger is the third largest city in Norway, although it is quite small, surely far behind Oslo.  I am sure that the sprawling towns around Stavanger city itself are included in this statistic.  It is at the center of the oil industry, and the old fishing town it was basically grew into this larger city because of the boom.  I know that the world needs this energy source, but the focus on capital-O- Oil, and the act of depleting this nonrenewable resource creating the booming industry that this town is built upon, gave me a little bit of a weird feeling inside.  I found it fascinating to learn that the country stows away profits from oil into a country fund, and basically distributes the interest-profits to its citizens, thus helping it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world (among other reasons).

We were hosted in Stavanger by Uri’s friend, a local who shared lots of stories about the town and history with us.  We strolled the pier, checking out the tons of giant jellyfish that gather in the docks’ warm waters (I’ve never seen anything like it before!).  We also walked through the old town area, a unique looking European old town that reminded me of a retirement community area — all white wood-paneled homes surrounded by colorful gardens.

Old Stavanger

We had a lovely lunch at Phileas Fogg, and were hit with our first experience of Norwegian alcohol taxes.  It is my understanding that in partnership with the already high cost of living in Norway, the government slaps a punitive tax on alcohol to discourage drinking.  So, when traveling the countryside, a glass of house wine or bottle of beer will cost you the equivalent of €9-€12, and buying a 6-pack of basic beer at the grocery store will set you back about €25, where the price of each beer is individually listed, without a discount on a bulk purchase.

We also visited Øvre Holmegate, the street full of colored buildings. Uri’s friend told us that the homes and shops on the street banned together to paint their facades to draw more attention and uniqueness to the street, and it worked.  It is a quirky, sweet little street bustling with cafes and shops, and people strolling to check out the scene.

Øvre Holmegate

After our time in the city, we were treated to a lovely dinner at the home of Uri’s friends in the neighboring area of Sandnes, which is counted towards the sizing of the urban area of Stavanger.  Then we headed back to our hotel for our first night’s rest.

Day 2 (Friday, August 14, 2015) — Pulpit Rock and Driving North

We headed for the Stavanger-Tau ferry early Friday morning, and there we got our first real glimpses of the cliffs scattered throughout the sea inlets.  After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived at the starting area for the hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), that mountain plateau 604 meters (1982 feet) above ground that I have long since dreamed of seeing.  The hike took about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and involved mostly uphill “stair” climbing and sometimes scaling giant stones and rocks.  There were two very steep areas to climb — it wasn’t difficult to have proper footholds, but it is like climbing stairs 3 times as high as normal, with uneven giant stones.  We had a mostly quiet hike up, as we started early, and were greeted by the occasional dogs and their owners making the climb (for the big dogs, what fun! –but for the small tiny dogs, it seemed cruel!)  

We reached the rock, and stood in awe at the view over the Lysefjord. Because of crowds, you don’t necessarily get to perch peacefully on the rock’s edge for very long, but instead you wait in line to creep to the edge and get your photo taken by your friends quickly.  The wind was blowing hard, and it was not a place anyone wanted to spend a ton of time teetering over anyway.  We took in the views, and headed back rather quickly, knowing we were hungry and had a two hour’s hike ahead of us.  The crowds were getting thicker, and we knew we also had a very long drive to our hotel.

Pulpit Rock

Can you see us?

The descent down was uneventful and easier as Uri’s brother gifted me with a found walking stick.  We were able to clop down the mountain rather quickly, enjoyed a well deserved and delicious lunch from the kiosk at the picnic area, and then set off north to our next destination.

The next leg of our trip was about 4 hours long, including another ferry ride where we made it as the last car, to Lofthus, Norway (on the Hardanger Fjord).  The ride was adventurous, as most of the road was narrow and it was all winding.  When another car would approach head-on, their was barely enough room for two cars to pass at the same time, and each car would need to slow and move to the edge to allow for enough room.  We stretched our necks and peered around every bend looking for oncoming cars for the whole ride.  We drove alongside the beautiful waterways, pulled over at a few lookout points, and saw many impressive waterfalls.  The cliffs are full of dripping and cascading waterfalls all throughout the fjord area, fed by glaciers, melting snow, and who knows what else!waterfalls

We arrived in Lofthus in the evening, and checked into our hotel, which was actually an active  boarding school which is used as a hostel in the summer months.  We enjoyed a dinner at the only restaurant within walking distance — Thai food, which as it turns out, is a specialty in Norway.

Day 3 (Saturday, August 15, 2015) — Hardanger & Eidfjord, and Driving North

Feeling quite sore from our big hike the previous day, we decided to have a leisurely day exploring the fjords by boat.  Uri found an event where we boarded a boat and went 1.5 hours to the Eidfjord area, where we would spend a few hours before returning back to Lofthus.  In Eidfjord, we unfortunately encountered the cruise ship culture that we were unhappily expecting to meet at some point.  A massive eyesore of a ship parked itself in the middle of the best view between land and fjord, and out from it dumped hundreds and hundreds of German tourists.  The town was tiny, with not much to do or see, except to enjoy the views.  Seeking solace against the hoards of tourists, we found lunch — again at a Thai place– and relaxed for a few hours waiting for our return boat back to Lofthus.

Once we returned, we were ready for our quick 2 hour ride to Undredal, which is northeast of Lofthus, and would set us up right outside of Flåm, where we had several events planned for the next day.  After about an hour on the road, we started seeing signs for road closures, and as we approached a giant waterfall and campsite, we pulled over to call the hotel and determine the situation.  It was there on the side of the road that we learned the only way into Flåm — a 20km tunnel– has been closed for a week due to a major fire, and would be closed for several more weeks or months.  The hotel let us know that the only way into town was a 6-hour diversion route by car, or a ferry, of which the last one for the evening left hours before.  We were infuriated to learn that the hotel knew of the road closure and did nothing to inform us in advance so we could make alternate plans (like the ferry).  We knew we would not be making it to our planned hotel for the evening, so we reversed course back to the larger town we had just passed — Vossvangen, or Voss. For the curious, it was “Visit Undredal” that wronged us and we’d encourage people to book this hotel with extreme caution.

The rain had just started pouring down in perfectly imperfect timing, but we remained cool, pulled over into a hotel to use their internet and inquire about rooms.  We found a hotel at a decent price (albeit more expensive than our planned hotel in Undredal).  Accepting our adjusted fate, we spent the evening in this town where Voss water originates (think, those fancy water bottles in da clubs).  We found a burger joint, had some dinner, and had some cocktails in a Mexican cantina, where a group of drunk Norwegians gifted me with a sombrero and poncho (yep… in Norway.)

Day 4 (Sunday, August 16, 2015) — Flåm Kayaking, the Flåm Railway, and Bergen

As part of our diverted plan, we had to get tickets from Voss to Myrdal by train, including an additional ride on the Flåm Railway, which is very expensive. This was our only way into Flåm, and still we would arrive an hour past our scheduled kayaking time; but, we wanted to try our luck and see if they’d take pity on us.  The rail ride was gorgeous from Voss to Myrdal, and although it was pretty from Myrdal to Flåm, that leg (on the Flåm Railway) was quite disappointing considering the price and knowing we’d have to do it twice to go back and get our car.  

We arrived at the kayaking kiosk in Flåm, called Njord, and we were lucky to be moved to a later group outing, but it was a 3 hour event instead of the 4 hour for which we had already paid.  We were happy though, not to miss the kayaking.  We were part of quite a large group — 2 guides, 9 Norwegian ladies, 2 Germans, and the 3 of us.  The guests had double kayaks, while the guides had singles.  The rain was pouring and it was cold as we received the lengthy instructions on how to set up the kayak, how to get into the skirt, how to right yourself in a capsizing situation, etc.  After about an hour, we were finally in our kayaks (me in the front, Uri in the back), paddling out into the fjord in the rain, soaked to the bone.  It was pretty, nonetheless, and the guides treated us to a few stories about how the fjords were formed, the sunken ship we were paddling over, and there was even a Norwegian birthday song sung by the group to one of the guides. Towards the end of our paddle, the sun finally came out for us.kayaking norway fjord

After we were back on land and in dry clothes, we headed back to our car in Voss, via the railway again.  Once in Voss, we picked up our car and drove 1.5 hours southwest to Bergen, back on our original course.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo and my favored city over Stavanger.  The city is large enough to feel livable and dynamic, but still maintains aspects of its quaint and storied origins.  It boasts fjord and port-side living, the UNESCO Bryggen area, and is the sister city of Seattle — a fun fact that really gives a true idea of its style and feel.

We arrived in Bergen, dropped off our rental car, and set off for dinner, first asking our hotel’s front desk attendant for a non-Thai recommendation.  “Hah,” she said. “I was about to offer you this Thai place down the street.”  A local Bergenite overheard our query and offered to take us the kilometer down the hill into town in his car, and point us to some restaurants where he was going to also take his visitor.  We ended up at the local college’s Swedish spot with slightly above pub grub level fare in the basement.  After a few drinks we went to his other recommendation, a beer bar with 54 beers on tap, where I settled in with a cider.

Day 5 (Monday, August 17, 2015) — Bergen

After our best breakfast during the trip (Thank you, Hotel Park Bergen), we ventured on our last day in Norway towards the wharf area (“Byrggen,” in Norwegian).  We strolled the shops and took photos of the old style commercial buildings that are now a UNESCO world heritage site.  We walked the fish pier and saw the largest king crab legs (and live king crabs in tanks) I’ve ever seen in my life. We then found our way to the Fløibanen funicular that took us up Mount Fløyen.  After a bit of a wait with other tourists, we made it to the top for some great views of the city.  We meandered our way back down the walking trail, encountering magical elements planted along the way, like signs warning of trolls and invisible witches.  The nature of the area truly felt like it was out of a fairytale, where we might find a troll under a bridge or Shrek peeking out of the trees.

mount floyan

After our trek back down the mountainside, we enjoyed our last lunch before heading to the hotel to collect our bags.  We boarded our bus to the airport, after saying goodbye to Uri’s brother, who was off to Stockholm for his next destination. And after a short 1.5 hour flight, we were back at our own destination in Amsterdam– home.

The fjords of Norway were a literal breath of fresh air from the city-fatigue we’ve been experiencing from all of our quick weekend trips to new European cities.  I highly recommend that anyone able takes the trip to Stavanger to hike Pulpit Rock, visits Bergen for its culture and feel, and fills the in-between with any fjording route you desire.  The options are endless!

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

It’s been 6 months since I’ve posted, and it’s time to get started again, I think.  We’ve been in the Netherlands now for a year and 3 months. I’ll come back and reflect on that later.  But for my coming back party, I decided to take a different angle on my travel posts.  You’ll read a documentation of my travels, and I’ve also sprinkled in more pragmatic facts about the trips and some tips. First up is what I’ve been calling, “Little Italy’s Heritage Trip.”  It’s one of the two major trips Uri and I have planned for this year.

Inspired by my father, who passed away suddenly just 2 months ago (a reason for my blogging absence), I dedicate this blog posting to him.  He was passionate about knowledge: knowing where we came from, the history of the world, and many other things.  Some of my fondest memories span back to my childhood, when he would show me how he knew everything about everything I studied in history classes in school.  In recent memory, we studied my ancestry together right before I moved to Europe. We traced our family back to the boats they arrived on from Italy a few generations back, and were able to come up with one town name of my mother’s father’s parents: Bisenti, in Abruzzo, Italy.  And then this trip was born.

Friday-Saturday, May 15-16, 2015

We arrived at Rome FCO after a 3 hour flight delay, exhausted at 1:30am. Given the Italian reputation for early or erratic closures, we were ecstatic the car rental place stayed open for us. We drove the 20 minutes to our airport hotel/motel, and settled in for the evening.

On our first full day of our trip, we awoke and hit the road to Abruzzo, stopping off on the way in a town called Tivoli at the grand Villa d’Este. A mini Italian Versailles with palatial gardens and fountains, Villa d’Este is full of Italian marble and stone, statues, and gorgeously sculpted trees. It was a beautiful find, with Italian and other tourist visitors, but definitely “off the beaten track” as it was at least 45 minutes outside of Rome.

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2 hours drive later, including a drive through a 10.176 kilometer long tunnel (6.32 miles) under the Gran Sasso mountains, we arrived in the Abruzzo region, in the area of Teramo. (Side note:  There is a nuclear physics laboratory inside the mountains accessed by this tunnel!) Our B&B for the next two nights, La Grande Quercia, was located on a mountain road full of switchbacks, tucked on the side of a mountain next to a farm, in the area of Teramo.

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Owned by Russ & Sergio, I already felt like I knew them when we arrived, given that I’d been trading emails with Russ for a week or more prior to arriving. Visiting Abruzzo to see the village of Bisenti, I was on the search to find anything of my grandfather’s parents on my mother’s side. Russ & Sergio had already found birth certificates and marriage certificates for my great grandparents, and were hunting to solve the mystery of the place of my grandfathers birth. After a series of searches and visits to registrar and archive offices, they were able to uncover that my third cousin works at the post office in Bisenti. They called him and soon it was arranged for me to meet him and his mom (my cousin through marriage). His brother also lived in the area and spoke English but unfortunately wouldn’t be able to make the visit.

But back to La Grande Quercia. On our first half day, we went into Teramo for a late afternoon aperitif. One glass of wine each got us an incredible amount of food while we sat and people watched in the town. That week, the area was full of “alpinos” or elite mountain warfare soldiers of the Italian Army, according to Wikipedia. They wore funny hats with feather sticking out, like Robin Hood. We’ll meet them again later.

After we arrived home a bit later, we went to La Grande Quercia’s main house and ended up chatting and drinking with Russ & Sergio, including a bottle (maybe more?) of prosecco. I also got to call my English-speaking cousin, Luca and speak to him. What an experience. I can’t explain the feeling… I had this idea to visit this town when my father and I did some ancestry research as a way to spend a day together before I left to live in Europe. A year later, my father unexpectedly passed away from undiscovered and metastasized lung cancer. A few weeks later, this trip was set and at best I thought we’d go to the town of Bisenti, maybe visit the church where I would guess my great-grandparents were married. But here, I ended up uncovering my real, live cousins. Although this is the family of my mother’s father (no relation to my father) the experience connects me to my dad and his wishes in a way I could never explain. It’s one of the saddest experiences of my life not to be able to share this with him, but one of the most fulfilling experiences and proudest moments at the same time, to be able to carry on this passion for where I came from — a passion I inherited from him.

After this chat with Luca, we eventually remembered our dinner reservations and found ourselves at a restaurant called La Fortina for dinner. It was a wedding venue at the top of a hill and here we realized how off the beaten track we truly were… There was no translation of the menu in sight. We relied on instinct and a few rough translations of a few words by our waitress. I ended up with a delicious walnut and cheese ravioli primi and a shared veal scallopini limone for a secondi. After dinner, I rushed home to call my mom and Aunt, to tell them of the day’s discoveries.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday morning, we ate a quaint but gorgeous breakfast of Italian quiche, coffee, and juices provided by Russ & Sergio, and took some photos with the Alpini (in the funny Robin Hood hats) before they set off.

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At this point we were the only people staying at the B&B. This freed up Russ & Sergio to drive us 40 minutes down and around winding switchback mountain hills into the little village town of Bisenti. There in the parking lot, my cousin and his mom were waiting for us (as well as a few members of the town, who were milling about curiously and watching us). Immediately we were on to hugs and kisses and Italian chattering and exclamations of “Bella Bella!” My cousin reminded me as an intro that Bisenti’s claim to fame was that it is the birthplace of Pontius Pilate.

We were escorted into their home, stepping back in time to the 50’s or earlier. It is a  house that looks just like the homes of my own grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Religious paraphernalia is all over the walls, along with doilies, plastic couches, and black and white photos of family everywhere. We were immediately handed tiramisu and an Italian soda and when the tiramisu was gone we were handed another slice. After an hour or so of intense translating, Italian speaking to me I couldn’t understand, excitement, tears, and reviewing photocopied paperwork documents, we took a ride to two cemeteries to see grave sites of my extended family. This included the husband and father of the family I just met, and gravestone’s with my mom’s family’s names dating back to the early 1800s. In order to get us all to the cemetery, Russ rode in the trunk of the car. It was hilarious and also touching to see what these people I just met were doing for me. It adjusts your perspective about the goodness and generosity of people in this world.  I had a good cry in the cemetery with my newfound cousin (the mom).  The irony was not lost on me, that we stood and cried a few tears at her husband’s grave, and I fondly thought of my dad.

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After the cemeteries our family hosts treated us to “ just a few snacks” for lunch, which included bread from the neighbors, three types of cheeses, bolognese pasta, the most amazing spreadable pork sausage, and red table wine. Then desserts of panettone bread, chocolate, coffee and ice cream were forced lovingly upon us despite our insistence of being full – just like home!  After more time chatting and translating, it was finally time to set off back to the B&B. My cousin’s mom hugged me and cried, asked us not to forget them, and told me she never had a daughter and wished she had one like me. It was emotional and surreal and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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After a twisty and turny ride back to the B&B, Uri and I rested up a bit, chatted with Sergio about the pros and cons of owning a B&B, then were dressing for a dinner we were invited to by our lovely hosts. They had 4 friends visiting (a couple that were previous guests and now locally-living friends, and the wife’s parents). We were invited into this intimate dinner and truly touched we were. It was full of wine and prosecco, funny stories, the freshest and tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever had (ever!), beans, and fresh baked bread. The meal centered around the sheep (not lamb!) skewers known in Abruzzo called Arrosticini, as well as spicy, plain, and liver sausages. We drank and laughed with our new friends and their friends, and truly forgot we just met these people the day before. It was then another late night to sleep in our little gorgeous little guesthouse room.  The next morning we would be off to Rome.

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Abruzzo (Teramo) Travel Tips:

— First off, the Abruzzo region was a highlight of our trip. Although we didn’t get to see outside of Teramo, there are beaches and wineries close by, and of course the mountains. The food is spectacular, and it is unmarred by tourists.  It is an easy two-hour drive east of Rome, on essentially one road.

— Consider staying in Teramo for a visit to the Abruzzo region. It’s central, close to the mountains and the beach, and it’s positively gorgeous. I’d recommend renting a car. There are buses from the airports but I am not familiar with their ease or extent.

— Visit Villa D’Este either while in a longer trip to Rome, or on your way to Abruzzo.  It was also a trip highlight for me, and there were again other little nooks and crannies in that region still that we didn’t get the chance to see.

Like what you’re reading?  You can continue on to Part 2 of this trip here!

Dedicated to the loving memories of my dad, Paul Albergo, 1956-2015

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‘Tis the Season

It’s holiday season, so it’s a good time to reflect on foreign holidays, and celebrating holidays as an expat abroad.  

If you are an outsider looking in, it’s amazing the weird and interesting things you see people to do in the name of religious tradition or secular holiday tradition, or “because it’s the way it has always been done.” Co-habitating with someone with a differing religious background to my own and from a different country as well, is already cause for interesting revelations like this for me every day.  Fun fact: Uri and I only share one holiday all year on the same day (New Year’s). I try to explain why coloring eggs and then searching for them around the house for Easter is normal.  Or why kids leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve.  Or how bread and wine get turned into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass…every Sunday.  Or why you must barbeque on Independence Day, or drink your face off the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends.  Admittedly for myself as well, much that we do or believe is “because we always have.”

King’s Day

I’ve had my fair share of outside-looking-in holiday experiences here in Amsterdam.  First there was Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April, which can only be described as Mardi Gras-meets-Independence Day multiplied by 100.  A celebration of the current monarch’s birthday, the Netherlands celebrated it’s first King’s Day this year, changing over from what used to be Queen’s Day since 1890 to the most recent Queen’s abdication in 2013. The entire city of Amsterdam was out on the streets for two days celebrating their country and the King. Everyone wore orange (the national color) from head to toe, and anyone who owned a boat was on it, partying with house music blasting from concert-sized amps on their little floating vessels.  The canals were so packed with boats that they appeared to be floating as one continuous barge. You could pick up orange Holland or Amsterdam or Netherlands paraphernalia at almost any store.  Then there is the concept of the vrijmarkt (“free market”) where the Dutch sell items from their house on the streets.

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

By the way, the current King, Willem-Alexander, bears a striking resemblance to a very famous figure in New York:

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Sinterklaas

Ah, Sinterklaas. The Dutch celebrate the holiday season with a few days dedicated to this character.  There is the celebration of his arrival from Spain in mid-November, his various visits to children over the next few weeks, and then the Saint Nicholas Eve / Saint Nicholas holiday which feels pretty similar to Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day gift giving and family celebrations.  However, there is also a celebration for Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day here as well.

The most interesting part of the whole Sinterklaas experience is his companion, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.  Yes, that’s right. Black Pete.)  The stories about this character’s existence and role to Sinterklaas (companion, helper, slave) span the gamut, and there seems to be an exponential growth in division in the country on the appropriateness of Piet.  This year there were even several riots in Gouda on the day celebrating the arrival from Spain, in protest to the character. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Piet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas#Zwarte_Piet

Regardless of appropriateness, it is still highly accepted to use the Zwarte Piet character as festive decoration here in the Netherlands.  I just can’t get used to or comfortable with seeing it. Try googling it and checking out some of the imagery.  Oy.

Thanksgiving

As an American celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from home, I felt more compelled this year to actually stick to the tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  Having only cooked a turkey once in my life 10 years ago, I decided to take the challenge. Thanksgiving arrives this Thursday, and here are some things I learned through the process:

1) Dutch people order poultry from poeliers, which are basically butchers for poultry. You can also order from some “regular” larger butcher shops (slagerij). I had to special-order my turkey through these shops from a farm.  I felt a bit guilty knowing a turkey was being slaughtered just for me and responsibility is not shared with the Butterball conglomerate.

2) Buying a turkey is a delicate balance of finger-in-the-air-guessing and providing your poelier the size of your tiny oven in inches-whoops- in centimeters. “Please sir, I’d like a turkey to feed 4 people, and it can’t be larger than 21 centimeters tall or long.”

3) Dutch people do not know what turkey basters are.  After several long investigative discussions with many colleagues, we’ve determined the appropriate term is vleesbedruiper, but sounds close to something gross or naughty in Dutch (undetermined what this is). You can only order these online and they cost up to €25. I’ll use a spoon.

4) Expat shops are good for getting things like Stove Top Stuffing mix, if you are prepared to be gouged on the price.  The best bet is to stow away a box in your suitcase on your last trip home (check), along with packet gravy mix (check), and Wheat Thins (not for Thanksgiving, but check.)

5) Non-American turkeys are not pumped up with steroids, nor specially bred to have big juicy white-meat breasts.  In fact, they are sort of sad looking, scrawny, and lack a discernable stuffing cavity.  Any they come with the neck still attached. I hope we have enough meat here for four people!

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With that, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and wish me luck this Thursday, cooking my tiny little turkey!  Good thing I schlepped home all of that stuffing mix and other fixings for the best part of a Thanksgiving meal anyway- the side dishes!

Amsterdam Musings

It’s a bleary day here in Amsterdam, so I’d like to register a few complaints 😉

So many people smell like old smoke here. Not the tee-hee hee “you live in Amsterdam and everyone smokes pot”-kind, but the “old stale, stagnant old man tobacco”-kind.  I often have to shimmy away from people on the subway or at work to get rid of the smell.  Is this an Amsterdam thing, or a Europe thing?

Things I really miss:

–real filtered coffee that is not spelled with a “k”,

–coming in first place in the commuter caste system.  In New York, the Way of the Yield went: pedestrians, taxis, other cars, bikes.  In Amsterdam, it’s: bikes, scooters/ mopeds, bikes with children in the front, bikes with children in the back, bikes with children in that bucket-thingie, bikes with a person standing or sitting on the back, holy-shit look out for that person riding a bike and texting on her phone in an intersection!, trams, busses, taxis, other cars, those tiny 2-seater cars that get to ride the bike lane, lady in an old-person scooter with a plastic cover on it that looks like a tiny rolling spaceship (true story), pedestrians.

–proper bagels. Especially everything bagels with salt and garlic, not just sesame seeds and poppy seeds. That is a “somethings” bagel. Not an everything bagel.

Things I love, and likely many other general musings to come at another time!

PS– Another thing… today at work, the creative team was tossing around a ball, and I caught it, and tossed it back.  I was told I “threw like an American” and realized that it is instinctual to me to toss an oblong ball like a football, whereas this was actually a rugby ball, where I was expected to perform this side/backwards-pass like thing that looks like you are tossing covers off a bed behind you. It never dawned on me that the nerf was not of a regular football. I am definitely in the minority here.

6-Month Trip Roundup

As I just passed the 6 month mark living in Europe, I think this is a good time to reflect a bit on what I’ve done here.

As previously mentioned, I forget everything or don’t give myself credit for it unless I write it down to reflect, or unless someone tells me to take some credit. My life is like the Will Ferrell movie where no one is really laughing the first time around (or at least I’m not. And I know I am greatly outnumbered here) but you realize how funny it is when you re-quote the ridiculous scenes over and over with your friends later.

So in addition to my Israel trip which was substantial enough to get it’s own entry, I’ve also been able to visit quite a few places in my short time here. I should reflect on this for a minute. 6 months ago, visiting these cities was part of a full-on European vacation, requiring a lot of planning effort and money. Now, these visits have taken course over 2- or 3- day weekends, planned only a few days or weeks in advance, and are able to be financed on my meager European salary (more on that change at another time). Here’s a quick look into some places I’ve been able to visit in my first 6 months:

Barcelona, Spain and Reims, France

My first trip, taken in the days before starting my job, and just 3 weeks into living here, was to Barcelona, as a hanger-on to Uri’s work conference, followed by Luxembourg to visit my dear French friend, Bénédicte who is living there. While in Luxembourg, we took a day trip to Reims, France to taste some delicious bubbly in the Champagne region. Real, authentic champagne from Champagne! This has serious significance to me since I am an avid bubbly drinker with my BFF Annie back in NYC. Hooray for Champagne caves!

Barcelona was an interesting place. After a casual warning from my world-traveling friend, Erik (see The Global Trip), to “watch my purse in Barcelona,” I became obsessed with googleing about safety issues and pickpocket scams in this city. I was going to be alone touring the city while Uri was at the conference, and was used to my first 3 weeks in Europe exploring the safe and structured Amsterdam suburbs. I am sure my fear and precautions taken were on one side of the extreme, while being an unprepared and clueless tourist was on the other side. And the reality lay somewhere in the middle.

I chose some organized tours to feel safer.  Running Tours Barcelona was an AMAZING way to see Montjuïc and the Olympic Stadium area, while the bus tour -especially to Montserrat- made me feel like a retiree, as I was the only person on it that was under 60, and was the only person not rushing to pick up the cruise ship before it left its port. After having my tours under my belt to feel more safely acclimated to the city, I wished I had longer than just a few days there to drink wine, eat tapas, and see more architecturally amazing sites. Yes, rambling around Las Ramblas didn’t feel like the safest place, but I realized the level of safety precautions needed in that city likened more towards how I acted in Times Square without even thinking about it than some other crime-ridden place. Basically, hold your purse close, look people in the eye, and don’t stand around staring at a map looking lost. If you do that, you’ll be fine.

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Germany – Hamburg, Munich, & Füssen
We took two trips to Germany – over Easter weekend to Hamburg, and in July to the Bavarian area so I could run a half marathon and we could go castle-hunting to a site that has long been on my bucket list. Hamburg and Munich were both very livable cities… so much that in both visits, I spend much time saying, “Maybe we can move here next? Do I need to learn German?”

Hamburg is set upon beautiful lake Alster, and we enjoyed cruising up it on a boat tour. We had Easter dinner at a place called Kartoffel Keller (Potato House), where your main dish centered around the potato, and your “side dishes” included any meats or veggies. And the waiters wore potato sacks over their clothes. Awesome, and delicious!

We visited Munich for one day and night, on our way to Fussen for the half marathon I ran at the Germany/Austrian border in the Bavarian area known as East Allgäu. It had grueling temperatures (90 at the start at 6pm) and grueling hills, and it was a great way to continue my marathon training. (Have I mentioned that yet? My first marathon will be in New York City this fall.)

The day after the race we climbed the castle hills for tours of Neushwanstein and Hohenschwangau, and learned about the crazy King Ludwig II. The sites were breathtaking in and around these castles, and well worth the climbs despite my sore legs and the hoards and hoards of tourists at their worst. I still can’t believe I actually personally took this photo:

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Chamonix, France
I really realized the amazingness of living in Europe when I had a visitor cancel right before arrival. With a long weekend off from work ahead of me that I did not want to go to waste, Uri and I looked at flights for the next day, chose the cheapest short-notice flight (Geneva), and concocted our plan from there to take a van 2 hours from the airport to the mountains, and hang out in the French Alps during the off-season. We spent the weekend basking in the shadows of Mont Blanc in the gorgeous little village town of Chamonix, eating tartiflette and crusty French bread, hiking the valleys of the mountains, and ascending the 12,605ft to the Aiguille du Midi. I was really bummed that I didn’t get to see my friend that weekend, but the consolation prize trip…. well — C’était incroyable!

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North and South
It was with visits like this that I began to understand some of the nuances between the north and the south in Europe. The North of Europe is very different from the South of Europe, just as the North of the European country is very different from the South of that same country (and in some countries like Spain, the provinces within are all  then also very individualistic).

Without grossly oversimplifying To grossly oversimplify, the northern countries and the northern side of each country feels relatively more structured, organized, and pragmatic than their southern counterparts. It also feel a little less friendly and less open to strangers. The primary sites usually feature churches, town centers, city hall buildings, and stone structures. The north feels like your Type-A friend who is a little closed off but is really reliable and you will mostly know what to expect.

Minus Barcelona, I have still yet to discover the true southern countries of Europe (i.e. Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia, etc.), but I’m told that where there is heat, there is a more sensual vibe, a constant- holiday feeling, and a casual approach to life. This also brings a bit more positive and negative tourism (sun/ beaches, scammers/ pickpockets), but also more friendly people, open to meet and embrace strangers. The south is your wild party-friend that is up for a good time but might also get too drunk at the party and leave you to need to drive them home or walk home alone. …Making eye contact and clutching your purse, perhaps?

I’ve discussed the North/South difference time and time again with people ranging from Spanish, French, Dutch, and German who have all validated these trends in their countries and throughout Europe. In fact, it’s a sort of “no kidding” sentiment here. Of course that is how it is here! Well, I’m new, so it’s all new to me! I wonder if anyone else has noticed this difference? Tell me what you think! I’m fascinated by these types of things I learn every day living here.

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So that’s it for now.  6 months in, and many places on my list have been checked off, some of which I didn’t even know existed prior to my move here. My list keeps growing and there are so many places to see and things to learn. I only hope I have enough time to get to it all. We’ve got some great trips upcoming already as well (Costa del Sol in Spain and Prague for the Christmas markets), so stay tuned!