Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

The third and final part of the trip took us to southern Italy to the Campania region, encompassing our visits to Capri, Sorrento, Positano, and Naples. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2 of our trip if you haven’t yet.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 (Continued)

Following our time in Rome, we arrived at the Naples Termini station via the Italo train.  We were forewarned about this train station so, as in any larger city in Italy, we held our bags close and were smart enough to ignore any gypsies asking to “help” us with directions. By the way, these gypsies often appear like like regular teenagers. They weren’t old stooped ladies swathed in clothes and head scarves (although we saw them, too).  My advice is just to say “no” if someone approaches to help you in any major train station in Italy.

We had the expected Neapolitan ado at the taxi stand, including two drivers literally fighting over our fare by pulling on my suitcase between them and yelling at each other heatedly in Italian. One driver eventually won and we were off on our death-defying ride to the marina where we would catch our ferry to Capri.  Everything you hear about these rides is true and possibly even more so. Every move was at full throttle and every brake was at the last moment. We cut off and were cut off by Vespa drivers, and we missed pedestrians, scooters, and other cars by mere millimeters. We did, however, arrive on time at the marina for our 50 minute ferry ride to Capri.

Overall, Capri was kind of a disappointment for me. There’s a tradeoff when coming to areas like this in Italy or many places in Europe: tourists. Now, I know I’m a tourist as well, and I’m sure we all think the same thing–that we aren’t THOSE people– but I know I’m not THOSE people. THOSE people come in all sorts. These particular “those people” in Capri ranged in age from late 40’s to late 60’s, dawned their best white and pastel summering prep gear, traveled in large packs, and sought to holiday with groups of people just like themselves. They seem to travel all the way to Capri to shop in the same luxury brand stores that they shop in at home. They want food from their home country, delivered to them by wait staff who understand their English. Capri is built to cater to those people so we were definitely out of our element.

Capri Town is set up so that you have two major places to stay- at the marina level (where we chose for easy-on and -off the island) and on the cliff level, accessed by bus, taxi, funicular, or long uphill walk. Our little hotel– Belvedere & Tre Re– was modestly accommodated, but the bed was comfy, the host was so helpful and sweet, and the view off our balcony was unbeatable. We spent our evening up on the cliff town amongst the throngs of older rich people in their shoulder-tied sweaters. After taking the funicular to the top, we did find a nice oasis of a  restaurant called Pulia (at the top of the clock tower right at the funicular) and had a lovely, albeit slightly overpriced meal. It was overpriced by European standards but no doubt a steal in Capri. We took the long stairwell climb back down to the marina at the end of the evening.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

We woke up on Thursday to rain and choppy waters which caused a cancellation of our private  boat tour around the island, including a visit to the Blue Grotto (waaah!).  Instead we shared a taxi with two other nice couples up to Anacapri, the other town on the island. Anacapri is slightly less annoying than Capri town, but not by much. There is not much we discovered to do there except to shop, window shop, and eat overpriced low quality food. At least the tourist shops here were selling the Italian tourist ware of the area– dishes and kitchen items decorated with lemons– and other porcelain house items, old people’s clothes of flowing linen (not hating… I would have bought some if it wasn’t made in one size fits most…not me). After a few hours, we grabbed our bags from our hotel and jumped on our ferry to Sorrento, which is about a 30 minute ride from Capri.

At the Sorrento marina we grabbed a taxi to drive us up the cliff. We stayed at a Bed & Breakfast located halfway between Sorrento and neighboring Sant’Agnello. Sorrento is a very convenient town to stay in as a base for the area. It has easy access to all of the major sites, and while all these towns are touristy, there is still a heavy local flavor, especially if you stay closer to Sant’Agnello.

During our first afternoon we had lunch at a great pizza place in Sant’Agnello called “Il Buon Boccone” and befriended the local owner named Franco. We laughed about our matching hats and enjoyed the low key environment that felt miles away from the tourism of Capri.  That evening we stayed in the area had dinner at Ristorante Moonlight. This place was a nice palate cleanser from all of the pizza and pasta we had been having all week. We actually had fresh avocado along with the requisite pasta primi and I also had a great veal filet for the secondi. The restaurant also had an adorable cat named Nono that was so precious… She stole many bunts and pets from me throughout the meal.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

On Friday morning, we were off to Pompeii by way of the Circumvesuvia local train, which is about a 30 minute ride from the Sant’Agnello train station. Pompeii is a place that has been on my unofficial bucket list for years. I’ve always been interested in the wonder of the occurrences there in 79AD, when Mount Vesuvius exploded sending plumes of smoke and ash for days over Pompeii and neighboring towns. There were actually subsequent explosions over a matter of days and the result was a town and its people buried in ash. Disappointingly, my most anticipated sighting– the plaster casts of the actual bodies caught unawares and then frozen in time– were nowhere to be found. Apparently they were being restored. That said, the site was still a highlight of the trip to see after years and years of anticipation.

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After the morning in Pompeii, we returned to Sorrento and took the local bus–Sita– from Sorrento station to Positano. It was just under an hour ride and it took us through neighboring towns and along the infamous cliffside roads. I was prepared for a terrifying trip but it was actually not frightening at all. We sat on the side of the bus opposite the driver, so we could look straight down the cliffside into oblivion during our trip. It was a gorgeous ride and quite enjoyable. Sure there were some questionable turns, but the more frightening was fear of our running over a scooter than anything else…

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Positano is a beautiful town–another trip highlight just to see it.  Sure it’s full of tourists, but it carried with it a charm as well that prevented the stripping of its authenticity. It’s a famously vertically set town, where each store and hotel is tucked along the switchbacked and stairwelled walkways. In most cases, your only choices are to go up or down. Arriving too late for lunch and too early for dinner, we ducked into a pizzeria just as the rain began to pour down. After it passed, we window browsed a bit, and then we headed back to Sorrento.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

On our final full day of our holiday, which was also Uri’s birthday, the morning rain prevented us from visiting Amalfi as was our plan. Plan B was a train trip to Naples (via the same Circumvesuvia train) which took over an hour. We found our way in Naples to the Museo Archaelogico Nazionale, in hopes to discover more Pompeiian treats. With all due respect to anyone with love for Naples, it was not for me. Of all the cities of the world I’ve ever visited, it was the dirtiest, smelliest, and least charming place. Even the museum was tired and rundown.. It seemed an afterthought, which is surprising considering its nationally-renowned status. We did at least find the “Secret Room” at the museum which housed various ancient erotic paintings and sculptures– many of which were discovered at Pompeii. The exaggerated size and nature of the penises was pretty hilarious.

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Our final event in Naples was to sample the authentic Neapolitan pizza. Armed with an article touting the 10 best pizzas in Naples, we found one and were nothing but disappointed. Maybe we got a bad pizza, but it was undercooked, runny, full of overly sweet sauce, and generally untasty. I’m glad we had the experience, but I’ll take Lombardi’s in NYC anyday instead!

We couldn’t leave Naples fast enough, and landed back in Sorrento at the waterfront, watching British weddings while having a drink. For dinner that evening, we had the most amazing meal at a steak Restaurant called Il Marzialino. We shared a great bottle of wine and a buffalo mozzerella and proscuitto appetizer, and we each had a delicious main course — a cheeseburger to DIE for, and a short loin filet that was perfectly cooked to melt in your mouth.

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Southern Coast Travel Tips:

—  Buy Italo train tickets in advance of your trip from Rome to Naples

— You can buy ferry tickets (to Sorrento, Capri, and lots of other ports in the area) right at the ferry terminals but it helps to know the ferry company you are going for in advance as it’s not easily laid out to understand

— Use Sorrento as a base for visiting Positano, Amalfi, Capri, or Pompeii/ Vesuvius, if you don’t want to sleep over in those towns and you want to see lots of things. It was such an easy and central jumping off point for us

Trip Highlights

And with that, our Italy trip was over.  Across the entirety of the trip (from Abruzzo to Rome to the Southern Coast), here were the highlights for me:

— The Abruzzo region in its entirety. We will be back for sure to discover much more and revisit our friends again at La Grande Quercia B&B. We still need to see the beaches and the wineries, and to of course revisit my newfound family members!

— Villa d’Este in Tivoli. This was more impressive to me than Versailles in Paris, especially given the comparison that Versailles is world-renowned and I had never previously heard of Villa d’Este.

— Roman Forum, the understated but much more impressive sister site to the Coliseum

— The Sistene Chapel and all of its 3D grandeur and beauty. The chapel alone is worth the ticket to the entire Vatican Museum

— Positano’s views, charm, and cliffside drive. I wouldn’t necessarily stay in that city overnight for fear of straining myself carrying bags up and down the hills, but given the chance I would visit again and stay longer

— Our meal at Il Marzialino. If ever in Sorrento again, I will be back for that cheeseburger.

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Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

The second part of Little Italy’s Heritage Trip is really not so much about my heritage, but about hitting some big historic sites that I’ve always wanted to see, in the city where I probably originated from at some point anyway: Rome!  If you are arriving here and haven’t read Part 1 of this trip, you can find that here.

Monday, May 18, 2015

After goodbyes in Abruzzo with our new friends Russ and Sergio at La Grande Quercia Bed & Breakfast, Uri and I  set off in our rental car back to Rome. The drive takes about two hours, and is full of rolling hills and mountain tunnels. The scenery is similar to the Alps in that it is mountainous, but it looks very different. Instead of a giant chain of grandiose mountains, there are many tiers of rolling mountainous hills making many levels of landscape to see when you look out into the distance. It’s a quintessentially beautiful drive that I believe you can only find in Europe.

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We dropped off the car and put our bags in our room at Chroma Pente, in the San Giovanni area of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum. The hotel is not quite a hotel or a bed and breakfast, but more like a group of rooms in a larger building, almost like a Regus room would be for a small business. The price was right, and the location was about a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum, or a quick subway ride to almost anywhere.  We first stopped at a small deli called “Otbred Laterano” for some of the best panini sandwiches I’ve ever had. Note: always get a panini here on white or red pizza as your “bread.”  Yes… that’s right. A pizza sandwich. Delicious.

For our first day in Rome, we ticked off the major ancient Roman sites: the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The Colosseum– used by the ancient Romans for gladiatorial contests and other barbaric spectacles– was impressive, but smaller than I expected. It was also covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit. The Roman Forum, on the other hand, was an unexpected surprise. I didn’t previously know about it and it was the most fascinating to me.  It is an ancient Roman plaza or gathering place, containing acres of preserved ancient columns, tombs, and stories of historic Rome. I felt like I had time travelled to another time and could walk the forum and really imagine how it used to be thousands of years ago. I loved it!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our second day in Rome started at the Vatican. For Vatican City (as well as the Colosseum), I strongly advice to to buy tickets in advance so you do not have to stand in line for hours (especially at the Vatican). More of a personal preference, I also recommend to to skip any organized tours. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio walking tour app and were very happy not not be shuffled around in giant, impersonal amoeba-like tour group blobs, that mostly appeared to be using earphones to hear their tour guide anyway.

The Vatican Museum was truthfully quite boring for me. Most of the time there was spent slowly shuffling towards the Sistene Chapel, towards the back of the Museum, which is accessed with a Vatican Museum ticket. The Sistene Chapel was breathtaking. Despite being shoved into a crowded room packed with tourists craning their necks and bumping into each other, I got lost staring up at the ceiling, listening to the stories of each of Michaelangelo’s portraits. I didn’t expect the captivating 3-D design and bright colors that made the paintings look like they were climbing out of the ceiling. Amazing!

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After escaping the rest of the Vatican Museum as soon as possible, we headed to St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. Both were impressive in size, but for me, they were piazzas and churches of which I’ve seen many of in Europe, just on a grander scale. The line for St. Peter’s Basilica looked long and intimidating, but it moved quickly enough.  After covering these big sites, we traipsed around the city to hit up the rest of our to-see list: the Trevi fountain (disappointedly emptied of water and covered in scaffolding), the Spanish steps (pretty but distractingly covered with some VERY AGGRESSIVE sellers of roses and selfie sticks), the Pantheon, and a stop called Hotel Locarno (an art deco hotel with a birdcage elevator). We ended our day with a delicious dinner (with one of the best arrabbiata pastas I’ve ever had– a red sauce with garlic, tomatoes, and chili peppers) at Trattoria Fusco near our hotel back in the San Giovanni area.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For our last half day in Rome we took the 218 public bus out to the Roman Catacombs. The Catacombs consists of many different areas, the most popular of which being San Calisto/  Callixtus– which was closed on the day we were there (Wednesdays). I was happy to recognize the work for Wednesday, since French and Italian have similar looking words for days of the week. We found our way to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano about a half kilometer up the road. Crammed into a required 30 minute tour, we went 9 meters underground to see the old plots and frescoes of ancient Romans. I’m sure it will sound morbid, but I was surprised we didn’t get to see the mounds of bones piled high as you do in the Catacombs in Paris. The excursion took us only a few hours and we found our way back to Rome on the 218 bus. After another delicious panini lunch at Otbred Laterano, we set off for the Termini train station on the Italo train to Naples which would start our southern Italy half of the trip.

Rome & Vatican City Travel Tips:

— Before leaving for your trip, buy tickets online for entry to the Colosseum/ Roman Forum (combo ticket) and Vatican Museum/ Sistene Chapel (combo ticket). We skipped MAJOR LINES and I am not sure why this tip seems to be a secret, considering the number of people waiting in those lines..

— It’s personal preference, but I recommend to skip any form of organized tour in Rome. Use the audio guides provided at the sites or take your own to travel at your own pace. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio app and were very pleased, despite some technical glitches with the app itself. Nothing looked worse than being carted around in those giant tour groups. It is at the point where the groups are so large that there is no personal interaction anyway; the groups listened through headphones as their guides forged ahead and spoke into a mic.

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!

Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 2

Jerusalem

If you’ve just landed here but have not read Part 1 of my Israel trip, you can read it here.

Before leaving for our trip to Israel, I was stunned reviewing the places we’d be able to visit in Jerusalem. I don’t even know if I knew 10 years ago that Jerusalem was still an existing city (as in, that it was not just a place from the Bible.) I was surprised and in awe that a lot of places I had learned about growing up Catholic are actually real, i.e. Galilee, Jericho, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Mt. Sinai, the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. You can stop laughing. I really didn’t realize!

Anyway, for our Jerusalem tour, we used Bein Harim Tour Company. See my Trip Adviser review on my average experience with this tour company. It was convenient for us to use a tour company, considering the time or cost it would have been to get to Jerusalem ($120 cab each way, or quite a few bus/train transfers).

After an annoying amount of pick-ups and false starts, we arrived at the panoramic view of Jerusalem next to the University of Jerusalem. It was here I finally understood what the old city walls looked like within the landscape of the rest of Jerusalem. Everything about the old city was surreal. Unlike Tel Aviv, it looked exactly as I expected, but it was also like I was in some sort of dream state. I explored Jerusalem with my Jewish boyfriend, and was touched by the historic significance for all religions, despite my current agnosticism. Of course I was particularly moved by Christian sites, especially for the familiarity about things I had grown up learning. The Via Dolorosa (the Stations of the Cross walk) was particularly moving. That said, it was also quite disconcerting to be in such a place and then be yanked back to reality about tourism culture. For example, I was standing at the site where “as tradition says” (as the tour guides noted repeatedly), Jesus placed his hand on the wall to brace himself from the weight of the cross. As we were taking a moment to note this, there were souks shouting and hawking their religious good (“Get your rosaries! Need a kippah?”) immediately behind us. I felt this way again when we saw a large tour group dragging a life sized cross down the walk and laughing, as if they were giving a bumper car ride a try at a theme park. I’m not an overtly religious person, but it made me pretty queasy and agitated to see this.

Back to the sites. Again, as a non-practicing Catholic with a non(ish)-practicing Jewish boyfriend, I was also moved to experience seeing things like the Western (or Wailing) wall. Separated from Uri (and the rest of the men) for this Jewish prayer ritual, I approached the wall quite hesitantly, seeing how important this site and experience was to others around me. I didn’t want to offend, or appear to be part of the tourist culture of snapping photos of a solemn event for some, so I hung back. That is until the ladies starting sliding backwards in a bit of a moon walk towards me. With that and with confusion, I quietly left, to learn later that they don’t want to take their eyes off of the wall. I was a bit torn about how I felt about this since the men didn’t seem to be practicing the moonwalk like the women.

My favorite site was all at Mount of Olives, in the afternoon of our tour. The Basilica of the Agony, where we happened upon an Asian boys’ Christian choir group celebrating mass and singing. It was well timed and quite moving. The Garden of Gethsemane was my favorite place to see. “As tradition goes,” this is the place where Jesus was said to have prayed the evening before his crucifixion. I think it might have been my favorite place because it seemed the most authentic. The other places we were reminded, were simply churches and other worship or contemplation sites built upon the site where the history would have occurred. This is likely the same for the Garden, but something about seeing a Garden where a garden is made it seem more real. Plus, the garden was a beautiful lay out of Mediterranean plants and trees with just the right amount of sunlight pouring in to make even the most disbelieving pause for a moment to wonder if there was something (Someone?) orchestrating that stream of light into just the right spots.

Jerusalem is a place that I first did not realize was real, then could not believe I was seeing, and now cannot believe that I got to experience.

Masada & the Dead Sea

Our second tour while in Israel was a full day tour out to the desert and close to the West Bank to the site of Masada and the Dead Sea. We used the same tour company (Bein Harim Tours). The first point of interest in our drive was passing the bedouin nomads that take up camp in the deserts. After a forced stop at the Dead Sea toiletry factory (sigh, organized tours), we arrived at Masada. I did not know anything about Masada before I arrived. At face value, it is a desert fortification, but I learned that day about King Herod’s initial building and use of the site (hello, desert hang-out and protection pad), and then the initial moving story of the 1000 Jews that lived and later committed suicide there, rather than being captured by the Romans.

 

Finally, after passing the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we finally arrived at our tourist dumping point for our waddle into the Dead Sea. A float in the Dead Sea was on my unofficial bucket list, and again an experience I couldn’t believe. Quite different than my Icelandic Blue Lagoon dip, it was so hot and salty, I felt quite like our tour guide said I would–like chicken soup. I expected to float, but I didn’t expect the buoyancy of the salt content. I was amazed about the fact that the Dead Sea contains 29% salt while a regular ocean contains 4%. I was also amazed (but it makes sense) to learn that the Dead Sea is shrinking (evaporation) and is dropping at a rate of 1m (3ft) per year. I asked the tour guide if there were plans to replenish the sea, but I don’t think she knew the answer as it appeared to me she thought I was strange for asking.

In summary, my trip to Israel is one of my top lifetime experiences.  I consider it as perspective-widening as climbing the Great Wall of China, or seeing Machu Picchu after 3 days hiking the Inca Trail.  I’ve been keeping up with the news regarding the recently re-incensed tensions between Palestine and Israel. While I will never attempt to be an expert in current events, I am so grateful that I didn’t have to make the decision to go to Israel in these current circumstances. It was one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life.