The End of the Road, for now anyway (Travelogue, part 4)

October 2003

Hello everyone,

We’ve really appreciated updates, news and responses from home.  E-mail, while fairly accessible, is not cheap, so we haven’t been able to send personal responses.  But, we’ll be home soon enough and will be in touch then.

Two culinary mishaps ensued in CT.  I had not yet learned my lesson about translation assumptions, despite my salad mix up in Vienna. Here, I ordered what was translated on the menu as mixed grilled fish, thinking fish like Nemo. To my horror, what was brought out was a large platter of shellfish, which I don’t eat.  (I can’t bear the idea that some poor creature has been boiled alive because of me.) A lobster, half a crab, some king prawns and three items that neither Paul nor I could identify. One look at my face and Paul realized that I was not going to eat it, so he valiantly attempted to eat all he could. The waitress, realizing something was wrong, came over and I explained that in Eng. fish means with fins and gills and a tail. (Actually, what I did was make wavy motions with my hand since I don’t know the words for fish body parts in Italian.) Then, I ordered a grilled sole. So, even with a menu translated for you, it always pays to ask for specifics. Lesson learned. (BTW, After getting over the shock of having fish served in tact with head, tail and skeleton, I had honed my deboning skills down to one minute.)

The second mishap is really more of a mystery, and if anyone can identify the mystery substance, we’d be grateful if you’d let us know.  I ordered two cups of hot tea and I know I did it correctly because it’s what I’d been saying for the last five days and we’d always gotten tea.  What we got this time was unidentifible to us.  The liquid was dark. Now, the Eng. drink their tea very strong, but strong tea is dark brown. This was black, blacker than the darkest roast coffee you can imagine.  At first, we thought the waiter had made a mistake and served us coffee, but it didn’t smell like coffee and it came with a lemon wedge. Paul took a sip and made a weird face. He guessed squid ink. I tried it. The water was tepid and the liquid had an extremely bitter, almost peppery taste that even two packets of sugar didn’t touch. We left the rest alone.  Can anyone help us identify this?

We bid a fond arrivederci to Cinque Terra, towns free of any form of franchise, and to Italy, land of erratic ATMs that seem to work on a whim and of people who sing all the time–the gondoliers, the fishermen, the construction workers, the bakers, old men sitting on stone benches.  It’s a happy place. Our time in CT had mentally prepared us for the rigors of travel on the Italian train system. If there is rhyme or reason to this system, it is not apparent. Frequent strikes are called last minute, trains are often late or do not arrive on the publicized platform.  And, if you’re trying to catch a train, this results in a mad scramble to get to the right platform, not easy with luggage.  We shared our compartment to Rosenheim, Germany, with an Austrian sugar daddy and his much, much younger Italian wife.

Our trip through the Alps was, you guessed it, lovely. They are majestic mountains. Snow was already on the caps and the valley was green. The woods are packed densely with fir trees.  Upon arrival in the brisk, bright Bavarian state, we were pleased to find that there is a vertical luggage conveyor belt at the train station.  You walk up the stairs and your luggage follows along. Handy, and energy conservation conscious.  The conveyor is not constantly running. You start it by placing your luggage on the belt.

The area is extremeley quaint, to the point of looking like a movie set or toy model town. Think Heidi; picture The Sound of Music; imagine living surrounded by a luxury golf course. Green, rolling hills wherever you turn; woods to the left and right; rivers, streams and ponds full of ducks in the middle of town. There are cows, sheep and chickens on the side of the road. May poles are adorned with figures. Homes have wooden shutters and window boxes full of flowers. Bavarian painting style adorns some of the buildings.  The roofs are red tile, slanted for the snow. We actually had to stop the car to let a herd of cows cross the road.  (One was a renegade and instead of turning right to follow the herd, crossed straight ahead and ate the grass there.) There are absolutely no billboards anymore–not even along the autobahn. People have lived in the same towns, same homes, for hundreds of years. It’s almost too clean and pretty to be true.

A popular, non-alcoholic drink here is called Spezi.  It’s a mix of cola and lemon soda or sometimes orange soda.  But not lemonade, as I was vehemently told. Both Pepsi and Coke have their own brands of it.

When you’re at the Gasthof (a tavern inn), you may not sit at the table with the Stammtisch sign. This is for the regulars only–people who’ve been going there for many, many years. We were told that as foreigners, if we sat at the stammtisch, we’d be politely ushered to another table and that of as somewhat ignorant. If we were Germans who sat at the stammtisch,  we’d be not-so-politely told to move and run the risk of not being served at all. The gasthofs mostly have their own farms, so all the food is very fresh. We had schnitzel, which is breaded meat that is fried.  Very tasty. All restaurants in Germany must disclose if any ingredients are artificial. So, preservatives, coloring, etc., are avoided as much as possible, as they are not popular. (The Germans are v. environmentally conscious. In fact, one of the first things we saw in town were the local recycling bins on the street.  You have your standard glass, plastic and aluminum, as well as clothing. That’s right, the government will recycle any unwanted clothing. No need for Goodwill drop-offs, etc. )

Gas at uninflated prices costs about $4.40 a gallon and all gas stations are pump first, pay later. Such trust!  Police cars, white with a bright green stripe through the middle, are mostly Mercedes and some Audis. Semis and delivery trucks are also Mercedes. So stylish!

We visited crazy  King Ludwig’s castle. He certainly had a fanciful imagination. Swans adorned every room, every inch of every room. Wagner operas painted on the walls and ceilings. A stalagtite grotto with an overlooking view of the lake and grounds. While we were tired of ornate and elaborate palaces, this was unlike anything else we’d seen. It really looks like Disneyland, or I should say Disneyland looks like it.

After a quick one hour drive, we were back in Austria to visit Salzburg. It is a lovely town, much like Prague, but somehow cheerier. I think it has to do with being surrounded by so much greenery. We saw a tavern that claims to have been in operation since 803 AD, obviously with renovations.

Tomorrow we head back to London for three days and then we return home.  So, this is the last travleogue unless something stupendous happens in London. Someone wanted a highlights list, so here is one for Paul and one for me.
Paul’s list: London–climbing almost 400 steps to the top of St. Paul’s cathedral and visiting Hackney where Rita grew up, esp. seeing her Hogwarts-esque middle school. Prague–the old town square and the cheap prices of food and Velvet beer. Vienna–the wurst stands and the Peter Breugal paintings. Venice–wandering the streets, taking in the incredible buildings, and floating by the opera in the church during the gondola ride. Cinque Terra–the ocean color, the grilled seabass and the pesto, which originated there. Rosenheim–the fresh pastries in the old-school bakery.

Rita’s list: London–seeing friends and family. Prague–being able to navigate in a city where nothing is written in English and the language is not even remotely similar. Vienna–being able to stomach that much meat. Venice–a tie between listening to the restaurant orchestras at Piazza San Marco and listening to a Vivaldi concert in a dimly lit church at night.  Cinque Terra–the sheer wonder of being there. Rosenheim–spending time with our friend Martin and seeing the fantasy castle. Getting away from city life also a huge plus.

Finally, some observations: everywhere but London, restaurant receipts are handwritten and change is made at the table, not brought back from the cashier. Grog seems to be popular in Prague, Vienna and Rosenheim.  I’d seen it in Old English texts, but had no idea what Beowulf was drinking. Found out that it’s rum and hot water. Not to be disgusting, but squat and drop toilets are STILL in existence. No smoking signs are routinely ignored or not enforced. Keyboards on the main continent have swapped the Y and Z keys. Europeans do not hate Americans, as in the people. We didn’t come across any problems.  But, they do dislike GW Bush intensely, as we were told in London, Vienna and Rosenheim. However, as Paul and I also dislike GW Bush intensely, we understand completely.

This has been a wonderful trip, and while we won’t be taking another one for at least a couple of years, it has whetted our appetite for more, more, more.  The world is a wonderful, exciting place and we can’t wait to explore as much as we can.

Rita and Paul

La Dolce Vita (Travelogue, part 3)

October 2003

Buon giorno,

We arrived in Italy a week ago, after a grand train ride through the Austrian mountains.  Past ski towns with chalets, dense forests with thin, tall alpines, thick fog and beautiful landscapes.

Venice was amazing.  “A living museum,” says Paul.  “A feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach,” say I. What’s my favorite food after Mum & Dad’s cooking? Italian!  Oh, the oodles and oodles of noodles! Paul salivates with the gelato. The smell of espresso and vino.  Yum, yum, yum! Pizza has a paper thin base. Interestingly enough, if you order a pizza with multiple toppings, they are not sprinkled all over. For instance, my vegetarian pizza had a section of red bell peppers, another of mushrooms, another of onions and another of artichoke hearts.

Venice is a crazy maze, where it’s okay to get lost. There are endless passages leading to campos (squares) with the requisite statues and fountains. Some streets so narrow that only one person can pass, some so narrow that Paul could not stretch his arms.  He also had to keep ducking his head through the archways. Countless shrines to saints and Mary adorned with flowers tucked away in corners, over archways, next to windows or built into the bricks. The crumbling edifaces hide lovely interiors, esp. along the Grand Canal.  We took the vaperetto tour and could see into the “palaces” that line the canal.  Vast paintings on the inside of someone’s living room. A mosaic on the ceiling. Chandeliers (sp?) hanging overhead.

Most noticeable is the complete absence of cars and bikes.  It’s a great change and one that we quickly adapted to. If you don’t feel like walking, you take the water bus (vaperetto) or gondola taxi (tragetto). Cheap and efficient, not to mention fun. Also, it’s quite funny to observe a nautical traffic jam, although I suppose it’s not funny if you’re in one.

The Venetians are inordinately fond of lap-toy dogs, and they take them everywhere: restaurants, cafes, shops, bars. They are truly a part of the family, not just a pet.

The Venetians are v. chic, dressed head to toe in the latest fashions for the youth and tailored suits for the more mature.  You can definitely point out the tourists by the jeans and faded clothing.  No fancy, pointed leather shoes for me.  So, to fit in and be chic, how about a $3000 Roberta di Camerino alligator purse or a $850+ Gucci bag?  No? Not in the budget this year?  Not to worry! You can always buy a leather knock-off starting at $45 from the numerous African immigrant vendors.  But, you’d better make that purchase quickly because you never know when there’ll be a police bust and you’re going to be left standing as your purchase is whisked away. In our brief stay, we saw three of these busts.  The police run down the street and the vendors take off, leaving behind the merchandise or sometimes attempting to run with a few bags.  We got the skinny from a local who explained that there are only a certain number of permits for street sales.  Most of the vendors are not on the official list.

Speaking of police, they seem to have a nice life. There’s little violent crime in Venice, and the police, when not chasing illegal bag sellers, amble about checking out the girls, smoking cigarettes, chatting with the merchants, sitting and sipping coffee.  Not only that, but they get to wear a smart-looking, pseudo-military style outfit.

Of course, what is Venice without a gondola ride?  Since a gondola has a very special meaning for us, we took a moonlit ride through the quiet, non-stinky canals of inner Venice.  Just us, the gentle lap of the water, the moonshine, and occasional narration from Roberto, our gondolier.  He pointed out Marco Polo’s  and Casanova’s houses.

Before I describe Cinque Terra, our current stop, I must write about our bathroom in Venice.  Italian bathrooms (toilet and shower and bidet) are extremely compact.  So, compact that not more than one person can fit. Ours was 5 feet long, 4 feet wide and about 6 feet 9 inches high. Paul could just about manage to fit. The sink slid from one end of the wall to the other, so that you can move it out of the way.  The shower is not separate from the rest of the room.  It is a shower head and a curtain that you pull along the rail to cover the sink, bidet and toilet so they don’t get wet while you shower.  Truly space-efficient.

Now, onto Cinque Terra, part of the Italian Riviera.  It is truly difficult to describe with accuracy in print how happy I am to be back here.  You would have to see my face and hear my tone to really understand. The Mediterranean is one of the most beautiful, breath-taking, wonderful
places on God’s great earth.  It is the cure for all the ills that come with life in urban USA.  The sea is aqua marine by the coast, so clear you can see right through, and becomes a deep turquoise further out to sea.  Clean air, warm skies, friendly people who appreciate life for all of its simple grace. Sitting at the edge of the ocean, soaking in the sun, listening to the sea
gulls, the call of the fishermen, the waves as they hit the shore–all of it simple and peaceful, relaxing. There are no tourist sights here, no cathedrals, no museums, no agendas, nothing to do but appreciate the wonder of it all. We hiked for just over 2 hours along the cliffs, stopping to
observe nature. Local seafood has been our staple, with the best fish we’ve ever had.  Even anchovies, cooked with capers and lemon, are delicious.  Not salty and harsh like back home, but flavorful and delicate. Pesto with pasta. Good wine.  Amazing tiramisu. It truly is la dolce vita.

We leave in a couple of days for Rosenheim, near Munich, into the hospitality of our friend, Martin.

Wishing you well.
Margharita e Paulo