those dangerous Italian goodbyes and other Easter misadventures

They say there are different seasons in a life, but I think there are also different lives in different seasons.  For about as long as I can remember, the advent of happy weather and longer days always corresponds to a desire to do ALL the things with ALL the people, and this year has been no different.  I’m curious if other people notice similar things at different times of year- plotting social contacts vs. season would be interesting.

ANYWAY, these past few weeks have been a real whirlwind- I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had no after work social event planned, and the weekends have had scarcely a down moment.  As a closet introvert I can’t usually keep up such a pace for long, but I’m riding the sunshine high 🙂  Writing about it all would not fit into the twenty minutes of down time I have between classes, but a short Zusammenfassung (I’m always entertained by the length of the German word for short summary :P):

Easter in Italy: My Italian colleague and her boyfriend invited me along with a couple of other friends to their parent’s home in Torino, in the Piedmont area of Italy.  Man, is visiting Italy with Italians a different experience than doing so as a tourist.

First, an aside: Italy is one of those countries that EVERY time I go I fall a little bit more in love, something I’ve no doubt mentioned before.  Some countries you visit once, get a feel, and think vaguely that it would be nice to go back someday.  Other places just sink into the bone, and drive you to wonder and read and come back over and over again.  Italy falls squarely in the category.  First of all, every region is so infinitely different than the rest that it’s like a different country!  Liguria, the region on the coast where Cinque Terre is, is all hearty potato dishes and delightful seafood, completely different from the perfectly al dente Cacio e pepe pasta and wafer thin pizzas of Rome.  And then there’s the tapas like food in Venice (maybe my least favorite food region so far), and the truffles and world class wines of Piedmont.  Oh, and the Verona Amarone, woof. And that’s just the food & wine differences, which to be honest is a huge part of the draw for me.  The range of history and art to see are incredible.

So, I jump at every return opportunity.  Torino was an amazingly beautiful city, almost Parisian in its feel, with chateaus around every corner.  Not that I actually SAW much of Turin.  I jumped off the train, toured quickly around Batali’s Eataly and the downtown, dropped my bags, and LET THE SOCIALIZING BEGIN.  We stayed at my friend’s parents’ house in the heart of the nightlife area of Turin, and it was a challenge to even walk down a block without stopping at least three times to greet a friend or acquaintance of our hosts.  We started with an Aperol spritz at a little corner bar next to his house and the next thing I knew it was four in the morning and we were dancing wildly in a club by the Po River, after meeting what felt like half of the adult population of the city.  The English levels were wildly variable, but luckily hand gestures are welcome and no language is needed for dancing on top of beer barrels 😉

After stopping for some delightful arancini and (some of us) doublefisting pizza, we arrived back at the apartment at around 6am.  Wow, what a night, you say!  It just gets better from there.  These Italians, they know how to celebrate Easter.

The next morning we struggled out of bed around 10 and piled into the car for a mini roadtrip through wine country.  We stopped and had a decadent lunch in a tiny town called Alba that is the wealthiest per capita in Italy (all those truffles and wines really add up, apparently).  I got to sample some of the typical dishes of Piedmont, which include beef tartar, a beef carpaccio with a yummy sauce, a type of quiche that reminds me of Spanish tortilla, and delightful butter sage ravioli (I can’t remember any of the Italian names….eeek).

Then we drove on past a few more little towns and up to Barolo, which is the CUTEST little castle wine town I ever did see.  After a few more glasses of wine, we headed back to dinner at her parents’ house (homemade pizzas) and a relatively quiet night because the next morning we were up at 7am for what ended up being the most epic day yet.  However, I did manage to record one of my most embarrassing Euro encounters yet-  the Italians give two kisses instead of the three typical in Switzerland (which I already knew), but that they also start on the OTHER SIDE, which ended disastrously for me with my friend’s dad.  I’m sure you can imagine the collisions that are possible.  I still cringe uncontrollably while remembering this moment :X

Back to the good stuff: we were up early for an all day BBQ at my friend’s grandparents’ place in the Italian Alps, along with around 30 of their closest friends and family.  When we were driving up I idly wondered what we would do all day- there’s no cell service or entertainment up there.  Well, who needs that when you’ve got unlimited wine and food + gregarious Italians.  After a beautiful sunset over the mountains and 7 hours of nonstop eating and drinking with the partiest of party folk, we dragged ourselves back home to catch a few hours of sleep before our train back to Zurich back the next morning.  I arrived back at the main station ten minutes before I was due to meet with my supervisor, sunburned and running on no sleep, an epic weekend under my belt.  THANK YOU ITALIAN FRIENDS!

I don’t know what I was thinking, saying I would give a short summary of the last few weeks.  Easter in Italy deserved its own post 🙂

those dangerous Italian goodbyes and other Easter misadventures

How not to road trip to Italy

This whole blog thing is a little strange for me- sometimes I go whole months without even remembering I have one, and then sometimes while something is happening to me I think I HAVE to write a blog post about this.  Last week’s Italian road trip definitely fell into that category.  Even though I’ve been living abroad now for almost 2 years, there are still moments when I am totally staggered by how strange a certain moment is, and how odd it is in the context of human history that I am standing in this random spot on the globe, thousands of miles of ocean and land from the spot where I was born, a situation that before the past century or so only happened to the conquistadors and Marco Polo, or something.  This whole epic road trip made enough of an impression that I am still sitting here laughing about it on the train home from Venice, all of a week later.

Philosophy aside, let me set the scene.

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the views from smalltown, Italy

SCENE: The society that my supervisor is head of has an annual meeting that this year will be held in the member hospital in a tiny town in northern Italy.  It is so tiny that I do not want to mention the name in case the hosts google their own town and this comes up.  My supervisor, like many Europeans, is very ecofriendly and decides that the best option for the 4 of us coming from Zürich is to carpool, and he offers to drive us all down.  I am intrigued by the idea of 6 hours (so I thought) in the car with 3 colleagues and agree.

CAST (pseudonyms of course):

Rolf: Swiss version of the absent-minded professor.  Prone to opinionated outbursts and dreamy ideas.  Mysterious ability to cause any form of electronic to malfunction on approach.  And I know this is a German German name and not a Swiss German name, but I couldn’t think of any Swiss names off the top of my head.

Katya: German doctor researcher.

Sarah: Very serious Swiss doctor researcher.

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Verona Castle

ACTION:

The drama begins before we even start as we wake up to a blizzard in Zürich.  In almost May.  This is significant because to cross into Italy from Switzerland you must pass over the Alps, and in snow this can become impossible.  Dun dun.  We decide to set out earlier than expected to avoid iciness, around 2pm, and hope that the passes are not snowed in.  This actually turns out to be the only thing that goes right about the day, as we sail into the Alps in picture postcard weather, tasty confisierie gifts from Sprüngli balanced on our laps.  This is great, I think.

Rolf is an incredible tour guide, pointing out all sorts of valleys with peculiar Swiss history and proposing stops at amazing hidden sites like an old Roman style church from the 12th century.  And of course we stop in the beautiful town of Lugano in the Italian lakes region (ya know, Lake Como and all those George Clooney type places) for an espresso with a view of Lake Lugano.  This is all very fun, but I am noticing that the time is getting later and the skies are getting darker.  I decide not to mention anything, as I am the most junior member of the party and also these directions conversations are taking place in German, and I get a bit timid about speaking German in front of my supervisor.  I prefer him to think of me as a genius at all times.  My nefarious plan is to wait until I am completely fluent in German and then trot it out at an after work apero, effortlessly dropping witty bon mots in Swiss German.

These are the things I fantasize about when I have too much time in a car.

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Wandering through old Roman arches in the springtime

After we cross the border into Italy, several things become clear.  First, there is no navigation system in the car.  Second, there are no maps in the car.  Third, the only other person with a functioning smartphone is hopelessly confused.  Fourth, it is dark and we are increasingly far away from Milan or any sort of large city with shops that might be open.  Fifth, street signage in Italy is not what it is in Switzerland. Sixth, I did not download travel data before leaving and my phone is useless for anything but very expensive calls.  Seventh, none of us speak Italian and none of the people we are encountering speak anything but.  This is the first time I call my hotel, in what was an attempt to let them know I’d be very late, but turned instead into a game of verbal charades as I realized that we didn’t have any languages in common, either.

After doing circles in the general vicinity of Verona for some time, a local makes a valiant attempt to give us directions in slow, clear Italian.  We at least know the words for left and right, so attempt to follow them in what turns out to be clearly the wrong direction, as we are spat out onto a superhighway back to Milan.  We get off at the next exit, turn around, and miracle of miracles finally spot the tiniest of tiny signposts with the name of the town that we are searching for!  Much joy ensues, and the next 45 minutes are spent in a treasure hunt for a series of these tiny signs, with much ducking under of bridges and circling of roundabouts.

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We finally pull into our destination close to midnight (so just 4 hours later than planned), where with the aid of two other coworkers who had spent several hours lost trying to find the hotel earlier that day, we pull into the agriturismo where my coworkers are staying.  No one knows where my hotel is (the one they are staying in was booked out by the time I got to it), and everyone is too exhausted to continue the search.

One of my coworkers offered very kindly to share her bed with me, and we all retreated indoors to our separate rooms.  However, I was not best pleased.  Sharing a bed is fine on vacation, but on a business trip?!  I had not one, but two presentations the next day, and wanted to do things like wake up early and work out, practice my talks loudly in my underwear, and prepare myself to socialize with important Europeans 30+ years older than me for the next couple days.  In a final, desperate attempt, I call my hotel again and restart the verbal charades.  Eventually, I was able to make him understand where I was, and he said he would come pick me up outside the agriturismo “een five minute.”  This is where my previous post from last week begins.

Fifteen minutes later, I am still waiting for said man and realize that maybe this was not my best laid plan.  I’m waiting alone, in the dark, in the middle of what I’m guessing are vineyards (this turned out to be true in the morning, and quite beautiful may I add!), with a massive, very friendly stray cat I had managed to pick up in my adventures, locked out of the agriturismo where all my coworkers were by now probably sleeping, and I couldn’t remember how much credit I had left on my phone to call any of them if this guy didn’t turn up after all.

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Roman Verona amphitheater, where they still stage operas!

Long story short, the guy eventually turned up and I certainly made his evening.  “An American!” he said disbelievingly.  “What you do here?”

I don’t know, my friend, I don’t know.

Apparently it made enough of an impression that some of the Spaniards whom I met later at the conference exclaimed, “oh, it’s the American!  You must be in our hotel” on introducing myself.  Turns out my hotel friend of the midnight hour told them all the story of the American he tracked down in a vineyard when they checked in.

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Sighing under the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

My favorite part of this whole debacle is that for some reason my refusal to accept no for an answer and give up on my hotel seems to have impressed my supervisor way more than any of my actual work, based on the frequency of him bringing it up at cocktail hour in the days afterward.  “I see now how clever you really are,” are I believe the exact words he used, which is the most effusive compliment I’ve received yet.  I’ll take it!  Call me the Marco Polo of the 21st century.

The conference itself went quite well- I gave three presentations over the three days that were well received and generated some interesting discussion.  More importantly, we ate DELICIOUS food and drank DELICIOUS wine, including fresh truffles as our visit was lucky enough to coincide with the start of truffle season!  And then topped it all off with further adventures through northern Italy, but that is definitely a story for another day.

Happy travels, my friends, and remember- make sure there is a GPS involved.

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How not to road trip to Italy

The Joys of the Revisit

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Slapping myself in the face with my hair in Piazza Navona
This past weekend I returned from Rome, the eternal city.  It fit with a theme of my past few trips- I actually haven’t visited a new country for a while, now that I think about it!  But recently I’m loving plotting returns to places I’ve been before.  Just don’t tell my travel-greedy 21 year old self, please.

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this Colosseum shot is stolen from Max and his supernice camera, apologies for mild duckface
Part of it is just the freedom to delve deep into whatever aspect of the city took your fancy the first time.  The first time you go to a city, you have to hit up the big tourist destinations and check off the same itinerary as every other person with a Lonely Planet in tow.  And of course!  If you go to Rome and miss the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s, you’re kinda a dummy.

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I made him smile like that, it’s true
BUT on the second visit, you don’t have to do any of those things.  So what did I want to focus on during my second visit???  Hints below:

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Delicious delicious burrata with sundried tomatoes at Roscioli
For whatever reason, I don’t really remember having great Italian food in Rome the first go-around, although I definitely did elsewhere in Italy.  The tourist trap restaurants along the main drags abound in lukewarm microwave pizza.  I just knew there were some delicious meals awaiting me, though, so this time I decided to do a little research beforehand.  That research paid off in one of the most amazing food weekends of my life.

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this was our view as we strolled home to our nice airBnB each night
By FAR my best research find was this app by a local food blogger: Katie Parla’s Rome.  So nifty.  She created a curated list of her favorite authentic places for delicious food in Rome, and they’re all on a handy little map that you can use offline.  Great for spontaneous food finding when trudging through the Vatican museums, simply perishing for a good slice.

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we also trudged up to the top of St. Peter’s dome.  We earned that pizza!  PS did you know that obelisk came from Egypt and prior to the whole church thing was the center for a racing track for gladiators?  It’s seen a whole lotta things.
Speaking of, that good slice that we found was probably the BEST SLICE of pizza I’ve had in my whole life, although “slab where you tell them how much you want” seems to be the more common way to go in Rome.  It was so good that we went for one round, and then went back for more, prompting some amused eyebrow raising from the man behind the counter.  Check out Pizzarium for heaven on a plate.  They also have some pretty sweet boxed wine for 1 euro.

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First round, except I already ate one piece (eeeek)
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Second round, pizza with suppli, fried noodle mozzarella balls
Also on the most incredible list: the cappuccino we had in another place she steered us to…the name now escapes me.  I’ve had my share of cappuccinos in my life, but this one rocketed up to number 1 immediately, no joke.  You typically pay for the drink first and then take the receipt up to the barista and drink your coffee standing up in these Italian morning joints.  Max and I embarrassed ourselves by taking about 1,000 photos of the creamy delightfulness that was this cappuccino.  They add a quick shot of dark chocolate to the bottom for extra richness.

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We’re not standing, and we’re taking photos.  Also Max’s hair is wet #localblendinfail
But for me the big kahuna of meals was at the incredible Roscioli.  I didn’t realize this until afterwards, but Rome is really a reservation town.  We just happened to stumble in here at lunchtime and get a seat, but I highly recommend going out of your way to eat here.  The carbonara, the home baked bread, the Cacio e Pepe, the ricotta starter, the biscotti to finish….yeah.  I’ve been thinking of that meal a lot.

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admiring the cheese selection
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see that happy face?
And that last photo brings me to another aspect of traveling that I love.  Re-experiencing places you’ve been with awesome people.  Especially awesome little brothers that haven’t traveled outside the US before.  (“Wait, that’s a plug??  That’s what they look like here??”)

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deep thoughts with Julius Caesar
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He sure is one cool kid, even if he does need a haircut.

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To many more return visits.

P.S. Can I use your photos in this post, Max??  😀

The Joys of the Revisit