1. a budget traveler of the extreme variety.
2. a specialist in creative vehicle conversions, spontaneous road trips, and serendipitous meetings.
3. a wandering seeker of friendship, adventure, and art.
1. a budget traveler of the extreme variety.
2. a specialist in creative vehicle conversions, spontaneous road trips, and serendipitous meetings.
3. a wandering seeker of friendship, adventure, and art.
When my mother turned 50, we decided it was time she traveled. Aside from a few quick trips over the Mexican border, she’d never left the United States. She wanted to go some place clean–but lively, cultural–but not overly foreign. We decided on Italy.
Only one thing worried her. Watch out for the men, a few people warned. They are aggressive, will grope you, and make lewd comments—ESPECIALLY since you are blondes. Italian men love blondes.
At 50, my mom was a quite good-looking and walking down the street together we accrued roughly about the same amount of male attention. She had a nice figure, beautiful face, and stylish clothes. I was less kept, but at 24 had sea-white hair the flowed all the way down to my waist.
We brainstormed. What could we do to fend off the unwanted advances? Tying up our hair or hiding it beneath a hat was an option, but seemed too oppressive. So instead, we prepared what we would say in response and honed our snide looks. If an Italian man approached us with a dramatic proclamation of love, we knew exactly what we’d say:
I like your approach, now let’s see your departure
Or were he to say something like I know how to please a woman, we would say Then please leave us alone.
And reserved for the lewdest offenders: Sorry, we don’t date outside our species.
Mom decided that instead of hotels, we would stay in the convents with the Holy Sisters—far, far away from the machismo of Italy’s streets. We would be fine.
Should we bring pepper spray? My mother fretted. I laughed, but she was serious.
We started our tour of Italy in Venice, riding gondolas down the waterways and wandering the cobblestone streets. We were so awed by the beauty of the city that we forgot all about the perils of Italian men. We were too busy dining on pasta e fasioi , drinking the house wine, and blowing cigarette smoke over our shoulders to notice them. We spent a morning loitering in the Piazza San Marco where I fed what seemed like a thousand pigeons. One late afternoon, we strolled under the quintessential lines of clean laundry fluttering in the breeze.
Florence was next and we loved the bridges, walking the length of Ponte Vecchio back and forth a dozen times. We toured Galleria dell’ Academia, eyeing the perfection of Michelangelo’s David, and almost blushing at his beauty. So far, all was going well. Days had gone by, and not a single Italian man had leered. We hadn’t even heard a Ciao bella! Mom began to relax.
Days peeled away in Lucca next. Each morning we rented bicycles and rode around the wall surrounding the town. We spent days drinking cappuccinos and looking at clothing and ceramics. On Mom’s birthday, I decorated her bike in crepe paper and loaded the basket with cakes and presents. We rode around the wall, parked our bikes, and celebrated at a picnic table.
Happy 50th Mom, I said, lighting the candles.
On the way to Rome we put our guards back up. Rome would be the surely be the epicenter of unwanted catcalls and intrusive groping. We set stern expressions, ready to admonish any Georgio or Afonso who got out of line.
Once in the city, we boarded a packed bus to the Sistine Chapel. Watch it, mom said as we squeezed in and stood pelvis-to-pelvis with a crowd of Italian men. We exchanged worried glances the whole ride, but once again nothing happened. As we entered the chapel, I became aware of a gnawing question, Where were all the aggressive Italian men? I wondered.
Not ten minutes later, a young Italian man in glasses and too-short pants approached us with a look of faint desire. Mom braced. Finally, I sighed. He addressed my mother with the utmost politeness, a pure gentleman: Your daughter is beautiful. Can I ask your permission to take her on a date?
A few days later, we boarded a train to Milan where we’d catch our flight back to the U.S. As the train coursed northward, Mom inched closer to the conductor, tossed her hair a few times and by the time the train pulled into Milan, had secured us a date. He has a friend, she whispered. We followed him off the train, and he led us to the employee cafeteria where his friend, a 50-something named Giovanni, waited. We split a bag of chips four ways.
My mother and I left Italy deeply offended. All that worry and preparation and not a single catcall. and We never got to use the lines we’d rehearsed so studiously.
Years have passed since our trip to Italy, and on some level I still haven’t forgotten the wounding indifference of Italy’s men. But recently, I’ve been spending my mornings in a café in Sausalito. The place is frequented by Italians and each morning as I pass the sidewalk tables I hear a chorus of Ciao Bella, and Beautiful Smile. When I rise to the cream counter carrying my coffee, the men glance up from their newspapers, and my ego swells like a popover. It’s as if all the ogling men that were supposed to be in Italy had gathered in this small Sausalito café.
One morning, I was standing at the register paying for my espresso. An older Italian man was at a table behind me, his eyes about level with my buttocks.
Ciao Bella, he said. I braced and returned a stiff Hi.
How are you? he asked.
His watery eyes leered at the back of my jeans.
Well . . . I love this point of view he answered.
I felt heat rise under my shirt. How inappropriate I gasped. How politically incorrect. Where was this guy in Italy, I wondered, when I was prepared, guarded, and equipped. Now, standing there at the counter, I couldn’t remember a single one of the comebacks my mom and I had prepared. So, I turned and said the first thing that came to mind:
For more stories, buy the book here: Leave the Lipstick, Take the Iguana: Funny Travel Stories & Strange Packing Tips
My article in The San Francisco Chronicle today. Click here
I will be co-teaching the Deep Travel Workshop at the legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Company in Paris on October 23, 24 and 26. Come share your passion for writing with us at the S&C bookstore and in the cafes along the Seine!
More Info: Deep Travel is a three-session workshop in which we venture vertically into the deepest strata of our travel experience. Our goal is to take our writing past mere “travelogue” to capture moments of transformation, and evoke the sensation we often have at the end of our journeys that we are changed.
Join award-winning writers Christina Ammon and Erin Byrne, as we forge connections between our personal journeys—and the political, cultural, and mythical contexts in which they unfold.
Contact me at: email@example.com
My Oregonian article about Flights of Wine in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. This place is paradise! To read, click here
My San Francisco Chronicle story about getting distracted in Yelapa here
My Oregonian article in Sunday’s travel section. The tricky business of restoring the Fez Medina here:
My entry about the Chinese concept of Yuan Fen in AlterNet today. http://www.alternet.org/culture/155948/comments/
Lilly appraised me the first morning over coffee. I was holding a book. “I’m relieved to see that you read,” she said. I had already struck down one of her stereotypes: Americans are dumb, and don’t read
Meeting your partner’s Italian mother is intimidating enough—and Lilly wasn’t particularly fond of Americans. “I will never set foot in your country,” she declared. When she was young, she loved America. But the political events of the past decade have left her feeling spurned. I love Italians, but am easily undone by their sometimes-blunt declarations.
Fitting into Andy’s Italian family wasn’t going to be easy. Even if I learned to speak the language, certain subtleties would always elude me: the micro-mannerisms and nuanced intonations, the place-marinated references and provincial worldviews. Mixing disparate families is like grafting a cabernet rootstock onto a merlot; all you can do is plant it in the soil, and hope it’ll take.
Despite our differences, by late afternoon Lilly and I had found common ground: We both loved to cook. Soon we were making dinner.
“I can teach you how to make tagliatelle.” Lilly said in her rich Italian accent. “BUT,” she qualified sternly, “you’ll need 20 to 30 years to get it right,” She rapped an egg on the edge of the bowl and let the yoke drool onto the flour. I watched carefully and wondered:
How could a recipe with only two ingredients take 30 years to learn?
She forked the egg into the flour with one hand and twirled the bowl with the other. Her short, quick strokes were like her personality: effective, fiery, sure.
“Actually, you will never get it right,” she said, changing her mind as quickly as the mixture turned to paste. She added more flour. “You must be born in Bologna to get it right. Even I was born too far south. In Puglia.”
Tagliatelle comes from the town of Bologna. The Chamber of Commerce has a glass display case which features a strand of tagliatelle rendered of solid gold, and cut to the official dimensions: one millimeter by six millimeters.
Not only must it be cut to spec, but it must be made with a specific kind of flour. In Italy, flour is classified as either 1, 0, or 00, depending on its texture. Tagliatelle should be made with Doppio zero flour, which is the finest grind and talcum powder soft.
These details seemed over-particular to me—until I remembered my favorite bread back home in Talent, Oregon. New Sammy’s Cowboy Bread consists of three ingredients—flour, water, and salt—and is kneaded and baked in the simple kitchen of a small local café. For 15 years, I toasted this bread for breakfast. But one morning, a few years back, it tasted slightly different—slightly denser, somehow chewier. The next loaf I bought was the same. With just three ingredients, what could have gone wrong?
I mentioned this to the baker. He told me they had recently remodeled the café, and were now making the bread in a different room—one with a slightly higher humidity.
“Different room, different bread,” he explained.
But back to the tagliatelle. Lilly was upset now. She punched more flour into the dough, then kneaded it again. She dumped it onto the table. “It’s too damp,” she sighed. Normally, the dough would be rolled it into a perfectly formed circle, called a sfoglia, on a wooden board with a wooden rolling pin made of a specific kind of wood. “And when it is ready, you’d blow underneath,” she bent down and mimicked the test, “and it would float up like a silk bedsheet.”
Instead, she produced a pasta-making machine. She affixed it to the counter and tightened the vice on the hand crank machine and began to run the dough through it. It went in as shapeless lumps and came out in smooth sheets. With each pass it became softer, thinner, more diaphanous. “It’s a bit too smooth,” she lamented. “Better if it’s a bit rougher. You have to have a Bolognese grandmother to do it right. I didn’t.”
“Alora, we need to dry the dough a bit.” Lilly opened the doors of a low cabinet by the window, and balanced a mop across them. One by one she draped the sheets of dough on the mop handle. They hung in front of the breezy window like luminous animal hides.
“Alora: You have to keep watch,” she instructed, folding the last one across the wooden handle. “They can’t get too dry.”
Our next step was to cut the pasta sheets into the stipulated 6mm strips.
When dinnertime arrived, we were instructed to be poised and ready in front of our plates. “Tagliatelle must be eaten straight out of the water,” she said, adding a bit of prosciutto and a dab of butter.
It was a meal of simple genius. Missing were the charades of spice that would have disguised a less careful cook. In a meal of so few ingredients, the critical variable is the maker’s hand. Beyond the mechanics of egg, flour and fork were the additions that couldn’t be measured in cups or tablespoons: the childhood imprints of watching Mom and Mom’s Mom at work, and of developing “the feel” for when it is not too wet or too dry, too smooth or too rough, too wide or too narrow. A feel for when it is just right.
“It’s really great,” I said.
Lilly looked at me askance. What did my American taste buds know? For after the first few bites, her brow furrowed. She had detected a problem. “I’m not quite from Bologna,” she shrugged.
I landed my glider on the beach, turned to the bar, and gave Juan the signal: forearms pressed together and hands split into Y-shape of a cocktail glass. This was the cue for Juan to start making our margaritas. He knew the details: Allison’s without salt; mine with. Both on-the-rocks.
A rumor circulated the Mexican village that Juan washed the cocktail glasses in the dirty lagoon behind his restaurant. We didn’t care. His bar was closest to the landing zone and after the steep climb to launch and our flights, we were too lazy to shoulder our gliders another step. So what if just a few trudges away, crisp-shirted waiters served up meals in pretty carved out pineapples.
Like most pilots on a flying vacation, we had a routine. The top launch was good at noon, and the sock straightened out on mid-launch around 2:00. We’d take a couple flights, then wash the adrenaline down with a margarita. Sometimes two.
I shook the sand out of my wing, packed it up, and slogged over to a beach chair. Juan flip-flopped toward me in his dirty apron and our two margaritas balanced on a tray. He set the glasses down side by side.
“Gracias!” I said, lifting my glass. I took a sip. The rock salt abraded my lips slightly. Juan’s margaritas were the best in the world–cold, salty, gritty, like the sea embodied in a cocktail glass. Allison trudged over, dropped her glider, and stretched out on the chair next to me. Out in the bay, fisherman threw nets from their boats and a flock of birds fluttered over us like a fresh white sheet. I’d never felt a more uncomplicated happiness in my life.
We drained our margaritas and I took the empty glasses back to the bar. I fished a 500-peso note from my wallet—the smallest bill I had. Juan slammed the cash box down and glared at me.
“No change!” He went on to berate me in fast Spanish.
My mood dropped like a shot pheasant.
“Fu-fuu …Forget this place!” I yelled.
While most days Juan was pleasant, one out of ten times he would mysteriously erupt like this. At first I was bewildered, then angry.
It felt unfair. We were his best customers, dropping 80 pesos a day for a month straight. We put up with his grimy bathroom facilities—the seatless toilet and the lock-less door, the scummy hand-washing barrel. We endured the love-sick ranchera riffs that wept nonstop from his jukebox. Other pilots gave up on his place long ago, swapping their flight stories next door at Domingo’s instead.
“We’re never coming back!” I yelled.
“Adios!” he said waving me off. Juan pandered to no one.
This wouldn’t be the first time we tried to boycott Juan’s bar. Usually, by day four of the boycott, our laziness would exceed our anger and we’d end up in his beach chairs again, enduring the ranchera music and quaffing down his fantastic margaritas. Juan would pretend nothing happened.
“Margaritas senoritas,” he’d say placing our glasses on the table. In a matter of days he’d blow up at us again and the cycle would continue.
We didn’t know much about Juan, but he seemed to have a soft side. Like a crusty-version of St. Francis of Assisi, he tended a variety of animals—a stubborn mule, a brood of chickens, a few caged parrots, a dog that fetched rocks, and a cat with a freakish nervous tic. He’d even endeared himself to a wild pigeon by pouring a small pile of seed on the end of his bar each day.
Unlike the other bar owners, who closed up and went home for the night, Juan lived with his two teenagers and wife in a large canvass tent behind his bar. The local villagers patronized his placed in the evenings, often staying into the night playing cards and plunking pesos in the jukebox.
Sometimes, when standing at his bar, Juan would pull the canvass door aside and we’d glimpse his private world. Inside, an old television crackled on an upturned crate. His wife would be in there watching Mexican soap operas. She never spoke. She never came outside.
This second season, I began to joke with Juan about his moods, ordering “Dos margaritas simpaticas!” or “Two friendly margaritas”—as opposed to the mean ones. He’d laugh and play along. I began to like a few of the ranchera tunes that played from his jukebox. One evening a lover and I spun around sun-drunk to the Vicente Fernandez song Estos Celos—what pain, what love…
I remember Juan sitting in a chair, his head tilted back slightly and watching. He seemed almost wistful.
“Los Jovenes,” Juan said. The young ones…
It wasn’t until our third flying season that we learned that all this time Juan’s wife had cancer. Behind that heavy canvass door, between mixing our margaritas, he’d been tending to her illness. He’d sometimes close the bar altogether, and take the water taxi ride to hospital in Puerto Vallarta where his wife was receiving treatment.
His temper still flared, but we were more patient. Now we understood he had bills to pay. His jukebox was gone that year, replaced by a small handheld stereo. The owners of the nearby bars were complaining that the loud ranchera was putting off the tourists. Juan’s expression grew hard and serious.
He seemed to emigrate between two worlds that season—the one outside his door where we laid in the sun drinking margaritas, and the dark dank insides of his canvass hut, which may as well been a different country. The geography of our paradise—the palm trees, the macaws, the cocktails–was the geography of real life for him. Our vacation was not his vacation.
We returned for a fourth season. Juan was there as usual, tending his brood of chickens, the tame pigeon, the caged parrots, the stubborn pack mule, the stone-fetching dog, and the nervous cat. But something had changed. Weeks went by and he didn’t yell. We didn’t boycott.
We found out that his wife had passed away that winter. Though he’d cared for her with great love and fidelity, it was obvious that his burden had grown less. He was laughing with his patrons, drinking Pacificos, and playing rowdy card games into the night. I suddenly got it: all this time, Juan wasn’t jerk. He was just a person under huge duress.
“How could we not have known his wife was so ill?” I asked Allison hurling a stone into the surf for Juan’s dog to fetch.
With the Godlike views afforded by our wings, it sometimes felt like we knew everything about that place. We knew how thermals formed over the first-blooming Primaveras in March, how wind spilled over certain ridges at noon, and how to decipher wind lines on the ocean. We could see straight down into the village and all the way across to the Marietta Islands.
But our big view wasn’t always the best view. Details got lost.
It was good to arrive last season and see Juan happy. We landed our gliders and gave him the cue. He disappeared into the darkness of his hut and came out with a handful of shiny green limes to make the best margaritas in the world.
“Dos Margaritas Simpaticas!” he laughed, setting our glasses down. And they truly were.
*originally published in the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Magazine
There have been times when I’ve wondered where the line lies between long-term travel and homeless. The borderlands between the two lifestyles can be thin, and sometimes I’ve wondered if there is a type of homeless person who doesn’t think of himself as homeless at all, but rather on a very long camping trip.
I don’t have a home-per-say—just a 10×10 storage unit. But I don’t consider myself homeless. Even as we drift from place to place on-the-cheap and rootless, I tend to think of myself as on a Grand Adventure. But occasionally I’m shocked into a different perspective: I’m walking with my backpack down a dumpster-lined alley enroute to a cyber-café, and someone directs me to free breakfast at the church; Or I wake in our truck, look around, and realize we’ve been living with a rat for two months. The glue traps are overturned and stuck to the rug, the spring-loaded snappers are licked clean of their bait, and the live trap sits untriggered with a half-nibbled crouton. I get out of bed, pull on a shirt, and flinch at a newly chewed hole in the shoulder. Is this my life?
This sensation came up most recently when planning a trip to meet friends in Oludeniz, a resort town on southern Turkey’s Mediterranean. We were happy to pay the cheap airfare, but after living in a van, are unused to paying for habitation; Andy perused dozens of hotel listings and quickly entered the seven stages of grief; the costs were uniformly high. Then, suddenly, he perked up.
“Check this out,” he said, turning his laptop toward me. “This place is only ten bucks a night.”
I squinted. The screen flashed with photos of rose pedal-scattered bedspreads, flutes of champagne. The Magic Tulip Hotel.
“Impossible.” The shoddiest place I’d found in Oludeniz was three times as much.
“There’s gotta be a catch,” I said.
Andy Skyped the agency and the price was confirmed. He was frothing to book; I was fretting.
We paid The Magic Tulip in advance–$160 for 16 days. Weeks passed and our minds turned to other things: work, packing, coordinating meet-ups with friends. Then in preparation for departure, I pulled up some TripAdvisor reviews on the Magic Tulip. The list of horrors was unending:
Hotel from Hell, one read.
The rooms were comfortable … except for the beds, said another.
Pillows made of crushed concrete
Broken water tap.
Blood on the sheets.
A death trap.
I spent 4 days in hospital – I’m convinced this hotel played a part in the stress we had to endure as my health previous had been exemplary.
I would honestly say you would be stark raving mad to choose this hotel!!
Had our standards really sunk this low?
I blamed Andy who always gets suckered by the thrall of false economies. I remembered the cheap flight he once found us that arrived at 3 a.m.–after the public transport had shut down. We ended up paying $60 for a taxi. And then there was the outdated GPS he bought “for a song” which directed our truck right into the ruts of The Oregon Trail.
He directed my gaze to the photos of pedal-covered beds, and champagne. “It’ll be great.”
We arrived at the airport near Oludeniz the next morning. I sulked at the baggage claim while Andy sang Madonna’s “Holiday.” We grabbed our gliders from the conveyer belt and exited the airport where we’d catch a van into Oludeniz.
“My name!” Andy pointed.
There, in the median, our van-driver was holding up a sign:
Magic Tulip Hotel
“I’ve never had a sign with my name on it,” he gushed.
We heaved our bags in the van and were off, traveling the windy mountain road curves to Oludeniz. Andy smiled wildly while my eyes teared at the prospect of 16 days of cockroaches crawling across my face in the night, 16 days of mice and mold and 16 days in paradise without the paradise. He would want to stay. I would want to move. We would fight.
By the time the van was speeding down the final stretch of highway toward the Roach Motel, my life had arrived at a crossroads: I was ready to get a real job and make real money–to start going on proper vacations. But who would hire me now that I’ve spent my “earning years” squatting in truck stops and borrowed houses?
The van pulled up to the motel and my mood lifted incrementally. Its wrought iron balconies were aesthetic. A ripe lemon tree grew near the door. We shouldered our bags and entered the lobby.”
“Welcome,” said the receptionist.
While he leafed through my passport I looked at a framed certificate on the wall:
Best Summer Stay
By Portland Direct
I exhaled. A gold rating? From Portland?! My (almost) home town? I pulled the reins on my encroaching optimism. The certificate was dated 1998.
The receptionist handed us the key
We ascended the steps found room 309, unlocked it, and opened the door.
And it was …
Granted it wasn’t like the photos: there was no champagne, no rose-pedal covered bed. But there was also no mold blackening the walls, no evidence of rats, soiled sheets, or cockroaches. Clean towels hung from the bathroom rack, and the toilet paper holder was loaded with a brand new roll.
I hugged Andy.
But what was with the hostile Trip Adviser reviews? It was a mystery. Either the motel had pulled its act together since they were written, or someone had a serious vendetta against The Magic Tulip. Either way, it definitely illustrated some of the problems with TripAdvisor. But that’s a whole different blog.
After a brief bask in the glow of Being Right, Andy—who gets anxious at settling anyplace without wheels—did something unprecedented: unloaded his back pack into a dresser drawer.
Let there be no doubt: For $10 per night, we were home.