Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Expat Hindsight is 20-20

As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20-20. Having major life changes more frequently than most, expats feel this truth more acutely. But hindsight is really just another word for experience; life is trial and error and along the way you learn a thing or two.

I have lived in Rome on and off for 15 years, about 9 of those have been solid experience of the Eternal City. And now, 10 days before leaving it, I am reflecting on the things that I wish I had known 15 years ago to make my life in Bella Roma a little more dolce. And by dolce I mean helluva easier.

  1. Invest in mosquito netting. Rome has a freaking ton of mosquitoes; yet apartments in Rome NEVER come with mosquito screens. The tiny, demon zanzare tigre (tiger mosquitoes) are barely visible to the eye but to people like me I know within a second when they have bit me because I want to rip that entire limb off. With the advent of DIY home improvement shops in Italy, mosquito netting is cheap and easy to find. Do it! Even if it is not professionally done, having any kind of barrier against the little monsters has revolutionized my life and sleeping habits. If you are like me, the paramour of parasitic insects, at the very least, do not get a ground floor apartment and do not live in Monteverde. 
  2. Look beyond pizza and pasta.  Have you ever heard of cicoria? Neither had I. I wish I had known about this food earlier. There are so many Italian foods that take the stage that it is no wonder that a leafy green probably didn’t make the morning news, but when a restaurant makes this contorno correctly, it is one of the best things out there. Beyond pizza and pasta, there is also Broccoli Romanesco, Carciofi alla Romana, Broccoletti, Fiori di Zucca, Panzanella: I have never seen any of these on a menu outside of Italy, and I will sorely miss them. 
  3. Or if you are desperate to have pizza, at least get it with cicoria
    Hunt carefully
    . Some thoughts on hunting for an apartment in Rome: never assume anything, lower your standards of space, and get ready for the long haul. Like anything else in Rome, you can be pleasantly surprised and luck out on the first try, or you can look for 9 months and still have trouble finding anything you would consider even adequate. A couple tips I wish I had known when looking 1) No ground floor apartments (see point 1 above). 2) a good landlord is key. Base at least one third of your decision on whether the landlord/landlady seems like they may walk into your apartment unannounced (this does happen). 3) Get an apartment with at least ONE air conditioning unit. The heat of a Roman July is not funny anymore. Save yourself the hassle of sleeping naked on a tile floor to escape it. Read more about my apartment-hunting adventures here.
  4. Always walk. I am an avid, dedicated, stubborn walker. I opt for feet over wheels any day of the week and I quickly learned, but not quickly enough implemented, that anything within a 45 minute walk is a route better walked than publicly transported. Even with just a 10-15 minute wait (a very modest estimate for bus waiting times), the traffic and walk to and from the bus stop makes every trip in Rome 45 minutes. So if you can walk it, walk. It is much more liberating and enjoyable than being dependent on an often late, overcrowded, dirty and loud ATAC-mobile. 
  5. But have access to some wheels. And just as I flouted the joys and freedom of walking, I will also state that after 8 years refusing to do so, in my last year I have started to drive in Rome, and I wish I had done it sooner. I am still not an advocate of driving everywhere all the time North-American style, but having the option on a rainy or cold day, or when you need to carry something heavy is a lifesaver. The advent of Car2Go in Rome changed my world; I get the advantages of but not the headaches of a 24-7 car. Car2Go only came to Rome about 2-3 years ago, so I couldn’t have availed myself of this option back in 2001, but I wish I hadn’t hesitated about getting a membership.

  6. Get out of town. To once again go against my own opinion, having access to your own car is however also very important for weekend trips. I often get Rome-aphobic, i.e. claustrophobic of being in the city for weeks on end. In fact, the ability to go to Tuscany or Umbria, not to mention the coasts or mountains, on a weekend is one of the best things about living in Rome. Most small Italian cities still exhibit everything I love about Italy, but don’t always see in Rome: kind helpful people, beautifully kept properties, wonderfully cooked meals and cheap wine. You should not live in Rome without going (often) to the amazing Italian villages a mere 45 minutes away. 
  7. Occasionally deport yourself altogether. After living in Rome for awhile, sometimes you need a new perspective, something more modern, more dynamic, more forward thinking. I find that I am much happier in slow, traditional, unchanging Rome, if I leave Italy once a month or every two months. Being in Europe, there is no excuse not to take advantage of the super cheap air travel choices and plethora of countries within a 1-2 hour flight: Malta, Tunisia, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Spain, France, etc. It is really a gift to be so close to so many interesting and culturally diverse countries. 
  8. Don’t be too devoted to to-do lists. Slow traditional unchanging Rome is the reason that so many tourists fall in love with the place. Rome is always Rome. It is not diluted by modernity or foreign influence. And living in places like North America that are completely modern and sewn together by foreign influences, Italy is charmingly refreshing, appealing and enchanting…until you live here. … and had to get your permesso di soggiorno … at least twice… then charming usually gets replaced by other words such as frustrating, bewildering or nonsensical. As a North American list maker, I wish I had learned earlier not to be too tied to my lists and deadlines. When picking up a prescription sometimes takes 4 trips to the pharmacy, installing internet takes 6 phone calls and 2 visits by a technician, exchanging a garment takes 3 trips to the store etc, it is next to impossible to check things off your list when you want them checked off. You just have to face the fact that it will get done, but it may not be today, or tomorrow, or next week. It may even have to be next month because in months like August, nothing is feasible. This is something I have learned about being a local here and though it is a frustrating truth, I have learned patience from Rome and patience is something I wish I had had a little more of 9 years ago.

Finally some things that I did get right: I am happy that I made lists of restaurants to try, that I consulted a guide book of Rome even 9 years into my stay, that I ran the Rome marathon and that I took advantage of Rome’s yearly festivals, like the Lungo il Tevere in the summer. I am happy that I toured around large portions of Italy and Europe in general and got to know so many Italians from all over the country. I am really glad that I lived like a tourist in Rome because it is probably the best city in the world to do so. And that is my final recommendation about living in the Eternal city.

Use my list to help you Live like a tourist in Rome too:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A quintessential expat moment

Quick note: I wrote this post back in July right after we gave notice to work and to our friends that we are leaving Rome. Four months later, I have a little more courage to publish it. I hope it speaks to some of you who have felt the same.

We have set the date for our move. It is a quintessential expat moment... but I am not feeling very expat-y at the moment.

It is not that I am not ready to leave in a way. Some really close friends have left and Rome feels smaller than it used to: more restrictive, more predictable...  but knowing that it might be time to leave has not stopped me from getting sad and wistful. Already nostalgic though our departure is 4 months away. A pre-nostalgia.

I am getting sad about leaving the Ikea shelf that we slivered a piece off to fit next to the sink, sad about my fancy hair dryer that I bought only last year after 8 years of my sucky one, sad that my kitty growing more and more blind can still find his way because he now knows the height of the couch, the spot in the kitchen where his food goes and the two spots around the apartment where his water glasses are. (He is a fancy cat).

I am even sad about the plant I got as a gift from a friend who housesat in my first apartment to myself in Rome. The plant and the memory have grown and blossomed every year for 4 years.

An expat is not supposed to feel this way. Expats, or at least our variety - the rotational expats - never seem sad about leaving. Excited yes, busy yes, boasty yes. Some tempered nostalgia is also permissible, but usually only at the goodbye party, most of the time within in the "thank you, it's been great" speech. All of these are valid expat emotions to convey. But sad, hesitant, uncertain, no.

As someone who is always ready for a new assignment, a new country, a new adventure, you as an expat are not supposed to be sad about the end of an old one. Explicitly or implicitly, you subscribed to this life of rotation; you are not supposed to be unsure of it.

So I betray my true nature with this sentiment and with this post. But I have never claimed to be 100% expat. I have never been 100% anything.The fact that I even have a cat betrays this side of me the side that will miss her plants, her matching rug, her tea kettle, blender and all the other frivolous appliances we finally allowed ourselves to buy, the side of me who will miss her spot for everything.

"You can't take it with you." In these moments, I remind myself of this wisdom.

It is a good life lesson, a mantra that expats live and breathe instinctively. But for me is not the items themselves, it is the emotion behind the stuff, the stories of buying them. Those items, but more importantly, those stories are my world, my transportable abode.

Reflecting on Rome I realize that for a little while I had a place, a country, a home. It was lent to me, never mine to keep but it was a nice sentiment. It may take years before the next city hands me its keys or before I ask for them. Then again, now that I am more of a professional in this moving business, perhaps it will only take a few days. I really don’t know what to expect. But I have latched up the suitcases and I am ready to face the landscape wherever I debark.

A reluctant expat. A reluctant citizen. I don't really know how to be either and I will probably never be fully one or the other. I don't know how to stay in one place; I don't know how to say goodbye.

In any case, I hope that one day I can carry my stories around in a smaller bag. That I can extract the story of the Mexican mirror and the gifted apron and the leftover wedding vases from the physical reminder of them and instead carry around the pure memories on their own. That the physical items and places won't constitute my feeling of home; that my stories and relationships will. I would certainly become a lighter traveler even if I remain a reluctant expat.

A fitting sign: hanging at Ca'Paravento Agriturismo

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Random and Direct: our trip to Sofia, Bulgaria

One year we went to Targu Mures in Transylvania, Romania. Why? Because it was random and direct; we had never really conceived of going there so it was a random choice and there were direct flights from Rome. In my world, those two criteria are pretty much good enough to visit any city on a weekend trip.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral
This October, we added one more criterion to the random and direct list: must have a half marathon. I started looking on Map My Run for a half marathon in a not-so-well-known-city to us that had direct flights from Rome. There were many results for half-marathons and many results for random cities, but a fewer number at the intersection of those three criteria.

Sofia, Bulgaria quickly came out as the winner when we factored in cost and flight duration. Only about 1 hour 45 minutes from Rome, flights to Sofia were quite reasonably priced. And not being in the Euro zone, everything else there too was a downright bargain. The hotel was about 30 Euro a night, the average meal for 2 about 15 euro and the half marathon entrance 10. And best of all 2 litre beer bottles at convenient stores sold for about 1.20 Euro (I never had one, but appreciated the concept). Considering that we were still within the European Union, these deals were of another decade.

Vibrant statue in front of the Theater House.
I don't know what it is called, but I would call it Exuberance
No, Bulgaria is still a well-kept secret. Perhaps it is still in the shadows of its famous next door neighbors: Italy and more recently, Croatia, so the tourists have yet to venture that extra step east. However, I reckon that it won't be long before Sofia, perhaps like Budapest, becomes more widely known in the touristic circles.

Charming, clean, modern with an artsy flare all laid out across the backdrop of its communist history, Sofia is like an introvert friend. Unassuming and quiet, you never heard much about her, but when you give her a chance, you learn all her good qualities, making you a little regretful that you didn't know each other before.

Statue of babealicious Saint Sofia guarding the city
You can get to know Sofia quite well just through some of her most spectacular sites: the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral (photographed above), a testament to the city's Orthodox faith, St. George's Rotunda Church amidst the ruins of the old town of Serdica, a reminder of the city's antiquity and roman past, and the hot mama Saint Sofia Statue that stands in the place of where Lenin statue used to be, proof of the city's new start after communism.

For English speakers and other readers of the Roman alphabet, Bulgarian menus are indecipherable. Restaurants don't generally have English menus posted; however, they all seemed to have one in reserve in case of requests. The food was phenomenal, mostly Mediterranean style a combo of Greek, Turkish, Serbian, Arab with some Northern European touches. Bulgar, couscous and feta combined with tomatoes, peppers, parsley are often coupled with kraut, pickled vegetables and radishes... practically the best pieces of every European/Middle Eastern cuisine.

Not the Shopska salad but just as great!
As a vegetarian, I often miss out on National foods which tend to be meat-based. Bulgaria in contrast has national salads! The city of Sofia even has a typical one called, Shopska: tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese. I was in heaven. In addition to the long list of salads and warm or cold vegetarian appetizers, there were also at least 3-7 soups on any menu, many of which were veggie (though you may have to be flexible on the broth used). Soups are hugely popular in Bulgaria so even the fast food joints had ample soup options.

I happily indulged in all of these non-pasta, non-pizza meal options while still managing to maintain my very Italian coffee and wine habits, visiting many of the little coffee shops and wine bars on Vitosha Boulevard and across the city.

One of the many cute outdoor cafes on Vitosha Boulevard
The Sofia half marathon, the guise under which we chose to go on this particular trip, also far exceeded our expectations. Smallish, yes, but with a good atmosphere and number of spectators. The runners were well spaced out so you never felt cramped; they had water and sustenance stands well tended by volunteers. We got a t-shirt, a technical shirt and a medal each: not bad at all for a 10 euro entrance fee. We also got to witness the elite runners from Ethiopia and Kenya who won the men's and women's race, respectively, finish the full marathon in about the same time as we finished the half. You want to be inspired: watch these athletes cross the finish line and talk to the cameramen, breathing normally after sprinting 42 km. Amazing.

Enjoying the perfect weather before the half marathon
I am no elite runner, but I ran my fastest half marathon yet and felt invigorated after the 1 hour and 49 minutes. As a reward. we had a Starbucks coffee and a hearty salad at another lovely outdoor cafe, soaking in the perfect 24 degree weather. We wandered the streets a bit more looking at the array of bakeries, cafes and little boutiques. And then boarded our Alitalia flight home, saying goodbye to Sofia and a beautiful mountainous landscape that we would have to visit on another trip.

A greater writer than I would have called this trip, the road less traveled. A modern guide book would have dubbed it off the beaten path. In my more blunt manner, I called it random and direct, but any which way you call it, being unconventional in your choices always pays off.

Check out more photos of Sofia on my Instagram feed!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Sicilian Sampler Platter

Elegant Palermo

Wanderlust mixed with a splash of indecisiveness sometimes means trying to explore a country, province or even an island within, let's say, an ambitious amount of time. My Instagram photos are increasingly tagged #speedtourism. In fact, for my husband and I, it is becoming status quo. But for expats in general, I think it is a frequent occurrence: trying to cover a place/many places within the confines of a weekend.

Marzipan! aka SUGAR!
This past Ferragosto we covered Palermo, Agrigento, Scala dei Turchi, Scopello, Castellammare del Golfo and La Riserva dello Zingaro in a long weekend. Each night in a different place; two hour drives between each. In the end, we only had about 2 hours in each of our stops. It was definitely a good sampler platter. But Sicily is, at least, a seven course meal.

Sunset over the Cattedrale di Palermo
I have been three times to Sicily and have just scratched the surface. Palermo is big, intricate, subtle and complicated. Like an introvert, it is not always obvious what Palermo has to offer. You have to dive into its side streets, neighborhoods and outskirts to get a good feel for this city. Three days on my last trip and one on this trip, and I still don't feel like I have gotten to know her. But from her obvious qualities, her breathtaking architecture, hearty food, and elegant parks, she is exquisite.

Scala dei Turchi

We also drove 2 hours south to Agrigento to see what is called La Scala dei Turchi, a rock formation of "stairs" (scala) that emerges from the sea. Bright white in color, it is not your average sight. Like the Giants Causeway, it is one of nature' s artworks: something to keep you guessing about what nature will do next. It was well worth the detour, but you go there to climb the stairs and see the view. As amazing as the water looks, the beaches nearby are not so inviting. The water is surprisingly shallow and very mossy, making it hard to take a good dip, which is a shame in Sicily, the island of beautiful beaches. We made up for it with our next stop.

Cala Mazzo Di Sciacca

Scopello was precisely the right area for the Sicilian beaches de preference. Our newly rehabbed agriturismo was at the doorstep of the Riserva dello Zingaro, a nature reserve you can only enter on foot, and on the hill behind the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca beach. Perfectly situated for beach-goers. 

First beach upon entering La Riserva dello Zingaro
Our timing was a bit unfortunate though as, our ambitious schedule brought us to Scopello at only 4pm the first day, leaving only 2 hours for the beach. We had the next morning as well, but though the skies looked promising at first, they quickly downshifted into a powerful rainstorm. It didn't deter us though. Once you are wet, you are wet, we all agreed. So we stayed in the water as the heavens poured down. The sea was warmer than the air, so we were happy to wait out the rain in the sea's bathtub.

La Terrazza Restaurant for lunch in Scopello. What a terrace it was!
After maybe an hour, the celestial tears waned and we hiked back to the car in a hurry. There was no need though; there was nothing but blue sky the rest of the day. No matter. In the sun or rain, the sea had been glorious. No storm could take that away from us.

Night scene Castellammare del Golfo
Sicily will for sure require some next-times. More hiking in Riserva dello Zingaro, that is definitely on the next-time list. More time in Castellammare del Golfo, where we had a lovely dinner and granita, but only a brief visit. San Vito lo Capo, the piece of the trip that we had to cut, is also definitely on the list. Marsala. Palermo again. Taormina again. Cefalu again. Mount Etna again. And all of the surrounding smaller islands with their various volcanoes or natural reserves. If we wanted, a lifetime of Sicily still awaits... or at least six more courses.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Making the insufferable summer sufferable

Insufferable. My new favorite word inspired by this Roman summer.

I likely have hormones to thank for this, but I do not tolerate heat very well anymore. The girl who used to ride around Hot-lanta in July with the windows open instead of air conditioning, the girl who used to get cold in 80 degree weather, the girl who would opt to sit outside no matter what the level of humidity or heat index... This is now the girl who is contemplating skinning herself alive to have one less layer on her body.

It is 32-38 degrees every day. It is not even 40 degrees like some years. It is a very typical Roman summer. But there is something insufferable about it. Maybe it is the constancy of it. Until yesterday's storm, every day for five weeks was the same. Sunny. Hot. Sunny. Hot. Sunny. Hot. The storm was like injecting a twist into a boring plot. It peaked your interest just enough not to fall into a coma.

I like the word insufferable because it implies that you can't even suffer through it. I am not suffering through this summer very well. at. all.

I flee the city whenever possible looking for any breeze coming off any body of water. I refuse to cook anything not to raise the apartment temperature an extra couple degrees. I am drawn to places that look like they have air conditioning, blenders or drinks with ice.

This year, I regret not taking my own advice about Ferragosto holidays. Instead of going north, we are going south to Sicily. WHY!?!?! today's me asks. But I am arming myself with some tricks that help make the insufferable suffer-able. Sicily offers quite a few.

More Italian than this, you cannot get

The most obvious of the Italian cures to the heat. All of Italy's inhabitants make a mad rush to the nearest coast whenever a free moment presents itself. This in turn creates a new problem of sitting in traffic in a boiling car waiting for the relief of the coastal air and Mediterranean water. Lakes are an alternative to this mad rush and the traffic is much lighter. I have gathered over the years that many Italians consider lakes a poor man's beach, but I adore them. And both a beach and a lake serves the purpose of making it socially acceptable to be nearly nude.

The luxurious Villa Borghese

Trees Parks shade 
If you can't flock to the beach or to the lake, parks are not a terrible alternative. Rome has a lot of old land once owned by dignitaries that has now been dedicated to the city. Villa Borghese, Villa Pamphili, Villa Ada. All parks with ample shade and public water fountains. If there is wind on said day, a park is a lovely option. Don't stay there too late though. They close at 9:00 pm and they will lock you in. I speak from experience.

Not a mocktail. What can I say, I like my alcohol. 
As tempting as alcohol is in the summer, it actually raises your body temperature so a nice alternative are some tame libations. A crodino is totally alcohol free, but looks fancy and fun. There are many Mojito sodas now that are the non-alcoholic ingredients of this classic drink and there is always the Sanpellegrino drinks like Aranciata whose fizziness distract you from the missing alcohol. If you can't go without alcohol (and many of us can't), Campari and Aperol have low alcohol content (10-11%) or simply put, there is beer, evermore popular and available in Italy.

A Granit-ina at the famous Sant'Eustachio
Apparently Sicily is known for granite, so I can speak to this better after next weekend, but I already know that a little drink filled with often-difficult-to-find ice, is a great treat. Granite should not come from a little spinning machine. It should be in a proper steel container where the ice can soak in the juice of its name: Granita di caffe is chunky ice-soaked coffee. Granita di limone is ice-soaked lemonade. You get the idea.

In addition to taking public transport,
waiting for it is just as bruta
No-Go Zones
Avoid places that will make you want to skin yourself alive, or rather skin other people alive. These places include the Metro B line, the Colosseum, the old buses (which is most of them), the Permesso di Soggiorno waiting line (though being here is never by choice), Via del Corso during the Saldi, and worse of all, the Porta Portese market. You are much more likely to choose life if you avoid these spots.

Autumn will come soon enough so I am trying not to wish this summer away. So I will revel in the solutions above and when that doesn't work regress to my mental happy place: The North Pole.


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