Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mexican for a week

I was recently Mexican for a week. No, that is not a typo. I don't mean I was in Mexico for a week. I was Mexican for a week.

I’ll explain.

I don't watch TV anymore. I stopped watching movies after the '80s. I hardly read books. I never read magazines. I don't write fiction; I can’t paint or draw worth crap. I don’t play video games and I don’t cook (enough to call it a hobby). So I don't partake in the many of the standard avenues for the invaluable, even at times mandatory, escapism from everyday life.

We all know those days that are so utterly exhausting that there is nothing left to do but to take off our brains and hang them by the door between our coats and umbrellas. During our waking hours, we are all bombarded with things to know about, things to care about, things to read about, thing to respond to, things to think about, things to act on… Sometimes, putting your brain in a wooden chest, locking it up and throwing it into a metaphorical sea is the only way to stay sane.

Travel also serves the purpose of relieving me of my brain. In my suitcase, I pack only one part of my brain, the creative, curious, silly part, and I leave the other analytic, ambitious, serious part at home.

Instead of pretending that I am a guest in a Gatsby novel or fantasizing that I am flying around on a broomstick in a Harry Potter movie, I pretend to be a resident of a new city. I put myself as a character in their settings…What would my life be like in fill-in-the-blank-country?

Travels are my escape routes.

For one week, the “My life in Mexico” story-line made me very happy. In this plot, Karen, as a resident of Mexico, would walk determinedly out onto the streets of the Roma/Condesa neighbourhoods and into the fast-paced, high volume pedestrian workday traffic. I would pop into a Starbucks to get a big-enough drink to also act adequately as a hand-warmer.

I would happily wake up late on Saturdays knowing that stores don’t even open until 11:00 am and I couldn't be productive even if I wanted to be. I would go for long jogs in Chapultepec park, around the green-silt bottomed lakes and carefully manicured picnic areas and obliging benches.

I would put lime and chili pepper on most things and fresh cilantro on everything. I would probably have high cholesterol because I would eat cheese and fried things daily, but I would love every meal. I might get used to eating grasshoppers (chapulines) as a topping for guacamole.

Chopped up chapulines make them more palatable
A spread of Mezcal... I never found the one for me though
I would probably learn to love Mezcal, the smokey-tasting tequila (I don’t currently love it). I would definitely drink more beer than I do now having discovered Leon obscura (dark), Indio and of course Negra Modelo. Or I might just drink the rather exotic pulque.

Pulque = fermented sap of an agave plant
I probably would not go to Luche libre every Friday night, but I would go once in a while making sport of inventing my own names for the masked wrestlers/acrobats instead of calling them by their own made-up names.

I would pay my respects to the Virgin of Guadalupe on her Feast Day, December 12, and would ask her to pray over my city as the Patroness of Mexico.


I would definitely go to Xochimilco every weekend, or perhaps just every special occasion, to lounge on the wooden barges, buy food and drinks from boats floating nearby and hire Mariachi bands to sing heartbreaking songs to which I could sing along as I would have definitely learned all the lyrics.

I would dress in bright colors with more reds, yellows, blues and purples and my house would be vividly decorated with textiles and silver purchased at the local artisan markets.

 The Day of the Dead would become one of my favourite holidays.

I would join the popular cult-following of Frida Kahlo and make occasional pilgrimages out to her Casa Azul. Maybe like Diego, her husband, I would get a vegetarian, Mexican hairless dog, once bred by the Aztecs for eating, but certainly not what I would do with this poor, unfortunate-looking creature.

Xoloitzcuintle, Mexican hairless dog
In a short week of experiencing all these things, I fell in love with the life of my imaginary Mexican double.

Seven days later, I found it hard to leave her behind. She spoke a different language than I do. She was more artsy and expressive than I am. She could sing well (I don’t know why, but maybe Spanish is more conducive to having a nice singing voice). I don’t sing well.

In case you were also wondering,
best song to request from a Mariachi band...
So boarding the plane and leaving that spirit behind, I quickly missed her and promptly on my return made it a point to buy avocados and listen to Alejandro Fernandez just to ease my detachment. Like finishing a good novel or the final episode of a long-running series, it is hard to say goodbye to the characters you grew to know over those pages or days.

But the nice part of travel is that you don’t really say goodbye to those people. They are a part of you. They stay inside you until they are awakened by familiar settings and sounds.

I have re-become Italian at least 4 times now, so I know I will be Mexican again someday too.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Relating to Malta

I like to personify things. I am a product of a Disney-filled childhood; therefore, I animate inanimate objects. Like Disney’s dancing candlesticks or talking mirrors, I give countries, cities and even forms of weather human personalities. You may have read about my
"DC-as-a-potential-boyfriend" post. Now this is my “Malta-as-a-fellow-expatriate” post.

Malta in human-form could be the newest arrival to our expat world. Like many of us expats, Malta has a variety of international and cultural influences in its background. Not only that, she (Malta) has a current culture and lifestyle that feels like a blend of a dozen. Malta has probably also had moments when she is a bit confused about her identity… or at least other people are confused about her identity.

Among the influences in her history, Malta has Roman, Arab and Norman background. She has also in her past been taken over by French and British, let's call them ... (unwanted) suitors. Geographically, she is like an off-spring/off-shoot of Italy or Tunisia. Topographically, she is similar to Sicily or countries of the Middle East. Culinarily, she has a mishmash of Arabic, Sicilian, French and British cuisines: with rabbit, lampuki fish, anchovies and octopus as some of the main offerings. Linguistically, she has a unique mix of Italian and Arabic (with up to 50 % of the Maltese vocabulary coming from one of the two).

Walking down one of her capital cities, either Valletta on the island Malta itself or Victoria on Gozo (Malta's second largest island), you wouldn’t hesitate to call Malta a twin to Sicily: sand-colored buildings stacked close together, wrought iron, one-person balconies with clothes lines hanging newly washed garments. Then a glaring red telephone booth enters your vision, and a car whizzes by you on the left side of the road. When did I cross the border to England? You walk by old men sitting at a café discussing whatever old men discuss and you wait to see the flailing hand gestures like you would in another Italian city, but on passing you hear an Arabic-like speech with its throaty pronunciations. Tunis perhaps?

Malta's currency, since 2008, is the Euro, so you remember you are in Europe, but the terrain is reminiscent of Jordan with dry, rolling hills. You have a glass of Maltese red wine, and find that Malta is a wine producer like its Italian counterparts of Sicily or Sardegna. Then you eat a honey-filled, doughy ring which looks like the type of sweet baked goods you find in Egypt.

The old fishing boats painted in traditional colors look like those you can see in the Cinque Terre. Malta's old capital of Mdina looks fully Arab. The small bay-side towns, like Spinola bay, now modernized with all the café-terrasse can look like the south of France. British fish and chips appear on many menus.

But when you push away the confusion and stop trying to figure out which box to put Malta in, you realize that Malta is a well-blended mix of it all. It is all of these influences and not wholly any of them at once. It picks and chooses the parts that work for its character and it turns against that which does not. It is not really defined by any of these names except that which it chose for itself, Malta. It is a separate entity, separate country and separate experience. And, in my opinion, it is a lovely one. Yes, I think I can relate to Malta. I am pretty sure we would be good friends.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Go north instead: Ferragosto holiday in Krakow

Ferragosto is like Christmas. For the August 15 holiday and the subsequent ponte (days to take off to bridge the gap between the holiday and a weekend), the tourist industry milks it for all it's worth. What's more is that, from Italy, most people gravitate to the same places, i.e. somewhere south and/or beach-y.

So what we have come to realize over the years is that, it is advisable (for both your wallet and your serenity) to look north. Tantalizing as Croatia, Greece and South of Spain sound, in August, they can end up costing you the equivalents of three trips somewhere else and feeling like you are in Italy anyway because of this Ferragosto exodus.

Not being beach bunnies to begin with, we opted to skip out on the 4-day beach holiday and instead let the airfares guide our way. In a quick minute, Krakow came to the top of that list. The lack of comments I had heard about this city made it an intriguing potential destination. The comparative cost of the airfare cinched it, and we headed to Poland for 3.5 days of... I didn't know what.

Krakow Market Square

As per my new trend of doing virtually no research prior to being mid-air, we were halfway to Krakow before I even knew what this Polish metropolis is really known for. It turns out Krakow offers:
  1. Pierogis. Yum! I was hopeful that they would be thoughtful of vegetarians.
  2. Vodka. Urgh… A foe of mine since I was 17 (uh, I mean 21). 
  3. Proximity to Auschwitz. Not a spot I would have chosen to visit on my own, but certainly a dose of historical reality.
  4. Underground Cathedral made of salt in the oldest working salt mine. 
  5. I also found out that Poland is known for its beer, its pretzel-like bread (obwarzanek), wood handiwork, amber, sausage, pigeons (not for eating) and cheesecake
  6. Last but not least, Krakow is known for being a long-time residence of the former pope, John Paul II, (before he was Pope John Paul II). His memorialized presence graces most public spaces.
So over the next four days, we set out to see, do or eat all of these things. I can't chronicle everything, but I will give you some highlights of what I will say was one of my favorite weekend trips away.

Pierogis- veggie style!

Pierogis are awesome. They are dumplings a bit similar to the ones you can find at Chinese dim sum. Usually they are filled with meat, but to my joy, I found they also had potato and cheese filled ones. These made up more than one of my meals during my time in Krakow.

Krupnik: A type of honey vodka/Grain alcohol

Vodka: I was a silly teenager that ruined the potential to ever see Vodka as anything but a toxin. So when friends recommended tasting the famous Polish vodka, I practically dry-heaved just at the suggestion. However, I thought that, after almost 2 decades, I should perhaps take another sip of this drink to give it a second shot (pun intended). However, let me clarify, you don't shoot Polish vodka. When this glass came and it smelled like pure sweet honey, my fear dampened a bit and to my surprise, I began happily sipping it at a café on the main Market Square. I then ordered a second one that tasted like cherry and motivated my taste buds apologize to this liquor for years of a harsh grudge. That is the story of how Vodka and I made amends.

Auschwitz Concentration Camps

Auschwitz. I am not even sure I can talk about it. It is shocking, disturbing, upsetting, surreal, sickening, awful and depressing all at once. How can I possibly recommend someone to go there? But, sadly, it is reality. The only picture I am willing to share is the one of the sign above, and those words are perhaps reason enough to visit this memorial.

Underground Cathedral made of salt within Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt mine: it would never have occurred to me to visit a mine. I am not particularly fond of places that are thousands of feet away from natural light. However, hearing that there was an underground cathedral made entirely out of salt and from the hands of miners, I thought this was something that I had to see. It was well worth it. Everything from the columns, statues, crosses, chandeliers, a relief of the Last Supper were all made out of salt so well carved and smoothed that it looked like marble to the unsuspecting eye. Truly a unique experience and the reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Wieliczka Salt Mine's grotto
Reflection of a tunnel in a salt water pond
Pope John Paul II's kind face is seen all over town from outside the main cathedral to within the underground Cathedral on a statue made of salt.

So a couple things about food and drink in Krakow:

Zywiec, my favorite of the Polish beers
  • Beer is cheaper than water. 
  • Outdoor beer gardens are one of the best places to be in summer. 
  • Street food like obwarzanek (pretzels), zapiekanka (hearty, open faced baguette-type sandwich) or even pierogis are great snacks or meal replacements.
  • Vegetarians can easily make do with the variety of potato and cheese traditional meals or for further variety can choose among a wide variety of non-polish restaurants. 
  • Cheesecake: as long as you don't compare it to the New York style cheesecake, it will do just fine as a yummy dessert. It is, however, not the same and in my opinion, not the equal of the Ameri-version, but no need to compare. Eat it anyway. 

Sernik = Cheesecake = Yum
The photos can't capture it, but some trips are just a combination of wonderful pieces: lovely people, great food, cheap beer, good weather, a lot of history, opportunities to relax, walk, bike ride, try new things, listen to music, shop... it was everything I wanted a long weekend to be. And even better, it felt like a weekend away: not a pasta dish or cappuccino in sight. It's nice to take a break.

Useful links

  • In your pocket Krakow: great free guide to help you with your touring.
  • Discover Cracow: very well organized and friendly tour company we used to get to Auschwitz and the Salt mine. More expensive than doing it on your own, but worth not having to organize logistics while on vacation.
  • TripAdvisor: my review of our nice hotel, but you make up your own mind about where to stay. To each his/her own.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Waking up to summer

This is the last weekend of August. What a harsh realization. I would like to say "time flies," but at the risk of sounding cliché, I won't. In any case, when we say time flies, it isn't really what we mean. It's not so much that time has really gone by quickly (getting to Fridays always takes forever!); it is more that we realize how long our thoughts have been elsewhere.

Summer has "flown by" for me because since May, my head has been a resident of various la-la-lands: maid-of-honour world, new job planet, travelling universe and moving-house territory.

For most of this summer, my mind has not been a conscious inhabitant of Rome. I have not, therefore, fully partaken in this Roman summer.

With the last weekend of August before me, I hear the fading echoes of "I am so excited for Rome in the summer!", words spoken back in May at the turn of the weather and the lengthening of the days. Those echoes got fainter and fainter the deeper and deeper I ventured into each of my other worlds. 

August 30 and I am just waking up. There is so much I haven't done! I've barely touched my list of Quintessential Roman Summer Musts, activities I need to do every year to put me in the summer spirit, like decorating a tree at Christmas. (Visitors will attest to this list because I make them do all these things too.)

It goes something like this: 

1. Lungo il Tevere Festival:  

2. Outdoor concerts at Villa Pamphili or Villa Ada
3. Opera at the Terme di Caracalla

4. Aperitivo at La Singhita on Fregene Beach

5. Granita di Caffe from Tazza d'Oro

6. Cioccolato Fondente gelato (let's face it, this is all year round)

7. Limoncello (preferably somewhere along the Amalfi coast)

8. Drinks at the Hotel Minerva Rooftop

9. Notte delle Stelle Cadenti (Night of the falling stars) at the beach on the festa di San Lorenzo (August 10)

10. Beaches (many of them)

11. Paddle boats at Bracciano lake

12. Watermelon Stands

13. Campari and/or Aperol Spritz

14. Icy dessert (the granita's cousin) from a Grattachecca

15. Festival at Castel Sant'Angelo

16. Outdoor movie
The list is long, but there is so much more to do. Roman summers are really a wonderful time of year. And even nicer, summers here do often stretch into September or October. So hopefully, I am not too late to partake in some of these wonderful things that I have not yet managed to do.

So if you are in Rome but your mind is in a land far-far-away, may this be a reminder to snap back to earth and to make use of the long days, blue skies and warm sun.

And send any other Roman summer suggestions if you have them!


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