Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Wow

Christmas time in Bruges
I don’t know about you, but it does not happen so often anymore that I have a "wow" moment. It is unfortunately natural or human that the more things you see, the fewer things become striking.

Of course as it is my mission and the mission of this blog to keep the wide-eyed “tourist” perspective, I still make it a point to live every experience as a new one and not take it for granted even if I may have seen something similar elsewhere. However, this deliberate awareness and intentional appreciation is not the same thing as a moment of “wow.” A wow by my definition is always uttered unintentionally, sometimes unexpectedly and often uncontrollably.

Decorated cupcakes are still adorable no matter how many times I see them!
My head submerged in Maldivian water and coming face to face with my first foot-long tropical fish, I uttered wow through a snorkel. After driving to the Grand Canyon in the dark and waking up on a January morning, I uttered wow as I got my first glimpse of these great crevices. These are places that don’t disappoint, but they are nonetheless somewhat obvious. It is not really unexpected to have wow moments in places like the Maldives and the Grand Canyon.

Brussels Artsy District
Yet, this is partly why I felt so surprised to have one of these moments in ... Brussels, of all places. Not that I ever had anything against Brussels, but I know of a lot of people who do and sad to say, I guess I didn’t expect much of the city. Based on this we even figured that Brussels might not be worth the 2 short days that we had scheduled in the country. So we split our weekend between Brussels and Bruges. Bruges, by contrast, had oodles of compliments from people we knew.

Bruges Christmas market

But, in addition to my lack of expectation about Brussels, the truth is that I was also not in a mood to be wowed. Still kind of recovering from the highs, hype and hysteria of the wedding and honeymoon, I have been quietly stewing in the lull of the aftermath, satisfied in seeking recovery. So the truth was, I didn’t even want to go on another trip that weekend, even if it was for the Christmas markets... a truly odd emotion for me.

Brussels Christmas markets
Christmas markets have always been my thing and I have been like the annoying child tugging at the coats of the adults to try to get others to go with me over the years. Some years I succeeded like 2012 when we went to Copenhagen, some years I did not like last year when Piazza Navona with its generic carnival games and cheap Christmas-related junk had to do. This year, it was my husband who was keen to go; he had caught my bug and I half-willingly complied.

So maybe this reluctance of even being in Brussels was part of my surprise of how I felt so moved. But that night in Brussels after returning from a day in Bruges, a city that is quaint and cute but certainly not up to the hype, we walked aimlessly without plan or direction following the ebb and flow of the crowds.

We knew nothing about the events, or the layout of the festivities, having only based our decision about Brussels on an article in some magazine saying that it had one of the nicest Christmas markets in Europe. We didn’t even know where the market was on the city map that we got last minute from the hotel. Yet, we walked with the idea that we would surely come across it.

What we came across instead was the entry to their main square, La Grand Place, and as we walked in, it exploded with color. The parliament was fire red then melted into a white glow then iced over into wintery blue and then warmed into a deep purple, all the while accompanied by a surround-sound of classical, Christmas music.

On all four sides of the square, buildings were consumed with color, fading in and out along with the pace of the melody. And the grand place, being indeed grand, made onlookers feel that much more petite in its presence as it gave its show. Towering buildings at every corner, 80-foot Christmas tree in the center and a manger the size of a small house in the center of the square- all came alive for those fifteen minutes, all quieted the audience with its song, all stopped you in your tracks to make you feel the awe that music and light can inspire and the majesty and magic that this season holds. And as I, indeed stopped in my tracks, I whispered, maybe only loudly enough for me to hear, an unintentional, unexpected and uncontrollable: wow.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Living like married tourists: Honeymooning in Sri Lanka & the Maldives

I just couldn’t. I couldn’t be a bride and a blogger. I couldn’t do anything but be a bride... well a bride and a wedding coordinator... and a travel agent... and a logistics center. I wanted to. But that is what it was.
Wedding present from a great friend
So apologies. I still plan to reminisce about the cultural findings I obtained as a foreign bride in Italy, but that’s for another time. Let’s fast forward a minute to the more recent and less contentious adventure: the honeymoon!

Honeymoons are the best invention ever. We left behind the chaos of 9 months to escape to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. There was no specific logic or rationale to these choices: I vetoed Antarctica. He vetoed Capetown. We both said it would be novel for us to try out a do-nothing beach holiday. Yet, we simultaneously agreed that we could probably only stand it for a couple days. (I said 4 days, he said 2 so we chose 3). So we settled on a direct flight from Rome to Colombo, Sri Lanka where we could spend 9 days of touring ancient ruins and temples, ambling through old colonial cities and encountering wildlife and then 3 days in the Maldives where we would be forced to do nothing because the resort is really the only thing on that particular island.

View from Dambulla Caves
For knowing very little about our choice of Sri Lanka, it all of a sudden seemed like every person we talked to had been there and endorsed it: The food is flavorful. The landscape is lush. The ancient cities are a marvel, the beaches a paradise. We got so many recommendations that we packed our nine days with 6 different cities and 5 different hotels. We had an excel sheet itinerary were we had to slot in nap or relax. Classic type A travelers.

However, worn-out-post-wedding-me was already starting to get anxious that our honeymoon would be run the same draconian way as our wedding planning. Day 1 in congested Colombo and Day 2 of 5 hours on the road behind cows, tuk-tuks, stray dogs and bold humans didn't help. I became a little dubious about our choice. Luckily from Day 3 onward, we were in the heart of Sri Lankan countryside and it was marvelous.

You’d think we would be sick of ruins, living in Rome and all, but the ruins of Polonnaruwa were so vastly different that it didn’t feel like we were just experiencing the eastern version of the Roman forum. Aside from fascinating temples and statues, I was equally enthralled by what felt like was untouched nature everywhere. Living in a city where cats are the main wildlife, coming to Sri Lanka was like taking down the bars at a zoo.

Monkeys are to Sri Lanka what cats are to Rome and I photographed them as much as I do Rome's felines. In addition, hawks, lizards, monitors, brightly colored birds and bugs, and butterflies of every color kept me entertained like a kid in a candy shop… or well, a kid in a zoo. 

We saw elephants too of course. We were told that there are still many wild elephants; however, we only saw them in captivity. I was weary of going to visit them having heard that some of these orphanages or rescue centers are just ploys to get tourist money and that the elephants are no better treated than those in a circus. Reading about the bigger ones, we decided to go to the Millennium Elephant Foundation. It is definitely a place that happily accepts money from tourists (and a large amount of it- entrance is 35 dollars each). However, it seemed fairly legitimate that they did in fact care for maltreated or injured elephants. After hearing their story from a knowledgeable guide, I relaxed a little and realized that the elephants did seem to enjoy their baths given to them by the mahouts, i.e. elephant handlers, or by tourists, like my husband for example (see below).

Millennium Elephant Foundation
I also relented and we took a mini tour on the back of a 35 year old female elephant. As a 35 year old female myself, I felt a kinship with her and thanked her for the ride. I like to think she appreciated the gratitude.

Another highlight was our climb up Sigiriya rock fortress. We were too skeptical and perhaps too stubborn to ever hire a local guide, so we based our limited knowledge of any of these sites on a lonely planet book I had gotten as a gift two days before departing.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The little we learned about Sigiriya was that though there is a widespread legend that it was built as a palace for a prince who killed his father the king and fled to this site, nature's perfect fortress. There is no actual evidence that this was a palace. They know it was a monastery at one point, but despite the feeling of grandeur inspired by the gigantic lion paws guarding the staircase, the extensive complex of buildings, the natural moat and the alluring frescoes of bare-breasted women (supposedly the king’s mistresses), there is no concrete evidence that any of this was royalty-related. So the legend lives on and each believes what she will.

We then went to Kandy, the second largest but a very undersold city it seems to me, with its beautiful serene lake encircled by promenade along its perimeter. Granted there didn’t seem much to see aside from the gorgeous and extensive Botanical gardens and the Temple of the Tooth, which is p.s. the holiest Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. However, it seemed like Kandy could be nice setting for a longer stay in Sri Lanka.

Kandy lake
We stopped at one of the many advertised spice gardens and tea plantations along our drive to the south. Both are wonderfully organized tourist traps, with the informative part of the tour falling very secondary to the sales pitch of what you could buy from their very own shops. 

Galle Fort
Galle, an old dutch colonial city by the water in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, was our last stop. Aside from the Old Dutch hospital which they recently revived with new businesses and with a sense of community, I was not so impressed with this rundown city that seemed to now only house expensive hotels, chain souvenir shops and very few locals, but a walk along the cities walls was worth it for the view of the ocean and the impressively clear water.

Mirissa Beach
We also spent 3 hours at Mirissa beach, renting chairs at the obliging Paradise beach club hotel. The Indian Ocean is not calm, especially compared to the lazy and placid Mediterranean sea. I was taken back to 18 years of summers along the Atlantic ocean where waves were just as big and tides just as powerful. I used to dive into the biggest waves with total pleasure. Now I watched them from a beach chair. Was this me getting old or me turning Italian? Our beach time was just about to start though so I didn’t feel too bad about my whimpiness.

Anantara Dhigu resort, Maldives
We flew to the Maldives the day after and landed in one of the world’s most fragile, fabulous and frivolous places. Paradise exploited could be the subtitle for the Maldives, but don't get me wrong, it is undoubtedly and unmistakably PARADISE. It sets the standard for clear turquoise water and white snowy sand. You can’t be in the Maldives and not, at one moment in your time there, think I will quit my job and live here. How can you not want to be surrounded by that much natural beauty all of the time? Of course, then there is the reality that the cost you are paying per night and per meal is enough to eat up 1-3 months of salary and you realize that beauty is fleeting and not cheap.

So you are just thankful that you could enjoy it at all and you take a million photos to remember the water, the sunsets, the tropical trees and fruit, the ripples of the wind on the water and sand, the brightly colored exotic fish that makes you realize that God is a painter, the hammocks, the sunshine and the peace of being on a tiny island with no city, with no cars, with no real connection to anything else expect via boat.

How marvelously different from the day to day rhythm of real life in a city. A different pace and way of life – maybe that is what you really go to see… with the sunsets and setting as the icing on the cake. The Maldives were definitely the icing on an already very sweet honeymoon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Making the most of Roman summers: Another list!

Another August and I am remembering my post (and list) from last year about striving not to miss out on Roman summers by living in a haze. So this year, I am waking up earlier and have added some new ideas to last year's list.

Plus now, there is a Estate Romana 2014 App sharing all the summer events, so I have no excuse to miss out on anything! 

So here is the 2014 Make-the-Most-of-Roman-Summer List:
  1. Lungo il Tevere Festival: The traditional bancarelle along the Tevere: http://www.lungoiltevereroma.it/ 
  2. Gasometro Festival: Kind of like the alternative cousin of the Lungo il tevere festival: http://www.gasometro.it/ 
  3. Villa Pamphili or Villa Ada - Some of Rome's biggest and loveliest parks set up stages and host concerts: http://www.villaada.org/
  4. Terme di Caracalla Opera - When the Roman Opera house moves outdoors
  5. Aperitivo at La Singita on Fregene Beach - The tradition of aperitivo also goes to the beach: http://www.singita.it/ 
  6. Granita di Caffe from Tazza d'Oro - Caffeinated Ice. How marvelous! The famous Caffe Eustachio also has a great one. Both are near the Pantheon. https://www.facebook.com/LaCasaDelCaffeTazzadOroalPantheon
  7. Gelato -  Not just for summer of course, but summer is a great excuse. Take your pick of places. Everyone has their own theory about the best gelato. I say to each his own on that one. However, for the flavor cioccolato fondente, mine is still Gelateria della Palma, crowds and all.  Tony's gelateria in Monteverde came pretty close this year though.     

  8. Limoncello - a great, refreshing after-dinner drink (with a kick!)
  9. Hotel Minerva Rooftop for drinks. Lovely view of the Pantheon.
  10. Notte delle Stelle Cadenti (Night of the falling stars) at the beach on the festa di San Lorenzo (August 10) http://www.regioni-italiane.com/notte-di-san-lorenzo-0132.htm
  11. Beaches - The bread and butter of Italian summers. You might have to fight for your spot or learn to live without personal space, but mainly still worth the trip. Sperlonga is a jewel if you can handle the aforementioned.
  12. Paddle boats at Bracciano lake - Lakes are good beach-alternative and a well-kept secret in the summer. Trevignano is a great city on Lake Bracciano.
  13. Watermelon Stands - What is summer without watermelon?
  14. Campari and/or Aperol Spritz - Prosecco mixed with campari or aperol. Summer in a glass. You can get a 14 Euro one at Harry's Bar on Via Veneto, but I would suggest just sitting outside on a regular outdoor terrace and paying the normal price of 5 - 8 Euro. It tastes the same. 
  15. Grattachecca - Stand selling icy dessert (the granita's cousin) 
  16. Castel Sant'Angelo Festival: You can apparently go in the Passetto, a site that has thus evaded me: http://www.nottiacastelsantangelo.it/index_EN.php
  17. Piscina delle Rose - Olympic sized, 50-meter outdoor pool with lanes for real swimmers and aqua gym for fitness buffs: http://www.piscinadellerose.it/

Other Roman summer suggestions? Send them over if you have them!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Easter empanadas

Like any Type A personality, this Easter break I went on a wedding planning hiatus and instead invented another project for myself.

Every now and then I get on a kick of wanting to do something that I have never done. Sometimes it is well organized and planned out, like the time I went sky-diving in college, and sometimes it is totally on a whim, like my last weekend's empanada obsession.

When it comes to baking, I generally just leave it as “I can’t”… or that I need supervision if I do. I am a fairly decent cook. I am not a baker. I boil it down to the fact that I am virtually incapable of following instructions. With cooking, I tend to do whatever I want and refer back to the recipe only now and then to see how off track I am. To go off-roading with baking, you need to understand chemistry. And I don’t. I have had cakes sink, pie crusts shrivel, muffins burn on the outside and remain raw on the inside... I am a chemist’s nightmare.

Probably the root cause of my obsession: DC's Julia's Empanadas
So I don’t know why this past weekend I became possessed with the spirit of an empanada maker. This is neither in my general realm of ability, nor is it in my comfort zone. I also don’t know what relation empanadas have to Easter, but for some reason, I had to accomplish this for Easter brunch.

The process began in my very typical way of showing up at the grocery store without the recipe and having to guess the ingredients. Not only did I have to guess what they were but I had to guess what their Italian names are. Armed with the Google translate app and a comparable recipe from my Smart Phone’s internet browser, I still got home to find out that I bought polenta instead of cornmeal and baking soda instead of baking powder. Over the course of the day, I also realized that the recipe required a rolling pin, (which I did not have) … and a baking sheet, (which I also did not have)… and wax paper, (nope, didn’t have that either)… and ideally empanada molds, (do you think I would have molds of any kind?). Luckily, I was able to buy, borrow or make an equivalent to all of these things. 

Two other things I did successfully buy at the grocery store though were:
  1. Pre-made dough (in case mine turned to stone). 
  2. A massive amount of chic peas (in case I scrapped the whole idea and made hummus instead.) 
So far, no explosions...
Yet with guidance from a friend, a call to her professional chef/ father and help from another friend whose Napolitano roots made him a natural with rolling out dough, the suspicious looking concoction turned from a granular flaky mess into something not only malleable but delicious.

Emapanada molds work!
The roasted vegetable filling (that I winged of course) turned out great, and with the baking sheet and empanada molds I borrowed, I made 3 very nice batches of golden brown empanadas.

They made it to the oven!

I can do anything! I felt.

And though that’s not true, I have a new Easter tradition. Maybe I can even strike baking off of the list of “I can’ts”. Perhaps next year I can attempt the real Italian tradition, the Colombo… but I’ll buy chic peas just in case.

My Empanadas! Not bad for a novice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two different count downs

Easter is five days away which is good news for me because my dreams of chocolate are getting more vivid… I could smell it in the last one…

Image from Yours Fondly
This year was definitely my toughest lent to date. I gave up all sugar, from not adding it to coffee in the morning to abstaining from all desserts (gelato included!) in the evening.

I spent the last 40 days turning down all variety of sweets … or accepting them (usually chocolate) to stash them away in my freezer for safekeeping until after Easter. But with only five more days, I can make it. However, while I am on the verge of succeeding in that one Lenten observance, I am failing in another.

Chocolate shoes
This lent, I also promised to write once a week. Writing for me is like running. I don’t feel entirely healthy unless I do it regularly. Yet, though I have been good at running lately (I completed the Verona half marathon in February), I have not been good at writing, as you may or may not have noticed.

Giulietta & Romeo Verona Half Marathon & They also had a chocolate festival
Part of it is that I am out of the habit, which is why I thought lent a good time to reintroduce it. Aside from the religious aspects of lent, I have also learned that 40 days is a pretty good amount of time to form a new habit or break a bad one. Lent would have been a good time to get back into the habit of writing…

This feeling of remorse for me is a bit reminiscent of last year. Some of you may recall that my Lenten resolution was to give up complaining about Rome (specifically the people and services in Rome). I did so poorly thought that I then decided to give up chocolate for the 40 days after lent. It was a sort of self-imposed “talking-to”. 40 days of not commenting on late buses, rude people, broken services or chaotic everything would have been good for me. But the habit was too engrained.

My brother in law also gets excited about chocolate
But perhaps again this year, I will impose a post-lent promise/talking-to: To write once a week for 40 weeks. It could work. I already have a lot of new stories about wedding planning in Italy.

And that’s the other count down: the count down to my big fat Italian wedding! Yes, dealing with the legalities of three countries, having people fly in from probably ten and working with a mixed bag of traditions, it’s going to be a total zoo and completely legendary. So far, no talks of a roasting spit in the front yard though which is good.

As you can see, a lot has happened since Mexico: visiting family in Toronto, getting engaged in Vancouver, searching for a venue in Umbria and Tuscany, finding a wedding dress in the weird underground wedding sub-culture of Rome… It's been a busy 4 months.

Castle of Love: the brochure of one of the venues we looked at...

But with wedding planning comes a whole other cultural experience of Italy which I would be happy to share: Living like an (engaged) tourist. Get ready puffy dresses, shellacked wedding cakes, cheesy songs and outdated traditions: here I come, or more appropriately, here comes the bride.


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