Archive for the 'Italy' Category

A Surf Board, A Cigarette and An Invitation to South Africa: Another Strange Exchange With Italian Men

Someone else's surf board, packed up...

Only 2 hours left to kill at the Fiumicino airport, where I’ve been sitting since 10am, waiting for my flight to Cairo—expensive Wifi day pass and four shots of espresso, getting my panini fix on.

They say you can’t tell anything about a place by its airport, but I say fuck that—two weeks in Albania, and the Rome airport feels exciting! diverse! worldly! Overweight American tourists! The Moldovan soccer team! A family of African royalty! I realize I haven’t seen any black people in two weeks, and only 1.5 Asians. I’ve barely seen any real denim or leather for that matter, and all the luxurious curly manes and hip lil mohawks make me giggle.

So I walk around making my mental list of goodbyes to the Western world: goodbye hipsters, goodbye tailored suits, goodbye potable tap water, goodbye cute boy across the cafe I keep making eyes at but am too chicken-shit realistic chicken-shit to talk to.

Heave my way through check-in, 18 kilos lighter and I step outside for a bit of fresh air cigarette. Dude’s standing there, big ole bag and a surfboard. Taking a picture with his iPhone. Smile and make the universal hand gesture for—“You want me to take a picture of you?”

He smiles back. “No, no, I just take a picture for my friend.” Smiles again. “Where you are from?”

California, which he approves of, because of the good waves, big waves. Yes, but cold, I say. Cold in Italy too. Where am I going? Cairo for a few days. And then? South Africa?

“No, close.” I smile, laugh. “Well, not close at all. Cambodia.”

“Cambodia?”

“Near Thailand.”

Blank look and a quick geography lesson, and the light flashes in his eyes. “Ah, Cambogia!” Scrutinizing squint: “But you are alone?” I nod. “No family, no boyfriend—“there, he said it—“Why?”

I shrug, laugh: “Who’s gonna come to Cambodia with me?”

“Me!”

And I laugh harder. “Oh yeah?”

“Yes, but first, South Africa.” He goes there twice a year, can’t stand the cold of an Italian winter—he’ll go for a month, come back for Christmas, head down there again. He’ll surf and live on the beach and I’m sure, I can tell by the lines in his face, not wear sunscreen.

“You like, you can come,” he suggests. I laugh again. I think he likes it.

Where have I been in Italy? Did I like it? Why didn’t I go to the Amalfi Coast—that’s where he’s from, he could have shown me around.

“I didn’t know you,” I smile, reminding him of the obvious.

He nods at the gray day, misting and cool. He hates the cold. I nod at the surfboard, “I can tell.”

Sleep-deprivation hunger blur gives a kick and I need one more espresso—just one more espresso—before the flight. That and he’s right—it’s cold, and what at first felt good now just feels… cold.

So I nod, say some kind of noncommittal goodbye, go to turn away. “Wait!” he calls out.

He opens his wallet, pulls out a card. “I am Lucio,” points to the name on the card, “That’s me. Next time you come to Italy, we go to Amalfi Coast, I show you my town, you meet my family.”

I smile, nod, put the card in my back pocket. “All right Lucio. I’ll be seeing you.”

Cause we all can dream, right?

Pizza and Love in Milan: Le Grand Fooding Milano 2011

The way to a man’s Italian’s French hipster’s anyone’s heart is through food. Especially pizza.

This is the main lesson I came away with from a weekend spent at Le Grand Fooding Milano. The others included: Italians don’t know what aioli is; there’s really no such thing as “Italian” food, and Northern Italians are shocked and somewhat scandalized by white pizza; Nespresso isn’t bad; there is perhaps no one more effortlessly chic and hip and fucking nice as a French foodie; as such, I will never be a Le Fooding girl; and it’s pretty easy to crash a food festival (and sneak into a Sheraton) as long as you work hard and smile a lot. And know the right people.

I spent the last weekend in Milan, at a three-day food event put on by the French culinary guide/movement/cultural phenomenon Le Fooding. While not terribly well-known in the States, they’ve been around 10 years in France, stirring shit up and throwing parties and breaking rules and basically being the anti-Michelin Guide.

The theme of Milan’s festival was international chefs cooking Italian food versus Italian chefs cooking Italian food, and, being one of the better-known Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in the US, Pizzaiolo (where I waited tables for the past year and a half) was invited to attend. My co-workers/chefs Jed Cote and Jason Loeb were flown across the globe, put up in a Sheraton, given a pizza oven and prep kitchen and about 100kg of squid, and sent to represent us.

And, since I was in Italy, I decided, you know, what the fuck—I’m going too.

So I showed up with my backpack and messenger bag and hoodie and crashed the party.

Represent!

Well, it wasn’t crashing exactly. We just figured that if I showed up to the San Pelegrino prep kitchen with Jason and Jed in the morning, hung out and sliced tomatoes and picked herbs and shit, and if I rolled with them to the event, just acted like I was supposed to be there, you know, that it’d all work out.

And it did, and it’s a good thing it did, cause it turned out to be one of those races to the finish, getting the pizza dough right, and cutting the squid, and plating and serving all the slices at the party. More than just a freeloader, I ended up being really useful. And having a rocking good time.

In all its glory

We were there making one of our signature pies (and one of my favorites)—a squid, cherry tomato and aioli pizza. Simple, makes the most of our Northern Cali goodness—abundant, sustainable squid supplies, bomb cherry tomatoes in the summer. We were contracted to pump out 50 pizzas, enough to feed the 300 guests each night, in the hour and a half before they went into the dining room for the seated dinner featuring four dishes from four different chefs.

Hella squid

We spent the mornings prepping, and one of the things I wasn’t expecting was how different the ingredients and facilities would be. Of course, the very premise of the event brings up issues of authenticity, of what happens to a cuisine when you take it from its home and drag it across the planet like… a spaghetti noodle (thus the name). But I didn’t anticipate how the location change would affect our own pizza. Jed and Jason brought their own yeast and used the same OO flour we use at the restaurant, but the squid was larger in Milan, and the tomatoes were more like small Romas instead of Sungolds and Sweet 100s, and less acidic and sweet. We also had a smaller mixer that required 4 batches to make our usual one; we also transported the dough to the event in a trash bag (classy). The pie didn’t end up tasting exactly how it does at home, and I guess that’s part of the point—that locality is crucial, defining, and that when foods travel, they change.

Trash bag dough!

At the event space, which took “industrial chic” to new levels, I hung out while the boys got the fire cranking and set up. It was some truly awesome people-watching. All the Le Fooding people were young and impossibly chic in that particularly Parisian way, cardigans and scarves (the boys) and little boots and tights and drape-y tops (girls), and a look we dubbed “the urban equestrian.” In my younger, less settled incarnations, I would have spent the time comparing myself to them and ultimately feeling shitty about myself. But now it was just comical—“Do we even grow girls like that in North America?” I asked my friends, and they shook their heads so fact I thought they might fall off.

Le Fooding girls

It was kinda like the squid and the tomatoes.

There were also tons of Italian crew setting up, working on the lights and such—they were less chic, more working class, in their cargo pants. Then there were the security guards and the phalanx of confused-looking 18-year-old assistant cooks/mignonnes, and the caterers—and everyone chain-smoking, chain-smoking, like it was their job. (One of the girls at the arancini stand was smoking while she set up the deep fryer…)

The people attending the event were a different breed—mostly middle-class, middle-aged Italians, with a sprinkling of hip folks and a whole slew of media. While the boys cooked, I plated slices, and talked to folks.

“Pizza di Oakland,” I heard people mutter.

“Pizza di Aukland?”

“No, America. Near to San Francisco.”

“Ah, pizza di Oakland! This is how you do pizza in California?”

“Well, this is how we do pizza.” And a wink and smile.

But the real test was the reception, which we seemed to win. People were only supposed to get one slice, but, as per our stuff-everyone philosophy, we’d prepped enough for 20 or so extra pies. So I got the catch people’s eyes as they tentatively looked over, tried not to hover, and I got to smile and motion for them to eat another. And another. Kill em with kindness, but also with food.

At 8:30, the Le Fooding kids ran a little bell and herded everyone into the dining room. Which is when the real fun started. Technically, we were done. But while the important chefs scurried around with their mignonnes, plating 300 dishes, and a crew of young caterers lined up, wearing all black with fucking headlamps on, like it were a Vegas show—we got to do what we love best, which is love on people.

It’s part of the whole Pizzaiolo philosophy (and the reason I loved working their so much)—to love the shit out of people, through food. So we started cranking out the pies. First some of our neighbors: the arancini girls and the Mumm champagne kids, and the guys at the next pizza oven, from Pizza East in London. Then a couple for the security guards and the people working the front door. How about the two gender-ambiguous Filipino cleaners? Of course! The endlessly hungry-eyed mignonnes—sure! Hey you, founder and director of this big-deal culinary movement—you get enough squid? How bout you, firefighter? You cold, Pelegrino girl?—come huddle by the pizza oven for a few minutes.

Cause that’s what it’s really all about, right? That’s why we call it breaking bread, why we mark important events by gathering for meals, why every fucking culture in the world comes together for food. It’s about love and building relationships and making friends, not cause it’s gonna get you something or somewhere or even a reciprocal drink/dish/whatever, but because that’s what we do—that’s what cooks get into the business to do, and what I, it turns out, love most about the industry: the simple act of feeding people.

And that’s what I think, after three days, that Le Fooding is all about to. I’d scoured the internet for English-language articles about them, and the main thing I’d read from the big American food critics is that they didn’t understand what Le Fooding wanted, or what they were trying to do (reminds you of Occupy Wall Street a bit, huh?). But after the weekend, after seeing how intensely we broed down and how food enabled all that, became a kind of edible language, when real language failed—it’s not that hard for me to understand what they want. They want that: love.

By the third day, we knew everyone—everyone stopping by to say hello or waving as they passed—and we partied late into the night on Saturday, dancing and smoking and exchanging hugs and email addresses. And it came out, you know, that I wasn’t a chef and that I’d just kinda showed up, but there was so much love no one gave a shit—they gave me those French double cheek kisses and wished me well in Cambodia.

And it’s a shame to be leaving the restaurant industry after such a weekend. But, as Jed said, “Way to go out on top.”

And with a lot of fucking love. And a belly full of pizza, which I’ll miss almost as much as the love.

Loved these two!

Gaeta, Inbetween-itis, and Why I Love a Beach Town in October

This is what I wanted: a chill, cheap beach town to hole up in and write for five days. This is what I got:

So, sometimes, success can be yours.

It starts because I have six days to kill in Italy, before meeting two chef friends at a French food hipster festival in Milan. This is what’s known as a luxury problem—a problem only because whiling away a near week in Italy means whiling it away in Euros, when I’m already short on funds. Plus there’s the hassle factor: I’m moving across the world, so I’ve got a lot of crap with me, and hauling it on this train and that bus and down some cobble-y old alleyway loses its charm real quick. All I wanted was to find somewhere mellow, about to shut down for the season, and park it. Catch up on writing and sleep, maybe do a couple yoga podcasts.

So I sent out a Twitter blast and emailed Liv over at I Eat My Pigeon, did a bit of Tripadvisor digging, and ended up in Gaeta. Cue the lights and music.

It’s kind of like having a really specific craving for, say, calamari, and stumbling upon some of the best damn squid you’ve ever eaten—same level of deep satisfaction. Which I don’t think many of the locals around here get, cause it’s the number one question I’ve been asked (after, you know, “Where are you from?”)—“Why Gaeta? Why now?”

A beach town in October is one of my all-time favorite things. Take last year’s Sveti Stephan, or the previous year’s Legzira Plage. There’s something about the end of the season, hot days and cool nights and everything twinged with nostalgia and pink. The businesses are all half-shuttered-up and the crowds have thinned and you’ve got the place, not to yourself, but to share with the locals and the last straggle of tourists, who you feel a sort of aren’t-we-oddballs comradery with.

And the room rates drop like mad.

So really, what more could a cheapskate blogger want?

I uncovered the B&B Un Letto A Gaeta on Tripadvisor, and decided that even if I couldn’t read the Italian reviews, it was still a good sign that there were four and five stars. It’s on a hill above an olive orchard, run by a dude with a killer record collection and good taste in art, and my private room is less than half what it cost 2 months ago, in the height of the tourist season.

I unpacked my bag five days ago, and let it become a little like home.

Proof I was there!

I got the chance to meet up with Liv, the International Woman of Mystery behind one of my favorite narrative travel blogs. We cruised around the region, known as the Ulysses Coast (cause apparently this is where it all went down)—we went to some of the neighboring towns and I got to glimpse into her life. She blogs mostly about the daily life of an expat, and it felt almost like walking into a novel you’ve read, and having it all be real, right in front of you—this character and that character, her friends and the cafe she writes at. (Someone was occupying her favorite table when we were there.)

We strolled around the ancient quarters and paused in front of Roman ruins and talked about writing and the freelance hustle, about expat life and being solo females. It feels good, the more expats I talk to and the more writers I talk to—less like I’m making some sort of horribly rash and insane leap, and more like a logical step in my career. It makes it all feel achievable and, well, normal.

Of course, though, she told me her friends had all been curious: they wanted to know why Geata, and why now?

The only other person occupying a room at the B&B also wanted to know—a college kid from Torino who’s renting a room for a few months while he studies here. I gave him the stock answer: “I love a beach town in October.”

Which is true, but it’s really more about the funny inbetween state a beach town in October encompasses. It infects you, and you become inbetween too. Locals have their guards down a bit more, and they start to recognize you, as you jog around in the morning or buy paninis or drink espresso, and they wave and say hello (in English cause you can’t ever manage to learn any Italian). You’re a tourist, for sure, but not an all-the-way tourist; in October, you’re something else. A familiar stranger, maybe—something inbetween.

Cause I’m here but not really here. I’m on my way, moving across the world, and I feel like I don’t have a right answer for those “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions. I’m not a “signora” and I’m not a “signorina.” I’m a traveler, in transit.

There’s a local specialty here, called tielle. It’s—get ready—like a savory pie stuffed with local calamari and olives and other good shit. It’s off the chains. I went with Liv for lunch to a super cute little spot in the medieval quarter of Gaeta; a few days later, after a rambling jog across town, I bellied up to their take-away window and ordered a slice.

The owner recognized me, said hello. “You are lonely today?”

I knew what he meant—I was alone, not with Liv. But the question, you know, in light of the name of this blog, struck me as funny. Cause I wasn’t lonely, cause he’d recognized me and so had a dude that had served me espresso the day before, who’d honked and waved as I’d panted up a hill, running—cause it was a beach town in October, one of my goddamn favorite things.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m alone today.”

Occupy Nazionale Street: Yes We Camp and Entering the Underbelly

The helicopters throbbed in the pink dusk above Rome. Police cars parked diagonally, blocking off the black-stone artery of Via Nazionale, usually clogged with cars and buses and motorbikes. You could hear the echo of chants, megaphones—see a crowd assembled, way down there, at the street’s end. The stone gleamed like water.

It was not a particularly Roman moment. Or maybe it was. At least, it wasn’t the Rome that the tourists thronging the sidewalk had come to see. But I suppose that’s the thing about Rome: it’s got all that history, but it’s been a continually inhabited city too. It’s not a museum; people still live there.

When I’m in Rome, I always think of that scene in Fellini’s Roma, when they’re trying to build a Metro stop and they find some ancient villa beneath the city. It’s a Catch-22: you can’t just bulldoze the shit, it’s got archaeological importance and is beautiful, beautiful—but fuck, it’d be nice to have a functional Metro system too.

“Entering the Underbelly”

“Frescoes”

In any event, I was taking an evening stroll, sat on a bench and noticed what we used to call a Ghetto Bird whomping around in the sky above the historical center. Hmmm, strange. Strolled more and reached Via Nazionale, which was largely shut off by police cars, men in uniforme standing around, waving traffic away. (You can only imagine the clusterfuck of Roman rush-hour traffic this created.)

Way down at the end of the street, towards the uplit splendor of the Palazzo delle Esposizoni, I could see a mass of people gathered, making a small ruckus. I moved down to check it out.

Around me, the sidewalks were swarmed with tourists. That’s the other thing about Rome: it is un-fucking-real to me how many Americans there are there. You know, they always talk about how Americans don’t travel, but you really wouldn’t know it from the looks of Rome. Or maybe it’s just that we only go to two places: Paris and Rome. I mean, Rome’s great, but it kinda makes me want to pull people aside, let them know, you know, it’s a big world out there. And with an American passport, you can go see a lot of it. But I suppose I understand the appeal—so much history, and for us, a country with so little, it’s mind-blowing.

Anyway, I spotted a guy with a big phat professional camera around his neck, watched him go out into the middle of the empty street and crouch down and get what I’m supposing were some phenomenal shots of the crowd. I wandered around and fiddled with the settings on my point-and-shoot and eventually gave up and walked through the crowd.

The steps of the Palazzo were littered with kids, 20-somethings, smoking and drinking and eating and talking and huddled up against a night that must have felt cold to them. Further down, near a makeshift mesh-fence of a police barricade, a couple hundred Roman young people milled around, toting signs and starting chants and calling into a megaphone and generally looking like they were waiting for something to happen.

Nothing ever did. A couple of the police vans had signs taped to them: “Yes We Camp.” A sit-in/camp-in, a protest. I stay vaguely abreast of world politics enough to know that the economic situation in Italy is fucked—not as fucked as Greece, but not great. Unemployment is high, the economy’s in the shitter, and that day, October 12, it was announced that the Prime Minister would face a vote of no confidence.

So people have a lot to be riled up about, a lot to protest and fight against. But it felt sort of anti-climatic, to be honest—all that great width of Nazionale shut off, the helicopter and fleet of cop cars, and the protest felt modest in comparison. Protesters were pretty well-behaved and I lingered for a good half-hour, without anything really happening.

But here’s the thing: it was oddly reminiscent of the protest I’d passed by the previous week—you know, that Occupy Wall Street thing. Some of the signs protesters toted had references to it, and the spirit seemed largely the same: young middle-class people upset and in the street. Of course, the “Yes We Camp” referenced the Obama campaign and, further back from the crowd, someone had hitched a tent in the middle of Nazionale, anti-capitalist signs out front.

All I could think was: Shit’s spreading.

What that means, I dunno. No one knows yet. And that’s the exciting thing, the thing that I gleaned the most from my visit to Occupy Wall Street: it’s not so much about the thing itself (which one writer likened to “the grass seats of a Dave Matthew’s Band concert”), which can be frankly underwhelming—it’s about the conversations it’s starting, the sparks it’s creating, the reaction it’s evoking from the powers that be: threatened evictions and street closures and a Ghetto Bird in the sky above the tourist center of Rome.

Shit’s getting stirred up, people are getting engaged for the first time in what feels like forever, and you can’t contain that. Especially not now, in our era of social media. It’s cool as hell.

But this fight wasn’t mine, and besides, it was largely in Italian. So I trundled off to the English-speaking meeting I’d come to Via Nazionale for, and later went back to my B&B and Googled the hell out it. Turns out it was a preview of coming attractions: bigger protests are planned for October 15, today. And I’m out of Rome now, in a quiet seaside town about to shut up shop for the season—but I can still follow along on the internet.

And that’s the thing about this era, this fight, which is so strikingly similar to the fights popping up all over the globe right now: it’s a living thing (like Rome), and you can follow along anywhere, and you can live it too.

For more/better photos, follow this link.

Rome, Like a Cannon Shot (Bella, You Must Be New At This)

I come into Rome like something shot out of a cannon—hair blown and thirsty, sweating in the thick denim and long layers I had to wear cause they wouldn’t fit in my backpack.

It started with the fact that my flight was 2 hours delayed. Which really started with the fact that I’d gotten about 7 hours of sleep in the 2 days prior; that I’d stood on a rush-hour E train all the way to the airport, all 60 fucking pounds of luggage draped around me so that my right fingers went numb holding on to the metal railing; with the fact that I actually nodded out a little bit at the terminal, all the eager/antsy middle-aged tourists in their neck pillows and compress socks buzzing around in anticipation of when the plane would actually arrive.

Couldn’t really sleep on the red-eye, which is rare for me—it was more freezing-cold than usual and since I’ve decided to bring half my closet with me, I didn’t have room for an extra blanket, which you really only need on flights and trains and buses anyway. But when you need it, fuck, you need it.

So I land with, what now?, 12 hours of sleep in a 3 day period? Doesn’t really matter anymore. Part of the trick of not ever really getting jetlag is that flying makes me so wonky, I’m out of it anyway, so I can rally and stay up for hours, or I can crash immediately. Or I can blaze bleary-eyed through a gleaming-stone ancient city and make all those novice traveler mistakes I like to think I’ve outgrown.

Get waved through immigration with barely a glance at my passport. This happens to me sometimes, when entering the EU, which is supposed to be all tripped out on the xenophobia tip, but I guess that only applies if you’re not white American. There isn’t even a long line—homeboy just glances at my picture (which doesn’t even look like me anymore, people tell me), his fingers barely grazing it, before pushing it back through the window, flicking his wrist and dismissing me. So, okay, that means I can stay forever, right?

But I’ve done this trek from Fiumicino to Termini enough times that I could kinda switch into automatic mode: the escalator down and the escalator up; the kiosk you don’t buy the train ticket at; the kiosk you do; the counter you get espresso at (not cause you need it, just to kill the time and get your heart racing more than it already is); the place where you validate your ticket; the number of machines you have to try before you find one that actually validates the ticket (usually 3); waiting waaaaay down the platform so that you’re away from the herd and can actually get a seat; how when you get to Termini you have to walk for like a mile down this loooong platform, how the station looks like a mirage in a desert down there, how when you finally reach it it isn’t an oasis at all but swarmed with rolling luggage and hustlers and pay phones that don’t work. Welcome to Rome, motherfucker.

I’m looking for the Laziali Tram—my fourth time in Rome and I’ve finally decided to fuck hostels near Termini, not even worth it. I did some research and found an affordable B&B outside of center, near Pigneto, which is where I want to stay anyway. So I walk down to the streetcars, which all look vintage and chic and rattly, like an old train model—I see the 5 and 14, which I suddenly remember are the trams that take you to Pigneto—where the hell that knowledge lay tucked in the bleary recesses of my brain, I don’t know.

But neither of them say “Laziali,” so shit, gotta keep looking. So I ask the dude sitting on the bench next to me, so I ask the tram driver, so I decide fuck it and try to go find a payphone to call dude at the B&B and ask him for better directions than the ones I scribbled for myself while waiting at the airport terminal. Phone steals 3 Euros and yells a series of tones in my ear—no luck. A cab maybe? They all look dicey.

Which is when I note to myself that I feel lighter, less encumbered. Which is when I notice that one of my bags is not with me—the one with my new laptop and my thyroid medication and fuck you, my makeup and cheap jewelry—important shit.

Ugh—that sudden razor of fear that cuts through your gut, laser of panic and you feel it radiate, shock you into focus. Dash back to the payphones—not there. Remember, as I lumber across the street as fast as I can, that I haven’t bought travel insurance yet—why?

But miracles of fucking miracles, my stuffed messenger bag is still sitting on the tram stop bench. The dude I asked for directions smiles sadly and shakes his head, as if to say: “Bella, you must be new at this.”

I gush a million thank yous, he tells me how lucky I am, especially in Rome, and I say, “Hell, in anywhere,” and I feel like a tired dog that’s gotten kicked in the ribs, like an old TV, shocked out of my static—I feel alive again.

“I watch your bag for you,” a squat man with an Indian/British accents tells me. “I ask everyone, ‘Is this your bag?'” Shakes his head. I gush a few more thank yous in his direction.

He asks me where I’m going, and he shakes his head again and points over to a bus parked across the street. “I’m going there too, come with me,” and shit, it’s not like I’m not gonna go with him—he coulda swiped all my stuff and he didn’t, so he can’t be half bad.

He walks with his chest kind of puffed out, has a sweater draped around his shoulders, sleeves tied sloppily or jauntily, I can’t decide—maybe both. He like to play the big shot, I can tell, I’m the man that knows this place, and it strikes me as a kind of pauper’s authority—but he’s obviously got a good heart beneath it.

He seems pleased that I know how to validate my ticket when I get on the bus (cause actually, I’m not new at this, I’m just a wreck). He asks me what country I’m from, tells me about his brother in Boston, how he wants to go to Boston—the usual immigrant conversation. He asks me if it’s my first time in Rome and I sigh and shake my head, “No, but you’d think so, wouldn’t you?”

I leave myself at his mercy, cause why not? My brain is bleary as fuck and I haven’t eaten and I’ve barely slept and he seems to take a kind of pleasure in leading me, in asking every Indian street peddler when we get off the bus where Via Capua is (even though I kinda know where it is), and I wait until the sign is right in front of us to point and say, “Look!”

And he walks me to the door of the B&B, which is locked because I’m about 3 hours later than I thought I’d be, and dude offers to wait with me, but I tell him “No, it’s cool.” And I thank him again and shake his hand and he wants to write me if he ever goes to the US, and I tell him I’m not going back for a long time. And he nods and gives me a different look—maybe he’s decided that I’m not new at this, I don’t know—and then he waves and walks back down the street, that puffed up chest leading the way.

God on the Walls: Abandoned Monastery Outside Grottaglie

If you walk far enough down a dirt road outside of town; if you stalk through the weeds and sweatshirt-snagging thistles; if you scramble and heave and hoist yourself over a crumbly stone wall and follow the dent in the foliage that has become a path, you will find it: an abandoned monastery covered in art.

You will be on the roof. You won’t be sure how you got there. The storm will be moving in, and the countryside, the heel of the boot that is Puglia, will stretch out beneath the gray: plastic tarps over vineyards, farms, the coughing plumes of the factories of Taranto.

You’ll circle the perimeter of the roof with your new friends. You found them all—you found each other—like a rag-tag team of adventurers in some cartoon: Rebecca at a cafe, Pedro as you walked through the Old Town, then Greg as he feverishly rode a bicycle away from a herd of grazing animals (“Were they rabid?” “No.” “What were they doing?” “I dunno, they were just in the road. It was some weird country shit.”). You’ve all come alone, all flown from your various big cities to Grottaglie, for nothing more than the love of street art. And adventure.

And you will have gotten there. You’ll have gotten to the moldy, peely, crumbling core of What It Is You Came For. Over the last three years of Fame Festival, the abandoned Convento dei Cappuccini has amassed works by visiting artists on its decrepit old walls. It’s become something of a museum of anarchic awesome—where you crunch through the broken glass, through rooms and rooms with bleeding walls; down dank stairways where the mosquitoes buzz and the light don’t shine; down into the guts and internal organs of an abandoned holiness left to rot, left to reborn in the last gasps of its decomposition, its swallowing-back-up by the earth, by the weeds, by the green; left to the artists and the vandals and the punk little kids with bruises on their knees, to the foreigners that don’t speak the language but know that urgent lonesome in the howling of the wind, the coming of the storm, as it blows through the broken windows and walks alongside you.

Pedro on the roof

Courtyard

Panini break in the cockroach room

Cockroach close-up

Where two walls meet

It’s not so much about the art, not the monastery or Fame or the streets of Grottaglie. It’s about the spirit, the breathing of new life into the forgotten, the love of the forgotten, saying, “Yes, yes, you can still be something beautiful to me.”

It’s exceedingly tender; it’s exceedingly unexpected that you would find this here: this vision of yourself in the walls of an abandoned monastery outside a small Italian town. As though every painting and stencil and shitty little tag were a message of love, saying, “Even in your wreckage, your falling-apart, your scars and wounds and ragged flesh—something can still love you enough to take the time, to do something beautiful.”

It’s what you like to think of God as. It’s how you’d like to treat yourself, as if you could love yourself as much as an abandoned monastery.

And it’s even more unexpected that you would find three friends to tromp around with you, to be as stoked as you, to love this place and this town and this art as much as you do.

You pause; you take a moment to take it all in, to file it away in the card catalog of your heart, to be able to call upon in those certain difficult times ahead, when you need something, just a little something, to remind you What It Is You Came For. You look around, smile, tuck it under the slot labeled “Best Travel Moments.”

And then you walk into the chapel.

For a far better visual representation, check out Bablegum’s video of their trip to the monastery. The music doesn’t really fit the experience to me—but in those moments when you hear the wind howl, that’s closer to what I felt in there.

Boys, Boys, Boys: A Solo Female Traveler’s Experience With the Men of Southern Italy, Montenegro and Albania

You know the picture...

“Southern Italy, eh?” He gave me the raised eyebrow of caution. “Watch out for the men.”

This was Alex, his voice lifting above the roar of hair dryers and hip music at the salon, two days before I left on my trip.

A lady friend of his, he continued, had recently spent several weeks in the Mediterranean land of machismo. “Apparently, they all use the same line: ‘I have a girlfriend. But tonight, for you, no girlfriend.’ She said it got really old.”

I laughed. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Dealing with the men of a country as a solo female traveler is usually one of the first things people ask me about when they hear I travel alone—right after the “is it safe” question. But the truth is, I’ve been doing this sola thing for awhile now, and whether or not the men somewhere will hound me to death doesn’t really factor into my travel considerations. Plus, I’ve done the majority of my traveling in Latin America, where sidewalks can at times feel like catwalks of degradation. As long as the men aren’t physically attacking me, I pretty much feel like I can handle it.

But Alex’s comment did give me pause. When it comes to safety (and drinking tap water), I throw caution to the wind in Europe. It’s the civilized, more highly evolved land of social safety nets and low crime. Hell, the vast majority of Europe is safer than my hometown. My hairdresser’s comment reminded me that, oh yeah, right, I’d be venturing off sola in a scant 48 hours and that maybe I’d ought to mentally prepare.

You stand out as a female solo traveler, and in a way, get to experience a culture more deeply, if no other reason than the fact that its men are talking to you more. My last trip took me to Southern Italy, Montenegro and the capital of Albania (and Croatia, but I only stayed for a day, so I’m not counting it). The men in each these countries treated me totally differently—and, I think, reveal a little something about the culture.

Italy

Oh, Italian men. They have quite the reputation. American women swoon for their accents, their sense of style, their motorinos and chest hair. And they’re known for hitting on pretty much anything that moves, serenading you with sweet odes of professed passion.

I don’t get it. And Italian men, apparently, don’t get me.

During my venture Rome-and-southwards, I was largely ignored by Italian men. Which suited me just fine. Again, having traveled heftily through Latin America and once through Morocco, I’m stoked on anything that isn’t street harassment. I’ll take being ignored over obscene insults any day.

But it did cause me wonder… Who the hell are all these American women who are getting hit on Italian men all the time? I’m a cute enough girl, but do you want to know why I wasn’t getting any attention from the dudes? Because they’re surrounded by Italian women—who are impossibly gorgeous and stylish, with their cascade of curly hair and their moody black eyeliner. I wouldn’t hit on me either.

Traveling through Southern Italy was like an adventure in mutual disinterest—as though every guy I passed on the street exchanged a brief little dialog with me: “Thanks but no thanks.” Italy is a pretty culturally conservative place, and I’m a pretty not culturally conservation person, in appearance or attitude. So it makes sense to me that the Italian men and I didn’t vibe. In person, that is.

While I was in Naples my Couchsurfing inbox got flooded with messages from shirtless dudes in sunglasses asking me if I needed a place to stay. (“Um, no.”) But this was the extent of the Italian sleaze I experienced—an indirect, easily ignored, half-assed attempt.

Maybe that was the secret to the purported flirtations of Italian men: that it’s largely impersonal, having less to do with you and whether or not there’s any real potential for something to happen, and more to do with, I dunno, not having anything else better to do? Hitting on someone just for the sake of hitting on someone?…

Montenegro

If ever a girl was thinking of a place to take advantage of men, Montenegro would be the place to do it. I had more offers for rides, tour guides, free drinks, places to stay, etc than anywhere else I’ve been.

But the curious thing was a) all the attention was from middle-aged men, no guys my own age, and b) they somehow managed to stay just on the right side of appropriate and respectful. I never felt violated or threatened by any of the Montenegrin men; it all just came across as really, really nice.

I was of course only getting the attention because I’m a pretty young(ish) American girl traveling alone. Montenegro is really trying to woo Western tourists, and I think I was something of an anomaly; there weren’t many Americans, weren’t many backpackers, weren’t many women alone. I think I was on the one hand intriguing for this reason; I think Montenegrins in general also really want tourists to feel welcome, want to take care of them. I must have sparked all the paternal instincts of the middle-aged men there. But somehow not in a demeaning way. Most curious.

Albania

At a certain point one night, it got ridiculous. I had to put on my sweater and get the hell off the dance floor.

It was like moths to a lightbulb. I have never received more male attention from males I actually wanted attention from than in Tirana. It was dangerous.

Albanians my age, it seems, really want to be Western. They’ve lived most of their lives in post-Communist Albania, but still relatively isolated from the rest of Europe. They’re ready, it seems, to be a part of the rest of the world.

For most kids, this striving seems to take the form of mainstream culture, the Top-40 kind. Stylistically, Tirana is filled with tons of extremely beautiful nouveau riche girls, who could, at first glance, blend in on Parisian sidewalks. You look a little closer and you realize that they don’t quite have it right yet; they wear a little too much make-up, their clothes not quite expensive enough.

But the point is, they’re trying really really hard. They have the posture, the poise, the carefully cultivated look of class in the arch of their fingers as they lean back and drag their cigarettes. They also don’t seem like a whole lot of fun—a little snobby, to be honest.

So I stood out, and not just for being foreign. There weren’t any other girls in Tirana like me, in sneakers and a band shirt, with short hair and tattoos. I’m a dime-a-dozen in the Bay Area, but in Tirana, I was the only act in town. And every single rock n roll dude, it seemed, was eying me. Or talking to me. Or offering me drinks or asking me out or wanting to dance with me.

Big-fish-in-a-little-pond syndrome. I’d never experienced it. After the initial rush of validation, though, it felt funny. It didn’t seem real and, in a way, it wasn’t.

It was like Genti’s indie rock band. An Albanian turned Brighton boy, Genti was just another dude in a band in England. But in Albania, he was becoming a big deal, selling a ton of albums and appearing on Albanian TV. It would have been easy, he told me, to really make it there. “But, I dunno,” he yelled over the barroom clatter, “do I really want to be the guy who was ‘really big in Albania’?”

I paused, and asked myself the same question. I was pretty damn sure that if all these rocker dudes were suddenly delivered into the Bay Area, they wouldn’t be tripping off me so much. I wanted to tell them, to put my hand gently on their shoulders and let them know, “Honey, there’s a big world out there, and it’s filled with a fuckton of cuter girls with more tattoos than me.”

But they’d have had to take my word for it. Cause it’s so damn hard for an Albanian to get a tourist visa, or to afford to travel anywhere where rock n roll girls live, places steeped in privilege.

So I did all I could do, which was to shake my head and laugh.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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