Of all the many, many things I love about Paris (my name is Jude and I have been a Francophile since I was four years old and succumbed to the charms of Pepe Le Pew), the French cuisine certainly ranks at the top.

As soon as I’m off the plane at Charles de Gaulle, my mouth begins to salivate with the thought of escargots swimming in garlic butter, rich foie gras spread on toast points, a bowl of moules sitting companionably beside a cone of pommes frites.  Not to mention the cheeses, the wines, the pastries!

I’ve had some stellar meals in Paris over the years in some pretty spectacular settings, but by far the best was the New Year’s Eve dinner Ken and I shared at our tiny Left Bank hotel.  And when I say at our hotel, I don’t mean in the restaurant, but in our room.  And when I say in our room, I don’t mean room service.

We were in Paris on New Year’s Eve to celebrate not only the new year, but our 10th anniversary.  We had tickets for a jazz club, but had made no dinner reservations since we figured that, like back home in New York, dinner at a nice restaurant on New Year’s Eve was less nice than on another night, not to mention much more expensive.

Instead we decided to make a little French picnic on our hotel bed.  So I made a foray out into the streets of the 6th arrondissement where we were staying, hitting up the boulangerie for a baguette,the fromagerie for fresh buttons of chevre and a chunk of brie, the epicerie for an intriguing egg-aspic-smoked salmon concoction and foie gras and bottles of Badoit, the patisserie for heavenly mini eclairs filled with vanille, chocolat and cafe.  Last stop, the wine shop for  a split of champagne.

The delight in shopping like this–as if I were a Parisian!  

Back at the hotel, Ken and I spread all the food out on the bedspread and sat cross-legged with our feast between us.  No fancy restaurant meal could have made us happier.  We were already having the best New Year’s Eve of our lives.

In the “new economy,” a new word has been coined:  staycation.

First coming into use as oil prices soared, causing airfare and then even a tank of gas too much to bear for a getaway, the concept of taking a vacation at home has lingered and taken hold as unemployment has risen.  Whether you’ve found yourself out of a job or you’re afraid of losing the one you’ve got, people have been cutting back on discretionary spending.

While I might posit arguments about why traveling remains necessary–perhaps more necessary than ever–and doesn’t belong lumped into the same category as “entertainment spending,” the reality is that for most people travel is one of the first things scratched from the list when disposable income becomes minimal or nill.

I’ve been there, and I understand.  Which got me to thinking…

If you’re like me, when you travel–especially internationally–you relax your usual spending rules.  At home, you might never consider spending a couple of hundred dollars for a dinner, or $150+ each on tickets to a concert, or $25 for the use of a chaise lounge on a beach.  And yet, find yourself in Paris or Venice or Sydney and you can rationalize almost any expense.  You turn to your companion and shrug.  You say, “How many years before I’m back here?   For all I know, I may never be back!”

And so you shell out the cash, you hand over your credit card.  And do you wish you’d done otherwise when you come home and open up the bill?  If you’re like me, no, never.  (Actually, my travel partner and I have a rule about this:  no regrets.)

You ask, what does this have to do with the staycation?  The point is that while we are often willing to splurge and even pay more than we feel justified while traveling abroad, at home we tend to be more frugal.

I am fortunate enough to live in New York, a city people from all over the world flock to for its cultural riches.  These tourists eat at the finest restaurants, shop the designer shops along Fifth and Madison Avenues, patronize Broadway and Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. 

How often do I eat and shop and patronize these same places, some of which make my city what it is?  Rarely.  Because they are expensive and I complain I can’t afford them. 

Sounds like I could use a staycation!  A staycation doesn’t need to mean staying home and tacking household projects.  A staycation can give you permission to see your city or town through a tourist’s eyes.  If you’re not paying for the airfare, the transport to and from airports, the hotel, just imagine how far your vacation dollars can go!

The trick , though, is to take yourself out of the feeling of “home” as much as possible.  Leave your cell phone or PDA at home and don’t listen to phone messages or check your email.  Pretend you are out of town, inaccessible.  To take it a step further, chances are you can find a deal on a local hotel and sleep elsewhere–ordering room service and having a maid clean up after you.

Then, all those things you’ve always wanted to do but considered too expensive:  that haute cuisine restaurant?  that award-winning play? that chi-chi jazz club?  Do it all!  And don’t forget the tourist attractions.  You’d be surprised how many New Yorkers have never been to the top of the Empire State Building or to the Statue of Liberty.  A staycation is the excuse you’ve been waiting for.

As much as possible, experience your city or hometown as a tourist.  Be open to the idea that you don’t know it as well as you thought you did and try to see it with fresh eyes.  I can almost guarantee you will not be disappointed.

As a native New Yorker, I have a love-hate relationship with my city.  On a day-to-day basis, the relentless over-stimulation and stress and crowds and absurd cost-of-living can become overwhelming, and yet there are times when I become ultra-aware of my luck in being born here.  Sitting on the Great Lawn of Central Park listening to the Philharmonic (for free!) on a balmy summer night, feasting on hot, garlicky escargot at Balthazar on a cold January night, watching a steamy foreign film in the balcony at the retro Paris Theater or wiling away an afternoon gazing at the photographs at the International Center of Photography…while wrapped up in such moments, a feeling similar to what I experience traveling abroad settles over me.  I am not far away and yet I am transported.

After all, more than anything, travel is a state of mind.

Ten years ago, I watched a Japanese film called After Life http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1605697817/ , the idea of which has forever stayed with me.

In the movie, the recently departed are told to pick the one memory from their life that they will take into eternity.  Given the critical nature of the decision, counselors are on hand to help them choose.  After all, this memory will be recreated and filmed and they will watch this single scene replayed over and over and over again.

In the decade since I saw After Life, I have often thought about what memory I would select, and I have rarely narrowed it down to less than two or three.  Like a menu at a good seafood restaurant, it feels unfair to choose just one.  King crab legs or lobster?  Steamed or stuffed with crabmeat?  That said, most of my finalists come from–where else?— my travels.

There are worse ways to spend eternity than remembering the gentle rocking of the gondola in Venice–Ken beside me, our hands clasped together, staring up at laundry blowing in the wind, at the sky beyond it!  Our gondolier had steered us into a passageway so utterly quiet, we held our breath lest we disturb the silence.  The single sound:  the sensual lapping of the lagoon’s water against the side of the boat.  The beauty, the serenity of that moment defies any words I could slap down here.

Or I might choose the afternoon I spent at the Musee Rodin in Paris on my first trip to the city, my first ever to Europe.  It had been unseasonably cold for May, the sun a stranger, but on that afternoon all was forgiven.  In the shadow of The Thinker, of the Burghers of Calais, the sun reached out, asking forgiveness by warming my shoulders and pinking my nose.  Fortified with fromages and vin rouge from the outdoor cafeteria, I stretched out on Rodin’s manicured lawn among the entwined lovers and I thought, la vie est belle.

If I were going for transcendental, it would have to be a particular pre-dawn morning in the Galapagos Islands.  Five a.m., without benefit of coffee, I clutched the railing at the bow of the ship, scanning the ocean for signs of whales.  (If whales were to be spotted on this trip, this would be the place.)   I was bleary-eyed, having stayed up too late drinking rum with the naturalists, but still I couldn’t fail to appreciate the scene before me. 

We were approaching the next island on our itinerary, sailing toward a volcano, the giant sun rising from behind it.  As if that weren’t spectacular enough, seemingly out of nowhere, a school of dolphins materialized in front of the ship, swimming as if they were pulling our chariot.  We early risers, we hopeful whale-spotters gasped as one.  There were dozens of them, their slick silver backs arcing in and out of the water with a grace and synchronicity I’d never before seen.

There was something not just magical, but mythological about the whole scene.  I’m a city girl, born and bred in the urban jungle.  I’d seen dolphins before, but only on TV (Flipper) and at water theme parks.  All these years later, there is still no way to articulate the floaty sensation I felt in my heart in those moments–suffice it to say, I was mesmerized.

I like to think my afterlife is still quite a ways off, so I don’t feel too much pressure to choose yet, though the longer I live and the more I travel, the choice will only grow more complicated.  For now, I test-drive these memories in the less eternal space of meditation.

I’m lousy at meditation, by the way–I can never quite free my mind up enough to achieve a “quiet mind”–yet on a day like today, when New York is chilly and dreary, when all I’ve heard today has been disappointing, I try my best.

 I close my eyes and summon up a memory from any of the dozens of trips I’ve made.  I bring it all back, reconstruct the details:  the smell of the Mediterranean Sea or of the damas de la noche or of the garlic in my moules et frites; the nighttime lull of waves caressing the shore in Positano or of the church bells ringing in Quito or of the blast of the ferry horn in Sydney Harbor; the burn of the silverware on a sunny day at the cafe in Nice or of the rain-clotted sand crumbly between my toes while slow dancing with Ken in Boracay; the velvet of foie gras in Paris, the delightful kick of cacio e pepe in Rome, the sweetness of olives on the Amalfi Coast.

Fortunately, in the here and now, we have no limit to our database of memories.  We can shake them out and prance them around at will.  Though why is it, I wonder, that so many of my most significant memories emanate from my travels?

I think it’s because, taken out of our usual surroundings, experiencing the new and different, we become more ourselves.  If, as I believe, home is in our hearts, travel does not take us farther from home, but rather brings us closer.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to travel as much as possible, collect as many prospective memories as possible before I meet up with the After Life counselor.

And I’m interested–what is your best travel memory?

The thing about coming home from an exhilarating trip is, you soar high on those newly minted memories for a few weeks and then–nothing you can do to avoid it–real life brings you crashing right back down to earth.  And it hurts.

That’s real life’s responsibility, though, and thank goodness for it.  Because if we didn’t have the job to drag ourselves out of bed for, the rent money to earn, the skillet to scrub and the gym clothes to wash; if not for the shopping for chicken cutlets and fresh thyme, the chopping and grilling, the PTA meetings and the doctor’s appointments, how could we ever truly appreciate the time away from it all?  Just as Friday would lose its allure without Monday, so would leisure travel without our quotidian drudgery.

It’s been four weeks now since I returned from my Italian extravaganza (fairly well chronicled in this blog) and despite my best efforts to resist it, I am once more knee-deep in the wet, clinging goo of real life.  I’ve had some paying work recently, but I need more.  I need to pay my bills.  I need to go to the dentist for an exam.  My stepson is coming for a visit and I need to plan meals.  I need to have a talk with my dry cleaner.  I need to get back on track with my workout regimen, as well as with my pre-Italy eating habits.  There are spring clothes to pull out of storage.  There are neglected friends to see.  There is my novel to be worked on, finished—always there is my novel.

(I exaggerate, of course, when I call it all drudgery.  I enjoy many of those things I listed above, but even the fun activities can get to feel like something to check off your to-do list when life is at its busiest.)

All of which helps to explain why, as soon as I’m home, I start to think about—and resources permitting, even start to plan—the next trip.  There’s something to the anticipation that keeps me motivated through the day-to-day, even if that next sojourn is a year away (hopefully not).

So as you read this, I am pondering, fantasizing, weighing a world of options.  Volunteer in an elephant park in Thailand?  Rent a house in Provence for a month?  Roam the bazaars of Fez and ride a camel under the Saharan sun in Morocco?  Experience duende while seeking out authentic flamenco in southern Spain?  Take that trip with Ken back to his native home, the Philippines, but this time explore the provinces?  There’s the rain forest in Costa Rica, the undiscovered beaches in Mexico, the veldt in Africa.  And if we don’t get to The Maldives soon, they’ll be under water!

 The possibilities dribble off my lips in an endless drool, and those are only the places I haven’t yet been.  With only one or two exceptions, I’d also like to return to those destinations I’ve fallen in love with over the years—Paris and Venice and the Amalfi Coast, especially.  (It’s not possible to grow tired of Paris, I don’t think.)

With only so much time, only so much money, the array of choices poses quite a dilemma—but oh, what a delightful dilemma to have!  In my free time (that is, when I’m supposed to be working on my novel), I look up flights to Thailand, check the real estate listings in the South of France, compare tour operators for safaris—just to see.  It gets me through my days, my weeks—that wonderful, painful, wistful yearning time between trips.

It makes me shudder to realize that Ken and I are closer to fifty now than we are to forty, but it means the impetus to travel grows more urgent by the moment.  We are healthy and fit and young for our age (or so we like to think), and now is the time to go.  The only question remains, how to decide, and nothing thrills me more than researching and contemplating that answer.

Here’s a short memoir piece I wrote recently, on a trip I took to the Philippines with Ken when we’d been together only a year.


Barely seven in the morning, the Victory Liner bus jolts to a stop and the child-sized driver announces in an accent I can barely make out, “Five minutes!”

Ken wakes and shifts in his seat.  He laughs at the sight of me huddled beneath clothes I retrieved from our bag and have draped around my shoulders and over my legs.  In the Philippines, they like their air conditioning set at meat locker.

“Stay here,” he says.  “I’m going to use the bathroom.”

I nod, teeth chattering.

We’ve been underway two hours, having boarded the bus before dawn.  In an attempt to distract me from both the early hour and the artificially induced cold, Ken had bought us a bag of macapuno donuts.  Imagine a Bavarian cream, but replace the sickly yellow custard with a naturally sweet, velvety glob of young coconut.  “Nice try,” I teased, wiping a blot of the gooey elixir from my chin, but he knew I was looking forward to this trip almost as much as he was.

Baguio was the place where in his childhood Ken had escaped the brutal summers of Manila.  In the highlands several hours north of the capital, Baguio got cool enough to grow strawberries.  Ken was excited to visit again—it had been many years—and I was thrilled we’d finally have some time alone.

Coming from a small family, the vastness of Ken’s clan overwhelmed me.  In one week I’d already met dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins and there hadn’t been a day yet when we weren’t setting off to another relative’s house for a reunion.

His parents pronounced us crazy to undertake this trip.  For days the newspaper had carried nothing but sensational headlines and incomprehensible pictures of submerged villages and landslides due to the monsoon rains.  Ken’s mother wondered aloud why we had this death wish.

On the bus, as a couple, we attracted a lot of attention.  Just as in the Manila traffic, where young men in the backs of jeepneys stared and pointed, here, too, we were conspicuous.  I wanted to believe this was because there weren’t many white people in the Philippines at the time—in addition to it being the rainy season, the U.S. State Department had issued a travelers alert due to the recent kidnappings by a local terrorist cell—but I knew it was more because they were unaccustomed to seeing a Filipino man with a white woman.  Back home in New York, I didn’t think of us as an interracial couple; since arriving here, I was reminded at every turn.  Of course, plenty of Filipinas were with white men, but that was different.

The moment Ken is off the bus at the rest stop, several barefooted peasants jump aboard.  They wave newspapers and rice cakes and long sticks of barbecued chicken and pork.  The fatty aroma of grilled meat floods the bus and a smell that would make me salivate at noon makes me want to puke now.  I check my watch again.  Yes, just seven a.m.  The macapuno roils in my stomach.

Because I’m a foreigner, the only one on the bus, because I am white, I’m singled out.  A man with a ragged t-shirt, leathered brown skin and precious few teeth tilts toward me, dangling the pork beneath my nose.  He barks at me in dialect while I try to affect a smile that balances kindness with a clear message:  go away.  The other passengers watch, rapt.

Then suddenly the hawkers are scurrying back down the aisle.  The bus driver is back in his seat.  The peasants jump off the bus, the driver pulls his lever, shuts the door.

I shoot up in my seat and press my face to the fogged window, peering desperately through the torrents of rain for Ken.  Surely we won’t leave before all the passengers have returned?  I feel the bus jerk as it shifts into gear.  I’ve stopped breathing, though my heart is off at a gallop.  I strive to remain calm, quickly sifting through my options—the last thing I want is to come across as the hysterical American woman.  No one on the bus seems to speak English, so I rely on my eyes to implore my fellow passengers who must certainly remember I had a companion and he’s not back.  I imagine them intervening on the poor white woman’s behalf.  Somehow, though, those who earlier had been so acutely interested in me, in us, are now oblivious, nibbling on their BBQ pork, the fat glistening on their chins.

Finally, there’s nothing else to do.  I rise from my seat, start down the aisle toward the driver.  Wait!, I’ll shout, wait!, not knowing if he’ll understand me, but I’m angry now, I will make him understand me.

Just as I’m about to reach the front of the bus, though, here comes Ken running alongside, knocking amiably on the windows and then, as he catches up with us, on the door.  The driver opens up, Ken hops on.  No sigh of relief, not a wrinkle of concern creasing his forehead.

He holds out a skewer of BBQ pork.  “Want some?” he says.

You work out five days a week, you do a fair job in the nutrition department–you consider yourself to be in good shape.  That is, until you find yourself at a writers conference in Positano, Italy, and one of your fellow fiction writers (yes, I’m talking about you, Cindy Martin!) casually mentions she and some others will be walking up to the hamlet of Montepertuso for lunch.  Would I like to come along?  There’s a terrific restaurant up there.  Well, yes I would, thank you very much!

And my new friend, Holly, you come, too!

As soon as our workshops broke at 12:30 then, off we went.  Cindy and her husband, Cal, led the way for the half dozen plus of us who came along that day.  They’d been to the conference before and had done this hike several times then, and they had done it the day before as well.  How tough could it be?

Montepertuso sits 1,137 feet above the Mediterranean, a fact I only learned after I was home and googled it, but even now the height doesn’t seem very daunting.  High enough to afford spectacular views, but don’t I sometimes climb 2,000 feet on the treadmill at my gym back in New York?  Well, bless that treadmill and its smooth rubber belt, its rhythmic pace, its predictability

Because it wasn’t the steepness of the climb as much as it was that instead of hilly pathways leading up, we found ourselves faced with ancient stone steps.  (I emphasize ancient, because they are much higher than modern steps and therefore far more taxing.  They are also more irregular.) 

Fifteen hundred steps.  A couple hundred less, incidentally, than the more famous 1700 steps that lead from Positano to Nocelle.

Ten minutes in, I used the excuse of a photo opp to collapse against a wall and let my lungs do their work.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so out of breath.   How much longer, I inquired of Cindy and Cal, those show-offs at the front of the pack.  I was going for a breezy tone, but instead I was wheezy.  Cal threw me a smile over his shoulder and laughed, brushing my question off as if it were merely rhetorical.

Holly came over to lean against the wall with me, shooting  me a look I read as, what did you get us into here?  I liked Holly.  I hoped she wouldn’t hold this all against me.

Yet, though I would barely have thought it possible, the view as we ascended was even more stunning than it was down at our hotel.  The sun danced on the sea and dazzled the multicolored jumble of houses on the mountain opposite.  We were surrounded by citrus trees, lemon and orange, and in the narrow stone lanes, soccer shirts and jeans and sheets hanging on laundry lines frolicked in the refreshing pre-spring breeze.

We took our pictures, we caught out breath, we were ready again.  This wasn’t so bad.  Really it wasn’t.  

Not five minutes later and already my breath had deserted me again.  I couldn’t afford any more conversation if I was going to make it to the top.  We were all new acquaintances, anxious to get to know one another, but that would have to wait.  I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone when I was dead.

Up, up, up. 

Presumably, if you climbed without stopping it would take about half an hour to reach the top.  We set foot in Montepertuso about 45 minutes after we began.  But we made it.  My clothes might have been soaked through with my exertions, my hair might be dripping down my neck, but we had reached our destination and in just a few steps we’d reach the restaurant where we’d cancel out everything we’d just accomplished with a feast, Italian style.

Holly and I attempted as best we could to take a shower in the bathoom sink and when we went out to the dining room, the smiling Paolo welcomed us with a glass of Prosecco.  Now this was my kind of place!

Il Ritrovo (www.iltritrovo.com), which means the meeting place, is special.  I’d be lucky enough to eat here twice during my time in the area (yes, I undertook the hike a second time).

Because we were a large group, Paolo suggested he bring us large platters of antipasti, followed by a variety of homemade pastas.  First there were plates of fresh seafood–marinated anchovies, shrimp, mussels, icefish (that was a new one for me)–and charcuterie–prosciutto, speck, salami.  There were grilled vegetables and there were cheeses.  Pastas included a linguine with fresh mussels, a pasta with a simple but divine cherry tomato sauce and, the hands-down favorite, a thick tube pasta with a cream sauce of provolone and walnuts.  And all the while, the wine flowed as freely as the conversation.

Afterward there were cookies and biscuits and tiny cakes along with not only the ubiquitous Limoncello but homemade liquers made of blueberry and apricot. 

We didn’t want to leave–ever!–and not just because we were thinking of the long walk back down to Positano  (a walk that would seem easier, but just have a little heart-to-heart with your knees and see what they think).

Just outside the restaurant, near the railing overlooking the sea more than a thousand feet below, we gathered together so Paolo could snap our picture.  I will treasure this photograph always, not only for the memory of that hike, of that meal, but because it contains the smiling faces of some of the new friends I made on my trip–new friends who I hope to be calling old friends years down the road.

I see it in my mind.  Five or ten years from now, at one of our book signings. 

“Cindy,” I say (or Holly or Allison or Claire or Gail or Greg or or or), “remember that climb to Montepertuso?”

And Holly will laugh and say, “Yes, I remember how you almost fell off the mountain on the way down!” 

“That was funny,” I’ll say, probably with tears in my eyes, because I’m sappy that way.

Giordano Bruno, Campo di' Fiore

Poor Giordano Bruno.  Ten years before Galileo would take the same stance, this former Dominican friar had the temerity to assert that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe, earning him a spot front and center in Rome’s Campo di’ Fiore, where he was burned at the stake.

Four hundred years plus one decade later, I wait in the shadow of his imposing monument at day’s end, watching an army of street sweeping machines whoosh around the piazza seemingly willy-nilly to clean up after the day’s busy fruit and vegetable market.  A fragrant cloud of squashed flowers, pulverized tomatoes and bruised basil fills my nostrils while tourists study the menu boards of cafes lining the piazza and locals lounge at outdoor tables smoking and drinking wine in juice glasses.

The Saturday night before Palm Sunday in Rome, Holy Week upon us, and the city is more clogged than ever with tourists.  Arriving late this afternoon, I’d navigated my way through the throngs in Piazza Navona, spying no less than half a dozen large tour groups, their guide waving high above his head the polka dot umbrella or the giant yellow daisy or the stick with a bright green ribbon tied to it.  The clients, American and Japanese mostly, followed along like obedient puppies.  I’ve always fantasized about how much more enjoyable Rome would be were its streets not jammed with these packs of knee-socked, camera-toting, menu turistico-seeking people from elsewhere.  Where were the real Romans?  Caught behind one of these gaggles of tourists, no doubt.

And yet, though traditionally I have not been a proponent of guided tours, preferring rather to do my own research and make my own discoveries, on a previous trip to Rome, my companion and I were solicited on the endless queue outside the Vatican Museums and were persuaded to join a small group tour.  If I’m honest, we were lured primarily by the promise of being able to sip coffee in a café while our guide waited on the two-hour line for us, but the real sweetness of the deal turned out to be the astonishingly knowledgeable guide himself, a friendly South African with a Ph.D. in art history, who spewed out nuggets of priceless and juicy information that resulted in a far richer experience than we could ever have had on our own.  Given that successful foray then, with caution, I amended my position.  A carefully chosen tour with a truly knowledgeable, personable guide can lend an extra dimension.

It was this enlightened outlook that had provoked me to sign up this trip for a three-hour tour with the clever name, “Rome by the Glass,” which promised the opportunity to “indulge your inner Bacchus” as a certified sommelier brought you to local, authentic enoteche and educated you on the regional wines of Italy.

Which brings me to be hanging out with the heretic Bruno under the afternoon’s waning sun.  It’s not quite six p.m. when Ettore finds me and informs me I’m his only client tonight, and without further ado, we set off in the direction of our first enoteca.  Ettore points out sights along the way—the Piazza Farnese, one of his favorite piazzas and one overlooked by tourists, the Holocaust memorial plaque and the Star of David on a red wall in the Jewish Ghetto, the captivating Fountain of the Turtles in the Piazza Mattei.  He walks fast, talks faster and, for the moment, all I can manage is a nod, a smile.  I feel shy, the only tourist on a group tour.

Enoteca Il Piccolo is tucked away in a small cobblestone street shooting off the Piazza Navona.  True to its name, the enoteca is tiny—a handful of wooden tables squeezed together in a rustic looking space, bottles of wine shelved along the walls from waist height to the ceiling.  There’s only one remaining table, the one closest to the bar, and I move some boxes of foodstuffs off the chair.  Along the short bar, an array of snacks beckons:  bite-sized pizzas, olives, bread, spinach wrapped in turkey, roast pork.  I collect a bit of everything on a small plate while Ettore engages in a very passionate conversation with the young man behind the bar, presumably ordering a couple of white wines to taste.  When he returns to the table, I raise my eyebrows and he understands.  “In Italy,” he says with a resigned shrug, “everything is a negotiation.”

Naturally our conversation at first centers around wine.  Ettore’s knowledge turns out to be quite vast and I get the distinct impression that as much information as he’s feeding me, it constitutes only a fraction of all he knows.  He tells me there are 450 varieties of grapes found throughout Italy.  He explains about color and perfume and acidity and legs.  Those are just the basics.

Our first taste is a Sauvignon from the Veneto region.  Ettore swirls the wine in the glass.  Note the barely yellow color, like straw.  Note how long the wine sticks to the side of the glass—not long, meaning low alcohol content.  Note the smell—slightly grassy.  This Sauvignon has been served fairly cold, allowing for more perfume while reducing acidity.  It’s a young wine, he says.  Less exposure to the sun, less heat, lend the wine its crispness.  At last we drink.  I hold the wine in my mouth a moment and close my eyes.  I’m not good at this, I feel silly, but the Sauvignon playing on my tongue reminds me of a gentle summer night, a slight breeze riffling my hair, and I think, this tour is turning out all right.

The second wine arrives and Ettore hasn’t finished emphasizing the importance of temperature, using Coca-Cola as an illustration of the relationship between temperature and acidity:  the warmer the Coca-Cola, the more acidic.  And since it takes three minutes to warm the wine by one degree Celsius, a good sommelier will serve the wine a degree or two colder than ideal knowing it will take a few minutes before the customer picks it up and drinks.  Well now, that clears it all up.

By now I’m thirsty and surely our Grecía Salentina has warmed sufficiently, so I pick up my glass.  “This is a more direct wine,” says Ettore, hailing from Compania Avellino, a region on the bottom of Italy’s heel.  He leads me through the steps:  inspecting first the more golden color, then swirling again to show how the legs stick to the glass longer, evidence of the higher alcohol content.  I swirl along with him and wait for the legs to drip back down.

As we drink, the legs of our conversation grow stickier.  The language of wine is so technical, I say to Ettore, commending him on his fluency in English, which prompts him to reveal his secret weapon:  an American wife, originally from San Diego.  He tells me the story of how they met a decade earlier, when he was selling sweet, peachy wine to undiscriminating tourists in Florence.  After getting married, they started their tour company together.  Then it’s my turn.  Learning that my partner’s son is 23, he shakes his head.  “In America,” he says, “he’s a man already, but in Italy he would barely be weaned.”  Ettore himself is an exception, of course, but he laments the immaturity of his male compatriots, noting that even though it is changing, when Italian men marry, most still expect their wives to do all the cleaning, cooking, shopping, child-rearing and handling of household finances.

Time for the next enoteca, and threading our way through the nighttime bustle of the city, we touch upon American politics, the depressed real estate prices in Puglia and his incomprehension about American fashion.  What Ettore can’t understand is why American kids wear their jeans hanging down off their butts.  In Italy, he points out, it’s the exact opposite—the tighter, the better.  “I’ve noticed,” I say, and we laugh like two old friends.

At La Vecchia Bottega del Vino in the Jewish Ghetto, Ettore orders us a plate of local charcuterie and another of cheeses.  While we nibble on prosciutto and speck, bresaola and mortadella, we sample the first of two reds, a Nero d’Avola from Sicily.  The heat of the sun comes into play here.  In most places, the days are warm, the nights cool, but in Sicily the nights are also warm—influencing the taste of the grape.

With the cheese plate comes the lustier Barbaresco, product of Piedmont.  The Barbaresco has the longest legs yet.  We swirl and sniff and sip while we shift now to the topic of children, and I’m surprised to learn that Italy has the second lowest birth rate (Spain is first) in the western world and that few Italian women have more than one child.  Ettore chalks it up to economics, but I wonder.  Whatever the reason, at this point, more Italians are dying every year than being born.  Considering the Catholic majority in the country and the proximity of the Vatican, this is a revelation to me.

Ettore and I are having a good time.  We could linger over this table all night, but his wife is waiting on him for dinner and, after all, this is a paid tour, not a night out with a friend—although the distinction is hardly clear.

By the time we part company, it’s almost 10 p.m., four hours since I stared up at Giordano Bruno.  Given his prominence, I imagine Bruno sees quite a lot of tour groups congregating at his feet.  I reflect on the Inquisition which sentenced the former friar to death back in 1600, when apparently no one had a very open mind.  I’m still skeptical about how many tours (and there are so many in Rome) give you a real feeling for the city, how many take you beyond the standard tourist pabulum, but after my enjoyable and educational night with Ettore, I’ll hold off on burning any tour guides at the stake.

On the afternoon of Palm Sunday in Rome, after enjoying a macchiato in the shadow of the Pantheon, I met up with a new friend from the writers’ conference from which I’d just come.  The sunshine was glorious, illuminating the white dome of a cathedral, glinting off Hadrian’s Elephant, toasting our cheeks and shoulders.  Church-goers ambled through the cobblestone streets holding olive branches aloft while tourists squinted at maps and caroused souvenir shops.

We could have easily whiled the day away in a cafe, talking and drinking and people-watching, while the sun showered us with its love, but we were on our way to the Galleria Borghese (www.galleriaborghese.it), which houses a majority of the art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a nephew of Pope Paul V.   Sciopione apparently had very good taste, having been an early patron of Bernini and a collector of works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Raphael and many others.

Gail and I started on the second floor, an accidental but serendipitous strategy since the museum entry is timed and everyone else began on the first floor–meaning that, for a while anyway, we had the galleries to ourselves.

One room of jaw-dropping paintings gave on to another and we went from one to the next to the next craning our necks at the elaborately frescoed ceilings, pointing at this painting by Titian and that painting by Raphael.  The Caravaggios were on loan to a special exhibition going on over at the Quirinale, but there was still gaping to be done over Jacopo Bassano’s The Last Supper and Domenichino’s Diana.

Domenichino's Diana (picture courtesy of Galleria Borghese website)

But the real oohing and aahing was still to come.  Already dizzy from the collection of paintings, we made our way down the spiral staircase to the ground floor where the sculpture rooms beckoned.

Mostly, the Borghese, like much of Rome, is all about Bernini, yet Canova’s white marble statue of Paolina Bonaparte reclining on a mattress is every bit as worthy.  I admit to knowing very little about art, and so I cannot speak to what makes art “good” or “bad,” but as a sentient human being, I was moved by the wrinkles in the mattress which looked like anything but stone, and by the utter tranquility of Paolina’s pose and facial expression.

That said, if it had been the case that the Borghese had room for only a few pieces of art, we would have been satisifed with three particular Berninis.  The fierce expression of determination on the face of Bernini’s David as he confronts Goliath compells you while the chiseled indentations of Pluto’s grip on his victim in The Rape of Proserpine takes your breath away.  To think that both of these masterpieces were finished before the sculptor was 25 years old is almost incomprehensible.

It was his Apollo and Daphne, though, that truly moved me. 

Apollo and Daphne, Bernini (picture courtesy of Galleria Borghese website)

Gail and I moved in slow, trancelike circles around this statue that depicts the virgin nymph Daphne turning into a laurel tree in order to escape Apollo.  There is bark where skin should be, her fingers and toes are morphing to twigs, leaves grow within her hair.  Her desperation is physical.  The facial expressions, the opposing textures of tree and human flesh–how this could have been fashioned out of a slab of rock is mind-boggling.  Again, my art education is dismal, but even I know a masterpiece when I see one.

I fantasized about curling up at Daphne’s feet, taking a nap and then waking up an hour later to gaze at her all over again, but it was time to go.  Gail and I took a final circle around, trying to take it all in, to etch it into our memories so we could recall it at any moment.

And to be doubly safe, we made a beeline for the gift shop and bought postcards.

**Thank you, Gail, for sharing this special time at the Borghese with me

Oh, I was once so independent, so footlose and fancy-free!  I wanted to go on a trip–say, Paris; say, the Galapagos–and if I had no travel companion, that wasn’t going to stop me.  On the contrary, the thought of striking it out on my own energized me.

I was younger then.  I was either single or in a relationship, but not a very serious one.  I am less young now and in a committed relationship, and the man I’m committed to happens to be an excellent travel companion.  Not everyone is lucky to travel well with their partner, but I’m one of those more fortunate. 

In the ten years we have been together, we’ve traveled hand-in-hand to spots around the U.S., but also to France, Italy, Australia and the Philippines.  Our shared memories of these adventures add another indelible dimension to our bond.

So when I was accepted into the Sirenland Writers Conference, which would take place in Positano, Italy, we had a bit of a dilemma. 

Ken took a stand.  As envious as he might be, he was convinced that he would be a distraction and he wanted more than anything for me to focus on writing and meeting new writer friends and getting everything out of the conference I could.

I understood his position and believed he was probably right.  I’ve been to writers conferences before–albeit not in such a glorious setting–and they are intense experiences.  I would miss him while there, but I’d be too busy to realize it most of the time.

My hesitation, though, came with the pre- and post-trips.  Given the cost of airfare and the fact that (uncharacteristically) I had the time, I decided I may as well tack on a couple of sidetrips:  three days in Capri beforehand, three days in Rome afterward.

It was in Capri where I realized that the thrill of traveling solo, for me, has shriveled up and died.

It was off-season in Capri, wonderfully quiet, and most of my time involved walking for miles along desolate paths and roads hugging a coastline that at every turn offered up a startling vista of sea and sky and rock and foliage more magnificent than the last.  In the face of such majesty, there is nothing to do but turn to the person at your side and whimper in stunned appreciation.

No one stood at my side this time, though.  And it wasn’t just anyone I missed now.  The bittersweet moment evoked an actual, physical pang in my chest.  That this beauty should not be shared–the disappointment shook me with the force of tragedy.  

So what I did was, I took pictures.  Dozens and dozens of them.  I would capture this, damnit, and I would email the photos to Ken and it would be like he had been there, sharing these moments with me. 

A camera is not an eye, though.  Nor is it a heart. 

That night, I sent two postcards home to Ken, two different views of gorgeous Capri.  I sent him a postcard every day of my trip–after Capri, there was Positano and then Rome.  In all these places, a dozen times a day, I set my eyes on a breathtaking landscape or ate an amazing meal or felt moved by the pealing of ancient church bells.  I didn’t have to write that I missed him.  He knew that already, as I knew he missed me.

I’d been proud once of what I considered my free spirit, my willingness to tackle whatever came my way all on my own.  I can still do that, but apparently I no longer want to.

On my recent trip to Anacapri, the western and quieter side of the Isle of Capri, I set out one morning for the infamous Grotta Azzurra.  I admit I knew little about the grotto, but since I’d heard of it, it must surely be worth seeing. 

The advantage of staying in Anacapri was that I could walk there rather than take a bus, taxi or boat from Marina Grande in Capri.  It was a long walk and it was off-season, which meant that I barely encountered another soul.  In fact, I came across more dogs than people.  There seem to be a lot of dogs on the island and many roam freely. 

The vistas along my walk were beyond stunning and I took my time, snapping photograph and after photograph, though knowing a camera could never see what my eyes could.

Almost an hour later, I reached the grotto and climbed down the steps to where I could get a rowboat to take me inside.  Most people were arriving on the boat from Marina Grande and they transferred directly from that boat to the smaller rowboats.  I was the only one who waited at the Anacapri stairs and it took a long time for me to coax a boatman over to me–perhaps because I was alone (i.e., less profitable).

Finally a man took mercy on me and helped me into the rocking boat.  The boatman introduced himself as Marco.  He then informed me the visit would cost 11 euros and if I liked his service…  He left the sentence unfinished, knowing I had received the message loud and clear.

Marco instructed me to lay down flat in the back of the boat as we approached the narrow opening of the grotto.   It reminded me of spelunking, when I had to squeeze through an opening called the birth canal.  (The spelunking adventure, though, had been free.)

Laying down his oars, reminding me again–down, flat–Marco tugged on chains attached to the sides of the cave and pulled us over the swell at the mouth of grotto and inside.  I was allowed to sit up now and when I did, for the first time in my life, I saw BLUE.  I didn’t know till then that I had never seen blue before.  That idea had been forming in my mind all along the coast-hugging road on my way to the grotto, but now I was utterly convinced.

The blue was otherworldly, a light coming from below and casting everything in an ethereal glow.  Water slapped against the sides of the boat while Marco began to sing something softly, unintelligibly–all of which might have been moving were it not negated by the giggling of Japanese tourists in three other boats in the cave, which magnified every sound.

Grotta Azzurra

And yet it was gorgeous.  Marco paddled us around in circles a few times and I took the obligatory pictures which, again, I knew would never begin to capture it.  The tour lasted five minutes, no more.  For just 11 euros.

My guide did not enlighten me on what made the water inside the cave so blue, what made it glow so.  Though I knew he spoke English, he barely said a word to me, and I gave him a couple of euros extra anyway.

I wanted to go over to the other side of the island, so he managed to get me on the boat with the big Japanese tour group going back to Marina Grande.  Another 11 euros.

Back at the hotel, the proprietess told me what made the water so blue (daylight enters through an opening below the grotto and is reflected up – http://www.capri.com/en/grotta-azzurra), and I wondered to myself why Marco didn’t tell me at least that much–to add to his “service.”  If I’m honest, I was a bit disgruntled.

Over dinner that night, thinking about my day, I debated with myself if the five-minute visit was worth all the money.  After all, I’d also hiked up to Villa Jovis, the spectacular ruins of the villa built by Emperor Augustus and last lived in by Tiberius. 

Villa Jovis

I spent an hour there and could have lingered longer were I not famished.  The entry fee was a mere 2 euros.

In the end, I decided the Grotta Azzurra was worthwhile in the way that the major attraction of any place usually is.  I may never get to Capri again, they know that, and that fact alone seems to warrant the hefty admission price.  There’s nothing new to be learned here–this is the case at virtually every famous attraction in the world.

A less generous traveler would label the grotto a tourist trap, but I’m not inclined to be so harsh.  Had I not visited its major attraction, I would have gone home feeling like I’d missed out–a worse feeling than being ripped off.  After all, Capri–like many places we visit–relies on tourism dollars and who am I to quibble?  I’m not rich, but I had traveled all the way from New York to this fairly remote place and complaining would have seemed terribly petty.

Satisfied, I poured another glass of wine from the carafe I’d ordered, a carafe, incidentally, that cost only 8 euros.

Oldies but Goodies

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