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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.

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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.

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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.

My blog has been delayed by some technology issues here in Anacapri, a small price to pay for the privilege of spending three days in such a remote area of an island that boasts some of the most heart-stopping vistas I’ve ever seen.  Where does the sea end and the sky begin? I find myself wondering.  Along with:  I never knew what blue was till now.  Because in Capri, you are forced to redefine the color.

Getting here, however, had its challenges.

My flight from New York to Rome went smoother than you can possibly hope for or expect in 2010, making my $800 ticket seem a bargain (we’ll see what happens on the flight home!).  But following eight plus hours in the air, never sleeping a single minute of it, I felt a bit over-stimulated navigating my way through the train station at Fiumicino with my luggage, onto the jam-packed train, and into Termini Station.  The train to Termini left 15 minutes late, the Eurostar from Termini to Naples half an hour late.  Then, Naples.

Half an hour there may have given me a bad first impression, but the chaos, the filth, the squalor, the angry people.  There was the cab driver who had me follow him quite a long way to his car from the station, without offering any help with my bags, and took off like a sprinter.  He then had me sit in the front seat with him and as soon as we were underway, he stopped for gas, during which he started a fight with the station attendant, gesturing in that mildly violent way I’ve always thought of as an Italian stereotype.

When we had reached my destination—the Molo Beverello port—and I could pry my fingers from the dashboard (I thought driving in Manila was bad!), he now told me the fare was 25 euros as opposed to the 20 he quoted me at the train station.  “Big traffic,” he said, which was the same thing he said to explain the initial fare of 20 euros.  I feel like a sucker now for actually giving him 23, especially after I realized he had dropped me off several blocks from the port!  Let’s just say that the hunched over beggars tugging on my jacket, the cars and motorcycles trying to run me down, the litter in the streets didn’t give me the best impression.

Nor did the ticket office, where two men outside watched conspicuously as I struggled to navigate my suitcase through the closely spaced blocks of concrete, but never offered to help.  The ticket man was gruff, seemingly annoyed that I asked him which of the several docked boats was the one to Capri.

My smiles and buon giornos were not working their usual charm!  Maybe if I’d been less tired…?

But I did make it to Capri, and an extremely friendly taxi driver and possibly the best driver in the world maneuvered up and around the cliffs to Anacapri on the far western side of Capri.  Hairpin curves, narrow roads that at home would have to be one-way but were two-way here, the dizzying heights, the striking blueness of the sea below—way below—no better word to describe it than WOW.

And then, after 18 hours of traveling and more than 24 hours since I’d last slept, I arrived at Hotel Al Mulino, run by a delightful mother-daughter team:  Antoinetta and Simona.  Apparently I am the first guest of the season!  Antoinetta welcomed me with a hug and wishes for a buon cumpleano.  I’d forgotten it was my birthday.  She presented me with a bouquet of flowers and in my room, too, there was a bottle of red wine (which I’m drinking right now) from Ken.  (Miss you, Ken!)

Benevenuto Capri.  Happy birthday to me.

What a thrill it once was to go to the airport!  When I was a child, JFK was a destination in and of itself–its hordes of luggage-laden travelers dressed for every season on the planet, conversing in myriad languages, gesticulating according to their customs.  Women in silk saris, men in designer suits, backpackers in jeans and t-shirts…here, the world was represented in all its fascinating diversity.

There was a glamor to the idea of flying on an airplane.  We checked our luggage with a skycap at the curb, we bought snacks and magazines at the newsstand by the gate, we boarded ontime and settled into our seats, excited for the trip, but also for the experience of takeoff, flying 35,000 feet above our home and landing, miraculously, in a place perhaps very different from the one we’d woken up in that morning.

The stewardesses (not yet flight attendants) smiled at everyone and gave us children coloring books.  They brought food–for free!-which wasn’t very tasty, yet was anything cooler than eating a hot chicken parmigiana meal while flying high above earth in an enormous metal bird?

Now, an hour before the car picks me up to take me to JFK, as excited as I am for my trip, I am dreading running the airport gauntlet.  Will my suitcase come in under the weight limit?  Will I breeze through the security line after removing my shoes from my feet, my belt from my waist, my laptop from its case?  Will they find it in their hearts to let me carry on a laptop, a Timbuktu bag and a purse?  And the biggie:  will the plane be on time?

I am due to arrive in Rome at 7:25 a.m. (Rome time).  From the airport, I will take a taxi to Termini Station, from which I will travel on Eurostar to Naples.  In Naples, I will cab it from the train station to the port, where I will board a hydrofoil to Capri.  From there, a ride (haven’t nailed this down yet) to the other side of the island–to Anacapri–and I will have finally reached my first destination.

There are a bunch of legs involved here, and I’m travelling alone this time, so I admit to being slightly nervous while assuming things will go smoothly.

Next time you check in here, I’ll be in Anacapri (18th), celebrating my birthday.  Ciao for now!

I admit it:  I’m a big planner.  Generally my detail orientation and organizational prowess are quite handy, even desired skills, and yet I’ve learned–both in planning my life and in planning trips–that sometimes you need to let go.  It’s not necessary to plan every single moment of your day.  While this may seem obvious to you, for those of you reading this who are just like me, you know what a revelation this is.

When I’m travelling, though, I am far more relaxed than I am at home and have always had an easier time giving myself up to the moment.  Yes, I do my destination research beforehand, and I do purchase the museum tickets and make a reservation or two before leaving home, but I also allow for flexibility and even whole chunks of free time.

And this is where Serendipity often seizes its opportunity.

One particular instance comes to mind.  Two years ago, on a trip to Florence, Italy, I was on a mission to buy leather boots.  As my partner, Ken, supported me in this effort, pointing out potential shops, we came upon a gelateria and decided to take a break and indulge ourselves for the second time that day.  We sat on the stone steps of (what else?) a cathedral while eating our cups of pistacchio and melone decadence when Ken nudged me and directed my attention toward an especially fine specimen of Italian manhood.  (It should be noted that Ken is very secure in our relationship!)

Aurelio looked to be George Clooney’s taller, better looking, younger brother.  Seductively slumped against a Vespa, smoking a cigarette as if he were whispering sweet nothings into its ear, wearing a blue sweater that was only almost as blue as the inviting sky of his eyes (I could tell even from a distance, so piercing were they!).

I licked my gelato.

(About now, you’re thinking, but what does this have to do with serendipity.  Be patient!)

Aurelio flicked his cigarette away and entered the leather shop he’d been loitering outside.  We finished our gelato and I said, “Maybe they have boots.”

No boots, but jackets, bags, and other objets d’leather and nothing, really, that I wanted to buy or could afford.  While I browsed, Ken struck up a conversation with Aurelio and we wound up chatting with him for about 45 minutes.  We even took his picture!

Aurelio and Me

When we were finally ready to leave, I had one last question for Aurelio.  Where does he eat in Florence?  Because we had been trying to find a restaurant frequented by locals, not tourists–not the easiest of undertakings in a city like Florence.

While he demured that he rarely eats out because his wife (drat!) is such an exemplary cook, he did give us a suggestion.  Not only did he provide us the name, but he drew us a map from our hotel to the restaurant and even told us what to order.

We followed his instructions and ordered what he told us (a good thing, since the menu had no English and our waiter wasn’t exactly bilingual) and it was hands-down the best meal we had in Florence, if not on our entire trip in Italy.

More than two years later, at the mere mention of the phrase bistecca fiorentina, I can taste the garlic and lemon and olive oil sizzling on my tongue, and everything about that magical night in Florence comes flooding back:  the warmth of the late September evening, the strings of lights dancing in the breeze, the desolate cobblestone street we strolled down, my shoes in my hand, the moon our only eyewitness.

For such Proustian memories as these can we thank Serendipity.

Pictures by QT Luong

One week from now, I’ll be leaving for a two-week sojourn in Italy, traveling first to Anacapri, then to the ankle area of “the boot,” otherwise known as the Amalfi Coast–specifically Positano, and wrapping up with a few precious days in Rome.

The occasion?  A week-long writers conference in Positano (I’m a fiction writer, currently working on a novel – www.judepolotan.com ).  And if you’re already going to the expense of traveling to Italy, you may as well make the most of it, right?

While I have always been big on anticipation, perhaps because I have been particularly over-committed as of late, this trip has sneaked up on me.  But sneaked up on me it did this past weekend, and as always, I am filled with this sense of I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-[insert destination]-it-seems-unreal! 

It may seem unreal, but I can’t wait.  When I should be working on my novel or paying my bills, instead I’m surfing the Internet for information on hiking in Capri or the perfect off-the-beaten-path restaurant in Rome.  I’m making lists of what to do (get euros! call credit card companies!) and of what to bring (adapter, travel journal, walking shoes for cobblestone).  I’m reading a guidebook and travel literature about Italy (Pagan Holiday by Tony Perrottet).  I’m reliving my last trip to Rome by poring over old photographs.

I wake up excited each morning now, counting down the days in my head.  The days leading up to a trip are more hectic, but also happier than other days.  Like Christmastime when you were a kid, but the “gifts” are better!

I’m reminded of an Australian woman for whom I once worked.  She’d travelled to virtually every country in the world.  Everytime she was going on a trip–Kenya, Morrocco, Vietnam, Tibet–I was beside myself with envy.  (Paradoxically, she afforded her employees little vacation time.)  I thought I could at least live vicariously through her anticipation and I would arrive at the office in the mornings and say to her, “Are you getting excited?”  But she never really was.  She was looking forward to the trip perhaps, but her attitude was blase, world weary.  I was disappointed, but I also felt sorry for her.

My profound hope is that, no matter how much I travel, the jittery anticipation I feel before taking off for a distant land never leaves me.  Anticipation is an integral part of the fun, a part I truly savor.

Oldies but Goodies

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