Category Archives: Italy 2011

From Prague to sunnier pastures, hills, or beaches…we needed some sun

Souvenirs for Men?

Maybe a set of house numbers? A personalized rubber stamp?

With our trip wrapping up, it’s time for the acquisition of a few souvenirs.  Gifts and souvenirs always stress me out, only because the variety of items offered are usually generic and impersonal making them destined for the dustbin shortly after handover.

Certainly this isn’t the case for all souvenirs.  The options for women seem to be endless, with necklaces, pendants, rings of every imaginable shape, size and color.  Soaps, chocolates, porcelain plates with some hand painted characters.  For a guy though, the options seem to be a bit more limited.  Even with Christmas coming up, the simple solution for a gift is to get a voucher to Home Depot and go buy some tools.  Men like tools, not fridge magnets.

Restrictions on souvenirs are certainly limited to what a guy might like, but more importantly small and light, non-perishable, and something that will arrive intact.  What might Dad like, or that brother-in-law?  Below is a short breakdown on a few of the male-oriented items we’ve encountered and struggled with the possibility of purchase.  For the guys you’re thinking specifically of, one of these suggestions may be spot on.

Aprons?  Likely a little suggestive, unless spending a lot of time in the kitchen already.  Maybe best suited for a guy that already has several aprons, and not the kind worn in the woodshop.  Rolling pins, spatulas and wooden spoons could also fall into this category.  They are all beautifully carved and finished pieces…but souvenir worthy?

If the budget allows for a fancy Zippo knock-off, this might work. Does he smoke though?

Pens?  Possibly for that guy that writes a number of letters.  Maybe someone that carries a couple pens around for show, or is afraid of contacting the communal pens at banks and shopping markets when signing that credit card slip (yes, they don’t use the PIN everywhere).  Make sure the pen is marked with the souvenir city of purchase, and at least one of those bikinis that slip off when the pen is inverted.

Watches?  A watch is a watch, and can be purchased pretty much anywhere.  Unless it’s duty-free, or a deeply discounted knock-off, why load up your luggage with a timepiece with limited warranty.

The belt buckle.  For a Texan, Albertan, or other farming territory requiring heeled boots and oversized waist-mounted jewelry.  We’ve seen some wicked belts, but a belt is a belt.  Not too many guys are showing off their belts, or discussing waist side with anyone potentially looking to buy souvenirs.

Ah, the wooden games and puzzles.  We’ve run across chinese checkers, and even regular checkers, all nicely carved into a set that rivals the price of a small car.  Small chess sets seem to be typical souvenir items as well, however these are usually sets that sit in a box somewhere in the crawl space, or are set up in the corner of the room for display…slowly collecting dust.

How about a corkscrew with the city of vacation written across the handle?  Corkscrews are handy on occasion, but if there’s very little wine drinking in the house that corkscrew might be used as a wall anchor to create a temporary coat hook.  Of course there are the old standards of the bottle opener, keychain, and combination of the two that could possibly be retained as a gift.  Maybe used for that spare set of keys handed over to the neighbour.

I would want these, but sadly have no place to pack or put them...and it's a personal preference

T-shirts?  The only t-shirt option seems to be the “I heart someplace”.  As a souvenir, this only seems to work for the person buying the shirt.  How could anyone you hand the shirt off to say they love a place if they haven’t been there.  The good thing about being in Nice, is the shirts imply “I love nice!”, which would be near equivalent to “I love happy, spaceships, or cuddly teddy bears”, just in poorer english.  Still not likely suitable for most guys as the big red heart on the shirt just isn’t studly enough.

The default seems to be consumable items.  Maybe a vacuum packed cured meat or cheese.  Something that will likely be consumed in 5 minutes and forgotten about in a week or two unless the smell still lingers in the fridge or unemptied wastebasket.  Candies, chocolates, cookies…aim for something unique that could be washed down with a coffee or beer.

What would I want?  The reality is I wouldn’t want anything.  Buy me a beer when we meet up again and we can chat.  Simple, easy, no need to go out of your way to try and bring something kitschy back.  Just good to know you at least considered me in your struggles with shopping.

The Return of the Puffy Coats

Stealthily acquired while purchasing our tickets to Nice. The faux-hawk is also alive and well.

Melanie was suggesting I take on a fashion blog.  Excuse me, but the hoody and jeans I am wearing don’t exactly make me qualified in the least to offer my opinion as to ‘what’s hot’.  She then asks, ‘How about making one about the random, sometimes stray, cats and dogs we seem to encounter?’.  Still not enough material there to occupy a reader’s attention span for more than 15 seconds.  Then it hit me…blend the two into one partially interesting article catching the attention of both fashion critics and pet lovers.  Maybe with the ultimate goal of capturing a photo of a feral dog wearing a shiny puffy coat.  Wait, I’m not a magician here.

Although we have moved on from the frigid temperatures of Northern Italy to Southern France, some of the trends in outerwear seem to tag along.  Verona was chilly, which required a thick outer layer to retain a little body heat.  Prague was similar, but Melanie’s observations suggest a tendency for the locals to don a felt based overcoat to maintain that core temperature.  In Verona, and throughout most of Italy encountering temperatures less than 10 degrees, fashion and heat retention has spawned the return of puffy coat.  Remember those down-fill ski jackets of neon colours that brightened the slopes and streets during the winter months when leg warmers and pastel jackets were too lightweight for the season?  It seems the trend may be back in full force, only now in classier colors of black, grey and maroon.  Seinfeld’s George had one of these jackets a good 15 years ago, which may be what started the trend here.  Maybe Larry David’s favourite costume designer was a pioneer in the day.  Shiny puffy coats…every teenage boy, hip young gal and older woman seems to wear one.  I just had to embed this link as a recap.  

What is under these coats?  For the gals it doesn’t appear to be much more than a pair of patterned tights.  The boots are tall, heels high, and skirts short enough to not be seen under the bottom of that jacket.  As for what the guys might be wearing, who cares…it’s the gals that warrant the attention.  The attention that says ‘I am available’, or ‘I haven’t settled yet, and may be in the market for an upgrade…what’s your best offer?’.  It’s a different world for clothes wearing, and it’s likely because of our rather drab garments that few people start up a conversation with us.  I used to think it was the lack of colour in our skin… or maybe no cigarette in one hand and espresso in the other.  Maybe after 9 weeks of travelling we’re starting to look a little haggard and too scary to talk to.  I’ll leave you to be the judge from the photos.

I don’t remember ferris wheels at Christmas.

Now that we’ve crossed the border into French territory, a distinct lack of these puffy coats…likely because the daily highs approach 18C.  It’s early December, and feels damn near like spring.  Yes they are making an effort at a Christmas market here with real trees for sale, hot wine, cotton candy and a ferris wheel…but the fake snow and palm trees in the foreground likely won’t bring out similar coats  for a couple months.   We’ll need to do a little more exploration of storefront windows to see just what might be offered on the coat fashion front.  Don’t keep your hopes up for any updates when it’s still fine to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts though.

Ciao Italia! Next time we’ll chat more.

20 minutes after we found a roast chicken. No pasta today!

Well, we’ve made it out of the land of pizza and pasta. 5 weeks in Italy has now quelled any urge for a strictly carb based diet, consumed during Italian eating hours.   Now only another 5-6 days of trying to remember to reply with ‘Oui’, instead of the reactionary ‘Si’.

After a stint like this, we have agreed that it really is about time we take on learning of a few basics in Italian. Spending this long in a country and not even having simple verbage under control really is a bit sad.  When being asked something easy like ‘Caldo?’, there should be no hesitation and should register immediately that the lady rushing from customer to customer behind the bar is simply asking if I want the cheesy bread heated or not.  The cop-out option… to say, ‘no parle Italiano’… which is accurate…just isn’t acceptable any longer.  The reassuring part is that we are starting to pick up enough random words to possibly string together a sentence.  Answering a phone with ‘Pronto!’ and ending a call with ‘Ciao, ciao!’, could be fun if we still have anyone to call on the home side of the Atlantic.

It makes me think of a child learning to speak.  Only in such a context, there are individuals constantly teaching and asking simpler questions of the kid, as well as pointing out colours and nouns.  Mimicry is encouraged, and no one is asking us if we had fun today, or if I peed on the living room carpet instead of the dog.  We’ll have people in need of assistance conversing with us, whether it’s directions or simply helping to lift a bag onto a luggage rack.  Mimicry would be me breaking into my best Godfather accent, which I am sure these inquirers would either run or toss a little change at me fearing I need some serious help myself.  I know what milk and an apple are, possibly what the next stop is on the train, but even asking where the toilette is still consists of the shortened ‘Toilette?’ and some general handwaving.  All bits of the language that wouldn’t help any native speaker unless they just finished some custardy apple strudel and it didn’t sit well with them either.

The guy on the left wouldn’t give up his seat for Melanie. Boys on one side, girls on the other.

I guess cavemen had similar means of communication. If one word would suffice in meeting your immediate needs, why would you need to learn anything more. It’s the women that made language more complex with those days stuck back in the hollowed out rock with the need to discuss their feelings and braid each other’s hair.  Men must have subconsciously picked up those newly developed words after passing out from too much good food…unless it was essential to prevent committing to something they didn’t quite understand in the first place.

Frustration should likely come from not being able to effectively communicate. Here it is nice though. Most Italians are friendly and talkative. You don’t speak the language, no matter…more hand gestures and repetition of whatever the word is and with a little effort a breakthrough.  The old guy next to me was talking about the sun, ‘sole’!  Not sure what the context was other than the fact that Milan was cold, grey and miserable when we were transferring trains.  That 4 hour train ride spotted with snore fillled naps and the occasional sulfur-laden gaseous emission, that could only come from one of three people, did have further breakthroughs though.  The old guy and I agreed that an ad for a proposed smart television was ‘bello’, with a couple thumbs up and smiles.  It also turns out that he and his wife were headed to Antibes, where they have a small house.  In addition, Abramovich apparently has a complex just down the road from him, including a 100+ meter yacht.  It was an interesting, and short conversation composed of a few English, French and many Italian words which we somehow pieced together.  Oh yeah, Antibes is apparently a very characteristic, authentic town…according to our cabin-mates.

They call it a language barrier, but really it’s up to each of us to make a bit of an effort at communication.  Sure not everyone is willing to take up the challenge of trying to communicate with a non-native speaker, but those that do may be thoroughly entertained with the challenge.  ‘Bello’, ‘si’, and ‘no’ just need to be built on.

What do you have for breakfast?

Courtesy of Google Images, Melanie would never wear plaid

Ah, one more morning of the hotel-offered breakfast.  It’s never free, since you are getting billed somewhere, but tomorrow morning’s early task will be to fill the belly to bursting.  It’s a 6 hour train ride from Verona to Nice, if all goes well and connections are made in time, but the hope is with a full belly we might avoid too many questionable train station pizza pretzels.

Being back in a hotel with the included breakfast is always interesting.  Sometimes trace amounts of caffeine may be found in a pot of watery coffee, sometimes a barista insists on making you something special behind the bar.  The offerings may include a selection of fatty sausage slices and hard cheese, or small variety of cereals…none of which might be bran.  Baked items might include thin slices of bland white bread for toasting, something that resembles a mini dinner roll, and a feeble attempt at a croissant.  Not to forget, but also the standard offering of canned  fruit salad and big bowl of communal yogurt.  Yes, I know a higher priced establishment may include more variety, and maybe more fiber, but these businesses know their clientele and tolerance for fruit and pastries that may be up to two days old.  We still haven’t figured out how these people stay regular.

As I sit and review the options for morning consumption, I can’t help but notice what others are selecting.  Yeah, judge not lest ye be judged…right?  How about the young guy, pants belted across his ass, plate loaded with ham and two slices of cake.  Or the gal confused by the coffee machine opting for a dinner roll while figuring out the complex brewing apparatus.  The couple with kid in tow, load up on those chewy croissants, with a cappuccino for dipping them in.  Of course there’s the over-perfumed young gals that decide to kill everyone’s appetite with Britney Spear’s perfume, while dining on a bowl of pink yogurt.

A personal preference is the muesli.  Raw oats, raisins, some coconut, add nuts and sunflower seeds for some added protein.  As a breakfast food, you can fill up and last all day on a bowl.  No sugary additions.  No hard crusty chunks that shred the inside of your mouth.  Of course, no prizes in the cereal box either.  I’ll sit there in my hoody still smelling like yesterday’s train platform smokers, suck back two cappuccinos instead of sipping politely, and stare blankly at a wall for fear of making eye contact with the sugar-crazed young ones. Simple grains, nuts and dried fruit…yeah, really exciting.  Call it plain and boring for breakfast, but add some ham to a side plate along with some creamy cheese slices and any nutritional benefit of avoiding cake for breakfast has likely gone out the window.  Mmmmm…ham…

Any guesses as to what might just be in the middle?

Call me a novice traveller, or newbie as far as breakfast cultures go…but when was cake for breakfast ever acceptable?  We’re talking chocolate torte, and some custardy flan kind of thing.  Seems like the French might have had a hand in it, maybe with the plan to slowly destroy Italian cuisine by introducing such sweet and decadent desserts to go with your coffee in the morning.  Here in Verona, Napoleon’s troops seemed to follow similar orders to wipe out all traces of Roman ruins near Castel San Pietro, plus the 500 year old castle itself.  Even the nearby Castelvecchio we were excited to check out had the inner grounds ‘remodelled’ about the same time.  Those might have been actions of a small man with a complex of sorts, but I am still thinking subtle tactics on the hotel breakfast spread may be the what remains.

It’s likely just me that is not ready to accept that such sweet celebratory desserts belong in the belly before 10am.  A choice I will need to wrestle with over the next week as a pain de chocolat, or nutella-filled croissant will become morning staples.  And really, if given the choice between cake or those white veal-head sausages offered in Munich…I would choose the less offensive option regardless of nutritional value.

Verona to Milan? How about Venice?

Surprise change of day trip today.  Instead of heading west to Milan, we opted for the less expensive eastbound train to Venice.  Budget has to factor in somewhere.

It is different arriving in a city such as this where we already know the layout from last years three day stop.  No time wasted in identifying potential points of our interest, and travel options to get there.  No rich exhaust from cars or scooters.  No crosswalks or signals, and no bicycles.  Truly a pedestrian city, with a few boats to move people and supplies about.

The vaporetto beckoned with its foghorn like call, but we opted to walk once again.  Six hours is all we budgeted for with train tickets defining the beginning and end, so strolling the streets in search of a few goodies and coffee seemed like a better option than reshooting many of the pics we took last year.  Plus, you all are probably getting tired of all the great photos showing sunshine an blue sky.

Wandering through the streets we found several restaurants with waiters trying to convince anyone and everyone to take a seat alongside the canal for a very pricey plate of fish or pasta.  With the streets this empty, everyone still needs to make a few dollars.  We’ve done that canal dinner once before, and that was all we needed, so we opted for some rather tasty heated sandwiches and the all important hot wine.  Wine that is so tasty that once again I am wondering why not carry a thermos of the warm spicy purple elixir at all times.  Party idea anyone?

"You want a piece of this?"

The sandwiches weren’t bad either, and even the pigeons know it.  Apparently I got off lucky with only a couple dozen birds surrounding me for a few scraps of bread.  No fear here from these rats of the sky.  We passed a couple guys seated that at one point must have been enjoying their lunch.  That was until the motley collection of pigeons and gulls started tearing into one guys lunch bag, also shredding the bag of chips he was holding.  To share a little of this avian attention, guy number one decided to empty the contents of his snack food bag over the head of his buddy resulting in a new definition to ‘tarring and feathering’.  It made for a good photo op if anyone had a camera ready.  We skirted the mayhem and entered Saint Mark’s Basilica with no line…another benefit of visiting this place on December 1st.

December in Venice.  Decorative lights shaped into stars and stockings hang over the streets.  Lots of gift shopping variety.  Competition between shops and street carts.  Many half price items if you happen to get a little lost whole window shopping an end up well out of the way of the tourist masses.  We did well today.

Not all worked out though, as we did get burned on one coffee, one tea, and a croissant costing more than the 95 minute train ride, for two of us, from Verona to Venice.  Note to self…steer clear of any piazzas, viewpoints, or large collections of turistas when looking for a place to sit down and enjoy a cappuccino.  The waiter quoted another guy 9euro for a small glass of beer!  The American took him up on the offer and called over a buddy of his to sit down.  Amazing how some places can get away with such outrageousness, and not feel guilty about it at the end of the day.  It makes me not want to spend another dime in the place.

What I didn't capture was the cardboard sign tacked to the door with 'Chiuso' written across it.

Part of the reason for stopping was a chance to rest the legs.  The other part was to relieve the bladder.  There are points around the city to empty ones bowels, but with a 1.50euro price tag on entry into the stall with a wet floor and no toilet seat, it is easy to have that urge pretty much stop short.  It had been 4.5 hours since that last pee break, so I was beginning to feel the reabsorbtion of water just wasn’t happening fast enough for me.  We marched briskly in the direction of many WC stickers marking the way like a trail of breadcrumbs only to find the toilet was closed.  A puddle of urine, still fresh, was in the middle of the walkway… from dog, man, or a little kid that just couldn’t hold it we really don’t know.  Sure I could have done just the same, but Melanie gets embarrassed easily, and with the size my bladder had swelled to, I likely needed a few minutes to really enjoy that pee.  Maybe the extra charges for coffee and tea were worth it, or maybe I just need to pay that fee as a one of those costs for comfort.

Extortion for an afternoon caffeine fix, or pee break, aside…Venice still is wonderful.  If you get the chance, I still recommend it as one of my favorite stops just for the peace and quiet.

Naughty or Nice? No Santa to decide

Ah, December.  This of course means just over 2 weeks of procrastination from any specific shopping, and just over one final week to face the madness in the shops.

Who am I missing on this Christmas list?

Here it’s a little harder to notice.  Either it’s an evening promenade down the two main shopping streets, or that similar rush is also starting here.  The big difference is the lack of Christmas tunes carolling at ear splitting volumes and the sound of constant jingling of bells from your street corner Santas.  The stores have made modifications to their window displays, but nothing dramatic and actually tasteful.  From simple ‘Buone Feste’ framed in red LED lights in a department store, to a hand-knitted carpet outlet with a Santa figure holding two throw rugs.  Nothing flashy or outlandish.

That nightly promenade that we became accustomed to in other small Italian towns now seems to resemble panic shopping.  Possibly the case, however here the end goal is for those wandering participants to make their way, strollers and all, through the narrow rows of shops to Piazza Erbe.  Here the dimly lit streets empty onto a plaza filled with fruit and vegetable carts, along with many gift-like goodies.  Ties, scarves, puzzles, fridge magnets…pretty much anything you could think of as being kitschy and overpriced for buying off the street is right here.  Florence definitely had better volume and prices, but only an hour away and according to census stats 100,000 people more.  Maybe it’s that proximity to Venice that jacks prices up, like the gelato theory.

Between stands and carts selling scented candles and snowy nativity scenes, the casual promenader can also satisfy that need for a little vin brule priced at 3 euro for a tiny little cup.  Last I checked, you could get a 750ml bottle of wine in your local supermarket for less than a euro.  Add to your hot wine some fried potato filled dumplings, with some prosciutto bits and onion, and maybe some not-so-Italian apple strudel covered with a lightly sweetened custard…and dropped 20 euro on food that your belly will process in 20 minutes.  Maybe those steaming roast chunks of meat, wrapped with a rye bun are the real deal…but no where on the 5 item menu is there a picture that looks anything like what they’re making…and English seems secondary to German here.  I think it’s ‘Schinken’ we’re looking for here.

Hot Wine...must find thermos and reason to drink in public

Street food, chachkas, too many people wearing shiny and puffy coats pushing strollers…and the temperature has dropped to zero here. Darkness sets in around 5PM and the fog seems to blanket the city by 6.  It’s an eerie bustling of people through the streets that seems to keep this town alive in the off season.  It’s the regularity that is surprising, up early for breakfast and work, shut everything down for 2-4 hours in the afternoon for a long lunch, restart again later that afternoon and into the evening before going for dinner late.  Between finishing your day job and a late dinner hour, locals seem to be attending the cafes for glasses of wine and sweet snacks.  No sense spoiling your appetite for that 9PM reservation.

Sadly, we’re having a hard time adjusting to that routine.  Sure we’re up early and out of the room or apartment before noon for a day of wandering, picture taking and hot wine sampling, but finding a place to eat an actual dinner between 4 and 7:30PM is damn near impossible.  Maybe we should get back to those relaxing afternoon naps…you know, the ones that get away from you and turn from a 20 minute catnap into a 2 hour go.  At that point a full dinner after 8 would likely work, but we haven’t found that karaoke bar to stay out until 2AM at…and we don’t want to compromise another day of sightseeing with a day of recovery.  It sucks to be old…I mean ‘older’ of course.

A Padlock to Symbolize Your Love?

Lots more room here on the Pont des Arts.

We’re not talking chastity belts, or anything kinky that might involve leather hoods or overly complex harnesses.  Ever consider symbolizing your loving relationship with a lock?  Europeans in many cities have started in on this a few years ago, and it is something we noted last year on Via dell’Amore while doing a day trip to the Cinque Terre.   Apparently, each time you revisit a place, celebrate an anniversary, or find an unused lock on your person and happen to be in the area…you too could attach another to, or next to, the previous one to demonstrate to the world that your relationship is still alive and well.

Who started the love padlock idea seems to be a bit of a mystery.  It’s an interesting alternative to the timeworn practice of carving your initials into a tree or the fresh cement on a sidewalk, then enveloping all in a heart…maybe with Cupid’s arrow neatly puncturing it’s way in, then out.  Why not purchase a lock from a nearby vendor and Sharpie your names onto the securing device, with of course that same heart-shaped scrawl around those illegible initials.  Prior planning could even provide for engraving, if the budget is there.  Add a couple lipstick kisses on each side of the lock, and climb high onto a structure and clipping the lock in place at a point where everyone can see  the result of your actions.    Finish it off with a warm embrace and casting of the key into the ocean, nearby pond or unused well.  Sounds oh so romantic, and much cheaper than a ring of any sort.

But why the lock?  A lock, appears to be permanent but really only as permanent as the structure it’s hanging from.  Bridges get replaced.  City crews come by occasionally with lock cutters in hand to remove this perceived fence clutter as a ‘safety’ issue.  Scrap metal collectors may look at that symbol of commitment as an extra dime at the recyclers.  Sure a lock is more permanent than flowers, and planting a tree to symbolize your bond requires so many more tools…plus property to do the deed.  A lock isn’t eternal, it only means that if someone comes along with the right tools, and presses the right buttons, that object of meaning can become unshackled.

Does size matter?  What about colour and material?  Does price matter, or could a cheap lock be bejeweled in a way to hide the fact it used to secure your gymshorts in high school?  How do you justify the combination lock to that beloved partner?  Maybe a couple shots of absinthe and a shredder to remove both physical and mental evidence?  How does she know that you haven’t committed that combo to heart in the event you want to open that lock again one day?  Sounds like it’s time for a little interviewing…oh yeah, no Italiano.

The bike lock I find to be interesting.  In the end it’s all just a light-hearted display that shouldn’t be mulled over too intensely.  Some may think it’s a disgrace, and near equivalent to graffiti.  I wonder if a similar mass project in Vancouver could also be accomplished.  Critical Mass gained popularity?  Sure Vancouver isn’t the most romantic town out there, but there must be a few sights worthy of coloured locks all displayed for public show.  The wiki on love padlocks does note that close to home in Ucluelet, locks adorn the Wild Pacific Trail…but these locks are seen to detract from the atmosphere.  How about something more urban?  Lover’s Locks on Cambie?  The Cambie Street Bridge because of the centrality and significant foot traffic, plus the terrible green railings that could use a splash of color to brighten the mass of concrete it is.

Maybe overlooking the fancy boats and Science World isn’t quite what you had in mind.