Wednesday, March 31, 2010

to Riola Sardo

Wake me when the light changes.

I’m used to these words. Ed is a napper and when the urge to sleep strikes, he can satisfy it with a twenty second doze and move on. But the requests are coming fast and furious and so I offer to take the wheel. No, I’m fine. He assures me. And so we continue.

Riola Sardo – the village where we’re staying is some 100 kilometers northwest from Cagliari – about halfway up the island of Sardinia. It hasn’t the sights and that makes it really perfect: it's quiet, unbothered by outside influence, and well positioned for exploration: from the quartz sand coastline a short drive west, to the craggy mountains in the east and the inbetween hills, marshes and lakes – the region pretty much has all that Sardinia can be proud of, and in addition, it has the world’s best little b&b – La Lucrezia.

I’m eager to start the trip north, but willing to give Cagliari at least the morning. Especially since we need a brisk walk. Ed has just eaten the biggest breakfast I have ever seen him eat, and the man is capable of eating monstrously big breakfasts.

We’ll long remember this as one of the top morning meals ever. Ed asks why I don’t photograph it. Visually, I tell him, it’s almost ordinary. Eggs, tomatoes, prosciutto, smoked salmon, cheeses, cakes, pastries, fruits, and two juices that we could not stop refilling – a blood red orange and a grape, the grape slightly fizzy from just before a wine fermentation. All uniquely, honestly fresh.

And so we walk – with our packs and my little carryon, we hike up hills and down into the heart of old Cagliari, loving the beautiful sun, smiling at the coat covered Sardinians who regard today’s weather as reason to maybe shed the earmuffs. (In contrast, I – whom am always colder than anyone in Madison, am now down to a short sleeved t-shirt.) It’s near seventy and breezy. And everything is in bloom. Against a backdrop of already color-loaded houses.


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Cagliari is Sardinia’s largest city (population: about half a million) and it is the port, the mouth to the world outside. And a place for the ubiquitous fishing boats, nets and lobster traps.


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We sit for a while by the water’s edge and talk boats – a topic that my traveling companion never tires of, even as he finally has come to understand that I will never go with him on the last big sailing trip of his life – his dream, but unfortunately, not mine. (I’ve never seen anyone get seasick on a ferry crossing! – he looks at me with amazement and pity as we cross the choppy waters To Isola Mujeres in Mexico this January.)



We take the bus to the airport where we pick up our unfortunately not so tiny car. We’re sorry, we’re all out of the tiny ones! Ah well, a little Renault. Small enough. As we hit the road, Ed puts in a request that I  not stir up trouble by reminding him, the driver, of dangers – present and imagined. I want him to drive and so I make the requisite (mostly kept) promises. I don’t want to be behind the wheel. I concentrate so hard on the road that I fail to notice scenery. And there’s much to notice.


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Eventually, as we leave the main road, we lose our googled trail. We pick random turns and hope for the best.

Getting lost here is a good thing.

Because it puts us on a rural side road that makes its way past olive groves, knee-deep in daisies and yellow drops of prettiness.


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The sky is momentarily gray, but I am certain that I will never in my life stand again in a grove this beautiful. The flowers are tickling my ankles, the scent is of chamomile and spring.


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And further down this same rural route there is the vineyard where Salvatore (in a winter coat!) is tying clipped vine stems to the lines.


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Salvatore stops when he sees me. A female visitor. How rare. Such a nice excuse for a conversation. He ambles down to greet me as I stand to the side watching. You want to see my vines? Oh, most certainly! Let me explain to you what I am doing.

He explains everything – from where he does the cut and how he guides the stem along the line, to the history of the invasions that transformed Sardinia over the centuries. His Italian is heavily accented (or mine is getting rusty; probably a combination of the two) and I lose threads of stories easily, as he works, talks and then finally pauses to ask more about where I’m from and what I’m doing here.


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But you weren’t born in America, were you? How does he know this? No, Poland. I tell him. Ah, he has a cousin who married a Pole. Lovely family. They now live in Germany. A variation of the old southern Italian story, only now Europe centered.

He clips stems for me to take back to where ever I am staying. Young stems with spring bursting from them. Sardinia – I love it here! -- he looks to the skies ad grins broadly. We shake hands and I head toward the car.

I envy his complete loyalty to a place.

I nudge Ed awake and we drive on toward Rialo.

But again, we are distracted. Artichokes. Gorgeous and tall, purple around the base.


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And beans. Are they beans? What kind of beans?


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And finally we are in Riola – home for the next five days. As David, the owner of La Lucrezia explains to us the offerings of the region (over a glass of local wine), I look at the garden and the trailing wisteria and I wonder what it must be like to live here all year long.


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No, not the winter, I was told in an earlier correspondence with him. It’s cold and dreary here then. (The house has been in his family for many generations and only recently did he convert it to a place for paying guests.)

Dreary winter? Oh, but look at this at the end of March!


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Ed and I stroll through the village, taking in all the typical scenes of southern Italy. Because as distinct as it is, Sardinia also feels a lot like Italy.


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We poke into a local pasticieria. A mother is buying little cream puffs for her son's birthday celebration.

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I select a half dozen for us too. Delicately flavored with mascarpone cream, with orange, with chocolate. Exquisite.


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We only have a few hours left of bright daylight. The coast. We should acknowledge the sea that has kept Sardinia so much apart from the continent in ways that have more to do with economics and culture than anything else.

Less than twenty kilometers west is the small village of San Giovanni. You can leave your car there and walk out to the crumbling tower, past archeological ruins, all the way the end to the peninsula that juts out between the calm waters of the Bay of Sardinia and the wind driven surf of the Mediterranean.


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It’s a fragrant, beautiful walk.


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At the end, I admit to being very very hungry. The sun has set and we drive back to a village half way back to Riola. The restaurants don’t open until 8:30 and so we park the car in a most obvious way just outside the door and wait. Ed dozes, I watch the full moon chase down the final wisp of a cloud and take control of the night skies.

Wake up, they’re opening I nudge Ed.

I order a salad and ravioli with seafood and a shrimp sauce, Ed chooses the spaghetti with mushroom and crayfish.  

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And which of the fish would you like? The waitress rolls a table of today’s catch for us to inspect.

Ah. You must continue with another main course. I'm fine with that, though I point to the smallest fish on the tray. The waitress smiles. Good local choice. We’ll prepare it with olive oil, wine and olives, alright?

So alright.

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So very alright.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

arrival

Milan minutes

People may disagree with me on this, but I find Milan to be a very somber place. Yes, you can argue the beauty of the main square, the rare magnificent church, the frescoes, the fashion, the design, but I just can’t be convinced. To me, Milan has always been a pass through town. The few times that I challenged myself to stay longer and like it, I left thinking – well that failed.

Maybe it’s because Italy spoils you with the biggest concentration of mind-numbingly beautiful cities in the world. Or maybe I have developed a particularly strong aversion to cities that haven't especially cared about planting trees and developing green spaces. I live in Wisconsin, I have come to expect an encounter with nature. I feel cheated otherwise. And here, you have to agree with me – Milan is hopelessly indifferent to nature.


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Ed and I have less than an hour to kill in Milan and not wanting to risk missing the bus to Bergamo (Milan’s third airport – dominated by Ryan Air and other discount flights) we decide to waste it walking the blocks around the Stazione Centrale. That kind of a stroll is not going to do the city any favors.

But I’ll say this: where cities fail to provide greenery, people will try to compensate. On balconies, for example.


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And in any case, it’s the week before Easter so you’ll find color alright – in the candy shops, at the Sicilian bakery – places that make you smile in spite of it all....


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We pick up a few Sicilian pistachio paste cookies and make our way to the airport to catch the late flight out.

We’re heading for Sardinia.


Midnight in Cagliari

It’s the last hour of a long day. Our Ryan Air flight came into Cagliari on time (they play a horn fanfare on the audio system when that happens) and we’re checked in for the night at a nearby hotel (the T – very sleek, very modern, very colorful, and very inexpensive now in the off season).


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I am hungry. The town seems closed for the night, but we’re hopeful. We’re in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Surely there is food to be had at this hour. I ask for a local pizza place.

Cross the square, walk for a block and you’ll see it.
Is it good? I ask. I’m willing to walk farther for good.
It’s fine. It’s pizza, the people are nice.

The place is not just hopping, it’s jumping. Animated. Families, groups of young people, groups of older men, couples. All with the dark dark hair of Sardinia.

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We eat a seafood antipasto and we each have that wonderful thin crust pizza – mine with Sardinian mushrooms – the one that makes you weep because it is so simple and so good.


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I ordere the half liter of the Sardinian white wine (at 4 Euros for the jug, it was meant to be), Ed orders fizzy water. An unopenable bottle of fizzy water.

I call the waiter-owner-boss over and ask for a replacement. He picks up the bottle and looked curiously at it. What’s wrong with it?
He can’t open it, I say. And he’s pretty strong.
The waiter-owner-boss looks at Ed, smiles and gives the bottle one mighty twist. It flies open.

A Sardinian challenge if I ever saw one.


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I wont say who won.

Sardinia. One hour, and I’m in love. But love often happens that way, no? One hour, one night and you’re smitten.

I watch the slow awakening of Cagliari from the window of our hotel room. We’ll be leaving this afternoon and heading north. But for now, there is the stillness of a sleeping city to admire. Good morning, so happy to be passing through this week.


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Monday, March 29, 2010

eating on the fly

Our taste buds have been getting quite the work out. I’ve hardly been gone a day and really, all I’ve done is eat, sleep and read (in that order of importance).

Travel collapses normal dining hours. We arrive at O’Hare and we snack before boarding. Of course. We’re hungry and it’s free. In flight, we start with a meal and end with a meal. Somehow there should have been a twelve hour night period between dinner and breakfast, but there isn’t and so you make do.

In Paris, waiting for our next connection, we eat breakfast again. It’s free and so we eat a large breakfast. A large second breakfast. And within two hours, the lunch trays are out and we’re eating again.


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Charles de Gaulle airport


Of course, there will be food on the plane. It’s a short flight, but Air France does not skimp on food. In the layover in Milan, we’ll likely pause at a cafĂ© just to pass the time. Over maybe a late lunch or a predinner something.

Thank God for Ryan Air. That’ll be the last leg of our trip (out of Milan). No food there. Not even water. It's been rumored that they are considering charging for bathroom use, so perhaps it’s good to give the taste buds a break. They’ve had ample stimulation. They’ll do well with a two hour rest.


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Charles de Gaulle airport

Sunday, March 28, 2010

on how my traveling companion, who would never ever ever spend a penny more on travel than he has to, flies business class to Europe

There is irony in the fact that when you try your damnedest to not spend money, you get rewarded. The fact is that neither Ed nor I would ever use dollars or miles on comfortable travel. Oh, sure, I love upgrades when they are offered. For free. But long hours moonlighting will not be frittered on comfort.

On transatlantic flights, upgrades are rarely offered. I haven't had one for years. Us sardines, even those with golden frequent flier marks, points and statuses, will stay packed in the tail of the plane while the business class section stands empty and that’s okay with most airlines. You get what you pay for.

But today, Air France was feeling flush.


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Perhaps it’s the airline’s jubilation at having just narrowly averted a strike this week. Perhaps, as Ed tells it, the clerk at the counter found him a formidable presence (must be the jeans: for once he agreed to leave the Farm and Fleet pair at home). I’ll never know the true reason for today's nod to my unwavering loyalty, but the clerk asked me if I, along with my partner (blessedly, neither of us corrected her on that one) would consider a free upgrade. As a favor to the airline.

Oh Air France, I take back all the bad thoughts I had about your sometimes stern crew of attendants. I’ll stay loyal, really I will. For that leg room alone, Ed (who is 6’4”) thanks you as well.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

counting

If I am allowed 15 kilos to send through (33 lbs), and 10 kilos (22 lbs) to carry on, and he’s allowed only 10 Kilos to carry on (being the frugal person that he is), and if my little suitcase weighs 10 pounds and my laptop is 4 and his is 7, but my cameras, at 3+, more than make up the difference, and if my clothes weigh 6 and his weigh 5 (I know, I know, but he’s just not that fussy about how he looks), but if, in addition, a carryon cannot exceed a width of 20 cms, then what exactly can I take, and how many bottles of wine can I bring back?

These calculations have pushed me on and off the scale all day long, with a tape measure and a calculator nearby.

If you have ever flown the discount airline, RyanAir, you’ll understand. Their flights are so cheap... unless you step off the straight and defined. You want to sit next to your traveling companion? It’ll cost you! You have a duffle bag that’s more than 8 inches wide? Oh, now you’ve just doubled your airfare! And so on.

Ed is, of course, tickled at having to travel ultralight. I’m okay with light on the way there, but less than okay with knowing that one bottle of wine weighs 3 pounds. How will that affect the flight back?

But numbers are just that and the more significant calculation is, I think, about minutes: how many minutes does it take for a bus to... alright, I’ll not review these travel details now.

Tomorrow Ed and I are crossing the ocean and making many complicated connections. At the end of it all, by Monday night, we should be almost there. Where I have long wanted to go.

I’ll write as we navigate the complicated but thrilling for me trip. Spring break. Yes, break.

Finally.

Friday, March 26, 2010

the rush

Even Ed admired my work habits today. In the final push forward with tasks, I did not just work – I flew through everything with demonic speed. As if a life was at stake.

And maybe it is: my life. The one with balance, where I can take time away. Valuable time. Spring break time.

For me, spring break begins Sunday. Today I am still speeding, hoping to build a cache of spare hours that will let me, just for a few moments, slow down.


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Thursday, March 25, 2010

spring, continued

Let’s continue the seasonal theme.

How about this caption: I have my love to keep me warm, as applied to this terribly under-dressed couple (I was wearing a coat and I was cold):

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[Notes from a run down the hill for a quick espresso before my afternoon class.]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

spinach days

I admit it – I’ll miss my cold, gray, biweekly walks home. The long way. Our CSA winter spinach deliveries will end soon and so will the need to walk over to the pickup spot and after, because there is no good bus connection, to walk home.

It’s a dreary walk. The camera hangs around my neck, but I am rarely tempted to use it. Oh fine, today, for the emerging colors of spring...


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And sure, when I rest the spinach on a bench outside the pickup spot (we all received a gift: a dozen eggs – so beautifully brown that I’m planning the rest of the week’s menu around them!)...


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But otherwise – no.

The walk is a transition thing: you can really loosen up around the edges if you keep the pace brisk.

Today I need more than the four miles and so I stray toward Hoyt Park – oh, add another mile or two. It would be tough to call it a pretty place now, in March, but to me, it has its gray calm.


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Mainly, I need the extra miles. No, not airline miles, not today, but walking miles. Even if they’re almost colorless.


Approaching home, I notice the flowers again. I’m hanging in there. Spring break comes this week-end.

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On my window sill, there is this bird and he just will not leave.


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words

I trot down the hill to get an espresso before my afternoon class. Perhaps trot is the wrong word. This young woman trots.


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By comparison, I saunter at a slow pace.

On the way back up the hill, I am even slower. Smelling the roses, so to speak. And I hear this conversation behind me. Two young men, discussing a love interest of one of them. She is, you know, just a very nice person. Really nice. The kind that you meet and say – I have dibs on her. And then they move on to a retelling of an incident in class where a professor asked for some ungodly amount of work from the lot of them.

I think to myself that I have never heard a relational matter summarized so quickly and, I suppose, so succinctly.


I'm remembering a conversation with my occasional traveling pal. He'd been telling me about an exchange he had had with a friend, concerning travels with, well, his traveling companion. After a few brief sentences, he paused. That’s it? That’s all you said? – I asked. What else more is there to say? – he countered, genuinely puzzled.


In the evening, I walk up to the Capitol Square, where I play with my camera and windowpane  reflections and all the usual nonsense that seems so fun when you’re doing it but utterly silly in retrospect.

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Isn't that so often the case with reflections...


The day ends well. I feast in ways that I rarely feast these days.


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And as I am with friends whom I see too rarely, I give a summary of my most recent thoughts on travel and traveling buddies, and I do this sparingly and succinctly (I think). I can almost hear someone asking – that’s it? Is that all you can say about it? And I have to admit that the answer would be yes.

Sometimes, you don’t have to say a lot. Sometimes, you need say very little and still it is brilliantly clear what it is that you’ve just said. Sometimes.