Prague revisited

By 4:30 p.m., all I could see from the train window was black. Staring out the window on the way to Prague had been my last source of entertainment; my iPod was already out of battery and I’d finished the one book I took with me on the travel week. Now all I could do was pull out a map of Europe and stare listlessly.

Perhaps that’s how, after about 20 minutes of staring, my eyes focused on Dresden, Germany.

I’d begun to think about my traveling companions, two girls who wanted nothing but to shop at American department stores and read at Starbucks during our entire three-day stay in Vienna. Would they do the same thing in Prague? Even if they changed this time around and showed enthusiasm for seeing the sights, I knew I wouldn’t be too thrilled to tag along. I had already visited every important Prague monument three years ago with a touring singing group. I wanted something new. I wanted something German.

I already had it all decided when the train screeched to our stop: I would take a day trip to Dresden, a two-hour train ride away, on Saturday to ease the monotony and my frustration. I didn’t know what Dresden had to offer, and my German still wasn’t up to scratch, but what the hell.

I was even happier about my secret pact when, as we came up from the underground near our hostel, I felt the dry, penetrating cold of the night air. Dresden must be warmer than this, I thought, though I had nothing to back up this theory.

The air had the same biting chill in the morning; there seemed to be little difference between day and night here in terms of temperature. We wound our way through tiny alleyways toward the Old Town Square, shivering and shoving our hands deep within our pockets, and I again commended myself on my brilliant plan of escape.

And then, just like that, there was the square. I didn’t even recognize it at first, thinking it was just another busy square that happened to house a few beautiful buildings, but then I saw the main monuments: the Church of Our Lady of Týn, the astronomical clock, the many restaurants with yellow-clothed wicker tables spilling out onto the cobblestones. The cloudless azure of the sky seemed almost to reflect upon the apartment buildings and to illuminate each color: pea soup turned to lime popsicle, marzipan turned to pale lemon and glass windows looked like pools of water.

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My hands fell out of my coat pockets and my eyes were so wide they reached an aperture I’d never before accomplished. I was not cold anymore. I was in Prague, my intrigue renewed, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

Tales of an expat

Everyone thinks the best stories come from the wildest adventures, like getting lost in the Himalayas or kayaking down a hundred-foot waterfall in the Amazon. But sometimes a great adventure story comes from the simplest act of moving outside one’s comfort zone. In the case of Dominic Standish, this act was moving from England to Italy and getting married four days later.

To be fair, it’s not quite as adventurous as it all sounds. “All the men wondered how I’d managed to find a wife in four days,” Standish said, “and I pointed out to them that I’d met her a while ago in England.”

Still, a permanent move to a country whose culture and language was at the time totally foreign to him was adventure enough. Though he knew little about the way Italians behaved and could barely communicate with them, his eyes helped him discern the subtle differences. “Because I was coming to a new culture and a new country, I was making observations all the time,” Standish said.

And he began to write about them, shedding light on the interesting quirks of Italian life that Italians themselves weren’t aware of. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a position as a contributing writer for the International Herald Tribune by an editor interested in input from a fresh pair of eyes. The fact of his expatriatism was, then, the secret to his success.

standish

Starting out a writing career as an international reporter, Standish said, “gives you the chance to get our foot in the door because you’re immediately perceived as having a different perspective on things,” something publications always look for in a prospective employee.

Hearing Standish’s story made me think about the role of the expatriate journalist. While expats in general are enthusiastic to immerse themselves in a different culture than that of their home country, to what extent should journalists living in a foreign country do so? Do they have a responsibility to retain vivid memories of their upbringing in their respective former homelands for purpose of cultural observation? If they become completely immersed in another culture, will they lose that essential talent for observing culutral differences once they take life in their new home country for granted?

I wonder this because, if I were to move to a different country permanently, I’d want to truly immerse myself and be one with the community. Perhaps in the process, though, I’d forget things about life in the U.S. and consequently stop spotting the cultural differences that were once what made my writing stand out.

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But maybe there’s no cause to worry: Dominic Standish said he still feels like he never wears the right leather shoes to fit in completely with his Italian friends, and he still expects his children to sit at the table until they’re done with dinner even though sitting down to dinner as a family is no longer a common practice among modern Italian families.

But, Standish jokes, “we don’t have a bonfire in our backyard” on Nov. 5 to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, nor does he yearn for the supermarket aisles of Marks & Spencer. He’s let some of the Italian culture seep in while retaining his own identity, blurring the lines between expat and Italian citizen.

Or, as he puts it, “My role is less defined by patriotism. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.”

Photo by Natasha Loresch

Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

…but first, a disclaimer: I was only in Brussels for about 14 hours, and six of those were allotted for sleeping. My camera was filled to capacity and out of batteries, so I took no pictures. Therefore, my memory of Brussels is fuzzy at best.

Brussels is not a touristy city, but we made it our mission to be as touristy as possible when we arrived: we vowed that at the very least we would have Belgian chocolate and a huge Belgian waffle. When we got to the heart of the city, we couldn’t turn a corner without encountering at least one of those things, so our mission was easily fulfilled. One block off Grande Place, the main square in the center of town, was a waffle stand where we immediately descended and took in the sugary, chocolatey, creamy smell of pure bad calories and fat. Yum. I ordered a chocolate-drizzled waffle and got more sugar than I bargained for (though I wasn’t complaining): in the very center of the waffle had been cooked in a spoonful of nothing but granulated white sugar. I see a cavity in my future.

And even more dental problems were to come, I knew, when I realized there were more chocolate shops than restaurants in Brussels. Even those who skip dessert every night and get their sugar fix from half a grapefruit can’t resisit the call of the Belgian chocolate truffle, or bar, or stick, or easter bunny. There are literally at least two little shops eagerly handing out free samples on the front stoop on every block of the historical center, and they’re molded in the cutest of shapes that make them hard not to accept.

But when I wasn’t tasting chocolate, I was taking in the buildings whose rounded tops couldn’t have been seen in any country south of Luxembourg. Grande Place was truly grand with its huge square and stately buildings whose gold leaf details shone in the late afternoon light and almost looked like they were on fire. Buildings I saw walking down the narrow streets reminded me of pictures I had seen of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, that quirky fairytalelike style of architecture that you’d expect to see in an illustrated Hansel and Gretel book.

Just when we thought we couldn’t get more touristy, we could. We visited Atomium, a model of an iron molecule blown up to 165 times its real size, a relic from the 1958 World’s Fair. Then we went next door to Mini Europe, possibly the silliest attraction I’ve ever visited in Europe thus far. It’s a Disneyland of models of famous structures from all over Europe shrunk down to 1/25 their real size, which actually gave interesting perspective to famous monuments that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. For example, I didn’t know Big Ben was so infintesimal in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and how unassuming Mt. Vesuvius is in comparison with other famous mountains. However, I cop to having the most fun not thinking about proportions but playing around with funny juxtapositions like these:

Mini Europe Brussels Belgium

At night, we returned to the center of the town and grabbed a variety of foods–sushi, gyros, fair food–and sat on a fountain in the middle of a small plaza. Jaqui and I spent the better part of an hour staring at people’s boots as they walked by, comparing the merits of each type of boot depending on its material, heel height and style. Emily and Barry finally tired of our nonsense, so we moved on to a famous bar where 2,000 varieties of beer were on offer. We perused the fruit beer menu, where every flavor from banana to coconut was on offer. We opted for the raspberry, but left after one drink because everyone else in the bar was far louder and more drunk than us.

And that, in a nutshell, is my short but pleasant experience in Brussels. After a short night of sleep in a dodgy motel above an Indian restaurant, I skipped out of the city via tram, then metro, then train to the airport to fly to Dublin.

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 4: Dublin

Climbing Verona’s Scalone San Pietro

Photo by Jill KimballWe were hopelessly obvious tourists, my mother and I. We sported unintentionally matching black fleece jackets, bags decidedly not made of leather, and confused expressions as we stopped at every corner to consult a city map.

But I was sure the Italians who walked past us and made a concerted effort to ignore our Americanness must understand our befuddlement. Their hometown of Verona, they must know, was a distracting place. For every sight we intended to visit, there was another equally interesting sight not marked on our maps that we stumbled upon and consequently forgot where we’d been headed in the first place.

This time, we were on our way to the Roman theater across the river from Verona’s historical center. The city dropped us off two blocks from the ruins along a busy traffic artery. Which direction should we go? We pulled out the map once more. Then it happened again. Verona’s distracting nature reared its too-beautiful head in the form of a narrow column of stone steps lined with sherbet ice cream apartment buildings. The engraved stone street sign on the wall, which read “Scalone San Pietro,” begged us to climb the stairs to the top, where we knew the hill palace of Castel San Pietro stood.

Balcony on the Scalone San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

With thoughts of Roman ruins gone from our minds, we climbed the stairs. It might have been the red of the first apartment building on my left, a color that reminded me of the Early Girl tomatoes that spilled over the sides of the planter box in the backyard one summer, that pulled me in. Or it could have been the quaintness of the basket-adorned bikes strategically locked against the ground-floor windows covered by iron bars. The paint on Number 7’s facade was a splotchy salmon shade, the kind of color foreigners try to duplicate with sponges when they want the Tuscan look but that can only truly be achieved by the erosions of time. A grape vine snaked its way in and out of the iron-bar balcony, and I wondered why there weren’t crowds of people gathered here, because surely this was the real balcony on which Juliet called for her Romeo. As far as I was concerned, this house, with its gently creeping greenery framing the wooden doorway, was the realCapulet family home.

In two more flights of steps, an iron gate stood open and a sign vaguely mentioned restoration. We curiously walked through and found ourselves in what looked like the Irish countryside. A deep thicket of grass stretched out to the base of a brick wall at the edge of the hill. Crudely hewn prisms of stone, placed all around the grass, served as benches. No one else was there, nor had anyone left evidence of having visited recently, adding to the park’s austerity. Yet somehow the blank expanse of grass and stone was inviting, and I felt an urge to sit down with some panini and wine and gaze out at the mist. For even on this gray day, the city’s entire expanse was visible from here. Past the River Adige, red spires and domes stuck out of the tile-cielinged maze and mopeds the size of ants scooted along the bridges. On a hill opposite the park, on the outskirts of the city, sat a massive Palladian-style columned creation above dots of houses.

View from the Parco Scalone Castel San Pietro, Verona, Veneto, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

Why was no one here, I thought? Could there be a better view of Verona anywhere else in the city? Shouldn’t Rick Steves let people know about this?

Perhaps, for all our fashion faux pas and touristy tendencies, my mother and I had the capacity to be trendsetters.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France

Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

Ah, Paris je t’aime! Les boulangeries! La tour Eiffel! La Louve! Sainte-Chappelle et Notre Dame et …eh, je ne pas parle Francais…

Miraculously, I actually picked up enough French to get by without even glancing at a guidebook before I got on the plane. And even more miraculously, while people looked at my other traveling companions and immediately began speaking English, they looked at me and babbled strings of French in my face.

Versailles, Paris, France
Should I have taken this as a compliment? Is it cooler for people to think you’re French than for them to think you’re American? Before I got to Paris, I would have said “no”. I once despised the French language, French people and the country of France itself…for no apparent reason. Maybe my unreasonable hatred for all things French was the reason why Paris ended up being my favorite stop during the travel week–because I had low expectations that were dashed in an instant.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
On the plane from Barcelona to the City of Love, I pictured sidewalks lined with grime, scowling men with hanging jowls and huge noses, rude women turning up their equally large noses at anyone who even smells remotely American. Such are the negative stereotypes associated with Paris. As it turned out, my first day there convinced me the positive Parisian stereotypes were far more accurate. For instance, picture a parade of glamorous people in leather boots and designer togs walking down romantic, cobblestoned roads with hot, fragrant baguettes in their hands. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. I saw it with my own eyes. (OK, some of them still have large noses, but hey, so do I.)

And best of all, we stayed in the Latin Quarter, a part of the city devoid of tourists and a million times cheaper areas perennially swarmed with visitors. The day we got there we grabbed lunch at a legitimate sit-down restaurant with fabric tablecloths–a great feat when you’re a student crunched for money–and ate three courses of food for 10 euros. That’s the cost of a cocktail in most of the city.

I could expound on all the sights I saw–Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, etc–but I’d rather focus on the two sights I found most impressive: Notre Dame and Versailles.

Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Paris, France
The home of the mythical bell-ringing hunchback was one of the first touristy places we visited in Paris. After our comparatively cheap lunch, we headed over to Sainte-Chapelle (whose enormous stained-glass windows deserve a shout-out, at the very least), then set out to find Notre Dame under grey skies. We knew it wasn’t more than two blocks from the Chapel, but we didn’t know which direction to walk. We started to wander, and then, as if by magic, we turned a corner and there it was. And then, more magic: the clouds directly above the church dispersed and cast a dramatic afternoon shadow on the ground. I wondered whether the heavens had conspired to allow us to see Notre Dame at its best just as we were arriving.

Even better, when we went inside, an organ-and-choir concert spontaneously began and we sat watching for what must have been at least half an hour. It was the most relaxing part of the entire trip, and frankly, my feet welcomed the break.

Apollo Fountain Versailles France
The next day, we hopped a train to Versailles early in the morning to get in line before the hordes arrived. Unfortunately for us, the train took an hour longer than we thought it would and the inside of Versailles didn’t open until noon that day. We had two hours to wander around. Luckily, the gardens behind the palace were so expansive that we actually could have been there longer than two hours without getting bored. The landscape was extraordinary–maniacally manicured in some places and, further back, rugged and wild. Fountains and Renaissance Roman statues abounded.

Poseidon fountain, Versailles, France

The palace itself was impressive but was marred by a modern art exhibit scattered around its rooms. In the middle of Louis XIV’s chambers you’d see a giant metal sculpture designed to look like a mylar balloon animal or a ceramic cast of Michael Jackson with a monkey. Even when I tried thinking about the deeper meaning this exhibit might be communicating, my mind came up blank.

Jeff Koons balloon sculpture in the Hall of Mirrors Versailles France
Though Versailles and Notre Dame are what I normally tell people are my highlights of Paris, the real highlight is slightly more complicated than this four-word answer. My favorite part of Paris was simply being in Paris, walking down any street at all, preferably one with very few people, and soaking up the Frenchness of it all. It really does feel like the romantic city everyone claims it is. If I marry rich, I might return one day with my significant other and experience the city the way it was meant to be experienced.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Read next: Travel Week 1, Part 3: Brussels

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Travel Week 1, Part 1: Barcelona

I’ve caught up on classes sufficiently enough to take a deep breath and recall the whirlwind adventure that was my travel week. Luckily, I was taking notes all the time while traveling to help me write blogs for class, so even though everything went so quickly and was over so fast, I can still remember what happened.

Roller coaster near the beach, Barcelona, Spain

We started in Barcelona, on Saturday, at two in the morning. Our plane from Venice, which was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, was severely delayed and when we finally landed in Barcelona, the metro system we’d been counting on catching to the city center and our hostel was no longer running. Once we figured out the confusing bus system (which we found was just as confusing in every other city we visited and therefore made a point to use the underground metro whenever possible), we got off at a stop about a mile away from our hostel and spent the next hour looking for it. The hostel turned out to be on a street off one of the main tourist drags, La Rambla, and stank of urine from the night’s debaucheries once we arrived. It was seemingly a shady place, but luckily we found our hostel was not–it was clean and efficient.

We quite reluctantly woke up early the next morning to see the sights, first heading to Park Guell. You’ve likely already read about my time there. I found it interesting, but I later realized that our group missed most of the park–the pretty part, ironically. We saw nothing people think of when they picture Park Guell–no mosaics, no Gaudi. Nevertheless, the view of the city couldn’t have been better from the top, and the musicians were entertaining.

Next, we made our way down the huge traffic thoroughfare Diagonal toward Sagrada Familia and, on our way, stumbled upon a Gaudi apartment building, a giant owl-shaped billboard, and a corner apartment building with turrets and spires like that of a Disney castle. We also saw a beautifully painted chapel designed by one of Gaudi’s teachers–one who was, clearly, more of a conventional mind than Gaudi himself. For there is no weirder sight than Sagrada Familia, the absurdly modern yet Gothic Gaudi-designed church standing unfinished in the middle of the city. Each side is different: one looks like the entrance to some modern by-the-thousands Protestant temple; another looks like a spoof of Notre Dame with its gargoyles of 30 different species springing out all over the place; a third side has no theme as of yet and is covered in scaffolding; the fourth and probably most famous side looks like it would earn a Best in Show award in the most prestigious sand castle contest in the world.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I unfortunately forgot my camera on this glorious day of sightseeing, but I luckily remembered to bring it the next morning when we took a bike tour of the city. We saw Sagrada Familia again on this tour, but everything else was new–the park in the center of the city, the zoo, the beach, the palace that once housed the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what would have been the most beautiful Gothic church to behold were the entire front not covered in scaffolding.

Monument for Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain
Surprise, surprise–nights in Barcelona are far more lively than days. I have a theory that all the locals sleep away hangovers when the sun is up and wake up at dusk to party all night, and given the prevalent smell of urine all over the city, I’m sure that’s true to some degree. My group stayed away from the party scene, however, and instead opted to get up early and take in the sights. When we did stay out, we spent our nights enjoying a dish of paella and some sangria or getting some treats at the local ice cream place. One night, we tried to see a light and fountain show in front of a government building, but we must not have read our guidebooks very thoroughly, because nothing happened after we sat in front of the fountain for a good 20 minutes.

Old Town, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona wasn’t my favorite stop during the travel week, but it was an interesting cultural experience. I was expecting the overall mood to be similar to that of Italy, given that the two countries share a carelessness for time and multitasking, preferring to languish in one activity at a time and stay out late. But I found Spain to be even more carefree than Italy, and it made me realize I could never fit in there. I’ve been too Americanized to believe relaxation is always better than stress.

Read Next: Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

The clash of the Italians

I had just finished my oil-covered bruschetta appetizer when the young waiter appeared to whisk our plates away and clear the table for our main course platters–gnocchi, rice, octopus. Before he could walk away, I stopped him by asking in my most polished Italian accent where I might find the bathroom.

I knew, however, all was already lost. It was clear by the way he silently appraised me with an up-and-down sweep of the eyes that to him I was just another foreign tourist. Perhaps it was my flared jeans, which had gone out of style two years ago in Italy, or the emerging holes at the hem of my black cotton v-neck t-shirt. To He Of The Impeccably-Pressed Black Button-Down, to this twentysomething Florentine waiter whose white apron remained spotless in the face of innumerable drink spills, I was an underling. He did not, nor would he ever, consider us kindred spirits.

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Nevertheless, out of politeness, he asked my parents and I where we were from and what brought us to Florence. My mom explained that she and my dad were on vacation from the States and that I was studying in Italy this term.

“Here?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “in a really small town. Near Venice.”

“Which town?”

You’ve never heard of it, I thought. “Paderno del Grappa? In the Veneto?”

At that last word he wrinkled his nose, as if physically repulsed. “The Veneto?” He waved his hand in a dismissive shooing motion. “Why would you want to study there?”

Florence, I knew he meant to imply, was the only place worth studying in all of Italy. And why not? It is, after all, the home of all the great Renaissance thinkers, painters, sculptors and architects and houses most of the relics of these great men within its city limits. Couple Florence’s historical significance with the fact that it’s cradled neatly in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany and that it’s made up almost entirely of red-roofed buildings and you’ve got yourself an extraordinarily inspiring place to think and create. Picture the perfect study spot, multiply it by a few square miles, add some mint-green and pale-orange stripes of marble, and viola! That’s Florence. A study spot for the ages.

I understood the waiter’s point, but the fact was, he wasn’t merely suggesting Florence was an inspiring city for scholars. He was suggesting the Veneto was ugly and drab. He wasn’t giving me helpful advice; he was introducing me to the subtle geographical warfare that’s present everywhere in Italy.

My friend Marco was born in Verona, a Veneto city whose residents unconditionally support their now-dismal home soccer team as a Chicago Cubs fan might have done in the 1990s. He was elated upon hearing I was to study in his home region; though he regretted I had to live in folksy Paderno del Grappa, he joyously announced Verona was a mere hour or two away by train. I told him I’d like to travel all around Italy while I was there: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples…

“DON’T go to Southern Italy, whatever you do,” he warned me in an ominous tone. “Not Naples, and especially not Sicily.” As far as Marco was concerned, Italy got worse the farther south you traveled.

Why do people in different regions of Italy despise those in other regions? To an outsider, the entirety of Italy is beautiful and worth visiting. Why do they refuse to admit that parts of Italy other than their own hometowns contain spots of interest and beauty? I understand a certain degree of rivalry; after all, we Northern Californians always joke that Southern Californians are too shallow, fake and sun-drenched for our taste. But we certainly don’t hate each other. I continually tell people that San Diego is one of the loveliest and most culturally rich places in the state. So, Italians, what gives?

To understand these ancient rivalries, Americans must understand that Italy is just that–ancient. Roots here run deep; families raised in a specific Italian town may not leave that town for 10 generations. Thus, allegiance to an Italian region morphs into defense for that region and, ultimately, denunciation of the rest of Italy. We Americans, ever a mobile people whose culture is decidedly not formed from ancient history, don’t understand these multiple generations never uprooting. When I have kids, they will most likely leave the nest and start their own lives somewhere else; their kids will probably do the same. We move on. Italians stay put.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe the Italians can learn something from us: geographic tolerance. That waiter doesn’t know what he’s missing if he’s never woken up to the sight of the snow-covered Dolomites out his bedroom window.

Photo credit: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/tourism/veneto/asolo

In the kitchen with Saverio

Jill Kimball

The recipe seems straightforward: dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, whatever else one desires. Stretch out the dough, pile it all on, stick it in the oven. Simple, right?

Not according to Gemmato Saverio, the owner of Pizzeria Cornaro in upscale Asolo. And he’s the ultimate authority: he’s from Southern Italy, the home of the pizza. Creating a decked-out flatbread that deserves the name “pizza” is an art form, like professional Riverdance or singing a Rossini aria. Making a real pizza, Saverio-style, requires an up-to-date weather forecast, a brick oven and toned wrist muscles.

I had only one of these things at my disposal—the brick oven—for my brief foray into the pizza-making world on this warm night in mid-October in Saverio’s cramped downstairs kitchen, but the chef didn’t seem to mind. He had the weather forecast at the ready, and he’d already made a dozen little mounds of dough that corresponded perfectly with the temperature outside. Our travel writing class, the professors and their families all awaited the opportunity to impress Saverio with our cooking skills.

“The main ingredients are the dough and the water, because the amounts change depending on the weather,” Marta translated to us Americans as Saverio spoke lightning-fast Italian. “If it’s cold, use more dough and hot water; if it’s hot, use less dough and cold water.”So it’s not just an art, I thought; it’s also a science. And as I held the little 200-gram ball of grain-flecked white dough in my hand, I understood why. Because Saverio had combined just the right amount of water with flour and yeast and salt, it was soft to the touch, yet so elastic that only an Exacto Knife could break through. Yikes. I wondered how long it would take to digest when it came out of the oven and into my mouth.

I was slightly intimidated when I saw Saverio flatten the pizza dough against the marble kitchen countertop. His hands moved at top speed, so fast that you could actually hear them swooshing in the air in time with the gentle swish-swish of the dough turning clockwise against the marble. Flattening “takes only 10 to 12 seconds per pizza,” he told us.

But it took me at least five minutes, what with all the giggling and the preventing the dough from sliding to the floor and the clumsy flattening of the uneven sections. Saverio shouted out one-word Italian phrases at random, apparently assuming we would understand and improve our technique if we listened. “Aspetta…più veloce…bravissima!” I frowned, but said “grazie (thank you)” and hoped it was the correct reply.In several metal compartments above the counter are all the pizza toppings a girl could want: marinara, mozzarella, tomato, onion, mushroom, artichoke and zucchini. I threw them all on, taking care to skimp on the mozzarella after Saverio tells us that “the pizza doesn’t cook right if there’s too much cheese.” But then he sees how little I’ve spread on the pizza and asks, “Un po’ più? (A little more?)” I nod, and he scoops up twice the cheese pieces I’d put on the pizza in the first place. In Italy, “a little” means “a lot”.

Saverio shoos us away from his kitchen when it’s time to shovel the pizzas into the oven, and he brandishes a terrifying six-foot-long metal wand to carefully deposit the pies deep within the bowels of the brick oven, where there’s a large, ash-laden fire waiting to warm them.

When I sit down at an upstairs table to enjoy the result of my hard work exactly seven minutes later, I marvel not at the art and science of pizza making, but with the unusually close contact an Italian chef has with the food when creating the perfect pizza. Usually there are knives, rolling pins or electric mixers between a cook and his food; with pizza, there is no barrier. The whole process, then, is less mechanical and more personal. But when Saverio smooshes his hands into the dough, when he pulls at it on the countertop, when he digs into all his bowls and metal compartments for the toppings, describing the science of proportion and the art of combinations, he neglects to mention the most important ingredient in his pizzas: love.

In Barcelona, shabby is chic

Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudi. Flagship of modern architecture. City by the beach. All of this, technically, is true, but it omits the many pieces of grit and grime that define the distinct personality of this Catalan city, pieces that were immediately evident in one short walk to Park Güell from the nearest underground metro station.

Even in this part of the city, where millions of foreign travelers tread every year, Barcelona doesn’t try to clean up its shabby exterior to attract outsiders. Broken windows have been boarded up but show no sign of plans for further repair; they’re already covered with years of graffiti, styled curse words in Catalan and Spanish in brilliant reds and greens. The cobblestoned sidewalks are worn with age and dangerously uneven; some sections have been carelessly filled in with misshapen chunks of concrete. Though the roads were still wet from nighttime street cleaners, back alleys and street corners still stank of urine. Apparently, Barcelona doesn’t care. It likes itself the way it is, and it wouldn’t mind being an unknown European city nobody bothered to visit. So why do people keep coming?

Source

We started the climb to the top of the hill where Park Güell sits, overlooking the city. As if hearing our audible panting, escalators appeared in the middle of the hilly street to whisk us up. We glided past a scarf-laden woman who couldn’t be any younger than 85 making her way down the hill via the stairs. With each step she winced, paused one or two seconds, then grabbed onto the rail with both hands and continued her descent. Why weren’t there escalators for the ride down, I wondered?

When we finally reached the top, I could see nothing but metal stairs and what looked like several piles of packed dirt, which I quickly realized was the foundation for the park’s dirt pathways above me. At the top of the stairs, paths led in several different directions, all promising sweeping views of the city below. We chose a route sparsely landscaped with tear-shaped green cactus plants. Their threatening thorns were ripped off in places, and the green surfaces were mutilated with crude etchings and Sharpie markings of initials and declarations in Catalan, Spanish, French, Basque, and languages I didn’t even recognize.

Several musicians had taken up residence along the spiral dirt path to the top of the park. A twentysomething dark-haired man with a goatee and a serene expression furrowed his brow as he concentrated his energy on the marimba on his lap, tapping up, down, back and forth on sections of the bowl-shaped metal instrument to produce a gong-like contemplative melody. Nearer the top, a stringy, leather-skinned man with a scraggly gray beard and several teeth missing attempted a rendition of “Moon River”, but more spit and Spanish curse words came out of the trumpet bell than did musical notes.

As I tiptoed warily up narrow, rough-hewn stone steps to the circular top of Park Güell without the aide of a railing, I knew the view would stun me. Before I turned around to look, I stood facing the other way, staring at the mutilated cacti and the bearded trumpeter and thinking the view couldn’t give me a better glimpse of Barcelona than did my trip to the top.

Italy’s newest theme park? Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The restaurant had taken advantage of every inch of its tiny corner-of-the-block space. Tables were crammed into the corners and smashed against the front windows, leaving barely enough space between them to allow waiters to pass. Across from our tiny sitting area, pushed uncomfortably underneath the stairs to the second floor bathrooms, was a huge case of chilled five-dollar water bottles. Customers’ expressions revealed feelings of worry, harriedness, stress and slight unease, with the exception of two couples in fluorescent Hawaiian shirts laughing and boisterously singing the chorus of “Hotel California” with the waiter.

No, this wasn’t Disneyland. This was Venice, Italy.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Or was it? I doubted many other Italian cities considered English their primary language and attracted about 20 times more annual visitors than permanent residents. Maybe this was Disneyland after all.

Though the claustrophobia of the restaurant did nothing to calm my nerves, it was at least an escape from the hordes of tourists and pigeons only a block away in St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visited spots in the city.

When you’ve only got a day to spend in Venice, as my friends and I did on this rainy Sunday, seeing the square is a visitor must—especially when the visitor in question, like me, has gazed at photos of the cathedral, the clock tower and the Doge’s Palace in wonder for years. I had dreamed about visiting Venice, particularly this venerated square where so many scholars and poets before me had passed through, since eighth grade, when I sang in a play called “Viva Vivaldi!” which celebrated the life of the famous Venetian composer and his lovely home turf.

Photo by Jill Kimball

With all my senses, I routinely imagined the red-roofed city’s atmosphere: the tiny, romantic canals lined with orange and yellow houses, clothes strung between the crumbling balconies; wafts of warm pasta and pesto sauces lingering in the air; a cool, salty breeze from the Grand Canal.When I finally arrived at the square in person, though, only two of my senses awakened: sight and smell. The former spotted dark, ominous clouds threatening to pour rain down on us, and the latter couldn’t ignore the repugnant rotten-egg smell emanating from the canal 200 feet away. To make matters worse, a large construction banner covered a ring of scaffolding around the red-brick bell tower, obscuring the full view of the square and making it even more difficult for the huge crowds to maneuver around each other.

Was Venice always like this, I wondered? What happened to “bella Venezia”, the city of Vivaldi, the capital of romance?

Here’s what happened: the Disneyland effect.

Photo by Jill Kimball

In June, city officials estimated that somewhere between 18 and 19 million people visit Venice every year. This statistic looks astronomical even by itself, but juxtaposed with the number of residents within city limits—62,000, according to a 2006 census—it seems downright insane. Actually, it closely resembles tourist figures at Disneyland. In 2007, nearly 17 million people visited Disneyland, which means in the high season visitors staying in hotels could easily have outnumbered the fewer than 350,000 Anaheim, Calif. Residents.

Venice wasn’t always so overrun with non-Italians, though. Fifty years ago, its population was twice that of today, and according to an article in the New York Times, the city saw half the amount of current annual tourists 20 years ago. No wonder my high school Spanish teacher, who visited Venice in the 1960s, reported a very different experience from mine: she called the canals and the square “charming” and said most people there were Italian, not foreign.

Venice has changed, and mostly for the worse. In 1960, I could have gotten off the train at Santa Lucia station and said, “What do I want to see first?” When my friends and I got off the train, we spent 10 minutes elbowing our way through the crowds to reach the station and my friend Mark aptly said, “So basically what it comes down to is, where do we want to wait in line first?”

Photo by Jill Kimball

We chose the hundred-person-long line to the baggage storage room. Then, we waited in line to buy tickets for the “vaporetti,” or water taxis. Then, we waited in line to get on the taxi. By the time we had waited in line twice more, once to ride the elevator to the top of the bell tower and again to see the unfurnished, musty and dark interior of the Doge’s palace, we were entirely too hungry and tired of crowds to bother with the line that snaked from the cathedral’s wrought iron entrance doors all the way to the edge of the canal.

There were no lines in front of the restaurant. But there was a Venetian waiter there who, when I tried to ask him about life in the lagoon city, drowned out my questions with talk of L.A. and another rousing chorus of “Hotel California”—all because I told him I was from San Francisco.

Clearly, Venice is no longer the cultural destination it once was—the city seems more American than it does Italian—but it is nevertheless home to 62,000 more people than Disneyland. It must, therefore, retain some sort of distinct local spirit, though it may be buried deep in the narrow, windy streets and tiny straits of water a little further from the Grand Canal. I hope to return to Venice in the off season and with a little more time on my hands to veer from the oft-tread path and discover the city as it once was. You’ll probably see me: I’ll be the underdressed American attempting fluid Italian sentences and murmuring under my breath about Disneyland tourist traps.