Archive for the 'Life Abroad' Category

07
Apr
11

Costa Rica Checklist

I’ve now been employed at the espresso company for eight whopping months.

In those eight months, the longest stretch of time off I’ve had was Thanksgiving weekend (into which I squeezed a trip to England).

That said, I can officially say I am now beyond burnt out.

Perhaps I’m spoiled, I dunno.  After college and life abroad, with my only full time stints of work being four months respectively as a cocktail waitress and a London office girl, this might be the first time in adulthood that I don’t feel like life is separated into little four-month compartments of travel, afternoon naps, and eating out of a can.

Which is why my happy ass is headed to Costa Rica for a well-earned week of leisure.  I plan swimming in waterfalls and staring at active volcanoes.  I plan on bland local food and bunking with lots of other poor 20-somethings.  I expect buyer’s remorse all the way leading up to this thing wondering if Costa Rica is a bit too much of an “obvious” destination.  Whatever.

I wanted to go to North Africa, but I’d hate to get civil unrest all over my luggage.  I also wanted to go to Turkey and Thailand, but the jet lag and plane costs don’t really justify trying to cram it into my measly 7-day window.

So, it’s off to the tropics I go.  As of yesterday, I finally had bullied my boss into approving a week (this was after my original three options sold out and I was worried I’d never get out of here), booked my plane ticket, got signed off by my doctor, and officially booked up with Gap Adventures for the Budget Costa Rica tour.  I also bought a camera ($145) and have been scoping the internet out for a pair of hiking sandals that won’t cost me $50.

From here, I’ll need to do the following:

  1. Purchase Travel Insurance
  2. Book my airport transfer
  3. Hiking sandals
  4. At least one pair of shorts
  5. Rain jacket
  6. Bug spray
  7. Convince self she’s not a fatty-fatty-fat-fat

The trip is May 7 – 14 and yes, I’m going alone.  I like traveling alone (remember Pueblo Ingles?  And, you know, that time I moved to London?)  The fact that my bank account has shrunk by half in the last 24 hours is a little jarring, but after all, I was saving specifically for this.

Honestly, I can’t wait.  Screeching monkeys, giant bugs, and Arenal volcano spitting lava at me be damned.  This is going to be awesome.

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03
Mar
11

Monies, Websites, and The Guv

Lately, I’ve been a little preoccupied with personal finance.  Perhaps it’s just being financially secure and independent for the first time in my life or maybe it’s just the obsessive way I enjoy counting and goals.

Either way, I’m loving it.

As a slightly obnoxious gift to you all, scroll to the bottom of the post for my favorite internet finds on my road to having put away nearly $2k (is it okay for me to call it “two large”?) in the last two months and saving for my trip to Costa Rica:

Now, this isn’t to say that I haven’t always been frugal or at least money-conscious.  The other day, I was contemplating with Gina on how we’ve handled money over the years, and she said that she probably wasn’t the best person in the world when it came to managing it.

The National Rail Logo - perhaps not coincidentally some backwards dollars

But, I disagree.  I’ve seen Gina go to bat for money in ways that would exhaust the average consumer.  Like the time she lobbied against the National Rail in England for months because an apparent ghost in King’s Cross lost our return tickets from Yorkshire (a great story on its own).

The woman is relentless.

But my favorite story by far was a joint effort when we railed for a £10 refund from a mini cab service in Islington run by a man known only as “The Guv.”

The day I moved into the synagogue out of sharing Gina’s room in Angel, we took a mini cab (for my American friends, this is a certified taxi service in England that is not the traditional black taxi car, but rather people in regular vehicles with licenses in their windows) to transport my luggage to Hackney.

Apparently Lenny McClean

The cabbie dropped us off relatively far away from where we were supposed to be (even though he had a GPS), and we ended up dragging my stuff all the way up Stamford Hill and then up the several flights of stairs to my room at the top of the house on our own, essentially laying waste to the extra funds we spent to take the damn cab.

When we went back to the cab agency (which was in walking distance of Gina’s flat) to request a refund for being dropped in the wrong damn place, we were basically told no, and that we’d have to take it up with “The Guv.”

We asked where he might be and the cryptic little Middle Eastern dude behind the counter lifted a shaky index finger to point to a closed, wooden door behind the desk.  “He ain’t here.”

Well, “ain’t here” pretty much sums up the Guv, because Gina wasn’t about to take no for an answer, and because it was on the walk into town, we made a point to pop in every time we were on the way to the tube, the movies, Mucho Mas for guacamole, or Starbucks for a taste of americana.

That door was never open.  Not once.  In a year, it was never open.

Also, the answer never changed.  Have to ask the Guv.  He ain’t here right now.

I just think that in light of my newfound expertise in the art of cherishing every penny, I’d really like that £10 back, but since we got so recognizable to the staff that they’d actually start to hide when we passed by after a while, it might be time to write it off.

And now for the websites:

Mint.com

This is my favorite.  It’s a free (FREE!) budgeting tool that pulls in all of your banking info, helps you create budgets and goals, and sends you emails when you buy too much white cheddar popcorn and you are $5 from the end of your grocery budget for the month and it’s only the 10th.  Highly recommend.

ING Direct

This is my new bank.  I’ll be done breaking up with BoA in the very near future, I think, but as of right now, I’m using BoA for all bill pay, putting $250 into a spending fund for groceries, gas, and all the etc. every two weeks, and everything else goes into my super handy categorized savings accounts (Globe Trotting, Emergency Fund, and Money to Invest).

Lending Club

This is peer-to-peer lending with a general annual return of about 10% (better than the stock market right now).  I’ve put in $250 just to see how it works.  I will report back in a month or two on the results.

My favorite money blogs –

Get Rich Slowly, The Simple Dollar, and I Will Teach You to be Rich

Happy saving!

17
Jan
11

Le Bourdon in my bonnet

 

The summer I lived in France featured countless steamy afternoons walking down into the gulley of Briancon for a scoop of creamy glace in a waffle cone.  My personal favorite was a decadent Snickers gelato, with thick swirls of hot caramel and giant, salty peanuts folded into chocolate and yogurt. 

We’d walk through the parc, with cool ribbons of liquid sugar running down our hands as we watched the swans in the lake and the inevitable soccer game on the field. 

There was one particular day, one of those bright blue jours d’ete, that during our walk through the winding sidewalks in the park, Gemma suddenly unleashed a panicked squeal, “watch out for Les Bourdons!  They like the sugar!”  She darted around me to avoid three tiny yellow bees, hovering harmlessly over the lake to our right.

“Buzz, buzz, buzz!” I teased, giving her a little pinch in the side.  Never much of one to find humor in these situations, she shot me a look and told me, in no uncertain terms, not to laugh.  “Once they sting you, it keeps hurting,” she said, solemnly.  I consented that this was true.

“I hate bugs,” Gemma muttered, taking a giant slurp of her sweet cream gelato.  Ten and surly, this was Gemma’s game.  She will one day be a master of stormy passion and the femme-francaise pout. 

The trick was to distract her or to get her to laugh.

“Even butterflies?” Noemie teased, “and the ladyladybugs.”

“Les Pupillions?” I guessed, appealing to Gemma’s love of being smarter than me when it came to French.

“PA-pillions,” she corrected, smirking despite herself. 

“Do you like bugs, Shannon?” Noemie asked, blue smurf custard giving her a charmingly bizarre goatee.

“Yes!” Gemma said, her face lighting up before I could deny it.  “You told Lucie you had TRAVEL  bugs.  Ew.  I bet they’re in your suitcase.”

Well, the truth of it is, they were in my suitcase, and in my clothes, and whether they liked it or not, multiplying by the day all over my two little French girls as we spent our lazy summer afternoons together.  I was dealing with a rather serious infestation of the travel bug, and we’ve all heard the rumor that there’s no getting rid of it.

When I was exiled back to Florida last year, I was so beaten down by the shitty economy and the special kind of hell that moving back home after being independent for five years brings to any functioning young adult that my travel bug went into hybernation to make room for the basic-survival bug that really needed to take over for a while.

It's true.

Well, after about five months here at my new job, I’ve got to say that all of my basic life reqirements are being met (and then some).  Last month, I was actually able to start tucking money away into a little tiered savings account I opened with ING Direct.  One of the tiers is labelled “Globe Trotting,” and man, my blood has started to heat back up to a rolling boil to get my ass back on the road, if only for a week or two here and there.

I think I’ve pretty firmly set my sights on South America for cheap and satisfying scenery change within the very small allotted vacation time I’ve got to work with here at work.  (at least for now)

I’m looking at a potential spring holiday in either Costa Rica or Guatemala.  I’d love to splurge and hike the Inca Trail or go learn Tango in Buenos Aires, but I need to start with the cheapest possible options since saving is still the ultimate goal … and eventually living abroad again.

So, for now, I’m dreaming of jungles and volcanos, and possibly sunbathing in a hammock in Montezuma or Antigua, and I have no intention of attempting to stifle my wanderlust.

I guess that means I do like bugs.

09
Apr
10

Vive la Marseille

I’ve been MIA on the blog, perhaps on purpose, for a few months now.  I’ve been trying to get my life in order, but the weather is heating up here in Tampa and it’s driven me to write.  I’m planted firmly in my desk chair looking out at the perfectly clear afternoon day and it’s making me nostalgic for last summer in France.

I remember wading through the ice cold foot bath at the base of the stairs at La Piscine Municpale in Chantemerle after checking on my kids and Nell to meet Lucie with her customary diet coke and giant sunglasses at a patio table she’d managed to swipe for us.  Reclining under the wide band of shade, even with all the complaints we both had about petty little details in our day-to-day existence as au pairs, it was still beautiful.  After a long stretch of silence while we looked out over the sparkling pool and our kids splashing away, she off-handedly remarked, “It’s a great summer.”

And it was.

Angie on the rocks in Vieux Port

Sure, it would end in drama for a few of us (everyone but Angelina).  There was a Norwegian girl who was forcibly evicted from her host home for daring to stand up to the bully of a mother, and in the final week before we parted, we accidentally flooded Lucie’s host house to the point where it was raining in the living room.  There was also this incredibly melodramatic interlude between us and some Moroccan jackass in the Old Town who not only got rude, but attempted to get physical.  And there was, of course, the trauma of having to leave my girls that final time after nine months of attachment.

But first, there was Marseille.  Beautiful, beautiful Marseille.

Lost in Marseille

It was supposed to have been the three of us; Angelina, Lucie, and myself taking a weekend trip to the South of France to see one of the oldest cities in the world.  We’d planned it from the week that we all met and were finally putting our plan into action when Lucie realized her host mom, Sabine, was never going to give her time off.  I mean, ever.  Lucie worked every single day of that summer apart from the weekend she went to Milano for a romantic tryst.

I was pretty upset that she couldn’t come, but Angie and I booked our 5 hour train tickets and a room in a greasy motel near a metro station anyway, and met at the crack of dawn to head to the coast equipped with our Torino standbys of Fruit and Nutella-filled crepes, and this time some toffee I’d made in a moment of absolute boredom at the house while my kids were off with their cousins.

It was unbelievably hot the day we went.  I think after the winter, shoulder-deep in snow, I’d made myself believe that it never got hot in my little corner of France, but I was deluded.  It was scorching.  Marseille was about ten times worse.

Palais du Longchamp

Angie and I staggered off of the train around midday, immediately realized that we wouldn’t be walking anywhere, as we had in Torino, and immediately purchased metro tickets.  We got off at the right stop, but the directions of the various locals were convoluted and we ended up walking well past our hotel in the staggering heat, with our bags, for the better part of an hour before finding the right place.  When we passed by the building with a giant question mark, we decided it was a sign from God to turn around and start over.

It would take pages to cover everything we experienced in Marseille, so I’ve chosen two of the most all-encompassing experiences to highlight below.

Bouillabaisse

You can’t go to Marseille and not eat the most famous dish ever associated with a city.  Of course, if you eat right on Vieux Port, it’s going to cost you about 35€ for a bowl of the succulent fish soup, so Angelina and I scoured the areas surrounding the port during the daylight hours.  We originally intended to eat right on this gorgeous wooden ship comme restaurant anchored in view of the Chateau d’Elf, but alas, that boat was holding a sold out event that night and it wasn’t a possibility.

What we ended up finding was a little restaurant hidden in the stacked, Mediterranean style streets behind the water offering three courses for a measly 15€.  The soup was incredible, as is to be expected, as were the oysters I ordered, and Angelina’s almond-stuffed clams.  Dessert was goat’s cheese in a rosemary and olive oil sauce with bits of bread.

My favorite part of the meal by far, though, was when Angelina went for a bathroom break and got stuck drinking champagne with the chef for twenty minutes while he offered to chauffeur her around the city with roses at her feet.  It is extra amusing because he pulled the same move when I went up there and seemed shocked that I was onto his game following the performance with my dinner buddy.  It was just so … French.

Swimming in the Riviera

Our full day in Marseille was fully exhausting.  So exhausting that in retrospect, I’m shocked we managed to do anything the following morning, prior to our 2pm train, other than lie face down in our hotel room, groaning.

I woke up early and walked to the market that was on the same street as our hotel to buy some baguettes, fruit, and fresh yogurt for breakfast, and after a hotel-bed picnic, the two of us somehow managed to mobilize and get ourselves packed up and on the correct bus to the beach.

We chose a stop near a ferris wheel and across the street from a famous memorial park.  We’d worn dresses for the commute and had to change on the beach, but with all the topless, skin happy people from 2 years old to well past 80 wandering around, it was a stress-free experience.

The water had to have been the most perfect temperature in nature.  I understood immediately after slipping off of one of the giant rocks that extended into the ocean why the South of France is so famous for its beaches, even when it shares an ocean with Italy, Greece, Malta, etc.

We lost track of time entirely, floating along in the perfect wake.  All of the stress from a summer of living with our employers, all of the soreness and heat from trudging around like mad tourists the previous day, all of the thoughts of the future just melted into the perfect blue water and drifted out to sea.

We made casual conversation with fellow beach goers, we sunned on the giant rocks, and we let the sand get between our toes without a worry in the world, even when we realized it was time to go.

We took the metro back to the big train station, and spent our last precious minutes in Marseille buying postcards, a French fashion magazine, and some candy and water for the ride.  We met an American woman headed to Aix-en-Provence on the train who talked a lot about herself and her plans over the first three hours of the ride.

We were originally to go to Aix (pronounced “eggs”).  It had only changed to Marseille in the last two weeks or so.

I think Angie and I realized at the very same moment as the American woman departed into the tiny provincial gare that our change of itinerary was maybe one of the best travel decisions we’d ever made.

15
Oct
09

Memories From my Front Stoop

The Green Space Across the Street from my House

The Green Space Across the Street from my House

In London, I lived at number 113,  Clapton Common.

I did not live in Clapham Common, which South of the River, and continually where NatWest sent my bank statements.  No, no, it was Clapton, compliments of Stamford Hill, a division of Hackney.  It was a winding stretch of road, cleaved in two by a big green space with benches and a murky pond where some particularly ugly swans liked to congregate, and I lived in the big red house comme synagogue wedged between the house with the smoke stack chimneys and what may or may not have been a mental hospital.

There are three steps leading to my front door.  At any given time, there may be a silver prius parked there, belonging to a Lithuanian boy named Vidas who provided our internet on the boarding house side of the synagogue, and a motorbike whose owner was always a mystery to me (but possibly belonged to Vidas’ brother, Edris).

There are four recycling bins on the left side of the drive, but only one garbage bin.  There is a stack of wood that will never be cleared away from the right side of the drive in the six months that I’m in residence.

Leave my house and walk for twenty minutes.  To the North, you’d find Finsbury Park and Manor House Station, to the South, you’d find a lovely little park called Springfield and the road to Hackney Proper, to the West, Stoke Newington and Islington a bit further on, and to the East there was Seven Sisters, which was where I caught the tube to work every morning.

My Neighbors

My Neighbors

I miss my little synagogue.  I miss stepping out on Saturday morning and having to dodge a game of kick-the-can in serious progress by a group of pre-pubescent Hasidic boys, or stepping in that evening and being able to hear chanting and catch a glimpse of something secret and ancient going on behind the door that led to the religious side of my house.

Only two of the people in my life ever saw my little synagogue. No one else will ever get the grand tour, and though I’ll never forget the key codes to get in the two front doors, never forget what it’s like to scale the winding staircase, or exactly how it felt to be in my bedroom as the heat toasted up, or as I pushed open the little window above my bed, I’ll probably never see or set foot in my old dwelling again.

The best I can do is share with you a few memories of those three front steps that have been hanging around the corners of my mind here lately, while I’m desperately trying to wish myself back in time.

Lights in the Rain

It Was Raining When I Left Oxford Street

It Was Raining When I Left Oxford Street

Early on after being hired by Digby Morgan, I got into the habit of walking back from the tube station instead of catching a bus.  It was about 30 minutes from Seven Sisters to my flat, but a nice walk after a full day sitting at a desk.  So be it if I occasionally had to dodge broken glass following either Arsenal or Tottenham games or if I was routinely harassed by the evangelist church group next to the tube station.

I bought a new coat with my first paycheck, a long overdue purchase as the temperature continued to plummet into the first winter of my life.  It’s gray, knee length, and pulls at the waist with a lovely A-line skirt.  It’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made, and I loved the feeling of walking home in it, my black boots clack-clacking on the rain soaked pavement.

On this particular evening, it had been drizzling when I left work to dive into the tube and was still mildly coming down when I got to Seven Sisters.  However, just as I got too far away from the bus stop to turn back, it turned into a torrential downpour, sharp and rapid and out of character for the steady light shower that is London weather.

Luckily, I kept a little black umbrella in my bag at all times, and was prepared to meet the onslaught for the remainder of my walk.

It was Friday night, and come rain or shine, the neighborhood was trickling out of their homes toward temple, shower caps affixed over the men’s traditional black hats.

It was a series of high holy days and a temporary extension had been built onto the left side of the house to accommodate the extra worshipers.  The orange glow throbbing from it as I approached the house comforted me.  All I wanted to do was dash upstairs, change into some pj’s and make myself a big mug of hot chocolate, Friday night expectations be damned.

However, as I neared the driveway, out of the front door came barreling the rotund, Hasidic figure of my landlord, Asher.  He was swaddled in black, and had his shower cap firmly in place.  He stopped just short of colliding with me, looking breathless and red.

“Hey, Ash,” I yelled over the water slapping down around our feet, making to step around him.  “Nasty night.”

“Can you help me?” he shouted, looking frantic.  “I cannot do it.  I cannot.”

He looked so incredibly desperate, staring at me under my little umbrella while the rain drenched him through.

“What can I do?” I asked.

Without a word, he turned on his heel and marched away from me, down to the basement door at the righthand corner of the house, where I knew his office lay.

As ominous as this could’ve been, I followed anyway, shirking my umbrella and descending into the dank cement under rooms.  I couldn’t see a damn thing.

“The women will bring their children in strollers.  They cannot leave them outside in this.  But, no one can see in here,” he started.

This was a true statement.

“Can you turn the lights on?  I cannot, the sun has gone down.”

I felt so deflated with relief I almost laughed.  I assured him that I would and began to grope around for the switch.  He sounded pained, “… it’s to the left.  I can’t show you.”

I took off my gloves and continued to feel around the bare wall, praying I didn’t encounter a bug or anything similar until finally, the room was flooded with a wave of fluorescent illumination.

We stood there in relief for a few minutes, Asher breathing a huge sigh as his soaked side curls hung limply by his ears.  I assured him it was no problem and then slowly made my way back upstairs.  I was glad to have been of assistance, but as I mulled it over while sipping my hot chocolate, I wondered if I hadn’t committed some sort of religious cheat.

The storm didn’t last more than an hour.

White Capped Morning


Looking Left From my Front Door on a Frosty Morning

Looking Left From my Front Door on a Frosty Morning

On Another Friday, about a month later, I was tying my coat around my waist with my usual early morning grog, telling myself that all I needed to do was get through the day.

James and I had been dating for about two weeks and we were planning a weekend getaway to Oxford directly following work.  I had a bag all packed and placed in the center of my bed, ready for a snatch and go after work.  I pulled a hat down over my ears, as the weather had gotten noticeably frigid of late, and dashed down the stairs, running late as usual.

However, I ground to a full stop on the top stair of the house, nearly taking a giant spill and killing myself.  Spread out before me in a translucent white haze, was the first snow I’d seen in my life.

The Green Across the Street, No Longer so Green

The Green Across the Street, No Longer so Green

It welled up in me like a big, warm balloon, the impression of it.  It was barely a frost, but it was the first white morning of my life.  I stood paralyzed for a few minutes before deciding to drop  my things, tear up the stairs, and dig my camera out of my weekend bag.  I snapped a few blurry photos of the scene before finally heading out in a haze to work.

I’d hold it inside of me forever, the appearance of that feeble layer of winter clinging to the grass in the park and the roofs of the cars on the street.  I savored the smell of the bakery as I passed by, overwhelmed with the ambiance of the moment and underwhelmed with the fact that I was going to be late (again).

In the coming months, when I stood shoulder deep in the Alpine Snow in the mountains of France, I’d think that nothing had matched the thrill of that first sighting.

By the time I got to Oxford Street, all the snow had melted.

01
Oct
09

The Interview Blues are Better in London

The Crypt at St. Pancras

The Crypt at St. Pancras

There’s this vivid memory in the back of my mind that’s been playing over and over for the past few weeks – I’m sitting on stone steps inside the crypt at St. Pancras eating a Valentino sandwich from Pret a Manger while art nouveau light fixtures sizzle and glow behind me.  I’m completely despondent.  My life is in shambles. 

I’m wearing a high necked black muslin blouse, indigo dyed skinny jeans, and knee high black leather boots.  You’d never know that I was a month behind on rent, terrified of my only source of income, and had just had the worst job interview of my life.  The light fixtures in the background seemed sympathetic with their mosquito-zapper sounds and half hearted flickers.  The sandwich was going to forgo politeness and hold onto its perky flavor.
I’d gotten on the wrong bus when I left Oxford Circus, which is how I ended up in King’s Cross, and for some reason had decided to wander into a crypt.  The fact that the crypt was full of light instead of dead people was an unexpected surprise.  I wonder now where the hell the dead people were.  There was a stack of crumbled tombstones in a blocked off walkway in the catacombs. 
I’d gone in to interview at Digby Morgan with the highest of hopes, but the interview was way more intense than I’d bargained for, and my personality seemed to have fallen flat on its face with every single interviewer I’d met with (from a rota of four).  I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with myself or how I was meant to survive.  But, I was absolutely certain that I’d tanked that interview.
 
To top it off, the art fixtures were just awful.  I felt bad for the displaced dead people for the sake of something that wasn’t even good.  I finished my sandwich, collapsed onto a 436 (which is the right bus), and crawled back to my little room above a synagogue to fall asleep, knowing that Maggie’s was on the other end of consciousness, just revving up for new doses of danger and insanity.
 
Imagine how shocked I was when I woke up to the sound of my ancient, scotch-taped-together phone ringing.  Trying to ring … it sounded kind of like a Disney bluebird being held underwater by force.  It was Michelle.  She said she was impressed by my interview!  They wanted to have me back!  What the eff!
 
Obviously the story goes that I got the job.  The second interview presented me being very serious and not trying to make any jokes at all, desperate to be offered the position, then being dragged back into the main office to meet people I was going to immediately forget and told to show up on Monday, bright and early.
 
Imagine that.  I wouldn’t have to be deported for bankruptcy afterall!  And even better, my new job would be all about how to write a good resume, how to do well in an interview, and how to find the good jobs.  Little did I know AIG would collapse in the next three days, and Lehman Brothers would follow it before I started my shiny new job just in time to meet the influx of the recently unemployed.
 
So, here I am, in Tampa, crashing with my family because my savings went into that lovely lung infection I caught in Holland.  I’m struggling to find work, even though I almost got a kick ass job doing training media for Citigroup at $40k.  Lost out to a guy because he speaks Portuguese and the main client is Brazil.  Guess I can’t beat myself up about that too much.
 
My main motivation is to make enough money to get the hell back out of here, preferably back to London and interning at some amazing news network or magazine.  Being realistic is no fun.
 
The Building I worked in

The Building I worked in

But maybe I’m not desperate enough.  Maybe the need for work isn’t so urgent that I might starve or be homeless without it, and therefore, I cannot get it.   I’m not sure, but my desperation is slowly climbing due to just the stagnant nature of my day to day life, harassing recruiters (especially now that I know exactly how their game is played), and applying to jobs like mad.

 
There are always a few leads that seem promising, but I’m starting to lose my gusto, especially since, unlike with London, I have no motivation to really live my life here in Florida. 
 
Anyway, I should comfort myself with a look back at my first day at work in London.  I should remember punching in the password to get the door to open at Roxburghe House and taking the tiny, mirror panelled elevator up to the fifth floor, saying hi to Jenna at reception and being taken back to my new desk. 
 
I should remember how things fall into the places where they’re supposed to if you try hard enough.  But all I can remember tonight is how much I want to be back in my little room in London, going to sleep early because I have to head to Oxford Street in the morning.
09
Aug
09

Bel Torino

View from the Mole

I’ve been to Turin many, many times before yesterday, but I can safely say that yesterday was the first time I’ve ever visited.

On Friday afternoon, I got a text from Angelina asking me if I wanted to make the trip to our nearest neighboring city at the weekend.  We decided to meet up at Briançon’s famed McDonald’s for a quick bite and some ramshackle planning.  We agreed to meet the following morning at 7:15am and head up to Oulx to catch the train.  We had a tentative list of destinations to hit in Torino, weather and distance depending.

The forecast predicted this entire weekend to be a cold, wet blast of thunderstorms, so when I woke up yesterday morning to the rumble of the oncoming gale in the distance, I decided on a black wool dress with long sleeves, tights, and my rubber ballet flats, which are great in the rain since they’re waterproof.  I tossed a hat, a scarf, and an umbrella into my bag for good measure, as the morning sky was already shining an ominous black-gray, and quickly threw together two nutella-filled crepes, grabbed two green apples, and two tiny bottles of water.

Coffee on the Po

Coffee on the Po

I set out to meet Angelina in the parking lot of the same McDonald’s, which is a short walk from her host family’s house, attempting to consume as much of my half of the breakfast fare as possible while overcoming my early-morning grog.

The drive up to Oulx was chatty and surprisingly dry (thank all that’s holy), as we wound through the roads I’ll have covered three days in a row by this time tomorrow, since I have to pick up Lucie from her weekend in Milan at 8:30 tonight.  The train journey was similarly lovely as we wound through the Italian borderlands into Torino, a sprawling view of fog and rain clouds clinging the mountain scape outside of our little window.  We chatted amiably throughout the journey about our host families, politics, and our plans upon returning home at the end of the summer.

We rolled into Porta Nuova at just before ten o’clock, and were shocked to see that instead of threatening rain clouds, a pale blue sky was shining through the streaks of clouds.  As we hurried through the marble and stone station out into the morning air, I suggested that we detour to the right before hitting any of our planned venues to see the Savoys’ Valentino Park on the River Po that we’d both thought would be a pointless endeavor in the rain.

Beautiful Valentino Park

Beautiful Valentino Park

On the way, we stopped at a small café to buy some morning java, since I’d been complaining pretty non-stop about how tired I still felt.  Clearly inequipped for to-go orders, the man behind the counter poured our creamy cappuccinos into doubled up plastic cups, then covered the top in aluminum foil.  Rather industrious of him, if I do say so, and all for only 1€ each.

We held tight to the cappuccinos as we navigated our way into the sprawling green park, and searched for the perfect place to savor them.  We almost immediately found a lovely stone terrace that stretched out over the Po, and deigned it worthy of our morning coffee and the first photos of the day.

The park, as we wandered through, seemed to be strategically revealing its charms to us in progressively more impressive discoveries, perhaps appropriate for the gardens surrounding a 13th century palace owned by one of the most formidable families in history.

After encountering the moldering stone seats on the cusp of the river, the fruit trees, the Asian-styled bridges and rock gardens, the perfectly manicured flowerbeds, and after spotting two men in period costume who were apparently attending a wedding on the grounds – we saw the castle.  Or rather, what we thought was the castle.

Overwhelmed in the Medieval Village

Overwhelmed in the Medieval Village

A quick inspection of the grounds surrounding it showed us that we had not stumbled onto a crumbling building, but what seemed to be a preserved medieval village at the foot of the castle’s hill.  We wandered through the cobbled steps, the quickly escalating temperature causing us to roll up our sleeves as we went and taking in the elaborately painted walls and ceilings, the restored fountains and doorframes, cellars, and artifacts.

Angelina took particularly to a bronze pomegranite tree in the center of a fountain with gentle flows of water spouting from its lower branches.  It was all rather fairy tale.

We attempted to head up to the castle at the top of the hill, next, but were stopped by an accordion playing gypsy man who was telling us, in broken French, that the building is closed.  He then went on an equally incomprehensible rant in bad French that we took to be a list of all the other great buildings in great cities in the world that would be open to the public.  I’m still not sure if he was telling the truth, but we both decided not to bother trying to climb the hill again, since it clearly seemed to upset him.

I pretty much spent the entire time he was attempting to communicate with us staring at an aged photo glued to the inside of his accordion of a young woman in a hijab, smirking at the camera.

As we made our way back to the park entrance, I insisted on ducking behind a glade in the river overhang so I could take off my tights.  The sun had gotten unbelievably strong over the past hour, and I told Angelina that maybe before we stopped off to eat the lunch she’d packed for us, I should buy a cheap skirt or dress to avoid melting in the remainder of the day.

She seemed relieved by the suggestion and said she’d also like to buy a short-sleeved shirt and maybe some flip flops, since we were so ill-equipped for the turn the weather was taking.  We walked back to the train station and then north, through the expanse of Torino’s impressive plaza outlay toward Via Roma where Angelina said the cheap shops would be.

Angelina Scouring the Map in the Streets of Torino

Angelina Scouring the Map in the Streets of Torino

Unfortunately, pickings were slim, and we ended up in this awful little shop.  I ended up buying a blue dress that isn’t bad, all in all, but was falling apart even before I got it out of the shop (and I mean that quite literally, the strap broke when I changed into it after purchasing and Angelina had to tie it in a knot).  I’m still wondering if I should’ve bought the orange dress instead, which was the same design, but way shorter and with sturdier straps.  I guess I wanted to be able to sit down for the rest of the day without being horrifically self conscious.  I might try to repair it today if I get a chance.

In My New Dress, Taking a Break in Front of Torinos Roman Gate

In My New Dress, Taking a Break in Front of Torino's Roman Gate

My shoes suddenly were less than perfect, since the rubber tends to rub against bare heels, but I couldn’t afford the expense of buying flip flops too after having just shelled out 15€ on a dress that was already coming to pieces.  At least they matched, and I can’t even describe the immense amount of relief it was to change into a light, summery dress in that heat from the black wool.

We set up our picnic on the side of the Palazzo Madama, which was one of our top choices of things to see in town anyway, and luckily happened to be right across the street from where we’d bought our new clothes.  Angelina had prepared a giant salad of rice, corn, tomatoes, and tuna which was absolutely perfect considering how famished we were feeling (and how long ago that nutella crepe seemed).  She also brought along fresh apricots and plums.

We leaned against the cold stone of the Palazzo while we ate and watched children run through the water spouts coming out of the stones in the plaza, people walking their dogs through a lovely afternoon, and couples collapsing onto the wooden benches in the sun to take a break from weekend shopping.  I decided that it was necessary to tell someone how I was feeling, and took a moment to text James, letting him know that the forecast had lied … it was a beautiful day in Torino.

A Corner Window in the Palazzo Madama

Upon packing up the remains of our lunch, we paid the 6€ fare to get into the Palazzo and began to wander through the rooms of the house, checking out artifacts along the way.  To be completely frank, the displays in the museum weren’t that great.  In fact, as Angelina pointed out later, it was almost like someone just wanted to confirm that kitsch has existed throughout all time.

But the rooms … the rooms were magnificent.  Madama is interesting from the oustide, as it was once an antiquity of a castle, but now hosts a flashy 17th century facade … that only covers the front.  So it literally has a glorious white marble palace in front and a brick fortress in the back.  But, the centuries of history behind it have produced rooms to stop the heart, even if the art and … numerous ceramic grandma figurines inside aren’t doing much for you.

Above us in the Window-Room

Above us in the Window-Room

We decided that the National Cinema Museum would be our next stop.  I honestly didn’t have high hopes for this one, but it’s located inside the Mole Antoniella, which is the highest point in Torino, and offers a spectacular panorama of the city.

It was a bit of a trek to get there, since we got turned around multiple times (trying to hit the Cathedral of San Lorenzo on the way, but it was closed when we got there).  We even stopped at one point and Angelina bought a coconut yogurt drink thing to refresh herself before continuing on.  I took the more economic (cheap) route and refilled my tiny water bottle about four times in a constant-stream drinking fountain on one of the side streets.  (This might sound unhygienic to my American friends, but it’s incredibly common out here, and there are dozens of those fountains in and around my own village that I’ve used many times without danger of illness or death.)

Chaplins Hat!

Chaplin's Hat!

Without enacting a play-by-play, I have to say that I was grossly incorrect about the cinema museum, and that it was easily the coolest part of the day.  From the “archeology of cinema” exhibit at the front (including a huge, interactive camera obscura), to every hands-on, comedically administered feature throughout, I was incredibly impressed, and enjoyed every minute of it.

But, by the time we’d finished our tour and were in line waiting for the lift to the top of the Mole, we’d decided maybe it was time to wrap up the day.  Our feet were aching, and though the Egyptian museum seemed amazing and definitely worth a visit, we were both on the brink of collapse after around seven hours exploring the city on foot.

The elevator is made of a thick crystal that allows the riders to get a view of the dome as they slide up it.  Honestly, I found this entirely terrifying and it made the journey feel less stable, somehow, but it was a sight to behold.

The panorama of Torino was nice.  Kind of underwhelming as I do think that it’s much more beautiful at ground level, and because nothing lives up to the view I got of Oxford last December when James and I stumbled onto an ancient bell tower that allowed us access right up to the top.

A transplanted Spaghetti Western Saloon set in the museum

A transplanted Spaghetti Western Saloon set in the museum

We took a few photos and then shuffled back down, both ready to just book it back to the station and find out what time the next train to Oulx was, and then get dinner as quickly as possible.

The walk probably took us half an hour, but it felt like a four day trek.  We were both whimpering with the pain in our feet and the total bodily exhaustion we felt as we tripped over Italian streets and parks and shopping centers, attempting to get back to Porta Nuova in one piece.

Though we’d been intending to find train times, then have a relaxing dinner while we waited, we decided upon (finally!) reaching the station, to take the train that was arriving in 15 minutes and just buy a quick combo meal from a restaurant on the platform called Mr. Panino.

The Museum had specialized viewing for each genre.  Velvet bed for Romance, Animal Print thrones for Horror, and Toilet Seats (of course) for Comedy

The Museum had specialized viewing for each genre. Velvet bed for Romance, Animal Print thrones for Horror, and Toilet Seats (of course) for Comedy

I think this was the right choice.  We collapsed into the seats on the familiar double-decker Trenitalia service and dug into our food with such gusto that I think we were unaware of anything else until it was completely gone.  From that point it was just silent collapse waiting for Oulx to appear outside of the train window.

It was raining on the drive back down the mountain.  Not heavily, but enough to completely fog up the windows on my car.  This was made extra inconvenient by some famous marathon race going on down the mountain and in the middle of the already narrow road right into Briançon.  I didn’t hit anyone, but there were some near misses.

What a Day :)

As I bumped and putted over the pot holes, following dropping Angelina back off at her door, I could feel the resolve of staying conscious slowly leaving my body.  I got to the house, intending to eat a big bowl of spinach or tomatoes or something to replenish, but after a few minutes conversation with the family, I knew I couldn’t stay awake any longer, and decided to call it quits.

I’m still sore this morning, and I’m eyeing the blue dress from Torino wondering if I should begin the repair process.  There are kids singing Hannah Montana loudly above me and I kinda want everyone to just vanish so I can laze around today and eat a bunch of their food … but that probably won’t happen.

It’s not raining today.  It’s beautiful outside.  But, as much as I appreciate it, I think I just need a nap before making that trip up to Oulx one more time this weekend.




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