A Random Act of Stranger Kindness

How sweet is this:
A complete stranger took a photo of a friend and I while we threw our coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. I asked her to WhatsApp me the photo but, while entering my phone number into her phone, I entered the prefix “00” instead of “+”, so the message never came through. Realizing that, the lady sent me an MMS to make sure I got the photo!
In case you haven’t seen the Trevi Fountain, here’s a photo. No wonder Anita Ekberg jumped in there.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

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Up Above

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Flying up above the clouds and seeing how beautiful the world is, it’s very hard to imagine that people down below can be so horrible to each other, and that too many people value money above all else, even lives. From up there the view is breathtaking: stretches of various shades of green, mountain peaks covered in bright white snow like icing on cake, the turquoise sea tickling the beige sand with white foam, the horizon outlined in the colors of the rainbow at dawn, the setting sun coloring the world orange and peach. When I see such masterpieces out of the window of a plane, “What a Wonderful World” starts playing in my head because it really is a wonderful world. It’s humans who destroy it and perpetuate horror.

On my way back home yesterday I could only feel grateful for being gifted the view out the plane window and wondered if others don’t see what I see, because if everyone could see it then maybe humans wouldn’t be so cruel. The flight attendants interrupted my train of thought. “Would you like something to drink and a bag of crisps?” Oh, no. I thought. Flagship airline going to be cheap and not even give us a sandwich like last time? I was hungry. I was very hungry. Having had four scoops of gelatto for lunch and half a cannolo for dessert some eight hours earlier, I devoured the potato chips but my stomach still hurt from hunger. It would be nearly two hours before I could eat, and I heard the flight attendants tell the guy in front of me that there were no extra bags of crisps. Cheapos, I thought, and sat there half admiring the view, half being cranky and unable to concentrate – I was hungry!

Not a half hour later the attendants were pushing their cart down the isle again. “Would you like something to drink?” I thought they were lying about the crisps, that they had probably been instructed not to give out extra ones. It was 20:30 and it was likely that many passengers hadn’t had a proper meal. By then I was rather irritated, not that I am any less when I am famished. Then I figured there would be no harm in kindly asking, “Do you have anything to eat? I already had crisps but I am very hungry.” The pretty, tall, blond attendant looked at me with her big blue eyes for a second before saying, “I have a sandwich left over from the previous flight. Would you-” I was already nodding and saying, “Yes, please!” She walked to the back of the plane and returned a few seconds later to hand me the little cellophane wrapped paper box. I gobbled down the chicken sandwich and felt immense gratitude as well as some embarrassment for having being judgmental.

The setting sun wasn’t visible from below the thick ceiling of clouds that covered Amsterdam when we landed. I hadn’t had the chance to thank the attendant again and hoped she would be up front on my way out. Sure enough, there she was, standing next to a smiling pilot, so I thanked her very much for her kindness. She didn’t seem to think it was a big deal that she had satisfied my hunger and certainly didn’t know that she had lit a tiny candle of kindness in our often dark world. Then again, she spends a lot of time up above seeing what I only see sometimes, and maybe she sees the world as lit by that candle anyway and thinks that kindness should be the norm.

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I Miss You, New York

A view from Brooklyn

A view from Brooklyn

Some girl friends and I were walking down the street in the Meat Packing District on a Saturday night when a couple burst through a door and flew past us against a parked car. They were all over each other like there was no tomorrow – and no one watching – and fell to the ground while still going at it, and weren’t it for a man who pulled them apart they would have had sex on the sidewalk in front of whomever cared to watch. We were stunned. As for me, it was my first time out in NYC and I wasn’t yet 18, which unfortunately meant I couldn’t get in anywhere – prudish Americans!

That memory will always be with me, along with all the memories from my four years living in Manhattan. As my seventh anniversary of leaving New York approaches, the City is on my mind more than ever and I miss it terribly. New York is a special place and despite the American prudishness I never saw a judgmental cloud hover above New York. There are a lot of crazy people in the City, and a lot of people doing crazy things, and after a while you get used to it. Bra-less lady jogging in a mesh top? Sure, why not. Large bearded dude dressed in a short skirt and heels? Go to town, man. Porn stars, uh, “entertaining” each other at their porn star friend’s birthday party? Everything and anything goes in New York.

Now here I am in Amsterdam, which so many people think is a crazy place for reasons I can’t quite understand. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Amsterdam, but there a permanent judgmental cloud hovers above life here, and it’s impossible not to notice how conservative Dutch society is or to brush off the small-town mentality, even if something like 53% of Amsterdam’s population is foreign. A Dutch saying that goes “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg” (“act normally, that’s crazy enough”) seems impregnated in the walls of every brown cafe and in the streets. Legalized weed and prostitution? So what. They’re legalized because it’s pragmatic. As one police officer told me, “what are you going to do, just close the hundreds of coffee shops?” In fact, it seems the basis of existence for everything here is pragmatism. Life, relationships, work, whatever. Passion or love don’t factor in. Ever.

The thing is sometimes I try to gather energy to do things, like write or update my business model or whatever, and the only way I can do it is to put myself in a New York state of mind. New York does have that special energy that flows all around and gets into you, and though it did become overwhelming, I miss it! The places where I’ve lived in Europe have their own charm, of course, but sometimes I just feel the lack of a kick in the butt around here – though Paris did feel rather alive. There’s something wonderful about Amsterdam’s laid back atmosphere but at times it feels just a bit too laid back, a bit too provincial really, and of course the mind and the heart start having a conversation and all hell breaks loose, and questions like “why am I here again?” start to pop up. To be fair, this sort of question seems common among those of us who hop countries; 0nce you discover you can move then you feel like you can always move, and that’s one slippery slope. It’s often not where you are physically but in what state of mind you are that makes a difference, so it’s very important to look inward before whipping out the map and starting to pack one’s bags.

Someone said to me that they gave Amsterdam one more summer before returning to their home country, and somehow everything worked out. However, in my case there isn’t even a “home” to go back to, really – New York is as close as it gets but since I never became an American citizen it’s not as easy as going back, which isn’t nearly as bad as having given up my rent stabilized apartment in the Upper West Side, which is, dear reader, the real tragedy. But sometimes we give up everything for love and that has its own merits. In fact, I believe it’s called “living life.” And maybe that’s it: that sort of “go-for-it!” attitude isn’t to be found in the Netherlands and that’s probably what feels like the biggest tragedy here. Pragmatism rules mind and heart and it puts out that fire that makes life worth living, it takes away some of the pleasure of existing. Dealing with so much frigidity towards life can be very difficult for those of us who look around at the world and think, “The world is beautiful and I’m blessed to be alive.”

For now I’ll continue watching back-to-back episodes of “Sex and the City” to replenish my energy levels and inner fabulousness, and continue tapping into memories of times with my fabulous friends, all of whom I miss very, very much.

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2015 Went on

Well, hello there! It’s been a while.

Before I got some things off my chest, I was telling you about my 35-km walk in Tuscany. I made it to San Quirico D’Orcia by 21:30 that night, only to be denied lodging by the Catholic hostel where I’d confirmed a bed – I should have know better than to believe an email confirmation would be of use in Italy, so my fault. I ended up spending two nights at Villa il Cedro, a stinking joint I wouldn’t recommend if it was the only place open in a snow storm, but my injured feet refused to carry me plus my backpack anywhere.

The stories are many so I’m afraid I might not get to most, at least not for a while. As I mentioned I went to Italy on a 1-way ticket ready for whatever might come my way, which is how I came to spend eleven fantastic weeks on the road. There were rough times and fun times, great company and lonely times, things I’m proud of and things I wouldn’t recommend to any children I may have. Then it was back to Amsterdam and to a real rough time. After being let down by someone I considered a friend, I ended up living my worst nightmare: I had no place to live. To top it off finding housing in Amsterdam is an absolute bitch.

Thankfully true friends and their friends, and even strangers who would become friends helped me out, and I’ll be forever immensely grateful to those people – eternally and immensely grateful like you cannot imagine. But we can choose to learn from any experience, so I’m thankful for all the lessons.

There would be great news and some horrible news before the end of the year, which is to say that life kept on going, if at times through to the end for some. What I got out of it all is: we can’t wait for everything to come together for us to start living life because that doesn’t happen. Life really is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans, like John Lennon said. We do need to make the best of life before it ends, to hug those we love and to get rotten people out of our lives.

Now here we are in a new year altogether. I’m back in Amsterdam waxing philosophical with no hot water in my half organized apartment, nursing a recently sprained ankle and desperate to wash my hair! You, dear reader, wherever in the world, are hopefully already having a wonderful 2016.

Till next time!

In memory of my grandparents

In memory of my grandparents and of departed fathers

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Filed under Amsterdam, Current Happenings, General, Travel

Get Your Own Shoes

If you take my [parking] spot, take also my handicap.

If you take my [parking] spot, take also my handicap.

Hello dear reader,

I’m sorry for being absent but as I mentioned in the past, I get caught up living life and to be frank, there’s something that’s been bothering me regarding my posts, and perhaps it will come off as a rant, but whatcha gonna do. You see, people think that I travel a lot, therefore I must be rich. This annoys me not only because I don’t even travel that much but because I often get all sorts of demented comments such as, “You’re so lucky! I wish I had the kind of money and time you have.”

Really? Really?

All that means, really, is that the idiot saying that knows squat about travel or me, and I wouldn’t care about it if only those people would leave me alone. The trouble is that most people think travel is the same as going on vacation, and for most people going on vacation means booking an expensive hotel, buying overpriced “local” crap and eating at authentic tourist trap restaurants. Those people have no idea that I (and people who travel like me) easily travel for a week on what they spend per day, that I stay at hostels or couchsurf, buying dinner or gifts for my hosts, and that I eat at local joints tourists might never know exist because these places are far from the touristy parts of town.

This “lucky” lifestyle actually comes with sacrifices and inconveniences, such as sometimes not having a home to go back to, being awoken by drunk Irish girls at hostels or finding oneself sleeping amid dust bunnies on a stranger’s floor. But all that – and lots more – comes with the package, and one deals. But most people don’t want any part of the sacrifices, they just want the benefits. A former coworker, for instance, talking about how she envied my travels, was astounded to find out what a hostel is and that people actually choose to stay in them, and said she’d never be able to share a room with strangers. What can I say…

Well, actually, there is something I have wanted to say for a long time now to those people: fuck off. You see, lots of nice people give me feedback on my stories, on and off line, but I also often hear from envious folks and no matter how many times I explain that budget travel is a choice anyone, including them, can make, these folks prefer to believe they’re victims of destiny who were dealt a bad hand, unlike me with my private jet and trust fund, or so they seem to believe. I normally try to help these people see the possibilities because it’s a beautiful world out there but the conversation eventually culminates with them brushing me off by telling me, “You’re so lucky!”

If by “lucky” they mean “person who works hard,” then sure. Or “person who has slept at airports to save for travel,” then right on. Or maybe “person who found herself locked out on New Year’s Eve in Rio,” then you got it! Otherwise, enough. Quit it coz I’ve had it.

The majority of humans on Earth need to work and make sacrifices for what they want. I’m one of those people, and if further explanation is necessary to make the point clear, I’ll illustrate one big difference (among many) between the envious and me (and people like me?): the self-proclaimed unlucky see a flat screen TV and save money to buy it. People like me see the same TV and imagine how long we could travel for with the money spent on said TV – we then work to save for travel. Different priorities is all it is.

In sum, anyone unhappy with their lives needs to take responsibility for their choices, and if anyone wants to wear my shoes they’ll have to learn to put up with blisters. But really, get your own shoes.

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September 1, 2015 · 12:10

The Time I Walked 35 Kilometers

A villa along the way

A villa along the way

As I mentioned previously, Radicofani is a town on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which begins in Canterbury, England, and ends in Jerusalem, though these days most pilgrims stop in Rome as it’s too dangerous to proceed to the Middle East.

Feeling immensely grateful for all my blessings, I felt I’d ended up in Radicofani for a reason: to express gratitude as a pilgrim. I was familiar with El Camino de Santiago, which actually joins the Via Francigena at some point, and I thought walking alone would be a tremendous spiritual experience. I did some research and found out that it wasn’t bad luck after all to walk “backwards,” that is, north towards Siena instead of south towards Rome, where I’d just been for a wedding. There was little information on the route but I learned that it was well-marked in both directions. There was no physical map to be found in Radicofani and surroundings, though, so I took screenshots of a hand-drawn map with my smartphone and wrote down southbound directions I’d found online – I’d just need to follow them backwards.

North or South? One of a few types of marking

North or South? One of a few types of marking

Forty minutes into my walk I stood petrified before a chicken wire fence. I’d walked 20 minutes down a steep dirt road covered in gravel and loose rocks, and was hoping that I was not in fact lost, but that a mean person had blocked the Via Francigena with the fence. Realizing that my maps and instructions were totally useless, I eventually admitted that, yup, I was lost and would indeed have to walk back up the hill. I was completely alone amidst fields and drenched in sweat, and my back was killing me. This wasn’t just another “WTF was I thinking?!” moment, it was a WTF crisis and I wanted to cry.

But crying wasn’t going to get me any farther along the remaining 30+ kilometers of journey and it was already 10:30, so I half climbed up the hill using my hands to steady myself till I was back on the right path. I’d get lost a few more times along the way, as the northbound signs aren’t as precise (when present) as those southbound, but onwards and upwards – often literally. At one point I felt like that person in movies whose point of view we rarely get to see: I appeared out of nowhere from behind bushes and asked the men at a Via Cassia gas station if I could use their bathroom. Afterwards I walked away and disappeared behind more bushes as I started off on the side of the highway, with the next exit many kilometers to come. The men stood and stared at me curiously, and watched me go with a “WTF?” look on their faces (I looked back).

Along the way a group of four brightly dressed and chirpy Italian woman pilgrims were so surprised at my lone pilgrim “courage,” as they put it, that they asked to take pictures with me. I passed and chatted with a few other pilgrims but for the most part I was alone through rolling hills and by the side of roads. Except for a couple of assholes, drivers were very respectful and kept a very good distance from me, which was heartwarming.

Castiglione d'Orcia, where I should have ended up if the map were correct, or if I knew how to read it.

Castiglione d’Orcia, where I’d have passed through if my map had been correct, or if I knew how to read said map.

Some six hours into the pilgrimage I got totally lost and found no signs anywhere. My feet were threatening to detach from my ankles if I didn’t sit the fuck down already but, with the sun getting lower in the sky, I had to get back on track. I found my way to a paved road and saw a sign for Agriturismo Sant’Ansano along with a phone number, which I called. After explaining that I was looking for information, I heard the line go silent. Dropped call, I thought. Roaming charges or not, I called again. The deluge of insults that came through the phone before the cunt on the line hung up again made me think of the horrible Italians my grandmother used to tell me about (“They’re coarse,” grandma would say when I’d ask about our ancestors). I did not wish the cunt well.

Then I heard voices – not in my head but real voices coming from some heads bobbing beyond some tall grass. They were a Romanian immigrant couple, and I told them I was a pilgrim looking for the Via Francigena towards San Quirico d’Orcia.

Husband: You want to WALK there?! It’s only 15 minutes by bus!
Me (suppressing a “don’t you think I’d have thought of that?” expression): Thank you, but as a pilgrim I want to walk there.
H: Why walk if you can take the bus? It’s far.
Me: Um… Do you not know what a pilgrimage is?
H: Of course I do, but San Quirico d’Orcia is only 15 minutes by bus. Why do you want to walk?
Me: Well, the point of a pilgrimage is to walk.
H: But it’s far to walk, there’s a bus stop in the next town.

I smiled and thanked him, and we all walked towards the next town, Gallina, where I planned to ask for directions. The husband would not let go of his bus suggestion, even after I’d said I’d look for the bus stop. I just kept my zen.

Once in town I thanked the couple for their help and went into a cafe for a bottle of water and directions. I rested my blister-covered feet and immensely painful back, completely unaware that I still had three hours of walking ahead.

Northward marking

Northward markings are often more discreet (read: hidden) than southbound ones

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Open Air Thermal Baths in San Casciano dei Bagni

To the person without their own means of transportation, the downside of a peaceful and quiet setting is that there’s sparse to no public transport available. If I were to go back to Tuscany I’d go by car or, better yet, camper van, even if this time round I’d been super lucky to have such kind and generous hosts who offered me rides whenever they drove somewhere, which was often.

It was by their suggestion that I ended up in San Casciano dei Bagni, famous for a big (fancy) thermal complex – with rude staff – but also for real Roman baths, some of which are still in use and which are way more interesting than the snobbish complex – in addition to being free, as intended not only by the Romans but also by nature.

The thermal pool, now fenced off

The thermal pool, now fenced off.

I walked down to these open baths on the rather steep dirt road at the entrance to town (as opposed to the trail at the other side of town). By the side of the dirt road a small wooden bridge over a stream leads to a grassy footpath and a beautiful big thermal blue pool that was built by the Romans all those centuries ago. This pool is fenced off as it’s become dangerous due to water sources eroding the sandy bottom, but it’s certainly worth a look. Back on the dirt road you eventually come to a curve and, just round the corner, the small, active hot baths. The thermal source is just across the road and it’s also fenced off as it’s dangerous, but this means the water in the top bath is nice and hot.

What was super cool about these baths was that while tourists from various countries were enjoying the attraction, locals, too, would stop by for a dip during their work break or on their way to or from home (imagine being able to do that!). This was the real deal. No fancy complex, just a nature’s gift being enjoyed in nature.

I didn’t take too many photos because I was enjoying it all too much to be bothered but also because it seemed like the respectful thing to do in a bath, however public. On my second day I was asleep on the warm, smooth slabs of stone when I heard a loud whirring-buzzing sound, like EEEEHHHHHHH!!!!! and BZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!! at the same time. What in the world could be disturbing the oh-so-lovely peace! Opening my eyes against the bright sun I saw what I thought was a remote-controlled helicopter, but eventually realized the thing was just the newest obnoxious gadget: the camera drone. The cherry on the cake was that the Italian man operating the irritating machine was letting the thing linger a little too long above the women. I didn’t even know what to say to such a person but eventually he left.

Not only is there no end to human stupidity, the same applies to human assholishness.

To return home I was supposed to take what I thought was the 15:30 bus, which actually comes at 14:30. Oopsie! I’d have to wait for the next one, at 19:00. I thought, I guess I’ll just have to soak in awesome thermal waters again for a few hours more… On my way back down an elderly man in a red truck scooter offered me a ride to the baths. How he thought the two of us could possibly fit in the tiny cabin was beyond me but he assured me it was possible and so I squeezed myself into the cabin.

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Fungo. Buonissimo!

By the time we got to the baths I’d prayed to every saint I could think of because the small vehicle seemed to nearly flip at every bump as we rode down. The kind man smiled at me as I popped out of the cabin like a jack-in-the-box, then he went off to his farm. A few hours of lounging like a lizard and it was time to go walk back up to town. A nice Italian guy who’d also been bathing invited me to eat a “fungo,” or “mushroom,” which I found strange until he explained that he was referring to a pastry made of two cookies, one filled with cream and the other with chocolate, assembled in the form of a mushroom. It was delicious!

We chatted as we looked at the rolling hills bellow, and the guy told me how much he loved that peaceful green area but had to live in Florence for work. I thought that the world is truly beautiful and wondered how and why humans can’t just enjoy it, but tend to make things so complicated.

 

View from San Casciano dei Bagni

View from San Casciano dei Bagni

The top pool in the open baths

The middle pool in the open baths, with the slabs of smooth rock on the right

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