A big journey in a little car

Europeans are a bit notorious for driving small cars. It is no wonder for this phenomenon because streets in Europe are quite small—many of which have not been expanded since the automobile was invented. Gas is more expensive so it also makes sense to avoid the gas-guzzlers that we in the United States often depend on to haul trailers and plow through three feet of snow or mud. I have observed that as you approach an American Air Force Base in Italy or Germany, the appearance of pickups, SUV’s, and minivans significantly increases—old habits die hard for us Americans and we cannot seem to let go of the luxury of space that many Europeans were never raised experiencing.

That’s why when we decided to go on a roadtrip from Naples to the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy I thought Steve was joking when he pulled out of the rental office driving the tiny, two-person SMART car. Not only was he not joking, he wanted me to get in so we could start our four hour drive along the coast. After having a good laugh at how ridiculous he looked—he’s six foot one—in the tiny car, I hopped in the passenger side.

We quickly learned that for such a tiny car, it had a large amount of blind spots. A terrifying realization since the winding roads leading to the Amalfi Coast have hairpin turns and while we crawled along at a responsible speed of 55 kmh (equivalent to 35 mph) the Italians fly around the curves at almost double that speed. While digging my fingers into the passenger door and center consul, I tried to enjoy the views from the cliffs we were driving along.

The cliffs rose straight up out of the turquoise sea below like jagged hands reaching for the sun. There were no beaches, just sheer, solid rock faces that seemed welcoming rather than intimidating as the waves gently pushed against them and fisherman lazily anchored their boats in the shade of the bluffs.

We cruised along the winding path before entering the village of Positano, where we were glad for the miniature car we drove. The one-way street barely had room for us to drive as the townspeople doing their daily grocery shopping spilled into the road.

They frequently bumped against each other and offered a familiar smile, unbothered by the crowded, cobbled streets. While I appreciate my space as much as the next American, as I watched the Italians move separately in the crowd, I could not help but think perhaps small spaces are not always such a bad thing—however, I won’t be buying a two-person car any time soon.

Skiing in the Italian Alps

To give you an idea of what it is like to go skiing with me I will tell you that my boyfriend, Steve, said to my mother, “A ski trip isn’t complete unless Emily ends up crying on the side of a mountain at least once.” I will be honest, I typically cry more than once per ski trip. While Steve is supportive and always tries to build my confidence, I am by no means an expert or even intermediate skier.

I have gone skiing exactly six times in my life. I learned on a bunny hill outside of Minneapolis, I’ve gone twice to Terry Peak, South Dakota (where at one point, with my legs and skis going opposite directions my friend said, “I have no idea how you did that.”), once in Korea, and I’ve gone skiing twice in the Italian Alps.

Let me point out that Steve is an expert skier. He started when he was six years old, was on the ski team at his high school in Wisconsin, was the ski and snowboard club captain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two of the four years he was in the group, and taught skiing and snowboarding at Lake Tahoe, NV for two years. He literally skis circles around me.

This might explain how, on my most recent ski trip to Cervinia, Italy this winter, I found myself once again sitting on the side of the mountain having a small panic attack.

The city of Cervinia (Cher-vee-nee-ah) sits in the western shadow of the Matterhorn, which lays half in Italy and half in Switzerland. The landscape was beautiful with the Matterhorn dominating the skyline, but at that moment I was too terrified to appreciate it.

After a semi-successful day of skiing (no injuries) I realized our last run of the day was far above my skill level and began taking my skis off in protest; planning to slide down the mountain on my butt, no matter how humiliating it was.

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This is me looking ridiculous in a ski helmet that is too big and a my boyfriends jacket, since I had packed an insufficient one. Look how happy I am…not. Terrified; I was terrified of falling off the side of the mountain.

As I detached the skis from my boots, the ski patrol stopped and said in their Swiss-German accents, “You can not slide down on your bottom. You will go too fast and you can’t stop and will fly right off the edge.”

This was not the motivation I needed so I said, “And what makes you think I won’t fly off the edge with these sticks attached to my legs?”

They did not reply, but waited until I had put the skis back on. It took me almost thirty minutes to slowly “pizza” my way down the mountain, but I did it. I was proud of myself for conquering my fear, but I will be damned if you ever find me on the side of another mountain with carbon fiber rods stuck to my legs.

 

Firefighters breaking in on purpose

One of my favorite things about traveling is meeting new people. I was fortunate enough to meet six new Italians one day in Pordenone, Italy (the city I primarily stay in when I’m there). Unfortunately, they happened to be members of the fire department.

I was standing in the kitchen, making soup as it was pouring rain. I decided to go outside to take some quick photos of the rose bushes, persimmon, olive, and palm trees, and a kiwi vine in the yard. After fifteen minutes outside I was chilled and decided to go back inside to check on my soup, but as I walked up the stairs I had a horrible realization. I had closed the front door, which locked automatically. My only link to the outside world—my cell phone—was also inside. I threw my body against the front door in hopes that it would magically open. No matter how I finagled the doorknob and pushed with all my strength, the door did not yield.

My next thought was to try to climb through a window I had left open. The window was on the top floor and 20 feet up. I ran around the house three times, searching for a ladder. I discovered an old, rickety, wooden one and prepared to make my shaky ascent.

I made it to the fourth rung when I realized two things 1) even if I climbed to the top of the ladder I would not be tall enough to reach the window 2) if I climbed to the top of the ladder I would probably plummet to my death. I weighed my options and decided against the climb; I like to believe there are at least a few people who would be disappointed if I were to die.

After ruling out scaling the building, I grabbed a rock, ready to smash through the glass of the front door when I thought better of it—I didn’t imagine my boyfriend would be very impressed if I vandalized his home. I finally accepted defeat and decided to use the rational side of my brain.

I knew I should call the fire department—my boyfriend had locked himself out of the house several times and had relayed stories of calling the fire department. Since I had no cellphone and did not know anyone in the neighborhood to ask to use his or her phone, I decided to walk down the block to the grocery store.

I walked into the store, approached the checkout attendant, and asked, “Do you speak English?”

She shook her head “no” and I was afraid I would have to proceed with a desperate game of charades when a young woman behind the counter of the espresso bar said, “I speak a little English.” I could have hugged her, but decided against it and asked to borrow her phone to call the fire department.

She smiled and asked if I knew the fire department’s phone number. I said I did not so she dialed the number before handing me the phone.

What proceeded was an embarrassing reminder that if I’m to live in Italy I should probably learn some key words other than “bongiorno, ciao, arriverderci, and grazie.” Key words such as “Help! I have locked my keys in the house and need assistance as soon as possible since I also left a pot of soup on the stove and may burn the house down and actually need the fire truck anyway.” You know, common phrases.

As it was, I barely knew the address and after giving them the wrong one (the street name is Giovanni Batista Morgagni not Giuseppe Batista Morgagni) was told to wait thirty minutes. I thanked the man on the line, the barista who let me use her phone, and slunk out of the store.

Alternating between being on the brink of tears and running down to the front gate every time I heard a vehicle approaching, I waited. After only ten minutes I heard a large vehicle and saw the universal red of a fire truck.

I waited for my saviors at the gate and flung it open for them to enter—all six of them. The whole troupe followed me up the steps to the front door carrying several interesting wires, screwdrivers, and a shiny piece of what looked like industrial tin foil.

The lead firefighter jammed the tin foil in the crack of the door and wiggled it. The other five firefighters struck various relaxed poses as they watched the work of their colleague. I too tried to strike a casual pose, but couldn’t keep myself from making dramatic cheers as I watched.

With a click and a pop the firefighter opened the door with minimal effort. I was so relieved I put my hand up for a high five and after a few seconds of awkward hesitation each firefighter laughed and gave me five.

I would say that day was a great success as I got to meet some outstanding citizens and every time I went to the grocery store down the street the barista made a point to smile and wave at me. I don’t mind seeing her regularly, but I hope I will never have to see the firefighters again…unless it is while they are helping someone else break into their own home.

Tokyo: A place of people and propriety

Two things stand out in my memories from when I travelled to Tokyo in July of 2014. The rules and the massive amount of people who live and work there.

As soon as you walk toward the exit of the Narita International Airport you see a sign that reads, “Welcome to Japan. Please respect the rules.” The Japanese people love regulations and follow them even more determinedly than Germans. There are signs everywhere in Tokyo explaining and illustrating the proper behavior they expect citizens and guests of the city to follow. On the subway there are signs explaining that there should be no swinging from the handlebars, no whipping wet umbrellas around and hitting fellow train riders, no eating food or drinking alcohol, no large luggage, no public displays of affection, no loud music, no applying makeup.

The rules seemed never ending and once you exit the subway it continues. Clean up after your dog (or cat), walk on your left side of the sidewalk so as not to collide with oncoming pedestrian traffic, no smoking on the street, and most importantly, no littering.

Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities I have ever been in despite the lack of public trashcans. If Japanese people have trash they keep it with them until they can throw it away at home or the office, unlike in the U.S. where some people think it is acceptable to throw bags of trash out of car windows. It is quite a feat that Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities in the world because with a population of over 35 million it is the world’s most populous metropolitan area.

Nowhere was the massive population more obvious than in the Shibuya shopping district. In Shibuya there is a crosswalk that is hailed as the busiest crosswalk in the world. Not only can you cross the intersection in a typical square shape, you can cross it diagonally, causing what one would expect to be sheer chaos, but somehow works with no pedestrians getting struck by cars. I crossed it multiple times, a blonde buoy in a sea of dark haired Japanese citizens, to achieve the closest sensation I will ever have to body surfing. You glide along, as the crowd becomes one giant amoeba that splits and reconnects to avoid a crash with other organisms.

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Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo is hailed as one of the busiest intersections in the world with approximately 100,000 people passing through the crosswalk each hour.

After experiencing the crowds of Tokyo, I realize the reason for all of the rules. Deprived of regulations, it would be impossible for the city and all of its inhabitants to function without falling into mayhem. So instead of fighting the rules or the crowd, I learned it is sometimes wiser to go with the tide.

Speaking English at the Spanish Dive School in Thailand

As Americans, we are spoiled. We speak English and do not usually feel compelled to learn another language—myself included—as most other countries and societies do. Since I have been too lazy to learn a foreign language, I am always grateful for the patient and kind people I encounter when traveling who are willing to help me with directions, find the bathroom, or get the correct change back. I’m also lucky that English is the “universal” language and I am able to connect with people from all over the world because they, at least, had the ambition to learn another language—English.

There was no instance more distinct in my memory when I was grateful others were fluent in English because it allowed me to have an experience that cannot be duplicated.

While traveling in Thailand two years ago I visited the small island of Koh Tao. Koh Tao (meaning “Turtle Island”) is renowned for its scuba diving and has over 50 dive schools; an impressive fact given the island is only eight square miles. I planned to spend my time on the island taking lessons to become scuba certified.

I visited many dive schools to find which one I liked the best. Australian beach bums with shaggy bleached blonde hair ran a majority of them and I did not trust the hungover, laid back young men with my life while diving. I had almost given up finding a school when I came upon Pura Vida Diving; the Spanish dive school.

While the majority of classes were taught in Spanish, they did teach one class in English. My diving class consisted of Torben and Miriam, the Germans; Quentin, a Frenchman; Gorka, our Spanish instructor; and me, the token American.

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My dive class at Pura Vida. Torben, Gorka our instructor, Miriam, me, and Quentin.

Even though I took the English course, all of the students (mostly from South America) taking diving lessons at Pura Vida went out to sea on the same boat. That’s how I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday—on a boat among strangers turned friends who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in their Spanish, German, and French accents and kissed me on the cheek.

When I traveled to Thailand I held a python, swam in a waterfall infested with ravenous fish, learned to scuba dive, carried all of my belongings in a backpack, and met friends from Thailand, Austria, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Argentina.

While I am glad I grew up in a country whose first language is English, I am also grateful to foreigners who speak English and are able to communicate with me as I have learned an invaluable amount from them.

Meeting monks in the morning

At 6 a.m. on the island of Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced in my head as “ko paw gone”) as the partying tourists were just getting to bed, I was out for a jog in the soft, warm fog. It was already 75 degrees and the fog signaled it would be another muggy Thai day.The streets were quiet as I made my way down the uninhabited lanes as the native Thai people began to open shops and cook food at their stands. Among the calm I began to see men wrapped in bright saffron clothe wandering from home to home carrying baskets. The men stood out against the green, brown, and gray landscape. They were quiet as they shuffled from one person—who bowed low, and placed a food item in the basket—to the next. I was witnessing the food offerings that occur daily for many monks in Thailand.

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Thai Monks smile for the camera. Image courtesy of my friend Meghan who, unlike me, was not too shy to ask them for a photo.

94% of the population in Thailand follows Buddhism. Specifically Theravada Buddhism, in which monks do not build monasteries, but depend on laypeople in their community for food. The giving of donations is not thought of as charity because it is believed to create a spiritual connection between monks and regular people. The people believe they have a responsibility to physically support the monks, who support the laypeople spiritually in return.

I watched, trying not to stare. With the fog and the quietness of the morning the monks looked mysterious. Continuing on my run, I imagined the serious and intense daily lives they must lead.

I did not see another monk until I was on the ferry heading back to the city of Surat Thani on the mainland. Standing near me was a pair of young monks looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. Shy and nervous, I kept my eyes down.

All of a sudden I heard someone speaking English to me in a Thai accent. “Hello! How are you today? Isn’t this beautiful?” asked one of the monks. Unsure of the protocol when talking to a monk I smiled and replied, “It is beautiful, but it’s so hot. I don’t know how you can stand it all the time.” “Where are you from?” asked the other monk. I responded, “The United States. America.” At that the two monks began laughing hysterically. I felt my face warm with embarrassment; unsure of what I’d said that was so funny. “We thought so, because you have such nice teeth, but you’re so small.”

Just as I had the preconceived notion that monks were always serious, they had the preconceived notion that all Americans have nice teeth and are large. I learned that monks are not nearly as intimidating as they seem and a smile remains universal.

Roma

The past weekend Steve and I took the train from Pordenone to Rome. I had been to Rome a few months ago (it was our first stop on a cruise from Genoa) in May and was fortunate enough to visit the Colosseum as well as Vatican City, where I, along with thousands of other people, got to see the Pope! Who cares that I could barely see him in his balcony and I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying?! It’s the Pope!

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Flashback to May 2015 when I saw the Pope!–from half a mile away.

Prior to our trip we had been contemplating going to Florence. I had already been to Rome and I had liked the visit, but it wasn’t a city I had loved at first site/visit, so I was still leaning toward Florence. However, after my second visit to Rome, I realized why it’s one of the most visited cities in the world.

We arrived in Rome at about 11 a.m. and after sitting on a train for almost 6 hours we did the most rational thing–took a nap because we were so exhausted (to be fair we had woken up at 4:30 a.m.) After our lovely nap we (by we I mean Steve) decided it would be a good idea to go for a run through the city. I complained almost the whole time, but in hindsight it was a fantastic way to see a lot of the city in a short amount of time.

We ran through the gorgeous Villa Borghese gardens, the Piazza del Popolo, along the Tiber River, past the Castel S’Angelo, through the famous Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon.

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The Pantheon is an amazing structure, and its giant dome, with oculus, was the largest in the world for 1300 years and remains the largest unsupported dome in the world. The diameter of the dome is 43.30 meters or 142ft (for comparison, the United States Capitol dome is 96 feet in diameter) and is in perfect proportion with the Pantheon by the fact that the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal to its diameter. (I did not get a good photo of it, so I borrowed one from my friend-the internet).

That night we walked around the city and it was splendid, you can round almost any corner in Rome and see a new, ancient site that’s lit up with warm, amber floodlights that make impossibly beautiful architecture even more mind blowing. We saw the Trajan Markets, the Largo di Torre Argentina (where Julius Caesar was assassinated), the Trevi Fountain (which Steve hates because it’s a little too touristy), and the Forum of Augustus. I especially loved all of these sites because there were so few people around (minus the Trevi Fountain that was extremely busy like always) it felt magical.

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The Forum of Augustus was built because the existing forum was too crowded and couldn’t handle the amount of legal cases that the city and empire were generating.

Day two in Rome consisted of hitting the big three: Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill. I won’t go in to detail about those because 1) there’s so much to say and this post is already very long 2) it would probably be more educational to google them. Suffice it to say Rome was a wonderful surprise–it’s hard to believe (and a little embarrassing to admit) I thought one visit would be enough.

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A panorama of the Forum with the Colosseum in the distance on the far right edge of the image.