Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Twisted Tips for Truly Tricky Travelers

Ciao, ragazzi! Mi dispace for not writing recently. I just got back from a much-needed, 4 day, last-Italian-adventure, blow-off-steam-and-not-study-for-finals trip to Sicily. I have a few blog posts, including one of blogging tips and tools of the trade for other bloggers, that I have currently under wraps, but right now, my state-side roommate is currently here, and I think being social with something other than my computer screen is favorable. Despite the fact that I actually did bring it to Sicily, not much writing was done on it. It was only used to alert the world of our continued existence after travelling to and in the birthplace of epic volcanoes and this little organization called...the Mafia?...and to watch Champlain's graduation (tears optional). Mostly, it was a 5 pound weight on my sunburned shoulders in my backpack.

Getting to and from Sicily seemed like it may never happen. I was the one who ended up planning the travel itinerary, which, truthfully, was the first real itinerary I have ever planned in my life. I tend to be a "by-the-seat-of-my-pants" girl, but on a huge island in which you don't speak the language so much and is surrounded by volcanoes and people with an affinity for cement boots (if Hollywood can convince you of this fact), is not someplace you want to be standing around, going "Huh?" I was so preoccupied attending my last Wednesday night class, running to Santa Maria Novella station afterward, and buying my train ticket to get into Rome and meet Alli to spend the night at JD's that I completely overlooked a few facts. Mainly, the fact that validating tickets in Italy is a big deal. And so, "Twisted Tips for Tricky Travelers" was born.

Not validating a train ticket can cost you either up to 50 Euro, or an eviction from said train, hopefully, while it's not still moving. I made the penultimate mistake, short of never even buying a ticket (this, however, is something I "conveniently" forget to do every time I'm in Rome, but there's more on that later), when I was so caught up in enjoying my ultimate travel McNugget Happy Meal that I completely forgot to validate my 44 Euro fast-train ticket. I was halfway through my crunchy, sinfully salty and greasy fries by the time I realized this, and sat there, stunned, completely thrown off my McComfort Food. It's a totally noob mistake, and I am not a noob in Italy anymore. In fact, I moseyed over to Santa Maria Novella Stazione, ordered my McDonalds, got my water, ignored the kissy noises and comments, and got on the train in complete and total Italian ease. Why I missed those little yellow boxes, I'll never know.

So I sat there, repeating "fuck" over and over in my head, which is the one English swear I will not let go of because there is really no equivalent, and mentally calculated the first $75 would be charged to my newly minted, never-been-used, very scary credit card when I came up with my dastardly Plan of Action: to play the Dumb American Traveling in Italy for the First Time.

Thank god I was on my way for a weekend of hiking and beaching, and so, wore my "adventure clothes" of cuffed boyfriend jeans, scuffed-to-shit Vans slip-on sneakers, and was carrying my undeniably ostentatious red and white Burton backpack. Also, thank god I was not only willing to "look cute, be charming, stumble with my Italian, apologize and blink my big blue eyes" as Alli instructed me via text-- I also had chosen a good day to wear a baby blue shirt that brought out said big blue eyes and a strand of classy pearls.

And then I came up with what is possibly one of the most cunning and manipulative plans of my life. Which, of course, I am sharing with you so you can abuse it, too, if you ever find yourself in the same sort of situation:

- I plugged my iPod in,
- Hid my diamond which suggested wealth and the incorrect idea that I may be able to pay a 50 Euro fine, and
- Pretended to be asleep.

Sure enough, when the train steward came by to check tickets as they always do, I appeared to be, and actually kind of was, fast asleep. She gently tapped my shoulder, and I started awake with an "Oh! Oh!" as she apologized and asked for my ticket. Then, in one of the most painful moments of my life, and in one of the most convincing moments of my acting career, pretended to not understand a word she said, not even when she asked "Parli Italiano?" Instead, I made what must have been a very dumb and confused face and answered, "Uhhh, no," in English. She switched languages and asked for my ticket again as I rubbed my eyes. I fished it out of my pocket and presented it to her as if it were Excalibur, watching as he eyes went straight to the empty spot where the validation was supposed to be. She looked quickly at me once more (charming, helpless, blink, blink), and then punched the ticket as checked, while thanking me, still in English, and wishing me a good trip. I then "went back to sleep."

Does this make me a bad person? Yes. A cheap-skate? Probably. But I want to thank Mill River's Stage 40 theater department, Mr. Bruno, and Peter Marsh for 6 years of excellent acting coaching. Thank you, dad, for those big blue eyes. And thank you, very nice train steward lady, for letting this dumb American girl go on to Roma and then Sicilia.

Though Sicilian (that's pronounced "Se-chill-ian") and Italian may be two completely different linguistic creatures, Sicilia is by far the favorite place I have been to in Italy. We got in to Palermo and visited the Botanical Gardens, the Rotunda, and hopped a bus to Mondello beach, where, after some overcast weather and having soccer balls and sand kicked at us by Sicilian middle-schoolers, we decided to call it a visit, and hop on our bus to Catania before I started screaming "Basta, ragazzi! Sei stronzo!"

Catania was a completely different story. Though the city may have felt like it was stuck in a time warp from the early '90s, it had enough sooty Baroque buildings, tourists, and locals to give it a well-lived-in feel. As I told Alli, "You know it's Sicily when at night, you can hear someone's mother chastising them from across the street through their open windows." The pastries were to die for. The market in the mornings, a foodie's madhouse. We bought our food there and took it away to sit in view of historical castellos and piazzas and lunched on fluffy rolls hot from the oven, prosciutto, fresh black pepper and pecorino cheese, olives soaked in olive oil, and some of the best oranges, strawberries, and melon I have ever had for about 5 Euro a person.

Our last day and night, we stayed in Catania City Center B&B in what could quite possibly become my Sicilian flat, newly renovated, painted, and decorated, with full kitchen, bathroom, and queen-size bed, for the dirt-cheap price of 65 Euro, which in no way reflected the ambiance. There was Wi-Fi. A flat-screen, high-def TV. And Satellite cable. And a DVD player, complete with a DVD library. Free breakfast in the morning. Angela, the B&B owner, not only made us some UNBELIEVABLE cappuccino, but also helped us with a thousand and one tiny, annoying questions we had about the internet, Catania, and helped us coordinate how to get to the beach. (Any errors made in course were strictly our mistakes as bumbling American travelers. As you will see.) I have stayed in a lot of hotels, B&Bs, and hostels in my life from places there was no hot running water (AHEM--Agora Hostel--AHEM) to the Waldorf Astoria and a concierge suite in Montreal's Hilton. And I am telling you, straight up, no shit-- Catania City Center B&B was the best place I have ever spent a night. It redefines clean, modern, efficient, and welcoming. So much that instead of eating out at a restaurant that night, we got kebabs and Muscato dessert wine to go, and spent the night in our flat lounging, eating, drinking, and watching the Scooby Doo movie.

Oh, that should also be addressed: Sicilian dessert wines are by far some of the most sweet, succulent, delicious nectar from the gods that you will ever drink. I spent roughly 30 to 35 U.S dollars on a bottle of Muscato to celebrate graduation in absentia since we couldn't be in Burlington to actually party, so happy fucking graduation, I bought myself a very expensive bottle of wine to think about drinking with you guys. Best served either very chilled, or naturally very warmed from the afternoon Sicilian sun.

Friday evening, we took a sunset hike up Mount Etna, also known as, "Oh my god, I'm from the Northeast and have never seen a volcano! THAT IS LAVA! THAT IS REAL, BLACK, HARDENED LAVA!" We went with the Etna Tattoo and Art Cafe Club, and not only did our guide Ernesto get us there, up, down, and back alive, he also provided some cold weather clothing after my speech on the attributes of Gore-Tex (waterproof, windproof, insulating,) got lost in translation, an impromptu karaoke show for us from the jump-seats in the back of his Land Rover, and some bites of a truly excellent prosciutto and cheese sandwich. We even got enough cell reception at the top of the big caldera to call our friend from his motherland as a pre-graduation present. It was, by far, one of the top 3 great experiences of my life. It may have even edged out some of the better sex I've had. That's how unreal it was. The white sand beach and swimming in the Meditteranian was nice. The black lava beach under Aci Castello was stunning (and hot). But Etna, looming over all of Catania at a truly staggering elevation, belching small tufts of smoke, was what really stunned this writer who previously thought she was a real "big mountain girl" from Vermont. HA HA. I lose.

The people of Sicily, however, are really what made it. From hiking Etna with the fun-loving, multi-lingual mountain destroyers Tyrone and Maria, to the old men who serenaded us in the streets, to the 16 year old girl on the city bus who invited us to her birthday party next week (probably to be the entertainment as she thought me struggling through a conversation in Italian was HEE-LAR-I-OUS,) to the Sheraton hotel front desk man who through a conversational mix of Italian, French, and English called us a cab after we hiked a mile from Aci Castello to Aci Trezza after missing our bus and trying to get back to Catania in time to catch our bus to Palermo, they are, without a doubt, the best Italians I have had the pleasure of interacting with. I was afraid at first from all of the guidebook warnings of them being a very closed and guarded culture. Totally unfounded. Our very sweet cabby Giovanni who had our American-Sicilian friend's liquid and unfairly long-lashed eyes and was quite tricky himself when he asked us if we wanted to take the cab from Catania to Palermo (to the tune of around 300 Euro,) actually complimented us with the universal sign for "you're clever" with a twist of his index in the dimple of his cheek after we emphatically responded with a "NO!!!" and then laughed when he asked us if we "like the Catanese boys?" and we gave an equally emphatic "SI!!!"

In another episode of traveler trickery in which never buying bus tickets for city buses in Rome or Sicily was involved, when Alli and I were the last two people on the bus to La Playa beach, and our driver got up to check the ticket validating machines, partly to head him off from asking for our (nonexistent) tickets and partially to actually get an answer, I asked him before he could get to us if the bus was stopping at the beach. (In Italian, of course.) He told us no, and after seeing our crestfallen little faces, asked if that's where we were trying to go. "Si," I answered, and the next thing I knew, he was telling us he would take us there. How many other people can say that they had a city bus drive 20 minutes outside of its route to personally drop them off at the beach like a very, VERY long stretch limo? That's the Sicilian way.

I don't think I have to tell you out-right that I highly suggest taking a trip to Sicily or even possibly living there for a bit. (Maybe a year or so.) But in the case that my arguement for this scrappy and potentially erupting little island has convinced you enough, here are some tips. I'll tell it bluntly: Sicilians are small. Their buildings are large. The men are swarthy and gorgeous. Try to keep your panties on. Palermo is a Napolean-sized Rome. Catania is prettier. Sicily is dirty. Don't expect to find many trashcans or Western toilet seats. Taking an SAIS bus is the easiest, cheapest, and most comfortable way to travel. All SAIS bus drivers are hip 30-something dudes with cool shades. You don't have to get city bus tickets. Just hop on. Hop off if you see a ticket inspector get on. TRY to speak some Italian. Eating is cheap. Sicilians are loud. Fair-skinned people will burn easily. Lava beaches are sharp and hard on the ass. Plus, any city that sells trademarked seeds outside of Amsterdam is down with me.

Right now, I'm brown as a nut, probably going to start peeling, mid-finals, and I return back state-side in 3 days. If you have any questions about Italy or my travels while I'm still here, now would be the time to send me a comment and ask me.



  1. Two things:

    1. Take me to Sicily if you move there.
    2. I'm so happy that you got a kebab and bought expensive wine to drink while watching my graduation.

  2. It was only fitting. :)
    And I see you worked your magic-- was just thinking today that I wasn't going to make that June 10th $10 deadline-- you just got me within $2 of making it. God, I love you.

  3. You should write as often as possible