Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buon Anno

Our Roman New Year was much like every other: an early dinner, copious champagne and Joe on his own at midnight since I’d fallen asleep an hour earlier. But this year Joe was busy at midnight, furiously taking pictures of the magnificent fireworks that burst from every corner of the city.

New Year’s is one of those holidays we actually enjoy celebrating by ourselves and this year was no different. We flew back to Italy from London and then took the three and a half hour train south from Milan to Rome. One of the only hotel reservations we’d made before we left the States was for the Rome Cavalieri, a five-star Hilton/Waldorf-Astoria property, for New Year’s Eve 2011 and New Year’s Day 2012. An invaluable perk of being a business road warrior is the accumulation of all those frequent stay points and Joe’s allegiance over the past few years to all properties Hilton landed us at Rome’s premier address on New Year’s Eve for free.

The sumptuous Cavalieri sits on 15 acres of parkland high on Monte Mario, just north of the Vatican and overlooking the panorama of Rome with a spectacular view of St. Peter’s dome. Built in 1963 to appeal to the sophisticated, A-list, cocktail crowd of La Dolce Vita, its ugly modernist exterior brickwork, chipped and missing in many places, is the only aspect of the hotel not on par with the rest. Currently a favorite among diplomats and high-end business travelers, the hotel was filled with such types and their families for the New Year’s holiday. Contrary to the haughty arrogance often encountered at such a high-end establishments, the staff were uniformly approachable and friendly and cheerful Buon Anno was heard everywhere. Our sizeable mahogany-filled room was richly draped in a palette of blue and gold and the enormous bed was piled high with pillows. Had we felt a hoarder’s need for additional pillows, there was a menù dei cuscini, which proposed a dozen additional options (from horsehair to buckwheat hull). The spacious marble bathroom included a travertine sink, a bronze wastebasket on clawfoot legs and a shiny towel warmer. Joe’s Hilton Honors complimentary package included breakfast, Internet, unlimited use of the spa and access to the Colosseo Lounge, which served free drinks and light fare all evening. Having settled into such a splendid spot, we never left the Cavelieri and its grounds, determined to bask in the surrounding luxury for every single one of the 48 hours of our stay.
Just for fun, we checked out the New Year’s Eve Capodanno menu at La Pergola, the hotel’s three Michelin star rooftop restaurant (the only three-star in Rome): with champagne, wines and music included, it was a bargain at just 1,200 euros per person! While not everything at the Cavalieri was quite as dear as La Pergola, the prices were still vertiginous and we headed straight for the simple, complimentary spread at the Colosseo Lounge for our New Year’s celebration. The champagne flowed freely and we made a meal of pistachios, grilled vegetables and cheese. On so many of our past several New Year’s Eves, we counted down the years and then months to our mythical Gap Year departure date. But this year, with no more days to cross off the calendar, we simply celebrated the fact that we were living the Gap Year dream as we beheld the twinkling lights of the Eternal City. Growing fuzzy with champagne, we mused about our itinerary for 2012 and imagined fresh adventures yet to unfold. So often I have spent the days around the New Year inspecting the rooms of my life, drawing up to-do lists of things to toss out, cracks to be patched and foundations to secure. But this year we spoke about potential – what lay ahead for the remaining eight months of our trip and then what awaited us thereafter. We did our best not to be overwhelmed by the prospect of later-in-the-year job hunts and the daunting reality of rebuilding our stateside life next fall. With our fill of champagne, we headed to the Cavalieri bar for a New Year’s nightcap – the only item for which we paid over the course of our two days – and toasted what was possible for 2012.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Happy Christmas in Merry England

Much to our delight, we found London enjoying spring-like temperatures when we arrived and were able to leave our hats and scarves and mittens unpacked. For the entire week of our stay, it was in the upper 50s and although the skies were overcast, we had only one afternoon of gentle drizzle. Having been to London many times for both business and pleasure, we forewent any rigorous sightseeing and simply strolled the streets.

It was terrific weather for wandering, peppered with breaks in whatever pubs we found welcoming. In the past, the omnipresent cigarettes that turned pubs into murky chimneys kept me away, but now that indoor smoking has been outlawed, I’ve become a huge fan of the neighborhood hangouts. I enjoy the sense of camaraderie and everyday conversation that pervades them as well as the fascinating people watching. We met an American ex-pat banker and his German colleague, a witty duo who worked for Deutsche Bank, in Chequers Tavern, the small, dependable pub next to our hotel. We enjoyed some laughs about their experiences in the UK and how the English women in their lives helped keep them in London. They were both rather fascinated by our Gap Year experience, asked all sorts of questions about logistics and our itinerary and seemed genuinely in awe of what we were doing. They kept repeating things like “really?” and “wow” and “awesome.” Our festive evening with the financiers ended abruptly when they were pulled away to the office Christmas party by a compatriot and we then left the pub feeling gratified that the escapades of a 55-year old couple had so impressed two 30-somethings. It was just the emotional boost we needed since the memory of the kids’ departure still lingered and the prospect of Christmas by ourselves loomed. Every once in a while when we’re feeling generally melancholy or like two lonely Americans battling a smoky European haze or lucky to once again been missed being hit by a renegade motor scooter on the sidewalk, it's nice to hear that others deem that what we’re doing is cool. Outside affirmation, especially by bankers, so far away from home is always a good thing.

London was incredibly expensive, as it always is, but on many of my previous trips, I’d had the luxury of an expense account and hardly needed to worry. Jumping into a classic black cab in those days was standard practice but little did I know that other than walking, they were likely the least expensive mode of transportation. When we arrived at Victoria Station on the express train from Gatwick, we dutifully took the underground to our stop at Piccadilly Circus. It was difficult to believe, however, that the two tickets to Piccadilly cost a whopping eight pounds -- that’s over six dollars each for the privilege of dragging our luggage down long flights of stairs, through connecting tunnels, onto the train and then up a final stairway for the four block walk to the Cavendish Hotel. The London Underground is a terrific system that happens to be extraordinarily expensive and so we took the tube just that once. We’d learned our lesson and did a whole lot of walking thereafter. Upon departure a week later, we hailed a cab and paid exactly the same fare -- eight pounds, tip included -- to be chauffeured back to the train at Victoria.

Joe was especially pleased with the relaxing change of not having to struggle with a language barrier, and I appreciated the opportunity to temporarily relinquish my role as translator-in-chief. As usual, the moment we arrived on British soil we found it difficult not to affect an English accent and sprinkle our speech with “brilliant,” “ring my mobile,” “dodgy,” and “takeaway.” We quickly learned to say “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry,” searched for where to make reservations for “Christmas Lunch” instead of “Dinner,” and anticipated the arrival of “Father Christmas.” Few restaurants advertised that they would be open on the 25th other than brightly lit chain establishments or stuffy, overpriced dining rooms in the fanciest of hotels. We managed to find Greig’s on a list provided by the concierge, a warm, neighborhood inn tucked behind Berkeley Square that would be serving a reasonable prix fixe meal and promptly made a reservation for 2:30 PM on Christmas Day. But later that evening, while enjoying a drink at Chequers Pub next door we saw that their daily specials blackboard was decorated with green and red chalked holly and berries and advertised Christmas Lunch: pigs in a blanket, turkey with all the fixin’s, cranberry sauce and mince pie – all for just under 10 pounds. Joe was sure I was kidding when I first remarked that the menu sounded good, but once he realized I was seriously suggesting we eat at Chequers on Christmas, he soon warmed to the idea. Why not? The pub served a nice variety of draught beers and a good Sauvignon Blanc, so in the spirit of eating local, we decided to have our Christmas meal at the tavern next door. The bartender said they would be serving all day, from 11 AM until about 7PM, and that no reservations were needed. Doing our best to be good patrons, we called Greig’s multiple times on Christmas Eve to cancel our reservations, but were unable to get through.

Christmas Day dawned with the standard weather for the week: temperatures in the 50s under steely gray skies with no rain in sight. After a very quiet breakfast at the Cavendish, we headed through the deserted London streets to The Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street, a quiet back lane about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. The church was built in the mid-1800s but felt warm and modern on the inside, a welcome change from so many of the cold, aloof churches on the continent. The 11 AM high mass sung in Latin was a lovely liturgy that harked back to the Catholic Church of our youth in the 1960s. We sang Adeste Fideles and Gloria in Excelsis Deo along with the rest of the congregation, a bit lonely with no family next to us, but feeling very British indeed. Next up was the short walk to Grosvenor Square to pay our respects and say “Merry Christmas” to the American Embassy and the statues of past presidents FDR, Eisenhower and Reagan, and then we headed back to Chequers, anticipating our turkey dinner. But when we arrived at about 2 PM, Chequers was shuttered – no lights, no patrons, doors locked. Oh no – the plans for Christmas Lunch in our neighborhood pub had quickly evaporated! Was it a communication issue of “two countries divided by a common language” and all? How could we have misunderstood so completely? Standing on Duke Street in front of Chequers, Joe and I were crestfallen at the prospect of spending Christmas in a charmless cafeteria. But then we remembered Greig’s. Lady luck had prevented us from canceling our reservation and if we hurried, we would arrive right on time. Just a bit more upscale than the corner pub, Greig’s served us a tasty Christmas Lunch of prawn cocktail, traditional turkey, stuffing and veggies and brandied Christmas pudding. The atmosphere was festive and congenial and we fit in perfectly with the international mix of diners.

The balance of our week was filled with many of the activities we most enjoy in London: high tea, fabulous Indian food, the changing of the Queen’s Horse Guards, a play in the West End (live theater may be the only bargain in town) and several long runs in the incomparable parks. Why Chequers was closed for Christmas and the subsequent several days remains a mystery; we left London before it reopened and were never able to ask.

Christmas week in London was a very nice, although somewhat lonesome, experience. We didn’t get to share Christmas dinner with the royals at Sandringham, or even the locals at Chequers next door, but we did have a lovely, quiet holiday, Christmas pudding and all. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing as comforting and heart-warming as being with family for Christmas and we agreed that this would be the last one on our own. Any future Gap Years will have to start after the holidays (wink).

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Friday, January 27, 2012

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

The French have it right when they kiss and say au revoir -- not simply “goodbye,” but “until we see each other again.” And so that’s what we said to Chris and Caroline after their two-week visit to Italy. We’d capped off their trip with a couple days in Verona where we stayed in the Hotel Giulietta e Romeo, dined at a trattoria with the same name and took pictures at the mythical home of Juliet with its romantic balcony and cobblestoned courtyard. But it was time to say, “Until we see you again,” so off they went, through security and back home to the states. In particular because it was just four days before Christmas, a big part of us yearned to board the plane with them in Milan, to remain in their company and head back to our familiar United States. But we quickly busied ourselves with our own departure details and were soon involved in the mechanics of getting to another terminal to catch our EasyJet flight to London a few hours later. The decision to leave for England on the heels of the kids’ departure was a perfect foil for our sincere sense of loss; distraction can often be an indispensible and highly effective antidote.

We settled in at our departure gate, I pulled out my Kindle and did my best to lose myself in a book. But with the multitude of chattering, holiday travelers passing by came the detachment I sometimes feel when in the middle of an unfamiliar crowd. I physically felt the absence of the grown-up Chris and Caroline I had just hugged au revoir so keenly that finally the tears spilled over. Not only did I miss my adult kids, I began to miss who they were when they were children and all the years gone by. As happy as we are to see our children grow, share the joy of their successes, help them accept the disappointments along the way, and then beam as they become young adults we’re so proud of, it’s difficult to say goodbye to them as children. Sitting on a plastic chair at a sterile airport gate, I got nostalgic about my children; I love who they are now but I added to my melancholy by missing their little selves -- like friends I no longer see – and I felt a fleeting but unmistakable sense of loss.

My wistful reverie was interrupted by the announcement of our flight to Gatwick. I shook myself out of my funk, strapped on my backpack and we were on our way to London...stiff upper lip and all that. It was time to move on to a new adventure sans children – we were back to being two for the road.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Boe-Day Mee-Lahr

There’s a joyous, healthy air among a group of skiers, with their ruddy faces and colorful outfits that I find intoxicating. I love being part of the skiing community that exudes an outdoor energy and provides a sense of belonging for those with a shared fixation. Thus were my thoughts as we found ourselves among the crowd of spectators in Santa Cristina, the next village over from our hotel, watching the Men’s FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) Super-G (giant slalom) World Cup race. How lucky we were that chance put us in Val Gardena on just the right day to watch this exhilarating once-a-year event.
We took the local ski bus from Ortisei to Santa Cristina and arrived at the base of the Saslong course just in time for the 12:15 PM start of the race. In contrast to the sparkling days we spent on the slopes ourselves, the day was overcast and windy with a sense of snow in the air. We’d watched many an FIS event on television, but witnessing one in person was a very different affair. It was cold standing around waiting for each of the 60-plus skiers to rocket towards the finish line and the international sports fans, an illustrious group of which we were members, coped by eating warm wursts and hot chili and downing copious amounts of beer and mulled wine. All manner of cowbell, from the tiniest to the colossal, were the noisemaker of choice and the crowds were in the mood to celebrate. It became quite the party – a loud, boozy affair dominated by the Swiss, their red-and-white flags and clanking, flower-bedecked cowbells heralding their enthusiasm.
The competition was particularly exciting because American Bode Miller (or “Boe-Day Mee-Lahr” as the German-accented announcer pronounced his name), an early starter, was on top of the JumboTron leader board for most of the race. As far as we could tell, we were the only Americans at the event but we were far from the only Bode fans. Many of the spectators waved “Bode Miller” signs and echoed the announcer’s pronunciation as they called out his name: Boe-Day Mee-Lahr! Boe-Day Mee-Lahr! The 6 foot 2 inch, 34 year-old alpine ski racer from Franconia, New Hampshire is an Olympic and World Cup champion who won a total of five Winter Olympics medals, the most for any American skier. A favorite in Val Gardena having won the FIS race in 2006 and finishing second in 2007, Bode was watching the competition that followed him from the winner’s circle just across the finish line from us for most of the race and we (or perhaps I should specify, Caroline and I) were able to appreciate his all-American, boyish good looks. The crowd’s excitement mounted as one by one the skiers completing the course exceeded Bode’s breakneck time. But in the end, it turned out that the Swiss cheering section got it right; Beat Feuz, a young gun from Switzerland and one of the last down the hill, came in .30 seconds faster than Bode. The tiny, tinny cowbells and the oversized gongs went wild. It was an exciting afternoon, which ended with a simple medal ceremony at the course base, Bode on the runner-up platform.
A more elaborate Super G awards celebration took place on the Ortisei town square that evening after sundown. The four of us wriggled our way to the front of the crowd, right up close to the winners’ runway. While the yellow and blue smoke, flashing purple lights and booming music were both strange and rousing, best of all were the additional “Boe-Day” sightings, and once again, we were cheering along with all his other fans. The Master of Ceremonies did a great job of revving up the crowd in Italian, French, German and English – quite an impressive linguist! As the lights pulsed, the music pounded and the champions strode up the runway to the stage, the snow began to fall. It was a fairytale finale to an enchanting day in the mountains.
The awards presented and our extremities frozen, we made our way back through the snow across town to our hotel. After some necessary thawing and attending to tired muscles in the Jacuzzi and steam bath, we headed for one of the Gardena Grödenhof’s delicious meals (the package we booked included breakfast and dinner) served in a warm, welcoming atmosphere by an incredibly charming staff. We had the same table for every meal, much like on a cruise ship, and it was so pleasant to be treated as special guests each and every morning and evening. One of our favorite waiters was Domenico, a handsome man in his early 30s with dark hair and eyes whose first response to anything we asked was, “Thank you, thanks,” and his first words on presenting us with something we ordered was the same. His smile was infectious, he was a joy to be around and we were so lucky to have him assigned to our table.

We started dinner that night with a crisp local Tyrolean Pinot Blanco, ordered our meals and settled in for a lovely dinner over which we reviewed our day. Joe and I basked in the soft glow of the cozy dining room, watched as Chris and Caroline enjoyed their meals and exchanged some long, conspiratorial glances whose meaning was clear: this place and these experiences are just too good to be true. After ordering a second bottle of wine, I conjured up our trip calendar and mentally made a few adjustments to our itinerary. It would be such a shame to have found this invigorating corner of the world and not return. Soon. So we’ve now marked our datebooks for March 11. We’ll be back in Val Gardena as the capstone to our three months in Italy, but this time it will be just the two of us (sigh) – no Chris, no Caroline and no Boe-Day Mee-Lahr.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Passion for Powder

Tempering my excitement for the skiing ahead was a healthy dose of anxiety. Looking from our Gardena Grödnerhof balcony to the mountains beyond, I felt a quickening inside -- a tingling mix of anticipation and nerves. I’m certainly not getting younger, hadn’t been on the slopes for eight years and didn’t know what to expect from the Dolomite terrain. Was it going to be like riding a bike and all would come back to me easily? I needn’t have been concerned. Finding my rhythm on the slopes was indeed like riding the proverbial bike. It was like being reunited with an old friend as if no time had passed. Strapping on my boards felt as natural as walking down the street and once I’d snapped my boots into my bindings, I was ready to go.

The interests we pursue and that provide pleasure in our youth seem to be those with endurance. Much like Proust’s madeleines, they imprint us with their essence and leave us forever with the sensations we experienced when we first discovered their appeal. As adults, we may temporarily forget them, put them aside for years or simply never find the time to enjoy them as before. But once reunited with a youthful passion, the joy returns and we are again filled with the exquisite pleasure they once imparted. Self-help books for those feeling the blues extol the virtues of revisiting a pastime that made them happy when they were young. Whether it’s painting, collecting stamps, ice-skating, fishing, walking on the beach, knitting, watching baseball, dancing or playing the piano, the pleasures of our youth have unique staying abilities that last a lifetime if you let them.

And so it is with skiing. Introduced to the sport on a high school trip when I was 14, I immediately fell in love with it and saved my pennies so I could head back to the mountains whenever the opportunity arose. My best friends liked to ski as well, which made it even more attractive, and the fact that Joe is a superb skier guaranteed that I would get to make frequent trips north. And when we had a family, we managed to introduce Chris and Caroline to the sport we both loved, taking them to the slopes of Pennsylvania a few times a year until they headed off to college. What’s ironic, however, is that while I adore skiing, I absolutely hate being cold. But I must love skiing more because I simply loaded on the layers and prayed for sun. I’ve had the pleasure of skiing in a lot of places through the years including New England, Upstate New York, Quebec, the Mid-Atlantic and out West. When I was studying abroad, I also skied with other students as guests of Rotary International in Switzerland and France. But none of those experiences compared with the endless trails and expansive, above the tree line terrain of Val Gardena.

The snow gods cooperated by dumping some fresh powder on the mountains the night before our first day out. Although not all areas of every peak were open due to below average snowfall in the Alps, there were still hundreds of miles of simply gorgeous trails to explore. The alpine scenery in the early winter light was breathtaking as we made the long ascents by gondola and cable car, the jagged, grey limestone peaks of the Dolomites rising towards the clouds. For me, there are precious few experiences that provide such pure, unbridled delight as skiing down a mountain under a brilliantly sunny, blue sky, the wind in my face and my family around me. Our days on the slopes of Val Gardena were certainly easy to experience but are difficult to chronicle adequately. At one point, as we rested for a moment on the top of the Seceda summit and looked out over the Dolomites, anticipating the glorious seven-mile descent ahead of us, I marveled at the fact that just two short weeks earlier, Joe and I had been grappling with the dusty rigors of Morocco. We couldn’t be in a more different place now: a mountainous wonderland with Chris and Caroline – the stuff my dreams are made of.

Friday, January 20, 2012

One Part Italy, Two Parts Austria, Three Parts Heaven

Deep in the Dolomites, the craggy, limestone Italian Alps, is the mountain wonderland of Val Gardena. The broad-brush plan for our Gap Year always included several days of skiing with the kids in this beautiful part of the world at Christmastime – our family Christmas gift to each other -- and a gorgeous corner of the world it was. How incredibly fortunate I felt to have the joys of my life -- Joe, Chris and Caroline -- along with skiing, a passion of my youth, convening in a snowy Alpine hamlet.

We headed north from La Spezia on the A22 Autostrada and as we scooted around Verona, the white peaks of the Dolomites rose high in the distance. There’s something about snow-capped mountains, much like the ocean, that lifts one’s spirit. They promise possibilities, hidden wonders and surprises and I never tire of gazing at them. The temperature steadily dropped as we sped towards Bolzano and it was down to freezing when we exited the Autostrada and headed east to the village of Ortisei, the first of the three villages in the valley. It was a long 35 kilometers to our destination, the Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof, on corkscrewed, snowy roads that wound deeper into the Dolomites and eventually down into lovely Val Gardena. But were we really still in Italy? The architecture had quickly changed once we left the highway from buildings in warm shades of stucco with orange tile roofs to brown and white A-framed chalets adorned with carved flower boxes and rustic log lodges with little balconies. We’d entered a frosty slice of Austria even though the map maintained we were in Italy. We later learned that the three valley villages of Ortisei, Santa Christina and Selva, are in the Italian province of the South Tyrol, originally part of Austro-Hungary until 1918 when it was annexed by Italy from the defeated after World War I. Although all speak Italian, German is the mother tongue (and dominant culture) of most of the residents and the area is officially bilingual.

Our five days at the Hotel Gardena Grodnerhof were like being in paradise. As Joe so aptly put it, “We’ve never, ever stayed in a hotel where we’ve been treated better or the staff were nicer.” And they were genuinely kind, not the fake I-have-to-be-nice-to-you-because-it’s-my-job kind of nice. Within hours of check-in, the Gardena Grodnerhof quickly became our favorite hotel of our trip so far. The incredibly pleasant, polite and helpful Mathias (should I also mention that he had beautiful blue eyes?) checked us in and the four of us then settled into our bright, cozy suite: a main bedroom for me and Joe, an adjoining sitting room with a pullout couch for the kids and a bathroom to share. The beds were covered with thick, fluffy, down duvets, the walls were a fragrant natural wood, there were huge closets all along one wall for our ski clothes that the kids had hauled over with them and an outside terrace that looked over the town, just a hundred yards away, and the snow-topped mountains towering behind. It was a perfect space for our winter getaway. Some think we’re crazy to stay in such close quarters with our two adult children when we travel but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We just love being in close confines with our kids and it just doesn’t get better than hearing their chitchat, whispers and laughter from the next room.
Soon after we’d settled in, one of the hotel staff knocked on the door with a tray of champagne flutes for a welcome toast to the beginning of our stay. We took a chilly walk at dusk through the quintessential ski town of Ortisei and although darkness was falling quickly, we could still see the dark outline of the mountains rising behind the village. The combination of the rocky peaks and the underlying energy of the town, now glittering with shop lights and peppered with skiers returning from the slopes, brought back a flood of memories from trips gone by. My dormant skiing juices started flowing freely and my excitement about the days ahead, schussing downhill, began to rise. I wondered how we could have let all of eight years slip by without a family ski trip. Sometimes everyday life gets in the way of our passions and I reminded myself that that is exactly what this Gap Year trip is about – putting our passions front and center while we temporarily set aside the daily grind. We had hit the jackpot with our visit to Val Gardena; it was a dramatic skiing valley that was technically in Italy, felt a lot like the Tyrol and was surely in heaven.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Silly Pisa

The white marble tower of Pisa turns grown adults into childish adolescents who do silly things, the four of us included, and all because it’s pitched at a bit of an angle. It elicits a particularly giddy joy, as people marvel that it is has remained upright and that they are actually there to witness it still standing. The leaning tower really is a wonder -- a sight you’ve heard about and seen in pictures and cartoons since you were a child, and you have to pinch yourself when you’re actually standing in front of it and seeing it in person.
We headed into Pisa on a beautifully sunny December day with bright blue skies and cool, almost warm, temperatures. On a previous backpacking trip, 33 years ago and obviously, without the children, we had made the required trip-to-Italy pilgrimage to Pisa to see the famous leaning tower. I can remember being astonished then, just as the kids were on this visit, at how beautiful its setting, lovingly called Il Campo dei Miracoli (The Field of Miracles), actually is. The most famous bell tower in the world, i.e., the Leaning Tower, along with the Cathedral of Pisa it stands behind and the Baptistery further on, form a harmonious ensemble of brilliant white marble structures set against the deep, contrasting green of the surrounding lawn. The grassy square sits below the well-preserved medieval walls on the edge of the feudal city and is set apart from all around it, in no way suffocated by the buildings along the perimeter. The Leaning Tower itself is actually rather delicate at about 185 feet tall (much smaller than many imagine), and its massive cathedral neighbor provides perspective, reinforcing the differences between them.

Once we’d taken the serious pictures of the lovely, lush square and its world-famous structure, we moved on to the silly stuff. Could a trip to Pisa be satisfying or complete without a bunch of funny, forced perspective photos with the Leaning Tower? Of course not. We needed to stage a picture of Caroline pushing with her hands upright, bracing with her back, and aligning the appropriate body parts so that the camera shot is just right, creating the illusion that she is preventing the tower from falling. We then positioned Chris hugging the famous pillar, his arms wrapped around it perfectly and then appearing as if he’s lifting it out of the ground. And since our visit was a family affair, Joe and I also posed in silly fashion. Of course, in some photos all goes wrong, with nothing aligning as intended and those might be the funniest of all. The merriment did not end with our own “phunny photo session.” Almost as amusing as making funny pictures ourselves, we then watched other tourists being silly, twisting and adjusting themselves into perfect positions to hold the Leaning Tower between their hands or catch it in their arms. Families struggled to position each other perfectly, couples bickered about how best to pose and multiple strangers asked us to take pictures of them in wacky, twisted stances. Even the most solemn visitors put aside their poise as they jockeyed for that ideal shot of themselves pretending to support the tower to keep it upright. So there we were, along with all the other tourists, in one of the most famous and recognizable places in the world, acting like high schoolers trying to capture the perfect zany photo. It did us all good as laughter and childish silliness always does.
We’ve added picture taking in Pisa to our list of why Italy can be so very funny.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Cinque Terre: Delight and Disappointment

For years we’d dreamed of visiting the picturesque Cinque Terre (the five lands) perched along the Ligurian coast of Italy and hiking from one medieval seaside village to the next. Once only reachable by water until the arrival of the railway, it was one of the destinations on our itinerary that we most looked forward to visiting with Chris and Caroline. But Mother Nature had other plans when on October 25, 2011 she unleashed a torrential rainstorm along Italy’s northwestern coast and the surrounding hills. The fury of the downpour triggered landslides of unprecedented proportion that left rivers of sludge, trees, bushes and debris in their wake. Three locals residents were swept out to sea, their bodies recovered weeks later off the coast of France.
The disappointment of four thwarted hikers can hardly be compared to the devastation experienced by the people of the Cinque Terre, but we felt let down nonetheless. The five towns, from the south and closest to La Spezia to the north and furthest away, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. Vernazza, lauded by many as the visually most striking of the five, bore the brunt of the mudslides, along with its northern neighbor, Monterosso. The former was off-limits to visitors; only aid workers and residents were allowed off the train at the Vernazza stop. When planning our visit to the area, long before the rainstorms hit, our plan had been to take the train from La Spezia to Riomaggiore and then do the five-hour hike along the trails linking the towns, a total of eight rocky, rollercoaster miles. Unfortunately, however, all but the flat, paved trail between Riomaggiore and Manorola, the Via Dell'Amore ("Lover’s Walk"), were closed, too damaged by the storm to be safe for hikers. So, a very loose Plan B in place, we took the 10-minute train from La Spezia to the first stop at Riomaggiore to see what we would find...
There was absolutely no visible evidence of storm damage in Riomaggiore. Few other visitors walked the street that sloped down to the narrow harbor, the colorful town spilling down to the choppy water, but that was the result of the cool off-season and not the fall floods. Each of the Cinque Terre towns is overrun with tourists in the summer, but we practically had Riomaggiore to ourselves. We made the easy walk along the beautiful Via dell’Amore – just short of a mile – into Manarola and then continued just past the town to where the trail was barricaded. Corniglia, the next town and the only hilltop town of the five, clung to the cliff in the distance, beckoning us to hike to her. But that wonderful walk would have to wait for another day and a future trip when the path has been restored. Today, we headed back into Manarola to board the train for Corniglia and Monterosso. As we waited on the seaside platform, we marveled at (and took dozens of pictures of) the incredible gradations of light that resulted from the sun peeking in and out of the dramatic clouds. A bright blue, perfectly cloudless sky would have been nice and warmed us a bit but wouldn’t have produced the variations of shadow, shade and radiance we enjoyed that afternoon. We watched as waterspouts -- tornadoes on the sea -- rose up in the distance from the angry gray water, but close to the shore, the water calmed to a tranquil, deep turquoise.
The train dropped us below Corniglia, perched high above on a promontory and practically leaning over the sea. We made our way up to the deserted town center, which, like the two neighboring towns to the south, is a jumble of sherbet-hued buildings of peach, raspberry, tangerine and lemon. We then scrambled down the north edge of town along a steep, winding stairway to the cramped harbor and pebbly beach below. The bright colors of the fishing dinghies -- navy, red, yellow and royal blue – contrasted with the pastel shades of the town above. How much fun it must be in the scorching summer to make the long, rocky descent and then jump into the cerulean sea. As we amused ourselves along the angled cement pier, the water lapping at the sides, I added the Cinque Terre to my list of “Places we’ll return to one day.” The next time it will be summer, we’ll do the entire eight-mile hike of our imagination, the devastation will be long gone and the hardy people of the five lands will have recovered.
The train’s next stop was Vernazza and although not permitted to get off in the devastated town (which was under about 13 feet of mud after the storm, almost reaching the first-floor balconies), we could see some of the damage from our window. Two months into the recovery, a film of dried, gray mud still coated most of the pastel buildings that lined the main street down to the water, leaving the town a pale imitation of its prior self. Construction equipment blocked the way to the harbor as it went about the work of clearing away the residue from the storm. We disembarked in Monterosso where they appeared to have already made significant progress towards getting the town back to status quo. Whereas much of Vernazza runs uphill, perpendicular to the coast, most of Monterosso hugs the water in true beach town fashion. There was a massive, grimy debris field at one end of the beach that included refrigerators and all manner of appliances, furniture, boat fragments, sinks, boxes, trees and clothing. Perhaps it was waiting for a refuse barge to haul it all away. The four of us were sad and had a hard time looking at this woeful, eerie sight – the remnants of people’s lives gathered and  heaped in piles along the shore. Sandbag stacks remained in place, lining the bottom of most storefronts, in what were likely futile attempts to keep the flood waters out. The town leaders have vowed that what was once a string of animated restaurants and shops will return this spring to once again house a brisk tourist trade. It certainly appeared that they plan to keep their promise as Monterosso resonated with the motorized sounds of heavy machinery and moving equipment.
We headed back on the train to La Spezia with a mixed bag of emotions. It was obvious that the Cinque Terre towns are wonder-filled and worthy of their reputation as one of Italy’s top destinations; we were grateful to have been lucky enough to visit them. But we were also so disappointed not to have been able to experience them fully and to take advantage of the challenging, scenic hiking trails. The best we can do is spread the word to other travelers and hikers that the Cinque Terre will soon be back, as beautiful and lively as ever, ready to fill them with wonder and delight.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Laughing All the Way

The anticipation sometimes exceeds the experience you’ve awaited but not so with the arrival of Chris and Caroline. Their familiar, smiling, American faces leapt out from among the crowd leaving all the other passengers in a blur. From the moment they came bundling through the international arrivals door at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, all was right with the world and we had nary a care. We crammed the four of us and our 11 pieces of luggage into our Fiat minivan rental, made our way to the autostrada and headed south to the Mediterranean coast, packed to the gills. Our itinerary for their visit included five nights in La Spezia from which we would explore the Cinque Terre, Pisa and Lucca, one night in the Lake District on our way north, five nights in the Alps in Val Gardena for some skiing and two nights in Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet.

We never laugh so hard and consistently as when we’re with our children. Joe and I are not perfect parents, but we love our children dearly and must have done something right or we never could have so much genuine fun when the four of us are together. Always sentimental, Caroline had brought along a CD of our favorite family Christmas carols to help us get into the Christmas spirit. So, we sang along with Nat King Cole as we headed down to La Spezia, anticipating being together for two weeks in Italy and laughing all the way.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Milano Surprise

Milan was to be a convenient location for meeting our children – nothing more and nothing less. But when we found ourselves with an extra day because of our early arrival from Morocco, we decided to take the train in to wander the city on a cursory half-day tour. We had done absolutely no research on what to see and boarded the Milano Malpensa Express blind. All we knew was that the city was a center of haute couture, had a magnificent Duomo and was home to La Scala, the world-renowned opera house. On the train ride into town, I studied the map we’d picked up at the hotel to sketch out a route and fortuitously stumbled upon the notation that Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is in Milan. Shame in us that we had no idea it was under our noses, but what a lucky surprise! Surely a day that starts with such an auspicious discovery must turn out well. We arrived at the train station and headed straight for Santa Maria delle Grazie, a 15th century church and convent in whose refectory the masterpiece is housed, a few short blocks away. We promptly bought two advance tickets for the 3pm visit (each viewing includes just 25 people and is for only 15 minutes) and tickets in hand, headed towards the center of Milan for lunch, the Duomo and La Scala.

We first came upon the Duomo di Milano, which I found quite appealing. It was a confectionary vision from Oz, flamboyant yet graceful and topped by a forest of delicate, soaring spires. Adjoining the Piazza del Duomo was the elegant, black and gold Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the upscale, shopping arcade built in the late 1800s to provide direct, sheltered access from the Duomo to La Scala. The structure is composed of two perpendicular glass-vaulted ceilings that intersect in an octagonal dome and cover the streets below. We learned that this construction was much larger in scale than any of its predecessors and was an important step in the evolution of the modern, enclosed shopping mall, many of which use the Milano-inspired term, Galleria in their names.
After a pizza lunch under the soaring Galleria skylights, we headed to the Piazza della Scala, hoping for a brief tour of the opera house. But once we arrived in the piazza, we were met by a dense crowd, were held back by a fence restricting access to La Scala and bumped into Carabinieri with every step. Clearly, something was going on. We soon learned that the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that evening would launch the new opera season and that Italy’s glitterati, including Mario Monti, the new prime minister, would be there. The inside of the theater was off limits for the day, so we had to content ourselves with a view from the street. This was actually fine with us, however, since we were a bit tight on time and didn’t want to be late for our 3pm appointment with Leonardo.
We arrived at Santa Maria delle Grazie with plenty of time to spare and to study the information about The Last Supper posted in the entryway foyer. Apparently, the convent had been severely damaged by US bombing during World War II. Several amazing black and white photographs are displayed, including one of the partially destroyed dining hall – the roof blown off – and The Last Supper exposed to the elements. The painting came to within a few feet of being completely destroyed. At 3 o’clock straight up, we were lead with the other 23 visitors in our group into the refectory of the convent. Keenly aware that we had a brief 15 minutes to enjoy da Vinci’s mural masterpiece, we did our best to take in the setting and the details of the painting since no pictures or video were allowed. We struggled to push aside the pop culture baggage we brought along (the references in Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code to the mural’s depiction of the sacred feminine, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, et al.), so that we could simply marvel at the magnificent work of art in front of us. It was difficult, however, to completely disregard the notion that the figure to the left of Jesus was not actually John but Mary Magdalene, given the individual’s visibly feminine characteristics. Covering much of one of the walls at the end of the refectory, The Last Supper measures 15 feet high by 29 feet wide and did indeed take our breath away. We had seen the image that depicts Jesus announcing to his 12 apostles that one of them would betray him, reproduced a multitude of times over the years, but to actually see it as and where da Vinci painted it was remarkable. Fifteen minutes was hardly enough time to satisfy us, but just as we were ushered in, we were briskly escorted out.
Our one day in Milan was an unexpected treat, capped by its highlight, our serendipitous encounter with The Last Supper

Friday, January 6, 2012

Italy -- a Funny Country

Back from the wilds of Africa, we checked into a perfectly ordinary, brightly lit, run-of-the-mill, tourist hotel, a quick shuttle bus ride from Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Normally, such a nondescript, modern hotel is not what we would choose, but its simplicity was a most effective succor after complicated Morocco. We were so happy to be in Italy and needed a few days of down time to sleep in, regroup, repack and finalize some travel plans before Chris and Caroline arrived in just three days. How many ways are there to say, "We're excited!"? I’m sure we came up with each and every one as we discussed and anticipated our children’s entry into Italy.

In the few short hours after we arrived at our hotel, Italy had us laughing. Morocco had been a fairly serious expedition and we desperately needed some belly laughs. We checked in, dragged our bags into our hotel room and were hit with the blistering heat of Dante’s Inferno. Joe futilely searched for the climate controls and then headed down to the front desk to ask them to reduce the temperature. He soon returned with this brilliant and very serious advice: “If it’s too hot, just open the window.” So much for Italian energy conservation! We burst out laughing as we let in the refreshingly cool December air.

Next on the humor progression was the book I found among the many pulp fiction paperbacks stacked on the hotel lobby bookshelves. There were dozens of titles in the Segretissimo spy novel series, all of them with sensational titles and illustrated covers with busty, weapon-wielding women in various stages of undress. But my favorite of all and the one that made me laugh out loud was, L’Abito Non Fa La Monaca. It featured a pretty young woman fully clothed in black and white religious garb holding a flaming gun, a fierce look on her face as she shouted at her adversary. I was pretty sure I’d gotten the translation right, but double-checked with Google to be sure. Yup, translation on target: The Habit Does Not Make the Nun. I wondered if there were more Nuns With Guns titles in the series. I chuckle even now when I think about it.

The fun continued over dinner. Spy nun novel in hand, we headed to the hotel restaurant where we looked forward to toasting our safe arrival in Italy. Our waiter, 50-ish with shoulder-length gray hair slicked back and into a bit of a flip and ceremoniously clad in a starched black tux, greeted us oh so graciously and brought us to our table. The formality seemed somewhat excessive for the simple surroundings and modest menu, but he was enjoying his role and so we enjoyed watching him. It very quickly became apparent, however, that all was for show. While he acted as if he were on the wait staff at Le Grand Vefour, he actually had the abilities of an absent-minded professor. We asked if he spoke English, he stood up tall and said, “but of course.” He proceeded to translate some of the menu items for us, but most of what he said made absolutely no sense. In the end, we went with the items that included words we knew like, “gnocchi” and “penne.” I thought I would be safe when I took his advice on the antipasti dish he confidently declared was a salad but I ended up with a huge platter of salami. When attempting to order some wine, we pointed to a listing for Chianti and pencil poised on his order pad, he shook his head and announced with some regret, “No. No more.” We then pointed to a Valpolicella and received the same response. We tried two more times and each time were told that they were out. When I asked what they actually had, he walked to the wine table directly behind us and we could tell he was having a hard time figuring out which bottles matched the listings on the menu. After about five minutes of watching him fumble, I got up to see if I could help him and thank goodness, a much younger waiter came over and put us all out of our misery. He quickly found a bottle of red that worked for us, proceeded to open it and we were finally able to have our toast. “Here’s to Italy -- a very funny country – may she always make us laugh.”

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Morocco: Final Thoughts

The need to write and talk about our visit to Northern Africa has been visceral and I find can’t move on to Italy until I get Morocco out of my system. So, a few final sounds, images, smells, feelings and tastes, none of which I ever imagined I would experience but each of which assaulted our senses and evoked mini-explosions of reaction deep inside...

1. The Sounds...

The call to prayer: About two hours after our arrival, I heard what sounded like a pack of European motorbikes slowly revving up outside our hotel room windows. As the droning built to a persistent hum, I realized that we were actually listening to our first adhan, the five daily calls to prayer broadcast by the muezzins from the minarets of the neighborhood mosques surrounding the riad. The ritual and pervasive summoning of the faithful reached us from near and far for almost 15 minutes; and while quaint at first, after multiple repetitions the overt reverberation of the state religion was a bit unsettling.

2. The Images...

The Berber cave dwelling: About an hour south of Fes are the Middle Atlas Mountains. We took a private van tour with a most gentle guide named Driss to visit the Atlas countryside including the Berber town of Imouzzer. Driss was anxious for us to stop in this hardscrabble town so that he could introduce us to an elderly woman who lived in a cave, the traditional dwelling of the Berber people, with her family. He lead us through the muddy market stalls and down several dirt back streets until we turned down a narrow walkway carved into the ground. Joe and I gave each other quizzical looks that asked, “are we really up for this?” and then followed Driss down the rocky steps into the Berber cave. A spacious home built into a cliff face this was not. It was a humble, one-room, all-purpose abode that had literally been dug out of the ground, oval in shape, with a ceiling about six and a half feet high and all the walls whitewashed. There was a small wood-burning stove at one end of the space on which a large teapot of water boiled. It was a pleasant-enough little spot, actually, except for the absence of electricity and running water. The warm, bright-eyed family matriarch (who Driss told us owned the family home) invited us to sit down as her middle-aged daughter and adolescent granddaughter poured us some sweet louiza tea (the two of them bickering as mothers and daughters are wont to do about the tea’s proper preparation), a lovely lemon verbena infusion scented with freshly picked leaves. After just a few minutes of questions and answers, with Driss as translator, the grandmother decided it was time to dress me up in full, traditional Berber regalia and enthusiastically draped me in a white, woven cloak, black babushka and chunky red necklace. We have the images to prove my transformation into a Berber princess, but had she attempted to dress Joe, I guarantee he would have allowed no photographic evidence. We stayed with our kind and generous hosts about twenty minutes, then left with an effusive ”la shukran,” and in accordance with Berber tradition, gave some dirhams to the matriarch for her hospitality. We left our visit with these three lovely women, appreciating that they are proud of the hole in the ground they call home, have no embarrassment about their way of life, and were happy to have shared it with us. For these women, their village of Imouzzer is all they know of the world – no US, no western world, no reality outside their village. We left with just one unanswered question, which we hadn’t dared pose: where were the men in the family and where did they reside?

The medina from above: The panoramic view of the surrounding medina from the riad’s rooftop terrace included the expected green (revered as the color of life by Muslims) minarets and the flapping laundry and outdoor gardens on the flat tops of the ancient buildings. While the residents of Fes are certainly not rich by Western standards, the people we saw appeared relatively hardy and hale. And judging from the vista afforded by the terrace, every residence in the medina, even those that are unstable and crumbling, can afford multiple rooftop satellites. A gentleman we met described the field of white devices, their faces all turned in the same direction just as blossoms follow the sun, as “the flowers of the medina.When ancient and modern worlds collide, the result is thousands of satellite dishes sprouting from primeval homes. The juxtaposition was jarring but was actually kind of attractive in a science fiction kind of way.

In the streets of the medina: The main attraction in Fes is the medina itself: people living their everyday lives as they have for centuries, crowding the narrow alleys buying and selling goods in the local souks (markets), greeting their neighbors and delivering their bread to public wood-fire ovens for baking. Our first stop was the Bab Bouljoud, commonly known as the Blue Gate, a monumental, tiled horseshoe gateway for all kinds of human and animal traffic into and out of the medina. Amidst the hubbub of a busy Friday morning, we stood there with our guide, looking foreign and out of place as we gazed into the depths of the forbidding lanes ahead. We read that there are nearly 11,000 individual retail businesses in the nest of medina alleyways, many of them family-owned and most of them in cramped stalls that line the main streets of the souks. Each shop is rarely more than a couple yards wide and only a few yards deep. Larger retailers have a narrow corridor entrance, with the bulk of the premises, packed to the rafters with merchandise, tucked behind multiple other tiny storefronts. Within the medina, no freight is delivered by truck, thus it must be carried by donkey, mule-cart, or handcart, or on human shoulders. Once inside the medina, we were pushed aside by many a burdened donkey carrying seven LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinders, the maximum load for a single donkey, which made them nearly as wide as the passageways themselves.

In the course of our medina meanderings, we passed any number of open-air butcher stands with a variety animal parts hanging on hooks and bleeding into the street. These meat purveyors differed from those in Paris and Barcelona in that there were no bright lights and antiseptic white counters, nor were labels needed to identify the offerings. Rather, the medina butchers operated out of small, dark stalls with wooden cutting boards out front and the origin of the meat was no mystery. A still-attached animal head, hide or hoof helped identify the bloody piece. Joe pointed out a six-pack of animal forelegs with the hoofs intact -- for soup stock perhaps? Across the alley from the hoof display, was the vision that continues to haunt me. We saw a goat being butchered, its head on the chopping block and blood pooling on the ground below. We Americans prefer not to think about how the meat we eat reaches our plates but in Morocco, there was no disguising the process. The medina was a dizzying, and often disgusting, sensory overload, and that was even before we got to the Chouwara Tannery.

3. The Smells...

The tannery: The highlight of a trip to the Fes medina is the visit to the Chouwara Tannery, the largest of the tanneries inside the city walls. We had heard and read about this anachronistic sweatshop, seen pictures in guidebooks and on the Internet, and believed ourselves prepared for the experience. How naive we were! The tannery made its presence known even before we started up the multiple, cramped staircases that led us up to a broad wooden terrace that overlooked the open-air operation from two stories above. The stench was overpowering with smells so foreign they made us gag as we pressed the sprigs of mint we were given on arrival to our noses. We gawked over the color-filled tannery tableau, mouths hanging open, and were instantly transported back to the middle ages. What lay below us was positively medieval – a hide curing and dying process that is as manual today as it was in the 1200s when the tannery first opened. Dozens of four-foot square earthen wells, like so many finger-painting pots, were filled with various foul liquids and animal hides were being stomped on by barefooted laborers in shorts. The camel, cow, goat and sheep skins have smells of their own and when combined with the tannery’s special curing cocktail of cow urine and pigeon guano, the resulting rancid smell is overwhelming. The hides are then stretched, scraped and dyed by hand in the next series of honeycombed pots before being laid to dry on the tannery roofs. The accumulation of what we saw and smelled at the tannery was almost too much to absorb all at once. I breathed through my mouth and covered my nostrils with the mint leaves I’d crushed with my fingers to release its refreshing scent in an attempt to disguise the powerful reeking from below. As we stood staring out over the medieval tannery, I turned to Joe and imagined him thinking, “Babe, I can't believe I let you talk me into going to Morocco,” because, of course, this detour to Africa had all been my idea in the first place. We finally left the tannery, realizing that we might never again see another place like it and attempting to temper our misgivings and comfort ourselves with the thought that the tanneries remain one of the critical sources of income for the people of Fes.

Hides for sale: Just off the street against the medina’s outer walls, we passed a disturbing sight on our car tour of the ramparts. Initially it wasn’t clear what we were seeing but as we circled closer, our guide, Mohammed, confirmed our suspicions -- it was an animal hide market. A two-acre muddy lot was stacked high with recently harvested sheep and goat hides awaiting transport inside the walls to the tanneries. Mohammed explained that the skins were especially abundant because of the recent Eid al-Adha celebration (The Festival of Sacrifice), which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to kill his son at God’s request. Allah eventually intervened and provided Abraham a sheep to sacrifice instead and thus, Muslims recreate this narrative by themselves slaughtering an animal, typically a sheep or goat. The piles of pelts were shocking, the odor overpowering and luckily our driver had no plans to stop. We passed as quickly as traffic would allow but the smell and the scene lingered long after we’d returned to the refuge of our hotel.

4. The Feelings...

Selling on steroids: On our medina tour, we discovered that perhaps a good map would have been better than a guide. Rashid, our chaperone for the day, dragged us to the shops of all his friends where they pounced on us with abandon and a selling fury known only to timeshare pushers. It became clear that even official guides receive commissions on all sales they bring to the retailers. Our first hard sell was at the tannery where I received a full court press to buy a $300 suede jacket and after 15 minutes just wanted to scream, “What about NO don’t you understand?” After we left, Rashid had the nerve to ask me why I didn’t want the jacket. “Was there something wrong with it?” We firmly told Rashid we weren’t in the market for buying anything (especially a $300 blue suede jacket) and we thought he heard us but we were wrong. Our next stop was a woman’s carpet cooperative where we understood we would be shown how the merchandise is designed and fabricated. No such luck. We ended up being plunked down for sweet green tea in a tiled showroom awash in carpets, and although beautiful, we were not in any way prepared to buy one. My mistake was being nice and commenting that they were lovely. That was it – they had their target in their sights. All the attention was focused on me as the decision-maker and Joe was promptly marginalized. Before we took the first sip of our tea (again, to be polite), we were presented with several dozen rugs of various sizes, designs, weaves, and colors, each rolled out, one by one, by four workers in front of us. We were soon knee deep in carpets, the entire production narrated by the head honcho -- a fast-talking schmoozer and consummate salesman in a colorful djellebah, who revealed he was a lawyer (I definitely wouldn’t want to have him arguing a case against me!). Each time we protested, stating that we didn’t want a carpet, his only response was to roll out more of them. “You’ll buy one,” he insisted, “we just have to find the right one.” Joe was increasingly annoyed, but all I could do was fight the urge to flee. Feeling trapped and claustrophobic, I just wanted out and barely heard what was being said as I plotted our escape. It became apparent that the master marketer’s tactic was to embarrass us into a purchase since they had done so much work and rolled out enough carpets to upholster all the lanes in the medina. When he finally took a breath, we told the guy outright, with no room for misinterpretation, that we weren’t buying this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow, with cash, on credit, on layaway, with delayed shipping. No carpet. No rug. No nada. La shukran. Rashid was absolutely no help at all -- he just sat there next to me extolling the virtues of every single carpet they presented. When we finally broke free, sweating and agitated, into the alley, we repeated to Rashid, in no uncertain terms, “We are not going to buy anything.” Did he hear us this time? Apparently not. We weren’t in the market to buy anything but he kept trying to drag us back in, kicking and screaming. Our next stop, after a bit more lane meandering, was a Berber workshop that Rashid presented as a place where we could see Berber carpets being made on traditional looms. Learning from my mistake of being nice in the previous establishment, I said not a word of praise during the tour and we promptly left before the sales pitch could begin. My flight or fight response had become overwhelming and feigning exhaustion, we begged off further sights, asking to return to the riad. Perhaps to help Rashid save face or perhaps because I imagined that the tour would end only when we made a purchase, I bought a $20 bottle of argan oil in a tiny cosmetics stall staffed by Rashid’s crony. I had read about this peculiar oil and its skin-healing properties and I was curious. The oil has an unusual provenance. Goats climb argan trees, endemic to Morocco, to reach the fruit on the upper branches; Berber women then collect the undigested argan pits from the goat waste and then grind the kernels to release the precious, nutty oil. Rashid and friend tried to push additional emollients on us, but I grabbed my oil in a definitive statement of “it’s time to go.” Our medina tour/peddling session ended after a very long three hours. We learned the hard way that it’s excruciating work saying “no.”

5. The Tastes...

Sweet and savory: The sensory overload of Morocco ended on a tasty note. The food was simply delicious and we loved every bite of what we ate. While hardly a representative sampling since every bit was eaten in our hotel restaurant, L’Ambre (sleek and modern in design and dimly lit to my liking), Moroccan cuisine has pushed Spanish fare even further down the Gap Year Culinary Scorecard. France is on top with Morocco in second place and Spain a distant third. The Moroccans actually got it right very early on (like centuries ago) with the sweet and savory craze and have long understood the appeal of mixing these two tastes. We tried all variety of traditional, Moroccan appetizers including candied carrots, spicy diced quince, chopped eggplant and red peppers, mashed curried cauliflower, minced zucchini and green peppers, lima beans with lemon zest and olives, and pumpkin puree with cinnamon. All were delicious and uniquely spiced. Our main dishes included pastilla, a sweet and savory phyllo dough pie with shredded chicken, nuts and powdered sugar, and several delectable tagines (Moroccan stews with attitude): kefta (lamb meatballs in a piquant tomato gravy), beef with olives, carrots and preserved lemons and shrimp and in a slightly sweet pepper and tomato sauce, all exotically flavored and served with a side of couscous. We drank lovely local wines, both white and red, and for dessert, there was briouot with honey (Morrocan baklava) and pastilla with cream (a Moroccan mille-feuille). All these dishes were listed on cafe menus in the medina but we were only brave enough to try them at Riad Fes.

Absolutely final thought: I’m certain this advice has been said about a multitude of places on earth, but should you have a need for adventure and a desire to travel to Northern Africa, see Morocco before you die, but see it only once. 

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com