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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

May the road rise to meet you…

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For some reason, the owner thought it’d be a good idea to paint it Kelly green, and to make it worse they painted a leprechaun on the side. Typical. Tourist. But it was cheap, and it was easy, and it was my savior from planning, and procrastinating, and producing nothing but worry. My backpack was tossed in, with the bags of the Canadians and the Chinese and the Australians and the Swedish, and I sat in my own seat, curled up behind my coat and I looked out the window to the green, the leaves, the sheep, the ocean, listening to the Irish brogue of our driver as he lulled me to sleep.

And that bus, that horrid green, that blends-but-clashes-with-the-landscape green, that contained a small collaboration of nations, rolled over the hills of Ireland and down to the coast and back up again. Over and over. Like the surprisingly blue waves off the shoreline. And I would sit, and lean my head against the window, swaying back and forth with the rocky road, sitting in my adopted, moving home, feeling that this was the safest place in the world, the safest, strangest place I’ve ever been. This bus, where I knew no one. Where I was no one. No one but the lone American girl that had studied in Italy and was from Boston. And the freedom of it – the freedom of being able to be anyone I wanted. To do anything I ever wanted to do, say what I wanted to say. I could. I had no restrictions, no baggage, no history. No one had any expectations. They knew me as I acted that week and nothing more, nothing less.

So it was ok, when some days I was loud and happy, and laughing, and talking, and telling stories about my life, my home, about Italy, about people that I loved, my pets, about what I missed from home, my school, about everything that I have ever known, releasing my mysteriousness, letting them know me, letting them understand. But it was also ok to sit in my own seat, legs pulled up tight to my chest. Sit. Think. Listen. Learn. Quiet.

And I’d feel so happy, so content, so needlessly comfortable, watching the landscapes of Ireland pass lazily outside my window. And my heart would soar and tell me it wanted to live here forever. In between the rocky coast and the rocky countryside. Weaving through the fishing harbors and the peat bogs and the myths and the fairy rings. And when I stepped off that bus and walked onto the plane that last day, the bland, white plane, I sat in my seat and brought my knees to my chest and rested my head against the window. But something, was missing. 

Monday, 14 November 2011

Spin the Globe

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I swirled the whipped cream into my hot chocolate, making patterns as the spoon twisted in the cup, hitting the sides, plinking with each moment of contact.
“I have no idea,” I sighed, and dropped the spoon to the side of the cup with a clatter. Tuya was sitting across from me, the light of her computer reflecting in her glasses. She squinted at the screen.  “I don’t really care. I just want to go.”

We were sitting in Café Pretoriana in Ascoli. Besides the school, it was our only internet access point. The password to the WiFi was Led Zepplin. The hot chocolate was as thick as pudding. They played Italian rap music. The couple that ran it became my best friends. It was a comfort place.

    “What about here?” Tuya spun her laptop towards me and pointed to the digital map. A small speck in the center of the Mediterranean appeared under her finger.
    “What is that?” I asked.
    “It’s called Malta. Must be warm, right?”
    “Better be. I’m pale and need tanlines.”
    “Is it a country?”
    “No idea.”

Before we had looked at that map, Malta was a dog. I had never heard of the country, or its people. But my travels were an educated adventure that opened my eyes to another small, but beautiful portion of the world.

As we walked down the street to Granny’s Inn Hostel, I could not believe the weather. Bluebird skies and eighty degrees in April. Purple, blue and pink flowers were blooming through the wrought iron fences, and a breeze wafted the scent of the ocean air up through the maze of pale colored houses with bright colored trim. As we were buzzed in, I exclaimed at how gorgeous this place was. She gave me a puzzled look.

“Welcome to Malta.” She said as she shrugged. This weather was the norm.

In the next few days, we toured the city, craving the history, the beaches with names like Golden Bay and Paradise Bay. We roamed the craft areas and went dancing in the clubs. Malta was a haven I had never even known existed. And it started with a pinpoint on a map, a little spontaneity, and a chance.
When asked, many people will say they want to travel to big cities, the famous. Rome, Paris, New York, London, Dublin.  But when you search beyond those limits, worlds can be opened up. Before purchasing that next flight, spin a globe, stop it with your finger, and reveal worlds you never even knew existed.

Wednesday, 09 November 2011

Getting Comfortable in an Airport

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It was now three in the morning. I watched my reflection in the glass as I tried to get comfortable under the green Alitalia blanket I had stuffed in my bag on the flight over. It was too short, and I was trying to decide what was more important to cover: my feet, or my face. My body wriggled on the marble slab, looking like an oversized caterpillar. Behind me, she started again, but with much more gusto.

“Vai viaaa! Vai viaaa!” she moaned. Go awayyy! And then she would hack up a lung before going quiet for a moment, then beginning the broken record again. She was directing this banter at the man that had set up camp next to her; apparently too close for comfort. Occasionally he would spat back a Stai Zitto! (shut up) but she would carefully explain in toothless Italian that she would if he wasn’t a horrible person that had stolen her liquor. Her voice was aged with cigarette smoke. She had sectioned off a corner of the airport corridor for herself; barricading it with blankets and trash bags. He had a bathrobe and a sleeping bag that had seen better days. She had won the fort competition, but apparently he had won in the fight the night before, with a bottle of alcohol being the victor’s cup. Now, she was angry. I wanted to cry.

 I thought I had picked a quiet spot to spend my night in Fumicino Airport before my flight home, but apparently it was quite the opposite. Who knew the airport was a popular humble abode for the homeless in the area? Welcome to the life of the budget traveler. I have spent many nights in airports, and have learned to fall asleep on chairs, floors, busses, boats, cars, planes, and trains. More often than not, the connecting transportation from one destination to another doesn’t add up quite right when budgeting, which makes for much down time in places you don’t particularly want to be. Make the most of it. Don’t simply sit there and complain. Here are a few ideas:
1. Always bring a journal and a pen (never forget the pen or you’ll cry.) A journal doesn’t need to be plugged in to write on. This is especially awesome in a place where the architects decided plugs were not necessary – for example: Fumicino. With a journal you can start your travel writing, draw, write letters to home, etc.

2. Find a place off the beaten path if you have enough time. Once when waiting outside of Termini train station in Rome, I wandered until I found a free admission park full of ruins. I sat by a fountain and watched as Italian couples roamed the paths until I had to catch my train.

3. Talk. Everyone is going somewhere wherever you’re stuck. Some have pretty interesting stories. I’ve met a semi-pro soccer player with dreams of moving to Europe to find a team, a vet that had illegally stayed in Africa to rehabilitate monkeys, a woman who had retired and decided to see as much as the world as she could before she died, an Italian that had taken up residency in an Irish hostel until he was fluent in English, and an Australian that traveled wherever the surf was good.  These are only a couple on the list. You’d be surprised at what stories are in your reach. You just have to initiate them.

4. Sudoku or crosswords. Can’t beat em.

5. Read, read, read. Find a book that you know in a language you don’t. If you know the story, and have the copy in your native language, you can read them side by side and learn!

6. If all else fails, sleep. In airports, if you’re lucky, you can find a row of those horrible chairs. BUT! You can make these into a bed if you’re agile. Simply squeeze under the arms and it becomes a sort of a futon. Disregard the horrible looks you get from hogging the set. They’re just jealous they didn’t think of it first. In busses, I prefer the knees-up-on-the-seat-in front. Just make sure you get the pressure on the chair before the person in the row in front of you sits. If they don’t feel the change, they’ll never know you’re pushing the chair forward in the first place. This also works in an airplane and a train, but if you get two seats to yourself, you’re golden. Stretch on out and enjoy!

Monday, 31 October 2011

City of Stars

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        My heart races as we turn corners going too fast, but I can’t tell the speed because my mind can’t calculate the difference between miles and kilometers quick enough.

        “Daiiii!” Pleasseee! I playfully beg with the driver, an Italian with jet black hair and light blue eyes. My friends told me they think he could be dangerous. They said I should be careful, being in another country. All were worried, and stayed in our little apartment blasting American music and drinking too much cheap wine. None knew Italian. None wanted to know Italians. But I ran through the narrow alleys painted with graffiti to meet him anyway, and now he’s driving me towards a surprise. He laughs at my plea to slow him down and punches the little car up the hill faster. I am flying without wings.

       Giacomo knows almost no English except for lyrics to his favorite American songs and the words “hello,” “washing machine” (because he thinks it’s amusing), and “girl”, my nickname. I speak to him in Italian, asking him again to tell me where we are going. “Aspetta, girl.” Wait, he tells me, and I pretend to pout as we climb the mountain side on the wheels of a dirty, white Italian Fiat. I close my eyes and listen to him changing gears, and feel the switchbacks on the narrow road we ascend. We had left the cobblestone roads of the city hours ago. Now the pavement is smooth, the air is colder. My heart races as adrenaline pumps through my body. I look down at my leather boots and skin tight jeans. This place has transformed me into an Italian-American hybrid. My instructors tell me I’m losing my American accent when I speak Italian. I wear too much eyeliner. I can maneuver my stilettos between the cracks of the cobblestones instead of falling into them. I want to smoke cigarettes.

       Giacomo slows the car and maneuvers us onto the edge of the cliff at the top of the mountain and turns to me, anticipating my reaction.

        I look out onto Ascoli, its medieval towers illuminated in the night; encircled with dark arms of the two rivers that kept the town safe from enemies in the centuries before. I look over to him and he smiles at me, knowing I approve. It is like constellations on the ground he says to me, it is like the stars have fallen from the sky and created a city. I agree with him. And this is my home for now;  La citta delle stelle. The city of stars.
       My time in Ascoli Piceno, Italy educated me in Italian culture far more outside of my classes than within them. I drove up to the rooftops of the world with Italians, not a tour bus. I had Italian friends. I shopped in their stores. I ate the local food, and ordered it in Italian. This is what is needed when traveling. Instead of sitting at the first restaurant you see, take a side road, take a back road, and ask the locals where to eat. You’d be surprised what you find. If you’re staying for a decent amount of time, live like them. Be a chameleon. Buy an outfit that you can fade into the background in. Watch the world around you go by without attracting attention to yourself as a tourist. If the women all wear heels simply to walk around their daily errands, you wear heels not flip flops. If the women are more covered in the culture, cover more. Learn enough of the language to get by, and don’t be afraid to use it. It is simple to ask how much something is, even if the person you’re talking to speaks English. Break down the tourist stereotypes and step into a world you aren’t comfortable in. Listen, learn, and love.

       The world is different to the tourist and the traveler. Which one will you pick?


“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and looks at me, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my faded blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and his back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.


“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No, you are too strong. Paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

            “Stand up!” he demands under his Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him. I push out into the waves again, pulling against the surge. He smiles as I paddle to him, and shakes his head when I gracefully sit up on my board.

“You could never be Muslim, Lisa, but it is possible for you to be Moroccan.”


Cinnamon Rainbows is the surf shop in North Hampton, NH. I walk in and a bell jingles my arrival. The surf off the coast of New Hampshire is flat today. There is no one in the store except for a young couple looking at bathing suits. I wander back up the stairs of the little wooden building to the rows of surfboards. I touch each one, wishing I was on the other side of the ocean, wishing Mounir was with me to tell me what one I needed, wishing he would tease with me about my pale skin, that I’m almost as white as the boards here. I hear him in my head as I stand on the opposite side of our ocean. ‘You are white, Lisa,’ he said. ‘You need to change colors. Stay with me in Taghazout. You will change the colors of your skin, I will teach you how to surf like me, and you will be happy.’

 I’m adrift in my own sea of ambivalence. I second guess myself. Always. I wonder if somewhere, I have made the wrong turn, took the road less traveled, when I should have taken the one that was waiting to be discovered. I’m a rebel. I’m a woman without a destination. I’m a lost soul in the pages of a travel magazine, wedged between the centerfold images of palm trees and snow-covered mountains, nestled in between the italicized words of Italiano, Francais, Deutch. Tiptoeing on the graceful lines of  العربية. Because I have that dreaded travel bug, yet it is not the one most describe. My travels do not set me on a bus full of Americans; impatiently waiting their turn to scoff at the locals and ask if “anyone speaks English” because they refuse to travel by the tides of the cultures. They want to see what they were told to see. Eiffel tower, Coliseum, Great Wall of China, Rainforests. They refuse to eat local dishes, and believe that anyone that cannot understand their language is below them, stupid. But I know better.


The surf boards are piled in the surf shack on the rocky New England coastline. It is colder than normal for an October day. It is the end of the popular surf season. The plastic is dull from a summer of use; the colors beneath the wax are not as bright in the shadows of a New England fall.

“Can I help you?” the employee had followed me. His hair is long and blonde, tossed back from his forehead in sunglasses. I smile back but decline his offer, leaving him and the shack on the side of the road until next summer, when my skin will again change colors and I may be able to control the riptides of my heart.


My life is full of happiness - sitting on the edges of the earth, watching the waves kiss the shore, promising new beginnings. But my heart beats to the rhythm of a congregation of cultures, each their own color upon my soul. They say ignorance is bliss. I'm beginning to agree. For I strike a chisel on my heart each time my eyes pass over a new horizon. With every language that floods my senses and every hand that embraces mine I grow, I change, I fall, but I come alive again.

 I am returning to my second home a year after I first stepped foot into the Medieval city’s piazzas. My time living and studying in the small town of Ascoli Piceno, Italy apparently was not enough. I did not expect to be back here, not so soon. But I had the opportunity, and my heart booked the tickets without telling my mind it was a poor decision. Now, I am rolling a suitcase down the sidewalk towards my old apartment – past the shoe store, past the old men sitting on the benches next to the church, their brown and grey hats and suits blending with the Tufa stone of its walls. Now I am hearing the sounds of Italian as my heels click over the stone and it echoes through the narrow strada, the streets that I had grown to love so much.

Now I am on the old swing, tied up on a tired tree that lets its leaves touch the surface of the electric blue water. My toes barely skim the surface, gliding back and forth over the Italian river and letting the dam that had held back my memory of a language break upon my tongue. I pull at the rusted chains that let me fly and soar up and watch as my feet seem to touch the surrounding mountains, and then dive back down to the water. The breeze is warm. It is like I have never left. Italian floods my mouth again. I am remembering, my world. And suddenly I have visions of grey hair falling soft upon my face in Piazza Popolo with my grandchildren chasing pigeons, rattling off Italian that echoes on the stones laid by the Romans and under the eyes of Ascoliana. I see a small little house with stone flower boxes; vines clinging to the brick. I am airing out my rugs and hanging my laundry on a line. I have forgotten what a dryer is. I eat better. I am old but I am thin. I am healthy. I am more Italian than American.

My heart beats to a different rhythm here. My soul shines in the shadows of the mountains and reflections of the Aegean Sea. I have chosen to tear myself apart again by returning.


He calls me as I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home. There is sorrow in his voice.

Stai in italia. Viviamo insieme.” Stay Italy. We can live together.

Non posso.” I can’t.

I can’t. I can’t.

I am a drifting soul. I have to choose. I have to choose and I know I’ll always be getting on that plane with its nose pointed toward Boston. I know Europe will slip back into my memories as something that is too perfect to be real. Something that is almost unreachable. Because - I am American. Sono Americana. Per sempre. For always, forever. I know my tears will dry by the time I see Boston outside my airplane window, and  I’ll run into the arms of a veteran Marine, and I’ll call my mother and my brother and I’ll smile because I’ll be home. But I will hesitate at least once, and wish I could turn, wish I could fly back for just one more day, just one more week. I’ll look over my shoulder and wonder.

But when I am older and my grey hair surrounds my face, and the skin around my eyes wrinkles from the years of New England sun, I know that I will still sit on the end of my world as the ocean tags the shore. My heart will strain under my chest and I’ll wonder if I have taken the right path, wonder if my dreams were truly impossible, and wonder if I would be happier if I was standing on the other side of the ocean. Home. My heart beats to the rhythm of each letter. I dig my feet deeper into the New England soil.


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