Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eternal Rome

Blaring sirens, gunweilding carbonari, potent oregano, loud Italians: Rome.

We left the map the hotel offered us in Sean's back pocket and wandered down alleys that beckoned us with mouthwatering scents. We settled in at a trattoria. I decided I must have the black truffle fettuchine and the broccoli herb risotto. It was not a mistake.

We walked down crowded streets rubbing shoulders with strangers. Everywhere we went there were long lines, crabby people, and ancient history. The juxtaposition between ancient and modern was striking. Two weeks into Europe, we had no desire to stand in line for an hour to see painting or buildings. But this was Rome; we're talking the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Vatican City. What other option did we have? Besides, we had no where we had to be.

We found ourselves in jumbled formation outside the Colosseum. In true Italian style, there was not so much of a line as a blob of humans. Claustrophobia kicked in 20 minutes into the wait but I couldn't have left if I wanted to. I was simply lost in the blob, moving when it moved and stopping when it stopped.

"I have an idea," Sean said, smirking. "Moooooooo. Mooooooooooo."

The sound startled me. The last time he did this we were waiting to get off the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry with 300 commuters.

"Stop!" I said, nudging him in the ribs. It only encouraged him."

"Baaaaaaaaa. Moooooooooo."

I noticed the Italian man who'd been standing on the back of my shoe move away slightly. I looked up and saw that Sean created a protective force field around our bodies. Everyone in a five foot radius looked at Sean and if he had two heads.

"See?" he gloated. "Mooooooooo. Oink. Oink."

"You're certifiable," I said, secretly grateful. I wasn't 100 per cent sure but I thought the man behind me "accidentally" grazed my rear end one too many times for it to be an actual accident.

After an hour of mooing and baaing, we made it to the ticket booth. We walked up the steep stairs into the Colosseum. We didn't speak; we couldn't find words. Knowing that you are standing in something that has been around for thousands of years is hard to take in.

Moss covered the top of the rocks, and they were slippery to the touch. Intricate tunnels weaved in and out of the maze. Thousands of years ago, men came to fight to the death in this very building. The thought gave me shivers. We took our time, not wanting to miss anything. I walked to the top floor and leaned in between a crack in the stone. Rome flooded the scene. Ancient ruins, modern apartments, restaurants, and streets filled the horizon. Rome certainly wasn't built in a day.

Once we'd had our fill, we walked to the Trevi Fountain. The cool water sprayed my face as I stood on its edge and threw in a penny. Surely I would visit Rome again. We grabbed cafes and walked to the Spanish Steps. From the top, we watched the sun set. Pink, purples, and blues painted twilight. Down below, Rome was busier than ever. Women in beautiful and provocative attire led men down the streets headed to restaurants and clubs.

"I don't want to jinx anything," Sean said tentatively. "But nothing bad has happened in Rome yet. Maybe the Eternal City will be our haven."

I looked out over the city. For thousands of years it has endured wars and natural disasters. Suddenly, losing a debit card and missing out on Germany didn't seem like such a big deal.

"Even if something does happen, I'm okay with it. This here, right now, this is what I wanted last October when I stormed home with The Binder."

I found it unfortunate that we have the least amount of time in Rome when there was clearly so much to see. We decided that we must prioritize, and that meant omitting certain things. One thing I demanded to see was the Pantheon. And so we walked for hours, past the Trevi Fountain and found it wedged between unsuspecting buildings. It didn't seem right to me. I wished there was more space around the Pantheon, but like everything else in Rome thousands of years of building has caused a tight squeeze.

I left Sean outside. I knew where I was going, where my legs had to take me. Once at my destination, I looked up. One hole in the ceiling, surrounded by hundreds of square tiles. The gray light hurt my eyes but I refused to look away. The Pantheon emptied as thunder roared overhead. It was the perfect place to hear my first Italian storm. I could feel the moisture in the air and then it came; rain drops pitter pattered on the marble floor. They echoed in the vast space. I felt drop after drop pound my face.

Not wanting to be completely soaked, I moved from the center and admired the artwork. However, what I admired the most was the sound of rain hitting the marble. Pat, patpatpat, pat. I wondered how many people through the history of the world had enjoyed storms from inside the Pantheon.

"Babe, we need to head out and get our things from the hotel," Sean said, grabbing my arm. I was surprised to learn I had spent two hours inside the Pantheon.

I nodded and followed him out. We were catching an overnight train for our last adventure in Europe: exploring the city of love, Paris.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dolce Florence

My brain refused to accept the words flashing before my eyes:

Your card has been retained. Contact your bank.

My heart stopped.

A person would have to be an idiot to travel halfway around the world with only one debit card. Unfortunately, I was an idiot and I did travel half way around the world with only one debit card.

“Sean, I think we have a problem.”


Words failed me so I just pointed to the screen. I watched my husband mouth the words, seemingly unable to find his voice. He read the sentence a few times before turning to me.

“What happened?”

I didn’t know whether to lie or tell the truth. The truth was that I was drunk and I entered the wrong pin... twice. On the third try, when realization dawned on me and I entered the correct pin, the ATM refused to spit out my card.

“Well… I dunno, really. I guess it didn’t like my card.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Sean said, pacing back and forth. “What’re we gonna do?”

That was a great question. It was 11p.m. on a Saturday night and most Florentines were in bed. I was doubtful anything could be done.

“This is bad! This is really bad!” lamented Sean, pacing back and forth tearing at his hair. “I read that the mafia can jam ATMs so they can rob people like us blind!”

“What?” I laughed, temporarily distracted. “You think the mafia is trying to rob us?”

We both looked up and down the street. Only two other souls were out at this hour: nuns.

Sean eyed me wildly and grabbed my arm.

“I also read that thieves dress up like nuns and priests to make you feel all safe and relaxed and then pick pocket your Rolex when you’re least expecting it,” he whispered, his fingers digging into my flesh.

“We don’t have a Rolex,” I said incredulously, shaking my arm free.

“You know what I mean,” he said, standing guard in front of the ATM as the petite gray-haired nuns passed with kind smiles.

“Buona sera,” I said, smiling.

Sean nudged me with his arm as if daring me to say another word to the dangerous nuns.

“You’ve got to stop reading those guide books,” I breathed, annoyed. I wasn’t ready to tell him that my stupidity was the only criminal around. “Well, we’re not going to solve this by standing in the middle of the street.”

“We can’t leave!” cried Sean, alarmed.

“So what do you propose? That we stand here all night? Trust me: the debit card is safe and sound in that ATM.”

Sean stalked back and forth again, his fingers digging into his hair again.

“I hate Florence!” Sean shouted suddenly, causing me to jump in surprise.

“Andate tutti a 'fanculo!” a voice called out from above. I looked up and saw a bald man hanging his upper body out of his third story window shaking his hands at us.

“Right back at ya buddy!” yelled Sean, waving his arm in the air. I stepped back and looked at this crazy person, my husband, realizing I had just married him.

“Calm down,” I said, dragging Sean into an alley. “For all you know that man very well could be in the mafia.”

We walked back to the hotel in silence.

“God I’m starving,” I said, as we opened the door to our small room; we were on our way to dinner when the fiasco struck.

“I entered the wrong pin,” I confessed, flopping down on the lumpy bed.


“I entered the wrong pin. That’s why it took the card.”

“Seriously?” Sean asked.

“Seriously. Actually, I entered the wrong pin twice.”

“You entered the wrong pin twice,” he murmured, shaking his head. And then he lost it. And then I lost it. We laughed until it hurt, and then we laughed some more.

“Some trip,” I chided, my cheeks sore from smiling.

“It hasn’t all been bad,” he countered.

“It hasn’t all been good.”

“More good than bad,” he reassured me.

“So now that we have 20 Euros to our name, what’s the plan?”

“I’ll tell you what. There was a tasty looking restaurant we passed on the way from the train station. It had great deals on this Italian specialty called a Hamburger. I think the place was called McDaves or something, and as I recall it was boasting of one dollar sandwiches.”

I groaned.

“We flew all the way to Florence, the food capital of the world, and we’re going to eat off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu.”

“It’s better than going to bed hungry, right?”

I nodded.

He pulled on his coat and grabbed the last 20 from my purse.

“I’ll call your dad on the way,” he said. “I’m sure he can wire money so don’t worry. Come tomorrow night we’ll be eating like kings, I promise.”

He came back wielding the ever so familiar Mc Donald’s bag, and suddenly I was grateful for the comfort of something I knew… even if it was greasy junk food. I fell into restless sleep and dreamt that I was standing naked in the McDonalds back home trying to pay from my milkshake with Euros while nuns laughed at me.

I woke suddenly.

“Huh? Wuzz goin on?”

“Phone,” Sean said, reaching blindly toward the nightstand.

“Hullo?” he slurred. “Jody! So good to hear from you! Do you have any news?”

I felt the bed shift as he got out of bed to stand in the bathroom where there was better reception. I prayed my parents solved our little problem from thousands of miles away.

The bathroom door slammed shut and I opened my eyes.

“Good news!” Sean yelled, jumping on the bed and pulling off my covers. “The money problem is sorted out so get dressed and let’s go!”

So it was in high spirits that we collected our wired money from the lobby and set out to enjoy Florence, Italy. It wasn’t difficult. One quality that brought Sean and I together was our love for food. Florence was our heaven.

We walked for hours, in and out of alleyways, searching for the perfect menu that made us cry with happiness; we ate soft fettuccine noodles bathed in black truffle crème sauce, mushroom risotto atop a crispy cheese crust, and bruschetta adorned with plump tomatoes and fragrant basil.

We walked over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge with chocolate gelato spilling down our hands. After exploring the cathedrals and slipping down intriguing roads, we felt at peace with Florence. We could forgive its ATMs, and mostly I could forgive myself. After all, we knew it would make for a great story when we got home.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ghostly Venice

“What now?” asked Sean looking around the Marco Polo International airport.

“I don’t know.”

We stood in the middle of the airport’s entrance trying to make sense of the signs we couldn’t understand. I dug through my overly full backpack and found our survival phrases. As we didn’t have to pee, see a doctor, or order food, the list was useless. I handed the list to Sean, who also looked hoping to magically find the words that would help us decipher the signs.

“Well, I guess we could ask for help,” he said nonchalantly. We both eyed each other intently, hoping the other would volunteer. Seeing the look in his eyes and knowing I was the one responsible for our situation, I caved.

“Stay here with our things,“ I ordered, piling my suitcase and backpack onto his. “I’ll be back soon. Maybe.”

I walked to the small shop by the exit doors, perusing the shelf while I mustered up the courage to make a fool of myself. I walked to the counter with a map of Venice. The cashier was chirping away to another customer in Italian. I prayed no one would stand in line behind me. Once the customer walked away from the counter, I pounced.

“Excuse me,” I said, handing her the map. “Do you speak English?”

I could hear the hope and desperation in my voice.

“A little,” she said, not even bothering to look up. A wave of relief washed over me.

“Great. Can you tell me how to get to Venice?”

She looked up, a patronizing smile on her face. She waved her hands in the air.

“You are in Venice,” she said.

I took a deep breath. I was looking for the Venice with all the water and canals and gondolas. When Sean and I stumbled outside, all we could see was a tarmac and roads. Unless the airport was floating on a hunk of land, which I thought was doubtful, we were not in the right spot.

“Yes, I understand that,” I said, trying not to betray how stupid I felt. “But I’m looking for how to get to the city center where our hotel is located.”

She didn’t respond. Apparently she suddenly forgot how to speak English all. However, as I started to walk away, she pointed outside the window to the bus station while murmuring something in Italian. I’m sure she was paying me no compliment.

“Graci- um... merci-um... thanks,” I mumbled, truly thankful. I walked back to Sean, map in hand, with a smile.

“We need to take the bus,” I explained while we grabbed our stuff and walked toward the door.

It was much warmer in Venice than it had been in England, and I was immensely grateful. Everyone was congregating at the same bus, so we did as well. If there was one thing I learned about traveling, it’s to copy people who look like they know what they’re doing. However, there was a glitch. Everyone hovering around the bus had white tickets. As two ticket-less, lost looking puppies, a nice American couple herded us back inside the airport and placed us in the correct line.

Here’s another thing I learned about traveling: you must alternate acts of public humiliation. I paid my dues and it was Sean‘s turn. He walked up to the counter and asked, in his best English-Italian-Charades, for two tickets to Venice. Keeping up with the theme of Marco Polo International airport employees, the ticket booth clerk rolled his eyes, forked over the tickets, and we were on our way.

By the time we got outside the first bus with the crowd was gone and a new empty bus arrived. There was no bus driver or sign indicating where the bus was going. We decided that we’d rather get on the bus and away from the airport than stay and ask more disgruntled employees for help. When the bus finally pulled away, I looked at the pamphlet the ticket booth grump had given Sean. It had one schedule for busses going to Venice and one for busses going to… Rome.

“Honey,“ I said, crumpling up the schedule and staring out the window. “Just to let you know: we may be going to Rome.”

“Wonderful,” Sean said, rubbing his face.

We sat in silence as we contemplated the situation. Personally, I was so happy to be in Italy that I could care less where the over sized bus was taking us. I watched the bus turn right, and I saw a sign indicating “Venezia -->.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The bus ambled over a bridge, and stopped. We could have walked from the airport. Sean and I both turned to each other and laughed. We were dumped off in a large bus parking lot.

“So….” I said, looking around. I still could not see canals or boats.

“So….” Sean said, also looking around.

We stood for who knows how long taking in our surroundings. As I looked behind me, I saw the most beautiful sight: a big, blue T. A tourist office. Or booth, to be more exact. As we walked toward the booth, which was cramped into a corner, I dug through my back pack to get out the address of our hotel Locanda Herion.

The woman was busy reading a tabloid when we approached her booth. She spoke no English but she knew exactly what we were after once I handed her the address. She pulled out a map, circled a street, pointed straight ahead of us, and sat back down apparently through with us. We looked the direction her wrinkled finger pointed and saw a bridge. A bridge meant water, so we felt confident she wanted us to go over the bridge.

“Gracias,” I said, folding the map.

“Wrong country sweets,” Sean said quietly.

“Oh shut up,” I said, smiling.

We hauled our suitcases across the busy bus terminal, across the street, and up the stone bridge. The sight was beautiful. All it took was a few steps and all of the sudden there she was: Venice. The water, a marble green, the buildings decaying and colorful, and the Italians, weathered, loud, and hungry.

We walked down the stone streets, our eyes not sure what to focus on first. Vendors overflowed the streets, their savory goods tempting us. Colors ambushed us from store windows where masks for Carnival were sold. Loud, passionate Italians bickered good naturedly all around us. Blue Christmas lights hung from above, illuminating the dark allies. At every bridge, we stopped. Some were short and squat, other large and long. Each canal was unique. Some curved so tightly we could only see the first apartment, the rest hidden behind curves.

We found our hotel down a secluded walk way and were pleasantly surprised: our room was elegant, spacious, and clean. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting after The Dump. We collapsed into the soft queen sized bed not noticing how tired we were until our heads hit the pillows. I reached across and grabbed Sean’s hand. We drifted off into sleep listening to the sounds of boats, Italian, and our soft breathing. My last conscious thought was one of unconcealed joy. This feeling was what I flew half way around the world for.

When we woke, we were famished. This was the first time I had seen Sean’s excitement truly break free. We were in Italy, and we were going to eat. That was enough to bring Sean galloping out of Locanda Herion. We crossed bridge after bridge in search for the perfect trattoria that beckoned us with the menu and price. Our hearts dropped slightly when we realized just how expensive Venice was. Simple Italian meals cost 20 Euros, something we couldn’t afford three times a day for four days.

We were laughing as we walked into what we were sure was a tourist trap. But, the price was right. We were instantly greeted by a young Chinese man who greeted us in English. Both confirmed we were indeed in a tourist trap. However, our hunger was so severe we didn’t care. I happily sipped a coke waiting for spaghetti and meatballs. Once our food arrived, we laughed even more. The portions were tiny, and Sean was grateful. Sitting in front of him was a blob of black spaghetti with what looked like sand.

“Ha!” I said, smiling. “Sometimes ordering safe is the smartest thing.”

Sean’s lip quivered as he took the first bite. I was too smart to try his cuttlefish. So we both sat, in high spirits, eating my overpriced Ragu pasta. After supper, we wandered aimlessly hand in hand discovering bit by bit the mysteriously beautiful city. I could only register one complaint: there were so many tourist. I hoped that because we came during the off season, we would experience a more traditional Venice.

It became clear after maneuvering through clogged streets that it wasn’t going to happen. I felt like I was back in high school trying to move through the hallways during passing period. Despite the massive amount of tourist, I fell asleep content the first night.

I woke at 5a.m., the room dark and quiet. It took me a minute to spot what woke me. But then it washed over me. My nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Honey…“ I said, shoving Sean.

“Huh, wazza goin on?” He slurred, already laying his head back down on the pillow ready to go to sleep.

“Honey,” I said sharper this time, and then I saw his nostrils register the ungodly smell. He sat up immediately.

“Do you smell that?” he asked sharply. I rolled my eyes. Of course I smelled it. How could anyone miss it? I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. I turned the light on expecting the toilet to have flooded while we slept. But there was no water on the floor. Sean was bent next to the vent in the room, sniffing. He stood, and shook his head. I walked over to the window and looked outside.

“Whoa,” I said dumbly, holding the curtain back and beckoning Sean with my hand. “I think I found the source of the smell.”

The whole street below was flooded at least three feet. The moon light reflected off the water. It was quite beautiful. We crawled back in bed, pulled the covers over our faces, and fell back to sleep. That morning as we walked to a café the shop owners dutifully moped out their stores and then helped their neighbors mop up the smelly mess left behind. As we drank our espressos leaned up against a wooden bar table, I remembered reading that the floods occurred frequently. Looking out the window, watching the true Venetians wander the streets (you could tell by their plastic yellow boots), I wondered what drove these people to stay?

Venice was damp, dark, over run with tourist even in the dead of winter, flooded, expensive, and sinking. Why on earth would anyone choose to stay in such a hopeless situation? Enrico, the manager’s son of Locanda Herion, took us out to breakfast one morning, and we talked about life in Venice. I was surprised when Enrico admitted that he drove one hour each morning to get to Venice and one hour each night to get home.

“Why?” I asked.

“Life in Venice is expensive,” he said. “Too expensive for young people like me who dream of going off to college.”

I nodded my head, savoring the sweet chocolate croissant.

“Besides,” he began, “what opportunity is there for work on a sinking city if you are not a glass artist, historian, cook, or hotel owner?”

“Why do you do it then?” Sean asked.

“Family,“ he said simply. “My father owns the place but he’s too old to run the business anymore.”

That day, as Sean and I got lost exploring the city, I noticed that most of the Venetians I saw were older. They were somber folk. They walked slow, stopped to talk to everyone they recognized, but I never saw them laugh or their faces brighten. It made me think that the city’s population was dying right along with the city itself.

Out exploring, we ended up walking straight into Piazza San Marco. There was simply too much to look at. I spun in a circle, my eyes gazing at the cathedral, and then the gondola docks, then at the shops lining the piazza. Sean took my hand and led me to the waterfront. We sat down and watched the sun set. Gold filed the sky and everything else paled in comparison. Once the sun was down, gondoliers returned to the docks only to stop for a moment before going out in search for love birds. Sean and I were interrupted when a man holding a flower tried to place one in my hand. I closed both fists tight.

“No,” I said loudly and firmly. I watched earlier in the piazza how the scam worked. The men with the roses would find couples and put a rose in the woman’s hand and then expect the man to pay for it.

“You take,” he said, trying once again to forcefully put the flower in my clenched hand. I stood, and so did Sean.

“No,” I repeated again not breaking eye contact. The man was about to try again but Sean stepped forward. The man smiled, turned, and walked away. I wished the guy would have chosen another time to try and scam us because my high from watching the sun set disappeared.

“Come on babe,” Sean said, taking my hand and walking back to the cathedral. We walked up the steps to its entrance. It cost 5 Euros to go in, and I had no problem paying the fee. We walked up a dark and narrow winding staircase that opened into the top of the cathedral. We stood, baffled; the three large domes were just feet away. I stared up, taken with the beauty of the gold paint and saints. Mosaics adorned the wall, and I looked around guilty. I had always been so curious about mosaics. What patience these artists had to take tiny glass shards and create a picture. The tiles had become smooth over the years, and before I knew it my fingers were tracing the image of Mary and her baby.

Beep, beep, beep.

I jumped back. Two inches from the mosaic, was a sign that read: Do not touch- alarm will sound. Cheeks red, I hustled away from the mosaic to find Sean. He was outside admiring the view from the top of the cathedral. The sky was still orange. We leaned against the railing admiring Doge’s Palace. If only we were giants we could reach out and touch it. We stood in silence yet again, trying to copy the image into our brains. Hand in hand, we walked carefully down the staircase and onto our next Venetian adventure.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Frozen London

My husband paced nervously in and out of herds of angry people.

I sat on my suitcase and noticed that my dirty, hot pink underwear had been poking out the side of the suitcase for the entire Tube ride. Oh well. I read the sign again:

All trains to Paris cancelled

I should have known this trip would be a disaster when my husband peed his pants in Seattle before we even took off. But I was naïve enough to hope otherwise. After all, our first two days in London were perfect. Perfect if we forgot about the frisky squirrel that jumped into Sean’s pants at the Kensington Gardens or the 10 hour nap we took after arriving that left us wandering around London at 3 a.m. in desperate pursuit of sustenance.

I closed my eyes and imagined the 5-star hotel in Germany that we were supposed to stay at tonight. I imagined the fluffy bed covers, the scrumptious food, and the impeccable view of Neuschwanstein Castle. Bitterness washed over me as I realized that some lucky bastard would fall asleep clutching my soft covers after eating my delicious food and looking at my breathtaking castle.

“Sean,” I sighed. “We’re not going to fall asleep in Germany tonight.”

My husband was speechless and pale. His first trip across the pond and abroad was not going according to plan. And there was a plan: two days in London, four in Germany, five in Venice, five in Florence, five in Rome and five in Paris.

“It’ll be alright,” I said, grabbing his hand. “I mean, what else could go wrong?”

I should have known better than to utter those words.

Two hours later, we were back at the Wellington Court Hotel also known as The Dump. The bedrooms were closets with beds and sinks and garbage cans. White paint chipped from the wall and stains of mysterious origins littered our floor. Our room emitted a strong odor of sweat socks. The showers were down the hall, rusty, and desperately lacking consistently hot water. And to add insult to injury, we paid 70 Pounds a night.

The Austrian bellhop watched us contemptuously as we lugged our suitcases up the icy steps. Perhaps we should have listened to him when he said it was useless to try and get on our train bound for France. Instead, we defiantly ignored him, walked to Victoria Station in the freezing cold lugging our heavy suitcases behind us, paid 7 Pounds to get to Charing Cross Station only to read that sign.

All trains to Paris cancelled

The Dump provided us with a different room for the night next to Australian backpackers. I learned on my first trip to Europe that rooming beside Australian backpackers meant no sleep, the scent of toxic drugs, and outbursts of screaming from passionate sex or masturbation.

“So…” I said, opening the window to allow in fresh air.

“So…” Sean groaned, lying down on the lumpy bed.

“Here’s what we’re going to do: hang here for another night, go to Charing Cross Station first thing in the morning to see if we can get on a train. That way, we can at least spend one night in Germany. If the trains are still down, we’ll catch a bus and ferry to Paris.”

Sean sighed.

“Come on!” I said. “Stop moping and let’s go. We’re young, we’re alive, and we’re in London!”

“I simply cannot contain my excitement,” he said dryly.

“For crying out loud grandpa: get your coat on and let’s go have some fun!”

The sky was already black by the time we left The Dump and Jack Frost nipped savagely at our extremities.

“So explain to me what you were thinking when you decided to bring us to England in the dead of winter?” Sean asked, his teeth chattering and his neck disappearing into his jacket collar like a turtle.

“Come on,” I said. “It’s romantic, and scenic and less crowded during the winter.”

“Romantic? Did you really say romantic? Sure, you’re right. I think it’s really romantic when I try and get it on with my wife and I can hear the two guys next door farting. Nothing says romance like gas.”

I rolled my eyes.

“If you want to be miserable, that’s just fine. But I refuse. We’re in London and I plan on enjoying every second of it.”

We walked in silence all the way to Big Ben. It was illuminated in the night sky and we arrived just in time to hear it ring.

“Okay,” Sean admitted. “I guess that’s pretty cool.”

“You got that right…”

Two days later and fresh out of luck, we found ourselves standing beneath Big Ben once more.

“Is it still cool?” I asked, wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck as flakes fell from the sky.

“It lost its coolness factor yesterday,” Sean said. “Been there, done that.”

We had found a nice rhythm to our days: pay 3 Pounds to check the Internet, hyperventilate when we saw the trains were still out of service and the ferries were not running, pass out when we researched the cost of airfare to Venice, and then regain consciousness, lug our bodies heavy with sorrow upstairs, put on three layers of clothing and head to Subway desperate to save money. We frequented the sandwich joint so often that Robert, the pimply kid who worked there, knew our names and sandwiches.

We also made tri-daily stop at Starbucks for two Double Shot Grande Peppermint Mochas. The coffee warmed our souls as we walked aimlessly, legs frozen, all over London. We tried to remain positive about our predicament but found it hard when we realized that we could have been hunkered down in front of a crackling fire after a day of snowshoeing in Germany.

We drown our negativity the good old American way: through a massive sugar rush. We spotted just the place to self medicate on the bank of the Thames: the German Cologne Christmas Market. There, in the middle of the market, stood a candy stand. We filled our clear plastic bags with hot tamales, sour balls, licorice, and other goodies.

“Hey, after this we should go ice skating,” Sean said, handing our bags to Gary, the clerk. “I saw a rink at the Tower of London yesterday.”

“Alright, that sounds like fun.”

“That will be 20 Pounds,” Gary interrupted, handing the bags to Sean.

“What?” I gasped.

“That-will-be-20-Pounds,” Gary repeated, annunciating each word like I was special and frequently ate paste. I may have looked special because I was mesmerized by his teeth. They were crooked and yellow from eating too much candy.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“The prices are listed right there,” he said, pointing to tiny writing next to the register.

“Well, Gary, if you expect me to pay 20 Pounds for this bag of candy you had better make me believe it’s magical. Oh, I know, will eating it give me the ability to fly? Or will it make me invisible? Will it give me super strength? How about-”

“Honey, you’re making a scene,” Sean said, handing Bad Teeth Gary 20 Pounds.

“What’re you doing? Don’t give that to him. He can take his candy back… I don’t want it anymore!”

“Let’s go,” Sean said, steering me away from Gary and his magical candy stand.

“You do realize you just forked over $40.00, right? For candy? Not even good candy. There wasn’t even any chocolate.”

“What were you going to do? Hit the guy over the head with hot talames?”

“Well if I did he would have deserved it! He’s a scam artist!”

“Okay, okay. Sheesh… calm down. We’ll go ice skating and you can knock some unsuspecting little kid over and pretend he’s Gary. How does that sound?”

“Fine,” I relented. “Maybe two kids, though.”

“Three even, if you want.”

“You know, I remember Londoners being much nicer the last time I came here,” I said, taking Sean’s hand as we strolled down the river side.

“Everything changes,” Sean said, offering me the candy bag. “Hot Tamale for the lady?”

“Sure,” I said, plopping red hot in my mouth wondering when our island fever would end.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Calm before the storm

It was late October. The daylight slipped away quickly, and I was restless. Was I hungry? I ate a piece of pizza. Better? No. Was I tired? I took a 30 minute nap. Better yet? Not quite. Was I bored? I didn’t think so but I watched 15 minutes of America’s Funniest Home Videos just to be sure. While watching an elderly woman lose her dentures in a watermelon would usually amuse me, on this cold night it didn’t. This nagging, abetting, nameless emotion swarmed around me like locust. It was my frequent visitor.

Suddenly, an image flashed in my mind: a young, careless girl running through cobblestone streets chasing the tinkle of church bells in desperate pursuit of discovery and joy. Ah… that’s what I was: Older. Stiffer. Obligated…

It had been five long years since I grabbed the horns of adventure for a truly wild, bucking ride through a corner of the world. While most people would consider themselves lucky to visit Europe once, I considered my first trip a diagnosis. From the first moment I stepped off the plane and into another culture, I knew I would be chronically ill with the travel bug. I suffered each and every day from aches and pains and desperate yearnings to be Anywhere But Here.

And so, on that cold night, I put down the pizza, turned off the TV, and turned toward my unsuspecting husband who was playing a video game.

“Honey,” I said. “I think we should go somewhere this winter.”

“Sure,” he said, not turning from his game.

In my mind, I was already aboard a smoky midnight train on the way to Vienna watching strange, unknown cities whir by while chasing freedom, adventure, and sweet newness.

“Really?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

I spent the entire following day comparing airfare and searching for accommodations. I came home from school with The Binder. It was organized into five sections: airfare, train schedules, hotel accommodations, things to do, and a list of stuff to do before we leave. In the following two months, The Binder was my constant companion. It assured me that adventure and abandon were just around the corner. On numerous occasions, I fell asleep with The Binder. Thus, I felt it deserved a proper name.

“What are you doing December 16?” I asked the following day, setting down The Binder.

“Ummmm….” Sean said, eyeing The Binder. “I don’t know. Why?”

“Because we’re flying to London that day.”

I walked to the bathroom, dropped my drawers, and peed while listening for a reaction. Nothing. Now first you must understand my husband is not similarly afflicted with the travel bug. His idea of traveling is driving three hours to the ocean to camp. This was not quite what he agreed to when he conceded to “go somewhere this winter.” Suddenly, he was in the bathroom.


“What?” I asked.

“What do you mean what? You just walked into the house and told me we’re flying to London, in Europe, across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean, in less than two months and we haven’t talked about this at all.”

“Yes we did,” I countered.

“When?” He asked, his voice rising incredulously.

“Last night.”

“Last night… we never talked about flying half way across the world last night!”

“Yes… I said we should go somewhere this winter and you said sure. To me, that sounded like: go ahead and make plans to go somewhere this winter. London is somewhere, and December 16 is winter… so it all makes perfect sense to me.”

“Let’s go somewhere this winter implies Pike Place Market, maybe Bellingham, perhaps Victoria. You know places you can drive to! Let’s go somewhere this winter does not imply let’s fly for 10 hours to a very expensive island in Europe!”

“Well, you should have said that!”

“Have you lost your mind?” he asked, resignation crossing his face.

“No… I’ve finally found it.”

And thus, two months later, we were on a Boeing 777 floating thousands of miles over Canada on our way to London. If only I had known my husband had peed his pants in the ferry terminal before we even left Seattle, perhaps my expectations for this trip wouldn’t have been so high…

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blooming Victoria

I looked down at my ring, still having a hard time believing yesterday actually happened.

It was kind of an important day.

Just my wedding.

To my handsome husband.

Still floating on cloud nine, I took Sean's hand in mine as we walked off the boat that would take us to our honeymoon destination: Victoria.

In no hurry, we were last to go through customs.

"What is your purpose in Canada?" The young immigration offer asked as we stepped up to the counter.

I squeezed Sean's hand. He was terrified of immigration officials ever since he cracked a bad joke on the way to Vancouver B.C. and was reamed by the agent.

"We're on our honeymoon," I said, smiling.

He looked up from our passports.

"How many years have you been married?" he asked.

I looked at him for a moment, confused.

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"How many years?" he repeated.

"We're on our honeymoon, not anniversary," I corrected. "We just got married yesterday."

"I see," said the official, eyeing our bag full of naughty lingerie, wine, and edible chocolate panties. "Come with me please."

I groaned. I shouldn't have corrected him. I should have just said "three years" or something.

"Take a seat," he said, trying to sound intimidating. I spared a glance at Sean and saw it was working.

"Don't worry honey. We're not drug smugglers. We're just newlyweds."

Sean just nodded. Another officer came out and indicated for Sean to stand. Why did they have to take him? The man who told a Canadian officer three years ago that he had no weapons of mass destruction in the back of his truck.

White as a sheet, Sean followed the officer into a separate room. I stood and walked to the other officer who didn't know the difference between honeymoon and anniversary.

"Listen," I said. "I am on my honeymoon and you just took my husband into a sealed room and I know you're going to go through the bag. But there are things in there that I don't want him to see. Surprises, you know?"

The man looked at me. Honestly, I could care less if Sean saw the panties. What I didn't want was for him to say something so stupid they would send us back to the United States.

"Fine," the officer said, knocking on the door. I peered inside and saw Sean trembling in the corner. The officers whispered for a second and then indicated for Sean to get up. I took his place as he shuffled out of the room.

"Did you pack this bag?" the officer asked, pulling two black leather gloves over his hands. What did he expect to find? A rabid animal?

"Yes," I said, watching as he pulled out my hot pink thong, black nighty, and Every Position Sex Guide. His face turned red as he quickly zipped my suitcase close. I felt vindictive. Good, he should be embarrassed. We're just two kids in love. Shouldn't he be looking for drug smugglers or something?

Given the go ahead, we left the ferry terminal. The Hotel Grand Pacific was right across the street from the marina. We checked in and got down to business: food. We ambled down Government Street admiring the sun, water, and architecture. We walked straight to the Irish Pub. We had Irish onion soup, ale, and fries. Satiated, we sat on the lush lawn of the Empress Hotel. Ivy crawled up its side and flowers of every size and color burts from its garden.

"Look!" I squealed as a Clydesdale trotted by.

"Really?" asked Sean, watching the horse and carriage pass.

I got to my feet and pulled him to the stand. We hopped on Sugar's carriage and let her give us a tour of Victoria. The sun was setting over the Strait of Juan de Fuca as Sugar pulled us along the coast. Hues of the deepest pink bathed the Olympic Mountains.

The next day we walked to the tourist office. I wanted to whale watch. However, Sean ran up to me, his eyes begging for approval.

"What do you want?" I asked.

He held out a brochure. I took one look at it and handed it back.

"No way."


I sighed, and two hours later I was standing 100 feet in the air on a platform ready to glide over treetops.

"I hate you," I screamed as I launched off the platform. My eyes were squeezed shut until I realized I was still alive and perfectly safe. I opened them and looked down. I was floating above the canopy. I could see all the way to the water. The fresh air felt good on my flushed face.

We zipped from tree top to tree top, each one higher and longer. When our van pulled into out hotel parking lot, I didn't let Sean out.

"Are you stopping near the spaghetti factory?" I asked the driver, who nodded.

"That's it. You're taking me to dinner," I told Sean. "You owe me."

We drank copious amounts of white wine. After dinner, we walked to the IMAX and watched a disturbing film set in Africa. After watching one too many antelopes being eaten, we threw away our popcorn and left.

The sunrise was glorious the following day. We watched it from our balcony. Dressed to beat the heat, we walked slowly to the Royal BC Museum. Afterward, Sean rented a purple scooter and we putted all over town. We drove from beach to beach, the cool sea air filling our lungs.

It was the perfect honeymoon.