It may be Spring Break...but that doesn't mean I get a break from learning about different cultures.
Which, I don't mind. My outlook has been expanded an incomparable and priceless amount, for which I am grateful. So, where did I go?
First, I backpacked through the Amalfi Coast, located in the south of Italy, and then took an overnight train to Nice, where I toured some cities along the French Riviera (note: just because it is a night train does not mean you will sleep. In fact, you won't. Just don't even try).
First stop: Naples via bus.
I've heard stories about Naples. My goal was to get in and out of there as fast as we could. The only reason we were going was because it was the location of the train station and served as the central transportation hub of southern Italy. But I was planning on getting off one train and straight on another and avoid contact with anyone, at all costs. My travel buddy wanted to stay and eat pizza (despite the fact that we would be arriving at 6 am). I said no.
My sister, an avid traveler herself, warned me that it was a dangerous place, especially for females (a common theme out here, I'm learning). The men who had sold me the tickets to Naples gave me a quizzical look as they handed me the tickets, and one asked, "Are you going with a man?" When I said no, he said, "You watch yourself and get out of there fast." I nodded and said I understood. No 6 am pizza for me.
So, what was the culture like in Naples? Can't tell you. I wouldn't know. I literally spoke to NO ONE. I'm okay not having anything to share in this department.
But, we did speak to one person: our taxi driver. One of my traveling companion's concerned father paid for us to take a taxi out of Naples so we would not have to wait for a train or bus connecting to our next stop, Sorrento. So, we hopped in the first cab we saw, driven by an elderly Italian gentleman, who immediately captured our hearts. He was born and raised in Napoli, never left, and never saw reason to. He spoke of his town with great pride. As we rounded the first bend revealing a panoramic view of the Amalfi Coast, he pulled the car over, got out at the picture point, and ushered us out. He then took several pictures of us (and selfies with us) overlooking the deep blue water. As we approached our destination, he offered to buy us coffee, as was "the Italian way." We looked at each other, confused, and politely declined. He shrugged, smiled, and said, "Beautiful girls should drink coffee. But if you're sure."
So he made Naples look a little less scary. But I'm still never going back.
Next stop: Sorrento.
We arrived when the city was still deserted. It was a quiet town at this time of year (packed in tourist season), and was brimming with limoncello shops and pizzerias boasting the best 4 formaggio pizzas on the coast. We found an old olive tree, where the three of us perched ourselves for several hours, basking in the sun as it rose over our heads. Locals who walked by looked at us with confused expressions...apparently it isn't natural to just sit in a tree. Weird, huh?
When it came time for lunch, I wasn't too concerned. The northern region of Italy, especially Florence, had plenty of options for people severely allergic to gluten. However, as we walked through restaurant after restaurant and were denied service time and time again, I grew weary. Some of the shop owners didn't even recognize what Celiac was, which was abnormal for me. Florence had spoiled me; they all know what it is and whether or not their food is safe. I ate an orange while my friends enjoyed some pizza, and we were on our way.
The next day, we arrived in Positano, where scenes from "Under the Tuscan Sun" and several other movies have been shot. On the bus ride there, I met two Canadians traveling to celebrate their retirement. As we were talking, I said, "So, you live in Canada; does that mean you speak French?" To which the woman snapped proudly, "Of course we speak French. We are French." Whoops. I guess I forgot about that whole Canadian-French-pride-thing.
As we explored the shops lining the cobblestoned, winding streets of Positano, we came across a charming dress shop, where a loud (and obviously American) elderly woman was laughing and talking jovially with the shop owner, a quiet but smiley Italian woman. We browsed the racks, and the American woman approached us, exclaiming that this was her favorite shop and if she had figures like us girls she would buy the whole store. We fell in love with "Grandma" instantly (that's what we call her. She's our grandmother now). We ended up having lunch with her, at a place she claimed sold the best stuffed vegetables. A former US Diplomat, she spent her life traveling from place to place due to her late husband's position in the military. She spent time living in Germany, among other places, and now spends half of each year traveling wherever she pleases. She gave us advice on living life to its fullest and soaking up all that this diverse world has to offer, and became more and more hyper with each espresso she ordered. We liked Grandma.
Once again, the south proved to be less aware of food allergies, and I ate gummy bears for lunch. But I now had grasped that this was an element of the culture in this region, and I would have to indulge in the fresh produce that thrived in the region if I wanted to eat.
Next up: Amalfi (or so we thought)
I had booked our hostel in Amalfi/Atrani, and upon arriving and spending an hour winding our way through an endless maze of stairs etched into the edge of the cliffs, we conceded that we were lost. We continued walking, carrying our bulging backpacks and trying to continue climbing as our knees began to wobble from exhaustion. Finally (and, might I add, miraculously), a set of stairs spit us out in the smallest city center I have ever seen; approximately the size of the first floor of my house in the States. Little did we know that we were in Atrani, the smallest city in southern Italy. We found the door to the hostel, which was locked, and wandered around aimlessly in circles until a restaurant owner, obviously used to seeing lost tourists, motioned for us to go around the corner. We wandered up yet another staircase, until we found a door that had a piece of paper taped to an old telephone stuck to the wall, with a sign that said "Press button and talk for hostel." We did for about 10 minutes. Finally, when we were just about to give up, a man came around the corner. In the most cheerful voice ever, he threw his hands up and said, "Eh! Welcome to Atrani! We are glad you are here! Follow me!" He then turned and walked away.
What else were we going to do? We followed the happy guy.
He brought us back to the locked door, and as he unlocked it and ushered us in to a reception room he explained that his name was Filippo and he was the hostel owner. He then showed us to our room (up another winding set of stairs etched into the cliff). It was composed of two beds and a bathroom (a shower head, a drain in the floor, and toilet. He explained that to shower we close the toilet lid so it doesn't flood). We had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. He checked to see that the little wall radiator was on, as the room was freezing. He gave us old towels and blankets, and bid us farewell, promising to see us at breakfast tomorrow. I asked him if there would be any fruit at breakfast. Smiling ear to ear, he said, "No! Only bread!"
The next morning, we were greeted by the ever-cheerful Filippo and his brother, who was the "chef" for the hostel breakfasts. He brought my friends freshly baked cornetti (croissants), and I broke into a gluten free granola bar I had packed. He came back with a heaping bowl of fresh cut fruit for me, saying, "We decided you should eat too!" (They were the only people in the south of Italy who believed so, and I was so grateful for them!)
We loved our breakfasts with Filippo and his brother. Every morning, we got our croissants, fruit, and tea, and talked to them about what we would be doing that day. On Sunday, Filippo offered to take us to his church, and we went to mass with him. Afterwards, he introduced us to the priest.
Next: Ravello and Pontone
We thought it would be fun to hike from Atrani to Ravello and Pontone, neighboring villages that rested atop the rocky mountains surrounding us. It was an exhausting day, to say the least. What we remember most about this day, however, is how people in this region of Italy let their dogs and cats run loose, letting the whole town become a petting zoo of sorts! Very different from Florence, where you shouldn't even look at a Florentine's dog, let alone ask to pet it!
We said a tearful farewell to Filippo (who, yes, was still smiling), walked five steps to the store to buy our bus tickets, and walked ten steps across the city to get to the bus stop, and boarded the bus to Salerno. We had no plans for Salerno, except to catch our train to Genova, Italy, which would then connect to a train to Nice, France.
Boy, was Salerno a scary town. It was everything I had hoped to avoid in Naples. After receiving that bad-feeling-in-your-gut response to some guys who were clearly up to no good looking at us sitting on the rocks by the waterside, we retreated to a gelataria, where we stayed for the remainder of the day.
We arrived in a rainy Genova while it was still dark--6:00 am. In Italy, rarely opens before 8 or 9, and the city is still asleep. That didn't keep us from being on our guard as we tried to find shelter from the rain. I saw a sign advertising the beloved golden arches, and we made our way through the city to find the safe haven that is McDonald's.
Apparently, McDonald's is not always open 24 hours. So, after walking for approximately 30 minutes to find it, we sat on some benches to keep warm as the sun began to rise over the port, sporting Europe's largest aquarium. Finally, we went into the McDonald's--here, their McCafe's are high-tech, flashy, fancy cafes with fresh croissants, cheesecakes, and pastries of every shape and size. We ordered cappuccinos and camped in the McDonald's like true wearied travelers. We bathed using baby wipes in the bathrooms, washed our face and brushed our teeth in the sink, charged our phones and took complete advantage of the wifi to tell everyone we were safe.
After five hours, we wandered to a gluten free superstore I had found online, where a stern-faced woman was working the counter. I had never seen so many gluten free products in my life, and had never heard of a store entirely dedicated to it. I was, needless to say, like a child in a candy shop. The woman observed my glee quizzically, before breaking into a smile despite her best efforts. When I finally made my selection and brought my items to the register, she disappeared, returning with handfuls of gluten free granola bars. She did not speak English, but merely pushed it across the counter towards me. I looked up at her in surprise. "Per me?" I asked, failing to find correct words. "Si," she responded, once again smiling sightly.
I broke into tears, taken aback by her kindness. Another worker rushed out, looked at the woman with a panic-stricken face, asking in rapid Italian what she did to put me in this state. The woman shrugged, rambling back that she gave me a gift and this was my response. We just all looked at each other with appreciation in our eyes--appreciation for their kindness, and appreciation for my gracious response. We parted ways, and I knew that I had just experienced a truly wonderful interaction.
Afterwards, we went to a grocery store to purchase produce for lunch. A stern-faced man (it is typical of Italians in Genova, who have experienced hardship and are thus more likely to be standoffish, to rarely, if ever, smile or show emotion. The man working our register was no exception, and had a permanent frown etched into his face. As my friend was paying for her products, I thought about the wonderful day I was having, and decided to "just go for it" and try to get this man to smile. He continued to look down, frowning, as my friend fished the coins out of her wallet. My stare must have been burning his balding head enough, because he finally looked up at me. I flashed the cheesiest grin known to man, and...he smiled. It was quick, and he recovered before anyone else saw...but I did.
I had never felt so triumphant.
We then found our way to an interesting-looking Thai-Indian-Japanese fusion restaurant that was set up like a cozy living room, where we met Lorenzo, the Italian owner, and Peter, the Irish man who will soon be taking over. We spent the entire day there, eating plate after plate of free food (pumpkin frittata with ginger, basmati with fresh tomato sauce, rice noodles, and gluten free ginger, apple, and pear muffins with ginger tea) and talking with Lorenzo and Peter. Peter, born and raised in Ireland, now lives in Italy and works at the restaurant part-time, and also as an English language professor for Italians. Lorenzo was born and raised in Italy, used to work in the entertainment industry as a scriptwriter, and decided to abandon the life of fame to open his own vegan/gluten free restaurant. For a time, he had a cooking segment on a television show titled "Mamma Mia," but decided to return to cooking full-time after once again being deterred by the toxic environment of the entertainment industry. Lorenzo, who overheard that we were catching an evening train, declared that he, too, was leaving on a train, and would walk us to the station. He claimed that he liked us; we smiled, which was rare here. He was more accustomed to smiling, and enjoyed seeing people who were openly pleasant.
On the way to the train station, Lorenzo gave us a historic tour of Genova. As we walked, I noticed we weren't going in the direction of the station. Just as I began becoming concerned, Lorenzo ushered us into a charming coffee shop, where he insisted on treating us to espresso. We sat under the outdoor tent, watching the rain fall, as he told us of his life, his love for Italy, and his dreams to travel to San Francisco, as he heard it was a place abundant in peace and harmony.
After coffee, he treated my friend to traditional foccaccia bread, which I could not eat. He then bought me socca, a traditional pancake made of chickpea flour. We thanked him for his unbelievable generosity, he tipped his hat, and we parted ways. We could hardly believe the experiences we had that day.
Next Up: The French Riviera
We arrived on Nice a few hours later, and immediately my mind began running through the limited French vocabulary I had acquired during my three years of high school French. However, navigating the town was rather easy. In the southern part of France, there is a more "Italian" mindset rather than a "French" one, although there are clear elements of the stereotypical American-hating French race (not all of them do, of course, but the French are known in Europe for their lack of hospitality--something the Italians openly gawk at).
Several people luckily spoke English, and I made friends with the macaroon baker at the central market, who sold macaroons "sans gluten." However, other than that, no one understood what gluten intolerance was, and several waiters and chefs were short with me when I attempted to ask them about the ingredients and preparation of the food (you can never be too careful, though--it turns out their omelets even can have gluten in them).
We stayed in a run-down, inexpensive hostel. At this point in the trip, we had been living out of our backpacks for close to 10 days, and had no clean clothes to our name. The condition of our hostel didn't bother us, as we were not in the best shape ourselves! However, it was rough, to say the least. One could only hope the rented towels and sheets were clean, and the rooms were simply bunk beds stacked in a row to fit as many wearied travels in as possible. Low on funds, we stayed in a mixed dorm, which was cheaper. This was one of our best decisions yet. We shared a room with a young man from Texas, a young man from South Africa, and a man from New Zealand. Each was simply floating along, living out of a backpack, eating Ramen each meal, going day by day with no idea of what would come next. Jacques, our friend from South Africa, and Dave, the man from New Zealand, were there looking for work, as were several others within the hostel (one from Amsterdam, and another from New Zealand, and one from Italy). Each day, they set out to the ports to find jobs on ships. Dave spent time in Siena as a chef, and was looking for a job on a yacht. As Jacques explained, he simply wanted to fix the boats and get to ride the jet skies.
We spent each night talking to them, swapping stories and asking questions about each others' culture. Jacques bragged about South African food, while we reprimanded him for never having a Taco Bell. We talked about the American way of life, and our friend from Amsterdam claimed that he enjoyed visiting New York but could never live in America, as it was too uncomfortable. I asked him what he meant, and he explained that everything was expensive and fast-paced. It was interesting to hear from someone that they were uncomfortable in American culture--I was used to being the one uncomfortable, and am used to regarding America as the norm with which I am familiar.
I traveled to Eze Village and Monaco, but spent a majority of my time in Nice. I met up with a friend from my high school in California, and saw him for the first time in 4 years. He is spending a year abroad in France, and was able to tell us more about the culture. Don't go into a store unless you are definitely going to buy something. If a waiter comes to your table, be ready to order--we learned this the hard way, as a waiter was angered by our lack of preparedness at lunch one day and refused to see our table for another half an hour, making us wait until other people had been served until he brought out our food, and giving us only half-full glasses of wine.
For our second night in Nice, I had made reservations for 7:30 at a restaurant down the street. We arrived, and a member of the staff was blocking the doorway, sitting in the stoop and smoking. He looked directly at us, and looked away.
"Um...Bonjour?" I asked, wondering why he did not address us.
"Yes?" he said impatiently.
"We have reservations for 7:30," I said, trying to smile.
He looked me up and down. "And what time is it?"
I glanced at my watch. "7:28," I said.
He was silent and gave me a stare that could burn your soul. "Well, then," he said, returning to his smoking and waving us away with his hand.
We went to another restaurant.
One morning, we were picnicking on the beach, a frenchman approached us, asking in a very thick accent for a lighter. We didn't know he was addressing us, and thought he was talking to someone else. As he grew more persistent, we turned to look, and he repeated his demand impatiently. Like a true Italian (who is taught that men talking to you in public are often up to no good), I responded with a simple "No," and resumed to my picnic. He walked away, motioning towards our picnic and saying, "Bon apetite, ******."
So, there's a culture clash for you.
We were thrilled to return to Florence at the end of our trip. It was an exhausting week and half, and walking the streets the next day ignoring the men in the leather stores felt like coming home. We relaxed back into our daily routines, and I discovered that Florentine culture was finally becoming more like second nature to me.