Sicily, Part 2

First, some overall thoughts:

  1. Sicily is BIG.  We barely scratched the surface and I can’t wait to go back and see things we missed.
  2. Sicily reminds me of my earliest trips to Italy, when it truly felt different from home: few tourists, little English, no giant chain stores, and you could get right up close to anything that seemed interesting.  I loved it.

Day 7: Palermo

Waking late after our midnight arrival and feeling peckish after last night’s feast of sandwich, chips and minibar, our first order of business is to find somewhere for lunch. The desk manager at Hotel No Frills makes a reservation at one that specializes in typical Sicilian food and it’s in the direction we want to walk, so off we go.

It’s Sunday, so everything is closed except restaurants and gelateria (gotta love a country where desserts are a priority). Families are enjoying the mild sunny weather as they stroll through piazzas and wide boulevards and we make our way to Piazza Verdi, where we’ll attend the opera tonight.

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Anticipating that we’ll want a snack before the performance, we make a reservation at the Teatro Massimo’s restaurant and continue to the famous Quattro Canti, also admiring the elaborate fountain in Piazza Pretoria and the churches just behind it.

IMG-2912After lunch, we stop for gelato, leisurely wander back to the hotel to change for the opera… and discover that the performance is at 5:30 p.m! ACK! No wonder the guy taking our dinner reservation for 6:00 looked at us so strangely!!! It’s already 5:00 so we throw on dressier clothes and zip back to the theatre, where we see yet another silly opera: Andrea Lecouvreur.

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The plot is a mash-up of French farce, Oscar Wilde, and high drama involving many people who are suffering from unrequited love.  Although there are subtitles in English, I have absolutely no clue what’s going on. Mostly I am wondering why the pudgy middle-aged stage manager doesn’t hook up with the middle-aged countess, instead of everyone pining for someone hopelessly unattainable.

The nice couple sharing our box are from Poland and are traveling on to Noto, which sounds beautiful so we add it to our to-do list.

Day 8: To Agrigento

We pick up our rental car at Hertz, along with a printed sheet of dire warnings about crime in the countryside, a GPS we call Betty (for reasons lost in the mist of time, our GPS is always “Betty”), and drive to the condo near Agrigento which will be our home for the next few days.

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Betty is doing pretty well with directions until we get closer and realize that our destination, Villagio Mosé, isn’t in her repertoire.  Luckily we have GoogleMaps and a general idea of where we’re going.  After butchering most of the street names — Betty’s Italian is even worse than my own and Porto Empedocle comes out “Hokely Dokely” — we find our condo, which is off Via degli Asteroidi (Asteroid Street? Huh?)

Sabrina, the manager, is very helpful and gives us some local maps, pointing out where to find the produce market and grocery store. Unfortunately, we discover that most roads do not actually have street signs because who needs them when only locals live here?!

Never mind. A few wrong turns later we find the market and load up on produce using our sophisticated language skills of pointing, holding up the appropriate number of fingers, and sticking to nouns. We repeat the whole process at the grocery store, where we stock up on essentials like milk, coffee, burratta, Sicilian wine (insolio and grillo are delicious whites; nero d’avola becomes our house red), swordfish and pasta for future dinners.

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Day 9

We begin with the astonishing Valle dei Templi (valley of the temples) — a stretch of remarkably preserved ruins that is one of those “you have to see it” kind of sights. The temples are huge, majestic and incredibly beautiful. Walking the mile or so from one to another where people walked so many centuries ago, you can feel the grandeur and history of this magnificent former jewel of the Grecian empire.

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IMG-2935IMG-2960We’ve worked up an appetite and stop for lunch back in Villagio M before exploring Agrigento.

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Teatro Pirandello, Agrigento

Day 10: Out and About

Our laundry is drying outside in the sun, and we drive off for another day trip.

First we navigate interminable “roundy-rounds” (roundabouts), which adds a lot of time because Betty keeps telling us to take exits which are invariably closed for construction. (One town we pass is called Craparo; this pretty much sums it up.)

We eventually arrive in Racalmuto where Dear Husband is interested in seeing a little theatre he’s read about. The people who look after it seem amazed that anyone is visiting (sadly, there are no more performances because there’s no more funding) but they are excited to show us around, once we communicate (sort of) that DH is a university professor who teaches stage and film design.

Then, it’s on to Caltanisetta to check out another beautiful theatre (closed, dammit!), eat a wonderful lunch at Ristorante 900, look around the main square, and stop for pastry to bring back for dinner.  The Sicilians have quite a sweet tooth and the cookies are insanely good.

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I

A Sojourn in Sicily – Part 1

Traveling to Europe from Austin is usually an adventure unto itself, and this trip was no exception.

We’d opted to fly in/out of Houston to avoid the missed or much-too-lengthy connections that occur when landing somewhere else in the US.

After a last-minute switch of hotels (note to airport travelers: do not book the Houston airport Holiday Inn, which is filthy and reeks of smoke!), we check in at the airport Marriott and have dinner at highly recommended Chez Nous in nearby Humble. I learn that the town is pronounced “umble” – perhaps to avoid the obvious jokes about pie?

The meal is excellent and we’re off to a good start.

Next morning, we check in for our flights: Houston to Newark and then on to Milan. Board the plane, settle in, and… nothing happens. After three “we’ll be slightly delayed” announcements we’re told of a “mechanical issue” (airline code for “we have no freakin’ clue what’s wrong”) and herded off the plane to scramble for new flights, as many on board are clearly going to miss their connection.

Several hours later we’re en route to Munich, where we’ll connect via Lufthansa to Milan. We arrive safely – still shivering from the insanely cold airplane – way behind schedule. Our luggage does not.

This necessitates another hour filling in paperwork while the lost luggage clerk tries to figure out whether United or Lufthansa is responsible for locating it and getting it to the hotel before we leave for our next destination.

BUT, intrepid travelers that we are, we head to our hotel, the very lovely Grand Hotel Et De Milan, and set off wandering this sophisticated and stylish city.

Day 1

Since we’re both opera fans, the main reason we’ve stopped in Milan this trip is to see a performance at La Scala the following night. Today, we head over to the opera house museum, which is pretty much a shrine to Maria Callas, patron saint of warblers worldwide. There are costumes, posters, videos, photos, portraits, you name it. Also set and costume designs from various other performances.

We scarf down a delicious dinner of trenette with pesto and cacio e pepe (here’s one recipe, though it’s even simpler and better if you use grated cacio cheese, olive oil, pasta water and freshly ground pepper) at nearby ristorante Salumiao, which we like so much we eat there the next night as well.

Day 2

Having been awakened at 1 a.m. by my dear husband (DH) who was obsessing about the missing luggage and wanting me to call someone (who in god’s name is working at that hour? but sure, why not!), I’m not as rested as I could be. Still, off we go to walk around and shop for a shirt and tie for DH to wear to La Scala in case the bags don’t arrive (it’s looking bleak).

Best discovery of the day: Museo Novecento, showcasing major art movements from 1910-1960’s, including some interesting political pieces.

After an afternoon drink at the hotel bar we return to our room to change for the opera and – mirabile dictu – bags have arrived!

At La Scala we see a silly opera (Von Weber’s Die Freischutz; about a hapless suitor, magic bullets, and the devil) with pleasant, mostly forgettable music, but we share a box with a nice couple and can now cross it off DH’s bucket list.

Days 3-6

We take the train to Florence – our 4th visit to this beautiful city, which is sadly overrun with selfie-stick-brandishing tourists even in October. Our hotel (a private palazzo nicely located near the Duomo) turns out to be lovely despite its unprepossessing exterior: ancient gate/courtyard with faint “eau de urine” from generations of animals and a dirty welcome mat in front of the battered industrial elevator which takes you upstairs to …

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Some highlights: Eating at Del Fagioli and Alla Vecchia Bettola, admiring fresh vegetables at the market and frescos at the Pitti Palace and Santa Maria Novella, and window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio,”considering” whether we need to buy the Buccellati lifelike silver crab serving dish that’s “only” 3600 euros after the VAT refund. Hey, let’s take two!

Day 7: Arrival in Sicily!

Alitalia seamlessly transfers our luggage from Florence to Rome to Palermo (take note, United!), where our Stanley Tucci lookalike driver takes us to our modern (aka no frills) hotel at 11:30 pm. I’d bought a sandwich to eat on the plane but DH has not eaten – he’s been fighting a cold and wasn’t hungry until now– and dines on minibar bottles and potato chips. Who says travel isn’t glamorous!

Next up: Palermo….

Go To The One Around The Corner

Inevitably, if you love to travel and love to eat, you’ll hit every destination armed with restaurant recommendations from foodie friends, bloggers, guide books and the like.

This is often a wonderful resource. But it comes with a downside: a place that’s already popular is often crowded with tourists – not quite the authentic experience you may have been seeking. Personally, I don’t want to hear my native language (especially when it’s LOUD) when I’m traveling abroad. Unless I’m in the UK, of course.

As I get older, I also find that simple meals of fresh ingredients meticulously prepared are infinitely more pleasurable than course after course of “fancy” food at Michelin-starred restaurants. That’s because: 1) I’m no longer interested in making eating a multi-hour activity, no matter how creative the chef is. 2) I can’t eat that much at one sitting. 3) Too often, the food is so rich that I feel vaguely queasy – or more than vaguely – after consuming an elaborate meal.

Hence, the new “Corner” philosophy.

Simply put, instead of the place everyone’s been telling you about (which may, of course, be fabulous), look nearby for an unassuming restaurant that’s frequented by the locals. Better yet, get a recommendation for a non-touristy place by asking a friendly shopkeeper for suggestions. Chances are, not only will the food itself be memorable, but there will be a story or experience attached to the meal. Bonus: there’s a good chance the local favorite is a lot less expensive than the tourist trap.

Here are a few places we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Milan, Florence and Sicily. As I found out later, they’re all highly rated on Trip Advisor — proving that if you trust your instincts they’ll lead you somewhere good, even if it’s not “undiscovered”!

Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence

My husband and I collect antique prints of fish and shells for the guest bathroom (although, truth be told, we are running out of wall space). This gives each trip a shopping focus and often leads to interesting experiences as we search for our “souvenirs”.

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In Florence, we made our way to a store we’d located online, only to discover that their prints were all reproductions. Even though we weren’t buying anything, the owner generously steered us to another shop that did sell original prints. And when we asked about nearby places to eat typical Florentine food, she suggested this restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch (charcuterie to start; risotto carciofi for me and pasta bolognese for my husband) with a murmur of Italian in the background.

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Alla Vecchia Bettola before the lunch crush

Nuti, Florence

Two days later, we wandered into Nuti, after bypassing the restaurant a friend had recommended which had an impossible wait time and seemed to be full of Americans.

Although hardly “non-touristy”, as the menu is in both English and Italian, Nuti’s food was delicious (beautiful grilled eggplant, zucchini, red and yellow peppers — all sliced very thin and seasoned with garlic and olive oil; fritto misto di mare for me and zesty pasta cinghiale for my husband) and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing; again, with a Florentine clientele.

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The restaurant’s charming and charismatic manager

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Isn’t everything better when it’s fried?!?

Piatti Primi, Palermo

Tucked in a side street near the famous Quattro Centi but off the main drag, this “typical” restaurant offered simple Sicilian cuisine (more grilled veggies, pasta with swordfish) that was simply terrific.

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Finally, one of the best meals we had was the squid ink pasta with anchovy sauce my husband cooked in the kitchen of our condo in Taormina. It not only tasted amazing, it combined the fun of shopping for local ingredients, the leisure to eat at a time that was convenient, the flexibility to get our bread from a wonderful bakery and our dessert from a different pasticceria, AND we didn’t have to dress up.

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A sampling of treats from Pasticceria D’Amore, Taormina

 

Chance Encounters of the Meaningful Kind

What’s the best part of travel for you? The food? The culture? Hearing another language? To all these, I’d add, “Having unexpected conversations with strangers.”

I’ve got nothing against museums, monuments, scenery, restaurants, etc. – they all enrich the experience. But to get to another level, you’ve gotta get personal.

Some of my most vivid memories of last winter’s trip to Paris were random and often awkward chats that, despite my halting French and their equally limited English, somehow managed to connect us on a more profound level. In one shop, the attempts to find my correct size led to observations about women in general – how we often think we’re larger than we are, or want an outside observer to reassure us that we look attractive. (Yes, even Parisians can be insecure!)

And at a little place near the hotel specializing in tableware and jewelry, the owner engaged us in a discussion of art, politics (both US and French) and the current state of global anxiety so many of us share, as well as recommendations for which current exhibitions to skip and which to put at the top of our list. What could have been an ordinary, five-minute transaction became an enjoyable half hour conversation.

Our trip to Sicily raised the need to communicate to a whole new level, since almost no one we encountered spoke English and my Italian is basic at best. Yet, we blundered through and in doing so had some delightful moments.

There was the cashier at the grocery store who began to recognize us and teased us about buying yet another bottle of a favorite wine. And the woman selling fish at the local market who insisted that my husband eat a raw shrimp right on the spot so he’d believe her when she told us how fresh they were.

Back in Milan on Wednesday, our last night in Italy, we met two very chic women – a mother “of a certain age” (i.e., close to my own) and her adult daughter – who were also staying at our hotel. We’d shared a car with them earlier in the day when the hotel had taken us to a destination in town and then met by chance in the bar. After the mother greeted us, we invited them to join us and we started talking.

In this case, language wasn’t the challenge; the daughter alone speaks seven languages. (We Americans have much to learn from other countries: for most of us, studying another language in high school is the extent of our globalization and we expect the world to speak English when/if we leave our borders.)

But what I found fascinating was the ease with which our conversation skipped among a number of topics, some light and others quite serious, in a way that rarely happens on a first encounter.

In the space of an hour, we learned about their heritage, their life in Jordan, their fashion business (buying for their boutique brings them to Milan four times a year; how lucky is that?), and some of their family history, including seeing photos of the lovely younger daughter and father, both deceased.

We discussed politics, karma, spa vacations, the importance of intuition, Turkish hostilities towards Armenians and Jews, Bruce/Caitlin Jenner and the Kardashians, favorite fashion designers, which cities are “simpatico”, where to get good pizza in Milan, US universities, modern marriage, and more.

In short, we began to know them in a substantive way, and if we hadn’t been leaving early the next morning we would have enjoyed talking further.

I don’t know if we’ll continue to be in contact, but that’s unimportant. What matters to me is the generosity with which these two women shared stories about their lives, and the depth it added to our trip. Rather than being passive observers in another country, I felt that we were among friends.

And that’s a huge part of why I love to travel.

xo, Alisa

 

 

Quirky Quotes 22.10.2017

Love these random quotes! Back from travels in a week and promise to resume original content. Have a great week, everyone! Xoxo

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“When your head is about to explode, you shouldn’t dare call in a psychiatrist because you’re about to bring new ideas to a world that will later label you a freak.”

-Michael Bassey Johnson

*Photo credit: Appalachian LeadershipAcademy

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How To Be A Happier Couple

We’re off to Italy tomorrow — (see #1 below). Since I won’t be posting while we’re traveling I wanted to share the following thought-provoking article with all of you.

(Shared from WhoWhatWear):

According to the app Happify, the most blissed-out couples have been married for under five years and have no children. If you’re among that demographic, congrats! If you’re not, or if you foresee yourself crossing over into a long-term partnership or having a family at one point, fret not, as there’s still good news—happiness in relationships, just like individual happiness, is something you can work to achieve. Here, eight research-backed methods for becoming one of those happy couples of whom everyone is jealous (and not just on Instagram, but in actual life).

1. BE ADVENTUROUS

According to the New York Times, “New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner.” So while butterflies inevitably fade, studies show you can inject new energy into your relationship by regularly trying new things with your partner. Try date night activities that are outside of your comfort zone, rather than spending another night in watching Netflix or simply walking over to your favorite neighborhood restaurant. It’s fine to continue with these beloved activities (after all, fall TV!), but if you want to keep the flame alive, it’s advisable to mix things up every once in a while.

2. MAKE AFFIRMATIONS A DAILY OCCURRENCE

According to research conducted by Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and author of the book Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, one of the biggest learnings from her divorced clients was that they wished they had been more affectionate toward their spouse, or that their spouse had been more affectionate to them. Dr. Orbuch recommends performing one small act of kindness for your partner each day, be it a verbal affirmation (something focused on a positive attribute they possess or a positive feeling you have about them) or a physical action (like folding their clothes, giving them a hug). Taking specific note of the small things your significant other says and does to make you feel loved is important, too, as negative interactions are more naturally notable to our brains than are positive ones.

3. TALK ABOUT THINGS OTHER THAN MONEY, WORK ETC.

Dr. Orbuch’s research also revealed that the happiest couples made time to talk about things you might talk to your boyfriend about in the early stages of dating—dreams, values and goals. She recommends you commit to spending 10 minutes per day discussing with your significant other something that does not concern your job or other practical life demands. Ask your partner questions about their past (“What’s your favorite memory from childhood?”) and encourage them to share their bolder visions for the future (“What would you do tomorrow if money was no object?”).

4. FIGHT MORE BUT BETTER

Communication is key in relationships, and because you are two separate people, with separate world views, perspectives and goals, chances are that communication sometimes manifests as an argument. If you’re fighting small fights, often, this can be healthy, as it means neither partner is letting resentments build up. That said, the key to a “good” fight is to really listen to your partner’s point of view from a non-defensive place, and to try to look at the situation not just from their perspective, but from a non-partial, third party perspective. Also, it’s important to remember that you likely suffer from a closeness-communication bias, which means that you think you’re communicating your perspective to the people with whom you’re most intimate better than you actually are.

5. MAKE UP MORE

Apparently, being intimate one time per week is enough to increase happiness levels for couples, according to one study, and that going from one time per month to one time per week creates a happiness boost equivalent to that of a $50,000 raise. Though the same study also shows that intimacy more frequent than one time per week does not improve happiness levels, we don’t really believe that you can over-do it on this one.

6. LAUGH A LOT

Couples who laugh together, stay together, according to one study. Apparently, remembering times in which you shared a giggle in the past helps increase happiness within a relationship, as well.

7. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE A PRIORITY

This one has a few caveats. In news that’s sad for discarded single friends everywhere, it turns out that couples who hang out with other couples feel closer to one anotheras a result. More sad news, for divorced people, is that hanging out with friends who have split makes couples 75% more likely to divorce.

Generally speaking, though, it’s assumed to be healthy for any relationship for couples to spend time apart, with friends and family who are outside of the relationship bubble. This way, you’re not putting all of your expectations and needs onto one person—author Bella DePaulo articulates the dangers of doing exactly that here.

On another note, couples who prioritized others in the sense of parading their relationship for them online are not happier than couples who keep it a little more low-key. Read more about this fascinating phenomenon here.

8. DRINK TOGETHER… or don’t

Consuming a similar amount of alcohol as your partner increases the odds of success in a relationship; however, if you and your significant other do not have similar boozing habits, there could be trouble down the line.