Friday, June 14, 2013

Italiano Classico.

[Posted 2013-06-19, backdated 2013-06-14. There's one more entry that will be posted about Rome from before I left to Florence, so this is now coming out of order...]

I had an unexpected visitor join me for adventures in Florence. Unexpected in the sense that plans were made to meet only 24 hours beforehand. Such are the joys of travel: you can never know what comes around the bend. It precipitated from the best of intentions: a desire for adventure and opportunity to connect with another human being, to learn and to share, to break the rules and be spontaneous, to live in the moment.

No sense in trying to read a map; let life take you where it will.
Much of the day was spent wandering the city of Florence. This has become my modus operandi. It feels good on the body, you see many different aspects of a town, and you are always pleasantly surprised with every new turn in the road. The key is to only have a general sense of your location. If necessary you can return to a major landmark (e.g. the river) to get your bearings. Carry a map, have a general sense of where green spaces (parks) are located, and just start walking. I think I consulted the map only when it was time to actually return home at 11pm. Otherwise you go with the gut. 

Our first stop was the park area to the west, near the Ippodrome. Sitting, talking, observing the habits of insects exploring the woodland floor. Nothing spectacular, but definitely fun.

We eventually crossed the river and began to ascent a long, winding hill via a narrow street.

The main reason was to get away from the car and scooter-choked streets of the city. I seriously believe that driving around is a national Italian pastime. It's the only way to explain the absurd number of vehicles constantly occupying the road, spewing fumes and making a tremendous racket.

As with most spontaneous decisions of this trip, this one turned out quite nicely. For a long while we ascended, passing beautiful and large Tuscan homes. Many harbored orchards within the confines of tall concrete walls. I was seriously tempted to jump one and hang out beneath the boughs of an olive tree.

Eventually we came upon a cute little park with an impressive view of the city below.

We chatted more, ate a lunch of various fruits, and lounged about. The air was warm with a soft breeze, absolutely perfect in the shade of trees. Wrapped in a blanket of the perfect temperature, naps were inevitable. Such a leisurely way to spend the height of the day.

Eventually the ever-continuing road called to us. More houses of classic Italian appearance and expansive views of the city. 

Without intending to do so, we found ourselves at the foot of the statue of David. (As it turns out, the one outside is a replica, but it's still quite stirring.)

We attempted to go to Zeb, a restaurant recommended by my fried Kayce, but they were booked until 9:30pm. Presently famished from many hours of walking, we sought sustenance elsewhere. 

As with most treasures, this one presented itself to us. We walked up a small road, one that did not look promising, and found La Beppa Fioriana. Outdoor seating surrounded by windflowers, mood lights, and a castle turret at the top of a hill. Delicious Italian food that had me wiggling with delight.

First: fried dumplings with the most succulent prosciutto I've ever had, plus stacchino cheese. Mind-blowing chianti Classico that would go for twice the listed price in the US.

Second: homemade gnocchi with pumpkin seeds, pesto, almonds, and ricotta cheese. Also, risotto with creme drizzled with herbs and strawberry and mint sauce.

As the evening wore into night, we were surrounded by conversations in multiple languages. A huge family gathering was taking place in a private room. They laughed and cheered and sang songs. The children (probably 20 of them) ran about and played outside, obviously unable to tolerate the slow pace of these meals. It was so beautiful, so classically Italian. I was grateful for this experience which was so obviously a gift from the universe, and for the company to share it with. A perfect conclusion to a day in Firenze; not necessary to make it a good day, but it finished it off quite nicely. Or, as they say, it was "the dot on the i."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


[Posted 2013-06-19, backdated 2013-06-11. I have SO MANY POST that I have not been able to load due to insufficient Wi-Fi access...]

(I have something like a soundtrack to this blog post. Feel free to listen, I'll refer to it later. Good mood music for today's entry.)

I am off to see the Vatican today. Not exactly sure where I will go (the museum? St. Peter's? Who knows). 

Started off the day right with a visit to the local markets. Picked up white pizza and way too much fruit. The lady at the counter was very sweet and kept offering me samples. She has known my host for 20 years. 

Today I travel without my laptop. I feel naked without it. What will I do if I get tired and want to dink around on the Internet? No worries, life will go on and something will work out. 

The flow of traffic from the metro stop led me to St. Peter's Basilica, so I guess that is where I will be exploring.

I just can't get over how blue the sky is here… 

Entry to the basilica took about 30 minutes. No problem, I had my fine book of short fiction (Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2009) to keep me company. Definitely worth the wait: the interior was simply breathtaking.

There were far too many classical sculptures to capture them all. Instead, I tried to pick out some that really spoke to me.

This is a famous sculpture by Michaelangelo depicting Jesus and Mary, completed when he was 24 or so. One person commented in a thick Southern accent, "If he could finish that one by 24, I bet he had time to do ALL the sculptures in this place." The banal comment did not evoke a response from his wife and two daughters. I can be so entertained by the bizarre, stilted dialogues filled with dead-ends among families.

I had moments that tickled me. The first: even their speaker system comes with a marble paint job.

The second: apparently Gregorious the 14th was invisible.

The 3rd: all the cute flags that tour guides would carry. They bobbed and swayed above the crowd like pixies. This was my favorite.

While it may seem the church was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty tourists, it generally was not that bad. Apart from the occasional wade through an amorphous, ambling tourist group blob, I had enough personal space to feel comfortable and absorb the sights at my leisure. Watching the groups from the outside, I thanked myself for not signing up for a tour. Artist Andrew was most pleased.

Next it was off to the beautiful dome by way of 550 steps. Waving off the obligatory warnings about the infirm attempting such a feat, I began to ascend the steps. The first half of the path was mostly free of humans, giving me ample time to lose myself in the repetition. Step up, walk, walk, step up, walk, walk, step up… It went on for at least ten minutes. I was comforted by this spanse of time alone. In the second half I reached a bottleneck, which is to be expected given that there is very limited space at the top of the dome. Getting there got rather interesting.

The view from the summit, much like the process of getting there, was breathtaking.

I was disappointed to find an ample quantity of inane graffiti. What compels us to permanently record our names, inscribed in a heart, to prounounce to all the world of two anonymous lovers (who will statistically be likely to break up one day) will always baffle me. Particularly in a sacred place like this. It doesn't take being religious to have some respect.

Damn kids… My intolerance for their immaturity has amplified in the past couple weeks. I have encountered way too many groups of high school students who clearly don't want to be where they are and pass the experience by ruining it for the rest of us. (I'm exaggerating, of course -- I don't let them get under my skin too much. But I do go out of my way to avoid them.)

After the basilica and my tasty packed lunch enjoyed on the shaded riverfront, I made my way into the heart of south-central Rome, the home of way too many churches. 

Some had utterly unremarkable exteriors that did not reflect the treasures inside.

Most of them were densely adorned. The highlight was finding a tour group of priests. They even had the typical radio transmitters with earbuds for each member so the leader would not have to speak loudly. It never occurred to me that even priests would want to get together for a tour.

After a spontaneous bus ride (with everyone squished in so tightly you could probably relax your legs and not fall down), I worked my way along the crowded, sun-scorched streets to the Pantheon. 

Inside, I was treated to a rare surprise. Choirs from all over Europe were doing a special performance inside the Pantheon. I sat there for nearly an hour. The music I linked to at the top of the post is my poor-man's job at recording it. Everyone was beautifully dressed. Halfway through the hour, a man came out and proposed to one of the performers. There was much cheering and a lot of tears.

I was deeply moved by this time spent in the Pantheon. It was bordering on a religious experience -- the angelic voices, the unusual acoustics, the dramatic setting. I felt my spirit lifted into the sky at times, ascending through the opening in the ceiling.

I left the Pantheon shortly before the conclusion of the event, staggered by the emotional and spiritual experience. What could I possibly do next to let me down gently, return me to the land of reality, the land of Rome? The answer, of course, was gelato.

Among the many dates I will be taking myself on during the course of the week, I have committed to eating gelato at least once a day. I even accounted for it in my budget.

During my many travels on the streets of Rome, I was often treated to the delicate and warming fragrance of jasmine in full bloom. It is one of my two favorite scents (the other one being wisteria), and it gave me such pleasure every time I walked by a walk shrouded in its vines.

Reflecting upon the day, it is hard to believe I ever worried about being bored without my computer. It will take some getting used to being out and about from 8am to 7pm each day, doing sightseeing and adventures with no opportunity for a return to home base. As it happened, I had to force myself to return by 7:30pm, not wanting to be late for dinner. There was still so much to be seen, but tomorrow was yet a new day.

That night, it was time to change locations yet again. I am next off to stay with a CouchSurfing host -- the only one I successfully found for my 10 day stay in Italy. I say goodbye to Bob and his wonderful family. Thank you for all the food, the stories, the music, and the perfectly warm welcome to Roma. (And thank you to Karissa, whom introduced me to this kind and faceted gentleman.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dating myself.

[Posted 2013-06-16, backdated 2013-06-10.]

I'm learning how to date myself. For a long time I have not known how to be happy on my own, how to find inspiration for life internally. I looked to others for reasons to go outside, to do fun and enriching activities. I did not have a healthy relationship with myself.

This relationship was negligent at best, abusive at worst. I would sit with myself and not say a word, filling the silence with television, movies, video games, and other meaningless unfulfilling distractions. Radio was the one media with something worth saying, but then I usually only listened when I was driving. I saved it for when I had nothing else to do.

I didn't make myself feel appreciated. I prioritized other relationships with women, friends, and family. I made excuses for not finding time together, saying I was too busy because of work or school. But we both knew the truth: I didn't enjoy spending time with myself.

I never took myself out on dates. I rarely treated myself to a high quality home cooked meal. I usually did not buy myself gifts. I did not write myself love notes or verbally appreciate and acknowledge myself. My physical relationship was pretty good, we exercise a healthy amount and stay fit. The love-making wasn't anything to write home about.

I wrote some really nasty, vile, hurtful things to myself when I struck bottom in February. Two months later, reflecting upon that journal entry I considered how far my relationship had deteriorated.

Upon relating the abridged version of this realization and other fears about solo travel in Europe to my dear friend Miriam, she introduced me to the Artist's Way. Although as a means to an end, this book provides a great structure to reinvigorate the relationship with yourself. I found a name for the person I was dating: Artist Andrew. (I may update the name as I get to know him better.) This book offered me hope for saving the relationship. I thrive in structured environments, so this was a godsend.

Part of the structure is to take yourself on a date every week (the Artist's Date). No one else allowed. The substance of the date is flexible, but the intention is clear: a block of time, exclusively with yourself, planned in advance, given high priority, with the intention of fostering feelings of love.

Today, I took myself out on a date. The first one of my first week on the Artist's Way. (My Artist's week begins on Tuesdays.) We went exploring in Rome.

What a marvelous time! I spent four hours exploring the archaeological site next to the Colosseum. I reveled in the meandering paths, the ruins aesthetic, the beautiful gardens, the Mediterranean trees, the summer air and ocean breeze, the sun on my skin. I helped out some tourists. I people watched -- families, couples, honeymooners, solo travelers, groups of friends, classes, tour groups. I talked with myself (journaling), wrote words of affirmation and appreciation. Photos taken were sometimes touristy sometimes artistic and sometimes silly.

Charming guy, isn't he?

I treated myself to a nice lunch nearby, sitting outside in what was certainly not a bargain restaurant. I made small talk with the waitress.

After a leisurely few hours on the computer (not part of the date, we chose to put it on pause for a time), I treated myself to gelato and a visit to the Colosseum. I wandered the grounds, learned interested facts, and marveled at the artifacts on exhibit.

Turns out Artist Andrew is a pretty nice guy. He delights in many aspects of life, enjoys comfortable silences, tries to be kind to others, and is a loving person. He has good taste in food. He even has an artistic side and takes decent photographs.

I'm pretty excited. He's promising. This may turn into a beautiful relationship.

(Photos from the day to be posted soon…)

Going with the flow.

[Posted 2013-06-15, backdated 2013-06-10.]

When I look back upon last night, I think: I could have wound up sleeping in the streets. Yet there I was at the end, eating tomato salad with cheese and bread in the company of two vibrant Italians, safe and sound in Rome.

I arrived in the city underprepared. I chalk it up to my final days in Switzerland being packed with people, teaching, and adventures. Whatever the reason, I arrived in Rome without a map, guide, list of taxi numbers and contingency hostels, a number for my host, or walking directions from the rendezvous point to his house that would be needed without the phone number to call for a pickup.

Making it to the rendezvous point was fairly easy. My pack is not light (~40 lbs), but definitely manageable in an urban environment.  The directions provided were thorough. It involved an airport bus shuttle, rail line, and another bus.

Trundling along in final bus, I contemplated what to do next. The trouble was I had no solid plan for what to do when I'd arrive at the destination. I was told I should phone the host when getting near, but never had a number to call (might have gotten lost in the shuffle, or never provided). This my directions were incomplete. A blank space between the bus terminus and the final destination, with the words "Cannot load map without Internet connection" printed across it. Yes, this would not have been a problem with mobile data access. While I did have a local SIM card for calls and texts (ringing in at a staggering €20 -- web Switzerland was less expensive), there was no way to look up directions via Google Maps. Remarkable how much that little app has changed the way we navigate. We can embark on a journey and figure we'll work out the directions along the way. As my mind wandered, washboard asphalt roads shook the bus violently and rattled me out of my reverie.

I could use my handy mobile to call a taxi service from that point. I would need to get a number from a local, or try to hail a cab. The flaw in this plan was assuming I would not be in Roman suburbia by that point.

And yet there I stood, in a wastleland of roads and tall apartment buildings and scarcely a soul in sight. It seemed most people were indoors for dinner. I surveyed the scene, contemplating my fate. My plan was quickly falling apart, the house of cards tumbling down at the deviance from critical assumptions.

That was when the universe gave me my first big break. The husband of a married couple I hailed down spoke nearly fluent English. Phoning a taxi service was unrealistic, they explained upon inquiry of a number. No driver would come all the way to the outskirts for a short drive. We stood there, thinking a moment.

"It's a shame we don't have our car here with us," the husband lamented. He was classic Italian: olive brown skin, his beard stubble white with age, and kindness in his eyes. I was astonished. These two were so quick to pause what they were doing (going to the school gymnasium so vote for the next Roman mayor) and offer me help. And not just help from where they were standing; they were willing to join me on this wild goose chase and follow an unexpected path. People told me Italians were very kind. At last I understood.

While they did not know the address I spoke of, they pledged to assist me. I was on a Hero's Quest, and these were my archetypal mentors. With their aid, we flagged down another gentleman who looked up the direction on his phone. It was a long way, 3-4 km (a 20-30 min walk). The couple and I continued along to the main road I would follow. We discussed the importance of travel, the serendipity of helping strangers, and the decrepit state of Roman infrastructure. Once arrived, they pointed me on my way. Follow the road, they said, until a crossroads. You will need to ask directions again at that point, but it should be very close.

So I did. I trudged along, sticking out like a sore thumb among the occasional dog walkers of the late evening. The day was turning to night, the street lights flickering on in the dusk. Jasmine was in full bloom. Sweat beaded on my forehead and my psoas muscles began to ache, yet I was grateful for the walk and the experience.

I entered a convenience store / cafe at the end of the road, inquiring about my destination: Via Filippo Raguzzini. (It sounds so good when the Italians say it.) The folks were largely unhelpful and almost annoyed by my need for directions. I left the store, discouraged. I was so very close.

While standing there, contemplating my next steps, the universe delivered my second big break of the day. A gentleman had been sitting in his car with a lady for some time. Eventually he got out and walked up to me, holding his smart phone in hand and a proud smile on his face. "Here, this way. First left," he explained to me in broken English. I thanked him for the unprompted act of kindness and continued my journey. 10 minutes later, I arrived at the home of my host.

It was almost 10pm, a solid 3-4 hours later than planned. Fortunately the host had not worried to much by that point. My arrival roused the attention of the family's one-year-old, who was suddenly excited to be at the new party despite the hour. The mother fussed over me and fixed me a classic Italian summer meal of tomato slices with olive oil and salt, four different kinds of cheese, and bread. The father played with his child (named Leone) and talked to me about life in Italy.

A good start to a new leg in my adventure.

I am a wandering traveler, but certainly am not alone.

June 6, 2013. (Posted late, I am currently in Rome.)

Today marks my first complete week in Europe. It is fortunate that I have a 10-day break scheduled in Italy, because I'm not sure how long I could maintain this pace.

I arrived on Thursday in Zurich with approximately 1.5 hours of sleep in the past 36 hours. My body was all kinds of confused. Turns out that if you bum-rush your systems, sometimes you can keep it staggered for long enough to make it through the journey. The weather started off sunny, long enough for me the enjoy the lushness of the city.

 Yes, the tram (light rail) runs through beds of wildflowers. WILD. FLOWERS. Portland, take note -- Zurich just threw down the gauntlet.

Friday was, mercifully, free of teaching responsibilities. I slept, ate, did a little work on the computer, and slept some more. Finished up the lectures for my Java class (woo!). I just need to complete one assignment, finish the AI for Yahtzee (a personal project), and I'll be ready to jump into C++.

Saturday and Sunday were packed. 4.5 hours of teaching on Saturday in Zurich. The Bluesli workshop had an excellent turnout. I was so happy to see that many eager students learning the blues. They were equal parts focused and playful. I was so flattered by the positive feedback that came back. Many students coming up, expressing their gratitude, their appreciation of my methodical and calm teaching style, lauding my energy and presentation, and saying they never had so much fun working on foundational concepts. Teaching in Bern went much the same way. 5 hours of teaching (1 private + 4 hrs group). I don't think I have ever been so overwhelmed with joyful energy and gratitude from students. I couldn't stop smiling. Life felt so, so good.

 The wonderful students of the Zurich Bluesli class, proclaiming, "How fascinating!"

And it just kept getting better.

Monday was a relaxed day free of responsibilities. Good thing, because I slept for ~13 hours until noon. Apparently my body was ready for rest. Did some necessary body maintenance, i.e. yoga practice.

Tuesday I was back in action. Traveled to Lucerne via train. I feel much more comfortable with the process of changing bases (i.e. "home base," where I'm staying at the moment), traveling to new locations. Yes, there are transaction costs, but they are not as severe as before. I can rally to be productive with my time before, during, and after a base transition. Once arrived in Lucerne, I had a brief time to relax and process some work before I was off to teach Judith's Blues 2 class. More beaming faces, more students eager to learn, more excitement. One came up to me after class and said she was suddenly unburdened with all her woes and worries that she brought into class. After class, Judith, me, and another student named Emel went to a bar for drinks. We were soon joined by Thomas, Judith's beau. What a delightful group it was! Emel has a M.S. in Sociology, Thomas is finishing his Ph.D. in biophysics, and Judith was a former nurse and damn smart woman. The conversation was stimulating, diverse, relaxed, respectful, and enlightening. We're talking about the riots in Turkey one minute, and the art of DJing soul music off first-press vinyl the next. By the end we were discussing the challenges of knowledge transfer, what it would be like if we could pass knowledge instantenously (a la Vulcan mind meld), and whether people would still be able to form novel ideas. We enjoyed delicious beers and cordonbleu, a Swiss standard of breaded and fried ham with cheese (oh so good).

Wednesday was full, but not always with work. It began with a relaxed morning/afternoon with Judith and Thomas over tea and coffee. Made time for yoga, refueled myself, then it was off to the local dance venue Sousol for two hours of privates and two hours of group classes. The privates were all kinds of wonderful, and the group classes were a true delight. I saw familiar and new faces. I am so impressed by the work Judith has done in Lucerne to cultivate good, quality Blues dancing. I tip my hat to her. It was an honor to come in and give new perspective and inspiration. Stopped by for some fantastic pizza, then it was to home and bed. I was wiped out.

Thursday began early in the morning, about 8am. (It was early because I was still waking up around 10 or 11am, my body not yet adjusted to the jet lag.) A private lesson at noon, then it's off to Lausanne where I'm teaching for another two hours tonight. I look forward to seeing Vera and an entirely new community. I am presently sitting on a train, listening to some sick funk music that came out of Lagos, Nigeria in the 70s. (For those interested: check out Nigeria 70. Definitely worth the listen.)

A common view of the bucolic Swiss countryside.

I owe tremendous gratitude to the organizers of Switzerland: Nadja, Judith, Andreas, Vera -- you are all so amazing. You own the logistics and rock at coordinating. You have collectively made this tour in Shweiz (Switzerland) a smashing success.

When I first arrived in Switzerland, I was a little disappointed at the lack of interest in private lessons. Creating the space energetically to encourage private lessons is tricky. There's only so much you can do, and then you leave it up to the universe to give (or not). I discovered that bookings are more likely to come after a class or workshop, once they have a chance to see your style and gauge they sync with you. Many people were not aware that I was available for privates. I am finding that just creating space for privates is a good way to make them happen. If the slots don't get filled, that's fine, but I've been amazed by what falls into place if I say, "On X day I will be teaching privates in X city."

I think there's a common assumption of dance teachers that we're always booked 100% solid, constantly traveling and being intrepid and rockin' it solo, but it's not true. I have downtime and freetime, I like to enjoy the company of others, and I'm always happy to make a new connection. A person just has to reach out and offer. I'm also trying to do that as well. It's hard to get over my inner shyness.

I have not been doing as much reading, programming, contemplating over a cup of tea, or exploring as I would like. But such is the challenge of our existence: we have a mere 24 hours in the day. I am so grateful that the universe has filled to the brim my last week with teaching, joyful students, and so much love. I would not trade that time to read a book. But I wouldn't mind somehow magically fitting that into my day as well. I suspect my time in Italy will be a balancing act. I will have ample space to meander, to think, to play. I should definitely continue to build a week-long break of no teaching for every two weeks of touring. It will keep me sane.

I cannot speak highly enough for the dancers in Switzerland. They are all such cheerful, humble, friendly, energetic, kind, and accommodating people. Some of the best folks I've met. I can't get over how many take the time to give love and praise, both to me and their peers. I am not used to receiving such thoughtful messages of praise on Facebook. Almost every day I wake up to see a new message awaiting in my inbox that will brighten my day. Surrounding yourself with dance, music, and lovely people: it's a high better than any drug in existence.

Switzerland, you're making it hard to leave. Your promise (and delivery) of good times even outshines the exotic southern lands of Italy. My 10 days in your country is not nearly enough. I will certainly look forward to returning again. Perhaps I need to find myself a nice Swiss woman to marry.

Just kidding. Or am I?

There is not time enough to fully express my gratitude and joy to everyone that accompanied me on my journey, be it for a lesson, dinner, train ride, or adventure. Reflecting upon my time in Switzerland warms my heart and fills me with an ineffable and radiant love.