Venice, the Most Serene City

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re in Florence, Italy now, having spent a week in Venice and four days in Bologna. After the last year and a half of no sightseeing and no tourists, this city is more than a little overwhelming—the art, the history, the crowds.

Venice, the Most Serene City

Our eight days in Venice passed by in a dreamy haze. It turns out La Serenissima exists in some weird alternate reality (the Magic Kingdom, perhaps) where normal 21st century life goes for a vacation. The city, if you can call it that, has all the usual modern conveniences, except cars. Or normal people, wearing suits and carrying briefcases. There are no office buildings. No gas stations. It’s difficult to find electrical tape, or a proper grocery store, or an eye doctor. (And don’t tell me to just Google these things—trust me, even the Google struggles with reality in Venice.)

The Magic Kingdom, it turns out, doesn’t have a proper supermarket, & shopping for groceries in convenience stores gets old.

Lee began hanging out on the Lido (another island), which felt more like Miami Beach than the Magic Kingdom, but at least that was a step (however small) toward normal.

I feel a little odd admitting this, but after about five days, I got a little bored. Eight days is too long to tourist (exhausting!), but not long enough to settle in.

Now we’re in Bologna. When we stepped off the train Sunday evening, traffic was a bit of a shock. As were wide, paved urban streets.

We came to see the big Eataly—it’s advertised as a theme park, the state fair, and a gourmet grocery all in one.* We originally booked at the Holiday Inn Express across the street, out in the ‘burbs, because Eataly was truly the only I thing I planned to see. We’re only here for four days, which for us feels like just passing though, so I figured we’d focus on the thing I most wanted to do.

Then last week, I discovered that Eataly isn’t reopening until the day we’re planning to leave. We have an Airbnb booked in our next destination (Florence), which is a bit of a nuisance to unravel, so we changed our booking to a hotel closer to Bologna’s historic center, and came on anyway.

Lee asked me this morning what my agenda was for today. I rattled off several things: cappuccino, replacing the teaspoon that housekeeping accidentally took at the Hilton in Reykjavik, and checking out some Roman ruins in the basement of a furniture store. There are more famous things here, like cathedrals and museums and beautiful old palazzos, but last night we found an open-air bar in the park behind our hotel, and we drank prosecco while a dog-walker played catch with her charges, and we watched people playing on clay tennis courts and Lee took pictures of graffiti on an old train engine. It was, in short, a perfect evening.

That’s why we are the worst people to consult for vacation advice. A friend of ours asked us once if she should visit Uruguay; what I wanted to tell her was that it’s difficult to buy well-cushioned sneakers in Uruguay—I don’t think that was the kind of advice she was looking for. I’m more likely than not to skip the one main tourist attraction, because I don’t like lines, or crowds, or getting up early, or some other excuse. My memories of a place are often tied to food. And I’m rarely wedded to a particular plan—if something doesn’t work out, I’m probably just as entertained by the not-working-out as I would’ve been by the thing itself.

*Update: it would be disingenuous of me to not address the Eataly situation. It was . . . laughable. Maybe it was because of Covid, or just the fact that we arrived about fifteen minutes after they re-opened, or maybe it just really sucks. Not sure. Most of the exhibits were empty, the restaurant we ate in was the worst meal we’ve ever had in Italy, and the shopping was paltry. I’ve been to ‘normal’ Eataly stores all over the world, and I’ve loved every one, except this one. Luckily, we were both amused by the lame-ness of it all.

From my writer’s notebook:

One of the major industries in Florence is art restoration. There are little workshops everywhere, scattered all over the city. It makes sense, I suppose: the very bones of the city are the Renaissance made real. If you need someone to restore your frescoes, or repair your sculpture collection, or maybe clean some paintings or put the diamonds back in your tiara, this is a good place to find an expert. 

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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They’re Baaaack

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: After a few days in Bologna (because I’ve been wanting to see the Eataly mothership ever since it opened a few years ago), we arrived in Florence last night. I’ve gorged myself on Italian food, and now I’m going to gorge myself on Italian art. We’re making up for lost time over here. (Note: I wrote the following about a month ago, in Reykjavik.)

They’re Baaaaack

The tourists are returning. Droves of them. Plane loads. Even—and forgive me for sounding disappointed—the cruise people. The breakfast room in our hotel is suddenly packed with Americans going on cruises or returning from cruises.

This morning I listened to a uniquely American conversation—one I’ve heard a hundred times, but had kind of forgotten—about who has been on more cruises, and where. One woman said she’s going to China next year, or maybe Japan—she’s not sure, because she doesn’t really know the difference. Between China and Japan.

I find it difficult not to be judgmental.

There is a simplicity to being in a place where I can’t understand a word anyone says, and during the pandemic, that was everywhere. There were no American tourists—no foreign tourists at all, actually. Everywhere we went, people spoke in their own language. English skills got rusty, and that was fine by me. I didn’t have to tune anything out, because it all went over my head.

Now, though, I can suddenly understand everything—people say hello in the elevator, or speak to me from the next table, or jump in with chummy chit-chat when they hear our American accents.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m just as likely to engage in Yay, someone to talk to behavior. But after eighteen months of hearing American accents only on the phone, this onslaught is a little overwhelming. I’ve always been hyper-aware of the stereotype that Americans are loud, and I’ve tried for years to train myself to speak quietly. These Americans? They’re loud. It is, frankly, a little uncomfortable.

I know this all sounds a little judgey. I’m trying to relax and remember that these are people who’ve been through a much more difficult pandemic than I have. I have to remind myself, every day, that everyone is doing they best they can (thank you, Brene Brown). I remind myself that the shuttering of the tourism industry has devastated families, communities, and countries, all over the world.

A number of years ago, we spent a month at a small, family-owned hotel in a little village in Bali. The whole family pitched in, aunties in the kitchen, younger brother at the front desk, uncle driving the minivan/shuttle into Ubud. We loved it, and were grateful for the insight we gained into Balinese culture.

As far as I can tell from Instagram, they’re all now selling home-made potato chips on the side of the road, from the back of the minivan.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last year and a half about how to rebuild tourism to be more sustainable, more respectful of local communities, more pleasant for everyone involved. A couple of months ago, I read that New Zealand is making big financial investments in some communities that had become overly dependent on tourism, hoping to enable these places to be more resilient.

In Iceland, the government pitched in with significant unemployment relief while the borders were closed. But Iceland is a very wealthy country; in much of the world, businesses have just collapsed and people are going hungry.

I would love to see global tourism come back slowly and thoughtfully, but that’s probably selfish on my part. While I’ve enjoyed near-empty flights and hotel-room bargains, the industry as a whole has been devastated, and that means people are hurting.

If I get judgey, someone please remind that I can tolerate a few loud voices.

From my writer’s notebook:

An Italian genealogical study has identified fourteen living relatives of Leonardo da Vinci. The family tree they constructed goes back 690 years (to 1331, more than a hundred years before Da Vinci’s birth), detailing 21 generations of his father’s descendants.

I’m less interested in the idea of being related to Da Vinci (although, how cool is that?) than I am in the research that went into this effort. My geeky research brain would love to work on a project like that.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Now Comes the Obnoxious Part

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: We’re in Venice! I am in a museum, soaking up art and history and the mystique of La Serenissima. Lee is drinking coffee.

Now Comes the Obnoxious Part

I haven’t posted on social media much, if at all,  since the pandemic began. As things went from bad to worse in much of the world, including the US, we were living our best lives in South Korea, and it occurred to me that no one who was living in lockdown and/or fear wanted to see my pictures of latte art or kimchi or an entire neighborhood of skin care stores.

In the year since my last Instagram post, we’ve been to lots of beautiful and interesting spots. I’ve taken lots of pictures, but I’ve mostly kept them to myself. I’ve heard and read about ‘travel shaming,’ and I have no desire to open myself up to that kind of criticism.

Writing these essays has seemed very slightly more acceptable, because the longer format and ongoing narrative at least allow me to explain why and how we have continued to move around the world, even while the travel industry has been mostly shut down. At least, that’s how I justified it to myself.

But Lee and I are vaccinated now, borders are starting to reopen (at least in wealthy countries), and we’re planning my European fantasy summer. For me, at least, the last eighteen months have been a pointed reminder that life is short—I want to get on with doing all the things and seeing all the places.

So we’re back to making plans. Venice! Florence! Vienna! Paris! I’m the proverbial kid in the candy store, greedy for everything. Lee is booking hotel rooms and flights; I’m buying train tickets and museum passes.

But but but. What other lessons have I learned from this pandemic? 

Should I go back to my old habits of showing off the Insta-friendly parts of my life? Should I go back to over-sharing?

I’m not sure. I have Facebook friends in the US, for whom life is more-or-less normal. But I also have Facebook friends in Bali, in Ethiopia, in India, in Vietnam. Am I comfortable showing off the opportunities that are available to me because of my vaccinated status, even if I don’t mention it directly? Vaccination is, after all, yet another manifestation of my extraordinary privilege.

Which begs the question: should I have been showing off my privilege to begin with?

It seems—to my mind, anyway—that what Covid really did was wake us up to much that was already wrong in the world. Inequalities and injustices that came to light during the pandemic weren’t new: we just hadn’t been paying attention.

So what now? I’m not sure whether I even want to go back to my old social media ways. It was never about anything real, after all—it was always just the pretty bits.

Whenever we talk about social media, Lee’s favorite question (with credit to our friend Erik) is “Did social media ever make you like anyone more?” In the moments when I’m being honest, the answer is rarely yes.

For now, I’m trying to be fully present in the pleasures that have reopened to us, since we are lucky enough to be vaccinated.

From my writer’s notebook:

I have no articles to share today. Instead, I have a pastiche of images and sensations, things I’ve tried to capture on my phone’s camera or jot down on the back of a receipt or just memorize, as I wander around. If this ancient lagoon city doesn’t inspire my imagination, I might as well quit.

The buzz of cicadas, so loud Lee and I can barely have a conversation, but underpinning that, the soft coo of pigeons.

The fragrance of jasmine flowers tumbling over brick walls and winding through wrought iron fences.

The barely-illuminated paintings in every corner of every church, every civic building.

The mind-bending three-dimensional patterns of the marble floors in St. Mark’s Basilica, as well as the glittering mosaics of the domes. From hell to heaven, floor to ceiling, and everything in between.

The feel of damp, softening plaster on my fingertips.

The unevenness of the paving stones, worn down by a thousand years of footsteps.

The silence of the twisting labyrinth of back lanes, where I am lost as soon as I step away from the tourist zones.

The slight, but near-constant rocking I’ve begun to feel, after a week of vaporetto rides.

The near-uselessness of Google maps. I trek back and forth across the campos, hiding from the blazing sun in a sliver of shade along the edge, not sure whether to follow this alley or that. Both appeal; any cool(-ish), shady detour has the potential for a welcome moment of serendipity.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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We’re All a Little Cuckoo

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Some dear NC friends are visiting us this week, so we’ve gone on a road-trip together along the southern coast of Iceland. In an unusual fit of pre-organization, I wrote this a few weeks ago, so that I wouldn’t be distracted during our first visit with friends since the pandemic began. I’m glad I did—the sightseeing is great, but the company is even better. (And no worries—I’m still feeling a little cuckoo.)

We’re All a Little Cuckoo Here

On the summer solstice, I want to write something funny about the midnight sun, or the longest day of the year, or whatever you call it, but I can’t think of anything. My brain is broken.

I expect to be tired at bedtime, but this isn’t normal tired. This is that weird, over-extended feeling you used to get when you were a kid, and you had stayed up too late at a slumber party, but you were having sooo much fun, & you didn’t want to miss anything, & you were running on adrenaline & it was all about to come crashing down in gulping sobs.

Yeah, that.

Sunset in Reykjavik is currently around midnight, and sunrise is a little before 3. You’d think it would be dark in between, but no. It’s just sort of  the world’s longest twilight. I’ve always thought the midnight sun sounded like a great idea—the short days of winter make me sad, so it only stands to reason that all light, all the time, would make me super-happy, right?

We haven’t seen darkness since late April. I keep going in the bathroom, closing the door, and turning off the light, just to rest my eyes. I’m sleeping in an eye mask, but it slides around and slips off and gets tangled in my hair—I hate the stupid thing. Light leaks in all night long. Getting up to use the bathroom is startling—I shove the mask up to the top of my head, and squint against the light as I shuffle through the living room, trying not to wake up too much.

When we first arrived at this Airbnb, Lee realized there was nowhere to plug in the lamp on his nightstand, so we went right out to buy an extension cord.

Three weeks later, he still hasn’t turned on the lamp, because who needs a lamp when it never gets dark?

One night, Lane took a photo out the window at 2:08 am, so we’d have evidence (there’s exactly zero chance I’m looking out the window at that time of night—I’m trying to stay asleep, not wake myself up). It’s that beautiful moment, just before sunrise, when the horizon glows pink and there are no shadows yet, but the air is clear and soft—Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn. But it’s in the middle of the night. The darkest hour is not just before dawn, at least not in Reykjavik, in June.

Melatonin is helping with sleep, but not with general squirelliness. The hardest part is not being able to wind down before bed. There are no curtains in our living room, and only a thin shade in the bedroom, so the choice is broad daylight, or eye cover. My brain is just confused. Most days it gets to be six or seven pm, and I’m still thinking it’s mid-afternoon. You don’t realize how much you subconsciously track the progress of a day by the position of the sun, until you can’t.

Lane and I went on a walking tour the other day, and we were asking the guide how people cope with the constant daylight. It makes us all a little cuckoo, he said.

I believe it.

It turns out the midnight sun is a totally fascinating experience, and I would like for it to get dark now, please. I am So. Tired.

From my writer’s notebook:

A 2012 heist in Greece was finally solved in June. The Picasso (a Mondrian was also taken) had an inscription on the back: For the Greek people, a tribute from Picasso. The painting was originally a gift from the artist, in honor of the Greek resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, and the theft was taken personally by the Greek people.

The thief had stuffed the two paintings in a hole in the ground, in the woods.

Apparently it’s difficult to sell such an identifiable work. Sometimes art thieves in fiction are portrayed as glamorous and cunning, but in reality, sometimes they’re just not particularly smart.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Adventures in Icelandic Laundry

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Today is our last day in Reykjavik; friends are coming tomorrow for a little road trip, and then—we’re finally leaving Iceland. This afternoon, we’re getting our laundry done, of course.

Adventures in Icelandic Laundry

Our Reykjavik apartment had a laundry room on the first floor. Lane came along one afternoon, to help us carry three people’s worth of dirty clothes.

After we’d proudly demonstrated our laundry competence and gone back to our apartment on the seventh floor, Lane was amused. “I don’t know how y’all ever figured all that out,” they said.

It took a while, actually.

First we had to find the laundry room. This took several days, and involved, first of all, debating which doors were private apartments, which buttons were doorbells, and what would happen if we just started trying out the key in various locks. Then we spent an afternoon walking in circles around the outside of the building, peering in ground floor windows and wondering how it could be so difficult to find a laundry room.

On the third day, we messaged the apartment host (who is currently in Spain) and asked where the laundry room was. “On the first floor,” she replied. “You need to take a time slot.”

That was helpful.

We finally saw a maintenance guy coming out of a door, and asked him where the laundry room was. It was through that door, then another door.

That was the first problem solved.

We found several notices pinned to a board in the little hallway between the doors, one of which looked like it might be a schedule, so we pulled out our phones to Google Translate. It was, indeed, the schedule. According to the (always haphazard) translation, you can only sign up for one slot at a time, and you have to write down the kilowatts—whatever that means. We studied the schedule carefully; the Icelandic, the handwriting, and the fact that each day’s schedule appeared to be in duplicate all combined to make it very confusing. Eventually, we wrote our apartment number in a slot; unfortunately, this meant that if we broke something, they’d know where to find us.

When our designated time rolled around, we bought some detergent and set about figuring out how to work the machines.

The actual washing of the clothes went remarkably smoothly, for once. The very-helpful diagram on the machines used symbols and arrows, rather than words, so our dirty clothes soon became clean, dry clothes.

Then there was the whole kilowatt thing. We had initially ignored that part—because that’s what we generally do with things we don’t understand—and barreled ahead with the clothes-washing. But by the time our clothes were dry, we had both processed that there was some sort of payment system based on electricity usage, and we didn’t want to be the ugly tourists who screwed up the system, or worse, stuck someone else with our laundry bill. 

We stood together in the little hallway studying the various papers on the bulletin board. There was clearly a lot of information, most of which was a mystery to Google Translate, and therefore to us. We searched every inch of the tiny hall space, looking for some kind of meter that we could read. We searched the actual laundry room, looking behind the machines, on the walls, even trying our various keys on a couple of locked doors. Nothing. 

Finally—totally stumped—I gave up and went to the mailroom, where I found a young woman who spoke perfect English (like everyone else under the age of about seventy in this country). She graciously walked us out into the building’s main lobby, and showed us where the meter is tucked up into a corner, then showed us how to read it and enter our numbers on the schedule.

You can go ahead and visualize us, at this moment, puffed up with pride. These are the small victories that we most relish in this lifestyle: figuring out how to do the things. Washing our own clothes, buying a metro ticket and finding our way across a city, successfully navigating the bureaucracy of a foreign government—Lee and I invariably walk away from these experiences convinced we’re masters of the universe.

Except when we’re not.

A couple of weeks later, I went to get a few items out of the dryer. I unlocked the first door with the key, then turned the knob to open the second, pulling them closed behind me, because … I don’t know. Because doors are meant to be closed. Then, with my arms full of almost-dry clothes, I remembered that the inner door requires a key to exit. And the key in my pocket didn’t work. It works on the front door of the building, and on the first door to the laundry room, but apparently not on the inner door? What kind of insanity is that?

I texted Lee to come rescue me, but by the time he got downstairs, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to get through the first door, because I had the key. I stood there, racking my brain, and wondering when the next person would show up to do laundry and release me.

Lee texted. Do you have the key? Of course I do; it’s how I got in. Why did you close the door? It doesn’t matter; I did. You have to use the key to get out. It doesn’t work. Try again. I did.

It was ludicrous—arguing back and forth by text, through two locked doors. Eventually I put the clothes down and threw my body against the door while trying the key again, and it worked, and I burst out of the laundry room.

Boom! Master of the universe, yet again.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

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