Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cruise: Day 7

As the cruise wound down to a close, I was ready for a day of sun and relaxation in Palma de Mallorca. I did travel into the city centre to get a carry-on bag, and being there reminded me of being in Milan, or La Jolla, or Boca Raton, but on a smaller scale. These were the beautiful people. There were tourists, of course; but beyond your average tourist, there was a sense of style, and wealth, and love of the finer things, which permeated the city center. Gucci, Prada, et al. all had storefronts, and if you entered the store (looking, as I’m sure I did, the tourist) you were not spoken to. After finding my bag, and snatching a surreptitious squirt of fragrance sample, I got a gelato for lunch and made my way back to the ship. There, I spend my remaining onboard time at the pool, listening to the band, talking with fellow passengers, posting my photos, and adding a bit more blush to my sunburn. It was delightful. We said goodbye to Scott, who had been great company around the pool, at meals, at the shows, and on the dance floor. We disembarked just before 4:00, where we boarded the transfer bus to the airport.

The flight home was (as most Thomson flights are, we learned) filled with young children. It was THE loudest flight ever. However, I sat beside a delightful widow named Mary from Chester, and, through all the commotion of the children, we talked about life. How unexpected it can be. How, no matter what it throws you, you choose what you make of it. How you never know what adventure it will offer you next. How utterly wonderful it is.

Cruise: Day 6

Because I had spent a week in Spain before on vacation, on the coast and in Barcelona, I chose to use our port day in Spain to explore Girona. My excursion advisor told me I would love it, and that I could easily do it on my own, without paying for an excursion. So without a map, without a guidebook, without any advance research or planning (so unlike me!) I set out. The first bus was at 10:20, so I wandered the early morning streets of Palamos as the shopkeepers were cleaning and preparing for the day. I came across a beautiful old Gothic cathedral (built 1439-1521, according to the sign). The door was unlocked and the interior was completely still. Because some small candles flickered around the room, I knew I wasn’t the first in here this morning. But for a brief few moments, I was alone with my thoughts, with God, in the quiet. It was a lovely start to the day.
Leaving the church, I found the bus station, and briefly struck up a conversation with one couple from the cruise ship. There were no other cruise passengers, so we began chatting as we boarded the bus. Quickly, Richard (from Middlesex), his partner Marzena (Mar-ZZHAY-na,) from Poland, and I became traveling buddies. We discussed American politics, higher education in England, health care, unemployment, travel destinations, growing up Polish, … with the exception of religion, we pretty much solved the world’s problems on the bus to Girona.
By the time we arrived an hour later, we felt like old friends.

We didn’t have any guidebooks, and only a tourist map, but the three of us stayed together to see what there was to see. I still don’t know exactly what I saw. But it was fabulous. We wandered cobblestone alleys and took photos of each other everywhere. We found our way to the Arab baths, built in the 11th century, and almost completely intact today. We ambled through the Jewish quarter. We climbed up the “Passaig Archaeologique” – is it a fortress? Is it a castle? Is it a monastery? – and discovered hidden gems: gardens, vistas, gracefully rendered architecture. We even discovered a stone toilet built into the city wall, which by that time Richard could almost be convinced to take advantage of. We walked along the ‘Great Wall of Girona’ (Never heard of it? Well, it’s there.) Sensing the desperation for facilities, and not finding them where they were marked on a map, we deferred to Marzena’s direction into an art museum, where we found clean modern bathrooms.

By this time, we were ready for tapas and wine. We stopped at a cafĂ© along the Rambla and shared lives and stories and laughs. It began to rain and we followed our internal navigation system back to the bus station, where the line for tickets was too long for me to get a return ticket (they had bought round trip, but I had not.) So I made the decision to travel sans billet, and my partners in crime aided and abetted me, even offering me fresh fruit from the ship’s morning buffet that they had absconded with.

After our arrival at the ship, they invited me to dinner and the show with them later that evening. All in all, it was a lovely day, with lovely people.

Cruise: Day 5

Corsica. I've never even given Corsica a thought. I think I knew it was the birthplace of Napoleon, but I think that's been the extent of my knowledge. I'm not sure I even knew whether it was French or Italian. But now, I can say I have been to Corsica, and it is charming. It's French, for starters (although there is a Corsican language, and culturally it remains very Italian). And it is clean. There are no industries in Corsica, so no pollution. The air there smells fresh. I'm not sure, aside from tourism what they DO there, though. Because the climate/air is so good, they produce essential oils from herbs that grow in the macquis (the canopy of forest containing cork trees, oaks, eucalyptis, pines, and shrubs.) Corsica was pretty wiped out in the World Wars, losing so many men that the women left the island as well. I learned about one of the greatest of European leaders -- a man I'd never heard of -- Pasqualle di Paoli. He was a freedom fighter who drafted a constitution for the island that inspired the US Sons of Liberty. He gave the right to vote to women in the 1700s. 5 US towns are named after him. He inspires resistance today to the rule of France. Learn something new every day.
Corsica is the kind of place I'd want to live if I were a writer and wanted to get away from it all to devote myself to writing. Or if I were wanting to improve my French, without the fast pace of life on the mainland. Or if I wanted to live somewhere that I could be sunning on the Mediterranean one minute, and biking up steep switchbacks in the forest the next minute. But it is a poor country, and one where nationalist resistance is high ... so I probably wouldn't choose it as a retirement destination. But as a cruise stop? Lovely.

Cruise: Day 4

Another Clemson student is working an internship in Rome this summer, and we laid plans early on that we wanted to visit Maja there. So the cruise stop in Civitivecchia allowed us the opportunity to spend a day with her. We disembarked Wednesday and found our way to the train station to catch an early train to Rome, along with, apparently, the rest of the population. There were no seats available so we stood in the passageway between cars. At each stop, more people would pile into the train. Three dozen people in the space of, oh, a typical bathroom-sized space, all trying to avoid making eye contact with each other, while holding onto their wallets. At the last stop before Rome, I found myself belly to belly with a rotund gentleman, about 9 inches shorter than me, with an inch of cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Thankfully, he put the cigarette stub in his pocket (for later, I guess). But yeah. I was glad to arrive in Rome.
We found Maja and a friend at the McDonald's as we planned. Anders, a Norweigan guy visiting in Rome himself, was great fun and good company/conversation and made it a pleasant foursome. Then started our Amazing Day in Rome. In the space of under six hours, we somehow managed to tour the Coliseum, sip wine, throw coins in Trevi Fountain, eat gelato, mug at the Spanish Steps, wander around the Capitoline Hill, visit the Vatican, enjoy a fabulous meal together, and almost miss a train. Basically, it was a perfect, sunny, happy, friendly, whirlwind day in Rome.

Cruise: Day 3

Having been to Naples before, and having no desire to EVER repeat that experience, I opted for the tour of "Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast". I had asked the tour director which excursions I really shouldn't miss, and which ones he thought I would be least able to arrange on my own, and this is the one he pointed me to. Tabitha went on the "Pompeii & Sorrento" tour. I'm not usually a fan of organized cruise tours, but I'm glad I took the tour director's advice on this one.
First stop was on the roadside to take pictures of the view above Sorrento. Then we pulled into the city, and were given 1.5 hours to wander and explore. I realized that I had left my photo card in the card reader, so needed to find a shop to get a photo card (unless I wanted to endure a day of scenery with no camera...not happening.) So, I wandered the ancient streets until I found a convenience store, and there stood Tabitha. We laughed at running into each other, but parted... she wanted to shop (and came home later with a sweet little messenger bag), but I wanted to just get lost in the maze of streets. I wound up overlooking the port/ocean, and was totally charmed by the views that Sorrento offered up. Having been advised that lemoncello was a major product of Sorrento, and having seen lemon trees everywhere, I decided that my next stop should include a taste. I made my way into the town square to a cafe, where I enjoyed a tall chilled flute of liquid sunshine.
Back on the bus, we crossed a ridge to the other side of the peninsula, the Amalfi side. As we rolled through every village, the tour guide would tell us in his lilting poetic accent about each one. The amazing thing about the coastline is that it presents a different stunning view, around every curve. We stopped to take photos near a man selling lemons and oranges from the back of his truck. The lemons were larger than grapefruits, with thick rinds like those from California. I opted for an orange to eat then and there, and savored the aroma and flavor with every bite.
We arrived in Amalfi, and I opted to get on a boat and see the coast from the sea for about 30 minutes. I was rewarded with even more awe-inspiring views of the beautiful villages and coast. I think my perfect fantasy vacation would include a motorcycle ride down the Amalfi coast, staying in one of the cliff-hanging hotels, drinking lemoncello, and boating/sailing around. Yes, you'd have to be a millionaire to pull it off, but as a fantasy vacation, I'm not sure it could be topped. Back in the village of Amalfi (population 4,000), I visited the cathedral and discovered that it was built in honor of St. Andrew, whose remains are there. After catching a bite to eat, I hopped on the bus to return. Before we could get far though, we found ourselves trapped in a game of chicken with another tour bus among the narrow one-lane streets of one of the villages. It took about 20 minutes for the two busses to maneuver around each other, with about 3/4 inch between the them. They retracted their rearview mirrors to make it possible. We all cheered at the impossibility of the accomplishment.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Cruise: Day 1 & 2

Cruise days 1 & 2:
Day One was a day at sea. I literally did nothing. I laid on the sundeck, whether it was warm or not (most of the day it was not), and didn’t read, didn’t accomplish one thing. I lived the entire day in my swimsuit, and I am burned to prove it. It was marvelous. It felt like ‘vacation.’
Tabitha and I have not stopped laughing. I can’t imagine a better traveling companion, even if she is neurotic about germs and things that don’t bother me so much. Her conscientiousness means we are never late, never have to wonder what gate we should be at, etc. Tabs is on top of it. We have cracked each other and ourselves up more than I can count, and have waaayy too many inside jokes going. We have laughed on the ship because we realize we do not present an easy category for anyone to put us in, and this does seem to cause a bit of consternation. She’s the age of one of my children, but we hardly look like mother/daughter, or the right age to be simply friends traveling together. She’s black/I’m white. We aren’t lesbians. We are Americans on a ship of solely British citizens. When the ship’s photographer goes to make our photo, he asks “Are you together?” The captain last night hardly knew what to do with us on each side of us; we just don’t make sense. Add to that, Tabs is the only Black woman on the entire ship. The. entire. ship.
Last night was formal night. I made a little shopping trip last week when I learned I was going to go on a cruise, since I certainly didn’t pack cruisewear when I left Greenville. Following dinner, a disco was to follow beginning at midnight. I didn’t really want to stay up so I went in the room and watched a movie to go to sleep. Tabs left at midnight to go to the disco, and returned back in under 10 minutes. She said it was sparsely attended and she felt awkward alone. So (of course) I pulled back on my clothes and we ran down there, and proceeded to dance for two hours. We even made people get out there that weren’t dancing. Tabs and I laughed and laughed because we truly didn’t care one whit what anyone else thought, so we could just lighten up and have fun. "Those Americans! They really do things differently, don’t they?" I could almost hear them thinking. I still haven’t forgiven Tabs for ignoring the guy in the kilt; he really did want to dance with her.
Morning came early and we arrived in Trapani, Sicily. Tabs would probably have slept later, but I was ready to go. Having done absolutely nothing the previous day meant that I wanted to see what there was to see. So we hailed a cab to take us to the funicular up to the walled city of Erice, high above Trapani.
Our day was golden. Although it was rainy early, skies cleared up and we walked all over the town, through churches, lost on meandering roads, avoiding as much as possible the tourist groups. After about four churches, we decided to go visit the archaeological site “the castle of Venus”. It presented the best views of the day. Although a strict monotheist myself, I confess I did toss a small offering of change over the cliff. It’s Venus, after all, the goddess of love, and I figured I didn’t want her on my bad side.
Before we headed back down the mountain, I was getting hungry. Neither of us felt like a tourist restaurant, and I told her, “I want a REAL Sicilian meal, down to a REAL gorgeous Italian waiter to be solicitous of my every wish.” We found an upstairs-level restaurant that didn’t seem to be frequented with too many tourists. We turned to be seated and there stood… exactly whom I had wished for. Some days, I guess I’m just lucky that way. Maybe it was the coins to Venus. Who knows? But we had the best Italian meal, with ‘scenery’, that I’ve ever had: fresh pasta, fresh pesto, Sicilian beef with couscous, wine, cannoli, real coffee from a little cup with perfectly whipped froth (after weeks of Nescafe as the norm). We left a good tip, because, well, incredibly attentive, attractive men don’t fall from the sky every day now, do they?

Tabitha and me at the Castle of Venus:

Friday, June 03, 2011

Leaving tomorrow

Well, I've been a terrible blogger. I'm more of a photo person, and uploading photos has been spotty. So I just haven't done anything! But I'm on the eve of leaving and I'm having all sorts of thoughts swirling around.

Temperatures finally warmed up today, and I went bike riding. It wasn't such a long ride, a few miles from one end of town, to the center of town, and back. But it allowed me to see new sights and process my visit a bit. I've been down a bit this week: stuff going on at home in my absence; being in a house with whining kids and an unhappy couple; missing my own kids; a bit of loneliness; cold weather; no break-a-sweat exercise; gray skies. I couldn't really put my finger on what was causing me to feel so blue. But today, riding along a shady creek, listening to the rhythm of the pedals, it all started falling together.

I'm going to miss this place. I like the people I work with. If I were to live here I would enjoy working with them. I like the city. Other than the dreadful weather they've had this month, it's a pretty nice city to live in. I haven't had to drive, but have relied on public transportation (and the kindness of strangers) to schlep me around. I like hearing words like "frock" and "lovely" (pronounced loof-lay) and "fancy" (as in, I rather fancy curry), and I've liked learning new words (such as chav and fascinator and invigilation) and new customs. I met Jayne in the salon, David in the coffee shop, Jo in the office, Peter & John at the pub, Ana and Julian and Liz at work, Fr. Kevin at church, Lisa at the house ... all people I'd probably like to hang out with, if this were my 'real' life. I've loved going and doing and seeing and exploring: York, London, Liverpool, Derbyshire, Castleton. So I'm going to miss the life I've briefly created over here. It's been just a hiccup of time in my life, but it's been one I've enjoyed. It's not been without challenges, but nothing I couldn't deal with.

I love my real life. I love working/studying at Clemson, and my family and friends back home. I love my house, and my dog, and my neighbors. I adore my children. I love Greenville, and the US. But there's a sense in which it is a privilege to have a 'hiccup' in life -- an interval where taken out of your element, you make it your own. That's what I've done. I'm proud of the work I've done here. I'm happy with the life I've forged here, even if it's been just for a month.