A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: The Tipsy Gipsy

Oh Captain My Captain

Sailing the Italian Coast

As I rounded the bend, full throttle, spinning the wheel left then right, doing my best to avoid any major waves that may knock me without immediately steering into it, I couldn't help but feel unqualified.

At the same time, I manoeuvred between the rocky cape of the Sorrento peninsula, skidding past a buoy with the skills of a race car driver. The island of Capri was looming to my left with the ominous Mt Vesuvius ahead I go a few concerned looks from the passengers on the deck as I entered, rather bounced into the Bay of Naples.

Rightly so, I was captaining a boat and I've only owned a car for months and can't drive a manual transmission.

But it's Italy and these things matter not.

After leaving Positano, bound for Sorrento our young Italian skipper motioned for me to take the wheel. On board were six passengers and I had zero boating experience but it seemed like an opportunity not to pass up. Vincenzo controlled the throttle, and I drove the boat. I settled into my new position, full concentration and somewhat unwilling to return to passenger duties. I ended up driving for an hour or so back to the dock in Massa Lubranse near Sorrento. He brought it into the port as I wasn't sure I could reverse parallel a boat as I can't a car.

At times it was touch and go, and my mere minutes of experience didn't prepare me for all conditions. There were a few 45 degree tilts here and there, always a chance when you're trying to go full throttle on the windy cape towards open water with large waves. The passengers remained reasonably relaxed as they rolled about on the deck every now and then, when I casually said "oops" as we tipped sideways and I reefer the steering wheel to opposite direction. I told them when we got back to land safely I'd never driven a boat before.

The captain was happy with my apprenticeship, he casually stood nearby, took a few phone calls and occasionally bumped us up a gear.
"Which way?" I motioned as a large rocky outcrop appeared ahead with a 20m gap between it and the land.
"As you wish", he said nonchalantly.
You have got to love a bit of free reign sailing. Am I ready to try for a small gap with a volatile sea steering me and me cartoon steering, left, right, left, full left, right, wobble, more left...vision obstructed by the thick layer of salt on the visor in front of the wheel? Given it was already an insurance nightmare I opted to take the boat left and around the rock island, Vincenzo giving me a satisfied nod as I skimmed between it and a floating buoy with a black flag.
Whoosh! Nailed it!

With Vincenzo's limited English and me trying to safely steer a commercial motor boat with no experience, I did manage a few discussions, he told me that driving a boat is much harder than any other vehicle. I agreed because in my experience, learned experience sailing, there is only one thing in charge and it is Poseidon. The water takes you where it wishes and you do your best to straighten up.

He also told me I was a natural at driving boats so I am now considering a career in the Italian navy. Though the white slacks and shirt with the amount of pomodoro sauce I consume here is perhaps not an ideal combination. However I do fancy myself on my boat, scooting over the blue water, the wind in my sea wench hair and the Italian sun warming my golden skin.

Sail a boatload of passengers in the Mediterranean with no license, prior experience or any maritime skills to speak of... check.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 10:30 Archived in Italy Tagged boat coast italy sailing amalfi sorrento the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (0)

Oui C'est Wee

The Streets of Paris

It's a glorious, summer's day in Paris. The sky is bright blue and people are starting to congregate in the weekend sunshine. The high pitched wail of the emergency sirens and the dulcet tones of friends muttering in French as they smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk form the soundtrack of the city. If you look up you are surrounded by the beautiful, old, stone buildings with their stereotypical sloped grey-tiled roof and garret apartment windows. Just as you would imagine them to be. Rows of windows overlooking tiny terraces big enough only for a chair for smoking.

I walk the streets watching and listening. Admiring the baked bread in the boulangerie and the windows piled with glossy pastries in the patisserie. I listen as I pass French people at bistros and cafes, drinking and talking. It's been a few years between visits, it comes flooding back to me as I walk.

With each step I avoid unidentified puddles and notice the unusual stains where the pavement meets a building corner. The senses are heightened in Paris but it's the nose that screams the loudest.

As you traipse the old streets so rich in culture and history you encounter a familiar scent of Paris. It's not the baguettes baking nor the cigarette smoke of moody young French people. It's the overwhelming stench of stale urine that permeates this wonderful city

It engulfs me as I walk. Every time the path narrows or becomes enclosed in some way a sense of panic sets in. With legs aching from a long flight, tired, pale and floating in a jet-lagged daze I wander through the Parisian streets and meander by the famous Seine River.

Ahead is a bridge. With a great deep breath I navigate the path underneath.

You know what to expect. You hold your breath. It starts to seep in, you can't hold it any longer, the scent of piss wafts up your nose, it bounces from the concrete path to the stone of the bridge and ricochets off the walls. It's a piss chamber and you are going to need to speed up to get through.

How can such a lovely city smell so horrendous?

I contemplate this aromatic hygiene dilemma as I complete my promenade by the Seine by edging towards a steep path that leads to the street above, hoping for fresher air at street level. I understand there is not a lot of grass in Paris and toilets probably charge money, but why pee in small, confined places like under bridges, subway walk ways, door stops and every sidewalk?

The city is permanently stained with urine, dark patches on the concrete are remnants of a rich history, thousands of years of public urination. Part of King Louis' daily routine was probably a quick public slash by the Pont Neuf. I suspect Marie Antoinette's much quoted line said "let them eat cake and piss where they please". I have probably traversed some royal piss at some stage in my time there. Walked through the wee stains of famous artists like Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. Do the urine imprints of the great thinkers and writers of France lace the bottom of my Birkenstocks?

As I meandered up the stone slope by Pont Neuf, the towers of Notre Dame poking out ahead I head back to street level and the answer is there. An older gentleman is just peeing against the stone wall, his piss running down the pavement, trickling down the stone slope towards the river and myself. Forming an instant stain as it hits and revitalising the centuries of piss stains before it to mingle in the air, old and new, modern and historic, united by urine. The scents wafts across the summer air, the man oblivious, piss no doubt pooling at his feet. Public exposure? sure. Public nuisance? without a doubt. The real crime is being a filthy bastard. Go and find a toilet or pee down a drain, into a bush, somewhere where nature can subdue the horrors they are causing.

The history of Paris' streets are probably being eroded by years of concentrated urine. Stripping back the coatings of the street, they will start to uncover ancient ruins in the city's more popular piss spots, eroded streets forming big holes to the treasures of yesteryear.

With a wide berth we go around the pissing gentleman, by all accounts, a well dressed older man, not homeless, not insane, just someone who has never learnt to hold his bladder. We dry-wretch as we arrive at street level with increasing pace in our strides.

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As I explore this wonderful city it is imperative to approach every puddle with caution. Much like you would a historic site or stereotypical French scene, I begin pointing out every pavement stain that starts in a pile at a wall and forms a river down a slope - another Paris piss stain. As iconic as a baguette wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette.

Any flowing liquid in gutters flags as a potential hazard. There is an overwhelming sense of disgust and fear as you looking up to admire this wonderful city but momentarily take your head out of the game. Suddenly wetness permeates your toes, they squelch against your sandals as you come to a screeching halt. Oh god no. You're frozen with fear, should I look down? You see the puddle and there's a pigeon bathing in the same liquid, you're hopeful, you breathe a sigh of relief but secretly wonder whether Parisian pigeons enjoy a piss bath just as much?

As you navigate the city of love the senses are overwhelmed. The beauty, the sounds, the never mentioned aromas. There's always a new scent to discover, sometimes it's garbage intertwining with freshly baked bread but more often that not it's urine, thousands of different forms of urine in varying degrees of decay. You pray for a cleansing rain but alas it is the scent of Paris.

The city of love (and wee).

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Coming Soon!

Piss Stains of Paris
Piss Stains of Paris is an exciting new Parisian walking tour I will be conducting next summer. Explore the sights, sounds and smells of the city, admire the piss stains, how many can you count? Do they resemble anything?
Can you find a confined space that hasn't been pissed in?
Inquiries and bookings welcome.

Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 05:21 Archived in France Tagged paris france the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (0)

Adventures in Eataly

“Uno piccolo coppetta per favor"

sunny

“Wow! I didn’t expect to see you,” I gushed as it brushed past me and went to the other table.
“What are you doing here?” I asked coyly.
“I didn’t know you were from up this way. I mean, I figured you came from somewhere nearby but this is…an unexpected surprise…
…You look good.
…You look really good”, I say, unable to tear my eyes away.

A huge dollop of Genovese basil pesto oozes down from the piece of toasted bruschetta. The fluro green oil is pooling at the bottom and the toasted, oily, garlicy bread is lapping it up.

“You are looking really good. I don’t mean to ramble but I mean it’s just so nice to see you. I have always adored you and now you are here, and its been such an unexpected, serendipitous surprise”.

My God that looks delicious. There were other accompaniments to the dish but I was focussed on that glorious green pesto dollop.

I sit there smiling, overwhelmed with happiness to see my old friend, one of my great loves right in front of me. While this is playing out in my head I realise I am still staring at the people at the table nearby (well their lunch). I don’t mean to, but this is a game changer. I had no idea this handsome little character was going to be on offer.

Delicious fresh basil pesto, one of my reasons for living and as it turns out, which I cannot believe I didn’t research fully up until this point, a regional speciality of Liguria.

It’s no secret that I love food and in particular Italian food. Italian food and the mediterranean diet of fresh, delicious ingredients really is a major drawcard for returning to one of my favourite countries in the world. It has beautiful sights, stunning landscapes, interesting history, friendly people, good weather and delicious food. The best thing about Italy is food is a shared passion, it is expected that you dine out and eat several courses and to talk about your meals. It enriches your travel experience ten fold. In my early 20s it was about the cheap lunch of bread and cheese, then as I got older I visited the occasional restaurant as a treat and sought out regional specialities especially cheap and easy street food. Now I have a steady income, this trip to Italy was going to be even more delicious. This trip was going to have a dusting of truffle salt and a “hell I’ll have an entree as well” attitude because ‘treat yo self’.

I was ready to do Italy. I packed my active wear, which remained the only clean item I returned with, and I packed my snacktive wear, which I put on daily to ensure I was comfortable to take on several courses. Good snacktive wear provides flexibility because sometimes it is imperative to push meals close together so as to not miss a good opportunity so elastic waists or free fall skirts. Obviously you also have to be mindful of keeping the colours dark to avoid a splash of the old pomodoro sauce or an equally disastrous chocolate gelato drip. There’s no time for washing clothes on holidays.

Moments after touching down into Roma, I hit the streets and soon found myself ordering a panino, a Roman street food staple and finding a curb side location looking at the Roman Forum to eat it. I sat at street level because I may have an income now but I am still a gypsy hobo at heart. My sandwich had roasted eggplant and buffalo mozzarella swimming in a tomato sauce. I looked at the hot and sweaty faces of the tourists walking by with their white runners and maps, I gazed on at the relics of ancient Rome and really just took a load off and enjoyed my sandwich. Now this is a travel experience, being ushered around the colosseum in 40 degree heat is worth doing but snacking while taking in the sights and sounds of the city is a much more preferable task.

When I say I love Italian food, really it cannot be categorised so broadly. It is highly regionalised, sure you can go anywhere and get a pizza and pasta but there is a whole world to explore when you get specific about flavours, styles and specialities. Pizza though a Napoli special is found everywhere, they vary in quality but are rarely disappointing. They can be made to about 75cm in diameter and sold by the giant slice or are just your regular family-sized 8 slicer for one. Sharing pizza is only required when you want to order more than one thing (which by the way is always). Getting one pizza as a meal to share is a waste of an eating opportunity and your clean snacktive wear. Small eaters need not apply - holiday elsewhere. Pizza is kept simple with a few combinations of tomato, mozzarella and insert other ingredient (mushroom, meat, eggplant, fresh tomato, a giant dollop of pesto - all are deliciously simple). The dough needs to be light and crunchy, thin enough that it bubbles a little and can be folded and eaten in one go should you be in a hurry to catch a train or get to dessert. I am also partial to a calzone, pizzas less-cute cousin, it’s really just a pizza folded in half to become a giant fun pocket that bursts with steam and shrinks down to size oozing its delicious cheesy innards all over your plate.

Speaking of innards, a Florentine speciality is Lamperetto, a tripe sandwich. I gave that a miss but all good restaurants will serve the regional specialities. If it’s not in season you won’t find it on a good menu, a good italian menu is handwritten and changes all the time. It bugs me to see people sitting at terrible tourist traps in the main piazza, paying top dollar for mediocre food. I guess perhaps its just me not wanting to waste a meal on something not mouth wateringly delicious. Do a little research its always worth it then you can make an educated decision to avoid eating gizzards despite it looking delicious served in a fresh bread roll with tomato sauce like a meatball sub.

My last Italian snackcursion was to Sicily, where desserts and seafood reign supreme. In the North you are in ravioli and risotto country, colder climates require more sustainable food. Minestones and bean soups are all wonderfully delicious and hearty Tuscan specialties. The North is also fungi territory where mushrooms and truffles reign supreme. Adding a little truffle salt to your meal is mind blowing. Obviously i’m more financially stable at the moment but i’m not a millionaire, I can’t be owning €15 salt so I use the free stuff when it is on offer then salt heavily to get the most out of it. Thirsty work, but worth it.

As you move through Italy you can see the pasta preference change from strands of varying thicknesses to odd little twists, blobs and whoziwhatsits. All pasta, all delicious but changing constantly. The street food, or rather, the snack food of choice also changes in each region. While I survived on arancini in Sicily and panino in Rome in Liguria the street snack of choice is a focaccia, something I never realised was anymore than a bastardised Australian thing. I knew they baked the bread but it comes with an array of delicious baked on toppings that you can buy by the slice or the gram like a pizza. Another familiar face popped up on the menus in the North west, my old friend bruschetta. A range of toasted breads with all sorts of fresh toppings, tomato, basil, mozzarella and often a few slivers of anchovies.

In Tuscany you couldn’t go far without snacksidentally consuming meats and cheeses. Italy makes what seems like a million different processed, smoked and cured meat products. Giant legs and salami type things of various colours, shapes and fat content. You can actually just buy slices of lard if that’s your favourite part. Then there are your cheeses to accompany it, usually hard cheeses like pecorino or parmigiano, any quiet, unassuming cheese that is not going to take the focus away from the meat. There’s no room for a showy, decadent soft cheese here. Admire the platter on arrival then dig in, grab a bit of crusty bread or a dried cracker and just pile that bad boy up with a meat, cheese, meat combination of your choosing then just throw it in. Throw it in and chew, chew, chew, don't focus on the strings of fat that are getting stuck in your teeth or the giant speckle of white fat you just ate. Florence loves meat and I love seeing legs of animals hanging from the ceiling, I find it fascinatingly gross yet rather whimsical. The Florentines also favour a focaccia as their daily ‘on the move’ snack. Theirs is made with no salt because a million moons ago because they didn’t want to pay a salt tax to Pisa so it’s deliciously oily instead. Soft but crunchy around the edges. Specialist sandwich shops will slice you some cured meats and make you a delicious sandwich with a variety of sandwich cremes; spreads made from truffle, eggplant, olive or artichoke. Like a delicious tapenade to soak up what part of the bread the oil hasn’t.

There are a million delicious dining options to discuss but the most important piece of advice however with restaurant dining is to ensure you are travelling and dining with a fellow snacker. A person who also thinks a post-siesta, pre dinner salami and cheese platter is a top idea. A good food companion will go on this food adventure with you and won’t order a salad or suggest you just get a pizza to share. You want the type of person who always says yes to an entree and always agrees that if you both order two mutually agreed upon dishes and split them then you get to eat more delicious things and never feel like you are missing out.

Finally, undoubtedly one of the best parts about any European summer holiday is gelato. There’s hundred of flavours, all gloriously piled up in a rainbow of colours. Gelato as I learned is made with more milk than cream which is why is melts faster than you can eat it and it is why proper artesian gelato has a runny, almost sticky consistency that they have to plop onto the cone. This also allows one to claim it healthier than ice-cream and therefore just plain healthy. The best place for gelato is Italy, the home of gelato is generally attributed to Florence but some don’t agree with that. While I would never discriminate, I tend to lean towards a sorbetto, the fruit flavoured gelato usually made with the finest seasonal fruits. As a connoisseur I can share some of the tips of the trade. A good gelateria will keep its product under the counter in little silver canisters like the treasure it is. Hidden away from prying eyes. They will also have rotating flavours and sell out because they will be making what is in season and making it every day. Good gelato will also not be vibrant in colour if they are making it properly because a banana isn’t yellow. While all gelato is delicious, refreshing and cool on what is always a scorching hot day in any Italian city, if you are going to do it, do it properly. You won’t regret seeking out store made, artisan gelato. You may pay a little more for your ‘piccolo coppetta’ but it will always be worth it. Earlier this year I rode my bicycle to work and I said for every time I rode I could have two gelato in Italy. I lied to others and to myself because I had 17 gelato in 17 days and rode my bicycle once. It was imperative that I have a gelato every day because once you start there’s no point being a quitter (that’s for team sports when you realise sitting at home is more fun that sitting on the bench). I tried my best not to repeat a flavour so it could be considered a science, historical and cultural experiment as well a weight-gaining exercise. Limoncello, green apple, pomegranate, apricot and melon were some of my favourites while some of the more unusually delicious flavours I consumed were basil and lemon, chocolate pear, ricotta and Chianti red wine. It is important to remember that if you get a small cone or cup, it’s perfectly legitimate to eat one every day. Haters gonna hate.

Throw in a food tour where I sampled too many different flavours of cantucci (biscotti) then purchased an extra kilo, ate countless pieces of assorted meats and drank wine then did a pizza and gelato making class i’ve ensured everyday in Italy had a delicious melting buffalo mozzarella moment served with a sprig of fresh basil.

With a heavy heart, a croissant with Nutella in one hand and an espresso in the other, I prepared to leave Italy. At immigration I received my certificate for sustaining Italian agriculture and one for my dedication to the consumption of carbohydrates. I lamented how having Nutella croissants is frowned upon as a breakfast item at home as I dipped that puppy into my coffee. Then thought how that also is probably frowned upon.

I guess the detox starts Monday?
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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 03:31 Archived in Italy Tagged food travel italy pizza pasta gelato pesto the_tipsy_gipsy Comments (0)

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves

Curb side Clairvoyance

sunny

It all escalated quickly, he had captured my imagination and before long I was standing in an alleyway next to a MAC Cosmetics store in Milano having my palm read by a flamboyant Italian gypsy.
Sergio stopped as we were looking at some plastic streamers that had been tied to a subway grate and were fluttering in the wind from below street level.
“It’s just paper and plastic but in New Orleans it's even better,” he says coming up behind us.
Within moments he was asking us where we were from and he tells us he is going to Australia later in the year, then just casually mentions that he reads palms. He also says, “meow” and swipes like a cat. He was loving life and loving the energy we were putting out. He asks what we were doing in Milano then told me that he knows I will be at a house on a lake. I explained that I had just returned from Lake Como and we both gushed, he meowed and I thrust my hand out, palm up in his direction. He had a quick look at my palm and offered me a bargain deal to have it read. In between screams, meows and cheers he grabbed me by the hand and pulled me down to a side street like an excited teenage girl.

In amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, with people walking along on one of Milano’s main thoroughfares leading to the Duomo, Sergio has my hand and the three of us are huddled together around my palm. He studies it for a moment, runs his finger along some of the creases then starts telling me about my big spirit. This is now the third time in three weeks that someone has commented on my spirit. He says I have a big strong spirit and I am being protected by my grandmother. It made me smile to think that she is with me on the journey especially having just hiked up a hill looking for her great grandparents. He says her spirit came into me when I held her hand just before she died. She protects me and will protect me for the next 8 years. It seems my strong spirit, protected by my Nan, makes me an unstoppable force that nothing can contend with. He even suggested my friend beside me needs to stay close as I will protect her as well.

Maybe the poet was right, I have some archangel qualities.

I have always been interested in the supernatural, astrology and fortune telling. After a bad day at work my go to plan is to throw it all in and go to psychic school and learn to hone my skill. Sergio read my palm for over 30 minutes, scribbling dates with a Texta on my hand as well as pointing out and circling things, covering my hand in an array of markings that needed time to soak in and I wasn’t permitted to wash off until 4pm that day.

He told me about a bunch of things, some interesting, some confusing. He told me when I would die, that I would live in two places and have a dual passport (finally!). I would have 2 children, one a girl, evident from the ‘cuca’ your hand makes on the side which he fell about laughing when he said it. He then reminded us he’s not into them. He talked a million miles a minute, spitting with most syllables and scribbled dates on my hand, it was hard to keep track of it all.

He mentioned many things that rang true. We would gush, shout and ‘meow’ when he got something right, or mentioned something that was a regular topic of thought. Some was advice about protecting myself and my energy, some was factual information such as I need to get my eyes checked before April because I need glasses (it’s okay, at 65 I will get Lasik surgery). Some readings were given with the intention of being preventative, or giving forewarning about the future such as the fact that if I marry the Australian man that comes into my life between 2018-2022 we will divorce. Though he is an architect or engineer and will seem like a good choice. He isn't.

He kept saying he loved our spirit and enjoyed telling us both that we are strong independent women and we should be fussy because straight men are stupid and most are not worth our time.

He said I am a wanderer and I can look after myself. Then he said he can too, laughed and tapped his jacket pocket,
“I carry a razor, baaaaaaa!”, he screeches. “You need to look after yourself!”.
“Meow!”

I could have stayed and talked to him for hours. At one stage a couple, most likely tourists were staring at us from inside the MAC store. They were either highly amused with our urban palm reading or concerned for my welfare. He kept wrapping it up but would find something else he wanted to share or wanted to know if I had any other questions. He said I will work by helping people, but will only ever work to do what I want to do. I knew that, I was kind of hoping he would tell me to follow the psychic school dream or my other ‘go to’ escape job, peanut butter farmer. He reminded us that he is telling us everything he sees because he likes our energy and friendliness. Our reading was quite in-depth, some good things, some strangely detailed problems. He was going to need a few more euros for his trouble, he said as he meowed and swiped at me playfully.

We parted ways and he gave us both a talisman. Mine a Swiss Franc that I need to put 7 grains of sea salt, a lock of my hair and a petal of a red rose on, wrap tight and store in between some books. If I ever lose it, or spend it, it will bring bad luck he said, then cackled like an evil Disney queen. I felt overwhelmed with responsibility.

He kissed us on the cheek a few times, touched my boob and told me if he wasn’t gay he would have had my babies. As a single gay man his only expense is his lifestyle, and he then pulled his shirt up and showed me his waxed stomach. He said he does the occasional palm reading to make a little cash to spend on eyeliners.

“Remember, only you can change your destiny," he said once he was done.

With a thousand more meow’s, ciao’s and animated gestures he bounced off down the street, his suit jack flung over one shoulder and we returned to the street in a daze, looking at our hands covered in Texta. Going over every detail of our futures so we wouldn’t forget anything. We then sat down by the entrance to an old Milanese castle and recapped and laughed about all the things coming our way in the next 20 years, good, bad and confusing. Also the fact that we just spent the past hour with a gypsy getting our fortunes read on the streets of Milano.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 20:48 Archived in Italy Tagged italy friends milan fortune_telling the_tipsy_gipsy gypsies Comments (1)

Desperately Seeking Nonna

Hiking in the Shadows of my Forefathers

sunny

In the 1850s my great, great grandfather decided that the rolling green orchards and vineyards of the valley near Sondrio, with the Swiss alps towering above was no longer the place he wanted or needed to call home. He packed up and left the little village of Bianzone forever. He left behind his parents and sisters, the beginnings of a career in the church and hit the road. The road led to a flat, hot and dry Victoria, Australia.

I have always loved Italy, it is a country I never tire of. I love the people, the landscape, the weather, the food and the general attitude to life here which is chill out, it is what it is. When is my bus coming? When it comes. I have always desperately wanted a Nonna. My friend at college used to go home to her Italian-Australian family and come back with pre-packed food. They would pick fruit from their orchard and cook pizzas in their garden pizza oven. To me, it sounded like the ideal way to spend your time. Plus a tiny Italian Nonna to cook for you, speak to you in Italian and constantly try to fatten you up. I want a Nonna to take me to the market and teach me how to cook old family recipes.

I just really want a Nonna.

My Italian adventures had taken me to the eastern shore of Lago di Como. To the north, you can see the beginning of the alps and not much further along is the border to Switzerland. At the top of the lake a valley leads to Tirano, one of the final Italian towns before the Swiss Border. It is green with sharp inclines up the valley walls where little towns have been plonked, their green orchards and vineyards cascading down. The tall, stone churches sit precariously on the edges. Every town is a vertical hike up from the valley floor. The weather is temperate in many parts of the valley. Bianzone, a small town of 1,250 sits on the eastern side, getting the winter sun making it a popular place once for people to spend their winters.
What brings me to Bianzone is I am on an adventure to find a Nonna, either my own great, great, great Nonna or a vague relative that’s willing to adopt. The town of Bianzone sits well above its train station on the valley floor. I begin the walk, with its steady incline towards the town centre. A lot of newer houses have been built resembling a little Swiss mountain town. When my great grandfather left in the 1850s there was a mass exodus from this valley, probably a few bad harvest seasons, no work and no prospects meant a lot of men from the area made their way across the world, a great many to Australia. The town would have died off and the houses on the valley floor are evident of newer development. As you meander through orchards growing different apple varieties, the occasional man or woman working hard in their fields, the streets climb up to the town centre. A mixture of old dilapidated buildings, some that have been left to rot others that don’t look much different but are still lived in. A few newer places peppered around. The older houses are made of stone so don't really go anywhere, their wooden structures start to rot away but the main structure of the house remains. You can tell some of these were poorer houses, they looked like they were made by gluing together a bunch of stones of various shapes and sizes. The all have a garden on a severe slope where there are vegetables, fruit trees and vines growing. It appears it was very much a town where people survived on these small farms, growing what they needed and perhaps selling the excess. Where they worked hard on the land for very little reward. The town climbs up, digs itself into the side of the mountains. The poorer people lived higher.

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I passed a cemetery on my way up the incline and went in to look for names. There were Marantelli’s there, the name of my great grandfather as well as a few other names from my family tree many generations ago but I needed an older cemetery. There is not a lot of information to be had about small villages in Italy when you don’t speak the language and the town has very few reasons to have visitors apart from cyclists cutting through the valley. My parents had visited a few years before and managed to get a lift to the old cemetery from a priest. I knew it was very high into the mountain above my head. I had also read that there was a poor area of Bianzone called Bratta. To reach it was a road that went for several kilometres up, doing hairpin cross backs as it climbs.

The weather was warming up, I reached the town centre and knew that Bratta was about 5km above the town. I filled up my drink bottle from the town fountain and dunked my head. Was I really going to try and do this? I am not fit and there was not really anyone around to assist in any way, medically, emotionally or otherwise. I stood in the town square a minute contemplating my options. I wish I had more time, I was on a schedule because the train doesn't come through regularly. I had a few hours. I wished I had a car or a vespa. I wished I knew more Italian or had arranged to meet someone.

I watched an old lady walk down the steep road.
“Ciao,” we exchanged. She then walked into the pasticceria and came out with one dinner roll on a serviette.
Nonna is that you?
She went up the hill and reappeared on the balcony above the shop to hang out some blankets from the window.

A once in a lifetime opportunity, I started walking. The incline was high. The sun was hot, as it turns out it was pushing 38c which I didn't find out until much later, after I had hiked a mountain.

After a couple of unnecessary kilometres I saw a sign to Bratta. I looked above me and couldn't see very much. I started the trail. Hoping that someone would recognise that this isn’t the body of a hiker or professional alpine walker and give me a lift. There wasn’t a soul around in this sleepy, sleepy town. I walked but within minutes there was a fork in the road, one path weaved up between some houses, the other was a main road on the other side of a small river.
I chose the track. I walked up, the incline was high and I stopped regularly to catch my breath. The poor houses around me made me feel I was taking the right path. I sat for a bit under a canopy of vines. I picked a blackberry from a vine. I trudged on. I was hot, bright red, hot and sweating profusely, hot. I also really had no idea where I was going, I was hoping for the best. I continued on and found a little sign that said Bratta 2km. The paths were now getting smaller and I felt I was on the right track until the track stopped.

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There were houses to my right. A paddock ahead. A mule track up the side of a mountain to my left. I walked up the drive way and it appeared to go in a house. I could see a German shepherd running freely which led me to investigate no further.
To the left the trail went up the grassy hill, a track cut into a mountain. At the top of the path looked like a power pole and a clearing of some description. Possibly a town? I thought if it was only 2km away that was a good bet. 2km up is further than your think.
I turned and started climbing up. And I mean up, like running up a playground slide type of angle. Given the altitude of this path, I was also climbing closer to the sun and I suddenly realised it was incredibly hot. I was incredibly worn out, hot and sweaty. What if I have a heart attack on a mule path on the side of a mountain in rural Italy? No one knows where I am. I drank water and stopped every few metres waiting for imminent disaster. There was a road above me and a clearing of some description ahead. I was still happy with my choice, it would be the perfect place for a hill top cemetery and everything would pan out and my efforts would be rewarded. I was wrong. As the rounded the last corner I saw a butt. A naked human butt. I froze then stood puffing against the mountain wall. I had seen 5 people for the day and there was a man ahead on a middle-of-nowhere mountain path. Semi-naked. I hoped it meant civilisation was ahead but it also freaked me out to be alone on a mountain path in the middle of literally no where and seeing another person. I waited in the sun and caught my breath. Leaning around the bend every few minutes to see if he had finished his business.
Once the crouching human butthole left, I had a burst of energy to the top of the path and the clearing ahead. In my mind there was a little town edge. Why else have a path? At the end of a path was a small, stone cottage amongst steep vineyard. A shack that clearly had no plumbing as the top of the path was his toilet. The shack was in the middle of nowhere on the side of the mountain. The path down to his house from above was so steep, like they had just poured some concrete from the road and let it slide down. I was going to need to go up there. I couldn't go back down the path. I could continue to trespass on what was clearly someones property. I sat on the ledge outside the old man’s house for a few minutes then did a metre at a time up the Gladiator-esque travellator driveway. It took some time to complete the 30m driveway. Vineyards were beside me and above me. Behind me the old stone shack dangled on the side of the mountain with a back drop of tall snow capped alps merging into a bright blue sky. Below it drops away to the valley. It was a beautiful sight and I was now quite high up, the train station was visible in the far distance below. What the hell am I doing? Why am I climbing a mountain? I am not mountain climbing fit?

I took a few selfies to get an idea of whether I looked as terrible as I felt. I looked worse.
I got to the top of old Guissepe’s path and was at the road. I felt good that my shortcut at least followed the road and that technically, hopefully, I was in some way up towards my destination. There was not a sign, car or person in sight. I sat on the side railing on the road’s hairpin turn and considered my options. Looking up for any clues that I could be vaguely going the right way or was in any way close.

It was a gamble. I also knew the further I got from the station the longer I needed to get back. I was nearly at the turning point. If I couldn’t find my Nonna in the next 30 minutes I had to turn around. Surely by now i’ve done the 2km since the last sign to Bratta. I looked up the road, straining to see any sign of life. Imagine if I came all this way, then walked all this way only to give up and it was around the next bend?

I decided I would go the last half an hour and see what happens. I headed up the road and again, I mean up. A steady incline up and then back around, hairpin turns probably make for a longer 2km. Around two more bends I found another old, stone house. I think these would have been reminiscent of what my family lived in. It had lot of open areas, it would be freezing in the winter and a few small plots of vegetables, vines and apple trees. I walked passed hoping to see someone and hoping I had the courage to ask “dov’e Bratta” and to have the old person say, “around the next bend” or “get on my mule, i’ll take you”.

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I got to the next bend where the road seemed even more vertical and the trees ahead seemed even more dense. Almost rain forest-like. I sat at the bend under a tree. I looked at the pathetic map I had and thought, horrified “…what if i’m not even on the right mountain?” There were two paths up from Bianzone. I looked out over the valley. I could see the stone top of old man shitter’s house below me. I’m no mathematician but I was several kilometres above town at this point. It actually didn’t look like I could go much higher along this path. The area just above me looked like a nice, cool shaded location that would be great for a cemetery. I mean if I was going to build one, this would be the spot. I decided one more bend but it turned to dense forest. My clock was nearing 1:30pm, my train was at 2:30pm. Part of me was looking forward to going down the hill and I felt I really deserved it after going up it for so long. I stood at the bend in the road and made the decision that i’d buggered up, I had no idea where I was, I had to get the train and I was miles from the station.

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“Sorry Nonna. Sorry Pappa,” I said out loud, because at this point I was possibly delirious.

I felt sad I never found them, sad that I had hiked a god damn mountain and not found them. But I also felt content in that, if I found them it was going to be a fluke and I had seen a lot of this little town. I vowed to come back with a Vespa or a small Fiat for driving on mule paths and I would find them.

I started down the mountain following the road. It didn’t seem to take that long to be back towards a little village. With a small bit of hope I hoped it was Bratta and I had overshot it. It wasn’t. I went back over the little river and hoped by vaguely heading down I would get back to town. I came down a path from the left and came to another fork in the road I saw a sign pointing to Bratta.

The road to Bratta headed off to the right. I stood in the middle of the small mountain road and looked behind me at the mountain I had just came down. I could see the shitting man’s house. I could see the reflecting strips someone had put up to scare away birds from their orchards. I could see the last house, the turning point shack was up there as well.

I then looked up to the right and could see the outline of another winding road with hairpin turns. I strained my eyes looking into the dense trees of the valley walls for any sign of a town. I wondered if I had time? Should I go up that path? I didn’t have time. If I missed the train I would be in Bianzone until 6pm, then most likely not be able to get back to Sondrio, then Vernazza then Olcio. It had been a long journey to find my Nonna. It hadn’t been successful.

I took a deep breath and headed back down the hill. Looking back intermittently at the two hills side by side. The stupid, dumb trick hill and the one I was meant to be up. Even so I couldn't see Bratta. As I made the descent through town on the road I meant to have been going up, I saw the start of the mule track I took up the hill in the distance. I saw the dead end houses. This ‘correct’ road didn't seem to attach to that dreaded fork in my path. So I felt better that there was no logical reason to avoid the mistake I made, I would have needed to cut through the houses and I would never have thought to do that.

I continued down and came to a little bend that took me back over the river. I stopped and stared at a makeshift track over the running mountain stream. I had started walking up this road earlier and decided that it looked too fancy this way for a poor village, and had cut back across the little path and went up a smaller street on the other side.

Oh I could see where I had gone wrong and where I could have gone so right.

I sighed as I thought about what could have been as I came back past the original sign. The one that said Bratta pointing right with no information regarding the fork in the road 2 minutes later or the fork in the road 10 minutes later.

I was getting back towards town. It was somewhat annoying how quickly I was back to town when I had literally slogged my guts out getting up. How I didn't vomit, or have a heart attack is anyones guess. As I was descending I started to realise how hot I was and how much I had over exerted myself. I went back past the tap I had filled my bottles up at earlier and filled them up again. Sticking my head under.

I hightailed it to the train station, picking streets that went down the hill in the vague direction of the station. As I got to the valley floor and was walking towards the station I looked back at Bianzone above me. The hill I was on, I could see the few markers I passed amongst the dense greenery. On the other mountain I could see the indentation of a road and the further away I got I think I could see a tall building at the top. A church spire? It was probably Bratta. I was disappointed but it was also at least twice, possibly more, the distance higher up the hill than where I got. I don't think I ever would have made it anyway.

I’ll be back. I looked back and thought once more about my great grandfather and how he left this beautiful, but challenging place. Most likely because he had enough of this walking up hills nonsense. He took that risk to cross the world on a new adventure to have a better life. He left his family behind. My great, great, great Nonna and Papa, Maria and Johannes stayed behind and tilled the soil here, growing apples until they dropped.

Martino went to Australia and became Martin. Marantelli became Telley and he completely assimilated into life in country Victoria in Australia. He married and had what was an Australian family, completely gentrified only he continued to have orchards and vines as he had grown up around. My family lost it’s italian heritage in every way, no language. No Nonna’s, no tomato sauce making day. The only throwback being that my grandmother was named Marie after my great great great Nonna, Maria. My middle name followed suit.

I waited at the sleepy train station. Every orange-yellow cement box train station across the country looks the same. Always graffitied despite no evidence of any young bored teenagers. I sat on the bench and looked at the green field ahead of me and up to the blue sky. There was still snow on the tops of the mountains as it was only the beginning of the summer. There were orchards and vineyards. It was beautiful. Martino probably sat here and looked at these for the last time all those years ago.

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So I never found my great, great, great Nonna nor did I find some kind of vague relative Nonna I could claim. So I am still in the market and am taking enquiries. It was a day that didn’t quite go to plan but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to walk in the shoes of my ancestors. To see the area that they called home for generations.

Perhaps it explains in some way my love of this country. It’s in my blood. Alpine hiking however, not in my blood, that was weeded out.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 13:23 Archived in Italy Tagged hiking italy alpine ancestors bianzone sondrio australian-italian geneaology Comments (0)

My Beautiful Soul

Making train friends.

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Looking back it’s hard to say how exactly both my energy and I fit on to the train carriage. I boarded my train bound for Sondrio, a journey of about 2 hours in which I was looking forward to looking out of the window and playing with my broken camera lens in case two solid hours of fiddling could fix it.

I entered the first carriage of the regional train and saw a man looking at me. I ignored him and went to find the conductor. After walking several carriages down to no avail, I figured I would park myself back in the first carriage to help my case when I get in trouble for fare evading.

I sat down and started looking out the window. A few minutes later the man comes over and starts speaking to me in Italian. ‘You speak Italian?” he asks. I say, “no” in which he replies that I can, he “believes in me, he believes I can”.
“Righto”, I think, I zip up my bag and sit up straight ready to see how this is going to pan out.

He sits next to me but motions that he is not going to touch me or bother me.

He asks me to repeat a bunch of Italian. Thanks to several months of using an Italian app, I can parle a little Italiano so I was repeating after him something along the lines of “Io sono fotografo" (I am a photographer) as I had my camera. He started showing me some pictures on his phone, he explained that he is a poet and showed me some of his drawings and verses. He shared a few of his best lines, something about how “a woman is stopped inside her bag”. He asked me if I understood and judging from my blank expression, said it three more times pointing to my bag each time. Thankfully his phone soon went flat.

He then parked opposite me and continued to talk to me in a mixture of Italian and English. He was picking up on my vibes and it was blowing his mind. He went to leave but then came back and started singing to me, “blue eyes, blue e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-yyyyyyes,” he sang but he would pronounce the e-e-e-e-e-e like he was letting off a round of bullets. “Blue e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eyes” He was singing right in my face. He wanted me to pay attention to his vibrato. He did it again and pointed it out, “blue e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eyes”. He seemed to think he was nailing it.

“Blue e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eyes,” he continued to sing, staring into my eyes and getting close to my face.

I wondered if there was another verse?

I have one of those faces, and evidently one of those energies that attracts odd people. There is something about my aura and something about my face that really puts crazy people at ease. It usually makes for an interesting tale.

He assured me again he won’t touch me and he won’t bother me but he was hanging around and wanted to say something it seems. So he sat back down and told me in a mixture of English and Italian about how big my energy and soul is. He was overcome with it. He could feel it soon as I got on the train. He talked at me at length about my soul. How he was attracted to it, not like a man and woman. He was “49. Old” he would say but regardless my soul was throwing out all sorts of vibes and this guy was tripping on it. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t leave. He just kept saying something about my soul and talking in Italian. He was flipping his lid and the song really wasn’t getting across everything he wanted to tell me.

There was nothing else to do at this point. My energy was evidently getting bigger and bigger and drowning this poor fellow, as I sat stiller and stiller on a rattling old, graffitied train carriage. Tired, quiet and now somewhat amused. He couldn't take it any longer, he clasped my hand in his and closed his eyes. I was looking on with a smile but also wishing I had a camera. He stayed there like that for some time. His eyes were shut tight and his lips were quivering like he was draining all my energy with a spell. Think the curse Severus Snape is doing when Harry falls off his broom during his first quidditch match. He was holding my hand like the way an old lady would pray to a statue. They pray so emotionally and passionately their lips quiver. They care so much. It was like that, but instead of the Madonna and some candles, it was an overweight, sweaty Australian girl standing there like a lump while someone mumbled verses at her feet.

So if you can picture the scene, i’m sitting on a train, my backpack on my lap with a man crouched beside me holding my hand with both of his, mumbling in italian, his lips quivering and his eyes shut tight. I am looking all around the train carriage trying not to laugh. Or to catch someones eye and be like “shhesh, this guy ey”. His mumbling started to turn English intermittently “you beautiful women”, he would say. Staring at my face. “No, you are. You beautiful women”. If he said it three times he said it 300 hundred. Again, he is holding my hand, I am looking at the ceiling awkwardly.
“You beautiful women, You beautiful women. You beautiful women," he would repeat.

I’m not sure he has blinked in 20 minutes.

“…ah thanks," I say.

“nooo, no you. are. beautiful women”.

He kept reminding me he wasn’t talking about sex, though he is a man, he is a poet and love is not for this world. I am a beautiful women and my soul is blowing the roof off this carriage.

He tries again to explain it all. I am like the big woman, (rude, not that way) which I think i’ve heard the translation before, being like the Madonna. Big, as in almighty. He means spiritually I am very big. He then goes back to old faithful, “You beautiful women” he says again, insisting I repeat it back to him.

“You are beautiful women”.

If I didn’t repeat his mantra he stared even deeper into my eyes. So trying not to laugh I followed his mantra “I am a beautiful woman” I say, correcting his plurals. We would chant it together a few times then I threw a “io sono bella donna” in there - that one nearly blew his head off.

So there I am, barrelling down the railway into the region of my ancestors. Sitting in a carriage chanting “I am a beautiful woman” with a poet come cyclist who is holding my hand and staring at my face. Keep in mind I am wearing hiking shoes, 3/4 pants and a T-shirt. My hair is large and curly and I quite frankly look like a 60 year old cat lady on a day hike. I am not a beautiful women by any definition.

When he finally calmed down and stopped feeding on my energy, he also told me that I am an archangel. To which I said, “thanks”. He asked if I knew what it was to which he explained that me and my soul, we are not your run of the mill angel, or “white lady” as he called me first, I am an archangel, the powerful angels that make the other angels strong. They run shit in heaven is my guess. He scribbled the name Ulcia on some paper after repeating it several times. I’m not sure whether I am Ulcia or I need to look to Ulcia for guidance when I am unsure about my life choices. Ulcia is the archangel Uriel who according to Wikipedia has a flame in her(?) hand, is the angel of Sundays, poetry and the patron of the arts. Story checks out.

Eventually he gave me my hand back and with a few hundred more “you beautiful women” he caressed my cheek and then paid for my train ticket. He also wrote my mantra down on my notepad which I had taken out for some quick note taking when he went to chase the train conductor to buy my ticket. He soon returned with my ticket and another note scribbled in Italian on the back of a business card.

“io space il mondo sono bella come il mondo che e rotondo”

I plan the world is as beautiful as the world is round”

He kissed me on the cheek, and he got off with his bicycle and set off to cycle in the alps. Mountain cycling: A sure sign of being mentally unstable.

I guess I made his day. My soul and I went back to looking out the window.
Just saved myself €4,20 - cheers Ulcia.

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Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 01:42 Archived in Italy Tagged train italy friends train_travel the_tipsy_gipsy 2016 Comments (0)

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