Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — December 2009

Five Stars

The Nines is a five-star hotel in Portland. In fact, it’s the only five-star hotel in the city. That’s an important point.

On my return trip to Portland, I booked a room at The Nines for a few nights. It’s in the old Meier & Frank building in downtown Portland, overlooking the Pioneer Courthouse.

Pio Courthouse View

It’s a pretty cool place. They hollowed out the building from the 8th floor up, to create an atrium that houses a fancy restaurant and several common areas, including a wood-paneled library/billiards room.

Before I get too far, I’d like to share the secret of how I was able to afford a room at The Nines: because it’s the only five-star hotel, you can use filters on Hotwire.com to make sure you get the best deal. Here’s how it works: usually you tell Hotwire what city and star-rating you want for a hotel, along with other things like how far it is form the city center. Hotwire comes back with a low price for the type of hotel, but doesn’t give you a name. That means you might get one of several different hotels in the area. It’s a bit of a gamble, but allows you to get a good deal on a room. However, if you plug in “Portland” and “five-stars”, the only option is The Nines, even though it won’t show you the name of the hotel. Excellent. What that meant for me is I paid the same for The Nines as any other big, downtown hotel, and a good bit less than if I’d booked direct.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, here’s the skinny on The Nines. It’s beautiful. The rooms are decorated in white, turquoise and silver. My king room had a huge flat-screen tv, a desk, minibar, marble bathroom and velvet chaise lounge.

Nines bath

It’s the kind of place where they have a turn-down service every evening. When I returned from gallivanting around Portland, I found my bed turned-down, my terrycloth Nines robe arranged artfully on the bed, the tv remote and room service menu out, jazz playing on the clock radio/ipod speaker, ice in the bucket, and little chocolate cakes on the nightstand.

Turn down Ice bucket Cakes

The hotel is a fairly quiet one, despite its downtown location. Atrium view rooms are available at a premium, and cut down on the street noise, if you’re really looking for a quiet retreat. The hotel houses two restaurants, one in the 8th floor atrium, and one higher up. It has a nice business center with faxing and copying services, as well as printers, computers, and an Ethernet hookup for your laptop. It also has free wireless internet if you’re feeling anti-social.

The only thing it doesn’t have is cheap parking. The only hotel parking is valet parking, an expensive indulgence in a city that prides itself on its mass-transit and pedestrian-friendly streets. I took the Max light-rail from the airport to my hotel for a few dollars. No transfers and it dropped me off a half a block from the hotel entrance. Portland is a great place to explore on foot, but there is on-street parking that is free at night, and a “smart park” city-owned garage a few blocks away if you insist on having a car.

My nights at The Nines were a welcome retreat. I found myself thinking that a decompression period in the hotel might be a nice post-leap ritual.

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December 29, 2009   1 Comment

Comforts

“How was it staying in someone else’s house for a couple of months?”  My bro, Matt is always good for interesting conversation.  “Did you feel like you were imposing?  Would you trade the experience?  Would you do it again?”

When I left Portland for Italy, it was with a certain set of expectations.  I really tried to have as few expectations as possible, but I still tried to prepare myself for certain things.  Like not having a place of my own, or the loss of language and humor.  I expected it to be hard in some respects, in truth the hard is part of what I was looking for.  Stripped of my day-to-day routine and defense mechanisms, maybe I’d be more able to hear the guiding voice I’d finally noticed screaming at me my first day in Barga.  I did find some of that.  I also learned some things about myself I hadn’t expected nor really wanted to learn – painful things that I’m sure will come in handy some day.  (It makes me feel better to think that painful things are of great value.  It sucks to think that they just hurt because I’m a dumb-ass.)

As my return to Portland drew closer, I found myself conflicted.  I had so much enjoyed the time with my Italian family, and had learned a lot, from the way to eat cheese and honey to the way my feelings of inadequacy can color my interactions with the people I love.

I also learned how much I value having a door.  This is a lesson I’ve learned before in work contexts.  But even after nearly a decade of unsuccessfully struggling to secure an office with both a door and a window, and analyzing the status that such an office carries, I still didn’t fully grasp the importance of having an actual door in my everyday life.  By taking this first leap in the way I had, I put myself in a position where I would not have a door of my own in any aspect of my life.  Without an office job or my own house, the symbolism of a door was intensified.  While I blogged about what I ate, and what I felt, I consciously opened myself and my adventure to the world.  While I slept on someone else’s floor, they opened their world to me, and I shared the minutia of my existence, right down to my underwear drying on the radiator.  And I felt both the freedom and the exhaustion that came with it.  I started the journey ready to be responsible for nothing but myself, not fully realizing how dependent I would be on others not only for the shelter I had chosen, but for the many lessons I was hoping to learn.

When I had the opportunity to rent a fantastic, cheap apartment I turned it down.  I could isolate myself and prove that I could do this on my own, but if I really wanted to know about myself I needed to prove that I could do this with others.

Throughout my life I have struggled to find a way to accept the assistance of others without resentment.  To realize that, accepting the nourishment, or even the flat out help of another person is not tantamount to failure.  That I am not weakened when I reach out, but rather strengthened.  It’s a lesson I have learned intellectually, one that I have shared with others, but one that I struggle to embrace in my own life almost daily.  It’s a lesson that I really want to learn on a deep level.  Someday I’d like to be appreciative of a partner who wants to take care of me, instead of resentful.  I would like to feel built up by the gifts I receive instead of torn down.  I feel like that would be a healthy thing.  Seems like a good idea.  I wonder why it’s so hard?  I kind of want to vomit and work-out compulsively while I’m writing this.  Maybe I’ll just eat.  Crap, this one’s hard.

In Italy, I found myself falling into a routine.  Between the metronome of my meals, I unwittingly sought out the regularity that would stop me thinking about my life.  Waking up at a regular time, making breakfast, catching a ride to the top of the hill, writing, shopping, cleaning – these things were welcome distractions.  It was almost the end of my trip when I realized that, halfway around the world, with the intention of changing my life, I had found a way back into the patterns that had made me so unhappy.  It wasn’t until my last night in Fornaci, the last night on my little bed on the floor, that I realized how I had traded an office without a door for a life without a door – that I had traded the lack of control and self-worth that I felt in my life in the US for the equivalent in my life in Italy.

When I returned to Portland, I would have no place of my own, but many friends who would happily invite me into their homes, even give me my own door.  It’s a nice feeling to know that I am welcome.  I have beautiful friends in Italy who opened their homes and families to me.  People who treated me like their sister or daughter or aunt.  They allowed me to see myself and the tricks I play to keep from addressing my own demons.  I have wonderful friends and family in the states who would do the same.  Before I left for Italy I wasn’t often able to accept any of these gifts.

As I prepared to return from my trip I wasn’t sure much had changed.  I still felt out of control of my life.  I still felt pretty darn inadequate.  And, in a fit of self-indulgent misery, I called my mom to tell her how I was feeling.

And a miraculous thing happened.

When she suggested that I take control and book a hotel room so that I wouldn’t have to worry about where I was staying or who I was inconveniencing, I listened.  I heard her.  And I accepted her advice.  Without resentment.  Without thinking that I knew better.  I just saw it for the good suggestion that it was and acted on it.  And I felt better.

Yes, I was choosing to rent a door for a few days, a place where I could retreat and deal with the emotions that were enveloping me.  It wasn’t that I was rejecting the gifts that were offered me.  I was simply taking responsibility for the way I felt and recognizing what part of my life I had control over.  It was what I needed.  The night I checked in, I wondered if I’d find myself withdrawing to a dark place.   When I woke up the next morning, it was with at the intersection of sleep deprivation, jet lag, caffeine withdrawal and PMS.  I was emotional – but energized.

I got a great deal on a fancy downtown hotel that was a few blocks from my old office, which meant I woke up to familiar sights and sounds.  I shot an email off to my friends at the office, the people I’d spent 8 hours a day with for three years, and I headed out.  I spent nearly the entire day with people from the office.  We got bagels and coffee at my favorite places, talked for a couple of hours and then headed to the Indian cart for lunch.  I realized how interesting it was that the first place I went was the place that had been so difficult for me.  Sure it was comfortable.  Yes, I knew the people there.  But there were a lot of dynamics I wanted nothing to do with.  On this trip into the office, I found a couple of things.  First, I was able, and even excited to have long conversations with people I had previously had conflict with.  I was a little more aware of my feelings and how they were coloring the interactions.  And I steered clear of the dynamics that didn’t work for me anymore.

Second, I was able to open up to my friends.

I’m a pretty open person.  I’ll answer almost any question as honestly as I can.  But I rarely seek out advice regarding my personal life.  I’ve often said that I’d rather make my own mistakes than learn from the mistakes of others.  I think I’m finally ready to let that go – at least I hope I am.  My first few days back in Portland allowed me the opportunity to seek help, to seek advice on topics ranging from my next travel destination to my career plans to my personal relationships.  In accepting the support of friends, I felt stronger.

And every night, I closed my door on the world so that every morning I could open it again when I was ready.

There are things you miss when you’re out of your element.  Little things like sounds and smells, bagels and Indian food.  Things you take for granted.  For me, one of those things is a door.  I’m not sure exactly what that says about me, but I’m content just to know that it’s something I need.  Would I trade my time in Italy?  Asalutamente No.  But I think there’s one comfort I’d rather not live without.

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December 27, 2009   No Comments

Home again

The flight back to the states was alright.  The first leg from Florence to Amsterdam took us over the Alps on a clear day.

Alps view

And we got cookies for breakfast.  I like cookies.

Airline cookies

It was a quiet flight; not even close to full, so almost everyone got their own bank of seats.  I grabbed an exit row and frightened the nice flight attendant when he tried to debrief me in Italian.  Two hours later we were in the Amsterdam airport.  I think it’s an interesting place.  It’s got a museum on its upper floor, and has entertaining art sprinkled throughout.

Airport art

What wasn’t so interesting was getting a note at the self-service transfer machine telling me I had to go see an agent.  It also told me that my flight was boarding – an hour and a half before the flight was leaving.  I’d chosen to take the non-direct flight back to Portland in order to have a little more time in Amsterdam, just in case.   The just in case, it turned out was a good idea, due to the combined factors of a Japanese tour group that was waiting in line at the agent desk, and the fact that I’d been flagged for security checks.

When I finally talked to the agent, she looked me up and down, told me I’d just been flagged, handed me my boarding pass and sent me on my way.  I arrived at the gate an hour before my flight, to find the reader board flashing “boarding.”  I thought this was a little extreme, but hopped into line.  The boarding process, it seems, was so long, because each person was being escorted from the line, by an agent, to one of about 6 tall, small desks for interrogation.  “Did you pack your bags?  When?  Where?  Are you carrying anything given to you by anyone?  Anything that you did not make with your own hands?  Anything you did not personally witness being produced in the factory?”

Now, I knew the easiest answer would be “no,” but I have this annoying compulsion to try to tell the truth.  I was carrying gifts from friends.  And while I could see the concern if it had been electronics or chemicals, I didn’t think that a jacket or poster was likely to compromise the international security of the flight.  Still, I’m not a professional, so I said, “well, yes, I have gifts from friends.”  She stopped cold and looked up from the ticket she had been examining.  “You do?”  Based on her reaction I’m guessing not a lot of people give that answer.  “What kind of gifts?”  “Well, like posters, but I packed them and I know what they are.”  “One moment please.”

I found this experience curious.  It was an international flight into the US at Christmas time.  I actually sat next to a woman who was visiting her daughter in Seattle.  Were people not bringing presents home?  Or did the airline really want people lying to them?  What?  One woman standing next to me had gift-wrapped presents in her carryon luggage.  What did she say?  If I couldn’t bring a poster given to me by a friend into the US without creating an international incident, it might be time to reconsider the rationality of our security systems.

The  security woman  stepped over to a man in a blazer with a walkie-talkie.  I understood enough to catch “poster” and “gift,” and was able to smile at him at the right time in the explanation to get a returned grin and nod.  From the extent of the conversation that ensued, I’m fairly certain that the woman who was interrogating me was somewhat new to the position, and being a little over-diligent.  I don’t really speak German, but I’d say the gist of the conversation was, “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.  Move along.”  She returned my ticket, said “Thank you ma’am, have a nice flight,” and I was on my way.  The guy next to me wasn’t so lucky.

He’d been there when I walked up to my little desk.  The poor soul only had carry-on luggage – and brown skin.  “You are visiting your parents?  And do they work?  Only your dad?  What does he do?  And your mother, what does she do?”  He was still being questioned by an agent with a Pakistani accent when I walked onto the plane.  I simultaneously chuckled and shook my head.

The flight from Amsterdam to Seattle was 10 and a half hours.  That’s too long.  ‘Nuf said.  We did have a lovely pasta dish and individual pizzas, as well as personal entertainment devices that allowed me to watch Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince over and over.  It almost made up for the ridiculously tight spaces between seats.  Almost…

There is one thing that makes the re-entry to the US less than glorious – the customs process.  I’ll say that it was better than my last experience in New York, but I was astounded by the baggage claim area and the insane pile-up of bags.

Baggage claim

Apparently it’s common to have luggage stacked 3 or 4 deep, because there was an airport employee stationed just in front of the ramp where the baggage enters the carousel, waiting to position each bag in the mêlée.

After filling out several forms designed to make you lie, and reviewing the forms with at least 3 different people, I had my cheese-laden luggage in hand and was on my way to Portland.  My first ground view of the US made me smile.  I was back in the northwest for sure.

Rainy airport

One short plane ride and I’d be back in Portland.  And that was a nice feeling.

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December 23, 2009   5 Comments

Last pizza

My flight back to the US was an early one from the little Florence airport.  Florence is a couple of hours from Fornaci, and I had to be at the airport by about 5:30 AM, so I decided to spend the night in Florence.  Because the Florence airport is a small, regional one, there aren’t a lot of hotels that serve it.  We asked around, and found one that was about a 5-10 minute cab ride, and was safe and clean.

Deb and Tommy gave me a ride to the Fornaci train station, which I was pretty darn familiar with by now, and I hopped on a train to Florence.  I had a great moment at the Fornaci train station when a woman come up to me and ask me where to find the validation machine for the tickets.  It was a triumphant moment when I was able to understand the question and respond in Italian in a way that was actually helpful.

When I got to Florence – another train station I was pretty familiar with by now – I grabbed a cab to the hotel.  Once I confirmed that the cabbie knew where we were going, I settled in for the ride.  I prefer to sit up front in a cab when I’m alone.   Usually I’ll chat with the cabbie about the town, so I tried in Italian.  He was very nice, and we chatted back and forth, navigating my bad grammar together.  I recommended an art exhibit in town and he told me about growing up just outside Florence.

The hotel was in an industrial zone outside the tourist district of Florence.  When I walked in, I thought it might be deserted.  There was nobody to be seen.  Then a man appeared from an out-of-sight office to check me in.  I was pretty tired when I arrived, so I bid the front desk man “buona notte” and headed up to the room.  The room was Spartan, and I swear there was virtually nobody else staying in the big place.  It was a little creepy riding to the top floor in the teeny tiny elevator.  Fortunately the hotel attached its keys to huge, metal pieces that seemed perfect for use as a bludgeoning device.  This made me feel better.  Kind of.

Blunt instrument

After a long, hot shower, I found myself hungry and wandered back downstairs to seek out a little food.  The website and Rick Steves both showed almost nothing in the area.  I’d need a little help with this one.

The guy behind the desk pulled out a couple of business cards and pointed me down the road a little.  I’d have to walk, but there were a couple of pizza places about 5 minutes away.  “Just go right then left then down to the main street.  You’ll see the restaurants on the other side.”  Armed with my key fob, I headed out into a part of Florence that was different than the Florence I had seen before.

Florence street

I walked quickly, hoping the area was safe and wondering if I should head back and have another Cliff Bar for dinner.  Until I saw a sign for military surveillance.  I was in the neighborhood of a military facility.  Suddenly, everything felt very safe.  I slowed down a little and even talked to a guy in a car who wanted directions.  I wasn’t really that helpful, but I tried.

When I finally reached the main street I was wondering if I’d ever find the restaurants.  There were a couple of American-style strip malls across the way, but nothing that really looked like a restaurant.  I checked the business cards.  Bingo.  One of the restaurants was just across the street.  The sign looked a little like a video arcade.  I was a little skeptical about the location, but I was hungry enough to forgive the strip-mall atmosphere, so I walked inside.

It was brightly lit, and filled with people picking-up to-go orders and long tables of apparent locals having dinner.  I sat down at a table with a salt and pomegranate centerpiece, and considered the menu.

Centerpiece

Most everyone was ordering pizza, so I followed suit.  There were margherita, verdure, funghi, and a new one:  parmagiana.  Eggplant parmesan pizza.  Yum.  I hoped it was as good as it sounded.

Eggplant parm pizza

It was.  The pizza was beautifully thin, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, thinly sliced, tender eggplant, and a healthy crust of parmesan on top.  The eggplant was juicy, so I ate most of this one with a knife and fork.  The crust was thin, but sturdy, making it possible for me to cut strips, fold them over and shove them in my mouth with the toppings inside like a little calzone.  I was perfectly content eating what I knew would be my last pizza of the trip (not counting the airplane pizza, which isn’t really in the same league).  I listened to the people around me and watched as the long table next to me ordered dessert.  It looked to be a birthday celebration or something similar.  The table was full of older couples, but the women sat at one end and the men at the other.

I got a preview of dessert as the men, who were closest to me, harassed the waitress over the dessert menu.  My entire trip I found it interesting the role that fruit played in almost every meal.  In people’s homes, a big basket of fruit would be placed on the table after a meal.  In restaurants, fruit was served, whether in a salad form or on its own, as dessert.  Pineapple, “annanas,” was commonly on the menu.  Cut lengthwise into thirds, the fruit would be sliced and served in the rind, sometimes drenched in a liqueur of some kind.  The men at tonight’s table ordered pineapple, except for one, who ordered an orange – which showed up by itself, rolling around a plain, white plate.

I like fruit, but it’s not what I had in mind for my last night in Italy.  I asked the waitress for the “dolce” and she started down a list.  Somewhere along the way I heard “pistachio torta.”  Yes, that one.  I’d had good luck with nut pies.  I hadn’t, however, experienced fluorescent green nut pies.

Pistachio torta

The minute it arrived I knew this wouldn’t be the best dessert of the trip, but, all things considered, it wasn’t bad.  There were even little pieces of pistachio in the unnaturally green gelatin.  Along with the caffe, it was a totally satisfactory dessert.

Last caffe

The pizza was excellent.  Probably ranks in the top 3 from the entire trip.  But the best part of dinner was the fact that I didn’t speak a word of English the whole time.  I don’t want to congratulate myself too much for making it through a few sentences, but it was nice.  My last night in Italy I was able to get myself to Florence, find a place to eat, and even get through a meal in Italian.  Like the rest of my trip, I had help from friends along the way (sometimes a lot of help), and in the end, I was able to do what I needed to on my own.  What more do I need than a place to sleep, a blunt instrument, and a really good pizza?

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December 21, 2009   No Comments

The ministry of soap

When my family first said they wanted to send a thank you box to my friends in Italy, I thought that was pretty great.  For the next couple of weeks, I got updates on what was going into the box, and provided info on the members of my extended Italian family.

I checked with my friends to see what the best way to ship the box would be.  We determined that something like UPS was much better than the postal system.  (My mom and aunt had spent 45 minutes in line one time only to find that they couldn’t actually buy extra stamps for the postcards they wanted to mail.)

Just before I headed to Venice I got emails from my mom and sister saying that the box had shipped.  It might arrive before I was away.  “I told them it had soap in it, and ‘personal hygiene items.’”  My sister, Cathy, had FedExed the box, and she and my mom had put a couple of bars of soap in for me, because I was having a hard time figuring out the Italian labels.  “I thought it was better than saying it had food items from Idaho.”  That sounded reasonable to me.  Shipping food items into Italy wasn’t probably something to advertise.

So I went to Venice and instructed the ladies not to open the box if it arrived while I was away.  When I got back I had a message from my sister:  the box had been detained when it arrived in Italy.  Apparently, the Italian Ministry of Healthy closely regulates the shipping of “personal hygiene items,” specifically soap.  Damn.  They needed someone from in the country to call.  It seems they had tried to contact me and had left a voicemail on my Italian cell.  Double damn.

I’d had a series of phone calls from blocked numbers while I was in a train station.  Thinking it was a friend playing tricks, I answered, “pronto!” to which they responded “pronto!”  We went back and forth for a while yelling pronto at each other.  Then I laughed manically and hung up.  After a few of these, I just let it go to voice mail.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to set up or retrieve messages, because the instructions were in Italian.  So I forgot about it.  It seems it was the government calling to talk about the box.  Great.  And I’d mocked them, laughed, hung up and ignored their message for about a week.  Excellent.  Well played.

So, Cathy sent me the phone number for FedEx Italy, and Sandra made the call.  Then she made another call as instructed by the FedEx people.  On that call she learned that we would need to fill out some paperwork, make a payment of 40 Euro (approximately $60), and fax the paperwork back, along with proof of payment.  They’d be sending an email shortly.  We had 3 days to complete our tasks.

“Why did she say there was soap in the box?”  Evidently it was the wrong thing to say.  Who knew?  “Do you really want to pay 40 Euro for the soap?  That’s expensive soap.”  I didn’t give a hoot about the soap at this point.  I wanted the gifts for everyone.  So we waited for the email.

The paperwork, it turned out, was 5 pages of questions about my province of birth (assuming I was Italian), my company’s location, the name of my warehouse, and the weight of the soap I was shipping.  They, apparently, thought I was a soap importer.

Assisted by my personal translator, I filled out the pages and signed.   Deb’s mom took me to the post office to pay the fine and get a receipt.  The woman behind the counter had never seen forms like ours before, and didn’t know what we would have to do to get our box.  She could take my money and give me a receipt, though.

I gathered all the papers and faxed it the number I’d been given.  If I’d have known the patron saint of mail, I’d have said a little prayer.

The day I left for Rome, we still hadn’t heard anything at all.  I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever  see the box.

I had a wonderful time in Rome .  When I got back, Bertie came to find me.  A box had arrived.

I went downstairs to retrieve it.  It was like Christmas.  The box was intact.  It was wonderful to see my mom’s handwriting on its top.  Tom and I opened it and spread its contents out on the kitchen table.

Presents and soap

There were toys for the kids, and mugs for the ladies.  Jars of jam and mustard, and games appeared for everyone.  And there was soap.  The few small bars were the most interesting items to everyone.  “She should have told them it was books or something.”  The ladies found it pretty humorous that I’d had to pay so much for soap.

The next day, when I delivered a bag of goodies to Deb’s family in Barga, Ryo said that he’d had a box arrive as well.  And he’d had to pay a 35 Euro fee.  “What was in his box?” I asked Deb.  “Books.  His old used ones.”

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December 19, 2009   4 Comments