Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — November 2009


After a very full day of walking, touring and boating, I decided to stay close to home and check out the restaurant downstairs.

When I pulled aside the sliding door that led from the hotel into the street-level restaurant, it was to find the waiter/maître die, who seemed to be waiting for me, pointing out a table.  He pulled out my chair, brought me a menu and flipped my glasses.  I opened my menu and realized I’d forgotten my little dictionary that lets me order in Italian without too many questions.

“Io torno” “I return” I said to the waiter as I rushed back to the room to retrieve my little book.  There were several promising items with ingredients that I wanted to confirm.  Once I had the dictionary in hand, I started translating.  Only, it was like I had a French dictionary.  Almost none of the items were in the book.  Damn.  So, I had to ask some questions.  Only, I think I was speaking American, and he was speaking English.  I’ve experienced this phenomenon often in Barga where many of the English speaking residents come from British or Scottish stock.

I was able to figure out that the gnochetti had shrimp (the menu used some kind of derivative word for shrimp), and to explain that I was vegetarian.  The other dish I was interested in was the tortelloni, which was “fatti a mano” made by hand.  That’s usually a good sign, but it had a mystery ingredient.

“Tortelloni?”  “Si, buono.  Con fromaggio?”  It’s amazing how sensitive I have found many Italians to be to the difference between vegan and vegetarian.  I live in Portland, which is a vegetarian/vegan paradise, and people are less sensitive to the differences than many of the folks I’ve encountered here (except for the guy who wanted to put speck on my pizza…).  So, my pasta would have cheese and some kind of a “Roman” something.  I couldn’t quite get the word, and my waiter friend was becoming a little frantic trying to explain, so I just told him it was alright and we moved along.  I like a nice surprise, as long as it’s not meat.

I also ordered a mix of vegetables.  He seemed pleased when I told him I would have them after the pasta, “dopo, dopo,” I reassured him.  I wondered what I would get.  The selection of individual vegetables on the menu was good.

When it arrived, the tortelloni surprised me.  They looked almost like my mom’s ravioli.  Nothing looks like my mom’s ravioli, except my mom’s ravioli.


The sauce was clearly different (my mom’s is a meat sauce), but the shape and size of the pasta was the same.  And the slightly chewy consistency to the pasta dough was probably the closest I’ve ever had to my mom’s.  The filling was similar, too:  ricotta with a little spinach, and maybe a slightly sharper cheese.  The sauce was a simple tomato sauce with basil and some kind of a wilted green.  And pomegranate seeds.  I’m guessing this was the mystery ingredient.  They weren’t abundant, but the dozen or so seeds sprinkled around the edges went fantastically with the pomodoro.  I mean, really good.  The sweetness and sourness of the fruit was dulled when warmed, and the juice that splashed out had a round, deep red flavor.  I ate my three perfect tortelloni and wiped my plate with a selection of bread.

While I ate I was treated to a view of life in Venice.  The little Locanda is on a back canal, out of the way, but near a lot of things.  The people who come here aren’t likely to happen past and just stop in.  It’s either people who are staying in the hotel, people who know of it, or friends of the family.  Last night I saw a mixture of all three.  I listened to people talking in German, English, Italian and French.

The white-jacketed and slightly-nervous waiter bustled around the small dining area, waiting on the four tables.  And Georgio, one of the men who runs the Locanda, sat eating with friends in the corner while children and a dog came through the front door to greet him.  At one point, a round older man in a bright orange jacket toddled in.  He nodded at the man behind the desk and walked behind the bar where he made himself a coffee.  He downed it in one slug, spoke a few words, and left.  I chuckled.

And then my vegetables came and I lost track of anything else going on around me.


I am honestly not sure that words can describe how delicious these were.  I’ll try.  On the plate was a heap of spinach cooked with a little salt.  It was very nice.  And peperonate.  I had considered ordering a plate of this by itself, so I was pretty excited.  My little Oxford dictionary says that peperonata is “peppers cooked in olive oil with tomato, onion and garlic”.  That’s what it was, alright.  And it was divine.  Sweet and amazing.

The best part of the dish, however, was the eggplant.  The menu listed “melanzane alla funghetti”.  Sounds like something to do with mushrooms.  My little book didn’t have an answer.  If I had to guess, it was prepared in the manner of mushrooms – pan fried with butter.  The strips of eggplant were about 2 inches long and half an inch wide, and had no seeds.  Just the skin and a little flesh were cooked until almost crispy and practically caramelized.  They were rich and deeply flavorful and lovely.  I had to slow myself down so that I could enjoy the entire plate of vegetables and not just cram it all into my mouth.

So far, I was very happy with my dinner selections, and my waiter seemed pleased too.  He chanced a nervous smile at me as he removed from the table dishes that were wiped clean.

He brought me a menu again, and I pulled out my dictionary.  Still, it was pretty much useless.  I could interpret “gelato” and “torta” but the other words were almost unintelligible, and my little book had no answers.  “Una domanda?”  I had a question.  First, I found out that the thing that had the most exotic name was a dessert wine – it came with a cookie.  Well, I like cookies, but the wine wasn’t really what I was looking for.  So I tried another angle.  “Qual e fatti in casa?”  Usually when something is made in the house “fatti in casa” it’s got a better shot of being fresh and interesting.

He turned from the menu and looked at me.  I had asked a good question.  “Torta pere con vaniglia gelato.”  The pear cake with vanilla gelato was my best choice.  I’m all for recommendations, so I ordered one – along with a coffee.

While I waited, I took a gander at the room.  The dark wood paneling and white tablecloths make this otherwise forgettable room feel fancy, and the artwork cluttering the walls is interesting.  There is artwork everywhere throughout this place – in the dining areas, the stairwell, the common areas and guestrooms.  I am woefully ignorant of Italian (okay not just Italian) artists, so I can’t say with certainty, but it seems that these pieces are original works from important, avant garde artists – many of whom have dedicated the works to the good people at the Locanda.  I surveyed the room, taking in the comfortable atmosphere and watching newcomers arrive.

Locanda Art

And then my torta arrived.

Pear torta

The warm, spongy cake had just the right amount of delicate pears, and was wonderful when combined with a small forkful of the gelato.

I spent some time just sitting, listening to the different languages, and thumbing through the “key phrases” section of my dictionary.  I found one phrase and I read it over a couple of times, committing to memory, “Vorrei fermarci un altra note” “I’d like to stay another night.”

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November 30, 2009   3 Comments

Venice, day 1, part 2

Venice is known as a safe city to walk around at night.  As a solo traveler, that’s exciting news.  Sure, there are folks who are up to no good, but the island, relatively speaking, is safe.  So, as the grey skies turned to black, I ventured out again.  My earlier wanderings had taken me through neighborhoods, past churches, and across countless canals.  I had stayed away from the Grand Canal and the other big attractions.  There would be plenty of time for those.

As I headed to dinner I planned my return route.  The restaurant was a couple hundred yards from the hotel, but I wanted to see the Grand Canal at night.  When I left the restaurant, it was raining again.  For me this meant a couple of things.  First, I might get a little wet.  Second, there would be beautiful, shimmering streets to add to the magic of the city.  It was a fair trade.

Venice wet

I headed first to the Rialto bridge.  There were enough people walking the streets that I could follow them, along with the yellow signs affixed to buildings that point the way to major landmarks.  Even so, I almost missed the bridge.  The arcade lining the street leading to it caught my eye.  The shops, of course, were all closed, but the sweeping arches and strings of Christmas lights gave a feel of grandeur – and seedy commercialism.  I’ll go back and have a look a little earlier in the evening for the full effect.

On the other side of the bridge I found myself in a seriously polished commercial district.  I think I passed three Gucci stores, along with every manor of upscale retailer.  This well traveled district between the Rialto and Saint Mark’s must be one of the busiest during the day, full of the tourists that keep the town alive.  The rain and the number of tourists picked up as I headed into Saint Mark’s square at about 10PM.  It was dark, and mostly deserted.  The young pub-crawlers that were everywhere on the other side of the bridge remained there, giving way to vast seas of little tables and chairs – empty outdoor dining areas, all closed for the night.  The whole place had a ghostly feel, the four horses on the front of the church galloping onto a dark, empty piazza.

S. Marco at night

I wandered over to the water that borders the square and found a fleet of gondolas, their sterns bobbing up and down in the water, and another eerie view of the La Salute Church floating in the distance.

La Salute at night

My next destination was the Academia, and its bridge, which would put me back in my hotel’s neighborhood, and on familiar ground.  I consulted a map.  The canals of Venice make it challenging to navigate by dead reckoning.  I’m a poor navigator at the best of times, but for some reason, Venice is proving a bit intuitive for me.  I hit dead ends every so often, but am able to wind around and through to my destinations with little trouble.  Even at night I only took the map out a couple of times, preferring to pick my way along, enjoying the fantastic scenes that unfolded.

Night canal

The huge academia bridge popped up out of nowhere, obscured by construction surrounding the academia itself.  Atop it, I was treated to shimmering views and the low rumble of boats passing under.

Rialto night view

Once across the bridge I wound my way back through the neighborhoods, popping out in the same piazza where I’d had dinner.  I congratulated myself and then promptly found that I was momentarily paralyzed,  unable to pick the correct street leading back to the hotel’s lantern and my waiting bed.  Too funny.  Sleepy from the long day, even the map left me befuddled.  I took a breath, laughed at myself and picked a path.  It’s an island.  How lost can you get?  And the hotel materialized before me, a welcome sight.

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November 29, 2009   1 Comment

Venice, day 1, part 1

After a fairly comfortable 6 hour train ride, I arrived in Venice.  The trip came together quickly – about two days after I realized that my time in this leap is coming to a swift close.  The journey to Venice itself was a nice adventure.  I thought I’d get up at about 6 or 6:15 to walk to the station and catch the 7:35 train to Lucca.  But, through a series of miscommunications, I ended up sleeping until about 7, which mean I had exactly 35 minutes to get dressed, shoulder my pack, walk to the station and secure a ticket.  Fortunately, I’ve taken the train from Fornaci to Lucca once before, and the ticket machine was being agreeable, so I was able to navigate with about 5 minutes to spare.  Perfect.

Like last time, I ended up commuting with a bunch of high school kids who were headed to school.  Once in Lucca I waited in line at the ticket counter with the kids, and purchased a ticket for my first ride on a high-speed train.  I’d pick up the train in Florence, after an hour-long ride on a regional train from Lucca.

I grabbed a seat across from a nice young woman, wrapped my legs around my pack, and drifted off to sleep – along with the woman across from me.  Getting up at 7 meant no time for coffee, and it was now almost 9.  My brain was shutting down with the lack of caffeine.

When I woke up, it was to find a hand near my face, pointing to my foot.  The young conductor was here – and he was agitated.  I reached for my ticket.  “No.”  He was concerned about my foot, which was resting on the seat opposite me.  Oh shit, I put my foot on the seat.  I don’t really know what he said, because I was still half-asleep, but the woman across from me had her eyebrows raised.  Somewhere inside me I must have understood, because I reached over and brushed off the place where my food had been (there was nothing there, just by the way), and then heard him say something to the effect of “with velocity”  “con veloce” possibly.  So I brushed faster, and he seemed moderately happy.  I apologized, in Italian, for not speaking Italian well.  This led to a minute long tirade, in Italian, about how, if everyone put their foot on the seat every day, it would make the seats disgusting, and he wouldn’t want to sit on them.  (Just by the way, the seats were already disgusting, and my shoe was probably cleaner.  Still, I got the point.)  I had attracted attention, and people were leaning into the aisle to take a look.

I apologized, told him I understood and handed him my ticket, secretly excited that I had understood the lecture.  I closed my eyes and heard another voice.  When I opened my eyes again, I found the woman across from me smiling – and offering me some hand sanitizer.  She obviously agreed that the seats were already disgusting.  I thanked her, we smiled at each other, and promptly both fell asleep, her head bent completely forward and mine lolling on the headrest.

When we reached Florence, I was excited.  I’d been here twice before and knew the station.  And I had about 40 minutes – enough time to grab some coffee and a pastry at a place friends had taken me to last time I was there.  I made my way out of the station and found the café.  I ordered, ate, used the restroom and made it back to the station with plenty of time to catch the train – which was late.

The second the reader board posted the departure platform, I rushed over with a zillion other people.  I walked down toward the end of the train, hoping to find a relatively empty car, and ended up sitting in a row by myself while the other hoards of English-speakers combed the compartments for their assigned seats.  (Truth be told, I didn’t even think to look at my ticket for an assigned seat.  I think I just lucked out that the ones I chose were empty.  Excellent.)

We rode along and I napped, read my Italian Harry Potter and listened-in on the business man who was talking non-stop on his cell phone.  The landscape changed from city to suburb to vast, open green dotted with houses, and finally to water.

And then we were in Venice.  The 10 minute train ride to the island felt oddly like the tram ride from the parking lot to the gates of Disneyland.  People were milling about, gathering their belongings.  Couples were kissing and taking each other’s pictures, and I was hopping from one side of the train to the other, trying to capture the views.

Venice from fast train

In the approach to Venice, I had studied the map, trying to make sure I’d be able to find my way to the hotel, a good 30 minute walk from the train station.  I could take the vaporetto boats but I thought it would be more interesting to walk and see the neighborhoods.  I was confident that I could make it to the hotel eventually.  Go across the bridge, hang a right, turn left after the second canal, cross at the 5th bridge, turn left at the canal, walk past the hospital , over the bridge, hang a left and there it would be.  Simple, right?

And then it started raining.  Due to the train delay, I had exactly 35 minutes to get to the hotel by check-in.  So I put on my rain gear, walked out, and started the trek.

As soon as I left the area of the train station, a quiet settled over the neighborhoods.  There were very few people on the streets and almost no tourists.  I became immediately distracted by the immense beauty of the city.  Everywhere I turned was another postcard.  Everything seemed so peaceful and dreamlike as I walked over bridges and along canals.


Distractions aside, I did pretty well.  I was able to make it into the Dorsoduro neighborhood just fine.  In the end, I only missed one turn, but realized it almost at once.  I walked right past a street that looked like a normal street on the map, but in reality was about 3 feet wide.  I almost missed it the second time.  This was my introduction to Venice streets.  Not intended for anything other than pedestrian traffic, these alleys are tiny.  I thought I was about to walk into Diagon Alley at every turn, and really wondered if anyone else saw the turn that I had missed.

Diagon Alley

A short walk further, and I saw the emblematic lantern of my hotel, Locanda Montin.  Placed along a quiet canal, the hotel was perfect.  I walked in the door to find myself in an old-school inn.  The high, dark wood front desk stood just to the right of the door, inside the restaurant that makes up the first floor.

Georgio showed me to the upper floors where I had my choice of the single I had booked, or a 10 Euro upgrade to a double with private bath.  Bingo.  The canal view room sits at the top of the hotel overlooking the quiet, picturesque canal below.

Canal from room

I threw down my backpack, grabbed my computer bag and rushed downstairs, eager to head out into the city.

The next two hours were spent tramping around as much of the city as I could see before my feet started screaming at me about the two days of downhill trekking they had just completed.

Starving for a bite to eat, I found the first shop selling pizza by the slice and ordered one with veggies.  It was huge and lovely, covered with zucchini.  I sat in the piazza and watched as a couple of men and a few seagulls cleaned up what looked like a fish market.

Pizza 1

The pizza was excellent and I was still hungry.  I considered going back in for another, but decided to walk along and see what else I could find.  The second slice had eggplant and peppers.  It was a piece of art to look at, and tasty.

Pizza 2

I stuffed it in my face as I walked past jewelry shops and bakeries, and in the first dead end of the day that lead to a private dock on a tiny canal.

Dead end

My third and final slice of the day was margheritta (tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil).  It had the best crust of the three, but ended up soggy due to the amount of grease rolling off of it, and down my chin.

Pizza 3

This one I enjoyed as I walked down small, residential alleys.

I didn’t pull a map the entire time.  I just walked and let my gut guide me.  And it guided me well.  I passed the same sweet shop three times from different directions.  On the third pass, it had been long enough since the pizza that I thought I could have a cappu and a snack.

This resulted in a fantastic, dense, chocolate cake with a layer of some kind of berry jam.  I enjoyed it at the bar along with my cappuccino as I gazed into the back at the racks of beautiful panettone that are starting to arrive in shops along with the Christmas season.

Ciocolato Venice cappu Panettone

The day wore on, and I kept walking.  As it got darker, the city felt warmer.  A kind of glow seemed to come from the bricks and stones themselves.

Venice wall Venice street Fancy street

I decided to head back to the hotel.  After wandering for an hour and a half, I had started to see the pattern of Venice emerge.  I watched as women disappeared into little more than cracks in the wall at the end of apparent dead ends – and I followed them, winding my way back to where I thought the hotel was.  I ventured into little piazzas and found beautiful Corinthian columns hiding just out of sight.

Columns in Venice

And I watched gondoliers making their way through the canals at dusk.

Gondola at dusk

The day of wandering served me well.  In no time at all I was back in front of the lamp and the front door to my hotel.  And then in my room wishing my family a happy Thanksgiving, and planning my night – my next adventure into the beautiful, surreal city.

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November 28, 2009   3 Comments

Giving thanks in Venice

I spent most of today in Venice, wandering around the city (more on that later – this is a food post).  After a full day of strolling, showering and napping, I decided to splurge on a big Thanksgiving dinner.  I leafed through the couple of guidebooks I have with me and settled on one:  Ristoteca Oniga.


I was hoping to find a pumpkin ravioli on the menu (especially since they are known for their homemade ravioli, and it’s the season for zucca).  What’s more, this place is right next to a gellateria owned by the same people.  I’d missed my gelato today, so this was going to be a great way to make up for it.

The evening was a series of triumphs for me.  I was able to find the restaurant on the first try (sounds easier than it is), ask, in Italian, if it was possible for me to eat, get a seat, and order three courses.  The menu, which was all in Italian, offered a set vegetarian option, along with the other meaty options, which gave me hope that I would find a nice meal. Rather than go for the set menu, I pawed through the pages to see what I could find.  I settled on a lasagna with ricotta and zucca (pumpkin) for my primi, and a plate of cheeses, fruit and honey for my secondi.

Usually I just order a pasta and maybe dessert, but tonight being Thanksgiving I thought it only fitting to eat myself into a stupor.  I wasn’t disappointed.

First came a basket of bread and crunchy snacky bread-like things which I munched conservatively with my very own bottle of acqua naturale.


I think I got the last table in the house.  Already at 8:00 the place was packed.  Maybe it was because of the rain that folks had come out early to eat, or maybe it was that a lot of Americans were in town.   As I waited for my food, just about every staff member walked by my table to smile at me.  I got smiles from many women making their way to the restroom in the back of the restaurant.  It’s common to see solo travelers grabbing a slice of pizza or a pannini in a bar, but I haven’t seen a ton of singles eating at sit down places.  Everyone tonight seemed eager to send me a little love, and it was appreciated.  I haven’t missed too many Thanksgiving dinners with my family.  This afternoon I was able to Skype with them a bit and see most everyone:  my mom and dad, grandparents, aunt, sister and my soon-to-be-born niece or nephew.  It’s strange to be away from home today, but I’m in Venice, so it pretty much makes up for it.

So I waited, and people smiled.  And then came the lasagna.

Lasagna ricotta e zucca

It was unlike any lasagna I’ve ever had, and it was good.  I’m talkin’ real good, people.  The noodles were green, so I’m guessing they were spinach.  They were tender and lovely.  Between the five pasta layers, was pumpkin puree, standing in for the usual tomato sauce.  And ricotta.  Great lumps of ricotta stood on top, slightly crusty from the oven.  The flavors were simple and delicate and the dish went down easy.  Which was good, because there was so much more to come.

When the cheese plate arrived, I giggled out loud.  The plate was an absolute delight to look at.

Cheese, fruit, honey Oniga

It was happy and abundant – and interesting!  I was able to identify the very mild and very fresh pecorino, the excellent parmigano regiano, and the gorgonzola, but there was a cheese with blue spots, black splotches, and veins of mold.  That one was interesting.

Along with the cheese was a honey that had hints of mint, and an assortment of fruit and fruit salsas.  There were strawberries and pear slices, persimmon puree and something that seemed like a spiced applesauce.  And cranberries!  I jumped when I put them in my mouth.  Cranberries!  On Thanksgiving!  In Venice!  I wanted to find all the other Americans in the place and tell them that there were cranberries.  But I held back, content to mix and match the combinations of fruit and cheese and honey, noting the best pairings and devouring every morsel.

I had planned to stop in for gelato before meandering back to my hotel.  But, when I heard the English-speaking table next to me ordering dessert, all thoughts of gelato went out of the door.  There was chestnut cream with persimmon puree and there was a pumpkin cake, recommended by the grinning waitress.

So I ordered a caffe and pumpkin cake and I waited.  Cake isn’t really the word to describe the beautiful dolce that appeared before me.

Pumpkin Dolce Onigi

This was more of the wonderful pumpkin puree, seasoned, sweetened, mixed with pine nuts and currants, sandwiched between thin, flaky pastry, dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with honey.  I was sad to miss out on my mom’s pumpkin pie, but I supposed I could make do with this – just for tonight.

Overfull, I polished off the bottle of water, tried not to lick my plate and headed out into the night for the second half of the day’s wanderings.  I left dinner proud of myself for venturing out, and immensely thankful for everything that has brought me to this point.  And thankful for the friendly faces that greeted this pilgrim in a foreign land.

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November 27, 2009   7 Comments

Second chances

Yesterday I struck out on a great adventure – finding the forest path from Barga to Fornaci.  Armed with vague directions and an enthusiasm to find my way, I muddled along the wrong road, down the wrong path, and past the wrong goats – all the way to the wrong end of Fornaci.  It wasn’t until I got back and triumphantly posted about the excellent time I’d had that I learned I had been in the wrong place, traipsing through someone else’s woods.  To me it was a great adventure.

So, today, armed with the knowledge that I went the wrong way, and a few corrective instructions (“take the left fork” “it’s just past the big, beautiful villa”), I tried again.

The walk to the fork seemed quicker.  I recognized houses and crossed the road at the right points to avoid the whizzing cars.

Fortunately, there was only one fork before I reached the path.


There were, however several villas along the way.

Villa 1 Villa 2 Villa 3

I’m guessing the one I was looking for stood at the end of a long driveway, behind huge gates.


When I reached the end of the road this time, there was no mistake.  This was the path I was supposed to be on yesterday.  This was a legitimate PATH, complete with handrail and ropes to help me down the insanely steep slope.

Trailhead Path rails Path stairs

And there were dogs, cheering me along.


The path itself was nice.  After the initial steep, leaf-covered stretch, houses started to appear again, and the path became more of a road, eventually  turning into pavement.  It ran the entire length of a mountain ridge, only 10 yards wide in places, giving way to steep drops and dramatic, wooded views on either side.

Narrow path

Past grapevines and olive orchards it wound, eventually dropping off of the ridge right into Fornaci – 5 minutes from the house.  It was a great path.  I will take it again for sure, and probably make the reverse trek up the hill.  But, still, I really enjoyed the other walk.  Yes, the road took twice as long.  No, it wasn’t the way others would have gone.  But I had a blast, wonderfully unaware that my path was the “wrong” one.

When I got back today I thought about the second chances in my life.  The opportunities to evaluate, apply lessons-learned, and start again.  There are times I’ve had to pry second chances out of the world, but more often they’ve been given gently by others, or tentatively handed over by me, to myself.

Some people see second chances as a way to erase the past, happy to forget the first chance, the one that went the “wrong” way.  From now on, I will try to see them as a way to appreciate the beauty of the first chance, even if it’s a path I wouldn’t really want to walk again.

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November 26, 2009   8 Comments