Tales of a wandering lesbian


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 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

The wild blue yonder

The first time I sat down with Frank, I was eager to pick his brain.  He has spent time in many places, and I hoped he could help me work out the cities I wanted to visit.  I told him Venice was on my list.  “I would urge you to follow your instinct on that one.  There is no place in the world like Venice.”  So I put it at the top.

When I came to Italy it was with no expectations, but with thoughts of grand adventures in grand cities.  Four weeks have past.  Four weeks of fantastic adventures and wonderfully people.  I’ve had side trips to Lucca and to Florence; to the mountains and to the sea.  But I haven’t visited any of the big cities I had in mind.  Venice and Rome still sit at the top of my list.

I realized a couple of days ago that I really only have 2 weekends left in Italy.  Wow.  Time to get movin’.  I thought that I would have visited three countries by now.  But the day-to-day comfort of a routine has kept me winding up and down the hill from Fornaci to Barga, happy to have a familiar place to sleep and good friends to talk with – content to learn about myself here.

But now, with the end of this leap in sight, I’m ready to venture out.  I asked around.  None of my family or friends had much in the way of suggestions for places to stay, so last night I pulled out my handy-dandy Rick Steves (tragically incomplete, but terrifically helpful) guide to Italy and started working my way through the list of Venice hotels.  I picked about 16 and started checking availability.  By the end of the evening I had 3 places I really liked.  I sent email inquiries to see what the prices would be (Venice hotels list a range of prices on their websites for each room), and checked the trenitalia website to find a good itinerary.

This morning I woke to a number of emails from various hotels.  I was able to find a three night stay in all three of my favorites, and even talked the fancy hotel down to 80 Euro (which I thought was pretty excellent given its usual price of 145).  And then I got an email from Frank.  A couple of emails and 20 minutes later, and I was in his house drinking coffee and talking Venice hotels.  I showed him the ones I was looking at and he gave input as to the locations and décor.  And I looked at the modestly appointed, “functional” hotel he had pulled up on his computer.  I wasn’t wild about it, but it was in a good location, and was about 20 Euro less per night than any of my picks.  “Why don’t you take a cheaper hotel and stay another night?  Venice is wonderful.”  He had a point.

“There is one other place, but it’s really hard to get in.”  He pulled up the clunky website for the Locanda Montin.  Its homepage featured a picture of Jimmy Carter and a list of celebrities and VIPs who frequent the place.  “It’s a really great place.  Shall we give them a call?”  I agreed – so long as Frank talked.  Five minutes later I had a reservation for 3 (or 4) nights at 50 Euro.  We were both shocked and pleased.  Finding availability was one thing, but the price was unbelievable.

I stayed for lunch and Frank pulled out maps and guidebooks for Venice.  We studied the best walking route from the train station to the hotel and discussed which train would be best.

I’m finding it a wonderful thing to accept the help of other people – whether it’s a familiar place to sleep every night, or directions to the path that leads home, or lunch and hotel reservations.  It’s not something I’ve always been so good at.  But here, where I know so little and am so far out of my element, I’m finding it easier and easier.

Tomorrow I leave for Venice, but I won’t go alone.  I’m leaving with Frank’s maps and guidebook, and the knowledge that my little bed will be waiting for me when I come home.

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November 25, 2009   3 Comments