The Trials and Tribulations of Accompanying an Italian to the Supermarket

When in the center of Florence, the grocery options are slim, and usually tucked between historical something-or-others or wedged into back alleys. It is much better to do a round of shopping – to the fruit woman, the meat man, the egg guy, etc – at the markets than run into the small and cramped mini “grocery stores” that you may find along the way.

(*Side note and travel tip! Unlike in the US, the markets are actually cheaper than in the stores!!) So markets it is – and they take up most of my shopping time in a normal week.

Our normal shopping spot

Our normal shopping spot

Going to a Supermarket outside the city center is an interesting experience. I’ve done it a few times now and every time am overwhelmed in this store that should be more familiar to me than the center markets. Yet, somehow I always end up flabbergasted- especially when I am following around my boyfriend that takes food as seriously as I take shoe shopping (yes, sometimes I can be girly.)

This past week, our fridge was pretty bare and for processed foods, heading outside the city center is much cheaper than in, so we hopped on a two euro train to Lastra A Signa – a little suburb of Florence where Rami’s parents live. Rami’s Dad, Bassel, picked us up at the station in the car and came with us to the Ipercoop – aka the Walmart/Target, etc of Italy.

First things first: there is a reason that there are no rogue shopping carts in Italy. Why? Because you have to (kinda) pay to use one. Stick a Euro coin into the slot located on the handle and the cart is freed from its chains linking it to all others in the corral. Slow Travel did a much more thorough job of demonstrating this than I ever will have the patience for so if you are extremely interested in the detailed process, check it out here.

*Warning – if you do have people coming up offering to “help” you by returning the cart to the corral, please keep in mind that they are not helping because they are a nice person, they are helping because your euro coin is still lodged in the cart and they will earn that euro for walking a few feet – unbeknownst to most that are not used to this process.

However, overall – this system is very well done and I think a good thing for the US to take up – though I can hear the complaints now. “I gatta pay a dolla for a friggn cahhht?!” But I’m sure that the city of Haverhill wished they came up with this idea before half of the city’s carts ended up in the Little River.

Once getting a cart, the fun begins. At this point Rami is trembling like a four year old walking into Toys R Us. In this IperCoop right at the entrance, there’s a pizzeria and foccaceria or bakery counter, as well as a small tabaccheria where you can buy a number of things including the Florence Soccer Team Fiorentina paraphernalia, tickets to the games, cigarettes, lottery tickets, place bets, or play some slot machines.

Turn right and you’re in main area for shopping – which it seems like a normal grocery store in the States, but it is this fact that throws me. For, yes, at the markets, I see many strange things. But in a grocery store, I guess I’m expecting things to be “normal.” Looking through the aisles, however, proves me oh, so wrong.

Think large squid and octopus spread out next to fish under the glass – sometimes still kind of moving. In the meat section, there are skinned rabbits under plastic wrap – complete with heads and eyes that make you want to look the other way. Chickens with feet, snails, brains, tongues, and other things you don’t even want to know about.

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach...Bassels favorite

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach…Bassels favorite

At this point, I am struggling to find solace in something my brain knows how to comprehend so I run to the produce while Rami bounces around in front of the fish. But in between the apples and celery (which is monstrous for some reason, as well as the Bell peppers) there are products that are as foreign to me as tripe (cow stomach for those unfamiliar with this famous Florentine dish. PS if you see it in a store or market, it is usually bleached. So, I stupidly googled unbleached and successfully found a picture. Click if you dare. Yes I have eaten it, no, I didn’t really like it and I can tell you that what it looks like in that unbleached photo is how it tastes…bleugh)

Rami and his father have now followed me as I suddenly am hoarding apples into our cart. It’s fall. It’s apple time, and for once I know more than them and explain the difference between Granny Smith and Red Delicious. One point for the New England chick. But I soon lose my ground when we turn to the next aisle wherein Rami becomes extremely excited to find these things:

(in English I found out that it is called a Persimmon. Apparently these grow at home too but the New England chick was unaware).

“You have never had these have you,” Rami said as he tried to reach the last of two packages in the entire store. I assumed they must be in season and my thoughts were confirmed when he then turned and asked his Dad if he wanted some too. To which his father responds that no, they have some a home. Where did they get them? “Borrowed” them off the neighbors tree, he says with a smirk.

As I eye the fruit, Rami gives me the background info and, as if to make me want to taste these foreign things more, explains the name for them is Kaki – which basically translates to “shitty.” And though they may taste lovely, they are extremely shitty to eat. Think strings of chunky gelatin encased in a really thin skin that completely explodes when you bite into it. Alas, another fruit I look horrible eating. Figs were the first. NOTE: If an Italian ever asks you if you’ve had figs before and you haven’t, do not try to save face by saying you’ve had Fig Newtons. You will not save face, you will lose it.

So the shitty fruit also made its way into our carriage and we proceeded deeper into the labyrinth that, at this point, I knew was not the norm. But I was struggling. I know how to buy food so I went strolling to the meat section to try and find something familiar enough to pick for myself in between the liver and the brains. I grabbed a pack of diced steak and walked to Rami who was busy looking at the multitude of cheeses.

“We could do a stir-fry,” I asked more than told and his Dad leaned over my shoulder to look at what I had picked up. The two then proceeded to examine the meat as if I had cut it myself and then gave me a 21 question attack as to when I would cook this and how I would do it.

“Ahh the meat expert,” Bassel mumbled as Rami inspected the package – seemingly to make me feel better. But truly, they are right with meat here, it won’t last more than a day or two – and this is my kryptonite. Because when buying anything like a cut of meat, you have to plan in your head what you will use it for and when. And, because they are Italian, it needs to be the “right” cut of meat for the right recipe. Fail. They would be horrified as to how I cooked in college.

My meat selection, after a few minutes of debate, did make the cut (ha meat puns) and made it into our growing cart of produce. But after this botched attempt at helping out, I decided to stick to what I knew and ran around the store getting milk, yogurt, and cleaning products for our kitchen. How can you mess up sponges? Meanwhile, Rami, with a huge grin on his face, is throwing things into the cart like Supermarket Sweep. Chocolate-filled mini croissants, eight different types of cheese, this type of sausage, that type of pepperoni, this, that, and over there types of sliced meats (this ended up all being part of an amazing dinner that Mr. Chef was planning in his head.)

So as he was off in playland and his father was perusing the entire aisle of Olive Oils, I realized we also needed eggs. Unrefrigerated in Italy, mind you, you’ll find them in an isle all their own. And there are a ton of options – but mostly in only four packs. Me, going by my American sense, grabbed the only dozen there was and wandered back to the cart – in which Rami had just put a bottle of soda in that horrifyingly resembled urine. Basel said nothing as I slowly placed the eggs into the cart but as soon as Rami turned and saw what I had done, he scoffed.

“No. Not those,” he objected, as if I had suggested to buy a package of arsenic. I looked at his father for backup but he only shrugged his shoulders.

“He’s right this time,” he almost apologized to me and made the walk of shame back to the egg isle to exchange my eggs for better ones. The problem? I had picked the hormone eggs. Basically, they would be perfectly normal eggs in the states, but Italians are so health-conscious, these are known as bottom-of-the-barrel. Mind you, there is proof that these other eggs, the “norm” for Italy, are definitely not as chock-full of hormones – which is proven from the few times I have found half-formed or full-formed chicks in my eggs.

Switching up my egg mistake

Switching up my egg mistake

This second mishap on my quest for a successful Italian shopping spree had me raising the white flag. Though it looked like a supermarket, and acted like a supermarket, I am still American and don’t value the quality of food as much as Italians. I can go to the store at home, stock up on everything, and it’ll last for weeks without even a touch of mold. Here? There are spots on fruit in a day. Meat rots in two. And people wonder why here, people in their 80’s are riding bikes and lugging groceries miles, while the US nursing homes are full of elderly that are immobile. Yes, exercise and way of life are elements of this comparison, but our food definitely has something to do with it too.

After the egg debacle, we did the rounds in the shampoo and home goods isles – places where I could hold my own a little better, and then proceeded to check out. Last scramble? There are no bag boys here. If you’re on your own, it is an absolute scramble to pay, ask for bags (yup – you have to pay for each one. (smart and green), and then proceed to bag everything before the checkout girl begins to shoot the next person’s produce directly at you with an annoying smirk that you can’t bag fast enough for her liking. This is the most panic I have experienced in this country. Thankfully, with three people it wasn’t that difficult…but then I packed the bags wrong.

All in all, it’s better here – minus the chicken feet. Healthier food? I can’t complain. Italians know how to do it even without the Whole Foods stores, and all that strange stuff? It actually is amazing that they can make just about any part of the animal something edible. This is what the majority of the world needs to do – especially in the US with their mass production, waste, hormones, and preservatives. Cut it down, and you’ll just live a longer, healthier life. Let’s get going. Just don’t ask me to pick out the eggs.

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Moving Forward in a Backward Manner – From Tour Guide to Student

Tea Time near the Duomo

After my recent post about leaving Bus2alps, I have been repeatedly pummeled with a single question: What now? Friends and family from home, friends here, and even some that I haven’t spoken to in ages want to know what is next in my non-traditional life. I wish I could tell you. But the fact is that it isn’t as easy as that. I can’t just blurt out an answer that will solve all of my problems. But I found a small, temporary solution for the time being.

Working with a student-travel company that has a customer base almost completely of american students, even though I have been living in the heart of Tuscany and dating a Florentine (for those of you that don’t know, though, Rami is absolutely fluent in English and sounds American – which doesn’t help my situation), my Italian speaking skills are male – aka “bad”. More like terrible. It has come to the point where my non-american friends immediately switch to English when I enter the conversation. Shop owners (if I don’t dress correctly) welcome me with “hello.” What a tragedy I am.

Because of this and because I now have time on my hands, I have decided to go back to school.

I set off one morning in the Italian sunshine with a simple list of language schools that I thought looked promising. Finding them is somewhat of a challenge at times, for the first few I entered were in old palaces – set on the upper levels of grand staircases that left me out of breath. I’d have to stop before the doorway and collect myself before going in (I also need to start going to the gym again if you haven’t noticed) – then decide if I was going to attempt to ask for information in Italian or English.

A few were boring – the women at the desk uninterested in me. Some lazily shoved papers across the counter with price lists, while others dragged their feet in true Italian lackadaisical fashion while I followed, peeking in the classrooms they motioned to on my “tour.” I wasn’t impressed and slightly nervous that I was expecting more than I could find. Rami was getting frustrated with me sitting around the house with nothing to do and knowing how much inactivity made me restless – even after only a week. I needed to find something.   The last school I looked at that day was the one I chose. Located near the church of Santa Croce, Parola is a small language school that just so happened to be referred to me by my friend, Jess Dante, who now runs The Abroad Guide. Because it was later in the day, the school was quiet when I walked through the door, but a man was behind the desk, speaking with another potential student in rapid Italian.

My speaking Italian is a catastrophe, but my understanding has gotten significantly better in the past year so I could understand down to what type of classes she was asking about, but whenever she walked out the door and he turned to me, I faltered.

Voglio…lo stesso…di lei,” I pieced together – and even though that isn’t remotely correct for numerous reasons, he smiled and began the conversation in Italian – which, as a respect thing, made me feel better. It’s like when you let a toddler dress themselves for school. Probably can’t do it, probably will come out with a tutu, two left shoes, and a belt around their face, but they want to try and feel important so you let them struggle until they decide to ask for help. He continued with Italian for a bit but then did transfer over to English once it was understood I couldn’t possibly ask the questions I wanted to ask in Italian. He explained that I could begin a class within the week if I wanted to, and told me that it would be 490 Euro for a month-long group class with lessons Monday through Friday for four hours a day. When I asked why this was so inexpensive compared to the other schools I had looked at, he grinned and shook his head.

“We aren’t trying to push up prices just because we can,” he shrugged as he did the chin-jut that most Italians do when words seem to fail for a situation. If you want a demonstration, I’ve found myself doing it at times as well. Body language Italian is another whole class in itself, though I believe it is much easier to pick up. He introduced himself then as the director of the school, Simone, and said he had even taught in Boston College for a few years.

“We’ve kept the same prices for years because we can afford to,” he said. “It also allows our classes to be full. We don’t want to offer a class, and then not be able to fill it. We’re here for you; we’re not going to take your money just because you expect higher prices in Florence.”

He persuaded me to take the evaluation test right there, even though the school was officially closed for the day. As I struggled through the questions, mumbling apologies the entire time over my shoulder that this was the first test I had taken in three years, he was very patient and simply waited for me to finish. He told me I was an advanced beginner and that I should start class the next day.

After that interaction, with genuine care about me enrolling in his school, and even though I was out at a club until four in the morning that Monday, I dragged myself to school last Tuesday at 8:45 and began a pretty intensive course that involves two hours of grammar, and then two hours of conversation. I couldn’t be happier.

Though I’ve talked up the school so far, and the first few days have gone extremely well, I’ll wait until I finish the program before I review it fully on here. Hopefully after a few more weeks, I’ll be able to at least begin to insert myself in the Italian conversations that happen in front of me every day.

This week has been a little hectic with the World Championship Cycling Races being held outside my window and I’ll try to write a post about that a little later, as well as a follow up as to my plan for life after my class is up. Because obviously a month long class doesn’t really fix my long-term predicament. But for now, I’m focusing on parole or “words” for a bit.

**Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the past couple of weeks (nevermind years) and helped me with their advice, or simply just listening to my stories and complaints. You don’t know how much it means to me. And of course, a special shout out to my Mum, brother Ned, close friends here and at home, and Rami. Without you, I’d just be empty words on a page.

“Sometimes on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one”

When anyone asks me if they should apply for Bus2alps, to begin the process of trying to take flight and become a traveler, adventurer, and tour guide, the first sentence out of my mouth is always the same:

You are an idiot if you don’t at least apply.

I was stuck. Sitting in a glass cubicle in an office that I hated. My headset clamped onto my temples too hard. My eyes strained from looking at a computer program built in the 90’s (don’t ask…the company had many problems. Being computer unintelligent was one of them). I had been out of college for almost a year and I had an hour-long commute to a dreary, cement building by a decaying harbor in the horrible town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On my lunch breaks in early spring, I would launch out of my seat, grab my sandwich and run out the door and down the street to the sand. The beach was the only comfort in that place. I would roll up the legs of my ugly office pants and stand in the numbing water, watching the planes take off from Logan Airport, and wishing I was on one of them. If I had a really horrible day, I’d let my hair down and jump on the swing-set, pointing my feet to the sky, wishing I was looking down instead of up.

And then I was; peering out of the little oval window down onto the same exact beach I had paced for months. The nose of the plane was pointed toward Rome.

I had thrown myself into a life-changing opportunity that began with a delayed flight and a last-minute solo trip through multiple countries. Which was appropriate, according to my track record of travel previously. And then it began. Life as Bus2alps knows it. And it was beautiful, and I learned. 

In the past year and a half, I have accumulated so much knowledge, experience, stress, life lessons, and happiness. I conquered public speaking. Give me a microphone and I can ramble for hours. ( I can even tell people to “PLEASE LISTEN BECAUSE THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT” without sounding like an incredible snot). I have learned to navigate cities I haven’t even been to. I have more patience with people than I ever thought possible. I have learned the art of persuasive speaking – in ways that can make a rainy day seem like just the waiting time for a rainbow. I can communicate in languages you have never even heard of. Not fluently, but, you know, like hand signals and stuff. Try asking for a fork in Croatian and see how far you get…I got salad tongs on my first try. I can also actually communicate in Italian, though it’s broken, and I sound like a two-year old. But I can understand almost everything, and if a bus driver comes at me in rapid Napolitano dialect, I can get the gist of it enough for me to know if I should duck and cover, or simply nod in agreement.

I can stomp up to a hotel manager and demand that his night staff treats my students more professionally, and he actually listens to me.  Like, he actually takes me seriously. I can discover alleyways that lead to perfect views of perfect historical monuments that allow travelers with me to take perfect pictures that make their trips perfect. I am proud of my fun facts and secrets too. I can work my way through the Constant Contact program with ease and send out mass emails like it’s my job. I can give a walking tour of Venice, Milan, Verona, and Florence. (And piece one together in Rome if need be) I can use Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, every major social media program in ways that help build a company, instead of just ways to pass around cute cat videos. (Though I can do that well too) I can make friends in any country, in any language, but I can also make business contacts as well. I can suck it up even when I’m having a bad day – because I have to – because my happiness is the key to others. I can sell you something without coming off as a pushy sales person. That may not mean that I am a salesperson or make millions, but if I am telling you to buy something, it means that I believe that you are perfect for this product and this product is perfect for you. (Sorry I’m not sorry.) I can now explain to you in great detail about international immigration laws. I can find beauty in even the most desolate parts of a town. I can be planning on leaving for Oktoberfest one minute, and be absolutely (ok not right away but I got there) ok with going to Croatia instead. I can navigate the Rome bus and subway system, the Venice vaporetti system, the Milan Subway, and the Vienna subway with ease. I can multitask like a mofo.  I can live out of a suitcase every weekend and be organized enough that I have everything I really need. I have learned how to look completely (ok not completely but close) calm when going through passport checkpoints.  I can pick a movie for a group of fifty individuals and have the majority like it (most of the time). I can give a pretty kick-ass boat tour around the isle of Capri. I can say I have grown to be more confident in myself with asking for directions when needed. I can say that I have matured more in a year than in all of high school and college put together. I can dress so that I look European enough that I don’t get questioned on the streets. I can find cheap flights easier than most.

I have learned so much (that list is only what comes to mind right now but it is so so so much longer than that)  and have been able to experience so much: Flying off into narrow canyons in the shadows of the Alps, diving into the crystal-blue waters off of Capri, making friends in Sorrento, eating too much chocolate in Perugia while winding down its narrow cobblestone alleyways, parading up the same church isle as Julie Andrews, skiing the Jungfrau area until my legs gave out and my eyes hurt from the greatness of the ice, snow, and rock of the Eiger looming above, eating fish off the bone on an island hopping cruise that took us to the tiny towns of Croatia boardered with colorful, worn, wooden boats, falling asleep while looking at the white-washed world under feet while heading to the top of Mt. Solaro, having a humbling conversation with a weathered Roman man on the bus to the Vatican, diving through canyons full of glacier runoff, discovering secret gardens, making gelato, finding the closest thing to Belle’s library and dancing around in it almost alone, seeing the Lippizaner Stallions breathe white puffs of air as they rest in their stalls in the center of Vienna, sledding at night under the biggest sky with the brightest stars I have ever seen, walking the halls of an emperor’s summer home as the moonlight glints on the marble floors – still in tact after centuries.  I’ve hiked up mountains as I listened to the sound of Swiss cowbells, swam through caves trying to avoid the sting of jellyfish – pink against the green water, glowing and reflecting on the rocks above.

I’ve listened to so many stories, of old men when they were young and fit, diving into the water from the nearby rooftops, I’ve met aspirational rappers, and mothers missing their children as they study in other parts of Europe. I’ve met butchers, farmers, and jewelry designers. I’ve met American students that fit the stereotypes so perfectly, I have to apologize for them, and others that have baffled me as to how inquisitive, smart, and kind they are – and how willing they are to learn about the world. I have met bearded guys on the train that kept me company, I’ve met pilots with daughters my age that are working in South America, I’ve met crazy, crazy people who like to base jump on their days off (and secretly wish I could go with them). I’ve met people who have followed their hearts across oceans, and now live completely different lives than they thought they would – simply because of love. I’ve  met many that have felt unwanted and discriminated by the United States, and because of this, I have learned even more than if I had just stayed home. I have met many, learned so much, but there is one that I have met and learned from that is above all of this: Rami.

Before Bus2alps had an office, our hours of internet were to be held in Astor Cafe – left side of the Duomo, you can’t miss it. And if you know me, you know the story. But Rami Saltagi was different and because of him I survived and thrived in this past year. I met him early, but soon was in love with him and soon my dream of living and working here with Bus2alps, coincided with living and working on my relationship with him.

Maybe that was my downfall, because I wanted to spend time with my boyfriend and my company. For, truthfully, Bus2alps is a lifestyle, not a job – and having anything else is definitely difficult. Maybe it was because I didn’t entirely “fit in” with the group of people who were my co-workers. Maybe it was because of mistakes I made early on in my life with Bus2alps that I couldn’t fix or make up. Maybe it was simply because I could not be a salesperson.

But recently, Bus2alps told me that I had to make a decision. One way, I would salvage my history with them and maintain my position in the company so I could travel with them and do what I love for at least another semester – but I would be making a conscious decision that may put my relationship in more legal trouble than it already is in. In the past year, I had given the company my everything. I had worked my ass off. I had done everything they asked of me legally to do to the point where I had nothing else to give. But this was asking too much.

The other option? Quit.

Sometimes, on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one. I got lost. Lost in the foam of a perfectly created cappuccino, lost in the echo of “BUONGIORNORAGAZZE” every morning, lost in the shadow of the Duomo, and lost in the brown eyes of a European.

Bus2alps was my dream, and I lived it for a year and a half. But now, I’m sitting in Florence, jobless, but completely satisfied knowing that I have found so much of a better dream than what I had in my head when I flew over that beach.

Maybe the second sentence about Bus2alps will be filled with painful truths and some warnings, but I shake them when I say the first. I make it stick, because flying here on that first plane, was the best decision I have ever made.

So, though I never was given a thank you, I will give one to them.

Thank you, Bus2alps, for allowing me to learn, to grow, to see Europe. Thank you for the opportunities, the lessons learned, the tough skin, the lows and the highs. Thank you for the stress – it only made me learn to deal with it better. Thank you for the demotions. It only made me work harder. Thank you for the days at the lake, the nights on the mountains, the dinners under the Tuscan sun and the toasts of Champagne to being young, wild, and free. And thank you, more than anything, for putting me in Florence, when I asked to be in Rome. And for having office hours at Astor every morning at 10 am.

Thank you, so.incredibly.much, for that.

Orientation is far from a conference room with Bus2alps

“It’s simple really,” Moos began as he stood at the top of the mountain, bathed in the light of headlamps from the other Outdoor Guides that had accompanied us up the gondola. He sat on the bright blue sled and demonstrated to us how to turn, stop, and gain as much speed as humanly possible.

“If you see white, you are ok. That is the snow on the track. If you see black in front of you, turn away from it because it is going to be someone, or something else that won’t be too nice to run into.”

And as the strobes of light move past the Swiss Chalets of Insenfluh, I stop and look out from our perch on the mountainside. The town below sparkles as bright as the stars and the Milky Way above; the faint outline of the snow-covered mountain range looming in between.

Not many people have gone night sledding before. And that included most of the Bus2alps guides on our orientation. Some fumbled nervously with their glow sticks (used as “break lights” on the track) while others, including myself, looked out at the beauty around us. But the silent moment of awe was soon replaced with the screams of us careening down a dim-white track of snow through the trees. And I don’t think I’ve ever had such a fun experience in my life.  Sledding turned into a Mario Kart-style race. Breaking with your feet, flying past co-workers, and that view still flickering through the trees.

Welcome to Orientation – Bus2alps style. Where “conferences” involve having chats at the top of a black diamond trail in the middle of the Alps. Yes, sure we were seated in front of Power Points occasionally (though the distraction of paragliders out the window does not help with attention span) and we did have meetings brainstorming ideas for the upcoming semester (make sure to keep checking in on our YouTube channel in the next few months) but those in charge at Bus2alps make sure to keep a pretty good balance of work and play, though most of us think the work IS play!

From night sledding followed by a cozy little fondue dinner, to skiing and sledding the alps the next day to learn the trails above the tree-line in the shadow of the Eiger peak of Switzerland. We here learn so we can show you. Fun, adventure, adrenaline, experience.

This is our job. We do it and learn it, so you can experience it.

We are getting ready for a bus2awesome adventure this semester!

Are you?

Surfing in Morocco

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and glances at me and then back to the water, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No…you are too strong….paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

“Stand up!” he calls under his French/Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide to the shore with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him. I push my board out into the waves again, pulling against the surge. He smiles as I paddle to him, and shakes his head.

“You could never be Muslim, but it is possible for you to be Moroccan.”

Vacationing on Long Lake in Maine (Old Writing)

 On a cool summer night, I step away from the sparkling coals of the bonfire and make my way carefully down to the dock. There are double the stars: half in the sky, half in the smooth surface of the water. I dream of stepping out onto the surface with my bare, sap-spotted feet and dancing across the Milky Way.  I’m jealous of the Loons who float across the water, weaving in and out of the big dipper and circling the moon, with no noise but their haunting calls out into the cloudless sky.

To me, those birds are the sound of summer nights. Echoing off the boundaries of Long Lake, the trilled cries harmonize with the pops and cracks of the fire, the summer wind drifting through the leaves, and the gentle bump of the canoe on the side of the dock. This is where I spend my summers. Sitting on the rocky coast of a lake in Maine, my grandparents’ house behind me, I need nothing else. It’s a perfect New England get away. Maine is known for being “the way life should be.” Sometimes, I believe it.

My grandparents’ house is located in Harrison, Maine to be exact, and situated on the back of Cape Monday Cove on LongLake. Few know where it is until I tell them it’s connected to SebagoLake, which, for some reason, is a popular camping spot for people in my hometown of Haverhill, Mass. It’s exactly a two hour drive – over the river and through the woods. Dirt roads and farmland rule the countryside, but it isn’t all that rural. In the summer, the population of the town triples in size. It’s a vacation spot – the water comes alive with boats, swimmers, jet skis, floats, trampolines, water-skiers, wake boarders, and the ever so popular tubers. I like to listen to them, the low drone of their engines, and the high pitched screams and laughter of those being bounced around on the waves. They usually circle down into the cove, sometimes to sightsee, sometimes to reach calmer water for wake-boarding tricks. It’s relaxing. I usually can be found on the dock, back towards the sun, eyes closed and listening to the sounds of the water. Rarely are we in the house in the summer. If we are it is simply to change, or eat.

The house is situated on the side of the rocky banks. But my grandmother, through years and years of work, has made the landscape into gardens worthy of magazines. Everywhere, there are flowers, bright yellows, oranges, pinks and purples: Black Eyed Susans, Impatients, Roses, Peonies, Morning Glories, and Zinnia’s. They line the drive as you come into the yard. They’re on either side of the wooden walkways my grandfather has constructed, surrounding the house on all four sides, hugging the cement walls of the cellar and flowing outward ten to fifteen feet.

One year, my brother and I made stepping stones, with our handprints as the centerpiece. They still sit in the garden next to the driveway, alongside the birdbath and a wooden bench. Pine needles are usually sprawled over the surface. Now, when I try to place my hand in the print, my fingers are twice as long, and my hand too wide. Those little hands are the same ones that gripped the tattered rope of the wooden swing that sits in between two pine trees overlooking the water. There are pictures of my grandmother and I on that swing when I was too young to even walk. One year, the rope broke and I flew off into the rock wall in front of me, scraping my legs on the way down. But with a length of new rope and a couple of nails, everything was back in order.

That swing is only one of many constructions my grandparents have made for me. Across the street, there is a playground hidden in the woods. It has everything: a tree house – suspended between five or six birch tree saplings, a seesaw, picnic table, zip line, and a tire swing. It was amazing in the fall and in the winter. But once the mosquitoes took over, it’s almost unbearable. I’d still venture into my playground in the summer to look for toads – tiny little toads that I used to collect like bottle caps. My grandmother would take old soda bottles and make them into little homes for the amphibians. I’d carry them around until I felt bad, and then let them back out into the woods, telling them that I’m sorry but I just wanted to look at them for awhile.

My grandparents love projects. The arrangement of our docks changes drastically every year, as they are trying to make the perfect set up for our boats. My grandparents own their own fleet consisting of two kayaks, a sunfish, a paddleboat, a canoe, a small fishing boat, and a powerboat. I like the kayaks, and the canoe. Awhile ago we had a dingy, which usually only fit one person, but I was small at the time so I could fit with my Dad. And he rowed us around the island at dusk. We watched a Crane take off into the sunset on the far side of the lake, only to come back with a fish in it’s mouth later on.

The cove behind the island is even quieter than our own. Another time we glided through, I was in the canoe with my mother and grandmother. The sun was setting, and the water bugs were dancing on the darkening surface of the water. I sat in the middle, on the floor of the canoe, dragging one hand in the water, catching the whirlpools my mother’s oar was making in the surface. Loons called out to us, announcing our entrance into their homes. And then a soft music was heard. There, in the back of the cove, a violin was singing a high, slow melody. The lights of the houses behind illuminated the water just enough to silhouette the canoe with the violinist. He was alone, playing for all the cove to hear. And the Loons harmonized, making nature and music come together in an eerily beautiful song that I shall never forget.

The island is only accessible by boat in the summer. In the winter, the ice freezes so thick that they plow a frozen road to this otherwise inaccessible land. Ice fisherman and snowmobiles also take advantage of the temporary tundra the Maine winter brings. My grandparents’ house, what was in the summer an unwanted necessity, is now a comfort. Walking in, the fireplace is burning brightly, and through the sliders, I can see the lights of snowmobiles flying across the flattened surface of the lake. The television is turned on longer, and the beds upstairs have more blankets added to their layers.

The winter has a different feel. It’s more of comfort, less of fun. The snow is piled high against the windows. And sometimes I retreat to the cellar to the computer room to sit and talk. My grandfather is usually down there, working on his US Sub Vets website. Sometimes he tells me stories of how living underwater for months at a time was. I couldn’t imagine it. I can barely stay inside the house for a day straight. Walking out onto the ice, the wind whips by, and my face freezes. One year, there was no snow, but the ice was three feet thick. It was a skating rink ten miles long. I wished I had learned how to do more than simply skate forward. At night, just as in the summer, the winter has a magic. Gone are the loons, but the ice sings it’s own song. Expanding and contracting, as almost as if it’s breathing, the ice murmurs under the snow. Low, thundering booms are heard even inside the house. I love to watch the reactions of those who don’t understand the noise. Many feel my house is haunted. In all seasons, an eerie sound is present. To me, it is simply a part of my cove. To them, ghosts are the culprit. But there are no ghosts, though faces watch from every room in the house.

Pictures, one of my grandmother’s pastimes, are sprawled in every corner available, telling stories of summer, sledding, families, and friends. They tell stories, show the past, and describe how the present has come about. Just this past Christmas, we bought them a digital picture frame, so the newest of our memories can be displayed, rather than stored on a computer.

Downstairs, on my grandparent’s bed, my Trixie is usually curled up. A tabby cat that is wise beyond her years, is deaf and blind now, but knows every footstep of my young life. We are both nineteen. Though in cat years, she is almost at the end of her time here. Many don’t like her. When she had sight, she wasn’t the friendliest of cats. My father especially, was afraid of her, and the time she decided to sit on his lap, I was called in to quickly take her off. She liked me enough. I’d give her treats and tuna juice every chance I had. There were few she liked. She despised dogs. My yellow lab learned that the hard way a couple years ago, when Trixie staged a full out attack that ended with scratch marks on a quivering puppy. Now, like an old lady, she bumps into walls as she goes down the hall to her bowl.

My dog, Sadie is only five. Though there have been moments of cat and dog disagreement, she still loves when we go to Maine. She learned how to swim here, and now can be seen leaping off the edge of the dock. Sometimes, I even get her to take kayak rides with me, and the fuzzy, yellow head will sit patiently looking out into the water, as I paddle down into the cove.

Most of all, the time spent with my grandparents is key. They make this place what I describe it to be: magical, relaxing. From the time I was old enough to stand; I have helped my grandmother in her gardens, painted, drawn and swam with her. When I pull into the driveway, I can’t wait to see her and Brian’s faces – to see what kind of project she has in store. She drives all over the neighborhood to find flat rocks to build her walls that surround her gardens. She makes sure that she has enough room for me to bring up an entire squadron of friends if I want to. She makes things fun, exciting. Never, have I seen this woman sit down. We go for walks down the dirt roads, and swim around the cove. The past two years, on weekends in early spring, I have sat out on the back deck, with my face towards the sun, with my grandmother practicing my prom make-up. Hopefully someday, I’ll be sitting there as she’s putting my blush on for my wedding.

Some nights, when I walk down to the dock and wish I could dance among the stars, my grandmother will come down and stand next to me

“It’s beautiful out tonight,” she’ll say, gracefully sipping out of her wine glass.

And sometimes I don’t think she understands how much her home, this place, truly means to me. The loons call out, and she tells me to come back up to the fire. I can hear my mother laughing in the background. I smile and follow her back up. In the warmth of the embers, my family is smiling. I smile too. For the moment, I don’t need to dance among the stars. Dancing in the firelight is just fine.

 

 

Irish Travels

For some reason, the owner thought it’d be a good idea to paint it Kelly green, and to make it worse they painted a leprechaun on the side. Typical. Tourist. But it was cheap, and it was easy, and it was my savior from planning, and procrastinating, and producing nothing but worry. My backpack was tossed in, with the  bags of the Canadians and the Chinese and the Australians and the Swedish, and I sat in my own seat, curled up behind my coat and I looked out the window to the green, the leaves, the sheep, the ocean, listening to the Irish brogue of our driver as he lulled me to sleep. And that bus, that horrid green, that blends-but-clashes-with-the-landscape green, that contained a small collaboration of nations itself, rolled over the hills of Ireland and down to the coast and back up again. Over and over. And I would sit, and lean my head against the window, swaying back and forth with the rocky road, sitting in my adopted, moving home, feeling that this was the safest place in the world, the safest, strangest place I’ve ever been. This place, this bus, where I knew no one. Where I was no one. No one but the lone American girl that had studied in Italy and was from Boston. And the freedom of it – the freedom of being able to be anyone I wanted. To do anything I ever wanted to do, say what I wanted to say. I had no restrictions, no baggage, no history. No one had any expectations. They knew me as I acted that week and nothing more, nothing less. So it was ok, when some days I was loud and happy, and laughing, and telling stories about my life, my home, about Italy, about people that I loved, my pets, about what I missed from home, my school, about everything that I have ever known, releasing my mysteriousness, letting them know me, letting them understand. But it was also ok to sit in my own seat, legs pulled up tight to my chest. Sit. Think. Listen. Learn. And I’d feel so happy, so content, so needlessly comfortable, watching the landscapes of Ireland pass lazily by outside my window. And my heart would soar and tell me it wanted to live here forever. In between the rocky coast and the rocky countryside. Weaving through the fishing harbors and the peat bogs and the myths and the fairy rings. And when I stepped off that bus and walked onto the plane that last day, the bland, white plane, I sat in my seat and brought my knees to my chest and rested my head against the window. But something, was missing.