Eat to live or live to eat?

18 Oct

Image Source: © 2014 pithypants

We all learned a lot about each other’s eating preferences on our trip to Italy. If I had to summarize, here are our dietary tenets…

Mom:

  1. It’s not breakfast unless it involves orange juice and milk.
  2. Every table should include a salt shaker.
  3. There is such a thing as “too much” marinara sauce.
  4. Meat makes it a meal.

Me:

  1. Live to eat.
  2. Salami is like a blood-sugar insurance policy – one slice at every meal keeps things ticking.
  3. There’s no such thing as too much pasta.
  4. If a restaurant has bruschetta, we’re ordering it.

Alicia:

  1. Eat to live.
  2. Black tea, hold the sugar – hot/cold throughout the day.
  3. Have yogurt, will travel.
  4. Coronettos whenever possible.

Further demonstrating how differently we approach food, shortly after returning, my sister shared this link for Soylent. I encourage you to check out the page and see if anything about the concept appeals to you. (Soylent is a food replacement product that provides nutrients via a powder that mixes into a drink.)

The stated benefits are:

  • Time: Prepare multiple meals in minutes – no need to shop for individual ingredients or plan ahead
  • Money: Spend less than $10 per day on food, and less than $4 per meal – get more than a day’s worth of meals for less than the cost of takeout
  • Nutrition: Eat balanced and wholesome – get all of the essential nutrients required to fuel the human body

Sorry. This guy’s value proposition falls apart for me with the first bullet – I enjoy taking time to shop for ingredients and cook dinner. And more important than money or nutrition to me is TASTE. It might be wrong, but I eat for enjoyment, not nutrition. My sister on the other hand…

Granted, all you need to do is look at us to see how our eating philosophies have shaped our bodies. She’s an easy size 4, and I could definitely stand to lose a pound or, um, fifteen. Details.

Finally – because I’m mildly obsessed with Soylent and the fact that this guy thinks enough people are wired like my sister that there’s a market for this product – can we discuss the name? Is it a terrible or brilliant marketing move to name his product after the 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green, which is summarized by Wikipedia as “…the investigation into the murder of a wealthy businessman in a dystopian future suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and all-year humidity due to the greenhouse effect. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green.”

I mean, the plot does seem to be playing out in real life, so I can see where Soylent’s founder drew a connection. The problem, however, is that at the end of the film, you discover that “soylent green” is actually PEOPLE. So here’s guy in 2014, selling an unrecognizable nutritional powder and he’s deliberately named it something that calls to mind cannibalism. Interesting brand strategy.

Which camp are you in? Love to eat or eat for fuel?

From Russia, with (Not Exactly) Love?

9 Oct
Mom and Alicia on our train TO Naples - when everyone was healthy (but apparently tired).

Mom and Alicia on our train TO Naples – when everyone was healthy (but apparently tired).

 

I thought the Cold War was over, and – Putin aside – Americans and Russians generally got along now. I may have been wrong. That, or we encountered a group of Russians who were having an incredibly bad day as we left the Amalfi Coast.

Monday we took the train from Salerno to Rome. It was the same train we’d taken to Naples earlier in the week, so – having learned from our first ride – we wisely chose seats on the western-side of the car so we’d be shaded for the ride.

We were a bit nervous about the journey because my mom had woken up sick as a dog the previous day. She’d been in such bad shape (a self-rated “1” on a scale of 1-10) that we’d explored the airline’s policy for changing tickets so she wouldn’t have to travel until she was better. But, trooper that she is, she rallied for journey from the coast back up to Rome.

So we found ourselves sitting on the shady side of the car, my mom slumped in a seat with a wad of toilet paper in her pocket to combat her perpetually runny nose, crossing our fingers that we’d be able to make it to Rome with as little hassle a possible.

Things were looking good – until (about an hour into our journey) we pulled into the Naples.

At Naples, it felt like the entire population of Italy was boarding the train. We looked at each other, relieved that we had claimed our seats before the masses joined. And then, without warning, there was suddenly a group of five very large people hovering over us, frowning and pointing at our seats.

My sister, our translator for the trip, said, “Scusi…” then asked a few questions in Italian about the seats that elicited blank-stares. She tried English. They shook their heads, still frowning. Then – hearing them talk to each other – a lightbulb went off and she harkened back to her college years and tried Russian. Boom!

Turns out, the five angry people hulking over us were Russian and had reserved the exact seats we were sitting in. While there were plenty of other empty seats in the car, they were hellbent on having the precise seats that were on their tickets. The thing was – they wouldn’t show Alicia where on their tickets the seats were indicated. She wasn’t asking to challenge them, but rather the figure out how the seating arrangements worked since we couldn’t find any seat numbers on our tickets.

They just kept glaring at us and jostling us and speaking loudly to each other. My mom looked confused. I sat there uselessly holding a half-eaten apple.

[Back-story: Just before the train stopped, my sister asked if I wanted to split an apple. She handed it to me to start - then began composing a text message, which took about ten minutes. I'd eaten my half of the apple well before we'd pulled into the station, but had continued to hold the core, waiting for her to wrap up the text so she could have her half. In the middle of this, the confusion ensued, so I was slowly realizing we were going to need to move, I was going to need to somehow move a backpack and two suitcases down the car and my hand was incapacitated because it was lamely holding a half-eaten apple.]

Finally, I knew what needed to be done. I handed my mom the apple and said, “C’mon – we need to move. They reserved these seats.” I gestured to some other seats down the car. “We’ll just go sit there and get out of the way while we figure out where we’re supposed to sit.”

Much like a puzzle, where you need to move one piece to a temporary spot to make room to move the right piece into place, we needed to maneuver into a temporary space to get out of the Russians’ way so they could claim their seats. But they were standing in the temporary space and got angry when we tried to move into it, despite the polite hand gestures and earnest looks I was giving to show our intention was only temporary.

We finally managed to extract ourselves and move down the car, my sister and I relaying our bags to a new location while my mom carried the apple. We eventually got a nice Italian guy to look at our tickets a show us where the seat numbers were hiding – and got situated in our new block of seats on the opposite end of the car. (To do so, we also had to displace another group of people, but we were nice about it and took the time to point out on our tickets – and theirs – where the seat numbers were located. I’d like to believe our interaction was educational as opposed to confrontational.)

Once we were parked in our forever-seats, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. My mom offered up the apple, which was now browning and had been through too much – by which I mean “held by a sick person” – for anyone to want to eat. We wrapped it in a bag. Alicia pulled out her knitting and resumed working on a scarf.

“Well,” I commented. “That was certainly a cluster.”

Mom nodded.

Alicia got a big smile, “At least I got to speak some Russian!”

I’m not sure we did anything to strengthen US-Russian relations with that little interaction, but at least we didn’t start an international incident.

When I shared this with Alan after returning home, he got caught up in the frustration of the story. Before I could finish, he was offering up Russian phrases he’d learned while living in Georgia. I don’t speak Russian, but even I could tell he wasn’t using the word “mother” to talk about my mom’s health.

Probably best that he wasn’t on that leg of the journey.

 

The Amalfi Coast: The way it was meant to be seen…

5 Oct
© 2014 - pithypants.com

Positano, photographed by my sister.

To appreciate the Amalfi Coast, you really have to see it from the sea – or at least, that’s what people (by which I mean “friends and guidebooks”) told us. We decided to heed their advice on Friday and join a small private charter to Capri.

Visiting Capri (which is pronounced similarly to “khaki” in terms of where the accent goes) was always part of our agenda, but we’d planned to get there via ferry. Thursday night, however, I went online to explore other options – in no small part because I was so traumatized by our initial bus ride that I was eager to avoid another ride to the port where the ferry departs.

As usually happens, I ended up on TripAdvisor, looking to see what the top Capri attractions were – when I saw a slew of glowing reviews for this boat service. I checked the forecast for the next day (80 degrees and sunny), then reached out to see if there was room for us to join. There was!

© 2014 - pithypants.comThe next morning, we walked five minutes over to the town pier just in time to see a boat speeding up. We hopped on, the last pick-up of a group of ten people spending the day together. The others were also Americans and over the age of 55, so by comparison Alicia and I were spring chickens.

Apparently the first mate (Alessandro) was relieved to have some “younger” women on board, because he kept winding his way over to talk to us. “It is my lucky day,” he said, “To have such beautiful women on the boat.” We rolled our eyes and said, “You actually just mean it’s nice not having retired women on the boat for a change, right?”

Regardless, he said he would open special wine for us on the trip – then later popped the cork out of a bottle of Prosecco. Sorry, Alessandro, you’re going to have to try harder – that’s no Veuve Cliquot. 

He also asked if we had toured the Amalfi Coast roads at night – to which we told him we had, by bus, and we had found it terrifying. He shook his head, “No – by scooter! I take you by scooter – very romantic!” Sorry, Alessandro, now you’re trying TOO hard. Go steer the boat.

Isn't the water unreal?

Isn’t the water unreal?

Once Alessandro was in check, we spent the next two hours zipping along the coast – first over to the Green Grotto (where I learned other peoples’ tricks for distinguishing stalactites from stalagmites), then past the Lovers’ Arch, which newlyweds pass under in a rowboat for good luck after getting married. Then up past Amalfi and Positano before cutting over to the Isle of Capri.

Along the way, a friendly woman who had no filter became our friend. We were all sprawled out on a cushioned sundeck when she introduced herself my reaching over, pointing at my mom’s shin and saying, “I also have those white spots on my leg.” Without waiting for a response, “In Florida they told me they’d go away if I rubbed kerosene on them…” Did they also suggest you should strike a match? 

Among her other quotes from the day:

My son’s wife has fake breasts. They just look like two little melons cut in half and stuck on her chest. Whatever – he seems to like them.

Once you have kids your breasts look like bananas. It’s like someone let all the air out. 

My daughter was a real hellion growing up. Lied about everything. Now she’s an angel. She said she never wanted kids but she’s the best mom. 

© 2014 pithypants.com

Us, swimming, in the middle of no where.

Once we hit Capri, we did a slow loop of the island, threading the needle of the Faraglioni Rocks with our boat before finding a calm place to drop anchor and swim. It was about 80˚ and sunny and the water was still balmy enough that it felt refreshing but not breath-taking. In high season the island is apparently mobbed by boats, but we only ever had a couple boats within our line of sight, which was great.

When we climbed out of the water, the ever-faithful Alessandro was waiting on deck with a hose to spray the salt water off us. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I think he enjoyed that part of his job just a bit too much. That, or the salt just really tends to stick to your boobs.

After toweling off, we continued around the island, stopping briefly at the Blue Grotto. The waves were too choppy to enter (we would’ve had to go by rowboat and the entrance doesn’t have much clearance, which makes it weather-dependent) so we continued around to the Marina Grande, where we hopped off to explore the island.

Image Source: http://www.cover-guru.com/covers/preview/Zab2h.jpg

The Isle of Capri itself was underwhelming. I mean, it was very pretty and the views were spectacular, but the mainland of the Amalfi Coast spoils you to such an extent that by the time you hit Capri, it would take a unicorn farting a rainbow to take your breath away.

We puttered around, taking the funicular to the center of Capri, then checked out various shops and gardens, finally walking back down to the marina by way of a winding alley dotted with small shrines to the Madonna.

On our return to the the mainland, the wine was flowing and our fellow tourmates repeatedly sang “Volare” (think Gypsy Kings) at the top of their lungs. It was a big party until we pulled up to the pier in Amalfi, when we started waving goodbye to our new friends. About this time, the captain said, “You leave now too…” to which my sister replied, “Joke? You joke?” while nodding her head.

Turns out, we’d arranged for a special pick-up in Minori, but had failed to specify that we needed a special return. Oops. While I was momentarily miffed (mainly because I thought was going to NOT ride a SITA bus for a day), it ended up working out great because it gave us a chance to explore Amalfi while only taking the bus one way.

In any case, we lived to see another day. And all that advice about seeing Amalfi from the water? Glad we took it.

© 2014 - pithypants.com

Italy: A Travel Interview

4 Oct

With a week under our belt in Italy, I thought it would be a good time to interview my mom and sister about their impressions of the country. Here’s the transcript from a quick discussion on our balcony in the Amalfi Coast.

© 2014 pithypants.com

If you had to describe Italy in one word, what would it be?

Mom: Gorgeous. Wait – let me rethink it – I forgot about Rome. Gorgeous is for the Amalfi Coast. For Rome – I’d say “masses of humanity.”

Alicia: My word for Rome would be “surprising.” Like the really old parts everywhere, then the park where you don’t expect there to be a park.

Mom: Right – like when you realize the old things you’re seeing are thousands of years old instead of hundreds of years old…

Alicia: And you can touch it all… in DC you can’t even touch the Capitol building – OK, maybe that’s different – but here you can just walk right up to everything, and it’s a lot older.

 

Selfie-stick, anyone?

Selfie-stick, anyone?

What are three things you will always associate with Italy?

Mom (answering immediately): Motorscooters (then pausing to think before continuing)… and I guess Indians selling selfie-sticks; oh – and the red sauce – the fact that everything here has red sauce on it. It’s good food but I get tired of it – everything has red sauce. I need a hamburger!

Alicia: Juniper trees – or whatever those really tall, thin trees were; free [water] fountains; and people saying buongiorno.

Mom (laughing, holding up a beer bottle): And Peroni beer!

 

Capri - the island that is "no big whoop..."

Capri – the island that is “no big whoop…”

What advice would you give someone thinking  about visiting Italy for the first time?

Mom: Be sure and come to the Amalfi Coast – your tour must include it! Also – the Island of Capri isn’t any different than the towns along the Coast, but getting to and from it was gorgeous.

Alicia: Coming this time of year. I can’t imagine doing this when it’s hotter and more crowded. I was surprised by how busy Rome still was for it being “off season.”

 

Us, Vesuvius and Pompeii. Boom.

Us, Vesuvius and Pompeii. Boom.

What have you found the most surprising about Italy?

Mom: The climate. I wasn’t expecting it to be like this. This is summer time. And the BLUE WATER of the Mediterranean blew me away.

Alicia: I guess it’s where we’ve been, but it’s been all about tourists. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to see the real Italy. The other surprise (for the same reason) is that people haven’t been as friendly as I thought – I’ve felt like an imposition a lot of the time.

Mom (whispering): Don’t touch the lemons!

Mom (not whispering any more): You just want to say, “Well, kiss my ass – we’re your payday.”

Alicia: People said they would appreciate it if you try to speak the language. But I’m not getting any points for trying.

Mom: Also – another thing that surprised me is how everything closes up in the middle of the afternoon for a few hours – all the stores and shops. Everything except the restaurants.

Mom: Pompeii was pretty amazing too. That made more of an impression on me than the stuff in Rome. It was a hassle – everything about getting there and leaving there – but it was worth it. Being there [in Pompeii] was pretty cool. Oh – and paying to go to the bathroom. That was a surprise. And the money and fuel they save from driving – they must use that on plastic bottles for their water. It seems like they’d just drink the water coming from the mountain.

Alicia: Another surprise has been how quickly I adjusted to the time. 

 

What is the most unique experience you’ve had on this trip so far? 

Mom: Going to a wedding! We didn’t even get them a gift. Geez… 

Mom (after a thoughtful pause):  But it was pretty cool, wasn’t it?

[More on this later. We crashed a wedding in Minori.]

Alicia (kind of screaming): Jumping off a boat into the Mediterranean where I couldn’t see the bottom.

Mom: Also the bus trip to Minori. It was unique AND scary. I thought I’d die. The drivers probably get paid for each trip they make so they’re just thinking, “more money, more money.”

 

Making lemonade out of lemons...

Making lemonade out of lemons…

What question haven’t I asked?

Mom (smiling and pointing at herself): Who’s been the best trouper?

Alicia: It’s true – you’ve been great! We should get you like a captain’s hat or something to wear that says “Trouper” on it.

 

And this concludes our interview. I’ll post more thoroughly about the ways in which my mother has been a trouper later. Here’s a hint: Today is the first day in more than a week that we’ve walked fewer than six miles in one day!

The Amalfi Coast in One Word: Terrifying?

2 Oct
Something older than us...

Something older than us…

Finally – on Day Six, my internet works. Relief or curses? I don’t know, but I DO know that I’m glad my company adopted a two-step verification process for our email, because it means I can’t access it until I’m back on US soil with a working cell phone. Now THAT is what I call vacation!

As for what the Italians call vacation (vacazione?) – I have no idea. I usually prep for any international trip by learning a bunch of phrases that I think I’ll need, but when we were dividing tasks for this trip, my sister volunteered to take on the language and be our translator, so I decided to play the part of “lazy American” and just rely on her or point at things while nodding. (Never mind that I’ve been to Italy twice before and yet somehow didn’t manage to retain any vocabulary.)

So far, the pointing and nodding is working pretty well.

Regardless, I’m sitting on balcony in Minori on the Amalfi Coast, overlooking the start of the pedestrian area lined with markets as I write this. We arrived last night from Rome by way of a stop in Pompeii.

If you’ve never visited the Amalfi Coast, let me tell you share the Truth about Ruth on a topic the guidebooks dismiss with wink and a smile: The local SITA Bus. This bus runs pretty much the full length of the coast of the Amalfi from Salerno to Positano. Along with the Pacific Coast Highway and the Cabot Trail in North America, it’s one of the most scenic drives in the world.

It is also one of the most terrifying.

Granted, I’ve only attempted it once, and that was when we arrived last night and it was dark out, so it might just be our driver that made it insane. But I’m not exaggerating when I say I thought we would die. Were I religious, I would’ve prayed to see my fortieth birthday.

The road itself would cause people with a fear of heights some anxiety, because it winds around the sides of cliffs very high over the sea. In places, there is no guardrail. In other places, the two lanes (one in each direction) collapse into a single lane and traffic must negotiate which direction will yield to the other around blind curves.

All of that, however, simply makes the road potentially scary. What made it actually terrifying was our driver.

I am pretty sure the guy fancies himself the next Mario Andretti and has an axe to grind with the Formula One racing commission for being rejected as a driver. That, or he was in a hurry to finish his shift and clock out.

Either way, the speed with which we tackled the road was unbelievable. We sung around hairpin turns so tightly that that looking down, you couldn’t even see the road – just the sheer drop to the sea. There was zero margin of error – had the brakes failed, a tire blown or even his hands slipped, we would’ve been off the road and soaring into the Mediterranean.

I kept having flashes of Grace Kelly plunging off a cliff, thinking, “Hello!! It DOES happen. I’m not being unreasonable.” 

I love the thrill of rollercoasters, so had I imagined we were hooked to rails, I think I would’ve done better. Instead, my mom and I just kept looking at each other with huge saucer-like eyes. My sister – two rows ahead of us – kept her eyes shut and her head back, resigned to whatever fate the traffic gods dealt.

Around us, the locals looked bored by the experience. Teens sitting near us softly chanted an Italian rap. The old man next to us slumped in the corner, smiling as if day dreaming. Or maybe that’s the look of peace and tranquility of someone who knows he is walking into the light.

In any case, this is how we’ll be getting to Amalfi, Ravello and pretty much every other town we want to explore this week, so I’m hoping we just had a rogue driver on our first run. But in case that’s the norm, we just did a load of laundry so we’d have an extra change of underwear for each ride. Here’s hoping we don’t need it.

 

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