Tag Archives: Italy

Marsa…wha?

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I “oohed” and “aahed” at the temples in Tarxian, and now I headed in what I hoped was the right direction toward the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.  I know I write a lot about getting lost, but this was the worst.  As I wrote in a previous post, all the buildings in Malta look similar.  It was raining, so people were walking with their heads down under umbrellas and it would have been hard to get their attention to ask directions.  Although English is the official language, for the Maltese people I met it was clearly a second language.

I asked a woman in a pharmacy and she haltingly directed me to a city bus stop.  I stood there a few minutes, thinking I could just give up on seeing more of the country and go back to Valetta.  But which direction was Valetta?  I struck out again was soon panicking.  What if I never found the bus stop?  What if I had to spend the night in Tarxian?  I hadn’t seen any B&Bs or even a downtown area.  Could I take a taxi back to Valetta, if they had taxis?  My umbrella blew inside out and splattered me with rain just as a truck drove by and splashed water from a puddle all over my feet and legs. I started to whimper, then told myself, “Anne, buck up!  It’s not like you’re going to die … probably.”

I went into a tiny store and asked the man at the counter if he knew where GymStars was, the landmark I had noted at the bus stop.  He knew it!  He gave me clear directions and within 10 minutes I was on the bus.  But first I bought this orange at a fruit stand.  Look how beautifully wrapped it is.

orange

We were off to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. I love that name. Like the Maltese people, their language reflects the mix of cultures that have passed through or ruled the archipelago.  Maltese is the only Semitic language in the EU, and it’s a “latinized form of Arabic” that originated in Sicily.  About half the words are of Arabic origin, a third are from Italian, and the rest are from English.  Here’s a sample of Maltese:

malti-paper

As soon as I stepped off the bus in Marsaxlokk I felt at peace.  I took more photos here than I can count, but here are just a few of the boats in the bay.

best-boat-shot boats-3 boats-5boats-7

I decided I didn’t care about anything else on the bus route.  I was going to savor my time here. It started to rain again, hard, and my umbrella heaved inside out then totally collapsed.  I thrust it into a trash can and stepped into what I assumed from its massive size was a cathedral, although the village couldn’t have had more than a few thousands residents. Here’s the dome:

church-dome

I could hear water dripping from the dome; there was a bucket in the aisle to catch it.  The church had the usual icons such as this one with Mary with a dagger in her heart:

stabbed

I guess a lot of believers find this inspiring.  Personally I prefer female role models who aren’t martyrs.

An elderly man and woman were sitting in the back of the church chatting.  I asked what the name of the church was.

“Our Lady of Pompeii,” came the reply.

Pompeii?”

“Yes, but Our Lady is gone for the month.  She is visiting Sorrento, Italy.”

I walked into a restaurant and was seated at a table facing a TV that was blaring, “Donald Trump … next American President … President Elect Trump ….”  I buried my face in my hands.  It was still sinking in, and as I write this, he has just been inaugurated and it still seems unreal.  If only someone would jump out right now and yell, “Ha ha, pranked ya!”

The hostess very kindly and discreetly changed the channel to music videos.

I had a good fish meal (the boats weren’t just for show), then took the bus back to Valetta.

fish fish-2

Here was my last sight of Marsaxlokk:

doors

Tarxien Temples

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As one does, I hopped off the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus in Tarxian, just outside of Malta’s capital city of Valetta.  I knew that the whole reason I was here—my desire to see the 3000 B.C. underground burial site called the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni—was closed for renovation. How do you “renovate” a 5000-year-old burial site?  But the driver had said there were other ruins off to the right somewhere, so I decided to have a look.

Here’s something about Malta.  While Italy offers a full palette of colors—ochre, Pompeian red, peacock blue, cerulean, warm beiges, every iteration of green—Malta is monochrome.  Everything is built out of limestone, and limestone doesn’t have a lot of variation to it.  Also, the buildings on Malta are all built to about the same height—two or three stories.  A coworker who had been to Malta told me before I left, “It all looks the same.”  So before I left the bus stop, which had no sign, I took a mental snap shot of the area.  There was something called GymStars which I figured I could remember and which would be unusual enough that people might know it if I had to ask for directions.

Two other women had also hopped off the bus with me, or I should say, I hopped and they stepped down.  They were much too sensible to hop, with their sturdy shoes and serious rain coats and hats.  They were from England, so they were much better prepared for rain than I was.

They were in Malta for the annual convention of Soroptimist.  Had I heard of it?  Umm … it sounded vaguely familiar but a lot of things do to me.  If it was a missionary thing I didn’t want to know.  Was it like the Women’s Institutes—where women in rural England compete on pie baking and floral arrangements? I asked.

No, and here I quote from their website: “Soroptimist is an international volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world.”  The italics are theirs; why they emphasize international I don’t know.  Maybe so you don’t confuse it with that local Soroptimist group that keeps knocking on your door and trying to give you pamphlets.

I kicked myself for not knowing there was an international women’s conference in town during my visit.  How great would that have been to attend?  I wondered what kind of freebies they handed out.

We chatted a bit about my job working for a refugee organization and about their convention, but within a few minutes we were lost.

“The bus driver waved in this direction,” one of my companions said, “so we at least know we’re on the right track.”  We asked for directions, walked a few blocks, asked again, and so on for about 20 minutes until we stumbled upon the temples.

There was a tiny office and gift shop where I paid my €4 or whatever it was, then we stepped outside to see the site, which was covered by sailcloth to protect visitors against sun and rain.

The Tarxien temples are megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 B.C.  “Megalithic” means “relating to or denoting prehistoric monuments made of or containing megaliths,” or “massive or monolithic.”  You get the idea.

megalithic

This was a floor section, about a foot and a half thick.

floor

It is believed that these stone balls were used to roll the mega sized slabs into place. No doubt with slave labor.

balls

The holes in these slabs were thought to be used to lash doors to the walls.

door-holes

There wasn’t much left of the decoration except for this lovely half a fat person.

fat-lady

I glanced around to find my two Soroptimist friends.  They were still at the first signpost and were consulting a book, so they were clearly taking a deep dive and would be there for hours. It was 11:00 a.m.  I had 32 more bus stops to go and had to leave the next day, so off I went in search of the bus stop.

On the Move

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I awoke in Malta to a new a racist, misogynist, and xenophobic regime in my poor country.  Of course that’s just my opinion and I’m one of those elitist, city-dwelling liberals who believes in facts.  Who needs facts when you have someone telling you what to think?

Based on the American news, I had expected to see hordes of refugees in Europe.  I follow the liberal news sources, and the scenes we see are of throngs of swarthy, dusty people behind fences, their fingers entwined in the chain links as they call out to be released from whatever camp they are in. Cut to scenes of dark young men sitting on the sidewalk in some European city, looking like they’re plotting something. Then there are the close-up shots of dusty, tired-looking women (always wearing hijabs) holding young children who have one tear rolling down their dusty cheek.

The impression we get from even the liberal news is that refugees are invading in massive numbers.  Specifically, Muslim refugees.  Now, I don’t know the exact numbers but since I work for an organization that serves refugees, I know there are many thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe.  However, the images we see didn’t play out for me in Europe.  I never saw crowds of refugees—unless they were wearing Prada and I mistook them for Italians.

I may as well say here that my American image of Italians as being dark, short, and well-dressed were confirmed on this trip.  The Maltese were also dark, even shorter, and while not as impeccably dressed as the Italians, I didn’t see many people wearing jeans or sweatshirts.  Many of the Maltese I saw also had beautiful green or amber-colored eyes.  Was this a result of the mingling of many nations that had taken place over millennia?

I could count on one hand the number of women I saw who were wearing hijabs.  I saw more nuns than black people during the entire three-week trip in three countries.

As I wrote on Election Day, I did meet an Ethiopian immigrant in Malta who went to the immigration office with me to find out if I could claim political asylum or just buy my way in.

After I learned that I couldn’t run away to Malta forever, I decided to at least see as much of it as I could in one day.  I had been up drinking espresso since 4:30 am and had had very unsettling news; what a perfect mode in which to explore a new country!

I found the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, which is a great way to get the layout of a city without having to figure out public transportation. Here is the map:

hop-on-hop-off

I ran to catch the bus, then sat for 45 minutes and talked to the driver and ticket seller until starting time. Both of the men appeared to be in their early 40s.  There were no other passengers, and the rain drizzled down continuously while we waited.

The driver didn’t have much to say but the ticket seller was up for talking. Topic number one was the American election, and they were as shocked as I was about the outcome.

“Probably some people here are happy about it,” the ticket seller said.  “Malta is a very conservative country.  Very Catholic.  Abortion is illegal and divorce was only legalized a few years ago.  Gay marriage?  Don’t bring it up.”

Maybe it hadn’t been such a great plan, me moving to Malta.

“But things are changing.  We’ve only got 400,000 people and of course a lot of the young ones have different ideas.”

Finally, the bus got going.  We stopped at a few hotels and picked up more passengers.  The first “stop,” if you could call it that, was in Tarxien, just outside of the capital city of Valletta.  The street was so narrow and congested that the bus basically slowed to a roll while some of us leaped off.  The driver waved his arm to the left and yelled, “Hypogeum!” then to the right and yelled, “temples!”

I was hopelessly lost within five minutes.

SU29

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was in Malta, at last, after a travel day I had dreaded for a month but which was only stressful due to my own anxieties.

I arrived at my hotel, the SU29, which was named for the alley in which it was located, St. Ursula Steps. This was an apt name since I thunk, thunk, thunked my suitcase down 200 steps to get there, and the hotel was only half way down the alley.

This was the third of my three hotels on which the website had promised, “We won’t charge your credit card until you check out.”  In all three cases, I immediately received texts and emails from my credit card company asking, “Did you approve a $300 charge by Moda Studio?”  Unsure, I texted back “no,” and my account was immediately frozen.  In the end, everything was fine and I hadn’t been duped into paying for $300 worth of Italian clothes that I would never receive.  Just know that when they say you won’t be charged until you’re there, what they mean is, “We will charge you the instant you hit submit, and your credit card company won’t like it.”  I had brought printed copies of my hotel receipts just in case the hotel disputed that I had paid, but none did.

One more thing about booking hotels. In case you’re not familiar with Rick Steves, he’s an American travel guru who specializes in Europe.  He does TV shows, publishes guidebooks, and sells travel gear on his website.  I found my Italian hotels in his books, and he says to mention that to get a discount.  Not.  They could have cared less.  He also recommends staying at least three nights and offering to pay cash in order to get a discount.  Nay.  Neither hotel responded to this.  Of course it was the off season, so maybe the prices were so low already they couldn’t be further discounted.

Here is a photo of my groovy hotel room at SU29.  It rained most of the time I was there, so I never sat outside, but I enjoyed the idea of it.

hotel-room

There is a scene in the old movie Fargo where a typical blond, blue-eyed Minnesota store clerk says all the things that drive me crazy about my home state, in that embarrassing Minnesota accent that surely I don’t have, right?  I can’t find the scene online but she says things like, “Hi der, how ya doin’?  Did you find everything you need?  Cold outside, eh?  Paper or plastic?  All righty den, have a nice day!”  You could spend 20 minutes listening to all the niceties.

In Italy, it was the opposite.  With the exception of Ristorante Fellini, I would be seated at a table and wait.  And wait.  Finally I would flag down a waiter, who would throw down a menu as though it was utterly beneath him, then stalk off before I could ask for a glass of wine.  This would be repeated for an hour or so, and the check seemed to be especially difficult to procure—I felt like I was begging for it.  Not once did any of these insouciant waiters come to my table to ask, “How is everything?” or “May I bring you anything else?”—standard questions in Minnesota.  Even on the street, most Italians walked along looking as though they had just bitten into a lemon.

I immediately noticed that the Maltese were friendly.  They had an openness and innocence that made me feel like I was in Minnesota, and I realized I had missed friendliness, even if it was fake.  I also knew that as soon as I got home, the niceness of my fellow Minnesotans would bug the hell out of me.

I went out for a walk.  I loved Malta!  The steps, the balconies, the sea, the quaint shops, its compactness.  Then I got to bed early so I could wake up at 4:00 a.m.  I couldn’t wait for the election to be over with; I only wanted to know by how much Hillary had beaten Trump, then I could relish my day.

Hail Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was waiting at the Catania, Sicily airport for my flight to Malta.

I have the oldest iPhone and I am slowly becoming unable to do things with it. I tried to download Rick Steves’ free audio tours before I left but my operating system was too ancient.  Videos take so long to load that I usually just give up.  And when I travel, I can only access the wireless in about every other airport.  It may not be my phone; I don’t know.  But I’ve just come to not expect a wireless connection and if I get one, I’m happy.

So when I saw “Marco’s wireless” and other hot spots pop up, I was tempted to try freeloading.  I once got into a wireless network in London named “Anna” by using the password Anna1.  Everyone around me was on his or her phone, maybe because they were European and were just using 3G.  I was tempted to try Marco1 but decided it would be embarrassing if Marco caught me.  I didn’t want to do anything to risk getting to Malta.

One thing that is everywhere is that damn Samsung whistle tone, and I’m not the only one who finds it irritating.  People!  It’s not cool to force everyone around you to hear those 5 annoying notes (or any other cell sound, for that matter).  It doesn’t make you cool that you get a lot of notifications.  Everyone gets a lot of notifications.  But we have our phones set on silent or vibrate out of courtesy to others.

Thanks for listening to my rant.

On the flight to Malta, I had the aisle seat and a woman in her 20s sat by the window with no one in the middle.  Hurrah! My fellow passenger had purple hair, piercings, tattoos, and was wearing black from neck to sole. She was quite pudgy, and the tats on the back of her hands were almost swallowed in fat dimples.  She avoided eye contact so I read the Guardian, moaning inwardly about the still-shocking election news.

When the pilot announced we were preparing to land, my companion pulled out a crucifix.  Based on her appearance I thought it must have something to do with a heavy metal band she played in but, she began silently counting off the Hail Marys.  That’s Italian!

She looked over at me as if to say, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I did what I often do with fellow travelers who are terrified of flying, started a conversation about something—anything—unrelated to flying.  “Are you going to Malta for holiday?” I asked.  No, she was visiting her boyfriend who had gotten a job there.  We made small talk until the plane landed, uneventfully.  That was when the all the passengers except me broke out in loud applause and those I could see were made the sign of the cross.  My acquaintance slipped the crucifix back in her pocket and we wished each other a nice visit.

I’ve seen passengers applaud routine landings in Latin America but it was a first for me in Europe.

I bought a round-trip ticket for transportation from the airport to my hotel on Malta Transfer for €16.  The motherly woman at the desk instructed me to go upstairs, outside, to the left, and around the airport to find the van.  By the time I got outside I couldn’t remember if she’d said left or right so I wandered back and forth until I saw an unmarked van.  The driver told me to go to another ticket office.  There, they exchanged my ticket for another ticket, stamped it, and told me to go wait in a corner. A group of us slowly assembled, then a man in a uniform came along and told us to follow him.  He intrepidly led us about 30 feet to another van marked “MALTA TRANSFER.”

In 20 minutes I was dropped in a square.  “You go down a few steps, there—around the corner—and you will find your hotel,” said my driver.

Here are the few steps:

valetta-steps

Taboos and Twisters

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

In the end, the day I had dreaded worked out fine because I was willing to eat a ham sandwich.

I got off the boat from Capri, walked to the station and immediately caught the Circumvesuviana, then caught the train to Rome with only a few minutes’ wait. It all went so smoothly, but I hadn’t had any time to eat.  I arrived in Rome, entered the first café I saw, and ordered a veggie Panini.

“He will heat it for you,” said the guy in charge, motioning to his coworker, “while you wait outside.”  Clearly he wanted me to step outside, so I did, but I didn’t sit at a table because I wanted to make clear I was in a hurry.  The guy in charge stepped outside too.

“You from America?” he queried.  Almost before I could get the word yes out of my mouth, he was going on about politics. He was not wearing a name tag.

“I am from Latvia, a little country, maybe you have never heard of it.”

“I have, actually.  I had a boss who was Latvian—she and her husband immigrated and they both held high posts at our local university.”

He raised his eye brows, impressed.  “Usually Americans don’t know Latvia.” He launched into a lecture that he’d clearly spent hours formulating over paninis. It encompassed themes of the EU falling apart, staring with Brexit, rising fascism—symbolized by Donald Trump, and backlash against immigrants.

Where was that panini? I would have enjoyed talking with him if I hadn’t been tired and starving.

Finally my sandwich arrived and I walked toward my hotel.  Except that I didn’t; I took a wrong turn and got lost.  I stopped three sets of strangers to ask directions, none of whom had clue.  I tried the time-honored tactic of picking a direction and striding toward it confidently.  I don’t know if this got me closer or farther from my hotel, but I still didn’t recognize anything.

I started to whimper. I’m such a loser!  Why can’t I ever find anything?  I spied a couple with a baby in a carriage.  That’s about as safe as it gets for asking directions from strangers.  They were German, and they spent about 10 minutes rotating the map this way and that and conferring with one another.  I tried to tell them it was ok if they didn’t know, I could just take a cab.  But they were determined.  They were very kind, and more importantly, they could read a map.

Now that I knew I was on the right trail, I thought I should eat my panini before it was stone cold. I took a big bite and—it was ham.  No veggies, no cheese, just a huge pile of thin-sliced ham.

Damn!  I’m not a very observant Jew, but there’s one thing I do to remind myself who I am—I have not eaten pork in over 30 years.

“Fuck it!” I may have said out loud, as I gobbled down the sandwich.

I was back at the Hotel Italia for one night, then off to Malta in the morning.

The Indian-Italian desk clerk seemed eager to see me.  “You are from the middle west of America?  You have tornados?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “We have tornados; I’ve been in a couple, one where two people were killed.”

“We had one just outside Rome!” he declared, rattled.  “Two days ago—and two people were killed!”

“Wow, is that common?”

“I don’t think so.  What should I do when one comes?”

“Was there a warning siren?”

“No,” he replied, chagrined.

“Well they often happen so fast there’s no time to sound the siren. The sky will turn green and everything will get very, very quiet. Even the birds stop singing. Then you’ll hear what sounds like a freight train.

“Get to an inside room or a staircase, preferably in the basement.  Avoid windows; you can be sucked out or injured by the flying glass.

“Of course you’ll have to figure out how to warn your guests.”

He nodded, looking more worried than usual.

She’s Going to Capri

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I kept hearing an old commercial in my head.  The refrain was, “She’s going to Capri, and she’s never coming back!” It was for dish detergent or something, and the idea was that it was so fantastic that it set women free.  Obviously, the one place you would go if you were freed from dishwashing was Capri, Italy, right?

So even though the rain continued off and on, I was determined to go.  I assumed the famous Blue Grotto would be closed for the season, but I would hike the Phoenician staircase from Capri town to Anacapri, the other town on the island.  The Phoenician staircase was 880 steps, just 80 more than my hike in Amalfi. Once in Anacapri, I would visit sites that were probably similar to the beautiful ones I had enjoyed in the rain in Ravello, such as the Ville San Michelle. If I had time, I would hike to Villa Jovis from Capri town.

I wondered if, at the end of the day, I should take the catamaran directly back to Naples from Capri, instead of to Sorrento.  It would take only 45 minutes, compared with an hour and 40 minutes on the Circumvesuviana train.  I had given up on seeing Pompeii; there just wasn’t enough time.

Here’s a photo of Sorrento from the ferry dock:

sorrento-hills

I was standing in line to board the catamaran to Capri and observing the two couples in front of me.  I used to spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and my guess was that’s where they were from.  Either LA or New York, but not Indianapolis.  The first couple was in their 60s, extremely tan, and wearing heavy gold jewelry.  The second couple: the man was in his 60s but his wife was one of those women who had had so much “work” done that it was impossible to guess her age.  35?  45?  60?  I knew I was staring too much but I was fascinated.  This couple, too, was extremely tan and wore lots of heavy gold jewelry.  Both couples were dressed in nautical wear, and the men were wearing baseball caps with longish white hair a la Bernie Madoff or Graydon Carter.  Captains of industry, if not of boats.

At the beginning of our ride, each time the catamaran sliced through a wave and slapped back down, we passengers all laughed riotously, including me.  It was like an amusement park ride.

After about 10 minutes it got very quiet.  I could hear the tan man behind me explaining to his taut-faced wife how to manage motion sickness.  “Don’t look ahead,” he advised, “stare out the side window, and don’t fight it.  I learned this when I learned to sail.”

Although I had taken an instant disliking to him because he was rich and I wasn’t, I was grateful to hear and follow his advice. I looked back and gave a sympathetic look to his wife but her face remained expressionless.  The ride was over in 20 minutes, which sealed my decision not to take the boat back to Naples.

This is Capri town, and a shot of the water that hints at how blue it might be on a sunny day.

capri-town blue-water

Because of the limited autumn ferry schedules, I only spent about two hours on Capri.  I hiked the Phoenician stairs for 20 minutes in the rain, then turned back.  My heart wasn’t in it.

roof-gardens niche vespa

There were signs all over for Vespa rentals.  How fun would that be?!  But not today.  Riding a Vespa would be asking for a broken neck.

Back in town, I had 20 minutes before the ferry departed.  The first restaurant I walked into had no placards advertising sauerkraut.  There they were, the tan couples, enjoying plates heaping with freshly-prepared seafood.  This would have been it—the best restaurant I’d found in Italy—but I had no time to enjoy it.  I dreaded the return boat ride and thought bruschetta would be a better choice than squid.

The sea had calmed, making the ride back pleasant, if rainy.  For the umpteenth time, I thought, “I’ll just have to come back here in summer.”

rainy-view