Friday, January 31, 2014

The Great Smokies

I fell back into my life in the U.S. so smoothly and so quickly it almost feels like Italy never happened.  I have my memories and my relationships to attest to the fact that it wasn't all just a dream.  However, when you have a life-changing experience, you almost expect the rest of the world to change too and when I came back everything was just as I left it!  I am glad to have the familiarity and close relationships that make my home, home but at the same time if things had drastically changed, moved forward etc. it would have put me a little off balance which is always a good catalyst for change.  And I'm once again getting restless for more change and adventure!

Anyway, I brought a little bit of Italy home with me, and the boyfriend and I made fresh pasta a few weekends ago.  Joe was a natural (he was better at rolling the dough out than me) and although it still took an inordinate amount of time, there were no catastrophes of the sort that plagued my last attempt at making fresh pasta (see full story here).  We enjoyed our fresh tagliatelle with bolognese ragu and some of the red wine I brought back...yum! Next attempt will be ravioli!
My little car entertainment center
I thought after Italy I wouldn't have anymore travels for awhile but this past weekend Joe and I made a spontaneous trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.  Saturday morning we made the 8 hour drive into the Smoky Mountains; although it was a long drive it was a beautiful one.  We passed through the rolling green hills of the Shenandoah down I-81 and through the misty blue Smoky Mountains.  Along the way we stopped at a pretty little scenic overlook and took some ridiculous photos (see below).  Sunday afternoon we arrived at our whitewashed rustic cabin that sat by a bubbling creek in the middle of the wooded hillsides near the National Park.

After settling in and exploring the cabin we set out on a hike to Fontana Lake.  The trail was snow covered and icy and it was  a bit circuitous getting there but once we arrived it was worth it.  The steep hillsides surrounding the lake evidenced the passing of many years through the visible layers of sediment (which was not only a neat Geology lesson, it was a beautiful landscape effect).  We witnessed the sun setting over the distant hazy mountains and then made the trek back to the cabin as darkness descended over the beautiful landscape.  What better way to keep away the darkness than a glowing grill and a cozy campfire?  Upon reaching the cabin I fired up the grill (my time building fires in Montefegatesi served me well) and Joe built a blazing campfire.  We grilled up some steaks and veggies for dinner and then had s'mores for desert, perfect!
Fontana Lake

We woke up Monday morning to a beautiful day that felt more like spring than winter and we set out to catch dinner.  Neither of us had really been fishing before but we proved to be efficient fishermen; our first three lines out brought in three rainbow trout.  After fishing we hiked for a bit and then went back to the cabin and grilled up the fish, made some s'mores and enjoyed the amenities of the cabin (including the hot tub!).  Luckily we headed to bed early because we had no idea what was in store for us the next day...

If you've watched the news in the last few days you would have seen about the big snowstorm in Atlanta, GA.  Well Bryson City where we were is about 2 hours from Atlanta.  Although we headed out early (around 10am), pretty soon we were caught up in the storm.  Snow fell heavily, coating the roads in a thick layer of icy, wet snow.  Although Joe's truck had no problem cutting through the mess, that didn't help us get around the standstill traffic as people came to a near halt navigating the icy roads.  16 hours later and finally back in Virginia we were near to crazy from exhaustion as we pulled up to the house at 2 in the morning.  It will be a long while before I'm up for a long road trip again, but in March I have a trip to Pennsylvania with Cari!
Hidden Creek Cabin

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Series of Misadventures on the Way Home

Well I have been firmly back in the U.S. for two weeks now, but it was quite an adventure getting back...

Four days before I was scheduled to leave Italy I called Orbitz to make a change to my flight. My original itinerary was to leave from Naples, have a layover in Milan, another layover in London and then arrive in the states.  However I decided that I was much closer to Milan and it would make much more sense to leave from there.  I called Orbitz expecting them to say "you can't change it" or "it will cost $300 to change it" what I got was...

O: "Your flight from Naples has been cancelled... the next flight leaving from Naples is at 5pm"

Me: "Well I don't want the flight from Naples anyway can I just cancel it since it will make me miss all my other flights?"

O: "No, that would cancel all your other flights"

Me: "But I will miss all the other flights if I have to take the later flight from Naples.  Can I just not show up to the Naples flight?"

O: "No that will cancel all your other flights"

Me: Ok so what are my options?

O: Proceeds to tell me about 3 different options that all contradict each other.

(2 hrs later, most of which is hold time, they without warning transfer me to American Airlines who has a wait time of an hour)

So I get Joe to call them...

J: Explaining the situation.

O: She isn't scheduled on the later flight from Naples (aka I don't have a spot on the later plane).  

J proceeds to spend 3 hours on the phone with Orbitz while they try to call the international airlines to fix it but are unable to do so because it is the weekend; in the end there was no fix.

So the next day (2 days before I'm supposed to leave) my host mom spends another 2hrs on the phone with Orbitz...

HM: My friend has a flight out of Italy on Monday and she has been told her flight from Naples is cancelled and she doesn't have a spot on a later flight from there.  She wasn't told about this previously and we have spent 5 hours so far trying to fix it, what can you do?

O: We can't cancel the flight from Naples, you have to call the airline the flight is with and they can cancel it (which we had tried multiple times). We can't give you a direct line to anyone here so that you don't have to wait another 30 minutes on hold in case that doesn't work. 

Finally my host mom is able to connect with someone at the airline the Naples flight is with, and they are able to cancel just the Naples flight.

Visiting a friend in Montefegatesi

So Monday morning I head out at 6am (Italian time) to drive an hour to Lucca to catch a 4 hour train ride to Milan where I then catch a 30 minute shuttle ride to the airport.  Luckily things at the airport in Milan go smoothly and I arrive at the gate with plenty of time to spare.  However, unfortunately the trip from Milan to London takes about 40 minutes longer than anticipated and I end up with about 25 minutes to make my connecting flight to Washington, D.C.  

I dash across the airport to security... where I am held up for another 15 minutes while they check my bags (my fault, in my rush I forgot to take my kindle out of my bag).  Security can sense that at this point I am on the verge of tears so they take pity on me and help me repack my bag after inspecting it.  The second the last zipper is in place, I begin a full on run to the gate meanwhile trying to re-zip the backpack that is at this point exploding and attempting to disperse my belongings around the airport.  I sprint the last few meters and arrive breathless but triumphant at the gates which are preparing to close.  As I'm one of the last people on the plane, I have to quickly stow my backpack in the nearest overhead without time to grab my book.  "It's ok," I think, "I'll watch movies during the flight".  Alas, I seem to be the only person on the plane with a malfunctioning movie player... 8 hours later I have a new friend in my seatmate whom I discover is from California, is currently planning her wedding, recently visited Cabos, and spent her trip to Europe in Paris and Rome.

At long last at 10pm (2am Italian time) I am back on U.S. soil where after making it through security and customs I am greeted with ginormous hugs by Joe who comes bearing chicken wings (something I craved while in Italy).
Presents for the Family

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Spending Christmas and the New Year Right!

Happy New Year everyone!  

I've spent the last week and a half in Montefegatesi, Tuscany.  Montefegatesi, is a small village (population of about 130 in the winter) located in the rolling Tuscan hills.  I'm doing workaway here, although, the family I'm staying with hasn't really required me to do much in the way of real work.  My primary responsibilities seem to be hanging out with the family and once helping to pick vegetables in the garden. 

Since I arrived on the 22nd we have been busy celebrating the holidays.  Christmas we celebrated the Italian way; I think on Friday we are celebrating again with an English Christmas dinner as the mom is English.  There was loads of pasta (including fresh made spinach and ricotta ravioli, delish!), roast beef, salad and an English touch with fruitcake and trifle to end.  We ended the night at a local ballroom dance; I can't say I'm gifted at dancing and I had a hard time managing even the basic steps but I had a great time trying.

Last night we brought in the New Year at a community dinner where we ate lentils to signify wealth in the new year and more courses than I had room for, along with dancing and karaoke.  If the fun I had last night is an omen for the year to come than I am in luck!  My goal for the New Year is to get a bit more out of my element and partying and meeting new people in a place where you don't speak the language too well is definitely part of that.  In Montefegatesi I have found that less people here speak English so I am trying hard not to be too shy with my Italian!  This year has definitely been a growing experience.  Traveling on my own, finding the places I am happiest in, and seeing where I really feel the most like myself (which turns out is when I'm adapting to new places and meeting new people!).

Another interesting experience I've had here is going to a place called the "Stanza".  The Stanza is a hunting room where the men (and sometimes women) meet  to cook and share a meal together; generally, the meal is freshly hunted wild boar otherwise known as cinghiale (pronounced Shin-ga-li) in Italian.  You know it is fresh because often there are wild boar carcasses hanging up while you eat.  I think it is admirable eating food from natural sources and the wild, but I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a hunter considering how squeamish it makes me even looking at the carcasses.  However, I am an adventurous eater and pride myself on trying everything at least once so I definitely wasn't going to turn down the opportunity to try wild boar.  I tried roast boar, porchetta (which looked innocuous but was made from boar's blood, cheek, ears and nose), heart, liver and fried boar's testicles.  After getting over the squeamish bit I have to admit that everything was actually quite tasty. Boar to me tastes very similar to beef and anything fried of course is yummy.  

My only side trip so far from Montefegatesi has been to Montecatini for Father Christmas' House but tomorrow we head to Lucca!