Posts tagged unlikely characters
Fear, Love and Magic

February 9, 2015

kris fear love .png

There is an extreme distinctness about this that feels crazy, a deja vu, a primordial warning ... the tired kind that still hasn't relented after all this time, sighing and flagging the situation, in vain, as dangerous, knowing all the while that I will walk right into it anyhow. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I asked myself what the fuck I was doing, at least 57 times on that drive.

The French back country road wound around and between the trees like a rubber band, slinging us forward into the darkness; the night ominous and vacant, the chill of midnight February air held still - all of our surroundings in a time capsule, frozen at bay. The remnants of what could hardly be classified as a town, scattered and long since abandoned. With no street lamps, the only movement - the stark shadows of tall trees cast in the car’s high beams before us as we crept onward.

“Um,” I leant forward to better see the driver’s GPS from the back seat, squinting in the blackness to make out the directions, and then up towards the eerie abyss in front of us. “It’s saying that the house is just up this road a bit, right?” I bit my lip, glancing nervously at the calm faces of the strangers beside me as the silver four door sedan climbed forward.

A German, an Austrian, an Indonesian and an American. All strangers headed to different places in the name of some common direction, inhabiting the same car, brought together by chance and convenience. I had shared cars with so many strangers before but on this February midnight on this uninhabited, pitch black country road, I wondered again if this was all some elaborate scam to kidnap and eat me. I looked down at my dead phone, pressing the center button repeatedly and willing it to come alive. Dead. I was alone.

I had never met the woman they were delivering me to, and the notion that they were all in on the scheme together crept its way up the back of my throat. Maybe there would be a ritualistic sacrifice and field burning and I’d melt away into a pile of smoke and ashes without anyone knowing where I had disappeared to. I would never be found again.

I thought of Steve, having only left him 8 hours ago in Paris, of his gloved hands on my cheeks, his misty blue eyes, holding tears captive behind a penetrable film of glass, piercing right into mine. I had stood for a long while on the corner of that street in the grey morning, after our goodbye, watching the blue double decker bus that ripped us apart, taking him back to London and leaving me to head south- further into the belly of France. The warm face I had come to know so well disappeared behind black tinted windows as his bus rolled forward, but I could feel his palm pressed against the window looking back out at me, and the tears ran down my wind burned cheeks, freezing against cracked skin as soon as they slipped.

Sometimes you fall in love all at once - reckless and face first. But most of the time, you fall slowly - a collection of moments, a tangle of yarn starting with a simple twist, braided strands weaving together, until you wake to find that you are so completely knotted in one another that there's no foreseeable way to pull back apart. And that’s how it was for me with him. Slowly but inevitably, like the trickling of a downward stream.

The right side of my head, pressed to the cool back seat window, left a foggy halo of condensed haze against the glass. Rolling, French hills raced past us; the cacophony of German, Austrian, and Indonesian language hummed about the car, a swirling buzz, leaving me in a dazed sort of state outside of time. Beyond the glass, the world outside was magic. It was one of those setting skies that seizes you whole instantly. The kind of light that pierces the clouds tangibly, forcing you to resist every urge to reach out and touch it. And you just know that Heaven is looking down upon you in that glow. Someone has to be. The metal windmills, scattered across vacant fields, churned on in its presence and it struck me as odd that we would ever think to harness such forces with something as powerful as that sky so far from our control. I didn’t reach for my camera or my journal. I just sat, inevitably going south as Steve traveled north, watching those three fluorescent vapor trails scorching the sky. Tiny but powerful like rockets blazing on. And I knew wherever he was, he was watching them too.

“I think this is it,” The driver, Phillip, announces as the wheels slow in a steady rumble against the gravel.

Fingers on the door handle, I squinted out into the darkness as the sedan came to a halt, and could just make out the silhouette of two figures aside the road waving, a weak light straining through tall hedges behind them, casting warped, slender, giant-like shadows stretching out towards us against the road. Taking a deep breath, I thank these strange travelers, open the backseat door and get out.

Phillip follows first, exiting the driver side door, making his way to the trunk. Startled, I turn back to the car as the passenger door opens, as well as the remaining backseat door. Exit the German, the Indonesian, and the Austrian. This was it- they were all in on it - this plan to burn me alive. One by one, they each hugged the strange French woman who I was about to spend the next few months of my life with, took my bags from the trunk and gathered round her and her boyfriend like they were saying goodbye to old relatives. (Or Hello to partners in crime.) I thanked them each again, kindly and urgently, willing them to go before this did in fact turn into some ancient deity sacrifice. They seemed hesitant to leave and I wasn’t sure which I was supposed to be more afraid of - my deliverers or my welcomers...

Guardians of the Marlborough Sound

The eleven-hour overnight bus ride from Auckland down to Wellington was a foul atrocity. Overnight bus rides are far from my favorite moments in the glamor of travel but this one had particularly slayed me. If you’re somewhat of an insomniac like me, these trips are long and arduous after the first two hours when the lights go out, lap tops and cell phones die, music is no more, and all you have to accompany the pitch blackness are your thoughts and the base drum snoring in the seat behind you. But this little gem of a ride came with a complimentary toddler kicking and shrieking behind me for the better part of the journey. Five hours in, the girl next to me starts spewing vomit in her sleep like a demon, covering my foot with sick. We are currently on the edge of a cliff side road so the bus driver refuses to stop and I’m the only one awake to help her clean up. She refuses to throw her now hideously destroyed dress out so we spend the next six hours with a peaceful bag of vomit-covered articles in between us and I’m pretty sure I’ve just contracted Ebola.

The bus driver drops us off in the industrial port town of Wellington at the southern most point of the North Island just as the sun is waking, reminding me enviously that I’m still awake. It’s a three-hour ferry ride from here to the South Island and I don’t know where I’m going once I get there but I’m going. Once aboard the massive cruise line of a ship that is the Interislander ferry, I order an Irish coffee (“Yes, Irish,” I repeat to the barista that asks if she heard me correctly at 8:30am) because I think I deserve it and settle in a small, whicker basket chair in a large, glass encased room at the very back of the ship. I can’t even count how many ferries I’ve been on now traveling from place to place but they are definitely my preferred mode of transportation and this sky room look out is a nice new touch, despite the current view being a bunch of cranes and industrial chaos.

The freighter pulls from the port, slowly tanking along through the water and expanding my view as she presses onward. As Wellington gets smaller, the mountains on either side of me get closer and larger as they slide past. Browns and greens, lavenders and yellows as the morning sun stretches her arms, casting technicolor patterns across each sloping peak and valley she touches.

I set my coffee down, my sleepy eyes now wide and I’m scanning for a way out of this glass case on to the rear deck. I heave all my weight against a dry rotted wooden exit door and am met with the chill of the ocean air as it opens. The early Spring New Zealand air still carries the reminder of the winter they are trying to leave behind and the sun is not yet high enough to warm us into believing summer has arrived. A massive steam engine erupts from the rear high above the ship sounding its existence through a thick cylinder of aqua and navy painted swirls. Blocking the speck that is now Wellington in the distance, it splits my view in two, a few scattered villages along the mountain slopes to my left and untouched hills on my right, the sun making its way up from behind them and kissing my right cheek.

The only sound is the slow and steady rumble of the engine beneath me and the muffling of the wind in my ears. I can’t see where we are going but only from where we are coming, each new landscape sliding past me a thrilling surprise. And I’m like a stunned child walking from one side of the deck all the way to the other to admire each new cluster of floating hills, unable to decide which one I like best and for some reason needing to. Sloping unscathed hills enter on my right and they are so close that I’m sure I could touch them if I reached, dragging my fingertips against the brown rock, over the coarse short shrubbery, flickering yellow and green with the sun at its back. A solitary white lighthouse stands assuredly at the very top, stretching up through the shallow clouds, the only evidence that man has ever been there.

The floating hills keep coming, each one greater than the next, as we slowly weave in, out and around, careful not to disturb them. Lying sleepily and unmovable like giants floating on their backs in the calm blue water, fat and wrinkly, with round soft curves and a blanket of mossy skin stretching smoothly over their massive bellies and chubby thighs. Protectors of the Marlborough Sounds, only to be woken in dire circumstances.

The giant on my right, still and peaceful, left alone in his ancient peace. Small colonies of barnacles and Mollusks have embedded into the ankles and drooping thighs, under arms and chunky fingers of the lounging giant to my left. I wonder if he minds that he’s been colonized, or if he notices the people and their villages at all amidst nature’s other life forms growing from his mossy bed. How long have these massive creatures been hibernating and what happens if this man made giant roaring past shakes them from their prehistoric slumber?

I imagine the inhabited giant to my left yawning and stretching his bright green arms, shaking the tiny parasites from the folds of his neck as he sits up to see who has dared to disturb him. Timber and shingles crumbling off houses, china plates falling off shelves and sliding across floors that have now become walls as the woken giant attempts to realign his vertebrae with a thunderous crack. Tiny people hanging onto door knobs and mailboxes for their lives as they dangle in the air now high above the giant’s legs and their neighboring town. Little villagers sliding down the giant’s face as he uproots their homes with a furrow of his overgrown grassy eyebrows, or shooting into the sky like dust as he twitches his now tickly nose and sneezes.

His face is sunken and his ancient skin droops now that he’s upright, covered in porous scars and scraggly facial hair. Long sparse strands of slimy seaweed hang from his scalp, their ends still floating in the deep blue waters at his waist, and his arched back is covered in a rug of coarse hair, thick as tree roots and caked with mud. He cracks his neck with his pruned palms, looks over at us sleepily, and disinterested, settles back down in the sea covered sand, irritated that we’ve disrupted the perfect mold his body had made in it after all these years, unaware and unchanged by the tiny lives he’s just uprooted.

“I said wake me up if it’s something important,” the giant mumbles grumpily before settling back into one of those slow and shallow, reassuring snores.

I smile as we leave him be, wondering if he’ll even remember it in the morning, whenever his next morning may be. 

Meeting Mimaw in Santorini

“Krissss … “ Meg whines exasperated from behind me. I can almost feel the breath from her sigh on the back of my neck. Actually, I wish I could. She doesn’t need to say anymore. I know exactly how she feels. It’s hot. That stagnant, sticky, thick, brick wall heat where any amount of breaths you take are in vain, leaving you even more winded than before. I had heard July in Greece was brutal but this was on another level.

“Meg. In case you were wondering, I am not having fun either,” I try a laugh but don’t have enough energy for it, attempting to wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes but blinding myself instead with the sweat from the back of my hand. I look back at my younger sister, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with valiant attempt, now sagging and dripping under the relentless sun. The light has drawn each and everyone of her adorable freckles out to meet it. Her tiny, green eyes are nearly shut into squints as she looks at me with a pained expression and I smile inwardly relishing in one of her most endearing childhood habits.

This is the most beautiful place we have been in Greece thus far and rivals for the most beauty I have ever seen in my entire life, but it’s too hot and we are too tired to appreciate it. We woke up this morning in a fit of chocolate and Sagnaki in Kamari, a small beach town in Santorini, with no idea where we were staying once we reached Oia, just knowing we had to move. Now that we are here, we’ve already struck out once despite our pleading attempts to sleep in cots on the roof at the last hostel.

The marble streets are straight out of a Grecian dream and the flowers that overhang above our heads in tapestries of magenta are passed by without enough brain capacity to yet realize them. Donkeys pass through the narrow marble streets carrying cases of water or suitcases, led by sun-scorched men with whips. They push around corners and ramble through the crowded narrow streets, eyes mocking our own exhaustion and brushing up against our sweaty skin as they pass, leaving a dust of dark brown hair against our sun tortured arms and legs.

“She said this place might give us a room, it’s just a bit further,” I assure Meg in broken syllables without looking back, securing my palms on my thighs, pressing down with each step, willing myself up this hill. It feels like I’m carrying a 250 lb. dead body in my backpack and I am not entirely sure that I am not at this point. A mass of Asian tourists creep along in front of us, parasails in hand, faces wrapped in embroidered scarves to protect them from the blistering fire in the sky above us. It’s all I can do to not start a stampede to get through them.

After an abundance of entrances and exits between these quaint shops, knocking over delicate embroideries and glass blown extravagances in a disgruntled fit of discomposure and awkward weight trying to find accommodation, we’ve been led towards a home that may or may not take us in. Meg is silent following me and I know she is having a terrible time. I urge us both to keep moving up the stone hill and we make a right as instructed between an art shop and clothing boutique, both displaying their creations outside – vibrant seasides in oil paint and delicate dresses against the caramel stone buildings. The marble walkways turn to ragged, uneven stone and we duck under magenta flowered canopies, a drab and dripping blasphemy in comparison.

A wooden sign, reading Marcus Rooms, hangs on its side from a post jutting from a dusty, white washed house. “Here,” I tell Meg as I push open the faded blue doors that swing open like saloon shutters from an old western. They open up to a courtyard full of white linen hanging on close lines blowing ever so slightly under the scorching sun, also desperate for the slightest movement in the air. An elderly Greek man turns while hanging the sheets and stares at us. He looks confused and intruded on and I’m sure I’ve walked into some family home.

 “Um, hi. We were wondering if maybe you had a room we could stay in tonight,” I ask. I can hear my heartbeat against my eardrums and the throbbing pulse banging beneath the skin in my neck.

The wirey man is balding with a few remains of stubborn grey fighters poking from his scalp and his expression does not change, as he looks up from his fogged up spectacles. “We don’t have any rooms,” he says in a thick Greek accent while observing our deflated composure and faces. I nod, feigning nonchalance, pressing my lips into a forced smile and we turn to go.

“Let me ask wife,” he interjects abruptly as we are turning our backs, “Come.” And we follow the impossibly tanned, old man through more overhanging bed sheets and faded blue swinging doors to an adjacent cement terrace a few feet above the narrow road. It looks much the same like everything in Greece does. White washed with blue trim. I wonder again how they got the whole country to agree on this color scheme but I don’t have enough energy to sustain the idea. Pushing up the sleeves of his hemp smock, the man shouts for his wife in what sounds like aboriginal mating calls in his native Greek tongue. An apparition of a woman (whom Meg and I later take to calling Mimaw) appears in a floral scrap, floor length gown; curvy with much more to her than her husband, her dark long hair hangs in coarse, waist length tangles, highlighted in a cloudy gray that matches deep gray eyes peering at us behind a black raccoon mask of make up. Her face appears to be visibly melting off her chin and hangs in folds of layer cake in her neck. My hand instinctively moves to my own neck, seeing if I, too, have melted under the sun like this fabrication of a withered woman before us.

“We have no room,” she reiterates her husband’s first response and the four of us stand facing each other in silence for a moment. I know I should regain composure, tell them that it’s fine, and form some sort of idea about what to do next, but instead I just stand in front of them zombie like and blank faced; Meg at my side, a taller and slimmer frame showcasing the same empty stare. The couple turns towards each other as Meg and I remain dripping lost puppies waiting outside of their harsh Greek whispers.

“We have small room downstairs. We don’t rent it. But, we give it to you if you want for small price,” the melting raccoon tells us.

I glance at Meg and we both nod silently in grateful approval. Mimaw disappears, telling us to sit while she cleans up the basement storage chambers for us. We both collapse into the cushioned bench while we wait. There is a floor length mirror peering back at us on the other side of the bench, which I resent whole heartedly and I stare blankly at our sweat soaked reflections for a moment until Meg and I simultaneously erupt with wheezing laughter at the state of ourselves. Mimaw’s husband hands us a glass of juice and sitting opposite, watches silently as we chug the entire thing. Still dripping in sweat, we declare it to be the most delicious homemade juice of all time. Stubbornly optimistic, we make up stories while we wait, about Mimaw picking fresh fruit this morning and painstakingly squeezing it into this godly nectar while her husband washes the linens against wooden boards by the river at sunrise. Mimaw and Pop Pop. We decide that we love them. (Tomorrow we will find out the juice comes from a knock off brand container found in discount supermarkets and the following day Mimaw will shout at and rebuke us in Greek after our knocks at the kitchen door cause her to bring us a jug of water completely naked. Pop Pop will never speak to us again after this first encounter.)

Mimaw returns above ground carrying a bundle of dirty laundry and I have never wanted to shower and lay down more than right now. We thank her repeatedly before we turn to go downstairs, but she grabs us to show us around. I take a deep breath as I follow her around the house, not caring in the slightest what she’s saying but trying to be polite in exchange for her hospitality. Beautiful antique wooden chests hold silverware and cracked china, an overstuffed fridge full of groceries, light bounds through fresh white curtains and bounces off each white wall… Our footsteps creak over the wide wooden floor boards and an open room catches my eye, pressed white sheets tucked over a beautiful queen bed, the sunlight streaming in the open windows through elegant, sheer curtains. I can taste the feeling of sinking into that plush bed; it’s so close it almost hurts.

"Thank you," I say eager to get to our room as the tour ends. Picking up our bags, we turn towards the steps from the deck that Mimaw had come from. She stops us again and motions us over to a table full of picturesque books of Santorini, pressing one of the heat absorbed hardbacks against Meg’s torso and into her hands, as she thumbs through the others. Meg’s eyes widen as she mouths “the book is on fire,” nearly dropping it. We oblige Mimaw for a moment and nod brainlessly as she flips through the colorful pages and details all the important buildings and where her house is in relationship to each of them - the old churches (all 37 of them), the famous windmill and all the unfamous windmills, red beach, black beach, white beach, and all of their cousin, aunt, and uncle beaches, complete with her rankings of best to worst, intertwining with her life story. Mimaw grew up in the town of Oia. Born and raised in this very home, she bleeds pride and admiration for the town and I can’t bare to break her heart cutting her off, so Meg and I stare glassy eyed at the pages while her broken English washes over us and wait for her to release us.

Somewhere in between showing us the tiny dot where we stood in comparison to the windmill in 15 different views in 4 different books, and her returning to the beaches to change her mind about their ranking order, I lose my mind. Almost certain that someone has slipped me acid this morning, I forgo all certainty and clarity of where I am, with whom, and why. “Just one more actually,” Mimaw says for the 82nd time, holding us hostage with her finger in the air as she flips through pages, "So many surprises to discover."  Black spots are beginning to appear in my vision as I restrain with everything I am from being rude, shutting her up, and at last resort, knocking her out so we can lay down. I’m still sweating and I think I’m going blind. I hear a small snort of laughter while my vacant eyes bore holes into Mimaw’s back; I can see Meg out of the corner of my eye, biting her lip while watching my pained expression.

One excruciating hour later, we follow Mimaw’s lead and climb down the small opening in the white concrete floor beneath the outdoor terrace, ducking around and down the winding, cement stairs. We are underground now in a narrow cave, open on either side to the street just a few feet above and everything down here feels wet, including the air and the walls. The door to our room is swollen in the heat and doesn’t shut and its window is missing the pane, leaving a gaping hole, covered in an ancient hanging tea cloth. Inside is a windowless room, dank with white wash cement walls arched in the shape of a rising sun above three beds, box springs poking through starched sheets, and broken, wooden headboards that are nailed into the wall instead of attached to the bed frames.

“You can use this refrigerator,” She opens the door of an empty, yellow stained fridge and the door falls off. “Use the one upstairs,” she slams it shut, turning her back on the hanging open door and keeping her eyes ahead, motioning us to the bathroom.

It’s the size of a basinet; faded pink tiles cover the floor, walls, and ceiling, accented with ornate mold decoupage. There is a toilet leaking onto a wet floor, a sink standing like a desk in front of it so close that you may wash your hands while sitting on said toilet, and a detachable shower head above so that you may also wash your hair while sitting on said toilet.

The hallway leads to two storage closets and three crumbling stone steps climbing to what used to be a miniature door, perfect for an elf but big enough for a person to duck through to exit to or enter from the cobblestone street we came from earlier. There is no longer a door here, but simply a wooden frame in a cement wall leaving the entrance open. The tan ankles of a couple pass by our faces and the sounds of their petty disagreement wash inside and echo off the old concrete walls. But nevermind the multitude of broken openings for possible serial killers in the night, Mimaw repeats “safe, safe, safe,” as she waves her arm at the 4 by 5 view we have of the outside, “you keep open,” she says with finality as if we have a choice, picking up old clothes and broken objects on her way out.

Meg and I are still laughing about our current whereabouts after Mimaw has gone, as we spin around the corridor pointing out each delicacy as if we are amidst upmost royalty. “Ohh, look at these lovely little dreams,” I coo while stroking my fingers across a wilted and weather stained curtain as if it is the finest of lace.

Meg giggles and joins in without missing a beat. “Oh yes, but what about this antique craftsmanship,” She circles the tiny wooden chair sat just next to the crumbling stairs and killer entrance of a window. “A throne for Queens no doubt,” she puts her hands out to her side in a curtsy air and sits daintily on the dark stained wood.

No sooner has Meg delivered the most grace she has ever possessed, all four of the chair’s legs buckle underneath her, dismantling her poised face and leaving her in a heap of wooden shards and dust on the cement floor with a shriek. Now I’m laughing. Tumbled over and shaking in belly aching laughter as Meg looks up at me with a mixture of pain, confusion, and hysteria in a cloud of dust and wood chips.

After a very cramped and very interesting shower in the wet room, we crawl out of the open wooden frame in the wall and out onto the cobblestone path, ready to discover every secret and capture all the pixie dust that oozes from every crevice of this ancient town.

Greek legend tells an ancient tale of a furious Poseidon turning the nymphs into these very Cycladic islands, revengefully trapping their whimsical souls and enticing trickeries into 12 beautiful land masses that he could keep an eye on. If I didn’t know better (and sometimes I’m certain I don’t), I would swear that you could feel the personality and soul of each nymph thumping from beneath the ground of every individual and very different island. All twelve beautiful and unique captured in stone, but Santorini being without a doubt the most seductive and romantic of all. The gem of the Aegean.

“Around every corner …. surprise,” Meg mimics Mimaw’s speech from earlier, “here,” she stretches her arms out and bends at the waist as Mimaw had explaining every picture, bowing as we approach a bend in the road, “surprise.”

The buildings, the marble foot paths, windmills – everything is blindingly florescent white like the other island towns, however Oia is speckled in peach churches and coral corner stores, The town is set miles above on the top of a massive hill, surrounded by water so offensively blue that it hurts our feelings, matching the turquoise blue of the building’s shutters and church steeples. Each narrow road winds in between tall buildings, leaving every upcoming turn and street a surprise until rounded.

“At edge of cliff,” I bend with open arms, “surprise.” The path stops and opens up to the sea at the edge of the cliff; luminescent white buildings tumble down the mountain like a rolling avalanche of snow ready to disappear into the bluest sea I’ve ever seen, hungrily awaiting its approach.

“You go find them all,” Meg echoes Mimaw’s Greek laced English instruction, and we barrel down the treacherous 289 winding stone steps to the beckoning sea, laughing and sliding the whole way without a thought or care for the return journey upwards.

Independence Day Reunions in Rome

Ropi’s hands dart to and fro in violent enthusiasm out each window as he drives. “Bella Roma!!” he shouts as he stabs the air pointing with his whole hand to the next beautiful sight we pass, like he’s saluting a military commander or going in for a firm handshake. We round the corner with the road as the Colosseum reveals herself in all her majestic glory. My heart swells. Being in Rome again feels like coming home after six years.

I watch Ropi’s massively overweight body dance around in his seat in a fireball of energy, his rotund stomach bouncing five more chins up into his own every time it shakes, and I let laughter wash over me. I love the Italians. I love their passion, their enthusiasm for life and all things beautiful, and most of all the way every phrase out of their mouth comes out in a song. I don’t tell Ropi that I have been here before because I don’t want him to stop exploding with love for this city in front of me. Then again, he’s lived here all his life and the proud love still tumbles out of him so I’m sure it would make no difference.

I met Ropi just ten minutes ago at a market a few blocks from the train station. In my anxious excitement to get off the train and meet my brother, John, here, I had done so too early and was a very far walk from my hotel. Ropi was enjoying a cigarette and a newspaper with friends at an outside table when he must have seen this sweat drowned rat of a girl carrying what looked like a dead body in a bag on her back asking for directions from the waiter.

“You need taxi?!” he shouted from behind me and I turned around. He was about 6’4 and 375 pounds in a purple polo shirt that clung to his belly like cellophane in a vain attempt to keep it from dropping to his knees. A mop of dark grey hair sprung out from his watermelon head like post electrocution wires. He had on those funny sweat pant capris that old men wear and they cut off 4 inches above his scuffed, white New Balances, the left one barely leaving the pavement as he limped towards me.

“Um…” I stalled as I tried to take in what was before me with a clear mind and glanced at the classier men behind him watching from his table. “Maybe. Uh, well, I really just need to know which direction to walk. I’m going here,” I showed him the address on my phone.

A clean-cut man with dark hair and a suit, maybe in his mid forties, ushered me over to the table where they had been sitting and pulled out a map. He started detailing me the route in which to walk. The sweat kept dripping into my eyes and I was blinking rapidly while I stared at the map trying to absorb what he was telling me in his broken English. Nothing was registering. Ropi was towering over me and shouting, (or singing) at his friend but all I caught was “taxi” again and again as I flinched from the dancing explosion of his limbs as he pointed left and right. He seemed to have ten arms and they worked like a disgruntled windmill as he spoke. I looked at the map again as the chaos bellowed around me and craned my voice to be heard, “Taxi, yes. It’s okay. I’ll just take a taxi. Thank you.”

Falling silent, they looked at me. The businessman folded up his map, and Ropi waved me on, “Yes, come.” Dragging his left leg behind him, he heaved his weight over to a beat up Volkswagen that matched the indigo of his stained shirt. He must have seen me hesitate as I looked the car up and down for any sign indicating that it was actually a taxi because he ushered me on, “I take you; I know where. Come.” I stretched out of my backpack as he was already trying to take it off for me and winced as it fell to the ground under his hold, surprisingly throwing his back out as every other driver before him. Being a gimp and massively overweight, I’ve already assessed that I can outrun him if needed so I get in the car.

Ropi does not know where he is going. He swerves from the left side to the right side with all the confidence and stupor of a mad drunk man, shouting at pedestrians and honking at cars alike asking where my hotel is. I’ve told him multiple times that I can’t understand a single world he’s saying but he sings me monologues never the less. Every current of excitement shoots out of his movements and voice like lightening bolts and I want to join in, having spent two hours on the train bottled up like a shaken soda can with the anticipation of seeing John after two and a half months. I had sat on my hands the entire way like an elementary school child in hopes of keeping myself from slapping every stranger across the face out of sheer joy. So I join Ropi, singing nonsensical Italian phrases, the only ones I remember, like “Capitolo due!!!” (literally translating to "chapter two") as I shoot my hands out the windows pointing at the buildings, letting my limbs spaz out at their own accord. Ropi looked over at me for a moment startled, his face dropping and I laughed at his expression and shrugged. He let out a bellow of laughter so deep and full, that the globe in his belly spun and shook violently against the steering wheel, jiggling the tires beneath us, with a smile so broad, pushing his chubby cheeks up past his eyelids and sealing his eyes shut. We joined together in hysterics for a few moments as I repeated my motions and sang things out the window that weren’t Italian words at all, mimicking the flow and dance of their sound so perfectly nevertheless. "AArreeeDDAA DeEEda." The words of the Italian’s hymns hadn’t come back to me, but I knew the melody by heart.

We finally find the hotel and I plant two abundant Italian kisses on either of Ropi’s gruff cheeks and handing him some money, send him on his way. I put my stuff in the room and sit downstairs at an outdoor café to wait for John, shaking my foot and fidgeting with my hands to keep from spontaneously combusting and exploding into shrapmal, impaling everyone around me. Picking up my beer, I bring it to my lips but my hands are shaking (that’s either the excitement or the withdrawal; hard to tell), so I set it back down. I think the heart palpitations might actually kill me, and then I see the red, white, and blue flag that is the eldest of my younger brothers rounding the corner at the end of the street. Standing a head taller than everyone in the crowd at 6'2" (Italian men are very small) with his sharp chin and light eyes facing the sky, scanning every building and taking in every new height of his first European adveture. I had almost forgotten entirely that it was The Fourth of July until this moment and I laugh. John is the most American person I know. He bleeds red, white, and blue and sneezes the Star Spangled Banner, so for him to leave the almighty US of A on Independence Day is a big deal. Albeit, not without slapping every other country in the face with the bald eagle on his way in. That was John.

I leave my drink and sprint down the street, jumping and weaving through every passerby. Almost a foot shorter than him, I can see his head searching the crowd, hearing my feet on the pavement and seeing my blonde ponytail bounce in between civilians. When the crowd breaks, so does his laughter as he sees me and stands still while I pole vault into his arms, crashing into him with such speed, wrapping my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist, that if he wasn't so much taller and stronger than me, I think the force would have knocked us both to the ground.  

Italia Bound

I don't want to leave my cloud this morning, or ever for that matter, but I'm buzzing for Italy and my brother, John to meet me there. The breakfast chatter and birds have woken me and the fairy god mothers have left my laundry folded outside my door with a note reading: "Chambre 20" and a heart drawn next to it. I pack my bag and wait in the garden for the taxi. Everyone seems so sad for me that I didn't have a car to see the rest of Corsica and I don't have the words to explain to them that I never desired to venture anywhere from right here in this perfect little haven of rest. 

Of course, I get the same taxi driver as I had on the way up. Now that I can see him in the light, he looks rather harmless - maybe in his 30's, skinny with thin hair that's balding around the center of his odd shaped head. We drive in silence all the way down the mountain. Once in town, he slows and pulls beside every other taxi driver we pass, yelling his greetings to them and then adding, "Americano!" as he blatantly points towards or nudges me. Each driver lowers his shades for a good view in my open window, smiles with a reassuring nod, and spits some French/Corse/Italian nonsense. By taxi number three, I want this seat to open up and swallow me whole and I am visibly shrinnking to sink lower down below the window. 

The ferry to Livorno is a quick four hours and I wish I could only travel by boat forever.The sun on the deck is hot and the breeze is light. I sit right at the back over the wake and watch the Corsican mountains fade beneathe the waving Italian flag on our ship. I am so excited to see John and sitting dangerously close to the edge of the boat. It's all I can do not to fling myself off into the sea to release some of this unruly anticipation. 

Italy was my first traveling love and it's been six years since I left. Having fallen head over heels and completely captivated by the place, I left a part of my heart there that I never got back. My whole world had opened and changed while living there and I simply had to see the rest of this beautiful earth afterwards. Six years later, unable to supress that thirsty desire, that is exactly what I am doing and I have this country entirely to thank (or blame, depending on who you're talking to) for where I am today. 

The anticipation of standing on Italian soil once again can only be described as seeing your first love after years of being apart, wondering if all the same emotions and passions will still be there. No more than five minutes of stepping off in the port of Livorno, that beautiful familiar language rushing in and singing all around me, I smiled knowing that my dear Italia was exactly as I had left her and everything I remembered, with every old, familiar feeling washing over me and filling me just as before. 

Hitchhiking to France

Well, it was all very uneventful to be honest and not terrifying in the least. The train from Barcelona to Nice is extremely expensive and long and I found a Czech couple who currently resided in Nice but were on a weekend holiday in Barcelona and I asked them for a ride. 

Petr was tall and blue eyed and smiley. He was nice enough, although not very interesting, and we chatted here and there along the way. His girlfriend, Saakar (or something of the sort - surely spelled with dozens of symbols dancing off and about each letter like brail) was not, by any means, friendly; nor was she happy that I was coming along. She did not speak one word to me the entire six hour ride. She did not speak one word to anyone. She never turned around. Never looked at me once. I did manage to get a few quiet giggles out of her (that I thought I could make out from the back of her head below Petr's laughing, but I could be imagining that), throwing around some American digs and banter. But it was brief and over in no time. 

I couldn't help but contemplating this odd relationship amidst the silent hours. They didn't talk, or touch, or laugh, or play. They didn't do anything at all. No singing or story telling on this road trip. There wasn't an ounce of passion or companionship between them as far as I could see. 

Fifteen minutes into the journey, I realize I have to go to the bathroom but I am too afraid to ask, not knowing if this stranger is the furious type when he has to stop for a passenger or the acomodating type. An hour in, Petr stops at the gas station and I go to the bathroom and we share a cup of coffee and his girl friend remains stoic in the passenger seat. Three hours in, I am utterly starving. 

"So, um, do you guys eat?" I ask casually. 

"Yes, we do in fact eat," Petr laughs and stops off at the next exit. 

I'm begining to think that Sakkar is a robot and she doesn't need fuel or emotion to function, but she gets out of the car and eats with us, still without a word. It's all very strange and uncomfortable and I'm becoming increasingly disappointed because I was hoping to get a good story out of the experience and they aren't giving me much to work with. 

We finally get to Nice and Petr agrees to drop me off at my hostel seeing that it is now dark. I remember that he mentioned earlier that they live at the top of the mountain above the city. As we start climbing upwards, wrapping around the dark, steep roadways, I have this momentary (hopefully irrational) fear that they are, indeed, going to take me back to their home, slay me, and eat my remains. But they don't. 

The drop me at the hostel which is rustic and set in a garden half way up the mountain. It is full of obnoxious American and British young girls, a Muslim bent over on the floor saying prayers next to my bed, and three very old, very big women who apparently decided it was now or never to travel. I don't meet anyone here because I don't care to. I'm leaving in the morning and have no energy for hostel banter after the past month of it. I walk down the extremely dark, steep abandoned hill to town for a bank machine because they don't take credit cards, sit in the corner of the bar with a bottle of wine and my lap top open, which I'm not using but hoping will serve to ward off incomers. 

An hour later, a drunk 40-something year old man with a shit hairline walks over and asks if he can sit. I shrug and he talks incessantly while I stare at my computer. He asks me to join him for the hostel's Tango dance lessons before breakfast tomorrow and that's when I look up and say, "absolutely not." He wanders away shortly after, and when the wine is gone so do I. 

Snow White, 6 Dwarfs, & a Joffrey - PT I


Viewer Discretion Advised. Very crude, very loud, and VERY British. Not for the winos or the sensitive of heart. In attempts to mask any offensive behvaior, I found that the story simply could not be written without it. And the story must be written, fams.

It also should be said that for most of the world, this entry will be in a different language. Bonnet language. 

Also, please read with a British accent. 


They were an eclectic group of misfits, a pack of stray dogs. It must have taken me all the twenty-five years I had growing up with brothers, not only biological but all of the guy friends I had constantly been surrounded by, to prepare me for the raunchiness of this group and to indeed end up living in the same room with them. But I loved it. I found their banter entertaining and their crudeness strangely endearing and the chemistry of the group entirely intriguing. If not simply for the fact that they were always laughing and singing; they were the happiest bunch I had ever come across. They were parasites, but harmless, little, loveable parasites if you will. A happy disease. Of course, the British accents didn't exactly hurt either. (They always seem to get away with everything.)

It could have been anyone really that had been sitting there in the hostel garden that night I arrived, but it just happened to be the Bonnet Boys. I put my bags away, showered, and walked down to the common garden, not knowing who or what I was getting myself into. From atop the stairs, I saw the only people out in the garden - a group of boys, a group of loud, racy boys. I said "hi;" they sang "hola" in unison; I pulled up a chair, and that was it. 

Of course, the entire first night I had no idea what they were saying, but I was mesmerized. They had their own language, songs, and dances. They would turn just about anything into a song, inserting the phrase into a three line, Greek Life sounding tune, complete with "la, la, la, la, la's." It wasn't long, however, before I picked the language up and eventually got swept away along in it. By the last night, I wouldn't remember how to speak without a British accent or stop using all of their funny words to describe everything. My lingo would never be the same. 

Before I officially begin, let me pause here to just introduce you to these wild cards. 

Mike ~ a bonafide hipster with a brown complexion, high socks, black rim glasses, his top button done always and hair on point. He was the loudest and closest to the leader of the group, if you were looking from the outside in. In constant competition (especially with Nigel) for the best hair, the best shorts, shoes, socks, or whatever he could find to win on, he kept a constant tally of who was in the lead. A photographer and a singer, he was an artistic type, but not your everyday creator. He had the biggest smile you'd ever seen. When he was drinking and happy (which was most always), his shoulders would start to dance of their own accord like he had little tambourines on each one, and his wrists would join in with the snare drum. Sitting alone, or chirpsing a bird, his dancing joints had a mind and will of their own and could not be stopped. 

Tudor (aka Tudes) ~ had the same smooth, brown complexion as Mike, but a shit hairline and a science that he had mastered - the Professor of Oodisms. Self proclaimed as "The Dumb" of the group, he firmly believed that you shouldn't swim after eating because a heavy stomach meant sinking and drowning was inevitable; that hanging a sheet over his bed would keep bugs out, and that condoms shouldn't be warn because, well, he didn't like them and that was enough (#Oodisms). When he was happy (which was again, always), he'd break out in his crab dance no matter who was around and it never failed to throttle me into fits of laughter. He had a habit of pressing his pointer finger and thumb together with his other three fingers raised (as if to say "a-ok") when he spoke, emphasizing each word (especially each "t") as if he were writing calligraphy in the sky. Professor Oode. Puffing his e-ciggarette at all times in attempts to quit smoking and panicking when it was not to be found. Writing smiley faces in the sky and sniping birds at closing time after hours of work from another guy. 

Nigel ~ the looker of the group, the "stud" and fitness instructor. Short but built, with piff hair that always had to be done, with every strand perfectly assembled into place. He was the complimentary addy feet dancer to Mike's snare drum wrists and tambourine shoulders and when they both came out together (every night around midnight), you couldn't keep a smile off your face even if the whole world was ending. Like Mike, he had to have the piffest shirt and outfit and had a collection of trainers that put every girl's to shame. He brought 6 pairs for 4 days (including a maroon, leopard print pair), and his suitcase was bigger than my 6-month back pack. He had the whitest teeth you'd ever seen due to a crest white strip addiction with a side dose of vanity and he was the king of selfies. Always with the oblique stances and the impromptu, "this is my jammmm," white girl dance, with one hand waving back and forth over his head and his hip popped. 

Rob ~ Nigel's twin brother was anything but, and it took me two days to realize they weren't pulling one over on me when they had said they were twins. The quietest and most reserved of the group, he didn't quite fit in with the loud and boisterous banter, but he didn't seem to mind too much. He was, after all, Nigel's twin even if fraternal, so he was part of the Bonnet Boy family. Constantly the brunt of jokes like everyone else, except Rob rarely stood up for himself, or at least not in the loud way the others did. He was gentle and kind and stood in the background for the most part and although he had a good heart, he was practical to the core and always there to bring anyone back down from the clouds, whether they liked it or not. 

Cork ~ the pale ginger of the gang. (Come on, every groups got to have one.) He had recently regained his confidence thanks to the guys and with no help from the ladies. Going on a twenty-seven month dry spell, he was the "re-virginized" of the group and the mission of the week was to get Cork laid. Either that, or he was gay - those were the options on the table. He had a rainbow colored knit sock that he would wear to warm his junk and proudly strut around the room striking poses that would give off the best angles of his freckly physique. One of his best assets was his round bum and on que, he was ready to pop up and show it off in a particular array of stances for however long he was asked to do so. 

Nippy ~ And then there was Nippy, and what on earth can I tell you about him to make him come alive on the page. He was the cutest, yet most repulsive person anyone has ever met. A big, loveable teddy bear with an honest, and yet undeniably hilarious, disposition that didn't make any sense. Soft shoulder kisses from Nippy throughout the night were never far; he would be standing next to any one of us and just bend down and kiss you on the shoulder without saying a word. But above all .... was Nippy on the beach. He would flop around in the waves, beached, head over feet, bum crack out in just his boxers and pop his adorable head up for air like a baby sea otter and then he'd fart the next minute and talk about motting a girl that just walked by. Nippy loved to mott. 

Right, so where was I? That first night ...

After a few jokes, a few beers, some tantalizing tales about Miami, and somewhere after twenty minutes of judging every article of clothing in the Mike vs. Nigel competition, others from the hostel started to flow out into the beer garden. Everyone, and I mean everyone remained on the other side of the garden away from these scumbags. Even their beckoning invitations to join and the songs could not tempt a soul to dare set foot in whatever it was that was happening over on our side. I noted briefly to maybe take a look later into my own psyche and why everything about this side of the garden drew me towards it and no one else. But it didn't bother me one bit; this was clearly the side I belonged on (no matter the possibly disturbing and subconscious reasons.)

After dubbing Mike and Nigel the "Dream Team," a title they took to immediately and put on like crowns, I accidentally brushed my cigarette against Nigel's knee, burning him (minimally I may add). 

"Allow me, Fam!!" He said as he swatted my hand away. 

He then urged me to singe the rest of my cigarette into Mike's knee while he wasn't looking, for obvious Dream TEam fairness, as well as inflicting shameless pain on his friend for the sheer hilarity of it. The problem with me is (and this is where we could delve even deeper into my issues) that as soon as he said it and I looked over to Mike sitting on my left, loudly telling an elaborate story to the group with a smile that took up half his face, I desperately wanted to do exactly what Nigel had dared me to do. And then without thinking, as if I didn't have a choice, I put the cigarette out right on the top of his knee. Well, this sent Mike into shrieks and the whole group into an uproar of laughter and praise. 

The rest of the night primarily consisted of trying to get Cork laid and sending him off after pep talks to go sit down with different groups of girls. Usually one of us would go in with him to toss him bones and pass assists, and tonight a very drunk, very staggering Nippy decided that he should be the one. Sloshing beer on their dresses, tripping over limbs and leaning down over the sitting girls with his face entirely too close to theirs and one eye closed, Nippy really did have Cork's best intentions at heart. However, Cork did not get laid that night. 

A few hours from when I had first sat down, mid conversation about something I can no longer recall, Mike looks at me quizzically, squints his eyes and then cocks his head back a bit as if he is studying me. 

"Holiday Guy?" He asks, first at me, then looking to Nigel and then to the rest of the group. 

Shocked, but pleasantly intrigued, they looked at each other and then at me with wide eyes and ssmiles, responding, "Holiday Guy!!"

Holiday Guy was a term the gang dubbed to a particular person they had met on each holiday they had been on together. They never knew how or when he would turn up, but one always did, and they bonded with each other instantly and forever. They were, of course, expecting their Lisbon Holiday Guy to present himself eventually, but not immediately on their day of arrival and certainly not a Holiday Guy with tits. No, that was a game changer. Thus began the five day, Lisboa adventures of the British strays and Holiday Guy. 

(COMING SOON: Part II - V ..... currently still under construction) 

Convertibles, Country sides, & Castles with Adam

This hostel was pristine compared to the last. I had begun to think I had the 8 person bed room to myself after being there the entire day, but as luck would have it, my bunk mates came in at midnight and they all spoke English. Two 29 year olds from Denmark- Sophie and Aska, and a Pennsylvania bred American - Adam.

Sophie was beautiful and tall. Very, very tall. (In fact, all three of them towered over me and I spent my entire time with them jumping around like a child to reach their level for attention). She was a medical student in the great socialist Denmark where education was free and money was never a motive,  and had lived in Spain for 3 months a few years ago. Aska (pronounced Oscar without the r) worked in some sort of International Economics studying underdeveloped societies and he was hilarious. The type of person who is instantanly best friends with every single person he meets, whether he speaks their language or not. He was quite fluent in Spanish, but even if he met a distant language, he got by with dance moves, wit and charm that he had seemed to master universally.

And then there was Adam – a Cornel student getting his Masters in Viticulture and working in the Finger Lakes vineyards. (Seriously … the luck??) As soon as I discovered that he was in wine as well (which was approximately 3.5 minutes upon their entering of the room), and had an appointment with a winery the next morning in Rioja, I asked him if he wanted to take me along. He laughed and I looked down at him seriously from the windowsill where I sat cross legged with my lap top, “I am 100% serious,” I said, and so it was decided.

Adam was weird, but harmless and interesting and nice enough. A Viticulturist and an Ornithologist (which is the study of birds he told me after I informed him I didn’t know what that was), who drove a black Mercedes convertible he had borrowed from a buddy in Madrid. He was by all worldly standards, “hot,” tall and tan with crystal blue eyes, but by all definitions a total science geek stuck in an athlete’s body. He was the type of person who immediately offered you all of the facts on a particular comment or observation you might have made. An endless bank of random knowledge, travel and Cornel stuffed brains.

“I’m sorry, but rules are: top down,” He said as we got in the car with his finger on the button to open the roof.

“I’m sorry, but you clearly don’t know me yet. Top obviously down. Snow, rain or hail,” I responded sliding in the other side.

We were off and Adam looked like a child overcome with giddy pleasure as he drove. It was indeed, pretty amazing – the Rioja countryside and back roads with vineyards as far as you could see. Upon certain twists and turns of the road, we would look at each other and burst out laughing because this was just too cool.

“What are those!?” He asked, more to himself than to me, slowing down and pulling off the road into a gravel path in a vineyard. I looked at the vines next to me, wondering if he could tell what type they were just by looking at them. They looked pretty normal to me but I didn't know; maybe this particular patch had stumped him. My hand on the door handle, ready to get out and inspect, Adam reached around and grabbed Binoculars from the middle consol. (Yes, this kid carried binoculars and a heavy duty pair at that, because “you never know when you’re gonna see cool stuff,” he told me). As I was wondering why on earth he needed binoculars, when we could just get out and look at the vines, he positioned them up towards the sky.

“So cool,” He said under his breath. I followed his trajectory to two very ordinary looking, black birds circling above us and then sat rather gape jawed and dumbstruck as he pondered them, reversed, and then carried on down the road as if everyone did that.

“Sooo … you like birds …” I mused.

“Yea. Like I said, I was an Ornithologist,” He responded

Okay then. “A Viticulturist. An Ornothologist. And a Mercedes convertible. I have yet what to make of you, Adam Kane.”

He smiled, which was good, because as I later found, sometimes he laughed at my jokes and other times, my wit blew right past him, completely lost like a passing sound he hadn’t picked up and he remained blank faced like I hadn’t spoken at all. Which was also another absurd impossibility, because Adam Kane had bionic hearing. Seriously, he thought it was normal but it wasn’t. He could detect a swarm of bees or a faint bird cry from a mile away (I can hear him now correcting that fact that it was indeed not even a half mile away, but more like .1 miles). He simply refused to believe I couldn’t hear these sounds as well, and I wouldn’t believe that he did until we followed this mystical hearing to the actual source and I saw it with my own eyes. Once we found it, I would look straight from it up to him, studying him like he did with his birds trying to classify this strange breed. He seemed not to notice that I was watching him as he watched whatever it was that he was particularly engrossed in at the moment.

Overcome with the landscape, the wind in our hair, and the energy of the afternoon, we thought we may have taken a wrong turn so Adam pulled off on a side road to look up directions and call the winery.

“I hear birds …” I teased in a sing song voice as we sat on the side of a silent road by a very neglected horse covered in hay.

“Just common Sparrows,” He replied simply without taking his eyes from his phone.

Bodega Paganos was a beautiful property set in the valley surrounded by the Iberian mountain range. Bright, leafy vines stretched out from the white, rocky earth and surrounded the stone fortress that stood between them – built from the “Mother Rock” that lie way below the earth, which they tunneled out to make their aging caves. It was a 5th century winery with an all-star wine maker named Marcus who had been voted 3rd best in his trade by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Our host, Alberto, was without a doubt the nicest person in the entire world. The tour was meant to be in Spanish (Adam was fluent in Spanish of course. That year and a half he spent living in Peru studying plants or birds or whatever it was he did) and I was ready to smile and nod and suffer through it, just grateful to be there, but Alberto insisted on English for me.

He took us out into the vines and talked about all of their biodynamic processes with Adam. There were a lot of viticulture terms in broken English and Spanish and a lot of smiling and nodding on my part. Paganos’ vineyard cycle was planned entirely around the moon’s and each date out of the year was marked accordingly for the best leaf days, flower days, and tasting days. Because Paganos did not use chemicals or fast acting enhancements, the vines had to be cared for as if they were infants, each day of the year. Paganos produced four small quantity/high quality wines that were each named after their respective vineyards and yielded their own distinct personalities accordingly. They also made a larger production wine, which by Rioja standards of 8 million bottles a year, was fairly small at a mere half million.

Inside the winery, Albertos, showed us the equipment and took us through their version of the wine making process. I was amazed to learn that for the four top quality wines that they produced, each grape cluster was de-stemmed by hand, one by one, grape by grape, to assure the utmost quality and preserve the grape’s integrity. Instead of the common Bladder Press that I was familiar with in America, Bodega Paganos uses a Basket Press to extract the juice. Alberto explains to us the difference with an analogy of a teabag. The Bladder Press, he says, is like pressing your spoon to the teabag against the wall of your mug in the hot water to extract as much flavor as fast as possible. The Basket Press is like dipping your teabag in and out of the hot water by its string, oozing flavor into the water slowly but softly. This he said, was more time consuming but gave the wine a soft elegance that could not be achieved otherwise. They also still crushed some of their grapes by foot in huge barrels that subsequently served as the aging barrels for the first fermentation process. The secondary fermentation (Malolactic) was done in French and American oak barrels and in an entirely natural process that took from December to June to be completed. (The previous vintage was still in the barrel awaiting Malolactic completeion).

Paganos also made a wine that went through Malolactic Fermentation in what i believe is called an obom (an egg shaped barrel that pumped the wine in a certain flow used by the French for their whites; such as Chablis) and was 1 of 2 in the world to use this process for a red wine. Only 800 bottles were produced that sold for 1000 euros each. Albertos tasted three of the top wines with us outside against the vineyard and mountainous backdrop. They were divine (tasting notes at the bottom). He talked about each personality of the wine and told us that in Rioja, even his 2 and 3-year-old nephews study viticulture in school. He left us with a library of reading materials and invited us to a huge dinner and tasting on Wednesday night with the top California wine gurus. Instantly, a litany of curses against myself rang through my head for planning, for the first time in my journey, my next 3 stops, and transportation in between - all prepaid. I contemplated seriously about canceling my train and the next 3 after and just eating the cost in order to attend this dinner. (Later, upon meeting Adrian, I would end up unplanning all of these plans anyway.)

With a page full of places to see and eat from Albertos, Adam and I left to venture out to more of the Rioja countryside. The ride was heavenly, interrupted with spurts of knowledge and awe from Adam, like “Oh! Kestrel.” “Mini falcon. Super cool,” he would explain to me when I asked what the hell a Kestrel was. Or, the occasional screeching of breaks followed by, “Oh look! There’s a Quail.” Now thoroughly amused by my most recent case study, I began to play a game with Adam, pointing out every bird I saw. “What’s that?” “Magpie.” “That one!” “Piper.” But I couldn’t stump him so eventually I stopped playing.

We arrived at a small stone town and looked like two Beverly hills kids driving around in Daddy’s Mercedes Convertible. One old man stopped and stared, following us as we crept over the cobble stones. He said something aloud to those around him, which Adam translated as “Oh my God…” as he watched us. The town was otherwise abandoned and we parked to walk around.

“Do you smoke?” I asked him, pulling out a cigarette.

“No. Not since Peru.” He said.

 “Neither do I,” I answered, lighting the cigarette dangling between my lips. He laughed in an amused yet mocking way, which was exactly the response I had anticipated.

“Only when traveling alone in foreign countries,” I smiled, blowing the smoke out around us.

We ate pinchos at the only café opened in town and Adam made friends with locals and talked to them in Spanish for what felt like forever about castles and vines (I think). We explored a dark and cold empty church and snuck through a locked iron gate down into the basement. Unfortunately, it was just for storage. No catacombs. I tried to carve my name into a stone railing where others had but Adam grabbed my wrist when I pulled out the pocket knife and protested defacing a 600 year old church, so I didn’t. We drove about 5km down the road in search of this castle he wanted to see and stopped to ask a vineyard worker where it was. He told us to cross over the main road and follow the tractor up through the windy dirt paths, so we did. We drove up the narrow dusty trails with vines tickling the tires of the car on either side until we got to the top of a steep hill.

The castle was from the 8th century and completely abandoned. Without a soul in sight or ear shot, we climbed to the top of the hill and went inside. It seemed to be merely an open space covered in overgrown weeds and surrounded by stone but Adam found a place where he could climb the walls to the very top. (Adam was a rock climber. And a surfer. And a collegiate swimmer. Among other things. Obviously.) I made him get down immediately and lift me up first because I was too short to reach the foot holding and refused to allow him this adventure without me. Kicking my shoes to the side and tying my skirt up, I climbed to the top, through holes in the wall and then up again the other side until we got to the top. The view was absolutely breath taking. Mountains faded in the distance around us, enclosing the valley with thousands of miles of vineyards rolling up and over each hill and around every road and every bend. Not a patch went untouched by them. The bright sun glistened off the river below us, whose protection, Adam informed me, was the Castle’s mission back in 700AD; and the wind howled through my hair and whipped my skirt in violent fits around my legs. We were on the top of the world. We screamed as loud as we could and waited as it echoed off the mountains and throughout the entire valley. We sat in a comfortable silence for awhile just taking it all in and I thought I could most likely stay up here for my entire life, just sitting atop these old stone ruins overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, with my bare feet dangling over the edge miles above ground, and the wind caressing my face.

We drove back to Logrono, stopping at random picturesque views or bird sightings and then met back up with Sophie and Aska in town. We spent the night eating pinchos and drinking everything, going from tapas bar to tapas bar down the lively streets. I bought some snails (live ones; pets) off a tiny Asian man selling them as if they were flowers perched there on his tree branch, as he walked through the local outdoor bars. Then, not knowing what to do with them, I bought them all and set them free in a garden. The four of us followed some Logrono locals that had become Aska’s new best friends to a Karaoke bar down the street and sang duet after duet in English while the local Spaniards clapped, smiling ear to ear at every Backstreet Boys, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen song. I contemplated canceling my train again. I’m pretty sure I told everyone that I was going to. But I didn’t. My train left out of Logrono the next morning and I willed fervently for that one perfect day and night in Rioja to be forever preserved amongst the sea of new memories that I was headed straight into. 



TASTING NOTES: Bodega Paganos

2009 Sierra Cantabria ~ Deep purple hue. Classic Rioja spicy nose that lends into vanilla with time. Smooth, fresh mouth feel. A lot of grip without any bitterness to it and tannic structure without tannic feel. No over drying finish. 

2007 El Puntido ~ More complex notes. Dark red fruit and black currents. You can taste the oak. A nose full of white flowers after it opens up; Albertos says that it smells exactly like the white flowers of the olive tree blossoms in the area. Despite being a 2007, you can still feel how fresh it is. Complex, with a minerality characteristic to it, it is very well balanced with rounded tannins and covers the entire palate. 

2008 La Nieta ~  This wine has less oak and so much fruit - red fruits. It is bolder and powerful but also soft and elegant. It is not rugged at all like some other Spanish wines. 2008 was a great year in la Rioja. It has a finish that seems to last forever and a "high note" that Adam detects in the back of the palate. 

The Old Mercer Bridge

Although, I was thoroughly ready to leave France, I had one more pit stop before Spain - Bayonne, a small commerce city by the sea. Two more days to taste France before it was gone and I wasn't about to waste that. 

It's strikingly alarming what a little sunshine and warm weather does to me after four very cold and very rainy days. The Ibis Budget Hotel was souless and unremarkable, aside from the pleasant desk clerk, but it did what it claimed to do. Not knowing what I would do with two days here, I took a taxi into town that night. My first impression of Bayonne as a dull and colorless town surrounded by commercial hotels, jiffy lube type garages, and a KFC, was instantly replaced by an ever-renewed joyful wonder as I crossed the old city bridge. The sun gilstened off the water and the air was light with laughter. It was nearly 8:00 pm but the sun felt like 5:00. 

As I crossed over the middle of the bridge, my feet light again, I saw a tiny thing of a woman, ancient as they come, with two ski poles for walking sticks, straining to peer over the bridge. She couldn't have been more than 4 feet tall and the stone railing nearly reached her chin. Just as I neared her, she spun around and began to speak to me as if she had been awaiting my arrival, or anyone's for that matter. She spoke to me in French but I had the distinct notion that she had just started in the middle of a sentence. I apologized and told her that I did not speak French. 

"Oh heavens, dear. I'm an English woman," she replied in a British sing song way that only they are capable of. "Do you know what these are for?" She said scruitinizing the ground, tapping one of her ski poles against a line of metal grooves in the bridge's sidewalk. 

I suspected she was going to go into one of those old woman tales where they tell you the history and origin of the bridge and precisely the purpose the metal grooves served so very long ago. I shook my head, no, I didn't know. 

She glanced back over the side of the bridge again to the water beneath it. "It simply does not make any sense." She looked back at the metal grooves. "They look like tram tracks but they just stop here. What on earth would a tram need tracks for coming in from the sky?" She looked back at me. 

I had never felt so monstrous as I had then, looking down on this small creature. Her red and white ski poles looked like the newest arodynamic prototype in olympic skiing and downright comical with her shin-length brown skirt and soft pink sweater. I glanced down at the tracks as she had instructed, and then the road where they stopped, and then to the other side of the walk way where they picked back up again, perfectly in line with this side. 

"Well, I don't know." I said charmingly, returning my eyes to her with a smile.

"See if you can get a good look down there, honey," She nudged my bum with her ski pole, pushing me to the bridge's wall. "And see if you can figure it out for us."

I pursed my lips in a smile. She was serious about solving this mystery. Craining over the side of the bridge, looking down at the stone supports coming out of the water, I really did try to figure it out ... suddenly intrigued. 

"A draw bridge, maybe?" I asked looking back over my shoulder at her. 

"No, no, see they don't cross the road." She pointed to the street with her pole again. 

"Well, I believe the bridge has stumped the both of us." I said returning upright and facing her. 

"Where do you come from child?"  She smiled up at me. 

I have this bad habit of not knowing what to do with my eyes or where to look when people are wearing sunglasses. (How are you supposed to have a conversation with someone while looking at your own reflection?) I scanned the little white tuft whilting on the top of her head, looking for a spot, and then settled my gaze on her mouth. Her teeth had clearly began giving up on life long before she did. Browning from the bottoms up, I thought if I stood here long enough, I could watch them decay all the way to the gums. But she was English and we can't blame them for terrible dentisitry, right? Only America manufactures smiles. 

"The U.S. ... America." I answered, watching her mouth as it twitched into a crooked grin.

"Oh! Do tell where!" She responded. 

I had gotten used to Maryland being a dead end answer, but I said it anyway and went into my air diagram of where it was in relation to New York. 

She interupted with a laugh. "Yes, yes! I have family there. That city ... the one with the B."

"Baltimore." I answered.

"Yes, that's where they live."

"Oh, wow, most people don't ..." I began. 

"Or is it Boston?" She looked down at the ground and scratched her chin with the wrist strap on the top of her ski pole. "Wait a minute. It's Boston."

I smiled and began again, "Oh, Bost...."

"Birmingham? I think it's Birmingham. Yes, is that in Maryland?" She looked back up at me.

"Maybe." I smiled.

We carried on in that way, as if she was certain I had been her granddaughter in another life (although she did not propose the idea). So much so, that I considered I may have been. People passed by, strolling baby carriages, walking dogs, laughing ... because that's what people did on bridges - they crossed over; they didn't have family reunions. She caught me up on her life presently as if I already knew the first 70 years of it. I implored further. She had fallen for a French man, "by no fault of my own," she added, while traveling when she was young. They fell in love and married and he moved to England for the better part of his life to be with her. Now retired, he had insisted that it was his turn and so they returned to France. 

"We moved to {a town whose name I have no recollection of}, but Henry said to me 'Well this is just as much damned fog and rain as England! I won't have it,' so we went south and here I am." She smiled as if she had just announced herself. 

I was surprised that she lived nearby. With the curiosity that she took with the bridge, I had assumed she was on vaccation. Sadly, I wonderd if she had stood here before, maybe many times and tried to solve the same puzzle like it was the first time these tracks had stumped her ... every time. The conversation flowed with ease and we were genuinely interested in each other. She was so tiny and cute, I wanted to fold her up and put her in my pocket, so that I could pull her out whenever I felt particularly curious about something. Not so that she could give me the answers, but merely so she could demand them with me. 

We were so engrossed in one another that I had hardly noticed the woman who had stopped and was facing us on the sidewalk, mumbling some French nonsense. She got a bit louder and I turned to her and said,  "I don't speak French, I'm sorry," and then returned my eyes to the old woman's cracked lipstick mouth which hadn't stopped speaking. I didn't know if she was ignoring the stranger or was simply on the verge of going blind and deaf. 

"I speak English," the crazy woman slurred at the sides of our faces. "I need money. I'm saving the world." She stumbled closer with her hand out and my gaze met her again.

She had hair the color of straw that stuck out like it had been pressed by an iron every day of her 45 year old life. She wore a coat made for a Mt. McKinley voyager, and had 5 scarfs on, all of different colors, shapes and sizes. Her teeth made Miss Ski Poles look like Mono Lisa and she had two different shoes on. I could hear Ski Poles effortlessly continuing her story without having missed a beat. 

"I don't have any cash. I'm sorry," I looked back at the minature woman, trying to concentrate on her tale and pick up what I had missed, while minding this narcotic nutcase encroaching on my right. 

"You don't understand. I. Am. Going. To Save. The World," She said indefinitely. The words came out messy, coated in slime, with the stench of a frat house after week old kegger.

"Yes. Yes. Well go, on now then. Go save it," The old woman said in that same upbeat British song that makes it impossible to differentiate between scold and praise. She waved her pole at the woman's legs, shooing her away and returned to me, picking up the sentence as if she hadn't ever broken it. 

A few more slurs on her way out and the woman retreated. I tried to surpress my amusement as the woman carried on her tale, unaffected. I bit down on my lip to keep attentive, but my eyes betrayed me and I could feel them laughing.  

"What's your name?" I asked when she finished. It seemed inconceivable that I didn't know it. We had been friends for years. But I had learned that in France, people don't feel the need to introduce themselves on the way in or the way out.

"Mercer. Betty Mercer," She answered.

I smiled. "Well, it was very nice to meet you, Betty."

"You too dear. I'll be going now." She flashed me surely an award winning smile in the dead teeth category and scurried along on her ski poles, never caring for my name. 

I couldn't stop myself from smiling as I left her, each of us going in opposite directions. I looked back over my shoulder to watch her hobble along, searching the sky for a tram to reclaim it's tracks on the bridge. I wondered how simple and delightful the world might be if everyone was as trusting and easily trusted as Betty Mercer. A world full of candid, curious Betty Mercers. I laughed. What a wonderful place that would be. 

I realized then, that even if she had stopped on that bridge a thousand times before with the same new sense of curiosity, her life was better for it. Anyone's would be. The city, despite how long she had been there, had not been dulled down for her. Time had not succeeded. Ever captivated by those infinite possibilites that we all feel creep up within us again in a new and beautiful place. Perhaps that was life's gift to her at the end of her story. A ceaseless spirit of childish wonder. I couldn't fathom a more wonderful way to live. 

Salsa with Santos

Julie took me to her favorite spot in Marseille ... the Quartre de Creatres, or the Quarter of Creators, the pulsing artistic square where all of the magic happens. I loved it the second we walked up the steps. There was so much creativity, expression, and life everywhere. Bright greens and yellows and reds were painted right on the stones of the street or walls; men sang regae in the streets and beat on drums and guitars; children danced around firecrackers; laughter bellowed out with young enthusiasts as they stumbled out of bars and danced to the music by the fountains. 

Julie and I sat outside on the patio. We had a few beers, and shared a few secrets, and then decided to wander the streets and find another place to sit. We walked down the side streets, and I was enamored by it all - the music, the crowds, the passion that drummed through everyone I passed. 


Enter Santos ....


Acrobat. Kite Surfer, Jungle Leader. Tarzan in the flesh. Speaker of 9 languages, wilderness hunter, wind surfer, salsa dancer, and self proclaimed spiritual leader, reader and healer. He pointed me out of the crowd and told me that my aura drew him to me. (Well, I had to give the kid points for originality). 

He didn't drink. He didn't smoke. And he did not wear deodorant. But he was spritual and alive in all sorts of ways. A sleevless cut off and jeans with dark skin and muscles he was far too proud of. He was Columbian and Moraccan, but had lived all over the world. (At least he told an interesting tale, if he hadn't.) He had a dangerous yet youthful face that made him look younger than he was and an energy to match. His curly dark hair hung below the nape of his neck in a thick unruly way. He was king of the jungle cats. 

He fervently believed that his spirit animals were not one, but three ... a black panther, a dolphin, and an eagle, but not just any sort of eagle and certainly not a bald eagle, but the most regal of them all. (This guy was 100% serious). Santos sat entirely too close and his eyes peirced you, searching, trying to read you as you spoke.

"You have an emotional burden resting on your left side," he spoke to me as if I would take him seriously. I looked down at my left shoulder which was the only bare shoulder I was showing and looked up at him cryptically. 

"Nope. I don't have any emotional burdens. I just like to wear my shirts like this," I responded.

He seemed flustered and readusted his feather rustling tactic like the peacock he was. He seemed cocky at first and that was because he was but over the night, he became something much more. Deep and spiritual if you could get through the weeds of strangeness. He wanted to take me salsa dancing. I wasn't interested in him romantically in the least bit. But what I was interested in was experiences. Stories. So I went.

There was another guy with us - a Messiah looking character, with hair that hung down his back, who carried a tree branch for a walking stick and was prepared to part the red sea at any moment. Santos was as centered yet ADD as they come. We would be walking along down a corner street and suddenly he'd be gone. Off changing lives. Scanning the area for him, you'd find him talking with a woman on a bike and embracing her as she cried, or with an old man having a deep conversation in German. 

He was an even more intense salsa dancer than he was a person. Whipping you aroud the dance floor in an underground, dark club. He would pull me against him rather forcefully and demand to be looked at in his eyes the entire time. I couldn't hold his gaze and would falter it to the floor as I tripped over his feet. His eyes were burning with an unmasked passion that you don't see on a day to day basis. But Santos was burning with a passion for everything. 

Unfortunately, Santos was a bit too intense and passionate for this world and I spent the next 5 days avoiding him, making up excuses and then telling harsh truths when they didn't work to get out of meeting him. Then bumping into him on the beach the next day and getting told off for my disrespectful declines from his attention. I told Santos that everybody was entitled to change their minds but he did not agree. He stormed off after a few choice words and I never saw him again. 

Star Crossed Paths

There are certain people, I am sure of, that cross your path for a reason. Whatever that reason may be, it matters not. But these people come into your life for a moment and change it indefinitely. Some call this fate, but fate is not what I am talking about. Fate has a preorchestrated conotation to it that leaves us little control over our destinies. What I am talking about is something different. It is being awake. Awake enough to see these persons when they come, embrace every moment when they are there, and then let them go as you both carry on your ways. 

Julie and Dial were such people. And I felt it before I even met them, and knew it beyond doubt once I did. 

Julie was an outrageous and incongruent burst of energy. No sooner had I walked through the door, she was greeting me with hugs and kisses and a smile that engulfed you. Welcoming me much like a great aunt, twice removed, whom you hadn't seen since you were 18 months old and had no memories of, would. But somehow, instantly you felt she had known you her whole life. She wore a bright red polka dot dress and her dark auburn, tightly wound curls sprung fron a short bob behind wide, cat eye glasses. I had no idea how old she was, but she was hilarious. 

We had Bastille (a Mersaille drink) at the bar below her apartment right on the beach and talked with the locals for hours. And by locals, I mean local drunks. Four old men crowded around me at the table, competing in French for my attention. Najib was a self- proclaimed wine conniesueur with a beautiful Indian wife, who schooled me the entire night about Bandol wine and all the wines of the world he had tried. There was a crazy skinny old man with a bad comb over that he had long since given up on and missing teeth. His hair fell stringy and long and he had a lazy eye that would scatter and twinkle after he made a joke. None of which I understood, of course. He seemed to re-forget that I didn’t know French in between drinks. The bartender, who did not look French at all, was a straight up Italian looking Guido from the Jersey Shore. Except without the muscles or the tan. He wore sunglasses the entire night inside the bar and despite the bulging pudge of his stomach under his tight shirt, he was the king of the house.

Julie and I shared her son’s room that night because she had other guests in her room. We ordered pizza, drank wine, and danced all night to all kinds of music. We did all sorts of things that week like exploring the town, hiking mountains to find beautiful hidden coves of crystal blue water, picnicked with jamon and melon, stayed up into the late hours of the night, attended house warming parties for friends which were conducted entirely in French, went salsa dancing with locals and shared stories from all walks of life.

One particular night, over two bottles of wine, Julie told me all about her life and family in Senegal, Africa. When she first arrived, she had all of her money stolen, which she expresses as a divine blessing. She lived in poverty with African families where they didn’t know where their next meal would come from and if lucky, had one plate of rice to share. She washed men’s underwear and clothes all day for 1 euro while they gawked and laughed at the irony of a white woman doing their laundry. She said she had never been so happy in her entire life.

“Africa is happiness,” she says with a joyful glow. “These people have nothing. Not a thing to offer, but their hearts …” She stretches her hands out as if grasping a beach ball in front of her chest, shakes her head and breathes out with misty eyes.

“Their hearts touch you. All the time they dance. They are the happiest people alive,” she finishes in her French accent.

Julie is the most genuine person I have ever met. She is a white, Jewish, French woman and her former husband is an African, Muslim muscian. Their son, Dial, is the beautiful combination of all things. Just 9 years old, he is exceptionally bright and struggles with his identity and lingering racism in school. He idolizes Michael Jackson and can dance just like him. He often asks his mother if he too, should bleach his skin white like Michael so he might also have white babies when he grows up. Julie attempts to explain to her son why his idol tried to appear as a white man and why he probably paid a donor for white children.

The whole thing is a concept so foreign to me that hits me with the weight of an entire building, crashing into me like a wrecking ball and sending my insides spiraling into pieces throughout space. And with every earnest look on Dial’s precious face, I want nothing more than to protect every child in the world from this feeling.

Julie wants me to go to Senegal and experience this way of living with her family there. Although the place frightens me, it intrigues me as well and I am tempted to visit. The three of us eat avocados drizzled in balsamic and more melon with Jambon for dinner, look at pictures of their family trip to Senegal, and dance to Michael Jackson for hours. 

Nuit St. Georges & Chaux

There is so much to see here in terms of wine that it is overwhelming. I decide to head to Nuit St. Georges. After driving around and getting lost in hillsides full of nothing but vineyards (which I didn't mind), I stopped in the city centre. It was difficult to know a household from a winery and I didn't want to knock on random doors of family homes. I followed a small road - Chaux - up through winding roads and rolling hills of vines as far as you could see. It was incredible. Every so often, a small stone and dirt village would pop up with tiny family wineries. I learned quickly that you had to call ahead to visit. These wineries were made up of four family members, max, and they did the vineyard management, the wine making, the tastings, and the sales. At 4 pm, most of them were out tending the vines and none of them spoke English. 

I pulled into a small gravel parking lot next to a barn with a sign reading "Simon & Guy." Just as I did, another car arrived and we got out at the same time. There were three of them, an older couple and a boy about my age. The older, white haired gentlemen said something to me in French. 

"Bonjour, tu pal engle?" I asked.

" We are English," he exclaimed with a twinkle and a british accent.

"Oh, thank God," I said with a big sigh of relief and they laughed. 

An elderly French woman opened the barn door and led us into the dark room displaying her wines. We tasted a few of them and I was grateful for a French speaking man to direct the conversation. There were no windows inside or indication of the outside world. We rinsed our glasses in between wines from a water spicket in the corner as mice scurried about our feet.  


Chris, Christine, & Patrick were their names and they had just come from Provence. They were outrageously tan and, after a week full of cold rain, I was outrageously jealous. Christine had short, silk straight, white hair with silver accents that even more accentuated her tan. Patrick, the father, sported a white hairstyle as well. He was goofy in a way that I liked and he spoke to the woman without offerring me any translation. I didn't understand a thing or know what I was drinking. The son, Chris, seemed about my age and was handsome in an American university sort of way. I wanted to not leave them all day. I envisioned many more wine tastings that day and laughter throughout. They'd take me to dinner and joke about how they wished they could keep me and nudge their son with a wink. We'd part ways with hugs and kisses and promises to keep in touch and never forget one another. But none of that happened. They were headed one way and I, the other. 

Patrick bought what they had come for and I asked the woman for the same bottle. Chatting with Christine and her son while the transactions were made, and then they left. I was alone in the barn with no windows and stood in silence with the woman who spoke no English. I handed her my credict card; she charged it and handed me a box of 6 bottles. I looked at the receipt ... 50 euros?? 

"No, no. One bottle!" I tried to tell her. 

She smiled and showed me the door. Crap. I walked to the car with half a case of the same wine and pretended that I meant to purchase it, as I waved to the family backing out of the driveway.