you know you’re in italy when…

– you never had road rage before, but you do now
– the men have better style than the women
– most buildings are older than your country
– you can’t turn right or left because they’re one-ways going the wrong direction
– there are no lane markers on large, busy streets
– the ben and jerry’s is empty
– you’re pretty sure the ninja turtles are around, somewhere
– you suddenly realize you never knew what italian food was before
– you hear “ciao bella” in a beautiful, authentic accent (i now love italian)
– cappuccinos are made properly every time
– you see more nude people on a bunch of ceiling paintings than you probably will the rest of your lifetime
– you look up and see michelangelo’s david standing still as a statue next to you
– your guest house owner tells you you can’t drive up a certain road, but that “everything here is negotiable”
– residents walk by 2000yr old city ruins like it’s not a big deal
– you purchase a leather bag for 45€ that would normally cost four+ times that
– you eat gelato every day (for the record, i now know how to distinguish the good stuff from the bad stuff… ask me, i do consulting!), sometimes as dinner

so, after we reluctantly left rome, we got out our trusty road atlas to figure out where to get off the highway for our last two nights in san gimignano, tuscany. we’d booked a guest house with rave reviews, in this small town deep in the tuscan hills and surrounded by vineyards. then, we missed the first exit. no problem! there’s another one we can take, which will veer down and meet up with the road we were meant to be on. sort of… well it was the “scenic route”. might have been nice if it wasn’t pitch black, and filled with innumerable hairpin turns up and down hill after hill… then, you think you’re almost there, and, well, you’re not. i’ll spare the frustration and a few more issues (seriously, italy, is it so hard to actually LABEL the street names instead of just telling me what town i can get to by taking a certain exit? especially if the town is too small to be in our atlas?!) and re-enter the story when we finally arrived in san gimignano (“guess we’re not getting dinner again tonight”). i pulled up my laptop to check the booking, only to realize that we missed one minor detail – namely that the guest house wasn’t even in san gimignano. okay so it is, technically, but it’s more in a commune of san gimignano, (san jimmyjohns, as we referred to it) called “certaldo”, 15min away. and once we got there it STILL wasn’t easy to find. i just about gave up but an old man helped us and we found it. and then, we realized that the reason they weren’t ready for us was because i had booked the wrong days!! ugh. stupid me. the hosts were very gracious though, and once we got settled everything sort of melted away and we slept till 11:30 the next morning. oops! we awoke to a prepared breakfast, and were made fresh, organic eggs (from the chickens in the backyard, and yes, next to the vineyards) and very good coffee (if you’re ever in tuscany, it’s called “il pianigiano” and it was really so great).

because of more rain (ugh, spring), we relaxed for a large portion of the day and headed into san jimmyjohns in the early evening to explore the castle town there it’s famous for. photos are up on flickr. it was really neat. unfortunately, because of the time of year, most things were closed, but it really felt like we had been transported back to 1910 or something. we got some gelato, of course, then headed to certaldo’s own centro antico (more time-transporting…) for dinner at ristorante l’antica fonte. this was exceptional (fresh spinach ravioli with ricotta and fresh pesto? beef tagliata with colonnata lard? panna cotta?). we turned down an offer from two italian guys to go to karaoke with them and drink limoncello (worry not)… and pretty promptly fell asleep back in our room. repeat breakfast, and we were on the road home.

the drive was largely uneventful but for two separate 3+ car accidents that put us off schedule an hour and a half, and we returned the rental car in aix just 20min late with no issues. and that was that! my italian roadtrip-of-a-lifetime extraordinaire is over. although, provided that little boar in florence lives up to his word, i’ll be back one day.


the eternal city

oh before i get on the road to rome, i suppose i should go through florence… forgive the length, i write this for my own benefit as well. i don’t record this stuff anywhere else at the moment so this is both a journal and a blog… get over it.

florence was just gorgeous. so much to see… i could live there. although i suppose learning italian would be helpful first. it was just so grand, so much larger than life. we arrived after dark, and had a pretty hard time finding parking, as mentioned, but eventually we found a spot that we *thought* was okay, left the car and checked in at the hostel (side note: everything we read after going to florence warned NOT to try to take a rental car into the city. hmmmm).

claire did an amazing job the whole trip of researching things to do, which was fine with me as driving tired me out more than i thought it would, and left me wanting to just relax for a bit after arrivals (darn italian drivers! the concentration it takes just to stay alive is incredible). we left the hostel sort of late to find a restaurant that came with good reviews, across the river arno, around a 20min walk away. we probably would have been fine for time but for being completely mesmerized by everything we passed along the way… when we got to the duomo, also known as opera di santa maria del fiore, i was blown away. it was nighttime, the square was very empty, and this giant cathedral nearly took my breath away. why i didn’t bring my camera i’ll never know… and THEN, i was stopped in my tracks as i realized we’d nearly walked by the replica david statue (like, michelangelo’s david) in the piazza del signoria. more awe.

opera di santa maria del fiore (part of the duomo)

claire and i atop the duomo

claire in awe atop the duomo, florence

michelangelo’s “david” (replica)

we very unfortunately arrived at the restaurant just as they were closing up. the guy told us they might not be closed “for you girls” but after checking with the chef (we batted some lashes, to no avail), it was confirmed. and only because the next day they closed for a week for renos. too bad. but who knew finding an open restaurant in firenze on valentine’s day would be so difficult at 11pm?? not kidding, we didn’t find anything. so my romantic valentine’s day dinner with claire ended up being waffles with whipped cream, strawberries, and gelato. not so bad after all i guess, even if i had a sugar headache falling asleep that night…

the next day was just GORgeous. i could have spent all afternoon laying in the sun in the piazza del signoria, but we had lots to do. we checked on the car – hmm… surrounded now by motos. great, we were in a residents-only bike zone. deal with that later… we got coffee, and sandwiches at this local haunt that were fabulous. we climbed the duomo, 463 steps, and were blown away again with an incredible view of the city of florence. we went to the leather markets… danger. yes i got a bag. sigh. then we went back to the hostel to research dinner places, and ended up at another local place where we had some great chianti classico riserva, stuffed artichoke, and deep fried rabbit. we tried to meet up with a friend of a friend at a jazz café but didn’t catch them, but we still got to hang out at an italian jazz cafe, so, no big deal! we finished the night with some laughs shared with other hostel nomads.

dinner mmmmm

unfortunately the next day was slightly rainy. the other problem was that we really needed to move the car. so we headed that way, and as we approached the street we see a police car patrolling the area. when we reached the car, they had pulled up right next to our car… upon seeing us get in the car and turn it on they continued on, but GUARANTEED we would have gotten what certainly would have been a pretty hefty ticket. SO. timing=check!

we moved the car to a garage, hit up a café, then went to the central food market, tried a bunch of cheese, bought some gifts, ogled at cow stomach and fresh pasta and other such italian specialties, got cannoli, then got lunch (didn’t research this one, and guess what, it wasn’t very good. lesson learned). then we hit up santa croce cathedral where we visited the sepulchres of the likes of galileo, michelangelo, machiavelli and dante. after, we searched for a secret bakery that claire had heard rumours about online, but apparently it’s a well-kept secret because we didn’t find it (we consoled ourselves with gelato). we DID have reservations at a restaurant we passed the night before, il santo bevitore, and had a fabulous dinner and evening there, starting with prosecco and ending with sweet-wine (on the house!).

machiavelli’s sepulchre at santa croce

dining room at il santo bevitore
our dessert that didn’t wait for a photo

after getting a cappuccino at ‘supposedly’ the best coffee place in florence the next morning, and rubbing the boar snout for a safe return to florence one day (and there WILL be a return, one day), we headed off on the road to rome.

rubbing the boar snout for a safe return journey to florence

about 3.5hrs later we found our hostel and free parking, no trouble at all, and immediately wished we’d booked more time there. the hostel was really great – a renovated super old building that was more like staying in someone’s high-ceilinged apartment than a hostel. unfortunately, it started pouring. so we altered our plans a little, grabbed our umbrellas, and headed into town.

the repubblica, trevi fountain, pantheon, and a bunch of other incomprehensibly old buildings later, we found the restaurant ‘cul de sac’ recommended to me by a good friend of alex. it was a wine bar with a “wine’s by the bottle” list of over 1000 wines. we skipped that for the “by the glass” list… and subsequently had another fabulous meal, followed by some very strong grappa, which resulted in us skipping the spanish steps and just taking the bus home. passed some more 2000yr+ old ruins (no big deal) on the way and pondered who would have marched through the old city wall arches so, so many years ago…. (maximus? marcus aurelius? is that you??)

the pantheon
trevi fountain… wow.
wine’s by the bottle binder at cul de sac

the next day was packed as well. the vatican. sistine chapel. the coliseum. spanish steps. mouth of truth. and driving to our guest house in san gimignano, tuscany. it’s just impossible to describe rome, and how… well, how indescribable it is. i don’t know how many times i took out my camera only to realize the futility in trying to capture what i was seeing. i don’t even know if it was a valiant effort on my behalf. but i digress. i’m going to leave this here and tell you later about our… ‘interesting’ drive to tuscany after dark, realizing our guest house was actually in another town than what we thought, and being time-transported back to the 18th century.

claire outside the vatican museum, st. peter’s basilica in the background
st. peter’s square, vatican city
claire snuck a photo of the ceiling (no pictures are allowed)
me inside the coliseumruins…
more ruins…
mouth of truth
me, with gelato, on the spanish steps (à la audrey hepburn in ‘roman holiday’!)

ciao! prego!


florence has stolen my heart.

okay so that’s cheesy, i know, but this city is just spectacular. larger than life, breathtaking, and filled with exceptionally delicious food, coffee, and gelato – and leather markets to drool over… i’ll post more tonight but here’s a pic from the top of the duomo (463 stairs later…) to pique your interest. maybe. or just make you jealous.


pizza in pisa and other such tales, "pinch me?" part 2

okay. arrival in 2nd hostel successful, but not quite as successful as the first one. driving today has been…. um well let’s just say that buying that italy road atlas book was the best 14€ i ever spent. EVER.

i left off last night with talking about genova. it’s really too bad that we only had part of a day there today. i felt like i was doing myself an injustice not wandering around and taking lots of photos, but sometimes you have to choose your battles, or whatever. the most unfortunate part of the time in genova was seeing the quentin blake (illustrator for roald dahl, anyone???) exposition, wanting to go, and realizing it was closed for lunch and wouldn’t be open until after we’d planned to leave genova for pisa. too bad!

so last night after we checked in at the hostel, we made the (mistake) decision to drive down to this less touristy part of town along the water, as recommended by the hostel guy, and have dinner at one of the “many pubs and restaurants” in this supposed “local” area.

two hours later… we asked some lady in some park walking some dog where to get dinner. any kind of dinner. please oh please… fortunately she spoke english. after humming and hawing a bit, she said, “oh yes!” and gave us some suggestions. we found the two places (one block down from where we’d given up and turned about half an hour earlier), and a third place just a little further. just by looking at its sign, we both knew that we would check the menus of the first two, but only to say we did. so we chose #3, il pampino. we even wanted to wait the half hour for a table because we just knew it was going to be amazing. and it was. it was a small, cozy, stone road grille-esqu restaurant, filled with people, and walls lined with either shelves of wine, or cases of wine. the hostess offered us a glass of wine while we waited, and honestly it was incredible. to save time, i won’t really go in to detail, but we both had a ravioli dish, ate half and switched. mine was with meat, hers was ricotta and butter. i don’t know if it was the relief at having found the place after so much frustrating searching, being hungry, or what, but it was probably the best pasta i’ve ever had. at one point i said to claire: “this pasta is making me smile involuntarily” …and the tiramisu i had for dessert will probably be the last one i ever eat because i’m not sure anything will ever compare.

anyways, enough of making you jealous. we drove back to the hostel in the rain and, very full and satisfied, fell asleep in our big empty 8-person dorm room (empty meaning we could steal all the blankets from the other beds!).

side note: i recommend trying to say things in ridiculous italian accents. you’d be surprised how much fun it is!

after grabbing a late breakfast and coffee near the aquarium, we headed to pisa around 2pm. the drive was, again, breathtaking. we got off the highway alright, towards pisa, but this is pretty much the conversation that followed, about ten minutes of driving in.

robyn: claire, i don’t know where i’m going. this round about isn’t giving me anything useful. i don’t want firenze and i don’t want [insert italian sounding village name], i want pisa. where are we?
claire: i don’t know, this map isn’t detailed enough, i don’t have street names. just keep heading to the city centre, surely we’ll find something there.
robyn: that sign above the police station says pisamo…. hang on, i think we’re IN pisa…? considering that we have stopped seeing signs that tell us how to get to pisa…
[we’ve stopped driving, pulled over to get bearings]
robyn: [looking up from the road] oh, well, this is the pisa city bus station. that explains it!

so we got lost and ended up in pisa, just where we were meant to go. and it was pretty great. we parked illegally (unintentional, i swear!) and walked to the tower. it was what i expected, but also really cool. we stopped to get some pizza to tide us over until our romantic valentine’s dinner in florence, and headed back towards the autostrade (highway).

this proved much more difficult than planned, and it was getting dark. my intuition told me to go one way, and an hour or so later we found the highway. i wasn’t wrong, it was just insanely marked and really difficult. we could SEE the highway, but we could not GET to the highway. regardless, we did (thank you navigator claire and our trusty road atlas!) and another hour later we were exiting for firenze (florence). and then, for whatever reason (like, how about, TERRIBLE SIGNAGE), we got lost in florence back roads, happened upon our street, then got lost again. well not lost, just, the streets are all one way but never in the way you need! and not in any logical way that makes nice squares or circles. alas, at long, tired, frustrated last, we parked, walked ten minutes, found our hostel, checked in, got the tour, and here i am.

we’re in a three-person mixed dorm, with a nice aussie guy named tim, who leaves tomorrow. claire is on her bed researching restaurants for tonight, and i am getting hungry. so i will leave this here, and hopefully put up some of the first photos when we get back tonight. provided i haven’t had too much limoncello. 🙂


pinch me?

wow, what a day.

it’s late, i’m deliciously full and warm, and sleepy, but if i don’t write this now i’ll forget some of the special nuances of the day. some of it is already starting to slip away… i’ll start from the beginning. the dreadfully early wake up (7:30am i know, terrible). we got ready and walked to the car rental place, which is quite close to cuques. claire and i stopped for a p’tite déja and café first and then to AVIS. after a bit of slight service (french?) ineptness (they were nice enough, just the system that was at issue), we finally got our leetle car, and i re-oriented myself to the world of driving manual (driving at all, for that matter. and in europe!). we packed up, double checked we had all our maps, and, headed out of aix.

driving felt so freeing. it’s been months (almost 6). also, our car, affectionately referred to as our silver “Pam”, standing for ‘presque aston martin’ (presque meaning ‘almost’), is a small, new, zippy car that accelerates quickly and stops abruptly and shifts easelessly. it’s very fun to drive. we stopped in a small town between toulon and st. tropez for car food – apples, bananas, pringles, water, maltesers, rice cakes, etc. – and continued on the A8/E30 to st. tropez, cannes, and nice. you know, driving along the south of france coast is not all it’s cracked up to be. okay i’m kidding it was incredible. and then you hit italy. france must have been spiting us because literally the second was passed the “ITALIA” sign and came out of the tunnel on the other side, the sun was shining and it warmed up a few degrees. not to mention the landscape changed quite significantly. i wish pictures would have done it justice, or that i could explain it to you somehow, but i can’t. let’s just say that we thought about counting how many times i said “MAN!” or “oh wow”, but gave up around the same time we stopped holding our breaths through the tunnels. that was around #25 or so…

italy is just gorgeous. valley after valley, on the edge of the sea, buildings that emanate awe-inspiring antiquity… and this is coming from the person who drove the whole way – my view was significantly reduced. you know these italian drivers, i had to pay very rapt attention. i had a few things to shout in futility at various cars not choosing lanes to stay in and completely disregarding traffic rules, but, really, there’s nothing you can do except be careful and aggressive in equal parts.

genova is a beautiful city. the driving is wretched. good thing i have a tiny, speedy car with good breaks. our hostel has an amazing panoramic view of the city, but you know what that means. it means it’s on the top of the hill, and takes about 20 hairpin turns on tight streets just to get to it. fortunately, once you do it once it’s practically easy. the hostel is clean, (empty at the moment, not a lot of travellers at this time of year)

annnnnnd that’s where i fell asleep last night. i’ll post here and finish this after we arrive and get settled in florence this evening. now to find something to eat and get back on the road…

quentin blake exposition
genova harbour front

three things.

1. i leave for italy in the morning!! also, whilst cleaning off my camera’s memory card to make room for the many, many pictures i’ll be taking, i found a few straggler pics from paris and new years! just a few, but they’re up on flickr.

2. my bike has officially been named. voilà, pepé, the vélo! (not to be confused with pepé, the king prawn! or pepé le pew, for that matter). he has been good to me already, going in to town takes half the time it used to, and is even more enjoyable! claire and i have been cruising around lots already (her bike’s name is beau), and my road-bike-manoeuvring skills are improving. if only i could bring pepé home with me…

3. i have a published photo! well it’s not that exciting really, but there’s an online map/city guide publication, “schmaps” that found my photo of la ciotat on my flickr site and asked if they could use it on the guide. i agreed, and here’s the link:
cool eh?

until next time, in the land of pizza and pasta,


throughout my day, when interesting things happen, i have a habit of forming in my mind how i will write about it in this blog. i did that all last week but when it came time to sitting down and writing, i always ‘found’ more pressing things to do. granted, i have had a large to-do list looming on my desk. fortunately, this weekend and today i checked off and crossed off so many items that i actually needed to re-write a new, smaller list, in order to easier see what was left.

as i mentioned in a recent post, it hasn’t been the easiest, starting up a new semester here. the results of my classes last semester were disappointing at best, even though i knew right from the beginning that a) it’s hard to get good marks here, and b) it would be even harder for me to keep up the same standards i’ve been used to in a new environment and a foreign language. the january blues settled in with full force. however, one of the great things about living in the south of france is that by the time february rolls around, the kind of ‘spring’ i’m used to in april at home is well underway here, so that feeling of anything being possible, and ‘everything’s going to be all right’, has lifted my mood. at least, momentarily. could just be the extra vitamin d.

i have an appointment at the consular office in marseille on wednesday. in order to make sure this is the LAST TIME (please, oh please, let this be the last time…) i have to deal with visas and residency permits and immigration offices, i have been running around making sure i have ALL the documentation, bureaucratic nonsense, and tax payments, the FIRST time. i will have to miss an entire day of class, since the appointment is smack in the middle of the day, and i have to catch the bus down there, then walk from one end of town to the other for this thing. oh well. getting it over with will be worth it, just in time for me to leave!

fortunately, today, i got all the difficult (and expensive) tasks done on my list. last week i was not so propitious. not that i expected much more…regardless. on friday i went in to town, idealistic and optimistic little robby (first mistake), to-do list in hand, cheery disposition. i was quickly thwarted. my bike was not ready like the bikeman said it would be, the bank is, yet again, incredibly incompetent (i miss meridian), and, after waiting in a long line at the only place i knew sold the 55€ postage “tax stamp” necessary for my permit – a tabac shop – the very unpleasant man at the counter interrupted me, waving me off and telling me there weren’t any more. “non plus, non plus.” when prodded, he managed to also add, “peut-être dans quelques jours.” maybe in a few days. helpful. thanks. grumpy, (hungry), cold, frustrated, and feeling less than productive, i took the bus home.

i turned some music on on my ipod and stared, somewhat dejectedly, out the window, looking at nothing in particular. across from me on the bus sat a pretty asian girl around my age, and next to her, a pleasant old gentleman, with stark white hair, thick glasses, and a long, beige wool coat. as we passed the parc jordanne, i could see him asking the girl if she could press the “stop” button for him. it struck me how genuinely nice he was. and nice, old people make me just so happy. he smiled and nodded his head a couple times, so grateful for such a simple favour. watching his somewhat unsteady (though this was seemingly veiled) manoeuvring to exit the bus, grasping the railings, nodding and thanking the bus driver earnestly as he left, i couldn’t help smiling. in fact, i caught myself as my eyes welled up a little. all the negative parts of my day faded.

it’s wonderful, and i mean that in the ‘inspiring of wonder’ kind of way, how impactful the smallest of gestures can be. i forget this. i forget how much my mood effects others. i forget that it doesn’t matter whether someone has treated me unpleasantly. i am not responsible for their actions, i’m responsible for how i respond, because how i respond effects others. i have the power to ruin someone’s day, and it could be completely unintended (let’s hope so!). inversely, i can also make someone’s day better by expending little more effort than being grateful and friendly to those around me. it’s so simple…

on sunday afternoon, i went to cook myself a late lunch of eggs. the kitchen was, quel surprise, un vrai désastre. a really, disgusting sort of disaster. before i could consider cooking in there, i had to clean. it took me nearly an hour, and i certainly didn’t owe it to anyone to do it. it was largely for my own benefit, plus the satisfaction i get from the before/after views, and of course a smug sort of superiority complex (look at how clean i am you slobs!!).

i seriously considered printing off a sign and posting it above the sink that read something like (profanity witheld): “clean up after yourself, use an ashtray, take your garbage down! you are in UNIVERSITY and your mother does NOT live here!!!!” i also considered throwing out the dishes in the sink (the cleaning lady does it sometimes). i did neither of those things, don’t worry. instead, after i calmed down (paradoxically, cleaning is very therapeutic for me), i decided to wash the dishes in the sink and leave them on the counter. negative responses to the state of the kitchen would have had absolutely no beneficial impact on anyone. hopefully, and most certainly in my idealistic mind, my anonymous gesture will have made someone happy, and more likely to clean up in the future. at least, i can dream.

and anyway, i felt far better than i would have if i’d chucked the dishes and posted a nasty sign. it would have been vindictive, and bitter. who wants to engender those sorts of feelings in others? in oneself?? but i digress. have i mentioned how much i LOVE living in residence? 🙂

the next little while is going to be fun and inspiring. i bought a bike! it’s very exciting. i will post a photo soon (and the winner of the name contest… still accepting suggestions!). also, claire and i are hopefully leaving for italy in a rented car on friday, for about 10 days. roadtripping down the coast, taking our time, visiting rome, and florence, maybe venice… eating lots of pizza and pasta and gelato… after that the time begins to slip away. 4.5 months left as of today. tick, tock…



well i’m a little late to jump on the doppelganger week bandwagon, and i’m not changing my facebook picture or anything like that, but i gave in when i got a little bored this evening and decided to see what had to say about my celebrity resemblances. fortunately, i got to choose which ones to include so as to omit the more…embarrassing matches… wouldn’t want to encourage anyone. but i have to admit, i get told more often by people in general that i look like the ms. hathaway of the final photo, and myheritage didn’t even pick her out. i’ll let you decide.