Saturday, January 08, 2011

Venetian Life Lessons

Several times when I lived in Boston, the quickest route from my apartment to wherever else I may have wanted to go was an alley. This horrified my mother who felt I should be sensible enough to know that the extra five minutes around the block was not worth the possibility of being stolen. Sensible I was not, and I continued to walk through, although I stress that it was not that big of a deal. The pizza place I frequented opened onto the alley, and they knew me and so watched out for me, if only to see what stupid thing I would do next. My then-boyfriend’s apartment also looked onto the alley and if the walk was too sketchy I would just call out that I was walking through and to please come meet me. I’m positive this was endearing.

The problem is that I like quiet streets, especially ones hidden away in busy cities. Where my mother sees stealing potential, I see peaceful respite from the loud traffic and crowded sidewalks. This has always been a point of contention between us, from the shortcut I took back and forth to school in London when I was 13, to the time I walked around the other side of the castle my first day in Edinburgh, to the fact that I thought nothing of early morning runs (or afternoon walks for that matter) through the streets of Havana. Actually I’m not sure how much she knows about any of these. Mom, maybe forget you read this, ok?

I would argue (whether convincingly or not) that it’s worth it to occasionally ignore the warnings against random wandering in cities. Very rarely have I actually felt unsafe (and most of that was the fear of my mom’s reaction should she find out) and I think as long as you are not being stupid, beyond the actual wandering itself, these random trips can be some of the most rewarding. Luckily I tend to surround myself with people who feel the same way, so at least if I am wandering, I have other people with me. Never mind the fact that we are all short and look about 12, so being in a group hardly helps. But still.

Before our cruise in April, Aheli and I arrived in Venice a day early so that we could explore the city. Aheli, like me, tends to wander while travelling. She has also been to Venice before (albeit as a child) so we decided that we would not be purchasing a map of the city because it cost a whole two Euro. And why spend that on a map when you can get gelato instead?

Early in the day, this was not a problem. There were signs to the main attractions, and lots of good food along the way. We happily got a huge lunch of pasta and gnocchi followed by caramel gelato and sat ourselves in the Piazza San Marco to people and pigeon watch for a good portion of the day.

The sky was overcast, and so it started getting dark fairly early and we decided to be sensible and head back to the hotel. Now, both of us have a fairly good sense of direction, which combined, usually means we can find our way back the way we’ve come. And we did mostly, if you ignore a few extra loops around the Rialto Bridge. But I would argue that it is so pretty that it has to be seen from several angles to truly appreciate its beauty. Or something like that.

Anyway, we stopped spinning and were en route to the hotel when we felt something behind us. By this time the streets were less crowded and the sky was dark so we were on high alert. We turned, and saw nothing out of the ordinary, a few tourists, some kids, a man in those swishy track pants so popular in the 90s. Nothing special. We kept walking. But we couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed. We turned again: Different tourists, other kids, a man in swishy pants. Oh wait a minute…

Now we were definitely alert, and as we kept walking we realized that we weren’t so much aware of a presence as the sound of swishing coming up behind us. We stopped. It stopped. We took a few steps. Swish, swish, swish, came the answer. Was swishy pants man following us?! Before we panicked we needed to be sure. So we tested our theory:

We stepped: Step, step.
He swished: Swish, swish.

Step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish.

Step, step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish, swish.


He was! He was following us! We stopped, and turned ‘fiercely.’ He nonchalantly examined a nearby flower pot. We stayed where we were; it was a swishy pants show down. Finally, he had to concede and swished on past us, as we glared ‘menacingly.’ We waited until the sound of swishing had faded into the distance and continued walking.

There are several lessons that I could have taken from this: Don’t wander in a strange place, Always buy the map, Don’t go out after dark…

But I do all those things anyway. If anything (and you can’t convince me otherwise), my years of practice prepared me for this situation and allowed me to focus on being followed, while not being concerned with the rest. No, for better or worse what I came away with was: If you’re planning on following people, it’s probably best to make sure you’re wearing quiet pants.

Valuable lesson learned.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Donkey Debacle

In April, as I’ve mentioned briefly, Allie, Aheli, and I took a cruise around the Greek Isles to celebrate the end of the semester. This is the story of the Donkey Debacle of Santorini.

Every night onboard, an information booklet for the next day’s activities and ports is distributed to all the rooms. This is arguably one of my favourite parts, as wannabe travel agent/cruise director. Yes, I am aware that this is slightly ridiculous, but I own it. Anyway, on this particular evening we had received the information for the stop in Santorini which is (one of) the quintessential Greek Island(s – Mykonos also puts in a good showing). Its white buildings, high on the rocky cliff face overlooking the now watery volcano crater, are easily recognizable. For anyone keeping up on their teen girl movies, it is also where the Greek scenes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants take place.

In order to reach the top of the cliffs to actually enter the town, there are three options. The first is a scenic ride by cable car. The second is to take a deep breath and walk the serpentine path consisting of hundreds of steps. The third is by donkey.

Apparently not up on my Santorini knowledge (or even my SOTTP watching) I was not aware of the donkey option and so seeing it in the evening information booklet I read that option out loud. I should make it clear that I read it out in order to convey my surprise that such an option existed. I did not count on the joyous response I got from Allie and Aheli whose faces lit up as they exclaimed “We’re SO doing that!” I’m sorry, but what?

Because this is how good friends act. They noted my lack of enthusiasm for this response and my glowing endorsement of the cable car…and so took every chance over the course of the night and the morning of the following day to counter it with their own excitement for donkey riding. I quietly did not engage, hoping they would forget. They did not.

We docked in the evening so that we would be able to see sunset from high up in the city and as we waited for our tender (water shuttle) number to be called, we sat up on deck looking out on that windy path up. It was getting close to the moment of truth and Aheli and Allie decided to take control and directly confront me about donkey riding. What they did not realize was that since I had been thinking about it for over a day now, emotions may have been running a tad high and what they got upon asking me why I seemed to be unhappy about the thought of donkey riding, was a giant outpouring of emotion that went something like:

“I just feel really bad for them ok? Imagine being a poor Santorini donkey and all you do all day is go up and down carrying fat tourists. They are so little! And what if because they are primarily for the tourists their owners don’t really care about them! I worry that they don’t get enough food, or time off, or even just love! Just up and down and up and down all day every day with the tourists getting heavier and heavier and their little legs getting more and more tired. Who brushes them? Are they even ever brushed? And what about…”

Well, you get the idea. The tirade lasted for about 5 minutes with less and less coherence as time went on, my voice rising a few octaves and the pace rapidly approaching light speed.

All this time Allie and Aheli had been getting more and more wide eyed both with fear of me and how crazy I may have been (was) looking, and out of sympathy for the donkeys, swayed by my impassioned argument. Score. “We hadn’t thought of that…” they answered.

Within the half hour we had landed on the island and were in the rather long line for the cable car. However, it was not long before I noticed Allie and Aheli looking back at the lack of line for the donkey rides. Wistfully. “Ok FINE,” I said, still crazy, “We can go CHECK to see if the donkeys look happy, healthy, and well cared for. If they are happy healthy donkeys I will CONSIDER riding them. But NO promises!” I grabbed Allie who is an avid horseback rider and off we trotted.

Allie’s expert opinion was that there was one donkey that looked a little rough, but he was clearly tied up off to the side and not being used. The others were glossy and perky and clearly relished their life of tourist lifting. Hmm, not sure I buy THAT exactly, but I couldn’t argue that they looked ok so finally I conceded. We could ride the donkeys. We collected Aheli, paid our 5 Euros, and stood in line to Donkey Up.

Aheli was the first off. She was put on a happy glossy donkey with such enthusiasm that he took the hill at a gallop and was soon gone. Allie expertly hopped on another glossy donkey with perky ears that pranced up the mountain like he was one of her show horses. Ok, this wasn’t so bad.

“Follow me,” the donkey man told me. He walked me around the corner, and there was the smallest, mangiest donkey I have ever seen. Ears askew, dull fur, and calloused bald patches where years of saddle use (I’m guessing) had rubbed just a little too hard. You have GOT to be kidding me.

My Poor Little Donkey

I was picked up and hurled into the saddle with the donkey wavering slightly as he made a rather depressing “Ooof!” sound. Oh boy. I also think he may have been slightly blind, as he was tied to another donkey in order to lead us up the hill. Have I mentioned it was a treacherous CLIFF face I was now maneuvering on a blind donkey?! Every time the donkey we were tied to stopped, we didn’t, and so ran into it. We also lost our footing a few times and nearly tumbled back a few steps, but luckily the lead rope prevented actual falling. Finally we reached the top.

A somewhat smug Allie and Aheli met me, “See? That wasn’t so bad!” they said. “I rode that one,” was all I had to say. Their faces dropped. “Oooooh. Ummm. Well? Ohhhhh” they stuttered sympathetically, although I suspect they were also trying not to laugh. They shuffled me off quickly.

Showing the Donkeys Some Love

Hours later we descended the mountain on foot, me avoiding all mention of donkeys (it was still too soon), and Aheli and Allie walking behind me, now absolutely mocking. It was ok though. It’s now been long enough that this is now one of my favourite stories (even if, as a matter of pride I still have to feign outrage) and anyway, with the three of us, it’s inevitable that one of us will always be doing something a little bit stupid or having a less than proud moment. All I had to do was sit back and wait. It may have been my night to be mocked, but tomorrow is always a new day.

Another new day in Greece.

Greatest Moment Ever

Happy 2011! It’s a bit bittersweet really. Not that I don’t have high hopes for the New Year, but 2010 was truly one of the best years of my life. I mean, I lived in and visited beautiful and exciting places, met amazing people, watched two of my friends get married, ran a triathlon and a half marathon, and got a Masters degree… to name but the big highlights. So while I wait to see what new adventures 2011 brings I thought I’d catch you all up on some of the things I didn’t get a chance to share last year. Enjoy!

Last February I went to London for Allie’s birthday. We got all dressed and sparkled up, and with the rest of her roommates went to O’Neil’s, an Irish bar/club near Piccadilly Circus ( Being a Saturday night in downtown London it was packed. Not just busy packed, but the kind of packed where in order to move you mostly have to wait until you get jostled in the right direction. Luckily the jostling tended to be in the direction of the bar.

Having made it to the bar and been given drinks, we were trying to figure out how to get away from the bar without have our drinks knocked about when we found ourselves surrounded by a group of Irish men. Being February, the Rugby 6 Nations tournament was well under way and Ireland had suffered a loss earlier in the day. Meaning our new friends needed distracting and consoling. Well, who were we to deny them?

The guys paired us all off, in that mysterious way boys in bars do, and started dancing. I was with a guy with very bright blue eyes from Galway. It was Epic, and not just because he was attractive. I never learned his name, and he was eventually lost in the crowd, but I came away from the bar saying it was the Greatest Moment Ever. Not that I’m one to tend towards hyperbole…but seriously.

Out on the dance floor, we were all over the place. At one point, Galway twirled me out, pulled me back and dipped me. At the exact same time, the guy behind me was jolted causing his Jack & Coke to go flying. How do I know it was a Jack & Coke? Well. Somehow everything came together perfectly; I mean, this was ‘couldn’t do it again if I tried, straight out of a movie’ perfect. As I dipped back, I opened my mouth just as the Jack & Coke came splashing down and I caught it. Like, in my mouth. Galway pulled me back up and I just stopped, eyes wide in disbelief. Then he swung me around the other way and off I went! I generally make no claims at being smooth, coordinated, or graceful, which is fine because usually that makes for the best stories, but that is also why this moment was a little bit magical. No whiskey in my hair or down my dress and I didn’t just topple over? Totally empowering. No one puts me in a corner…

So that is just one of the many smaller moments that made 2010 so special. Here’s hoping 2011 brings just as many more. And if a few of them could involve blue-eyed, dancing, Irish men? Well…I guess I would be ok with that.

Happy New Year!