Trying to leave Italy

Tuscany in the rain

A harder job than I expected, but not for any of the reasons that I expected. Of course it would have been great to stay longer but more importantly, Italy didn’t want me to go. Or so it seemed.

It started in the morning with our short drive back to Florence from Greve in Chianti where we’d stayed our last night. The drive was fine and not that long, 30km, so we started out at 930 leaving us loads of time to get to the airport in time for my 1250 flight.

Florence graffitti

Everything went well until we got to Florence and tried to find the airport and the rental car return and again ran into our italian trifecta of road problems: bad maps, no signs and general confusion. Italians have curious ideas about signage. They like to put all the cities in every direction on the same sign with one arrow. Do you need to go to Florence, Rome or Bologna? Head this way. Well, that’s three cardinal directions and we only need one but ok… this way it is.

In the same (annoying) way, they think “well marked” roads consist of two signs. One sign 50 meters before you turn off, one sign at the turn off. Come on! That’s two signs! What more do you want? Time to prepare? Time to assess? Time to adjust your reflexes? Sorry. That’s not the Italia way. Here we fly by the seat of our pants. Always prepared: that’s the Italian motorist motto.

After two days in Tuscany we’d become experts at catching small hidden signs at the crooks of turn offs and getting lost less and figuring our way around. But once we got into the city of Florence, we could find signs directing us to the airport but not a single sign for the rental car return, which was in a completely different location. We did a couple rounds of trying this road and that one, taking roundabouts, going different directions looking for some indication of something and then we gave up and stopped at a gas station for help.

The woman at the desk stopped us at “car rental” and ran past us out of the store shouting someone’s name. A guy on a bike turned around, she pointed to us and and then motioned to us through the door to follow her. We went to talk to the guy on the bike thinking maybe he spoke better English or…??? And he said “rental car?” we said yes and he said “5 euro. You follow me. I take you there.”

5 euros!! Highway robbery!

I had flashbacks to all the little hustlers I’ve met in multiple countries who find a crack in the system and widen it enough to let the cash fall in and I didn’t want to pay him, just on principle. Plus this guy was also leading another American in a rental car who was also paying him 5 euro so that’s 10 euros for directions. But Sarah said we should pay him because what else are we going to do? We clearly didn’t know where we were going.

I reluctantly agreed and the guy on the bike took off into traffic leading his little convoy of lost Americans. He zipped and weaved through the cars, waving behind him if we needed to change lanes, pointing over his shoulders if we were turning and taking us through the most complicated zigzag path through downtown Florence.

10 minutes later we saw a tiny sign that said “car rental” with an arrow and 25 meters later we saw this sign

Rental car return Florence

The bike guy took a sharp turn under the underpass and there we were, at the rental car return. If I had to recreate that journey on pain of death they’d have to just kill me because I could never get back there. We paid the guy his 5E and exclaimed over how complicated the route was as he nodded “yes, confusing. Not many signs.” He knows. He’s aware. He’s probably paid for a house this year by leading tourists back and forth to the rental car return. And you know what? Good for him. We needed to get there and ultimately it was worth the 5E because we’d never have made it without him.

So, Sarah and I said goodbye at the airport “so great! Let’s do it again!” and I checked in at the counter for my flight to Vienna with a connection to Berlin and ordered (I thought…) my last glass of wine in Italy

italian wine Firenze

We boarded the plane and then all hell broke loose. I’ll consolidate for time: the plane computer went down, they tried to reset it, they couldn’t, we deplaned while they ordered a computer battery from somewhere to try to get delivered to Florence. Then the sweet multilingual airline lass had to field a multitude of questions: No, they had no idea how long it would take. Yes they were relatively sure that would fix the problem. No, they couldn’t say if the flight would get canceled. No, we cannot take your number and text you with information while you are out smoking (!). Yes, just wait. That’s all we can do. Sorry so sorry.

So I ordered lunch and another glass of wine, figured I’d miss my connection to Berlin no matter what, considered the prospect of staying another night in Florence or perhaps in Austria… etc.

Finally the battery arrived, we got back on the plane a couple hours later and took off for Vienna. When we landed they called my name, got me and 5 others off the plane first and handed us new boarding passes booking us through Frankfurt and got us to our new gate. One of my fellow detainees sniffed and said “an extra flight? I’m not impressed AirBerlin…” and I thought “wow, I am.” In America they’d have let me suffer on the plane and in the terminal until I fought my way to an overcrowded help desk where a harassed agent would do their best to rebook me but I’d miss this connecting flight because all of that would take too long. AirBerlin rebooked me while I was still in the air!

I got to Frankfurt and then to Berlin at 1030pm, approximately 7 hours after my expected arrival, waited through the longest most drawn out baggage claim cycle known to man and… no suitcase.

The next hour consisted of finding a baggage claim desk 3 terminals away and standing in line for another 20 minutes only to find that it was the wrong baggage claim desk. Only barely containing my irritation and exhaustion at this point, I trekked back to my original terminal where a young girl with big wide eyes took down all my luggage information, was horrified when I didn’t have a German phone number (my German phone has stopped working for some reason), sounded skeptical when I asked her to email me with information instead of calling me and then gave me a PO Box in Germany where I could mail receipts if I had to “buy cosmetics.” I got a taxi and was home around 1230.


Yesterday was a very anxiety ridden day waiting to hear back from the airline. Most of the stuff I use every day is in that suitcase and I’m only here another week so the idea of trying to replace all/most of it is so tiring. Not much of it is really valuable but it’s most of my clothes and all my toiletries. I spent all day living with the mantra “it’s just stuff” and reminding myself that even though it’s tremendously inconvenient and expensive to replace it, it’s not the end of the world. At least I have other things and money. Be grateful. sigh. sigh sigh.

Normally I can rally with this kind of thing because I travel all the time and my suitcase always arrives. I think it’s gone missing maybe one other time in 10 years so I’m beating the law of averages by a mile. But I don’t have a phone number here, I have another week, I can’t replace most of that stuff because it’s American made etc. etc. But again, it’s just stuff.

Fortunately, today I woke up to a message that they have my suitcase and will deliver it at a time and date of my choosing. I responded basically “now please” and they wrote back “IHR GEPÄCK WIRD SOMIT HEUTE ZWISCHEN 12-15 UHR ZUGESTELLT” which Google translates as

Your luggage is thus TODAY BETWEEN 12-15 CLOCK SERVED

And now I wait to be served.

And that was the ignominious end to my Italian mini break! Fortunately the trip was better than the conclusion. And I do hope to get back to Italy, perhaps as soon as next year. But only if they promise me some sun…


Rain and Chianti

Chianti Country Italy

Sarah again had the quote of the day when she said “Look Kaitlyn! It’s so pretty! Ok, just imagine the sun.”

Yes indeed, it rained ALL DAY today.

But to back up, our day started in a particularly Italian fashion with a parking job that can only be described as “creative.”

Silver bullet parking

This is the kind of parking that happens in a country with no parking. I.e. Italy. We came in last night and the hotel parking lot was full. They have an alternative parking lot we couldn’t find and after driving down dirt roads into the wilderness, we came back into the city and asked the guys hanging out and smoking in front of our hotel where we should park. They waved at this crosswalk and said “Here. it’s fine. no trouble.” Sarah looked at me, shrugged and said “we have full coverage right?”  and we left our silver bullet to the mercies of the carabinieri and went to bed. Lo and behold, it was indeed fine when we woke up. Thanks guys!

We got up early today with high hopes of tooling around lovely Chianti country, all the postcards of which have rolling hills of greenery, scenic hay bales, red poppies, stunning sunsets and golden light every which direction. Doesn’t that sound like fantastic road tripping?

The good news is that we did get poppies (flattened into some modern impressionist version of themselves by my iPhone and the light…)

Poppies Chianti land

And definitely the greenery

Chianti country Italy

And I saw some hay bales. Through the rain. All these pictures were taken in rain and through rain while I was getting wet and stomping through mud because rain. All day. Rain. It persisted all day. ALL DAY! Doesn’t this weather know this is my last day in Italy (for now)? I mean, have some respect!!!

The entire floor on my side of the car is mud from getting in and out of the car. Sarah, bless her, stopped a million times for me to take pictures, although it wasn’t completely altruistic since her phone quit working yesterday and I’m “taking pictures for two” today. However, even with only rain and greenery to photograph, I still wanted to stop about 20 times an hour to get just the right… whatever… and finally Sarah said “Are there any more pictures in your head that I should know about? I just want to be prepared.” I finally said, “Nope, I’m done. I’m just looking at scenery now.” and she gave me the side eye and said “I give you 10 minutes.” I think I lasted 15. The joke for the rest of the day was “That’s beautiful. I’d take a picture but we can’t stop.”

Our first real stop though was this little walled medieval city called San Gimignano. I have tried to pronounce those words all day and I still can’t spell it without help.

San Gimignano

That walled fortress is still a city

San Gimignano

full of shops and restaurants and arched walkways

San Gimignano

And the remains of this little well with a stone frame like a picture. So we took one.

Sarah and Kaitlyn in San Gimignano

Look at me wearing red! I actually bought that red dress for Europe and brought it to Italy thinking that if ever I were to wear a red dress… Also, the good news about cold rainy weather is it cuts down on the number of tourists so pictures can be taken with minimum of interference.

That’s our first “nonselfie” picture so we celebrated with tiramisu and coffee on the prettiest table in all of Italy

San Gimignano

And then it was still rainy and even colder so we left and got back into our warm car and sped off towards Chianti country.

Chianti land

Oh, that’s hilarious. Actually, we sped off in the wrong direction away from Chianti country on a tiny little one lane/two way road that nearly gave Sarah a heart attack as it twisted and turned into the high hills and required us to scrape the edges of the ditch every time someone passed us. The first several times that happened were stomach clenchers and then Sarah started just gritting her her teeth and saying “full coverage!” before lurching the car into first gear again as we took off.

We could have used better maps or an actual onboard navigator in the form of (perhaps) a handsome dark haired man named Paolo, but we did get to see olive trees on our wrong way road

olive trees Chianti

And then we turned around and came back down the hill, back through Poggibonsi for the third time (although a town with a name that odd deserves at least a couple visits) and into Chianti country and our first vineyard.

Casale della Sparviero

It was good. The tasting was free! but Montagliari had better wine plus this cool display of bottles dating back to 1948 and a vineyard history dating back to 1720.Montigliari Winery

We wanted to stay there overnight but they were full so we pressed on, through Panzano with this most appropriate fountain for wine country

Panzano in Chianti

And then into Greve in Chianti where after a long search, we found a cute BnB for the night with this view over the vineyards of Chianti country (or ChiantiLand, as Sarah calls it).

Greve in Chianti

Dinner in the square at Ristorante Enoteca for our last night of antipasti and prosecco

Ristorante enoteca Greve

And pasta that was good but nothing like last night. In fact, we talked about the food from last night through all of dinner tonight. Reliving the glory.

And so ended our last rainy day in Italy. We have one more morning. I promise a parting shot of Italy, even if it rains. Buonanotte. XOX

Driving, Pisa and the Med

Breakfast Florence

Today’s synopsis is brought to you by Sarah who, in a moment of extreme frustration today said “Some days you make all the right decisions and everything is good and you have a great day, and then there are those other days…”

Today started as one of the other days when our apartment internet connection was painfully molasses-y while I was trying to upload 1000 pictures to finish the post from yesterday. It took forever this morning. I can’t even talk about it. It didn’t put us behind but spending a couple hours glaring at my computer with gritted teeth and saying “U P L O A D!” wasn’t the best start to the morning.

I have to give props to Sarah and all my friends and family who travel with me and have the utmost patience to sit with their hands in their laps while I photograph all their food and wait patiently (and quietly) while I blog and write every day. You’re the best and I love you all.

I finally finished and we packed, left the house, had the breakfast above, which was great and also had a view of the Arno river, and then the sun came out! And so did all the tourists!

Florence from the ponte vecchio

We walked over the Ponte Vecchio for the last time (lovely), tried to take a picture with no people in it (unlovely)  and then tried to find a taxi to take us to the airport to get our rental car.

Things we didn’t know: you can’t hail cabs in Florence like you can everywhere else in the world. Instead you need to go to a taxi stand and act like you don’t care and you don’t need a taxi and then one shows up. Indifference, apathy and the correct location are the only things that get you cabs in Florence. We didn’t have any of those things because it took us a long time to figure that out, multiple cabs passed us by and we really really wanted to get out of Florence.

A couple strangers finally took pity on us and explained the system and we finally got a cab that took us to the airport only to discover that the airport rental cars aren’t at the actual airport, they’re accessible only by shuttle bus. So again with the indifference, apathy and finding the correct location for the rental car shuttle bus. Finally we got our car, finally Sarah figured out the clutch, a rather harrowing business, after which she said “You know what I need now? Chocolate.”

One piece of chocolate later we lurched our way out of the airport parking lot, started out going the correct direction and then it started raining and then we got lost, at which point I remembered a conversation we’d had the night before about whether or not to get a GPS for the car and Sarah said “How much is it? 27 Euros? No! Let’s just get extra glasses of wine instead.”

Perhaps we’d have been less lost if we’d had the glasses of wine before we got in the car. I’m sure we would’ve cared less. As it was, my lap looked like this:

maps of Tuscany

And none of those maps included all the cities we drove through. The next two hours of our lives were small skinny two way highways

Driving through Italy

Leading into one roundabout after another with multiple signs listing cities I’d frantically try to find on the map while Sarah circled the roundabout, I’d find none, we’d make a guess as to our exit, repeat repeat repeat.

We finally gave up on the scenic route and took the “expressway,” a slightly less skinny highway system and then also stopped for lunch when we realized that low blood sugar wasn’t helping.

So, this pizza from a road side stand called al Molinacci in Uzzano was awesome.

Sarah pizza

Can we talk about that wood fired  crust?

Al Molinaccio pizza

We certainly can. And it cost 1 euro! Our whole lunch including beer and a package of nutella cookies (we needed them) cost us 7 euros. And then the tide changed.

The sun came out, Cyndi Lauper came on our radio singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and we got to Pisa in record time with blue skies and good parking.

How precious is this little wedding cake of a complex?

pisa italy

You can just see the famous tower behind it. And speaking of that tower, I’ve never seen so many ridiculous selfies as I saw in Pisa. Here’s a small sampling, Can you see everyone with their hand out?

Leaning tower of pisa

It’s almost impossible not to play along though, especially on a day with such blue skies. So, here’s Sarah

Sarah in Pisa

And me

me in pisa

And us

pisa selfie

And one more just for good measure in case you can’t remember what it looks like.

Leaning tower of pisa

It’s simply so photographable we couldn’t help ourselves. And unlike everything else in Italy, they plunked it in a huge green open field and made it so easy to take pictures! Thanks Pisa! We could have paid 18 euros to climb the tower but we didn’t. We climbed two yesterday. We’re good.

Instead we took a tower break to photograph gelato (carmel) and cafe (macchiatto)

Gelato y cafe

And buy postcards and jewelry and then we got back in our little silver bullet and zoomed our way to the coast. In what seemed like .3 seconds, we were at the sea.

The Med in Italy

So gorgeous, the Mediterranean.

The Med in Italy

We’d decided to spend the night at the shore and head into wine country tomorrow so after climbing up and down that cliff and watching the waves crash for what seemed like hours, we continued driving down the coast looking for hotels. We swung off the road in Castiglioncello at the first hotel we found that overlooked the ocean to ask if they had a room.

They did. Would we like to see it? Yes. She takes us downstairs and turns to the sea side of the hotel, opens the door, says “and there’s a balcony” and then she opens that door to this view.

The Med from our balcony

Are we interested in the room?  ARE WE INTERESTED IN THE ROOM? Can I live here? Perhaps forever? Just for tonight? Ok, yes. We’ll take the room.

We moved in and stood on the balcony to take in the view and then only ripped ourselves away because we were starving and it was getting late. And then we tried to find an open restaurant in a small seaside town during off season… not easy. Sarah finally accosted a little old guy on the street to ask him about anything open and he said “Sto pensando… pensando…” and then gave us directions up the street to a place he was sure was open and promised we would eat very well. He actually kissed his fingers, God bless him.

The place he recommended was Scolapasta, a white table cloth place that looked very shi shi but starving beggars can’t be choosers so we went in and sat down… and then proceeded to have the best meal I’ve had since I got to Europe, perhaps one of my best all year.

Bread and wine

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Fresh handmade pasta so thin I could see through it

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Fresh grilled seafood

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

And a yogurt mousse dessert so light it was the texture of whipped cream.

Ristorante Scolapasta

Sarah and I couldn’t get over ourselves or this food. I’ve never had Italian pasta that good ever. Not once. And if I’d left Italy and not eaten food like this, I’d have been so sad. I’m also so glad it was by the sea because the seafood was so fresh. Outstanding. All around.

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Cheers Scolapasta. You’re magnificent.

And then we bought a bottle of wine and went back to our balcony because.. views.

Sarah and the Med

And that’s how a day turns around. Thank God.

Tomorrow: wine country.

Where to go next?

U-bahn Berlin

That’s the walking route underneath the U-bahn, the local city trains here in Berlin. Berlin seems so modern to me. I’m always surprised to see architecture that hints at a much older city.

And speaking of the U-Bahn, here’s a German thing that would never ever fly in the US: all the city public transit runs on the honor system.

You walk into the station and you SHOULD buy a ticket before you get on the train but no one is standing there to make you do it and there’s no machine to guard the train entrance… Technically you could try to wrangle free train rides. I’ve wondered all month how many people actually buy tickets because only twice have I been stopped by train officials boarding the train at random to check tickets. However, one stopped me today and EVERY SINGLE PERSON in my car had a ticket.

To repeat, I’ve been checked twice in a month which means Berliners get checked a couple dozen times a year. And they all still buy tickets! Where does that sense of civic responsibility even come from? In America the train system would collapse in weeks from a complete lack of revenue. No one would ever buy a ticket. Americans would figure that even with a steep penalty for riding free they would still get about a month’s worth of free subway rides! And then they would probably refuse the pay the penalty. You’d have to arrest them on the spot. I’ve spent my month here in Berlin completely bewildered that the trains still run. I don’t understand it at all.

I always have a ticket here in Berlin but I’m only law abiding because I know that if someone’s gonna get caught doing something dumb, it’s gonna be me. And buying a ticket is the right thing to do. Of course.

And in other (more exciting) news, I’ve got (more) travel plans!

When I first came to Berlin, my short list of places to visit included Poland, Prague and a general “more places in Germany.” That’s the trouble with taking me anywhere, I always want to see what else is around. I did scale my traveling plans way back – for me – and made plans to spend a lot of time here in Berlin because I’ve learned hard lessons about traveling places and seeing too much in too short a time. I always come back from those trips exhausted and overstimulated, making all kinds of promises that I’ll never do it again but then I leave my country and realize how big the world is and I just want to see all of it! Right now!

As my time in Berlin has gotten shorter, I’ve wished I could extend my stay for another month. I get bright glossy visions of all the things i’d do here in Berlin with several more weeks but the truth is that I’d just leave Berlin as often as possible to see all the countries around me. I’d probably not see much more of Berlin even if I were here for the whole summer.

As an aside, it’s actually been very interesting to travel away from Berlin because I always get a sense of “coming home” when I return. That’s a relatively foreign feeling for me and it’s fun to feel it here. To feel a sense of the familiar as I get off at my train stop and walk back through my neighborhood to my apartment that has all my stuff in it. It’s been years since I lived in a city where I was excited to come home.

So, after all that diatribing – not a word, whatever – about traveling too much in too short a time, I made plans to go to Prague on Sunday just a scant few days after I’ve just returned from Poland. I did justify it by saying that I planned on Prague, and this is my last week to go… etc.

But then… my friend Sarah messaged me today to say she had some time off next week and could we get together? I invited her to Prague and she said “maybe somewhere warm?” She lives in Switzerland (although I met her in Honduras… a story for later) so we looked at places between and around us and she suggested Italy. Where I’ve never been and always wanted to go.

In the course of 4 hours, we had tickets to Florence so now it seems I’m going to Prague and then I’m going to Italy. Prague and Italy in the same sentence and the same week.  Gives me chills and all manner of grand visions of spectacular food, gorgeous architecture and the odd glorious sunset.

I’ve only planned a trip like this one other time, to the Galapagos with my friend Jules. We started with a casual email back and forth about perhaps taking a trip together at some point and less than 24 hours later we had plane tickets. This trip to Italy will be much shorter and just give me a savory mouthful of Italy to dream about later but I’m still doing it because Alex Garland said it best when he wrote in The Beach:

“Never refuse an invitation. Never resist the unfamiliar. Never fail to be polite and never outstay your welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. If it hurts, it’s probably worth it.”

If I have a traveling philosophy, that’s it in a nutshell.

A few more days of Berlin coming at you before I go, including a Michelin starred restaurant tonight. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.

Summer in Maine

I didn’t do many blog worthy things today so instead I’ll show you what Maine looked like last summer when I drove from Boston to Maine with my friend Hailei.

We stopped in Portsmouth NH for breakfast at Colby’s Breakfast and Lunch

Colby's Breakfast and Lunch

Very low key tiny place with handwritten blackboard menus and no real website but a hollandaise sauce to rave about.  Colby’s is the kind of small town joint that was localorganicfarmtotable long before that was a thing and they don’t need to advertise because they’re on a main road and everyone knows who they are and when they’re open. Breakfast and lunch. Obviously!  I had the corned beef hash benedict, two things that I’ve never seen combined before but that go together shockingly well. I think it was a daily special.

We got back on the road and drove slowly up Historic Route 1, the long 2 lane highway that runs from Florida to Canada. You can rarely drive faster than 40 miles an hour and you’ll hear GPS directions such as “stay on Main Street for the next 37 miles” as you drive through the interconnected main streets of 5 small towns.

It runs right along the coast

Coast of Maine

Past public beaches

Maine public beach

And gussied up houses because lots of people on the shore like to decorate with colorful old buoys

Buoy house in Maine

We drove up to Kittery and stopped at the Nubble Lighthouse I mentioned yesterday

Nubble Lighthouse

Very pretty but not open to the public, although there’s a big gift shop and several markers to tell you all about the history of the area.

We stopped for a sparkly beverage at Sun and Surf

Sun and Surf

Right on the water’s edge

hailei and her margarita

And then went to Fisherman’s Dock in York for a lobster roll

Lobster roll at Fisherman's Dock

As cold lobster rolls go it was a good one but I have discovered that I prefer hot lobster rolls, tossed in drawn butter. That’s where the money is! But if cold lobster rolls are your thing, Fisherman’s Dock has a wicked good menu with lobster by the pound, checkered tablecloths and outdoor seating and bottles of Moxie to wash it down. Super atmospheric and very Maine.

After our lobstah rolls, we rushed back to Boston to get to work. But if you don’t have to rush back, I’d recommend two different restaurants on your route back to Boston:

Lil’s Cafe in Kittery for lunch

Lil's Cafe

For  butternut squash bisque that’s like a bowl of creamy sunshine. They also have sandwiches, coffee, breakfast and a big spread of baked goodies. Lil’s is a right smack in the middle of town and connected to an art gallery so eat and browse and then do a little wandering around Kittery while you’re there.

For dinner, try the Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire

Portsmouth Brewery

I had the mussels, which were really fresh although I didn’t love the curry sauce. It was only ok. But the fries were spectacular as was the Chocolate Rye Stout I drank with it. Not quite the beer pairing a brewmaster would recommend, I’m sure, but I like mussels and I like stout so there you have it. This brewery is also taking a lot of steps to implement composting and recycling and reduce their carbon footprint so i respect them for that.

And there it is, Maine in the summer. Very similar pictures but with about 200% less freezing cold reality. I’ve loved cold wintery Maine too but I think I’m ready for Spring to really arrive.