Thursday, November 15, 2007

Oahu notes from a broad

The first time I ventured to Hawaii (to the island of Oahu), I was lucky enough to stay with an old friend who'd just moved there from The Mainland, as locals call that big continental bit of the United States, just over yonder across the Pacific. Since that first visit over 10 years ago, I've been back many times and have also explored a couple other islands in the chain. But my first is still my favorite, despite its also being the most populated and touristed. Thankfully, I know how and where to escape the droves. In order to do that, wheels are essential. Which reminds me again of my first trip (to Oahu) and of the instant illiteracy I felt as I tried to navigate streets with names like:

Kapukawai Street (Waipahu): Handsome
Kupu'eu Place (Waipahu): Hero, wondrous one
Lakimau Street (Diamond Head): Always lucky
Lakoloa Place (Kalihi): Very rich, prosperous
Lalawai Drive ('Aiea): Successful, well-to-do
Pahukula Place (Kuli'ou'ou): Chest of gold
'Apake'e Street (Wai'anae): Deceitful
Kahekili Highway (Kane'ohe): Thunder
Kaie'e Street ('Ewa Beach): Tidal wave
Kalapu Street ('Ewa Beach): Ghost
Ka'onawai Place (Manoa): The liquid intoxicant
Nakiu Place (McCully): The spies
Na'opala Lane (Kalihi): Rubbish
'Aikanaka Place/Road ('Ewa Beach): To eat human flesh
'Ilipilo Street (Kailua): Smelly skin
Kauhako Street/Place (Hawai'i Kai): The dragged large intestines
Mo'omuku Place (Kuli'ou'ou): Mutilated lizard
Lumi'au'au Street (Waipahu): Bathroom
Helekula Way/Place (Wai'anae): To go to school
Ki'ona'ole Road (Kane'ohe): Without dung heaps
Komai'a Drive (Manoa): Dragging bananas
Ki'i'oni'oni Loop/Place (Wai'alae): Motion pictures, movies
Wai'aka Place (McCully): Laughing water
'Ano'ilei Place (Hau'ula): Cherished, sweetheart
Hanakealoha Place (Palolo Valley): Love-making
Ho'oha'i Street/Place (Pearl City): To flirt
Pa'ale'a Street (Palolo Valley): Pleasure-loving
Poli'ala Street (Waimanalo): Fragrant breast
'Eu Lane (Kalihi): Rascal
Lukini Place ('Ewa Beach): Perfume
Kani'ahe Street/Place (Wahiawa): To giggle or laugh softly
Wela Street/Lane (Kaimuki): Lust, passion
Kuewa Drive (Waialua): Wanderer, homeless
Nalulu Place (Wai'alae 'Iki): A dull headache
Meahala Street (Waipahu): Sinner
Hepa Street (Waipahu): Idiot, imbecile, moron
Kahalewai Place (Hale'iwa): Prison, jail
Pokapahu Place (Diamond Head): Bursting bullet
'Onaha Street (Kahala): Bow-legged
Kalena Street (Wahiawa): The lazy one
Ma'ipalaoa Road (Wai'anae): Whale genitals
'Iole Street/Place (Kane'ohe): Hawaiian rat
Ka'uku Place (Hawai'i Kai): Louse
Kaluamo'o Street (Kailua): Lizard pit
Ke Ala Mano Street (Kalihi Valley): Shark's road
Miula Street ('Ewa Beach): Mule
Popoi'a Road (Kailua): Fish rot


Granted, of course, I didn't know the meanings of such street names. Not that it would have helped me find my way any better. I don't know what I was expecting on that first trip, other than for Hawaii to be an even more Americanized, Disney version of its former or true self. So though confused, I was pleasantly surprised by something so simple as the plethora of Hawaiian street names, in Hawaiian. Hawaii, at present, can still be a very watered down take on its authentic past, but there are pockets of authenticity (both things modern and things throwback). An attempt is being made to reclaim what was lost and remake history into something relevant for today. Reclaiming the language is a first step. And I'm happy to report that my friend's children are learning the mother tongue of their island home. Very cool. It's such a beautiful language. Both written and spoken. Once you get the basics down, even a mainlander like me can learn to read the street signs at a good clip and get from point A to point B without any difficulty!

But enough about street names and navigation. Let's talk beaches. They're all different and unique and for me anyway, they do not blend into a single strip of sun and sand. I've surveyed strips from Kauai, Oahu, and Maui and have a list of clearly defined favorites. But at the top of my list is Lanikai, the chain's most honored beach; it's won Best Beach awards for years (and years).

On this last trip, I was out one postcard-perfect afternoon, snapping photos of the twin Mokulua Islands. A woman came up and stood next to me. "Beautiful day, isn't it? Perfect day." I agreed with her and we struck up a little conversation. She was from Germany, on vacation with her husband who was back at their hotel taking a nap. Typical of Germans, she and her husband were exceptionally well traveled. She rattled off for me, as proof, all of the beach-ladened countries that they'd visited over the years. So, when she told me that Lanikai was "by far" the most beautiful and "perfect" beach in the world, I didn't question her. Though I hadn't seen nearly as many beaches with which to compare it, I agreed wholeheartedly. "Some beaches have nice scenery to look out on, but the sand is too big. Other beaches have powder fine sand and nothing to gaze at. Others have both perfect sand and scenery, but the water isn't clear or the waves are too rough or it's too cold. Lanikai has everything. Everything about it is perfect. The sand, the scenery, crystal clear water that is as calm as a lake. Perfect. Don't bother traveling the world in search of the perfect beach. Trust me. You've already found it."

Lucky me. (And lucky you! Now you know where to find the world's best beach, too.)

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sorrento notes from a broad

Well, that's what happens when you enjoy a trip to its fullest and opt out of the detailed mass email to family and friends. You start to forget. What was so funny. What was so cool. What was what. Sigh. But at least you've got those warm and fuzzy memories, right? Fuzzier than warm with the passage of time, to be sure. Here's the little that I can remember from those three wanton weeks in the land of lemons and limoncello. In bullet form, no less. Probably not even mildly exciting enough to warrant sharing (or reading), but here goes. Knock yourself out.

  • Naples had been on my list of places to visit for a long while. Mainly because it was held in such high esteem by a boy I once pedestaled. Thinking we had the same taste, or at least something similar, I was looking forward to exploring and developing my own amore for the city. Not to be. The city's allure was absolutely lost on me. While I get why other people may deeply dig Napoli, people who likely love the grittier edge and energy of New York City, for example ... I didn't dig it. The friend I was traveling with passed three attempts at having her purse snatched with admirable calm (and a vice grip on her bag). Especially in the face the big picture. I've never experienced such free-flowing chaos in a European city before. This was my first trip to Southern Italy and I scoffed at all the warnings from every Northern Italian I'd met who'd warned me away from Campania. And Naples in particular. Worth a visit, to be sure; don't get me wrong. Naples is just a whole hell of a lot poorer, dirtier, and fringe than I was expecting. I'd read so much about how the city had been cleaned up and made safer. And perhaps that is the case. But it begs the question, What was Naples like before the big PR effort? No fewer than seven couples saying at the tiny B&B (the Casa Astarita in Sorrento and I'd highly recommend it, by the way) with us over the course of sixteen nights had their wallets, purses, or bags stolen either on the train to/from Naples or in Naples itself. I'm happy to say that both my travel companion and myself came away from our two day trips to Naples with all of our belongings. Peace of mind though, not so much. As one local from the Sorrento area told us, "I don't like going to Naples. If I do have to go, I always take a shower when I get home to Sorrento. Naples makes you feel so dirty." Dirty and unnerved. A simple stroll down the street can be a triumphant, death defying experience. Try it sometime in the Spanish Quarter. I dare you. Diving into the Spanish Quarter proper isn't even necessary, if you're feeling a little chicken. Just walk straight up the Via Toledo and you'll immediately be plenty on edge navigating the onslaught of people, mopeds, and cars. All traveling at top speed, often going the wrong way (the scooters and the cars), and nearly always without helmets (the scooters). Unfortunately, a banged up moped being driven by a young woman with a kid under ten and a baby, maybe even a family dog, all without helmets, doing hairpin turns at a blinding clip against traffic down the tiny side streets and up onto the sidewalks through packs of pedestrians is not an uncommon sight. Anyway, Naples is (in a word) intense. And not in my favorite fashion. But I'm glad I went and I might even go back, someday. The frescoed and hand-painted tile cloister of Santa Chiara church, for example, is definitely worth experiencing again.

  • If you ever go to Sorrento and get hungry, I'd recommend swinging by L'Abate or Photo for lunch and/or dinner. L'Abate had the best funghi (mushroom) pizza and Photo's ravioli was to die for fresh and delicious. If you get thirsty, imbibe a drink and a sunset from the terrace of Hotel Syrene. Amazing view of Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, and the coast. Delightful. Very romantic. As for gelato, Primavera on the Corso Italia has a dizzying array of flavors and portions fit to fill the tummy of every over-eating American in town. I actually preferred it to the much touted Davide. Buon appetito.

  • Easter week processions on the island of Procida are where it's at. Go for Good Friday and spend the day.

  • How do all these women manage to walk the uneven cobblestone streets in stilettos? I just don't understand. I'd break my neck and my ass.

  • What's in fashion at the moment are jeans tucked into boots. It's unattractive if you ask me, but everyone's doing it. And I mean everyone. All the ladies, that is.

  • The guys are rocking bomber jackets and argyle sweaters. Don't ask me why.

  • Everyone has a pair of crazy, tricked out jeans with chains and embroidery or studs or some crap decorating nearly every inch of the denim. Especially the real estate at the rear. My favorite are the jeans spelling out RICH across the ass. Turns out it's a designer's name and not necessarily about wealth. Although I'd hazard a guess that the double entendre is intended.

  • Riding a bus along the Amalfi Coast is pretty darn spectacular. A little nauseating, but in a good way. Scary, sure. But oh the fun you'll have telling friends and family when you get home. Seriously it's not so bad. My friend had a bit of motion sickness but even she was glad to take the ride. We got lots of great pics. The views are incredible.

  • Boat rides along the Amalfi coast and to the islands of Capri, Ischia, and Procida are a must. If you go to Ischia, visit the gardens at La Mortella near Forio. Gorgeous.

  • Namesake of the coast it once dominated, Amalfi is a charming town with the most incredible church. If the exterior doesn't make you swoon, the crypt surely will. Once you've been in a few European churches, they start to all look the same. Don't skip this one. The cloister isn't anything special (the frescoes and mosaics are badly damaged, though nice) and the church itself is okay, but the crypt is incredible.

  • We met three inspiring and interesting American couples who were each on marathon trips. A seriously atypical situation for stock from the United States. I go away for two, three, four weeks at a time and pick one or two cities to call home for the duration of the trip. A travel timeframe and tactic that ceaselessly impresses Europeans who are used to encountering Americans enjoying (though how is that possible?) the Grand Tour in five days; ten, tops. At any rate, I quickly envied each of the three couples in question. The first were sailing around the world. From the American Midwest, they'd paid off their house and made good on a promise to then leave work behind for unrushed, indefinite travel. When we bumped into these two in Ravello, they informed us that they'd be wintering in Turkey and had been sailing and living on their boat (saved lots of would-be hotel monies) for three years. Yup. Three years. The second couple were living in Italy for a year and traveling all over the country and to other parts of Europe as well. Visit their for wonderful entries and photos. The last couple was in fact a family of three with a young, soon-to-be teenage son. They weren't sure how long they'd be traveling and had already been away from their home on the East Coast for over a year. The boy asked if he could windsurf in Amalfi. "Wait until we're in Aruba in a few months. The windsurfing will be great there." Some bank of childhood memories this kid's racking up, eh?

  • Yes. People talk with their hands. Moreso here than in Northern Italy, I think. There's more unabashed staring, too. Because you're attractive, because you're unattractive, because you're obviously a foreigner, because ... oh, who the hell knows. I'm used to Europeans staring, for whatever reason, but for my friend (her first trip to Italy) it was a new experience. The staring is definitely more intense in Italy. In my experience. I have no idea what exactly it's all about. But I've learned to ignore it. When all else fails, just stare back and turn it into a contest.

  • So the Blue Grotto on Capri. Should you go, should you not go. I say go. Sure you only get five minutes inside the grotto, but it's creepy and why would you really want to be in there any longer than you have to? Go in the afternoon when the sun gives the grotto its most intense and glowing blue. The color is truly amazing. But it's creepy town. I'm telling you. You take a motor boat to the outside of the grotto, hop in a row boat and pray you don't capsize and fall in, lay down flat in the boat to enter the grotto so's you don't smash your head in on the top of the cave enterance, row around for a few minutes, snap a few photos, and you're done. Seems expensive until you hop back on the motor boat and tour around the rest of the island. All in all the whole excursion takes about an hour. It's worth it. The Villa San Michele was also advisable. Not as grand as Villas Rufolo or Cimbrone in Ravello, Villa San Michele is cozy and charming with lovely grounds and a great view.

  • The Bourbon palace at Caserta, built to rival Versailles, did at one time; that much is clear. The royal apartments are spectacular, but like the rest of Napoli and the surrounding area, the splendor has fallen into a somewhat dingy bout of prime past. Work is being done to restore former glory, and I look forward to viewing the fruits of this monumental (and no doubt pricey) labor. My friend and I didn't have the energy to venture the mile or two into the famed gardens. But then that gives me another reason to return.

  • Pompeii is bigger than you think. A lot bigger. We spent six hours there and didn't see everything. The one must-see site for me was the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries). On a much smaller scale, but far more interesting in many ways, is Ercolano or Herculaneum. A smaller, once seaside town, we saw all of Ercolano in two hours. It was fantastic. While Pompeii was buried in ash, Ercolano was done in by a pyroclastic flow of molten lava, mud, and gas. This allowed for the amazing preservation of items you rarely find from ancient times. Items like wooden doors, staircases, furniture. And papyrus "books" from the time. We're talking 79 A.D. folks. How wild is that? The Villa dei Papyri (Villa of the Papyrus) where over 1,000 papyrus scrolls were discovered in the 1700s was the inspiration for Getty's Malibu museum (the old one, not the newer one). Having seen both sites, if I had to choose just one to recommend it'd be Ercolano. Without a doubt. Smaller, but better preserved, more intimate, and to me, more interesting.

  • The surprise hit of the trip that wasn't even on the original list of sites to see turned out to be Villa Reggina at the Capo di Sorrento. A ruin of a seaside Roman villa, the site is serene and downright beautiful with a private cove, sea arch, and views to Sorrento. Take the public bus from Sorrento (short ride) and hike down to the ruin.

  • And the award for most entertaining and memorable framing of the question, "What are you?" goes to a lovable restaurant owner who asked, instead, "What's your generation? Hawaii?" Ah ha. Good times, good times.
And that's about all I can remember for the purpose of recounting. Ciao for now.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Farewell to a friend

Franco Mazzucco, A silversmith with a heart of gold.

I wrote the piece above in loving memory of Franco Mazzucco, whom I had the pleasure of befriending on one of my extended trips to Venice. One of the last silversmiths in Italy to work in the traditional way, by hand, Franco's passing is a great loss to his craft, his family, friends, and admirers of his art.
As it turns out, the third time was a charm. My first two week-long visits to Venice had been so quintessentially dreamy and delightful that I planned a third escape to La Serenissima and made arrangements to languish in this lavish waterlogged paradise of decaying decadence for a full month. When you're in love (person or city, no matter), you devote as much quality time getting to know and enjoying your muse as you can possibly afford. Right? Being a long distance love affair with one of the priciest grande dames of them all, I was lucky to find accommodations allowing me to spend more than just a few days in Venice – let alone an entire month.

Hoping to find that intimate essence of Venice which eludes the day tripping, Grand Tour tourist, I fancied myself a traveler and intended to spend my month lost — and incrementally found — as the city revealed herself to me a little more each day. Not speaking a lick of Italian and having been told that Venetians are typically quite private, I assumed this would be a highly personal and something of a lonely journey. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Traveling alone and on a budget can be a challenge at times, especially when venturing to a famously expensive city like Venice. But after scouring the Internet for deals and recommendations from other travelers, I happened upon a real gem — the Ca' del Dose. A recently renovated room with a TV, private shower, toilet, and a bidet, cozily suited for one at only 50 Euros a night in low season, with breakfast included? Sold! Not only was it highly recommended and reasonably priced, the Ca' del Dose is ideally located in an authentically Venetian corner of the city where local life flourishes despite the daily tide of tourists.

Not long after I'd checked into the hotel, I discovered that the best feature of my happenstance home was not the price, the location, or even the private en suite bathroom and shower (a luxury much coveted by the vacationing population as often as is affordable). The loveliest aspect of the Ca' del Dose is without a doubt its delightful owners, Anna and Marco Lucchini. The couple took a particular interest in me; curious and protective of a lone female traveler. Each day they would check in to ask what my plans were, how my visit was going, share a recommendation, and always to offer help. Peppered with lots of smiles and laughter, we became fast friends. Before long I found myself accompanying Anna on her errands around the city, walking her home after work, and even sharing lunches and a dinner or three.

Flanked by the scents and sounds of Al Scalinetto to the right of my room and the "tink! tink! tink!" of the silversmith's workshop to the left, Ca' del Dose was a welcome reprieve of low-key authentic Venice after a morning or afternoon of fighting the throngs of tourists for a bit of peace in paradise. I always looked forward to "coming home" each day and having a chat with my new friends. Of the many neighborhood characters introduced to me by Anna, Franco Mazzucco quickly became one of my favorites. His was the workshop next door. Without the use of modern machinery, Franco welded and chiseled by hand the most detailed and delicate of works of art in silver that I had ever seen. Sometimes, when Anna wasn't available to act as translator, Franco and I would communicate in a broken babble of Italian and English; often involving an array of hand gestures colorful by even Italian standards and ending in shrugs and cheek-cramping laughter. More often still, I would just stop by to watch Franco work for a while and admire his shiny creations — platters, shell shaped dishes, goblets, bowls, boxes, crosses, mirrors, frames, figurines —  all created by hand for wealthy patrons and private collectors.

As my month rapidly melted into a series of cherished memories, I began to dread the end and wish I'd been able to lavish more time getting to know the city and a small group of people I was growing to adore and regard as extended family. The kind souls in this corner of the labyrinth had made my stay so warm and memorable, I would have done anything to demonstrate my appreciation. So when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance! Anna called a little meeting with Franco to explain that they had been unsuccessfully pursuing an American client of Franco's who had not paid him in full for a large piece that had taken Franco several months to complete. Anna had tried to contact the American via email and telephone on Franco's behalf, to no avail. And now that we were all friends, perhaps I might be more successful — being myself an American.

After months of international phone tag, faxes, and email, Franco was finally paid in full. A year later, I returned to Venice to relax and celebrate.

Not unlike my experience the previous year, my fourth trip and second full month in Venice was flawlessly delightful. When I arrived, Franco greeted me with a smile and a long-stem silver rose. He'd already mailed me two handmade silver picture frames as thanks for helping him collect from the American. I thanked him again for his many kind gifts and insisted that he allow me to take he and his wife, along with Anna and Marco, out to dinner to celebrate. This of course never came to pass because Franco instead arranged an incredible home-cooked meal at his house, prepared by his lovely wife Maria, for which he had spent a day in the mountains north of Venice picking fresh wild mushrooms. As if this weren't thanks enough, Franco saved the most generous gift of all for my farewell. 

One of the handmade items that I'd helped Franco get paid for was a large quadriga — a replica of the famous four bronze horses that grace Basilica San Marco. I'd seen pictures of the piece as part of the collections process. On one of my daily visits to Franco's workshop I asked him how much a small quadriga might cost to commission. He never got around to answering my question, but he did get around to making me the quadriga. Four silver horses prancing proudly atop a slab of rose-colored marble. I was speechless and asked what it cost, and could I pay him for it in installments, but he wouldn't hear of it. Franco explained that I travelled a lot and had spent much time in Venice — coming to know it as a second home — but that maybe now I would spend my month-long vacations creating similar roots and relationships in new cities. Look at the quadriga and remember. What a beautiful gift.

I knew in my heart that Franco was right. With a list of dream destinations long enough to fill two lifetimes' worth of yearly vacations, it was unlikely that I would be spending another solid month in Venice anytime soon. Not long after I'd settled back in at home and the New Year rolled around, I got the bad news. Franco had become ill and passed away. It had all happened so quickly and took everyone — family, friends, all — by surprise. The jovial, generous, well-loved family man and artist who had been so kind to me was gone. Not only had Venice lost a son, but a piece of her history and tradition as well. 

The last silversmith in Venice, Franco had learned his craft from his father. As the times and the economy had changed, fewer and fewer of Italy's young people were apprenticing and choosing a career in the traditional or old arts. Franco was the last of a handful of craftsmen throughout Italy who work silver in the old way, by hand rather than by machine. The work was hard and many long hours might go into the making of one small piece. Though the end results were unique, one-of-a-kind works of art, there simply wasn't the reliable demand for such priceless treasures necessary to make this career more appealing to a young artist than say that of a graphic designer. And so it is in this way that Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world continues to lose whole art forms. When given the choice between a passion and a paycheck, it is the paycheck that wins out — by necessity. It seems that the arts are hardest hit with this reality, as one can plainly see in a city with such a rich artistic past as Venice. Franco was the last silversmith, and how long will it be before the city loses her last handmade paper masters, bookbinders, or glassblowers? With more and more of these goods made on the cheap and imported from China, Venetians will tell you that the end looms ever nearer. It was Franco's hope and it is my hope that something might be done to preserve and encourage these dying arts to flourish in the city where they enjoyed such a celebrated and vital life.

My fondest memory of Franco is my last. On the second to last day of my trip, Franco asked me where I was planning on going. Had I been to the Chiesa dei Greci? No. I hadn't been to the Greek Orthodox Church. Was it nearby? Just around the corner from here. It is one of my favorite churches in Venice. Very interesting. Very beautiful. I know you and you will love it. It will move you to tears. And on this recommendation I spent both that very day and a portion of my last in this church. The first day it was full of tourists so I decided to return the next morning when it might be a bit quieter. I was very lucky and returned to find the church completely deserted, docent and all. Filled with art all in gold, I sat for over an hour in silent, watery-eyed awe. It was the sort of unexpectedly moving experience one most often finds abroad in a fabled place like Venice, and takes home to relish for a lifetime. Thanks to my silversmith with a heart of gold, it is for me but one of many. 

Practical Information:
Franco Mazzucco
Franco's works are available for viewing and purchase by appointment only. Contact Franco's wife, Maria, to schedule your visit: 0039.41.5229292. Please note that Maria does not speak English fluently. If you are uncomfortable speaking Italian, the kind folks at Ca' del Dose might be willing to help you make your arrangements with Maria.

Ca' del Dose
Calle del Dose, Castello, 3801 - 30122 Venice, Italy
+39.041.5209887 Phone
+39.041.5209887 Fax

Al Scalinetto
Calle del Dose, Castello, 3803 - 30122 Venice, Italy
Open for lunch and dinner, but hours vary. Check in with the restaurant and make a reservation if possible. Small establishment and popular with both locals and tourists, so sometimes difficult to get a table.
Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


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