Tag Archive: italy

Amazing Airbnb Number 1

This series of posts will be dedicated to the most amazing, yet budget-minded Airbnbs I’ve found in my obsessive browsing of that site. I’ve stayed at some of these places; others are just on my personal someday list. Unlike most Airbnb best-of lists, all of them are relatively affordable.

Today’s Amazing Airbnb is an apartment on an organic farm in Tuscany. I stayed here and it was a great three weeks. There are two other apartments on the farm as well, but this one was my favorite:

Organic farm hills of Florence 3pax in Incisa, Florence

Apartment in Incisa, Florence, Italy. Poderaccio farm is nestled in the hills between Chianti and Valdarno Superiore, just half an hour from Florence. The guest house is a 18th century farmhouse divided into 4 apartments, renewed in 2012 using greebuilding materials. We only use rene… View all listings in Incisa, Florence

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Nothing Is Perfect: The Less-Good Parts

''The Mouth of the Beast'' from http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/220479689/ by http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/ {{cc-by}}

”The Mouth of the Beast” from http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/220479689/ by http://www.flickr.com/photos/amiebea/ {{cc-by}}

One of my favorite people told me I sound like a superhero. The blog highlights all of the great parts of leaving my job and wandering the world, but none of the snags or tangles along the way.

I’m not sure I entirely agree. I’ve highlighted some of the ambiguous moments, like feeling stranded in Tuscany without a car, struggling with Internet outages and unreliable trains, and getting used to dark nights in farmhouse country. I’ve written about fear.

Partly, I’ve shied away from ungood stories because I don’t want to sound like I’m whining or ungrateful. On balance, this whole endeavor really is pretty great, and I’m happy I did it. I’m also grateful I was able to do it.

But to balance the scales a bit, this post will cover, in an anonymized way, several additional things that weren’t perfect.

1. Cat Bite, Initial Encounter. That’s what the hospital paperwork said when I was released from the emergency room. My roommate’s cat, which hates people but liked me, didn’t like it when I took her photo with my iPhone. It looked like a tiny scratch, but it got infected and my arm turned red. Seven days of antibiotics and stern warnings from my doctors to take all of them. I did.

2. Other Guest Roulette. With Airbnb, when I rent a private room in a host’s apartment, there are always other guests at some point. This has been true 100% of the time so far. Some of the guests were also from Airbnb, and some were friends of the host. Several of the guests were awesome and we became friends; others were less awesome. Only one made me feel truly uncomfortable, mainly because the hosts were also out, but we shared space for just a day and I locked my door while he was there.

3. Type-A, Nature-Lover Shock Therapy. I discovered I may not be cut out for life on vacation. That’s fine; I didn’t think I wanted to spend my life on vacation anyway. But I had more trouble than expected when I stepped away from an always-on, Internet-focused life. It was good for me to have this experience, but it wasn’t as easy or relaxing as I thought it would be. There were also beetles in the farmhouse that made a low, humming buzz that sounded like giant wasps. This terrified me until I figured it out.

4. My Right Foot. I sprained my ankle about 10 days before my scheduled flight to Florence. It wasn’t a bad sprain and didn’t hurt much, so I never bothered to ice it much or use a compression bandage. But I re-sprained it two days pre-flight; it collapsed while I was just standing still (perhaps a bad sign).

It still didn’t hurt much, so I purchased a compression sock and flew to Italy, then ended up visiting the ER the night after I landed. It turned out to be fine, thankfully, and the total bill was 31 euros. A week later, I re-sprained it again in the Cinque Terre, because I was starting to feel better and saw a hiking path near the water that I really wanted to explore. This time was worse — I felt like there was spaghetti in my ankle instead of ligaments and tendons. I finally accepted the need to take it easy. (It is getting better now, fingers crossed — I’m getting SCENAR therapy from my amazing acupuncturist and it is essentially a miracle.)

5. What Now Syndrome. My greatest fear is that I am like a zoo animal that, released from its pen, stands in the middle of a field and doesn’t know what to do. I can do anything, so I do a little bit of everything, and therefore I do nothing. I feel this fear more acutely as the learning-and-exploring phase of my adventures shifts into a do-something phase. I don’t think it’s bad for me to try several different things, and I think as long as I do some real work every day, I’ll figure it out, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by possibilities. I woke up this morning from a dream that I won’t be happy unless I’m working hard. I already knew that. And I woke up happy and ready to work.

I can’t help it even now. I’m turning this “Nothing Is Perfect” post into an “Isn’t This Awesome?” post. That really is how I think about the world. But nothing is perfect, and I’ve tried to give you a glimpse of that, to round out the picture and add more humanity to this adventure story.

One Brick at a Time – Peace

I had no Internet connectivity when I wrote this post and the prior one, so I’m posting them now. This one is from Sunday:

A peaceful Tuscan hillscape at the farmhouseI wake up in the quiet. I’m getting used to it.

I open the window and smell wood smoke, leaves and sharp, clear air. If clean has a smell, this is it.

I boot up the computer. Still no Internet. It annoys me but less than it did last week.

I open TextEdit and start to write. Yesterday I read a book I bought two years ago. With no Internet, I’m plowing through my accumulated Kindle books.

The mountain view through the bathroom window is hazy blue, with low clouds filling the valley.

I hear other people in the house stirring, in other apartments. In my apartment there is peace.

I make the bed, smoothing the duvet so it looks welcoming again.

I start water for tea, steaming hot in the cool air.

I leave my socks off so I feel the brick floor rough under my feet. I like feeling each step as I take it.

An Island in Tuscany – Solitude

Saturday:

Tuscany viewI feel like a girl on an island, except the island is a hill in Tuscany.

I go outside at night and listen to the leaves rustle. Wild boars grunt in the olive groves. A pile of wood next to the house stands fallow until winter. A cool breeze slips sharp through my sweater.

Listening to the world is an experience I welcome in life.

Sleeping in pitch dark, in the quiet of the old farmhouse, terrified me at first but now is welcoming.

I no longer leave the light on at night.

I dream of strange things that I can’t remember in the morning.

I watch the leaves turn from green to gold over the hills surrounding the farmhouse. I eat the fruit from the garden and find I can cook well after all. I learn because I have to learn.

I deal with slow Internet and procrastination and cabin fever and self-doubt. I try to move enough every day that I do not become totally sedentary.

I am stranded. I am frustrated. But I am also happy.

Waiting for Tuscany

I’m struggling with Tuscany. The rhythm of it, the late summer that fought against giving way to fall, the bees and landlockedness and slow pace.

I’m not a slow-paced person. I came here, in part, to experience the pace while remaining productive.

But I find I’m intensely productive in spurts, even as Tuscany conspires to create spaces where productivity is impossible.

I struggle to be okay with this.

I waited an hour for the train on Friday. I wanted to go to Florence. After an hour passed and the delay stretched from five minutes to fifty, the announcer stated the train would not come at all, and the next train would be in two more hours. I left.

I walked to a nearby cafe. Sat down. Had a pastry and a glass of sparkling water. Seethed.

My host was returning in four and a half hours. Until then, I was stranded in town with nothing to do.

I added the tally of hours spent and yet-to-be-spent waiting during the trip. I calculated that I had spent roughly three days waiting out of 20 days in Italy. The reasons varied. Waiting for trains. Waiting for cars. Waiting for paperwork. Waiting for doctors related to my ankle-sprain.

All of the restaurants were closed between lunch and dinner, so a hearty meal was out. There was no Wi-Fi, so the Internet was out. I opened my Kindle app and read The Four-Hour Work Week.

I’ve put off reading this book many times. Its title doesn’t appeal to me because I have zero desire to work only four hours per week. I want to work a lot, make a lot of things, and be productive in society.

As I read the book, I realized that is (sort of) actually the message. Service is one of the themes of the book. I feel it could be a stronger theme, but it’s there. And that’s really where I’m at with this wandering-the-world/learning thing. I want to get to where I can work on things that interest me and be of service, in a different way than I was during my prior job. There, I pushed hard against giant gears to get them moving. Now, I want to create new gears.

So I struggle when the Wi-Fi struggles. I envision lying in a hammock, happily streaming edX videos while learning about solar energy. Instead I plug in my Ethernet cable and hope the network is functional. If it is, I often squander it playing games or reading news — a messed-up reaction that could only come from my lizard brain.

In fact, I get more done when I unplug the Ethernet cable entirely. Then I focus, write, code and read. Then I feel good about myself and this trip.

The important things are good. I’m here, I haven’t re-injured my ankle since Cinque Terre two weeks ago, and I love the scenery of Tuscany. Almost everyone I’ve met has been amazingly understanding, friendly and welcoming. The food is good, I cook home-grown organic vegetables almost daily in my kitchen, and the hosts at the farmhouse where I’m staying are wonderful. We had a traditional Tuscan dinner last week in the host’s kitchen, and it was a wonderful evening full of laughter and conversation and good food and wine. So I have nothing to complain about.

I struggle. And I let go. I left the cafe and walked through the small town, stopping for gelato and then meandering along a path beside the Arno River. I crossed a small bridge and found a medieval tower standing beside it, a landmark for the town. I walked some more, back and forth along the path, shopping for groceries and visiting the cafe again. This time I relaxed instead of seething, and the patrons laughed at my expression, with my head against the wall and my eyes closed. “Are you tired?” he asked. “No, I’m just relaxing,” I said. And I sort of was telling the truth.

Each night, I huddle in the farmhouse, getting ready for sleep, wondering what tomorrow will bring. I know the trains will probably not run on time. I know the schedule will probably not be what I expect. I know I cannot predict how the day will unfold, or how much I will get done, or whether I will be able to check email at any given time. I know the food will be good, and I know the day will be beautiful, and I know the hosts are great people and I’ll have a great day if I can just relax and let life lead me.

It’s funny how the more I surrender to that, the more I get done.

Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 1

Florence is a museum. It’s a chaotic, beautiful, slow, delicious, bureaucratic, welcoming place. It’s full of history and contradictions.

Florence ApartmentI’m staying in the center on a small side street near the Santa Maria Novella train station. My host’s apartment is where she grew up as a girl, now occupied by her daughter and other guests, variably. Today I met the grandparents.

In the apartment, with its polished wooden ceilings and solid wooden doors and arched gateways, I feel at home, floating above Florence’s street noise.

Outside, I feel a bit lost, mainly because it’s easy to get lost! Cellphone GPS helps, but even so I’ve found myself lost three times. Each time, I encountered interesting places, and I’m finally learning my way around the Duomo and its environs.

A few tips for fellow travelers to Italy:

The Paperwork

Consider booking your first night in a hotel. Why? It turns out that hotels take care of some paperwork that you may need to complete yourself otherwise. In my case, that meant spending two hours in a crowded immigration hall instead of at the Uffizi this morning.

This is actually unlikely to happen to you. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), it only arises under a specific set of circumstances:

1.) You are staying in Italy for more than eight business days after your arrival; and

2.) You came to Italy via another Schengen (EU) country (this includes connecting flights), instead of getting your passport stamped at an airport in Italy; and

3.) You aren’t staying in a hotel for the first several days (e.g., if you are a guest, staying with family/friends, or hostelling/camping).

Granted, if you ignore this paperwork, nothing is likely to happen. But if you need to go to the police for any reason after your eight days, you could be deported, which sucks and could have other repercussions. I’m staying for a month, so I dealt with the two-hour paperwork process this morning. The whole process made me feel uncomfortable.

Next time I will just book a hotel for the first night.

The Firenze Card

Status in Uffizi

Great art, ignored, and appropriately distressed about it.

Consider buying the Firenze Card if you can make it work for you. This card provides access to nearly all of the major museums in Florence, plus the Boboli Gardens. It works for 72 hours from the time of activation. This is generally inconvenient because:

1.) You may feel pressured to go to as many museums as possible instead of exploring the city as a whole; and

2.) You could end up with museum overload, where you rush past great art because, “Hey, I’ve already seen 50 Botticellis today and I’m hungry.”

But here is the really good thing about the Firenze Card:

It lets you skip the lines.

Bird in Flight by Tower

A bird in flight by the Arnolfo Tower.

If you have seen these lines, which can be hours long, you will know this is a giant benefit. I waited approximately 5 minutes to enter the Uffizi Gallery today and 2 minutes at the Palazzo Vecchio. What is an hour of your time worth? Right. So I got the card. It also comes with a free bus pass; I haven’t used it yet since I tend to walk everywhere, but I like having the option.

I decided to try to spread the Firenze Card’s goodness over four days instead of three, allowing me to maintain a leisurely pace and do non-museum things too. So I activated it Tuesday at 1pm. It’s good until Friday at 1pm.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio and Torre Arnolfo (tower). No lines, so all of this took about 3 hours. Then I meandered through the streets to my favorite gelato place. On my way home, I passed the Basilica de San Lorenzo, so I ducked in there just before closing time. Then I went back to the apartment to upload my pictures, went out for dinner, and returned home to blog and do nerd-related self-directed learning. So far, the Firenze Card is working for me.

The Food

The food is amazing if you know where to go: The TripAdvisor top restaurants list is a good start. I’ve tried four of the top 30 so far, plus some other places:

Mario: The owner of the apartment where I’m staying recommended this place near the Central Market, and it may be the best pasta I ever ate. Clearly homemade, al dente to perfection, with tomato sauce that was light, fresh and not overwhelming. Go early because there’s always a wait, but it’s shorter before noon.

Edoardo Gelato Biologico: There’s a huge line most of the time. It’s still worth it. The plain Crema flavor (fresh eggs with vanilla) is my favorite — always a good sign with food — though I loved the now-vanished weekly special, Honey & Poppyseed.

Ete Bistro: Organic bistro just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. Had a delicious spinach-ricotta gallette for dinner, which was the daily special.

Marco Ottaviano Il Gelato Gourmet: It was very good gelato, with great pistachio and Crema del Duca (lemon) flavors, but I preferred Edoardo. Both places far surpassed the gelato I ate in my life prior to Italy.

Amorino: Awesome panini and extremely friendly owner — I had tuna, capers and olive oil on flat focaccia bread.

Central Market food court: The cheese place at the end on the left has amazing fresh ricotta, which I paired with a small roll from the bakery a few stands down. The other cheese place has a wider selection, and I took home a piece of smelly but delicious raw cow milk cheese. The fruit stall has good fruit except for the squishy plum I received, and the yogurt was tasty. I took home supplies for several days because breakfast is not a big thing in Italy. Most people just have a pastry with coffee. I need a bit more substantial food.

On a not-so-great note, during an otherwise-good lunch at Gilli, I was charged 7 euros for a tiny pot of tea holding about 8 ounces of water. That’s about $10 for one teabag and a cup of water. I was planning to buy a pile of chocolates from this place, but I decided not to. Instead I bought a 2-euro pastry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also was not that great.

The Language

I am learning a bit of Italian with the help of Rosetta Stone, about half an hour per day. Each day I understand a little more. Moreover, I have found absolutely everyone to be understanding (or at least tolerant) of my limited-language skills. I’ve also found almost everyone to be very courteous. As a solo traveller, I was a little worried about this, but Florence has been a largely great experience so far.

On to the next day! By the time you read this, I’ll be out of the apartment exploring the city. Ciao!

Day 7: Goals Accomplished

I registered for the NASM personal trainer test. I read 100 pages of the NASM book (200 down, 300 to go). I worked on my flashcard app and struggled — am still struggling* — with UICollectionViews. I blogged four times and drafted a post for Medium.

I also established a Twitter account for this blog, ate somewhat better, slept a little more, spent time with family, met with a few former colleagues, finished reading Effective Objective-C 2.0, finished reading Apple’s Mobile Human Interface Guidelines, and booked a vacation stay in Italy.

Somehow, amid all of this, several people told me I look more relaxed.

I’m happy to hear it.

I do feel relaxed, in a productive-flow way. When I’m in the zone, working on something I enjoy, I’m happiest. That’s why it’s vital for me to stay productive even when I’m ostensibly relaxing and traveling. I’m always finding my way to what’s next.

* UICollectionViews are basically places that hold content within an iPhone or iPad app screen. They can be small or large, and you can scroll through the content in them and choose one or more items. The difficulty for me is in correctly setting up sizing and scrolling, although I’m making progress.