Well, that was easy

Just this very minute, I took something that was half-done on my Life List and completed it. That feels good.

Number 95. Contribute annually to NPR and Planned Parenthood. These are both organizations that matter to me. They are not the only organizations that I contribute to, but they are two that I found I was giving to some years and not others. I wanted to commit to send something, no matter how small the amount, every year, to each of them. In the last year or so, KQED introduced a monthly contribution plan among their membership options and I was quick to jump on board. I don't even feel the impact of the monthly $5, but I do feel proud about honoring a commitment I made to myself.

Still, I hadn't gotten it together on the Planned Parenthood front. Willy-nilly is not a great philanthropic strategy, but it seemed to be the one I was sticking to. Just now, it occurred to me to check if they had a similar monthly option. Of course, they do. Well, sheesh. Why didn't you just say so instead of sending me so many darn solicitation letters? Done.

Is it a great deal of money? No. But I don't have a great deal of money, so that's fair enough. Besides, this works out to slightly more than I would be giving if I wrote a check once a year and it's painless to spread it over twelve months. Besides, I know from my long experience in nonprofits, when they say any amount makes a difference, they mean it. If you're faltering, know that giving something truly is better than giving nothing--assuming, of course, you have anything available to give.

I really recommend the automatic monthly contribution; if only doing the right thing were always so easy. If you have greater financial capacity, by all means, dole out larger monthly allotments, but let's all stand up for things we care about, shall we? Maybe we could save the world, five bucks at a time. It's worth a shot, right?

Buongiorno Roma

Easy Jet is a cheap airline for inter-European travel and it is sort of like a flying Greyhound bus. Still, it is a great deal quicker (and actually cheaper) than the train, so I found myself leaving a rainy Geneva and arriving quite soon thereafter in a blistering hot Rome. Was it after sunset? Why, yes. Yes, it was. Did sweat nevertheless pour off me in rivulets as soon as I left the air conditioned airport and made my way to the train? Funny you should ask.

However, that would be getting ahead of ourselves. It took a long, long time for me to get to that train platform. First, I got off the plane and, as you do, followed the signs to baggage claim. When I got there, I went to one of the electronic signs that indicates which carousel your flight's baggage will appear on. Except that my flight did not appear anywhere on the sign. At first, I assumed I had just gotten there a bit ahead of the notification, but as time went on, it started to feel suspicious. I wandered around aimlessly, checked some other flight from Geneva in the unlikely event someone had put my suitcase on it just for fun, and finally recognized a couple of guys from my flight. I have no idea where these guys were from, but we didn't seem to have a language in common. Still, we had each other. And three people without luggage in a city you've never been to is less lonely and sad than--um--fewer than three people without luggage, etc.

I asked an airport employee and he told us that Easy Jet bags did not come there and that we needed to exit and go to Terminal 3. While I did understand everything he said, it just seemed so completely implausible that we still wandered around a bit more, afraid to exit for fear of never being allowed back in. I approached an Alitalia agent who repeated in perfectly clear English that we must exit and go to Terminal 3. She then said something about a green door and the staff entrance, which I mostly ignored. I gathered up my silent friends and we walked out.

It is a considerable distance to Terminal 3 and my confidence did falter a few times. When we got there, of course, we found ourselves on the "let's wait here for our friends to arrive from a foreign country" side of the door, rather than the "let's get our bags from our foreign flight and then walk out into Rome" side of the door. We just sort of stood there staring at it. There was an information booth right in front of us, but the lady staffing it looked so blatantly exasperated and hostile that I was afraid to even begin to explain our situation. Still, I got in line in a noncommittal sort of way, so that, if necessary, I might be able to say "What? Oh is this a line? I had no idea. I was just idly passing the time in this general area." When I glanced around, I saw a family from our flight standing right next to us. They spoke French, so we were able to share our complete frustration/confusion, which made me feel better. Better still, I was able to assign the dad the task of talking to the scary lady. Which he did. Merci. Sure enough, just as the Alitalia lady had said, we had to go to the staff entrance and rescan our carry-on bags to be let into the Terminal 3 baggage claim. Huh. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. How is it even possible to end up in a different terminal than your suitcase? And what's more...how did only seven people from a full flight have this experience? We found our bags by seeing our fellow passengers (all of whom may have been psychic?) gathered round the carousel. Really? Easy Jet, I have a few things to discuss with you.

Reunited with my stalwart suitcase, I made my way toward the station. There were additional delays in finding an ATM that wanted to deal with my card and then in finding a ticket machine that actually felt ready and able to dispense tickets, but eventually, I made it into town to the Termini Station. From there, it was only two metro stops to my hotel, which I assumed would take about 15 minutes. This is before I discovered that you have to walk about three miles underground before you even get to the right train (of which, incidentally, there are only two options). Truly, I walked such a distance that it began to be almost comical, and no doubt would have been, had I been sweating slightly less.

I wouldn't want this ramble to be devoid of public service, so let me give you this hot tip. When you are buying a metro ticket, you need to rest your coin in the slightly indented round spot on the ticket machine. You'll be pretty sure that it will fall on the floor, but it won't. And then, you put your thumb under the little lever and push it up, dumping your coin head over heels into the machine. If this seems too efficient for you, you can spend several minutes pushing things (your coin, the lever, the general area around your coin and the lever), or you can try pulling the lever down for quite a while. I mean, that's what I did, until the guy behind me intervened, but you might be in a hurry or something and want to skip all that. You're welcome.

I finally boarded the appropriate train and arrived at my station, at which point I wandered up and down the street trying to make sense of the English directions I had printed from their website. "Walk and follow, about 100 m, long Via Emanuele Filiberto up to No. 130 (in front of the No. 259)." Hmmm. What does it mean if 130 is in front of 259? Some kind of courtyard, perhaps? I got to 259, but the only thing in front of it was me, so I wandered back down the road feeling rather helpless. Some kind people at a little hotel next to the metro stop looked it up online for me and sent me back on my way. It turns out I had been looking on the wrong side of the street. Later I looked at the Italian version of the directions which state that you should "fino al n°130 (di fronte al n° 259)." I'm sorry to be the one to tell them this, but guess what "di fronte" translates to? "Across from." Ah. That would have been helpful.

I did at last find 130, which turns out to be a huge building which houses all manner of things. I was standing there [sweating] trying to make sense of the many signs outside the door, when a young man approached from further up the street and said pretty much the last thing I expected to hear: "Kari?"

It seemed like something out of a fairy tale. "Yes, magical creature? I am Kari. Have you come to rescue me?" But it was not so very odd, after all. The young man was Gianluca, the proprietor of Coliseum Rooms, and, as far as I could tell, the nicest person in Italy. Poor Gianluca had been waiting for me to arrive all that time that I had been wandering around the Rome airport, the Rome train station, the Rome metro, the immediate Rome neighborhood. He must have despaired that I would ever arrive (by that point, it was around 11pm). I felt terrible that I hadn't called to explain my delay, but I had no idea that he would be there just for me. He showed me to my spotless room, provided me with a towel, gave me a great many glasses of water, and pointed out many useful things on a map. Almost everything he mentioned, he described as "beautiful"-- everything from famous sites to having a profession where one meets people from all over the world-- beautiful. He asked me if I was visiting anyone in Rome and I told him that he was at that point officially the only person I knew in Italy. He said he was honored.(He probably also said that it was beautiful, but I don't remember.) I was so grateful for his kindness and hospitality that I wanted to hug him, but that seemed a trifle inappropriate, so I just said "thank you" a lot instead. He gave me my key, and went home. He let me keep the key for several hours past check-out the next day, and let me store my luggage there until the afternoon. When I was ready to head to the apartment I'd rented, he called a taxi for me, carried my bag down to the street and waited with me until the car arrived. He also gave me his card and told me that if I needed help with anything, I should call him. Mind you, I had stayed there for a total of one night.

All this to say, if you want an inexpensive, basic, spotless place to rest your head in Rome and you would like to have access to the nicest man in town: Coliseum Rooms. It's at 130 Via Emanuele Filiberto ACROSS THE STREET FROM #259.

La Suisse--Deux

"Yes, yes." you say. "That's all very well about the expensive muffins, but didn't you promise to say more about Switzerland?" Gold star to you, faithful reader. That shows real attentiveness on your part. I did say that. Donc, voila.

My cousin and her husband (let's just call them my cousins for simplicity's sake. Rest assured they are related to each other only by marriage) have been living in Switzerland for twenty years and though I have been kind of/sort of in the neighborhood many times, I have never managed to actually see them there. And so, I put it on the famous Life List and ta da! It happened. There was no magical teleporting or anything. Life Lists are good, but not that good. In this case, it helped that I was already in Lausanne and they live in Meiringen, which, from Lausanne, is quite nearby. I bought a (rather expensive*) train ticket from a Swiss Rail agent who was regretful that I didn't qualify for any discounts, but was otherwise positively bubbling over with happiness. While I have had no unpleasant experiences with Swiss Rail employees, they are not usually quite so cheerful, so I inquired. She told me that she had just gotten her exam results for her tourism degree and she'd passed, so we had a small festival of congratulations and smiling at guichet #7 and it took the sting out of the ticket price. I was all set to see my cousins the next day.

*Why something in Switzerland being expensive should come as a surprise to me, I couldn't tell you. Just the day before, I had had an extended conversation with a saleswoman at the pharmacy about the relative merits of having aluminum in deodorant. Ultimately, we agreed that it wasn't all that good for your health. Then she revealed that the aluminum-free deodorant was the equivalent of $20. If I suddenly drop dead, but still smell okay, you can assume it was the work of the aluminum in the $6 deodorant I bought instead.

I like trains. I particularly like trains in Switzerland because they have a highly reliable schedule, sure, but mostly because:

I mean, seriously? This is a fairly arbitrary photograph. You'll just have to trust me that things like this are just casually strewn about outside train windows all over Switzerland. I often tell people that Switzerland looks to me as though it were comprised entirely of illustrations from a children's book of fairy tales. It is truly breathtakingly beautiful.

Nevertheless, being a enthusiastic train passenger does not make me some kind of expert. Though the total journey was just an hour and a half, I had to take three different trains to get to Meiringen. Many train tickets have no assigned seats; you just do what you will. On the first train--the longest leg of the journey--I got in the very last car, as it was the least crowded. I did see a reserved sign over some seats, so, sensibly, I didn't sit in them. For about an hour, it was perfect. I sat in a nearly empty car next to a window watching the lake and vineyards and villages slip by (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful). Then, about twenty minutes from the station of my first transfer, the train stopped and my car flooded with about forty teenagers. Excited teenagers with significant luggage and loud American hip-hop. You know what's curious about Switzerland? One minute you are quite happily speaking French to all and sundry and the next, imperious teenage boys are speaking to you sternly and at length in German. It is not altogether pleasant. I came to understand that the reservation sign was not for the seats, but for the car. It is indicated on the sign that this car will be occupied by a school group from X station to Y station. Oh.

Still, I do not object to teenagers as a general concept, there were plenty of seats to spare, and, while I might have been in the way had I crashed their party for their entire journey, I was disembarking in just a few minutes, so I saw no reason to move. I endeavored to explain this to the girl sitting beside me and she seemed slightly alarmed that A) I was there and B) was speaking to her, but on the whole she seemed to think it was fine. I sat there smiling in my little corner while they all sang along with the English chorus of some song I'd never heard and felt quite inoffensive. Two boys did not agree. There was a great deal of glaring, which I ignored and some more angry German, which I also ignored. That was when they started wadding up bits of paper and throwing them at my head. Wha? Am I an adult? An adult who works at a high school? And are children actually throwing things at me? I ignored that too, but my heart rate increased; I'll admit it.

It took me a while to realize that the ringleader boy had seated himself behind me and was speaking English directed at me, while not being exactly addressed to me. He was speaking in a weird low voice with exaggerated slowness. I'll imitate it for you sometime. "Ma-dum" he said, pronouncing "madam" in the British manner, rather than the French. "Maaa-duumm. Come on. Pleeease move now, maadummm. Come on, maduumm. Come on. Pleeeeeassseee. Please go away now. Go to another seat now, maduummm." This went on and on and on. It is very strange to be harassed by an unknown teen who is calling you "madam." It was perhaps the most polite incivility I have ever experienced. Finally, I turned around and said, "Look. There are plenty of seats. I'm not in your way. And I'm getting off at Bern in ten minutes. Calm down. There's no problem." To which he said, "There is a problem. There is a big problem. It is reserved." So I punched him in his smug little show-off face. No, I didn't. But I wanted to. Most of all, I wanted one of the damn chaperones to come rescue me, but they didn't. I endured further paper balls and "maduming" until, praise God, we pulled into Bern.

And you know what happened then? ALL of us disembarked. I had assumed they were going to be in that train car for hours to come. My adversary said "bon voyage" as he passed. The little fu....Sorry. The chaperones were not far behind him and I told them how terribly charmant that boy was. I also apologized to them because I still didn't actually know the rules of reserved cars. Maybe I really was obliged to move. They waved away my apologies. The woman said, "I can only say I am very, very sorry." I told them I work at a high school and it was fine. They laughed. "There's always one," I said. She looked at me dolefully. "Oh. There's more than one." "In that case," I said, "I'm very sorry." "Thank you," she said. And then went off to have a truly terrible time for several days.

When I recounted this story to my cousin she told me that no one is obliged to move for these groups, if they have enough room. "It's not a requirement; it's more like a warning."

I finished the journey unmolested and arrived in the very small town of Meiringen, to find my cousin waiting for me on the platform with her groceries. It was moving in a way I can't quite articulate to see a member of my family in such a far-off place in such a dramatic landscape. We walked about a block to their flat where the Swiss Alps are framed in each window. This was the view from mine:

It looks like this everywhere. Everywhere. The building in the background to the left of the tree is the elegant Hotel du Suavage where Sherlock Holmes stayed before his fatal scuffle with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls in 1891. Where is Reichenbach Falls, you ask? Why, it's that little white line in the mountains. Toward the right, about three quarters of the way up the picture.

There is a little Sherlock Holmes museum in that church. Kath tells me that people come on little Sherlock pilgrimages, clad in period costume. Sadly, there weren't any there that day.

What? Still no? How about now?

We had a drink at a restaurant and the Alps were nearby. Then we had dinner at home and the Alps were nearby. They were pretty much always right there. After dinner,we went to a graceful wooden church at the very foot of the mountain for a concert. Several very charming and enthusiastic musicians said many things in German and then played some Schubert very beautifully. When we walked home (about two blocks), it turned out the village fest was in full swing right outside the flat.

In addition to the alpine horns, the fest was comprised of some restaurants serving beer outside and some other musical groups. It was quite chilly out, so we didn't stick around, but I could hear plenty of accordion from the living room. Sadly, there wasn't any yodeling, which I was given to understand was quite a surprise, as pretty much every self-respecting Swiss fest has some yodeling. A concert and a fest all in one day was pretty major for Meiringen, so I'm glad I was able to make it that day. On my way back to Lausanne, I spent a few hours in Interlaken, which, for the record, is also not ugly. Additionally, I had some shockingly delicious ice cream at some snack bar near the train station. Bi-Rite Creamery? You've got nothing on Interlaken Snack Bar. I'm not kidding.

On the train back, I was in the last car. There was a reserved sign. I read it very carefully and got the hell out of there when we reached the appointed "reserved from X" station. A few stops later, from my new seat, I saw the group disembark. It was comprised entirely of girls and they were chaperoned by two nuns in full ankle-length habits.

I think I would have been safe.

Life List update. July 2012

Buongirono amici.
I'm back.

Which is not to say that I'm taking the "vacation is over" thing particularly well. I am clinging to the vestiges. To wit:

5:15pm. Prosecco with a splash of limoncello and the mint I bought at the market yesterday because it smelled intoxicating, though I have no practical use for mint. Vacation's over, you say? Ha, I say.

Before embarking on my journey, I made a note in my journal of the Life List items that might potentially be accomplished. They were:
#8. Go to Rome.
#9. Speak basic Italian.
#38. Have wine in Tuscany with an Italian.
#39. Own something from Carli.
#40. Own grown-up lingerie.
#50. Visit Kath and KC in Switzerland (and pray they don't make me scale anything).

Well, hold on to your hats, friends, because many of these things came to pass.

Go to Rome. Si! Sono andata a Roma. Veni, vidi, ho mangato gelato.

Speak basic Italian. Hmmm. Well, that one's kind of a moving target isn't it. Did I use the past tense twice just moments ago? Si. Am I therefore amazing? Si. Certo. Was I able to confidently ask for a table for one and express my preference for sparkling water? Si. Did I feel like I spoke basic Italian? Not really. Though, by some measures, I think maybe I do. Perhaps I want to actually speak Italian. I will give myself a "quasi" on this one. A mezzo-check, if you will. Italian? I totally like you. Oh, sorry. I mean, Italiano? Tu mi piaci molto.

Have some wine in Tuscany with an Italian. I'm going to say no. I did have wine in Tuscany near Italians. I was even given wine by an Italian, and I did purchase wine from Italians, but "let us sit together at this tavola and raise a bicchiere insieme" still lies in the future, I'm afraid.
Me having wine in close proximity to Italians.

Own something from Carli. Not only did this not happen, this will probably never happen. However, I give myself credit for going to Lucca expressly to find out. I have been thinking about Carli since I first encountered it seven years ago, but at that point I was too intimidated to set foot inside. This time, I went; I asked to see two rings from the (gorgeous, perfect) case; I tried them on; I was told they were each more than three thousand euro; I laughed loudly in an un-chic manner and soon thereafter, departed. But at least now I KNOW. A rich man who is besotted with me is required. I'll see what I can do.

Own grown-up lingerie. I've got this one covered, people. Admittedly, I had envisioned exquisite, gossamer things, possibly purchased at La Perla. Indeed, I did go in to La Perla and let's just say that you could buy three bras there, or a ring from Carli. Still. Lace has been achieved. Matching has been achieved. This marks significant progress. And it's all thanks to a pre-vacation sale at the Gap. You laugh, but I'm totally hot and I can still afford to pay my rent.
A sampling. Not that, strictly speaking, it's any of your bee's wax.

See Kath and KC in Switzerland (and pray they don't make me scale anything). Yes! And hooray. My cousin and her husband have been living in Switzerland for twenty years and I have never managed to see them there. They live in a tiny town with the most dramatic landscape imaginable. I was overjoyed to see them there, at last. I found it unexpectedly moving to visit a blood relation in such an improbable place.

So, in short, it's been good. Stick around. I've got stories to tell you. Soon.

#63: Check.

I checked something off my oft-mentioned Life List.
#63: Buy a real painting.

I really wanted to own a painting--you know--with actual paint. Not a print. But I hardly knew where to begin. You know what there are a lot of? Paintings. Many I don't like, and more I can't afford, which narrows the field a little, but not really enough to give me a starting point. I thought that it would be really great if I could buy a painting from a friend. In that way, I would be supporting the work of someone I care about while also owning art that was that much more meaningful to me. Great idea. However, I didn't actually know any painters.

At least, not when I wrote the list. Enter: Lisa Congdon.

It's very fortunate when the painter you befriend at the moment you're in the market for a painting happens to make art you think is beautiful. She might just as easily painted a bunch of stuff with bleeding eyeballs. (I have a particular horror of bleeding eyeball paintings of which there are more than you might think. Often hung in cafes, which seems to show a real lack of foresight.)

Instead, I am really delighted to have this beautiful little forest to call my own.

Maybe she's made something just for you and you didn't even know it. You should probably check.