It’s finally the weekend (this week has been THE longest) and I’m back in action after a three week break! It feels good to be back in the writer’s seat…though admittedly not as good as the Mediterranean sun on my face for two weeks (yeah yeah, I’m allowed to brag just a *little*).
It’s been an interesting first week back in the city – I returned last Sunday night at 9pm and essentially stumbled out of clothes into pajamas and onto bed by 9:30…which meant the inevitable 2:30AM wake up, tossing and turning until I gave up at 6AM and decided to get out of bed (or at least check the socials for an hour under the covers). This week has been lacking in sleep but loaded with activities – something I’d purposefully planned so that I could avoid the inevitable post-vacation-blues. I resumed Tuesday trivia, Wine Wednesday, started a new kickboxing class on Thursday, and even went out on a date on Saturday before heading out to Brooklyn to check out the graffiti art at Bushwick Collective (post on that forthcoming).
It’s going to be impossible to try to recap an entire 16 days worth of vacation stuff in a single blog entry, so I think the best approach is to try to sum up the feeling of the trip by sharing some of my key takeaways from the experience.
- The food in Greece is just as good as everybody says it is.
Every person to whom I told I was going to Greece immediately responded with “I’ve been, and the food is amazing! You must try x, y, and z.” You can say I definitely tried x, y, and z…and all of the other letters preceding. My approach to trying foods whose names I could neither read nor pronounce was simple: ask a local. The first morning we were there, we stopped at a corner bakery that was brimming with sweet and savory pastries on our walk to the acropolis. Not knowing what to get (but knowing that everything looked amazing), I asked the lady at the counter what she recommended for breakfast. “Bougatsa,” she responded. “It’s a typical Greek pastry made of phyllo dough stuffed with a particular kind of dense cream and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar, it goes perfect with a cappuccino and you can’t find them outside of Greece.” SOLD.
I eagerly forked over the two euros for my cappuccino and GIANT pastry (Greece was SO cheap! Ridiculously so!).
She was right. Words can not describe how deliciously satisfying this pastry was – I’ve never had anything like it. I’m not sure how they do it, but bougatsa managed to be crispy, creamy, flaky, and sweet-but-not-overly-so all at the same time. I was hooked. I basically ate bougatsa for four days in a row – twice from the same place. It was probably my favorite thing I had on my trip, and I will definitely be scouting out some of the local pastry shops in Astoria to see if they sell it around here. Part of me hopes they don’t, it could get dangerous…(no shame, I’ll work it off in my kickboxing class).
The same thing happened a couple of other times. After a long day of hiking to the top of the Acropolis, strolling through the Agora, checking out the Plaka and Monastiraki flea market, and then, once exhausted, heading back to our apartment in the working class neighborhood of Neos Kosmos, we saw the beaconing light of a pastry shop up ahead. I wanted to walk in and just look at what they had, but of course, that leads to the inevitable “I should get just a few…” I had been suckered! Everything looked amazing, but I figured I would get some tea cookies and biscuits to keep at the apartment for the evenings we came back early, or for the mornings when I needed something small to hold me over until breakfast. I asked the lady behind the counter if she spoke English – except unlike most areas in Athens, it was a firm head shake in the direction of “NO.” I wasn’t surprised though – our neighborhood was local and residential, away from the street vendors hawking kitsch to tourists, precluding a knowledge of English. Through gestures and incomprehensible spoken words (me to her and her to me), she brought out a small bag and walked over to the cookie table, and asked me (I think) what I wanted. I just kind of looked at her and shrugged my shoulders – it all looked good and I didn’t know what anything was! – so she said something which I think meant “do you want me to choose?” I fervently nodded my head yes. Off she went, picking up a few biscuits here and there, rejecting others, getting cookies covered with sesame seeds, swirled with chocolate, lighter ones, round ones, long ones, twisted ones…every shape and size imaginable! She handed me one to taste as she sealed up the bag…and charged me four euros (again, SO cheap!). It was really fun to try all the different kinds of cookies she’d picked out – I don’t think I would’ve had such a selected assortment available to me, so my advice to all travelers is – don’t be shy! Ask a local. If you’re too embarrassed, just think – chances are, you will literally never see this person again in your life. So go for it! The results are almost always worth it.
- The cappuccinos in Italy were better than I remembered
Of course you always have a couple of duds every now and then, but the cappuccinos in Italy were consistently the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had. I don’t remember them tasting so creamy and delicious, with the perfect espresso-to-milk-to-foam ratio. The problem is, we wanted ALL of the cappuccinos – yet Italians drink at most one per day, and always before noon. To save ourselves the embarrassment of being *those* Americans downing several cups like nobody’s business, my bff and I made a practice of bar hopping – i.e. having second breakfast (and another cappuccino) at a different, nearby bar. By the end of it, our favorite cappuccino place was the cafe at Palazzo Strozzi (pictured above) – we went there so many times that the barmen even began to recognize us. The things I’ll do for coffee.
- Florence made me remember all of the reasons I left Italy
I know, this will come as quite a shock to those of you who knew undergraduate Lauren living in Florence and dreaming of literally nothing but returning to my beloved city after my year abroad, but by the end of my time living in Florence, I was tired of the impossibly narrow sidewalks jam packed with tourists and cars and motorinos driving down them; tired of the sheer number of people in the summer, how the Florentines can sometimes just be rude for no reason, the overcrowding of the grocery store and competing for a place in line at literally every restaurant and attraction; tired of the heat and humidity of the Arno river creating a perfect storm of sweat and mosquitoes, of the Florentines judging you with unabashed stares for wearing shorts and flip flops in 90 degree weather or for running to the grocery store in sweats and a t-shirt. I was happy to leave all of this behind when I left – and definitely didn’t miss it when I went back. What I DID miss was my friends – and this trip to Florence was essentially a giant reunion where I bounced back and forth around the city to have coffee with this person, aperitivo with that person, and dinner with another. It was really wonderful and heart warming to see all of these people that I loved after a couple of years of being away. A part of me felt like I had never left, and we were able to slide right back into conversation effortlessly. Speaking of…
- I didn’t lose my Italian!
I was afraid that, after two years of not speaking it on a consistent basis, I would have lost much of my language skills. Not true! In fact, I felt like I had slipped back into it almost effortlessly – words that I forgot I even knew came back to me, and I could feel myself morphing back into the person I am when I speak this beautiful language. I spoke Italian daily on a consistent basis – in fact, I think I spoke more Italian than English on the trip. This was definitely a highlight for me and has inspired me to find ways to keep up with my language skills and plug in with other Italian speakers here in New York.
- Perugia reminded me of all of the reasons why I love and miss Italy
A former roommate and I traveled to Perugia together a couple of times during graduate school to visit my friends there, and we always described the city as “a tonic to our souls.” Surrounded by the beautifully expansive, green, and rugged Umbrian hills, with the pink and white marble buildings glistening in the sun, with the beautiful Corso Vannucci (the city’s main drag) linking two extraordinary views on either end of the city and lined with beautiful shops and patisseries, there is something calming and almost magical about Perugia. It soothes my heart every time I go there. This time was no different. As soon as we stepped off of the mini metro and into our gorgeous apartment right along the Corso Vannucci, I forgot my troubles, sighed, and felt my soul take a deep breath: Now, I was home. We visited my favorite outdoor bar, Punto di Vista (“Point of View”) with its breathtaking views of the city and San Donato church; went to a bachelorette party on Lago Trasimeno and a family BBQ at the bride and groom’s house; we ate my favorite food – torta al testo – four times in four days, and hung out at an off-the-beaten-path pizza place I love, located a few stops on the mini metro outside the city center. Not to mention that the Perugini are some of the nicest Italians you will ever meet! Compliment a barista on her beautiful cappuccino? She writes your name on it in chocolate. Speak in Italian at the local cafe? The cashier gives you a free chocolate. Go to pick up some groceries and a bottle of wine at the local produce store? The cashier finds you a cold bottle, opens it up and re-corks it for you so you don’t have to buy a bottle opener, and doesn’t charge you for the apples you wanted to buy, either. Perugians are the true definition of Italian hospitality.
- A wedding in a castle in Umbria will always be > pretty much any other wedding out there, TBH.
The ceremony was beautiful, taking place in the 16th-century church of St. Peter’s in the center of Perugia. The reception was even more magical – held in the Castello di Ramazzano just outside of Perugia, perched high up on a hilltop. After the ceremony, shuttles took guests to the reception, and dropped them off on the green front lawn outside of the castle, where servers poured glasses of prosecco and rose, and waiters brough out trays of fiori di zucca fritte (fried zucchini flowers). Guests mingled and walked around the lawn, taking pictures, and enjoying the cool air as they took in the view.
After this pre-appetizer appetizer, we were then ushered into the courtyard of the castle, where we found three large tables filled with meats, cheeses, soup, pasta salad, taralli, and a porchetta carving station, and unlimited red or white wine. Guests took plates and sat at the large white couches surrounding tables in the courtyard, as twinkling overhead strung lights illuminated the setting. In true Italian style, dinner (and the continuously unlimited wine) wasn’t served until 10pm, and the cake wasn’t cut until midnight. After the cake, bartenders wheeled out an open bar with a list of nine different cocktails to choose from, and a DJ set up his station. While the relatives and older guests headed back into Perugia, the friends of the bride and groom remained for more drinks, dancing, and a truly magical night that lasted until the last shuttle left at 3:30am.
- I’ll never be able to listen to the song Despacito the same way
Songs are always intimately connected to memories for me. Kesha’s Tik Tok will always remind me of my sophomore year abroad in Florence in 2009. Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen will always remind me of the internship I did near Perugia in 2012. Despacito (which I will guiltily admit I am obsessed with) has made the “list of unforgettables” and will always remind me of Summer 2017 in Perugia. When the DJ played the song, literally everyone – Italians, Russians, and Americans alike – went nuts! Everyone wanted to have a tipsy sing along to this tune – but the problem was, we ALL only knew the EXACT same part of the song – “passito passito, suave-suavecito” – and we ALL sang it at EXACTLY the wrong time, without fail. It never got any less funny as the night (and drink consumption) went on.
- When in Rome…
Okay, so some of you might be wondering if any mischief or mayhem happened in the fairy-tale setting that is a romantic wedding held in a medieval castle in Italy where wine, friends, and good vibes flowed until the wee hours of dawn. I mean the setup is almost too perfect, like it’s to be expected, right? When I told friends I was going to spend two weeks in Italy and Greece, their initial reaction was to tell me to take advantage of being a single twenty-something American woman taking a two week girls’ trip to Europe. I even had a couple of friends literally taking bets on whether or not I would make out with any Italian(s). Actually both of them bet Yes, so I’m not really sure who they were betting against, but money was put down somewhere. A lady never kisses and tells, but I will say…when in Rome… 😉