Sunday, March 27, 2011


Basilica di Superga
Italy posed the biggest language barrier of my travels thus far. Though I've traveled through many non-English speaking countries, my experiences usually involve hostels filled with English speakers. This time, staying with a family in the northwestern region of Piedmont, I would be alone in my linguistic limitations.

On the train from Switzerland I studied my sister’s phrasebook. In those few hours I memorized key verbs, phrases and conjugation rules. To want. To eat. To sleep. To be. Those four verbs seemed to cover everything I would need in the next week.

We stumbled into the small townhouse my sister once called home laden with hiking backpacks and shoulder bags. I was too worn down from crowded trains and hostels to be overwhelmed by the crowd of family still celebrating the Christmas holiday. I simply stood there watching until from the blur of dark-haired strangers ran a small woman with a firm jaw and flashing eyes.

”Emily!” She embraced my sister, simultaneously scolding her for having been gone so long. Then she saw me.

Mia sorella.” My sister.

Ha fame?” Is she hungry?

I knew that word. “Si,” I replied. Ho fame.”

Rosa, her movements purposeful and exact, quickly assembled an array of food at a small table away from the familial festivities. As I ate, she watched, her arms crossed in satisfaction. She eats so much, she told my sister. Perhaps. My appetite wasn’t extraordinarily large that week but my gratitude was. I had been away from home for months and it felt good to be mothered.

So when I came down with wet hair in the morning I hardly minded when sent back upstairs with a blow dryer before being allowed out of the house. And when marched from piazza to piazza to church to piazza through Torino, I was again a little girl with tired legs mutely taking in cultural experiences beyond my comprehension.

Rosa talked in Italian, gestured and smiled. I understood, I thought. Each piazza had something magnificent that had occurred in its past. Each church had been the sight of revelations, miracles and saintly endeavors. Everything, I knew for sure, was bella. Beautiful.

Later, alone with my sister in our room, I learned what Rosa had really said. As we entered each piazza she declared her fervent desire to live in that particular square. She’d point to an especially attractive locale. Upon leaving each piazza she recanted, unable to fathom leaving her small home and neighbors in Rivalta di Torino. Que bella.

As the evening wore on Giammario started setting up a row of tables covered with vibrant red cloths. Rosa stirred pots while Giammario brought in wood for the fire. I learned how to use a salad spinner. The rhythm of their domesticity was a soothing respite from my arrhythmic life.  


While I stood at the back door, watching the sun pulled ever lower over the distant Italian Alps, friends and family trickled in through the front. Every day in Rosa’s home ends with a host guests sitting down to a long slow meal of simple dishes and small, decadent desserts.

As we sat down to eat (entrees first, salad later) I endeavored to practice my Italian. A tiny dictionary, tucked into my lap, coupled with hours reading Italian children books had worked wonders for my lexicon. Nevertheless, there were only so many things I could say about farm animals and trains. I lapsed into silence. Listening was enough.

Later, I sat at the piano. I had no music but I played what I remembered. When I ran out of pieces I improvised, letting the low, soft melody tumble down over the steady harmonic chords of my left hand. 

Rosa came in the room and stood listening, speaking quietly to my sister. I caught a few words but I didn’t really understand. Or did I? Once I stopped listening for the words and started catching the rise and fall of Rosa’s voice, her frequent gestures and expressive face, I understood quite a lot.

She sighed, as she frequently did, and rested a hand heavily on my sister’s shoulder. Had part of her been missing in the eight years that had passed? Together, one fair, one dark, one thin, one a little rounder, they looked complete.

Que bella.

Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi

Monday, March 21, 2011


Rain falling on the windows over a foreign bed strikes deeper, composed of drops of a different density. Their weight pushes me down below the surface of sleep even as it rouses me. In and out of dreams I spin. 

This rain is a muddled rain, molecules of indecipherable night thoughts and unfamiliar surroundings.

This is why I travel.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Highlands Homecoming

Compelled to visit Scotland by a long-held fascination with moors, faeries, medieval castles and feuding clans, I arrived eager to see not just a few major attractions but the entire country. I had one week, an entirely open schedule and more dreams than reality allowed.

Scotland, while much smaller than the United States, still makes up about 30 percent of the area of the United Kingdom. Travelling the entire country in seven days was not going to happen, especially when my goal was to see as many desolate moors, mountains and ruins as possible. Desolation does not lend itself well to transport; few buses and trains ramble the countryside in the way I hoped to do.

Sitting in Edinburgh, I was faced with a conundrum. My usual modes of travel, buses and trains, could not take me where I wanted to go. I lacked the money to rent a car and a constant drizzle ruled out a bike trip. I wandered the city for a time, exploring its own rich history and craggy medieval and Reformation-era architecture. Eventually, getting restless, I happened upon a travel agency while in search of a map. I wanted to explore but knew not precisely how or where and needed any guidance I could get.

I left the travel agency with a handful of maps, all part of various brochures advertising Highlands tours. Listening to the St. Giles choir rehearse Handel’s Messiah for evensong that night, I flipped through the tour descriptions. By the time the actual evensong arrived I was still in my seat, contentedly listening a second time. The next tour group left in the morning. I was going to be on it.

This was, I knew, a potentially ludicrous decision. I could be wasting handfuls of money. I despised tour groups and scorned the hordes of tourists descending from double-decker buses in major cities worldwide. I designated tour groups to the realm of high school marching bands and senior citizens (both lovely sectors of the population, neither of whom I belong to nor identify with at this point in my life).

Yet I had my birthday money, thoughtfully deposited in my account by my sisters, and no other feasible option. Plus, the brochure promised a luxury Mercedes van. Never, in my experience with tour groups, had hordes descended from luxury vans. What exactly was a luxury van anyway?

The next morning I found out. Our van was shaped much like the 17-passenger vans I rode in while working in the cornfields as a teenager. However, instead of a leathery-skinned foreman in the driver's seat, this van had Tim the tour guide, a talkative Scot with a long face and easy smile.

Buses do not stop here.

My companions included four girls roughly my age, two Americans and two Chileans. There was also a Japanese couple on their honeymoon and a single, middle-aged man. There were no senior citizens or tuba players. I considered this a promising start.

Once seated, I pulled out my book and alternately gazed out at scenery and read scenes of the battle of Culloden. By the next day I was standing on that same battlefield. I recognized the names on the various clans’ tombstones. Suddenly my fascination with Scottish history and mythology was no longer a series of intangible day dreams but flesh, blood and earth beneath my feet.

We spent the days roaming Highland forests, moors and villages. There were no official programs, only frequent stops with requests to return to the van by a certain hour. I, along with the other girls, spent the night in a cottage-turned-hostel alongside Loch Ness while the older guests paid more for hotel rooms nearby.

With the tiny house to ourselves we heated Scottish oats and cans of soup, talking in a mixture of Spanish and English about our pasts. Later we prowled the town of Drumnadrochit looking for adventure. There is little to be found, it turns out, when darkness falls in small Scottish villages. Dodging raindrops and jumping puddles, we too went home to bed.

I wished I had booked the three or five day trip so I could have made it to the Isle of Skye and the northwest part of the country. I wished I could have ridden in that van indefinitely, reading my book as purpled moors and mountains slid past rain streaked windows.

Perhaps it would have gotten old. Perhaps even meandering rides through swaths of fog-covered countryside lose their charm.  I am thankful, however, that I put aside my preconceived notions and signed up for what were two unforgettable days. (I’m also thankful for the funds, A and C.)

I will return to Scotland to spend more time taking in the vast expanses of geography and history I missed in the short week that I was there. No country holds the same allure of ancient forests, worn mountains and mythical histories. No people were more welcoming, comforting and accepting of a lone girl travelling on her own for the past three months.

In Scotland, I found a bit of home. Its forests felt like the woods of Upper Michigan, where my father grew up where I camped and picked berries thimbleberries every summer. More importantly, Scotland felt like the stories I read as a girl, finally come alive and made real. It felt, I thought, like a place I had somehow always known and had been missing all the while.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Cauldron Subsidence

The Three Sisters

Three hundred and eighty million years ago the surface of Glen Coe collapsed as magma surged from below. The boiling rock cooled into ridges now worn down by age and passing glaciers. Waterfalls and streams tumble down from foggy peaks to the moors below. Through heather, bog myrtle and bladderwort, they make their way to the River Coe.

(Visit the Scottish Highlands. They are beautiful.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Snow Covered Fantasy

Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany
Bavarian dream
of a king lost in madness
wistful winter white

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Pons Fabricius, Rome
Autumn's last leaves linger, veiling the bridge through the mild Roman winter. All is quiet but for the soft rustling of branches overhead. Moving quickly past bricks laid two millenia ago, murky water churns its way through remnants of the Jewish Ghetto. Attraversi.