Traveling By Train

I love traveling by train.  To me, the trip is an adventure unto itself.  In contrast, travel by plane or bus is just a means to an end (and usually a rather unpleasant one at that).  My enthusiasm for train travel has been recently energized by the chapter in Paul Theroux’s book, “The Tao of Travel” dedicated to “The Pleasures of Railways.”

I think what makes train travel so different is the fact that you can freely move around and there is usually cool scenery.  The entire atmosphere seems so much more stress-free than other types of travel, AND there’s usually a dining car!  Something else I noticed about trains (and is oft repeated in Theroux’s book) is the fact that the people on-board seem to be happy, relaxed and talkative.   I remember the conversation about Michelangelo’s David with the guys from San Fransisco on our train ride in Italy (as discussed in a previous post), as well as the spontaneous gift of beautiful boxed sweets from a Japanese gentleman we spoke with on a bullet train in Japan.

When we traveled in ’08 we traveled by train.  We got a Eurail pass for two, which, for the most part, was super convenient and relatively economical (it doesn’t work perfectly for all trips, but can with proper planning).  The interesting thing about Eurail passes is that, unless you are a student, they only come in first class (we always have/do travel in second class when we don’t have a pass, as do most people).  There really is no need to travel in first class by train (and many trains don’t even have first class), as most train seats have more leg room than planes and there really aren’t very special amenities.  (One exception is Thalys trains in Northwest Europe, in which there was free wifi and we were given a wine list and varieties of smoked salmon and other fine foods.)  The small niceties of first class really can’t offset the sacrifices.  When you are in first class, other than some well-to-do business types, most of the other people in first class are other tourists on Eurail passes!  While I actually love meeting other tourists (and they usually speak English), you get a much better sense of a place and hear the native tongue in second class in a way you never do in first class (and you still get to meet other tourists).  So, while I recommend Eurail passes for people traveling frequently and for long distances over a compact period of time, I suggest just buying second class tickets as you need them for everyone else.

This is another one of those occasions where I think “if I had known I was going to start a blog I would have taken pictures at a train station [grocery store] [market] [etc.].”  I promise once I get to Italy I will routinely walk around with my camera (as much as I don’t want to look like a tourist).  For now we must suffice with a couple of pictures I took out the window of trains in Switzerland and Croatia (when the trains slowed or stopped in the middle of nowhere for a minute) and a picture of a Trenitalia train and train ticket (this one is for a reserved ticket [the fast trains] with my car (“carrozza”) number and seat (“posti”)).  Notice the Euro way to write the date: day first, then month (so this ticket was from April 7).  And, yes, you are correct if you are asking “aren’t trains in Italy often late?” ( “in ritardo”) and “aren’t there sometimes random strikes that leave you in a lurch?”… but I’m still in my “We’re Moving to Italy!!!!” buzz and will deal with those realities at a later date…

Italians Wear Scarves

It’s just a fact.  Italians wear scarves.  If you want to try and pass as an Italian, wear a scarf (and don’t wear white running shoes).  Not only do they wear scarves (“sciarpe,” not to be confused with “scarpe” – shoes), but they wear them “in style.”  Last time we were in Europe, we learned to tie our scarves the way that was in style back then.  It’s hard to explain, but basically you make a slip-knot and put your head through the center (see picture, below).

I went to Italy this year all prepared with many scarves packed and started my trip tying them the “euro” way we learned in ’08/’10.  Here I am my very first couple of days (I started the trip in Milan, where my plane landed – this is on the top of the Duomo):

It soon became apparent to me that wearing a scarf this way was no longer as chic.  Most of the Italians (and other Europeans) I saw now had their scarves basically wrapped around their neck several times, with little to no extra flowing down.  Here I am stylishly wearing a scarf I got in Italy:

Now when I say “Italians wear scarves” I am being very serious – women wear scarves, MEN wear scarves, and everyone wears scarves way past (to my liking [“secondo me”]) the temperature calls for scarves.  Of course, in the warmer weather, you can wear a thinner/smaller scarf, but you’re gonna wear a scarf nonetheless.  I remember one day in Bologna it was very warm out and I decided to be a rebel and NOT wear a scarf to school.  I felt naked!  I have even taken to occasionally wearing scarves back here in Albuquerque and it’s already in the 80’s (mid+ 20’s Celsius).  Now, I am not usually one to follow the crowd, but I get all happy at the thought that if I don’t say too much and I wear a scarf, people in Florence may actual mistake me for a “real” Italian (I am actually 1/8 Italian).   So, for now, I scarf on!

Let’s Take a Side Trip…to Japan!

Okay, I have a confession to make – I have been trying for weeks to figure out how to work a few of the hundreds of cool photos I took in Japan on our 2008 adventure into this blog.  The closest tie-in I can conjure up is that this is a blog about adventure and Japan was nothing if not an AMAZING adventure!  For some reason I fought the idea of a blog the entire 2008 trip, thinking it would be “work.”  Now that I realize I love blogging, I could look back with regret, but that wouldn’t be a very Buddhist thing to do (and Japan was as much about Buddhism as it was about food, as the pictures below can attest).  So what I will do instead is share a couple of the more amusing stories from that trip (that up until now had only been shared in an e-mail or postcard to a few) AND lots of photos!   I hope you Italy-philes will indulge me on this side trip…



A Mountain, A Monk, and…Gorillas???

My mother-in-law (who is originally from Japan) thought a 4-day hike across the sacred mountains of Koyasan in Japan was the perfect way to celebrate her 77th birthday, starting with a stay at Haryoin Temple.  We realized we didn’t pack warm enough for the hike, so we walked into town to get thermal underwear.  As I cannot read Japanese, my mom-in-law picked out my package of long johns.  Back in our temple room I tried on the underwear, to find out they were so big I could pull them up to my neck.  Standing there in nothing but underwear pulled up to my neck (sorry, no photo) I heard a tap on the door; expecting it to be my mom-in-law and posing for her so we could have a good laugh I stated “dozo” (welcome, come in).  To my great surprise, it was the temple’s head monk that walked in the door!  In very Buddhist fashion, he made no notice of my ridiculous attire and proceeded in his task of lighting the incense in our room – but I was mortified!

In addition to the lack-of-preparedness for the temperature, my mom-in-law didn’t really research the terrain, so along the more-challenging-than-expecting hike, Steve and I would take turns carrying her pack while the other scoped-out the trail ahead (picture here, worth a thousand words):

One time when I was the scout, I heard tree branches breaking and saw 3 jet-black hairy figures bound through the trees ahead.  Not being the most educated naturalist, I could have sworn they were gorillas.  I was scared!  In order to warn Steve and my mother-in-law, I got a post-card from my pack and wrote “DANGER – GORILLAS – SERIOUSLY!!!” and put it in the middle of the trail weighed down with rocks (I specifically underlined AND capitalized the “SERIOUSLY” so they wouldn’t think I was being my usual smart aleck-y self).  As there are (duh) no gorillas in Japan (these turned out to be small black bears), they both thought I was kidding and had a great laugh, unaware of my fear and the need for caution                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Culture Shock

There are so many funny “culture shock” stories from this trip.  A few of them are captured in the photos above (e.g., the toilet, the KFC).  Another happened on one of the occasions where we would get home sick and try to do something we would do back home (like make “Mexican” food [with soy beans] or go to a cheesy matinee [36$ lesson]).  We decided to go to a gym and work out.  Just trying to be allowed in took 2 days as we could never seem to bring the proper equipment with us (second pair of clean shoes, bathing cap, etc.).  But the really hysterical part of the story happened the day we finally did work out.  As we learned, Japanese people like to work out with the heater cranked.  Combine that with my run on a treadmill and I was HOT and thirsty!  I kept trying to find a water fountain, but to no avail.  Finally, across the gym by the weights I spotted it – the ubiquitous vending machine…I was saved!  I hurried to the machine expecting to find water and all sorts of wonderfully strange exercise beverages.  Instead, right there, in the middle of a GYM, was a vending machine filled with….. CIGARETTES!!!

Tale of the (Dead) Panda
When we were in Tokyo we decided to venture out to the Ueno zoo since they had a giant panda (Ling Ling) and I had never seen one in person.  The anticipation built as we neared the zoo and encountered all sorts of panda-related items – giant statues, posters, vending carts with stuffed pandas, you name it!  The entrance to the zoo was similarly decorated with panda-phanelia.  When we got into the zoo, there was even a place to take your picture with a stuffed panda.  We excitedly went in the direction of the panda sign, but after at least 15 minutes of searching and walking in circles by cute (but little) pandas, we gave up and went to the information booth.  A women bowed her head and handed Steve a laminated piece of paper that said (in English) something close to “We apologize.  Ling Ling dead.  Please enjoy your day at zoo.”   It turns out that Ling Ling had passed away quite some time ago, but as we had already learned on our trip, refunds are really not heard of in Japan, so we did the best we could to heed the advice on the laminated paper and enjoy our day!  (Here is a picture of me making the Japanese “ja nai” sign [no, can’t, forbidden, not here] in front of the stuffed panda):

Quirky Italian Red-Tape

Italy has LOTS of bureaucracy, much of which makes no sense.  This is not just me speaking from an ethnocentric point of view, this is what I have been told time and time again by Italians I have met (and have begun to experience).   I am sure once we move we will get to experience even more first-hand (which I will of course explain, with photos where appropriate), but for now I will share some of the quirkier red-tape I have already encountered (disclaimer – this is from personal observation, if it is not the “official” rules, feel free to correct me!)…

Stamp your ticket or pay a fine! In almost every train (except where you have a seat reservation) and on all buses, not only do you need to have a ticket, you need to validate it by stamping it in a machine (in trains, you do so in the station; in buses on board).  Unfortunately, not all tourist have read Rick Steves’ travel advice and realize the importance of validation.  If you don’t validate and get caught, it’s a €50 fine (“multa”).  No exceptions, no excuses.  Not only are you given a fine, but you are expected to pay it IMMEDIATELY.  On one bus in Rome we watched as the “bus police” told a tourist who did not have cash on him that they would accompany him to a bancomat (ATM), and sure enough, they escorted him off at the next stop!  If, as happened to me several times, the validation machine at the train station is not working (there’s lots at big stations, so we’re talking dinky ones), you need to actively search out the conductor to validate your ticket before they come around to check.  You are now officially forewarned!

Receipts, receipts, everywhere –  In Italy, receipts are MANDATORY.  Not only are they mandatory for the merchant to give (restaurant, mini-mart, veggie-stand, you name it), but they are mandatory for YOU – the consumer!  You must hold onto your receipt (ask for one if it’s not given) or you can be fined!!!  This obsessive need for receipts is one of the reasons for the next quirky cultural aspect…

No Garage Sales –  there are no garage sales in Italy.  A couple of weeks ago when I had posted about our “moving sale,”  my Italian teacher (who checks on my blog for topics to discuss in our Skype classes) asked me about these kinds of sales in the U.S.  She seemed genuinely surprised when I explained that you can find one on just about any block every weekend everywhere.  From what I understood (remember, this was all in Italian), if you wanted to have such a sale in Italy you’d need to 1) apply for a permit, 2) give all of your customer receipts (.25 receipt for that used cup anyone?), 3) file forms afterwards and 4) pay taxes.  So, while it is theoretically not impossible, you can see why it’s not done.  Apparently, if you want to sell anything in Italy you take it to a consignment store.

Your Choice – 1 or 4 year lease ONLY –  Okay, I still really don’t understand this one, but have been dealing with it on our new apartment.  All lease contracts in Italy are not only signed, but then registered with the government and only two types are acceptable – a year-long lease or a 4-year lease.  You might wonder (as I did) – “what if I know I want to live in the apartment for two years?”  Well, you have two choices there as well – take a one year lease, then another one-year lease, OR take a 4-year lease and then break it in a perfectly legal way (by giving 3 months notice).  I was very leery about a 4-year lease when we know we may only be in Italy for 2 years (Steve’s initial contract), but every single Italian person with whom I consulted (including our realtor) assured me that this is done all the time and totally normal since you are forced into a 4 year lease whether that’s your intention or not.  Logical, yes…?

There are many more areas where you must jump through hoops – I already told you about my efforts (customs forms, fees) to get a small box I had mailed from the US; there is also the matter of needing an official “fitness letter” from a doctor before you are allowed to participate in any organized runs (5k’s on up).  The scary part is I am pretty certain that I have only scratched the surface of red-tape with these experiences/information.  Stay tuned for more stories (which I am sure will be much funnier in hindsight than while I am experiencing them)!

Traveling in Europe

Okay, I have to admit after writing that packing post and thinking about all of the work this adventure requires I had fleeting thoughts of retreat.  To redirect myself I re-read some of my own blog posts and decided to contemplate even more cool things about this move… and whatd’ya know – my enthusiasm was renewed!  On that note – ya know another totally awesome thing about living in Italy?  The rest of Europe!!!

I was watching a “No Reservations” episode from Croatia and it really hit me (in addition to the fact that I apparently watch way too much t.v.) that we will be living just a train ride or a €49 Ryanair flight away from everywhere else in Europe!  The way we can now get to Santa Fe, Colorado or Las Vegas, we will be able to go to Venice or Paris.  How cool is that?

When we traveled in 2008 we got to visit many amazing places (and yes, eat lots of yummy food), so I thought I’d reminisce about a few of those and share a few pics from that adventure.  (If you think I am also subliminally trying to tempt you to come to Italy, you are right!).

There were the more famous places, where we had fabulous experiences, including Paris (I took a pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu, we saw the city and the Eiffel Tower decked out for the holidays and climbed the stairs at Notre Dame) and Barcelona (where we went to the amazing La Boqueria food market and spent days exploring the architecture of Antoni Gaudí).  Then there were the lesser known places, where we also had fab, though more “quirky” experiences, such as the breathtaking Plitvice park in Croatia (which we almost never saw as we got stranded in the middle of nowhere Croatia by an ornery bus driver, but were rescued by nice folks at a lodge, who served us the bbq, pictured below [one is a pig, the other…we have no idea!]), Ljubljana in Slovenia (funky cool Euro vibe meets old communist architecture), Brugge in Belgium (where the best chocolates in the world are made…and maybe somewhat known after the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges”), Orvieto in Italy (where the incredible [and twisted] Signorelli fresco, “The Damned” is painted in a church, and the first place I ever tried real truffles [shaved onto my pasta] – YUM!), and Bath in England (a town so picturesque and storybook-like I seriously expected Hansel & Gretel to come skipping out of the houses).

Here are photos of the places I just described…  Come check it out for yourself!

Packing for Italy

I suppose this is “Part II” of my earlier “Moving Sale” post…

Now that I have started packing in earnest I am at a complete loss.  I swear our house has become a clown car – every time I think I’ve emptied out some closet, room, cabinet, etc., more stuff appears!  And I keep going back and forth about what to ship – one day I feel strongly about having our wood block print from Kyoto hanging in our new home, the next day I think staring at the granny-flower-paintings already there might be an interesting change of pace.  Then, the next day, I think we may get a bit homesick if we have nothing from our past with us.  But then, the day after that I think as long as we have each other and Skype (okay, and, we have everything we need…

Honestly, at this point, I have only ventured to seal two small boxes of books – the rest of our stuff keeps playing musical chairs in and out of boxes.  I have a few pictures/paintings wrapped up all fancy in this picture kit I got at U-Haul, but can’t seem to get up the ambition to go the rest of the way and put them in the matching box.  What if they don’t make it to Italy?  What purpose would they serve stored here in our attic?  Arg!   I have a friend who, along with his wife and 3 kids, up and moved to New Zealand last year – he advised me that it’s nice to have some pictures, etc. from home – and he usually has good advice… but those pictures are so big and heavy…

I am ordinarily “the decider,”  but really can’t seem to make a decision here.  What do you think?  In the immortal words of the Clash – Should [our stuff] stay or should [it] go???

Ode to Our “Old” Home (Albuquerque)

Since this blog is entitled “New Mexico to Italy,” I thought it was about time to give a shout-out to the place we’re leaving.  I also thought you readers from abroad would appreciate a view of this side of the pond (on a semi-related aside, my assignment for Italian class this week is to present this post in Italian – gasp!).   This is specifically about the place and not the people (you know who you are and that we’re gonna miss you!).  Here are just a few of the cool things about our current home we’re going to miss:

International Balloon Fiesta – this is the largest balloon festival in the world, with upwards of 800 balloons coming from all over the world each year (for 9 days in early in October).  In the morning they take off and in the evenings they stay tethered to the ground for a “balloon glow.”  Balloons are pretty common here (when the winds are calm I can always see at least few on my morning run) and we have been up in one a few times (the unwritten rule is that you “crew” – help man the balloon – to earn a flight).  I have no idea how we got on the topic of balloons in my school in Italy but everyone seemed amazed when I said they could come visit and go up in one – reminding me how truly special/unique the experience is!  Here are just a couple of the many hundreds of photos I have take over the years…


Sandia Mountain – this is the beautiful mountain that turns “sandia” (watermelon) colored in the evening.  It is great for hiking and skiing.  It is also the way I have not gotten lost for the past 18 years (you can see it from everywhere in town so you always know which way is East).  A couple of years ago I hiked up to the top (9 miles total, to over 10,000 ft.) and then took the tram down (the signs claim it is the world’s longest tram, but I have seen similar claims at other trams…).   (you can read more/see more photos here:

The Fiery Food Show – this is the HUGE spicy food festival here that we have been attending for most of the past 17 years (first weekend of March).  There are hundreds of booths where you can taste-test the latest in spicy foods – some are so hot that you get a sticker or some-other trinket if you can actually stand to try them!  Here I am with my sister-in-law a few years ago (and here she is after tasting something VERY spicy!):

Run for the Zoo (and other runs) – I really love running in New Mexico.  Except for the middle of summer, it is almost always perfect weather here in the mornings for a run and there are so many cool organized runs.  I started off with 5k’s, then after many years worked up to 10k’s, then finally to half marathons.  The biggest and most fun is the “Run for the Zoo,”  where you actually run both for the zoo (it’s a fund-raiser) and through the back of the zoo (in how many 10k’s do you get to wave to elephants?!).  Just ran this year’s on May 6.


Huevos Rancheros (and all other Mexican, Tex-Mex and New Mexican food!) – It’s always about the food with me!  The best thing about food in New Mexico is the Hatch green chile.  Every year at the end of the summer, the chile is harvested in Hatch, NM, and brought to groceries and stands all over the state.  The tradition is you buy a huge sack full and then wait in line outside to have it roasted in a big roaster (you can pick from gringo mild to HOT – we like it HOT!).  You bring it home and peel it (an all day affair, and one which we learned the hard way our first year here requires wearing gloves!), then bag it up and freeze it to see you through the year of green chile stews, huevos rancheros, green-chile-cheese fries, and just about anything else you can to add green chile to.  YUM!

There are many more great things about Albuquerque – the nearly perpetual sunshine, rollerblading along the Bosque (nature area that runs along the Rio Grande), our very cool Zoo and BioPark, funky Nob Hill where you can stroll and shop and eat outside (closest thing we have to a European city center).  And, yes, there are also not-so-great things we won’t miss… hearing about yet another visitor having their vehicle/belongings stolen from a motel parking lot, the fact that police have shot and killed dozens of people in the past couple of years, Walmart (and the other Walmart, and the smaller, but no less annoying Walmart), the spring winds, and having to drive almost everywhere!  But, as with most things, I am sure we will look back with rose-colored glasses and miss the balloon-filled sky come October…

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