Learned the Hard Way

All things considered, phase one –the exploratory phase—of my itinerant retirement is going remarkably well. Which is not to say that there haven’t been some “oh shit” moments.  So a little advice for anyone contemplating a similar adventure:

1. If you take a bus to a small town out in the countryside, make sure you know where to catch the only bus back.

The ride to Le Vigan, a small town on the edge of the Cevennes mountains was lovely. The goat cheese festival that drew me there, not bad, and I had a pleasant afternoon in the leafy park on the edge of town. I sampled some cheeses, lunched on grilled lamb and fresh salad, and dozed in the dappled sunshine. Edith Piaf recordings over a PA system alternated with lively and entertaining performances by the local band, it’s members clad in a dozen different iterations of striped shirts, pants and hats.

The bus making the journey back to Montpellier was scheduled to leave at 4:55, and I was waiting for it 10 minutes early. I wasn’t too concerned when it wasn’t there at 5:00. But by 5;15, I was pretty sure something was wrong. Up till then, every bus I’d taken had been smack on time. So in my fractured French, I asked a passing couple if they knew if the bus was ever this late. No, they answered in English. But the bus had already left, from the main stop in the town center. It didn’t come up to the final stop in the park on festival days. Some 60 euros poorer, I left the next morning, having spent the night at a local hotel and eaten an overpriced veal ragout for dinner. Still there was one plus: My hotel room had a tub and I got a nice long bath that night.

2. Always arrive at a new apartment with a stack of tissues in your luggage—especially if you arrive late at night or on a Sunday, when stores are closed. Apparently, you can’t count on a supply of toilet paper.

3. Do not overestimate your ability to learn new skills at age 62. I figured “how hard could it be to ride a motor scooter?” I should have been tipped off by the three grinning Frenchmen watching me from across the street as I climbed on for the first time. They’d clearly seen this drama unfolding before. I managed to wave jauntily to them and successfully traveled about 50 meters before I had to turn a corner. Down she went. I wasn’t hurt, fortunately, merely stuck under the tipped-over scooter and trying hard not to look embarrassed.

The young man who bounded over to help me up and right the scooter didn’t speak English, but he was pretty clearly saying “I don’t think this is a good idea”. I managed in a combination of Franglais and pantomime to convey that I wanted to get the scooter over into a nearby parking lot, where I could practice a bit more before taking it on the road. Reluctantly he wheeled it over, while making me promise “just one more try.” It wasn’t enough. This time, when the scooter went over, the side mirror broke and I called it quits. But I got to ride back to the shop on the back of the scooter, holding on to a cute French guy!

4. Do not order something based on a picture in a menu. It sure looked like a nice grilled piece of fish—something like tuna or swordfish. It tasted like cardboard and had the texture of a rubber boot. Sepia a la Planche turns out to be grilled cuttlefish—aka a chunk of a big squid.  In fact, don’t eat at any restaurant that has pictures in its menus. It’s probably aimed at tourists who the proprietors figure wouldn’t know good food anyway and, in any case, won’t be back.

5. Ask which floor your AirBNB apartment is on. The first one –in Valencia—was four long flights up. It made me feel better about the volume of Spanish cheese and fresh bread I was eating, but reclimbing those stairs for a forgotten umbrella was torture. As for hauling 50 pound suitcases up and down? Oy. The second one, in Montpellier, was on the ground floor. Easy on the knees, not so good for letting in sunlight. And when the windows were open, you could reach out and pet any passing dogs (windows don’t have screens here.)

6.  If you park in a garage, have cash, even if the signs say they take credit cards.  Some of the self-pay kiosks don’t take credit or debit cards from outside the country you’re in. Note that French drivers are unbelievably impatient with anyone who holds up the exit lane figuring that out.

7. Watch out for those fruity wine drinks. The first time I ordered Aqua de Valencia, I thought it was a generous pitcher that I got, but what-the-heck, it ‘s just OJ with some cava (Spanish champagne) in it.  It wasn’t until I tried to stand up (and later looked at the bill I’d signed) that I realized it had clearly been aqua valenciameant for two people. And it wasn’t until a day or two later that I learned, no, it’s not just a bucket-sized Mimosa.  Aqua de Valencia packs a potent punch of gin and vodka as well as the cava.

As for Sangria: Well, we Americans tend to think of it as a fruity summer drink for lightweights..  Take some red wine, add lemonade or fruit juice or club soda and a bunch of cut-up citrus fruit and you’ve got a nice, mild, refreshing summer drink.  Not in Spain you don’t.  Sangria here is red wine mixed with cava and brandy, with fruit soaked in enough brandy to preserve it for years.  I had one; it was good. I had another and staggered out of the bar, forgetting to pay my bill.

8. Just let your hair grow.  Despite checking for recommendations online, casing various stylists’ shops to see if the customers walked out looking good and happy, and even stopping total strangers in the street to ask where they got that really nice haircut, I ended up with some of the worst cuts I’ve ever had.  In Malaga, the hair on one side of my head was a good 1/2 inch longer than on the other. And considering that the longest hair on my head was about 3 inches, it was quite a sight.

9. Watch where you step. Pooper-scoopers are apparently unheard of in many European cities. Ask me how I know.

10.  If an AirBNB is described as “right in the center of things”, keep looking. My Malaga apartment was on the first floor (that’s up one from the ground floor in Europe) facing into what looked like a quiet little square a few blocks from Plaza Constitution, the main gathering place in the old quarter.  Perfect, right?  Wrong. At around 9 that first night, the doors on what had looked like shuttered residences on the ground floor were thrown open. Scores of tables and chairs filled the plaza and people began to gather.  Hundreds of them  And the party went on till at least 5 AM every night of the week except Mondays for the entire month I was there.  No earplugs in the world could have deafened that noise of that crowd.

Malaga street bar

 

Advertisements

The Teeth-Gnashing Frustration and Sly Charms of Sicilian Public Transportation

This week’s train trip from Siracusa to Taormina was easy and enjoyable. Catching the bus from Giardinii-Naxos was easy enough too. It took only three inquiries to figure out where to catch the bus and a helpful TripAdvisor expert had told me to get off at the penultimate stop to be closest to my hotel. Since I had no idea where any of the stops were, however, we whizzed right by it. Still — only a slightly longer walk. No big deal.

The return trip: Not so much.  I had a ticket on a train leaving the Giardini-Naxos train station at 5:53 PM. The receptionist at my hotel told me the buses left Taormina every quarter hour at that time of day and it was a 15 minute trip. So, I aimed for the 5 PM bus to be super safe; figured I’d actually catch the 5:15 PM; and still had the 5:30 to fall back on if something went wrong. I arrived at 5:05. There was a parking lot full of busses at the station, most of them dark with no destinations marked. And thus, my saga begins.

 I ask at the ticket booth in my half spoken/ half-pantomimed bastardized Italian-English. “Bus per estacion Giardini-Naxos, per favore?” The guys there point generally at the parked busses and say something in their own version of Italish that seems to mean “look for the sign on the bus”.

So, figuring maybe the correct bus hasn’t arrived yet or it’s one of these busses, but it isn’t marked yet. I watch for it, eagle-eyed, until 5:20. No Giardini-Naxos sign on any of the busses that leaves. Now I’m starting to get a little alarmed. So I try the ticket office again. This time, one guy points to his watch and says something that seems to indicate “next bus at 5:45”. Whoa. No 5:15 bus? No 5:30 bus? I’m going to miss my train. But I can’t seem to communicate that question; I just keep getting the next bus, 5:45 answer. So, I go approach two bus drivers standing chatting near their idling busses. One shrugs and walks away. The other, god bless him, smiles and says “Giardini-Naxo estacion? Si” and walks over to check with another driver. In a minute, he grins and indicates in his fractured Italish. “Now. This bus.”

So, I get on that bus and sure enough it hauls off in a few moments. I go along thinking “Great.  Plenty of these people are probably going to the rail station, and I know the trip is supposed to take about 15 minutes. I’m sitting anxiously watching the minutes tick down, figuring I need to be ready to run when the bus stops at the station. At just about 5:48, the bus pulls up to a stop. I double check with the driver: “Train station?” “No, no” he says pointing backwards. We’re well past the train station. I didn’t know I had to signal a stop and wouldn’t have recognized it till we were past it anyway.

OK. I guess I’m not taking that train. I get off the bus anyway, since I have no idea where it is headed now. Two kind strangers with good English help me figure out that in a few minutes another bus should come along that will possibly take me all the way to the Catania bus station. We know it goes to the airport and think it stops at the bus station first. I know from reading posts on TripAdvisor that if it does, I should be able to change at that station to another bus headed for Siracusa. And, I figure, the worst that will happen is I’ll end up at Fontanarossa airport, where I know I can get a bus to Siracusa.

So I wait and sure enough another Interbus bus comes along shortly. Who’s driving that bus? The kindly driver who helped me find the “right” bus in the parking lot. He looks flabbergasted when he sees me and is clearly asking me in the Italian I don’t speak “what happened? ” Then he laughs and answers his own question: “Disaster, si?”

In our mixed languages, we establish that yes he goes to the Catania bus station and will tell me when to get off. I need a new ticket, but he says get on. A stop or two later, he motions for me to get off the bus. I know I’m not in Catania, so I’m a bit concerned, but then I finally get that he wants me to buy a ticket at the kiosk there and get back on the bus. So I do, squinting my eyes at him and saying “Now you’re not going to leave without me, right?”. He laughs and says “No, no”, but then jokingly shuts the door on me as I try to reboard. We both laugh and the bus moves on. When we get to the Catania station, he tells me. OK, get off here and I do, thanking him profusely. A few minutes later, when he starts his return trip, he sees me standing on a nearby corner, hesitating to plunge into the three lanes of whizzing Italian traffic to get across the street to the other busses. In a last fillip of kindness, he pulls to a halt and motions for me to cross in front of him, waving and smiling.

Now I’ve got to figure out which of the dozens of busses is the one that goes to Siracusa and where I buy the ticket. I wander around the huge staging area and ask few times, before I am pointed to a little storefront with a blue Interbus sign that’s more than half hidden by some scaffolding and I recognize the blue busses across the street. Phew, this is going to be OK. I manage to buy the ticket and establish that the next bus is in an hour, at 8:30 and leaves from slot 7. “Dove?”, I ask. Where? He points vaguely across the street to the blue busses.

I wait in the air-conditioned station till 8:10, then head across the street. I find signs for slots 4, 5 and 6 with an unmarked additional slot next to them, before another bus company’s area starts. So this unmarked slot is number 7, right? I wait for the bus to arrive. I wait and I wait some more. At 8:30, I’m nervous when there’s still no bus. But I figure: This is Italy. It’s probably just late, right?

At 8:35, as I head back to the ticket office, the guy who sold me the ticket is lounging outside. He spies me and looks quizzically at me. I ask “Bus per Siracusa?” The guy shakes his head and gestures. It’s gone. I clearly look dismayed. Where was it, I ask? “Dove?” This time, he points down the street. Number 7 is apparently half way down the block rather than in the plaza with the other slots. I sigh. My fault. “Next bus?” I ask, hopefully. “Domani”. Uh-oh. I know that Italian word.

But, wait, there’s hope. I vaguely remember that there was a late night train from Catania to Siracusa. So, I head to the nearby train station. YES! On the departures screen, there’s a 9:30 train indicated. I go to buy a ticket. “Una per Siracusa, per favore”. The agent shakes his head and says “No train.” What? I point to the departures screen, “Siracusa?” Again, he shakes his head. “No train,” he repeats, then pausing, says “bus”. I try to explain: No, the bus station ticket agent says no more busses tonight. He clearly doesn’t understand and just keeps rather mournfully repeating, “No train. Bus.”

I go to the waiting area thinking. OK, so I’ll find a hotel. But I’m still puzzled about the train on the departures board. and I ask a woman waiting. “Train per Siracusa?”, pointing at the board. She nods yes and says in Italian 9:30. I try to explain that the ticket agent won’t sell me a ticket and says no train. Though she speaks no English, she understands that I’m in trouble, takes my arm and comes with me to the ticket office. Now there’s a new guy there. I ask, “Train per Siracusa, tonight?” He nods, yes, and points to the departures screen. Now I’m relieved but skeptical and look confused. He motions for me to wait and heads off to find someone else. The Italian woman and I figure he’s hunting for an English speaker. But he comes back and repeats the now familiar “no train, bus” refrain.  Mysteriously, however,  he motions that I should buy a ticket from the other agent anyway. So now I’m back to the first agent. I heave a big sigh and try him again. ” Una per Siracusa, per favore ” This time, he’s willing to take my money, and says simply “bus?” I think, what the hell: “Si, bus.” Then I remember I have a bus ticket. So I show it to him. He looks at it and tosses it back derisively, shaking his head and saying. ” no, no — bus ticket”. By now, I have no idea what’s going on, but I fork over another 6 euros for another ticket to Siracusa. (I’ve now paid for this trip 3 times) and silently issue a little prayer that somehow — bus, train or magic carpet — it will get me back to Siracusa before dawn.

He gives me the ticket and repeats 9:30. It’s now 9:00. I ask “Dove?” He points vaguely outside. I figure I’ve got 20 minutes to figure this last mystery out. I head outside to look around. But before I get far, a young woman with some English comes out of the station and says to me “Excuse me, Siracusa? ” Yes, yes, I think, I’m saved! In halting English, she indicates the ticket office guy inside. “He says that way ” and points to the right of the station. I’m about to head that way when the other more-helpful ticket guy comes out and guides me to a bus parked 50 meters away to the left . The bus is empty. It’s dark. But there is a driver lounging nearby. I say hopefully “Siracusa? “. He nods yes and I get on; I”m not letting this bus out of my sight till it takes off. Sure enough 30 minutes later it fills up, with all the passengers who have now arrived to take the apparently cancelled 9:30 train, and takes off. I now have only one last hurdle to overcome. This time, I sit directly behind the driver. Every time the bus stops I lean over and say “Siracusa?” and he shakes his head no, until finally at about 11;30, he grins and nods “Si, Siracusa.”

Tomorrow i head to Noto, then Modica and Ragusa — all by bus. I’m crossing my fingers.