In Which Sto Cercando La Dolce Vita

That horrific crunching noise you hear is the sound of me riding rough-shod over chronology. So I’m going to tell you all about Roma, which is where I am right now and which is where I am way way way too excited to wait until I’ve finished with Cambodia to tell you about… or even to observe the basic rules of grammar apparently.

Where to start!? How about with breakfast? Does anyone else have an unhealthy fixation with hotel buffet breakfasts? Let me be the first to stand up and admit: my name is Lauren Everdell and I am an addict. I absolutely, positively cannot resist ridiculously tiny muffins, arrays of dried fruit in sauce jugs, 6 different flavours of yogurt that all taste the same, juice in enormous and impossible-to-wield jugs, cereal in insanely complex dispensers, the feeling that everyone in a ten mile radius is staring intently at the back of your head and criticising your fast breaking etiquette, the fact that europe is still pretending it eats salami for breakfast and us Brits are still going along with it, the overriding terror that you will drop a plate, the certainty that you will eat more than you have ever even attempted to eat in one sitting ever before simply because it’s already paid for, ignoring the feeling that going back for thirds is conspicuously greedy and doing it anyway because you’re fearless like that and taking a ridiculously tiny muffin for the road because sitting down to eat is for slow pokes.

Moving, somewhat gingerly, on from breakfast. Today has been a day of Piazzas and Palazzos. I have noticed that one does not walk in Rome, one does not amble or stroll, saunter, sashay, toddle, mosey  or wander either, let alone meandering or perambulating. The basic rule of thumb is to strut. “To strut,” meaning “to walk with a vain, pompous bearing, as with head erect and chest thrown out, as if expecting to impress observers.” So, accordingly, having taken a very Italian amount of time over my appearance I left my hotel and strutted off…. in totally the wrong direction. Pretty tough to do a u-turn with any vanity or pomp really, one-eighties tend more toward the sheepish end of the ambulatory spectrum I reckon. And so I gave up pretending to be Italian in favour of a dawdle. On a related note; have you ever tried to walk in goggle-eyed wonder, gazing around you and drinking in the beauty of a culturally astonishing city… with cobbles underfoot? I’ll tell you now it’s a f*cking nightmare! (Pardon my french, and mum, if you’re reading this I’m so very sorry I kiss you with this mouth) but really! What masochistic moron with a penchant for wrenched leg ligaments thought up cobble stones!? Combine this with the tendency for blond women to attract the attention of every male in Rome and my day has been rather tortured by shame. It’s no good being all sexy and aloof, fielding the lolling tongues of builders and cafe waiters with demurely fluttered eyelashes…. only to oafishly trip over your own feet as you forget that you have toes which are biologically designed to fit perfectly between two cobblestones and lodge there and completely explode your carefully orchestrated je ne sais quoi.

Where was I? Oh right, heading off in the wrong direction. Moral of the story: give in and break out the map. Once I did this I had a revelation, I went full on tourist: camera, guidebook, map, broken Italian. It was glorious. I got in peoples’ way, I nearly got run over by about 5 taxis at once, (the general rule in Rome is walk and pray, if Santa Maria’s got your back you’ll be alright, and it turns out she’s got a soft spot for pedestrians with vias to cross), I stuttered into the faces of many waiters, I blocked the views of many tourists and I dripped mint choc chip on a couple of locals, I shamelessly snapped shots of seemingly mundane Roman buildings and revelled in a tourists right to stop dead in the middle of a street to inspect her map with her tongue poking out in concentration. My advice: come to Rome and ogle. It’s beautiful and everyone’s so busy strutting they don’t even notice a little girl with a map and a sony cyber-shot. When I finally figured out which end of Piazza del Poplo to leave by I was well on my way. What followed was a lot of this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then, then something outstanding happened. Behold… the scene of the Great Pizza Orgasm of 2012.

Doesn’t look like much, I know. But inside is a droll Roman with an enormous knife. With said cleaver he will hack a slice… no, slice is the wrong word… a slab… of your favoured flavour of pizza from the enormous oblongs of deliciousness laid out behind his counter. Then the strange Italian tradition of having your food wait for you at a table while you walk away from it to pay will play out (I think it’s a ploy to build suspense personally) and at last, finally,you will find yourself perched on a high stool before your slab, which the thoughtful owner has kindly divided into four innocent-looking fingers of pizza bianca. There are two basic categories to choose from: bianca or rosso. Bianca means white, and translates to real life as “no tomato sauce,” while rosso, meaning red… well, you get it, right? Directly resulting from there being these two main pizza shorthands will be the strange phenomenon of having your meal punctuated not only by the crashing of the proprietor’s machete, but also by his bellows of “bianca!!” and “rosso!!!” as stocks of each diminish under the masticating weight of the lunch rush. Within each category are the standard variations of cheese + other key ingredient. Fresh mozzarella, tomato and bazil, mozzarella and zucchini (sorry… courgette), mozzarella and beef, mozzarella and pork, mozzarella and mozzarella. I plumped for mozzarella and spinach. So, having parted with my money and climbed into my seat I sloughed my coat and bag. I lifted one steaming slice to my lips. I took a tentative bite, and… oh. my. god.

This was not pizza for the faint hearted! There was a veritable mountain of mozzarella, gorgeous, oozing, melted, creamy mozzarella, and about a metric ton of spinach. Now, spinach has a bad rep, I know, but I just so happen to rate it, alright. Someone has to. The base of the pizza was wafter thin and crispy in the extreme and here and there were scattered tiny nuggets of minced beef. I very nearly had a genuine moment of silence. Anyone who’s had dinner with me will know that moments of silence are usually reserved for desert, and even then almost exclusively for banoffee pie. But this, this was savoury with a smile. Too much of a smile it turned out. I was only half way through my four delicious ingots when I felt my strength waining. Between the salt and oil of the cheese and the richness of the spinach plus those little land mines of mince my poorly-trained English system was receiving a serious continental battering and I was unequal to the task at hand. I forged ahead as best I could, making it half way through a third slice. But I was weak, and, gathering my belongings as fast as I could I hustled, head down, from the bakery my chagrin following close behind.

I decided, like any self-respecting tourist in Rome, to recover with an ice cream. I have been to Rome once before, with my Dad, and I had fond memories of ice cream by the Trevi fountain. I decided the walk to Trevi would give me time to rally. Then round two could commence. I consulted my map and set off at a cheery, cobble-negotiating amble. My dolce vita was nearly punctured by a bout of leering from a priest… I mean really! But fortunately my Iphone (yep, unashamed apple fan boy) came to the rescue. Like most card carrying members of 21st century youth, I was plugged in, and at that very moment The Georgia Satellites filled my ears. I seem to be afflicted with a particularly frustrating taste in music: it has a habit of causing me to bop. You know, wiggle, bounce, sway, tap and otherwise “groove.” When I find myself in a public place at these moments… well you can picture the scene.

A young woman trips slightly over a wayward cobble stone. Catching herself, she looks up,  in the shy hope no one has seen her, straight into the grinning face of a passing lascivious priest. She frowns, displeased and embarrassed. She hurries past and…. begins to boogie.

…Not exactly the stuff film noir is made of… Also, I know, I know: Shut up about the wretched cobble stones already. I promise. Next time, I keep my paving complaints to myself.

Anyway, I made it, rad dance moves and all, to the Trevi and of course, ice cream was a runaway success. A little lost-in-translation flirting earned me an extra scoop of tiramisu flavour. (Yep, I’m a shameless hussy. But, you know what… all’s fair in love and ice cream.) The rest of my day is a blur of carved marble and sunshine – I spent it reading Sherlock Holmes on the Spanish Steps.

I’ve got to go now: it’s midnight and I’m exhausted. But more tomorrow, I promise. I don’t doubt Rome with deliver plenty to boast about. In the mean time I’ll leave you with this to ponder… did you know, that the Pantheon has an iphone app?

Ciao bella,

xxx

In Which I Wish Rapturous Public Dancing Were Socially Acceptable.

Ladies and gentlemen, imagine, if you would, a wormhole through time and space.

Now imagine me falling through it.

For the purposes of your imagining, this is what I look like:

Well… not really, I just thought it would be a nice bonding moment if we all paused to imagine jettisoning Justin Bieber into the cosmos, after all, life is about enjoying the small thrills. But back to serious things. Plummeting through a wormhole is my only excuse for not posting for so long. After the rise and rise of the laptop Man’s Best Excuse has been left curled disconsolately in his basket, with inexplicable homework fetish woefully unsatisfied. So, until hounds develop a taste for dual processors, I am left to reach wildly for excuses. But, all of this is really my long-winded way of saying sorry for being away so long. 😦
But now, on with tales of adventure.
A wild traveller appears. Traveller uses “Flashpacker”. It’s super effective.
I’ll be honest, my last week or so in Thailand didn’t exactly go according to plan, so the end result was that I felt pretty beaten up by the time I finally pulled it together to get off Ko Phangan. (I have something really boring called cfs that basically means I store energy about as well as a sieve stores apple juice, but you really don’t need to hear about it.) In terms of travelling as a solo female, however, feeling limp and insubstantial is not exactly ideal; everything suddenly felt like much more effort than was at all reasonable. Shower so as not to be offensive to the general public?!? Are you serious!? Get dressed so as not to get arrested and thrown in Thai jail?! Surely not!? Pack my rucksack, lift it and carry it 3 feet to the waiting taxi?! Are you kidding me!? Be driven to the airport?! Don’t be outrageous! Sit around in said airport for an hour or so, then sit on a plane and be flown to another country?!? Don’t be ridiculous! You get the idea. Every limb suddenly discovered its hilarious ability to weigh an absolute ton and every time I sat down I really did have to check with myself that I could actually get up again if required. Although I couldn’t really imagine bothering for anything less than a herd of stampeding rhino, or something with really sharp teeth and a penchant for ripping humans to pieces. You know, something like this:
In such a state even a passing stranger politely enquiring after the hour of the clock is likely to receive an utterly blank stare while I wonder what on earth a watch is and why this crazy person is gesturing at my wrist as if I have the time strapped to it or something. Having the reaction time of an asphyxiated slug is not exactly what you want when alone on an island in the gulf of Thailand.
So what did I do? Why, I did what any sensible person would do: I hopped a plane to Cambodia and, thoroughly abandoning the impecunious principles of backpacker travel, upgraded my entire life. I stayed at two gorgeous hotels, got massages every day and had a guide show me all the most glorious places to drink in the wonderful soulfulness that is Cambodia’s life blood. I drank champagne and ordered room service ice cream. Go ahead and hate me for an unprincipled comfort-whore, but please, at least read all about it. I promise you, it makes fabulous reading. How could it not? It made fabulous living!
Cue the gorgeous Cambodian People.
I had been told one thing very clearly. Before leaving for Cambodia I was to have $20 and a passport photo. I was cautioned that without these I would not be given a visa. Any traveller not rendered at least a little nervous by the word “visa,” has obviously never been to the Indian visa office in London. By the time I was in the taxi to Ko Samui airport I had not only failed to prepare $20 dollars, I did not have one single solitary $. Nor did I have any passport photos. (Word of advise: if you find yourself on Ko Samui needing passport photos, just don’t bother. No matter how many enquiries you issue you will never get a more informative response than a vague wave and a cry of ” Tesco, Tesco!” In the end I gave up and had a club sandwich and a chang with some half naked Canadians instead: much more constructive use of my time.) Far from fretting that I wouldn’t be allowed into Cambodia, I just sat back and marvelled at how flat it is, it’s the most beautiful country: a vista of stretching green plains laced with the bright red of dirt roads and an occasional shimmer of brightly gilded pagoda, it’s breathtaking. (I also checked out the hunky German guy next to me while pretending to read Sherlock Holmes, but that is much less classy, so we’ll keep that between us I hope.)
It turns out you need neither $ nor passport photos to be issues a visa upon entering Cambodia. All you need is a smile and $21 dollars worth of Thai Bhat. The fine for a visa without a passport photo is a thoroughly terrifying $1, and you can pay the whole whack in either dollars, bhat or, perhaps a little strangely, euro. Thus the toughest thing about entering Cambodia was actually surviving the mockery of the visa monkey who returned my passport. I might look like a serial killer with a migraine in the photo but that doesn’t mean I enjoy hearing about it!
Then something awesome happened.
Just as I was resigning myself to a hefty queue of customs victims, a smiling official shouted my name over the crowd. Naturally assuming, after my pessimistic fashion, that I was in trouble, I sheepishly raised a hand and prepared for the worst… which was… getting swept straight through customs, reunited with my bag, supplied with a bottle of chilled water and placed in an air-conditioned car on the way to my hotel! (Anyone who’s been to Cambodia in the middle of dry season will understand the importance of the air conditioning. If you haven’t had the pleasure of Cambodian dry season, imagine taking a seat at the centre of the sun, and you’re getting close. Don’t get me wrong, I love the heat; I may well have been a dragon in a previous life, but I, like most people, have a very low tolerance for discomfort after a stint on a plane.) As we drove to the hotel the driver chuntered merrily about Cambodia, naming the many, many hotels as we passed them and filling me in on their ownership and history. I drank it all in, the exotic twist of his accented English and the happy trill of his pride in his country blew through me like a fresh breeze, taking with them all the desolate white noise of the week before. This was change, this was movement and progress, new sights, new sounds, new smells, new places and people. And I didn’t have to walk. This was paradise.
Once at my hotel I was handed over to the concierge. While they found the paperwork to check me in I was armed with a cocktail that took my breath away. It was a highly inedible-looking shade of green but tasted absolutely divine. To this day I haven’t the slightest idea what was in it, which, somehow, makes it all the more thrilling. Thankfully this also gave me a moment to quietly adjust to how utterly beautiful the hotel was, which fortunately meant I could suppress the urge to caper about laughing, dancing and saying “oooooh” at inanimate, albeit ornately carved, objects. Check it out, though. Could you blame me?
To be honest I’m not sure how to best tackle my experience at Le Residence D’Angkor. I reckon I can get it across pretty clearly though, by showing you the email I sent my mum on my first night:
Oh my god I fell into a giant vat of herbal tea!! Oh no wait… I just got a Khmer massage with ginger oil. I smell fantastic!!! And I just ordered tagliatelle from room service! I have never felt so luxurious in my entire life! I’m so happy! A tiny Cambodian woman rubbed a bag of herbs on my buttocks… who knew that was the key to happiness!!?? xxxxx
Other than totally abusing the poor exclamation point, I had also, as you can see, become a bit of a ninny. But, please, let me explain.
This was the bed I had all to myself:
After 3 weeks of bunk beds, single beds and, always, sharing a room with the tallest fidget on the planet: this was BLISS. And it went to my head… a lot. The tagliatelle was my first non-rice-based dish in a while too. Which went to my head a lot as well. I had been exhausted, footsore, heartsick, homesick, actually sick, my head hurt, my arms hurt, my neck was stiff and I hadn’t slept properly in 3 weeks. After the flight my surgery incision points hurt and there was sand in every single item of my clothing. I was down to my absolute last pair of clean pants and I hadn’t had a hot, powerful shower in what felt like living memory. (Incidentally, check out my bathroom.)
All these acres of 100% cotton and delicious drinks, dark wood panelling and fluffy white towels, beautiful art, beautiful people, perfect manners, friendliness and all the welcoming smiles I’d met between here and the airport; it was like giving honey to Winnie the Pooh, or fish to Pingu (… or drugs to an addict if you’re feeling a little more R-rated.) It scoured every corner of my weary person and routed out every last fragment of childish glee, sending it all rushing to the surface in a whirl of dizzy euphoria. But the real winner, the real big hitter in the collusion of decadence that was quickly turning me into the epicentre of all joy, was that massage. And, oh my, what a massage.
The recipe for eternal happiness is as follows.
1) Don hotel 100% cotton robe. Do not wear underwear beneath it, they’ll just ask you to take it off: prepare yourself to be very free indeed. Think nudist beach confidence without the socks-and-sandals combo.
2) Walk through gorgeous hotel to gorgeous hotel spa.
3) Drink small cup of herbal tea. It is essential that you do not know exactly which herb is in the tea. It adds an indispensable sense of je ne sais quoi.
4) Bask in feelings of sanctimonious healthiness from drinking herbal tea and not asking for sugar or spitting it out.
5) Meet the delicate Cambodian woman who is about to change your life. She must be quiet and serene to a point that borders on beatified.
6) Enter mood-lit massage suit complete with calming string music from hidden speakers.
7) Daringly remove robe, revel in unabashed nudity. Feel very continental.
8) Slide under waiting warm towel and lie face down.
9) Let the magic happen.
First the small Cambodian lady rubs ginger oil into her hands and holds them before you to inhale the scent. Up until this point I thought I’d known what ginger smelt like. Oh no. This wasn’t the cinnamon-polluted ginger of baking, not the chilli-infused ginger of South East Asian food, nor the watery ginger of tea. This was full on warm, fruity, heady, comforting, health-giving, enlivening, pain-vanquishing ecstasy. Things started out like a normal, dare I say pedestrian, massage: small deft hands rubbing scented oil into my back. But then the bag of herbs got involved and things got stratospherically soothing. Over the next hour I was rubbed, tapped, patted and generally burnished with warm herbs over every inch of my body, and I have never felt so good in my entire life. I was warm, bathed in the rich balm of ginger with all my skin alive and singing under the hands of this genius woman. Whatever you are doing right now, drop it. Drop it and run, don’t walk, to your nearest airport. Sprint on to the first plane to Cambodia. Hurl yourself through Siem Reap International Airport and get yourself to Le Residence D’Angkor for this massage. You absolutely cannot live without having this experience. Thank god for Cambodian women with heated bags of herbs!
There’s so much more where this came from but I can’t stay here writing about heaven on earth; not only did I just sit in a cafe and laugh for a full 4 minutes out loud about that email I sent my mum, I also caught myself considering minesweeping the remains of some banana bread that the guy next to me left half uneaten: I think I need something to eat. I promise things will get less ditzy if you keep tuning in; I just had to get the giddy, bubbling delight out of the way before the serious matters of sunrises, amok fish and genocidal maoist revolutionaries take hold, forcing silliness into the back seat.
In the mean time, may you find all the jubilance, rapture, revelry, gaiety, elation, satisfaction and solace that I did in my week in Cambodia.
See you soon.
xxx