A Fantail in Your House

File:Bullers fantails.jpg

While putting books into boxes, a fantail flew into the house through my open sliding glass door. She swooped in and nearly flew into my face when I rounded the corner.

Fantails are notoriously cheeky little birds–they are clever and chatty–never too shy to fly close to your head.  I can’t tell if they are aggressive and territorial or if they are flirty and friendly.  Either way, I’ve always found them delightful.   Until today.

She flew around the room, above the bed, above my desk and then fluttered into the den.  She perched on the light fixture, tilting her head every which way as she sized me up.  I asked her what she thought she was doing in here and opened the kitchen door for her but she seemed to be on a mission.  Ignoring the open door, she flew back into the bedroom, perched one more time on the doorway before flying back outside again.

I followed her and she chirped at me from the tree.  I laughed at her boldness then went back to packing my books, thinking nothing much of it.

Stack by stack, I removed my books from the shelf and placed them into the boxes.  I only stopped once to notice how stupid and careless I’d been to make notes in my signed first edition hardback copy of Mary Karr’s Lit.  (I could clobber myself for doing that.)

I was arranging the books, configuring them carefully inside the boxes, when I accidentally dropped one.  It was a small paperback in Italian, a book given to me by my ex-husband long before we were married.  I cracked open the first page to see what he had inscribed to me, “Con tutto l’amore possibile!!!”  With all the love possible.  So him.

The book, “There’s No Such Place as Faraway,” is a beautifully illustrated story, written by Richard Bach about a hummingbird, an owl and an eagle all on their way to a little girl’s birthday party.  It’s a touching story about distance and love, beginnings and endings–how none of us are ever without another, even if it might feel that we are.  He gave me this book when I was finishing my last year of college–when I was in Texas and he was in Italy.

Today was the first day I opened up that book in ages.  I flipped through it quickly, surprised at how nice it was to relive those emotions that used to pour over me as I turned each page, a whole decade after I first experienced them.  While the story itself doesn’t conjure such feelings, the illustrations sparked memories of my longing, all the suspenseful uncertainty of my early twenties, reminding me of the concerns that used to consume me.


When we could finally be together as adults, not students, would we still feel the same?  Would he love me like this — the way he does at such a distance — even when I am there?

I was so eager for my future to begin with him I could hardly be bothered with the present, full of classes and exams and final projects.  Everything I did was rushed and hastened–my days were designed so I might expedite my life as I knew it.  It was all a big strategy to get back to Italy.  I lived at home to save money.  When I wasn’t attending class, I was waiting tables at a steakhouse, saving every last cent I earned in tips so I would be able to afford a trip back across the pond.  Daily, I ran mile after mile–in the park, on the treadmill, in my parents’ neighborhood.  I equated movement with the passing of time, refusing to sit around and be lovelorn.  The way I saw it was, if I ran, at least I could measure the time in something other than just the months that separated us.  If I just kept moving, I thought, I would arrive at the end of each day a little bit closer to Italy.  A little bit closer to him.

As I took more books from their place on the shelf, it suddenly it occurred to me how strange it was that the fantail had come into my house just before I came across this particular book.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the meaning of a fantail entering your house.  As soon as I saw what it meant, I regretted looking it up.  According to Maori tribal legend, a fantail flying into your house means death.  Even as I write this, that little bird is in the tree outside, squeaking and chirping with urgency.

Unconvinced that a harmless fantail could be such a bearer of bad news, I scoured the Internet further in the hopes of disproving this information.  Unfortunately, other sites only confirmed this.  A fantail, apparently, is New Zealand’s grim reaper.  Only on one site did it say that it can also be interpreted as a sign of good fortune.  I went with it.  (I am really not that superstitious.  Unless, of course, it behooves me to be so.)

I taped more boxes together and loaded them up with more books.  Then I went back to that little book in Italian, still sitting outside the box.  I sat down on the carpet in a sunny spot and read the whole thing cover to cover, again, for the hundredth time.  But today, the book read differently.  Its message of transcending time and distance is just as powerful, just as enduring, if not more now that my ex-husband and I are no longer together.  The end, I remembered when I got there, is my favorite part.  Except when I read it now, I see that it’s not a book about distance and longing.  It’s about growing and learning and giving your gifts to the fullest.  It’s about learning to live without the ones you love; something we all must do at some point in our lives, whether it comes to you through death or divorce or distance.

Vola libera e felice,

al di la’ dei compleanni,

in un tempo senza fine, nel persempre.

Di tanto in tanto noi c’incontreremo

–quando ci piacera’–

nel bel mezzo dell’unica festa

che non puo mai finire.


(This is my own, rough, English translation:)

Fly free and happily

beyond birthdays,

without end, into forever.

Every so often we’ll find one another

–when we want to–

in that beautiful middle of the only party

that can never ever end. 

That beautiful middle of the party that can never end?  I suppose that’s life.  And I don’t think it means the life we live on Earth.  I think it’s meant to encompass everything–from way back when until forever and ever on distance stars far out in remote galaxies.

I look around and notice, once again, my usual state of transition.  This time, though, I am not in a hurry.   That wee little fantail?  I don’t think she was here to announce a literal death.  It seems to me she came to mark things more figuratively, the end of my time here in New Zealand.  I am grateful to her.

Afterall, had she not come in to flutter and dip and twirl, I might not have noticed.*


*Just as I finished writing this, the most extraordinary thing happened.  As if she could hear me writing this, I kid you not, the fantail returned!  This time, she came in through an open window in another room, flew into the room where I’m now writing, perched on the light fixture above my desk and chirped.  Too stunned to speak, I got up and followed her as she flew down the hall.  When she entered the empty room at the end of the hallway I closed the door behind me.  She flew in circles, chatting at me, while I opened a window for her.  After a few more circles, she flew out, libera e felice.


You Don’t Have to Let Yourself Go, Just Your Pants

For the second time in a year I’m surrounded by boxes and a looming list which must be completed in the next thirty days.  Why?  Because I’m moving.  Again.

That and I’m desperately trying to lose ten or fifteen pounds.  How am I doing this?  Well, you should see me.  I set up my computer on the ironing board and tune into Zumba classes on YouTube.  I feel ridiculous and probably look even more ridiculous.  But it’s the only way I can my heart rate going enough for me to sweat like it’s going out of style.

For years I used to go to the gym two to three times a week.  Spinning, yoga, weight circuits mixed with low-impact cardio is how I kept myself in shape.  Along with weekend bike rides, runs and hikes.   And daily half-hour walks with the dog.  Until a few years ago I never weighed more than 130 pounds, clothed, soaking wet with a full stomach.

My current weight?  I’m not telling.  I will say that in two years I put on, roughly, forty pounds.  FORTY pounds.  That’s without having ever been pregnant.

Last year when I moved from Italy to New Zealand, I kept a whole bunch of clothes that fit me barely or fit me really badly.  I was convinced I would get in shape, lose the extra pounds I’d packed on and be able to slip comfortably back into every last thing in wardrobe.  Well, a year has gone by and I have not accomplished that.

I’ve never had any issues with food.  I’ve never had an eating disorder.  My weight was a non-issue because it wasn’t even on my radar.  I was fine with what I weighed, even if I wasn’t always thrilled with how my body looked all the time.  Now, I look back at pictures of myself, even just three years ago, even just two years ago and think OH!  How I wish I’d appreciated that body back when I had it.  When I was twenty-eight I could fit into the same jeans I wore when I was eighteen.  That was back when I was married.  I was rake-thin.  I ate enough, but I just didn’t really allow myself to enjoy what I really wanted.  Then, when I was going through the agony of my separation, I let myself eat anything I wanted.  At first, I needed the fuel and energy.  Then, I just used the “I need the nourishment” as an excuse because it was kind of fun.  I liked not going to the gym for weeks then months at a time.  Slowly, I let myself go.

For the first time in my life my body took on a shape, curves even.  Now I have rolls when I’m sitting down.  And to be honest, also sometimes when I’m standing up.  At first I hated this.  My face looked chubby in pictures and sometimes my thighs touched when I walked.  Gradually, though, I began to see the benefits.  For one, I’m healthier.  I haven’t had so much as a cold, nor do I even get cold anymore.  Not with my new layers of flesh.  Best of all, I have boobs.  These are bragging rights: I went from a B to a D, au natural.  Before seeing some friends I hadn’t seen in ages, I warned them.  “Just so you know,” I said, “I’ve gained a lot of weight since the last time you saw me.”  We went to the pool in our bathing suits and they saw what I was talking about.  “You’re not fat,” my friend Maria said, “You’re just not skinny.”  But when you go from being skinny to not being skinny, you really do feel fat.

But it was the dear Cindy Clough who made me feel like a million bucks when she said it didn’t seem as though I’d gained any weight but that my persona seemed to have expanded as a whole.

Expand indeed.  I have one pair of jeans that fit me (they used to be my super baggy jeans) and a lot of tight leggings.  None of my skirts fit anymore and none of my trousers or slacks do either.  In January I gave away the purple dress I wore to my sister’s wedding.  I love that dress but I know I’ll never wear it again.  Nor do I think I really want to.  I gave it to a friend who can have altered and look stunning in it.

But what to do with the rest?  It’s all just hanging in my closet, folded up on my shelves making me feel bad about myself.

So why can’t I get rid of it then?

It has taken me all this time to figure this out and all the way until today before I could put it into words.   Ready?  Here goes.

It’s not the clothes.  It’s what the clothes represent.  Who, more than what, actually.

It’s the girl who used to wear those clothes.  In Italy, on vacations, in another, previous life.  A girl who had firmer biceps, less cellulite on her legs, less gray hair.

Take for example my white cotton pants.  The only pair of pants I’ve ever loved that aren’t jeans.  I used to play golf in them with my ex-husband.  I wore them on our honeymoon.  There’s a picture of me in those pants, smiling next to my then-groom, upon arrival at the fanciest, swankiest hotel in the Seychelles where we spent our three-week honeymoon.  When people say, “Those were the days,” I get what they mean.  Those really were the days.  The days I was that bushy-tailed, bright-eyed bride.  That was me.  In those pants.  They are my favorite pants, even if I haven’t worn them in nearly three years.  Now, I’m lucky if I can even get them pulled up to my waist.

No one really talks about this kind of stuff and I can see why.  It’s hard.  Besides myself, I don’t really know that many people my age who’ve been through a divorce.  There seems to be such a disconnect in society for people who experience life’s losses.  You feel like there’s something fundamentally flawed about you.  As if it weren’t for this one thing you’d be gliding along with everyone else, making money, paying off your debts, buying a new house or a new car.  You feel as though you’ve been uninvited in the pursuit of happiness.  You tried your luck and failed.  You had your shot and then you blew it therefore you’ve been banished.  Forever.  Or so it feels.  Even though you know better.

Here you are, going through something huge and it’s all you can do to remember to eat.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world is getting engaged, getting pregnant, sending their children off to kindergarten or college.  You feel so isolated in your loss.  They’re all in line to buy an iPad and you’re just trying to talk yourself into making the bed, to committing to something as little as that so that you can come home at the end of the day and pretend you had it together enough to perform a routine task that other normal people do without fail.  Those other so-called “normal” people proudly post pictures on Facebook–of their accomplishments, their kids, their newly wallpapered kitchen.  It’s all you can do not to resent them for their happiness.  You?  You’re just proud not to have become a drug-addict or alcoholic by now.

Then one day your pants don’t fit anymore.  You really hit rock bottom.  You wallow about this for months.  You even decide to rebel against it by eating more or completely relinquishing all sensibilities when it comes to food and taking care of your body.  Until one day you can’t handle it anymore.  Even your baggiest pajamas, the ones you wore as a cover up at the beach when you lost your luggage that trip, are tight.  So you start slowly.  You stop eating toast in the morning and start eating yogurt instead.  No more butter.  You quit beer.  You quit red wine (almost) and you don’t let yourself drink anything other than water, a glass of juice in the morning, coffee (with only a tad bit of sugar) and white wine on occasion.  And when you say “on occasion” you mean a glass or two with dinner because you can’t deplete your life of all pleasures.  You know you’ve made it past the hardest parts of recovery when you’re making your lunch the night before and it consists of fat-free yogurt, a banana and grilled vegetable couscous.

Yes, you’ve got a grasp of things now.

Just to make sure, you try those pants on again.  It’s not as bad as you thought but they are still about a thousand Zumba classes away from being zipped up.  One thousand, one-hundred Zumba classes away from being buttoned.  It is with a deep sense of sorrow and regret you come to the realization you must let them go.  You don’t have to let yourself go, just your pants.  If you don’t, you won’t have room for the new stuff.  In fact, now that you take a better look at them, they’re not as white as you think they are.  They hold a tinge of yellow, the zipper is rusted and the hems are frayed.  Even if they still fit, you probably wouldn’t wear them anymore.

That girl who wore those pants?  She’s not gone, she’s just something more now.  There’s more to her–more padding, more cushioning.  She even comes with aerodynamic curves that help her to better hug the turns of life’s veering twists.

And so, once again I will do the sifting: what stays and what goes.  What I can keep and what I can painstakingly now let go of.  I know what to hold onto and those are the things that have made me into the one-hundred and ____ pound, five-foot eight and a half, thirty-three year old I am today.  I find it remarkable that I still look forward at all that’s to come.  Mostly, I am just thankful to be what I am, where I am.  Thankful for all those who’ve loved and led me along my way.  Love handles, muffin top and all.

Let’s Have a Kaikai: a post grape-picking pow-wow

As with anything, it’s not the grape-picking that’s interesting.  It’s all that surrounds it. 

Austin and I spent last Monday practically in silence.  We were tired and it was hot.  You wouldn’t think of New Zealand as hot but let me tell you–it isn’t the temperature of the air.  Here, it’s a sun factor, the added temperature of the sunlight.  There’s no ozone in this part of the world and so when the sun blazes down it feels fierce unlike any sun I’ve ever felt.  It’s pure, amped-up heat; the opposite of a wind chill.  It’s why their lemons, grapefruits and oranges are perennial here, plentiful even in winter.   It’s so strong that even horses wear coats to protect their skin.  It burns right through their coat.  They even have special sun visors for their noses so they don’t get blistered. 

However, on days when the breeze is constant, the sun isn’t as terrifying.  We tend to talk more.  Talk, snip, talk, snip.  We spend about half of our time talking to and about the grapes.  Sometimes we name them.  We’ve taken to calling the dense, tightly intertwined grapes “a bunch of bitches.”  Usually they are Chardonnay, the ones that congregate between the crisscrossed vines–the place we dubbed as the “Crisscross Mother Load.”  It’s the point where at least four large vines, stemming from two diverse trunks cross together and are braided upward through the wires.  It’s a mess.  Underneath all those leaves that you have to pluck or snip away, you have vines and wires.  And, in case I haven’t mentioned, you can’t see a thing.  You have no idea where to snip the grapes from the vine because you can’t see where they’re attached.  These are the so-called bunches of bitches.  

When we aren’t talking about grapes, we’re talking about everything.  We talk about subjects that skirt around forgiveness and love.  Sometimes we talk about food.  We talk a lot about wine.   We even talk about Jesus. 

Sometimes Austin tells me secrets about people he knows back home. 

It’s because of Austin’s stories that I’ve been able to catch up on gay culture in America.  I’ve learned expressions like “fag hags,” or “fruit flies,” as Austin prefers to call them.  (He says it’s less derogatory.)  I’ve learned about Oklahoma City’s best gayborhood as well as the city’s drag queen subculture.  I’ve even learned the clever, hilarious names of some of them, like the famous Willam or Sharon Needles.  It’s slightly shocking to find out I was so out of the loop. 

Thinking of drag queens made me think of this old lady in my neighborhood.  She looks just like the love child of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie and Robin William’s Mrs. Doubtfire.  This got me giggling and I told Austin. 

Tall, masculine old ladies got us talking about Dorothy from the The Golden Girls.  Like every kid, my sister Jess and I always played the game where you have to choose which one you want to be.  Don’t ask me how it happened but she always got to be the cool, pretty one and I always got sucker-punched into being the chubby one or the less fortunate-looking one.  Remember Jan?  From the Brady Bunch?  (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!)  Well she was Marsha and I was Jan.  When we applied this game to Wilson Philips of course we all wanted to be China, the pretty blonde.  But our neighbor friend Whitney was blonde, so, by default, she always got to be China.  Jess, with her red hair, by default, got to be the red-headed one while I always got stuck being Carnie, the unfit tubster of the group.  I used to console myself by trying to say that Carnie had the best voice of all of them. 

Austin and I discussed this stupid little game then applied it to The Golden Girls.   

“Which one are you?” I asked. 

“Blanche,” he said, inspecting his bunch of grapes for rot.  “Definitely Blanche.”

“Of COURSE you’re Blanche!  I don’t know why I bothered asking.” I said. “Remember that tall one?  Was her name Dorothy?”

“Bea Arthur!” he exclaimed.

Obviously Austin knew her real name. 

“I was always a little scared of her, to tell you the truth.  I was convinced she was a man.”

Didn’t everyone think that for awhile?  Her deep voice was mesmerizing.  A little haunting even.   

“Well, which one are you?” he asked.

I pondered this.  “I don’t want to be Rose,” I said.  “She’s so ditzy and annoying.”

“No, you’re not ditzy.  You have to be the quick-witted one and that’s Dorothy.”

“You mean the one who looks like a man?” I asked.  “She’s such a party pooper, though.”  This was usually why I opted out of playing this game.

 “Well you have two choices.  You can be Dorothy or you can be the old one.”

“The mother!?  The midget with glasses and white fluffy hair?!” I laughed.  “Wasn’t that Dorothy’s mother?”

“Yes, Bea Arthur’s character’s mom.” he said. 

I couldn’t for the life of me remember her name.  All I could remember was that they called her “Ma.” 

Reluctantly, I opted for Dorothy. 

After all this talk about the Golden Girls, I came home and got on YouTube to look them up to refresh my memory.  It was shocking to hear that theme song again, “Thank you for being a friend,” after all these years and what was even more shocking was how much younger they were than I thought!  They aren’t OLD on that show!  Blanche walks around in her neglige looking like a sexy young tart.  Either they’ve gotten younger or I’ve aged.  Or at least my memory has. 

The next thing I looked up on YouTube was the Scissor Sister’s song, “Let’s Have a Kiki,” because I hadn’t heard it and it impressed me that Austin knew every single word to the first verse.  He then informed me that Willam made up his (her?) own version of this song and called it, “Let’s Have a Kaikai.”  If you’ve never seen either video, watch the Scissor Sister’s first, then watch Willam.  It is just so unfair how men as women sometimes look better than women as women.  This, of course, is a whole other topic but I can’t help but feel slightly resentful towards drag queens.  They (almost) have it all.  They’re beautiful and they’re smart.  They can do anything.  I mean, they dress up like women, wearing make-up and high heels and they’re successful at it.  How brilliant is that?  Speaking of brilliant…  All that controversy about Chic-Fil-A?  Well, instead of boycotting the fast-food chain, these whipper-snapper drag queens endorsed them, which was probably the best vindication any man, woman or tranny could think of.  They made a music video about it, using the tune of Wilson Philips “Hold On.”   

I am speechless.  All I can say is, oh, how times have changed.  The Golden Girls have gotten younger, Carnie had lap-band surgery and is now skinny (or was, last time I checked) and transvestites/transsexuals are endorsing Christian-run fast food chains. 

Such are the realizations of grape-picking. 

Oh and sister, if you’re read this, do me a favor.  Work up the nerve to be slightly scandalized and watch this video.  Which one of these so-called girls with fancy names would you like to be?  Let’s have a kiki and we’ll talk it over and fight it out.  Just like old times. 

(Afterwards, if you need something wholesome and would like to remember tamer times, well, this should do the trick.)    

P.S.  Austin likes to quote one of his favorite drag queens: “Flats are for quitters.”  If that’s true, I suppose I’m right in there with the best of them.  The Carla Bruni crowd. 

Through Trial and Error and ‘Cacca’: Restaurant and Hotel Recommendations in Rome

Everyone has a poop story.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw my fellow grape picker, Alice, from a distance.  On her back was a small, gooey looking splat of liquid.  “Alice!” I hollered, running to catch up to her.  “I think you have bird poop on your back,” I said.  She stopped abruptly.  I took a closer look.  It was green.  “Oh nevermind.  That’s just a smooshed grape.”

Being pooped on reminded me of the first time I ever went to Rome.  I was twenty.  I was so excited and I’d never even seen Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.  My then-boyfriend, later-to-be Italian husband took me.  Like a loyal Perugino, he hates Rome with a passion.  He hates the chaos, the traffic, he hates the locals…  In short, everything I’ve ever loved about that city, he hates.  Still, he took me anyway.  (That’s love.)

We got off the train and descended directly into the city’s bowels, hopping on the Metro, riding it all the way to Piazza Spagna, the famous Spanish Steps.  The grimy metro did nothing for me but build suspense.  I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss over Rome was about.  I especially couldn’t wait to see two-thousand year old relics of a more ancient Rome lying hap-hazardly in the middle of everything.

The flower-covered Spanish steps was my first lungful of Roman air.  It held that much-anticipated touristy yet oh-so-typical Italian buzz I had anticipated of the most famous piazza in the country.  Everything that ever was or will be Italian, that place has it.  Cobblestones, pizza by the slice, designer shops, colorful stucco buildings lined with balconies, windows laden with wooden shutters, Italians yelling, gypsies pick-pocketing, fleshy dorky tourists wearing hats gawking, Asians taking pictures–it’s a fabulous mess of the best kind.  A real, near-tangible testament to Italian hospitality.  A glorious reflection of how Italians are: stoic and elegant while hectic and unbelievably glamorous in that way only they can be.

Enchanted, I walked over to the dazzling, impeccable designer shop windows.  This place, with all its soul and texture made the Shops in the Galleria in Dallas look boring, bland.  Almost corporate.  Gucci, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, they were all there, the best of the best.  Together they sparkled, making tourists feel welcome with their open doors and also as if they don’t belong.  That’s the thing with Italy–they make you feel special, as if you’re meant to be there and yet you know, and so do they, deep down, that you have no business being there.  Italians do a phenomenal job of selling it, but it’s a myth.  That kind of posh pizzazz is not something that can be acquired.  It’s something Italians are born with.  And, it exists no where outside of the Mediterranean.  No where I’ve found yet, anyway.

As I was gathering my wits about me, trying not to seem too affected by Rome or the incredibly handsome male model at the door of Gucci, I felt something like a big rain drop go glop onto the top of my head.  Please let there be a woman watering her plants above me.  I looked up and yes, there was.  Then I reached up and felt my head which was when, unfortunately, I realized it was not water that was beginning to seep through my hair and touch my scalp.  It was too warm, too thick.



Seriously, come on.

Lorenzo confirmed it for me.  It was definitely cacca.  “In Eee-taly, this is good luck,” he said.

I thanked him for trying to make me feel better.

“It’s TRUE!” he said.  “It’s a sign of good luck here!”

Leave it to the Italians to turn bad things into good omens.

In the States if this happened I would have probably been standing in front of Wal-mart or Target or Home Depot — the antithesis of high-fashion shops.  I would have just gone inside and walked straight into the bathrooms.  Or I would have hopped in the car and gone home.  But no.  Not here.  What was I going to do, run in Gucci covered in poop and ask to use their toilet?  Right.  Not unless I wanted to get spit on as well as get crapped on.  I searched desperately for a public restroom or somewhere to go and hide and maybe die a tiny little bit.  I had just arrived in Rome for a full day-trip and within the first five minutes I get dooked on.  I was sure it wasn’t good luck.  It was just my luck.

Down the street I spotted an American Express shop where you could exchange your dollars for lire.  Next to that, there it was.  The good ol’ standard of my childhood, the place with the best, cleanest bathrooms in small towns across America: McDonald’s.  It might as well have been the dad-gum American embassy for me in that moment.  Or a kind, old relative with outstretched arms.

I ran.

Going into any McDonald’s, anywhere in the world, I always feel as though I cross a threshold the moment I walk in.  The combination of elements like the line of people, all the beeping sounds of the timers, the menu plus the smell.  It all instantly transports me–not home–but to a place just as familiar. I immediately relaxed.  But by the time I got to the bathroom, the poop had hardened into my hair like gel.  There was nothing I could do except pull my hair back into a ponytail, try not to think about it and go get to know Rome.

That was my introduction and my induction to Rome and life in Italy.  Over the years I’ve accumulated, through trial and error and poop, a nice little list of places I love in Rome (and in Perugia and Florence).  Because people so often ask me, well, here you go.  This list is the result of years of trips to Rome with the likes of Mark, Lindsey and Rachel, which means these recs aren’t just endorsed by lil’ ol’ me but my best expat pals as well.  They are our tried and true, non-touristy favorite restaurants and hotels.  That is, if you ever find yourself in Rome, getting crapped on.

…eh Viva l’Italia!


Best location ever:  http://www.hotelportoghesiroma.it/

Still a good location, a bit less expensive:  http://www.solealbiscione.it/en/hotel-rome-old-town-centre-city-italy/hotel

If you need to be near the train station (Termini) and you want a night of luxury (and you probably will if you have to stay near the station!): http://www.unahotels.it/it/una_hotel_roma/hotel_roma.htm


For a buffet of antipasti like nothing you’ve ever seen in your wildest dreams, pop by this place after seeing the Roman Forum/Colosseo.  Great if you like dining al fresco in the warmer weather:  http://www.ristorantevecchiaroma.com/

Hostaria Romana: (near Piazza Barberini)
There are a LOT of restaurants by this name in Rome, so it’s important you get the right Hostaria Romana, with an “H.”  It’s kinda nestled back off the street and doesn’t really look like much from the outside but this place is a Roman institution.  The pasta is divine, with portions fit for gods.  Try as many as you can–the griccia, ammatriciana, cacio e pepe or the best friggin’ carbonara I’ve ever tasted, mamma mia, and I don’t even like carbonara that much.  Here’s a picture to prove it:
Checco er Carettiere (Trastevere)
This place is always busy and delicious, lots on the menu.
I also always love heading to Freni e Frizioni for drinks before and after dinner in Trastervere.  It’s right over the bridge in Piazza Trilussa.  You can’t miss it.  http://www.spottedbylocals.com/rome/freni-e-frizioni/
For “the best pizza in Rome”:  http://www.pizzeriabaffetto.it/
It’s in a great neighborhood…maybe best to go during lunch to avoid a huge crowd.
P.S. Now that I think about it, having a bird dook on me in Rome wasn’t nearly as bad as the time I stepped on a dead cat in a crowded street in Spain while wearing sandals.  But that is another story which brings about a whole other slew of recommendations.

Secrets and Truths: Picking Grapes With Alice


My picking buddy from Oklahoma didn’t show up the other morning.  We were out a vineyard called Woodthorpe (pictured below), a good forty-five minute drive into the hills.  You had to drive past the Maori cemetery and the old wooden church, past ramshackle stucco houses, past a goat tied up on the bank before turning off down a long gravel road.  (The picture above is a view from the long gravel road.)  I figured Austin and his green gumboot van were lost so I paired up with someone new.  Her name is Alice–pronounced Al-ee-chay–because she’s from Lake Como, Italy. 

Alice normally picks with an old man named Hans.  Hans is originally from Amsterdam but has lived in Hawke’s Bay for the last twenty years.  At first I thought Hans was a bit crazy because every time anyone would say anything in English, he’d try to translate for Alice (who speaks perfect English) into what he truly believed was Italian but was really Spanish. 

“Got that?”  boss man Larry said as he pointed to the rows he wanted picked.


“Comprend-day?” Hans would say to Alice.  “Comprend-day means do you understand in Italian, right Alice?” 

Alice smiled, “Comprendi, capisici,” nicely correcting him. 

After three days of picking with Hans, Alice would probably be used to this by now.

Because Austin was absent, Alice was nice enough to pair up with me and let Hans find another picking partner for the day. I was sort of afraid this would happen.   At the time I just didn’t quite know why.

The thing about picking grapes is that it’s really kinda weird.  You’re going along with your gloves and your clippers and all you’re doing is clipping bunches from the vine and throwing them into a white bin on the ground underneath the vine.  You have all these lush green leaves in your face and you can’t see whose face the voice on the other side of the vine belongs to.   We are like a whole bunch of people talking to each other with buckets on our heads or blindfolds over our eyes.  You can only see who’s down the row next to you, and that’s if you look up.  But you don’t look up.  You just focus on the grape picking.  You do this for hours.  All day long.  Sometimes you talk to the person you’re picking with and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you eavesdrop on others’ conversations if they’re within earshot or sometimes you just zone out and get lost in your thoughts.  Sometimes you hear people humming or singing.  For the most part of the morning it was just like this, Alice and me, two little dots among fifty others working in an immense three-hundred acre vineyard.

Over the course of the morning she slowly told me about how she came to New Zealand on her own after decided she didn’t want to marry her long-time boyfriend in Italy.  She got herself a working holiday visa, packed her bags and came over.  She works wherever she can and (although you wouldn’t guess it by looking at her) she absolutely loves to be outside.  She doesn’t have much experience working with grapes and neither do I.  

The only other experience I have is that once I had a grapevine in a pot on my balcony in Perugia.  My mom was in town visiting me and we saw these sticks in green bags at the hardware.  We were delighted when we found out they were grapevines.  It was March, so we bought one and planted it in a small pot, a little experiment to see if it would grow.  Sometimes I remembered to water it and sometimes I didn’t.  That summer it sprouted tiny leaves and when fall came, the leaves turned color and fell off.

One warm spring day the following year I went out to sweep off the scraps winter left on the balcony and prepare my pots for some plants.  The grapevine looked like nothing more than a sorry, brown twig.  I thought it had died that winter from the cold and from my consistent neglect. I was all prepared with a big black garbage sack to throw the grapevine away when I noticed tiny green buds, little leaves about to spring through and into life.  This was nothing short of miraculous to me, that a plant could look so dead but be so alive inside.  Seeing these leaves was a spiritual experience for me, kind of like when you’re sad and you suddenly see an unexpected rainbow.  At that time, my parents were going through a shocking divorce and there was a lot to lose faith about in life.  This little sign of growth meant something momentous to me.  It was a touch of grace, a sign of steadfast faith, an enormous relief to see that all wasn’t lost and that sometimes things aren’t as they seem.  Full of gratitude and humbled with the awesomeness of nature, instead of throwing it away, I repotted it into something more spacious and vowed to take better care of it. 

A few years later when my husband and I moved into a house with a yard, I repotted the grapevine again.  I tied it to a big stick so it could grow sturdy and strong.  My plan was to eventually plant it square into the ground, somewhere we would both take roots permanently.  I wanted to be able to see it every day and remember the special symbolism it held for me.  But apparently other plans were in store. 

One day our yellow lab escaped from the house and tore off with it–pot and all–dragging the whole plant into the middle of the yard, lording over it like it was the carcass of an animal he killed.  The whole scene was outrageous.  I’m running after the dog, he’s running from me like a naughty child and I’m fuming because he’s got my grapevine.  “Barney!  Put that down!”  Of course he pays me no mind.  So what did I do?  I laughed.  Then I went back in the house to get my camera.  This, I thought, will be the last time I see this grapevine alive.  So I snapped a picture.  It was of a smiling Barney, very pleased with himself for having annihilated my beautiful, leafy and healthy grapevine.  Nonetheless, I took my beloved grapevine and replanted it yet again, just in case. 

Again, she lived. 

Through winters, through moves, through my parents’ divorce and through Barney’s strangling, this little vine kept chugging along with life, regardless.

When I separated from my husband, I took my grapevine.  I had no idea what I was going to do with it, seeing how I’d intended to plant it at the new house we were building–the house I designed but would never actually live in or see complete.  I figured I’d find a place in the country somewhere and plant it there, firmly in the ground but in the end, I gave it away.  The last time I saw it, it seemed content to be growing up the side of a small cottage in the Umbrian countryside in a gigantic terracotta pot.  I was slightly heartbroken to part with it but happy to have seen it live to yield a few grapes.   

This was not the story I told Alice but this is why I was afraid to pick grapes with her.  I knew she would ask me about how I got here and I knew it would be the first time I’ve told an Italian, in Italian, my story. 

It’s never easy to know where to begin a story.  Each story always contains so many potential beginnings.  So many parts of a story can be snagged on a detail and before you know it you’re off an an irrelevant tangent, tangled up in another tale altogether.  I was relieved when Alice prompted my beginning by asking me why it was I spoke Italian so well.  I told her I was married to an Italian.  Because she was almost married to an Italian, this turned out to be the common thread we shared—refusing to live the life of an Italian wife.  She talked about how hard it was for her to see her older sister get married and struggle with trying to balance a career and a new baby.  She said she knew she didn’t want that for herself but that’s what would be expected of her if she married.  I told her about how I, too, faced similar pressures in the role of wife to an Italian in a tightly-knit Italian family.  I told her about how much I loved him, how much I loved his family, what a picture perfect, secure life we had together.  It was only after a few minutes of talking that I found myself unable to continue.  I stopped, stricken.  Here was someone who completely and totally understood me.  And she didn’t even know me.  Yet she experienced the same truth I had: you don’t leave someone because you don’t love them. 

It was a huge emotional trigger to retell my story in the language in which it happened.  In New Zealand, they would call this being “gutted.”  And I was.  Completely and totally slashed open.  It was one of those moments, and I don’t know if it’s just me or if everyone has them, when your life suddenly feels like it’s drowning you.  It floods at you from all directions, gushing, pouring, leaking in through cracks you didn’t even know were there and before you can catch your breath you’re swimming in the depths of it all, wondering when life got like this.  How did I get from there–the story I was telling–to here, crying my eyes out to a girl I just met, unable to properly wipe the tears off my face because of my dirt-covered gloves? 

Alice was quiet.  It was just the sound of our clippers, the grapes dropping into our bins and my sniffling.  Then she said, “You did the right thing.  You know you did because it could have been so much easier.” 

She gets it, I thought.  She totally gets it.  

Hans, however, was a different story.  He was inching down the row, moving closer and closer to us as the tractor approached to empty our bins.  He started hollering stuff at Alice, asking her how to say stuff in Italian.  “Nunca es demasiado tarde!” he yelled.  “Isn’t that how you say it’s never too late, Alice?”  

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi,” she said loudly back in his direction.

“Non e’ mai troppo tardi!” he yelled at the vines at the top of his lungs.  “Mai troppo tardi!”

“Can Hans understand Italian?” I asked in a whisper, in Italian.  I figured he must have seen me crying or maybe overheard bits and pieces of the story of my failed marriage.  Why else would he start yelling that out?  What else does Hans think he knows besides Italian? 

“No, I don’t think so.” she said.

After that, Alice and I talked about other things like wine and food and what it’s like to be in your late twenties without children when everyone you know has a husband or a baby or four kids or all of the above.  It felt good to be seen, despite those vines in our faces. 

At the end of the day, once the last row is emptied of grapes, you head back towards base, where the porta-loos are and where the cars are parked.  It’s the best part of the day because as you walk back, you stop to help gather the last few grapes yet to be picked.  Everyone is shoulder to shoulder, picking in unison, chit-chatting, listening, humming. 

Alice is next to me.  We are pushing back the leaves, looking for hidden bunches to snip.  “It feels like there are secrets in these vines,” I say.  “Secrets and truths.”


photo.JPGAustin drives a frog green 1986 Mitsubishi van with GUMBOOT written backwards on the front, cows on the sides and two stencils of roosters spray-painted on the back.  There are three seats up front and a bed in the back where he sleeps.   He bought it for $1900NZ in Auckland when he first arrived. 

I got to ride in it today when we traveled from one vineyard to the next and let me tell you, people STARE.  Especially old people.  They also usually frown while they stare, which makes things really funny. 

In the front seat of GUMBOOT–or TOOBMUG, I should say, there were a pair of canvas shoes and two bottles of wine.  One was empty and Austin says it’s because of that empty bottle that he lost his iPhone last night.   It’s probably somewhere in the gravel on a campsite near the beach, he said, Oops. 

On his dashboard he has portable speakers, a plastic little Chewbacca doll and a pin that says WEBLOS.  Ignorant former Brownie that I am, I inquired about the meaning of WEBLOS.  Apparently Austin was an Eagle Scout.  Either that or he’s a complete pathological liar.  I haven’t decided which yet.  (Austin, if you’re reading this, don’t worry.  I’ll still like you either way.) 

Before I started picking grapes, I told my sister how I would have to have a partner to pick with.  My sister laughed and laughed.  And then she laughed some more.

“What’s so funny?”  I asked.

“Knowing your luck you’ll probably get a mute for a partner.  You’ll be bored stiff without anyone to talk to!”

Austin is no mute.  We tell each other tales of our travels and also sometimes crack jokes about the others when they aren’t in ear shot.  Especially about the older couple that asked me if I was from the Czech Republic.  No, I’m American, I said.  From Texas. 

“Are you sending money back home to help out with the situation?” he asked.

I thought hard about this for a whole second.  And then I realized that his guy probably thinks I’m the equivalent of an illegal Mexican immigrant worker in the States. 

“Uhhh…no.  Things aren’t that bad at home,” I said, a little lost for words.  “At least my family’s fine.  No one’s hurting for money.”

“I didn’t mean to your family!” he was indignant.  “I meant for your COUNTRY!”

Oh.  Well excuse me!  Still.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  Was there something I missed on the news?  Did this guy know some horrible secret about our national deficit that I had not yet heard?  Is my beloved America in trouble and am I the only one who can single-handedly save my country by picking grapes in New Zealand!?    

This was yesterday, by the way.  Today, Austin and I had good laugh over this. 

“I didn’t even know how to respond to that,” I said.  “I mean, it hurts my head to think about answering that guy’s question.  Does he think there’s some national bank account where people just deposit money to go towards the charity of our national deficit?”

Austin and I were in stitches laughing so hard.  Between laughs, he goes, “I mean, just the plane ticket alone would have cost you more than what you’ll make at this job!”  

After the old man asked me if I was Czech / working to send money back home, he then asked me if I was legal to work in this country.  

At this point, I’d sorta had it with this stupid questions so I copped an attitude with him and took on a feisty, sarcastic tone.  “Yeeeesss, otherwise they wouldn’t let me work here.” I said.

Then he went on into some story about how last year these people from the Czech Republic came and were working for weeks before they found out they weren’t legal to work.  And how the Czechs couldn’t find work because they didn’t have a visa and blahblahblahblahblah.  “Did you apply for a visa before you came here?” they asked me. 

It was getting to be a quite complicated, slightly annoying conversation.  Who were these people anyway? 

Old people are not only sometimes nosy, they are also blatantly rude and invasive.  They are set in their ways and ask far too many questions.  “Hovering,” as my eighty-four year old Poppie calls it.  “Hovering.  Am I hovering?” he says to me on occasion when he asks about my life.  “No, Poppie, you’re just being a grandpa.” 

“Good,” he says, “Because I don’t want to hover.”  And he means he doesn’t want to be nosy and pesky. 

There are a lot of nosy and pesky people out there picking grapes.  They are old and retired and boring and completely out of it.  It makes things interesting, though.  And gives me stuff to write about.  And, thank God, stuff for Austin and me to laugh about. 

As it turns out, some of the nicest, most normal people you’ll ever meet in your whole life will drive frog-green spray-painted vans.  Some of the rudest will be retired, have gray hair and think they know everything. 

Smoko, The Flaming Lips, The Damned and Not Carking It on my First Day Picking

ImageHere’s what I knew about picking grapes before today: 

Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.

Here’s what I know about grape-picking after a full day’s work:

Not a whole lot more than I did before. 

But I know a few other things now.

This is Larry.  Larry used to teach high school before he became a viticulturist.  It was 8am when he stood on a crate attached to the back of the tractor this fine but slightly foggy morning and said, “Those of you who are new, well, you’ll learn as you go.  By smoko you’ll have it all figured out.”   Smoko is what Kiwis call a smoke break.  Except I didn’t see anyone smoking during the mid-morning break.  Instead, I saw a whole lot of retired folks get out their thermos and canvas chairs for a fifteen minute cup of tea.  Very civilized.

For picking grapes the deal is, you bring your own gloves and they provide the clippers, or secateurs, as they call them.  “This is very important,” someone hollered, “like a surgeon choosing his scalpel!” 

Once everyone had their “weapon of choice,” as someone else called the clippers, they made sure everyone had a partner.  The vines are worked in pairs–one person picking on either side of the vine.  I didn’t have a partner, so I joined the “I don’t have a partner” group.  A tall lanky guy with red hair and glasses said he’d be my partner, so off we went down between the rows of grapes. 

“I’m Austin,” he said. 

“Wait–are you American?”  I couldn’t be sure if I could trust my ears.   

“Yeah, I’m from Oklahoma, where are you from?”

“I used to live in Oklahoma!  I went to Wiley Post Elementary School!  But I’m from Texas.”   

Turns out Austin and I are the only two Americans out of the whole team of pickers.  There are a few Europeans, including two Italians, who are traveling workers like Austin.  The rest are locals. 

Austin was good company, we brought each other up to speed as to how we both ended up on opposite sides of the vine.  I’d learned a lot about Austin but something occurred to me, “Austin!  I don’t even know what your face looks like!”  He peered through the vines, cheesing his freckly face at me. 

What I like best about Austin is that he is nice.  Just really, really nice.  He has orange hair with matching orange gloves.  And he laughs a lot, which makes time pass quicker.  At this so-called smoko, I learned that underneath his snazzy orange gloves he wears sparkly nail polish.  We both decided grape picking isn’t near as hard as we thought it would be in our heads.  

But that’s not to say it was easy. 

Along with your picking partner you work from bay to bay–that is, from one wooden post to another.  Each bay is about twenty feet.  Once you’re finished with your bay, you climb underneath the grapevine and move up to the next row.  This means that about every ten to twenty minutes, depending on how difficult the grapes are to get off the vine, you are doing a big huge lunging squat to get right underneath the vine.  Plus you’re pulling your bin along with you or kicking it in front of you (if it’s empty).  By the end of the day, my left knee blocked on me in mid squat and boom, I was on the ground like a tipped over toddler.  I hopped up from there but without using my knees.  I need to have a talk with them as they are going to have to toughen up.  

The thing with grapes is that they are funny.  Some of them seem like they have positioned themselves perfectly for your picking convenience.  They just can’t wait to be picked.  They’re like, “Mememememememe!  Pick me!”  I usually go straight for those if Austin hasn’t already clipped and binned them already.  These are the ones that if you don’t catch them in your hand because they are wedged in between another vine, the are happy to fall right into the bin on their own, plopImage

The rest of them, however, we will call them The Damned, are far more difficult.  You can’t figure out where they’re attached on the vine.  The bunches grow tightly into one another, intertwining themselves so far you can’t figure out where they should be clipped.  You might work on a bunch for a good solid minute or so before just wanting to call your mom or rip them to bits.  I sabotaged many a bunch because of this.  

A tractor is continually circling the rows with a huge crate in the front and back.  Three guys trail it.  Their job is to empty your bin and boy was I always glad to see them.  They are awesome.  And they’re always cracking jokes despite doing by far the worst part of grape picking.  All that bending down and heaving!  (I later was impressed to learned that one of the guys doing the back-breaking work is one of the owners of the winery.)  Then again, they’re probably cracking jokes because they know they’re getting paid four times what we make, at least. 

Because the tractor just barely fits down the rows, you better press yourselves up against those vines if you don’t want to get squashed.  Nobody warned me about this but like a tourist mindlessly wandering down an Italian street thinking its a sidewalk until a Mini comes flying past, I quickly learned.  Austin nearly got squashed a couple times too.  

Before he came to Hawke’s Bay, Austin was working in Auckland at a restaurant.  His interest in the wine industry is one of the main reasons he’s here.  Austin’s friends were a little unsure that he’d be able to handle “hard labor.”  We talked about this at length and both decided we’d much rather be picking fifteen to twenty times our weight in grapes in half a days work than to be sitting at a cubicle in an office without windows.  We decided we both know people who do much harder or far more boring work than this.  Kindergarten teachers.  Librarians.  I worked various temp jobs, filing, that were far worse.     

So no, I didn’t learn a whole lot today about picking grapes.  Not really.  But in talking to Austin I learned a) for some reason a lot of Lebanese live in Oklahoma b) the lead singer of Flaming Lips used to work at Long John Silvers even after he was touring internationally.  When I said that I didn’t think I knew who the Flaming Lips were, I learned that Austin can sing really well because he started singing “She don’t use Jelly.”  Then I remembered I did know who Flaming Lips were but I just had no idea they were from Oklahoma City.  

And then it was time to go home.  

Now, I’m too tired to even edit this or revise it.  I just wanted to let you know how this girl’s first day on the grape-picking job went and to let you know that I did indeed survive.  Haven’t carked* it yet.       

* To “cark it,” I understand, means “to die” in this part of the world.