22 June 2010

Calabrese Concerts

Here we are on an even year so that meant choir trip again! This year we returned to Italy, to Calabria, where the choir director's wife P comes from. She'd arranged a marvel of a trip that left us all breathless with the pace of everything but certainly having seen as wide a variety of landscape as can be achieved in just 7 days.

We flew to Bologna and then to Lamezia Terme, then by bus to our hotel, a network of holiday apartments situated on a cliff facing the sea and Stromboli's menacing silhouette on the horizon. To get to the beach, we sauntered down a path trimmed with geraniums and exotic, unrecognizable plants where lizards skittered underneath, then through a lemon grove to the lovely white sand beach. It was a properly European beach so our hotel had its own squadron of parasols and beach chairs, all striped the same and blazoned with its name. Certainly civilized. Of course everyone went crazy absorbing sun, taking lemons from the grove, floating in the aquamarine water, and relishing the delicious simple wines.

Calabria is a wonder of cultivation, and P had selected restaurants and trips that ensured we'd see the maximum marvels of the area. The area where we were was chock full of fields growing the famous red onions, tomatoes, olives, lemons, hot peppers, grapes. Hedges of rosemary bloomed everywhere, and the roadsides were choked with mint. The many dinners we had together took well advantage of this, serving up local seafood flavored with all the abundant vegetables and herbs. One place we went to, called Agriturismo Villani, served only food that had been grown and prepared in the immediate region- fresh sheep cheeses, hams of all sorts, glorious firm eggplants roasted and drizzled in olive oil, zucchini blossoms & frittatas. Served with a view of the sea or in an ancient courtyard ringed with flowering hedges, it was an unforgettable experience.

Between all the eating we held three concerts, each in a different sort of church with its own acoustics. In Tropea, a tiny seaside village, the mayor of the town attended and we were filmed for the local news as we sang in their "cathedral" (stop imagining Notre Dame and downscale a lot). In Lamezia Terme we sang in the lemon-colored Rococo church where P and the director had gotten married, and the audience was full of P's relatives. In Gerace, a medieval city perched on a hill, we sang in a church built by the Normans nearly a thousand years ago. The building, the largest religious building in Calabria, threw our song up into the rafters so that it was as loud in the back as it was next to us, but we could barely hear the person next to us singing. We sang on the ferry from Sicily, we sang in the peaceful church amid the pines at Certosa, a monastary high in the hills. We sang in the mass at Lamezia Terme on the day of a festival where the street had been converted into a market selling pistachio cookies, slices of coconut, nuts & candied fruits, and all sorts of other baubles.

This part of Italy is definitely not easy to get to or to explore, especially the way we were doing it. We had several bus mishaps due to the twisted hairpin roads that interlace the spine of this part of the country, and other than two disgruntled women from New Orleans, I met not a single other American. The beach where we were was mostly filled with Italian holiday-goers except for one Russian family, and it was pretty clear that almost everywhere we went it was not a place that tourists tended to visit. The only exception was Taormina, a village in Sicily that's been frequented by famous foreigners for some time now. After having been traipsing the streets of Lamezia Terme, it was a bit odd to be in a place where there were signs in German and people could speak a few words of English. That's where I skipped out on the museum and wandered down the narrow streets until I found the public garden, a marvel of follies and topiary hedges where Italian kids piled upon each other in giggling heaps, and the view of Etna and the curving coastline was framed by cedar trees and a fluorescent bougainvillea hedge in full bloom.

Unlike the first trip to Italy where I was lost and lonely in the language, and where I didn't have the proper summer travel clothes, I could speak and understand enough to actually grasp what was going on. It also helped to have light summer dresses and sandals that can handle the cobblestones and narrow streets. On our last day in Bologna I remembered the afternoon 4 years ago when I'd been alone and sweltering in Bologna, not sure what to do except wait for the bus to the airport. This time I lunched with a delightful group of people (oh, such pizza!), explored with enthusiasm, and absorbed the vibrancy of the city with happiness before one last ice cream and then back to the airport. Overall it was one of the most memorable choir trips ever. I returned slightly more brown, with a suitcase full of lemons and delicious jams and liqueurs, my Icelandic markedly better, and having shared an incredible experience with an extremely varied group. That's what travel should be about.

20 June 2010

lucky number seven

I've just completed the move into my seventh home in Reykjavík, back in my original moved-to-Iceland postcode, and a few blocks from this place. It's a lovely old house from the 1930s with graceful proportions and funny little details like a frosted glass window on the narrow bathroom door, and a pantry. Unlike my last apartment, the ceilings here are so high I can only see into a third of the kitchen cupboards, so I'm no longer ducking to get to my fridge or closet.

One of the grand things about this neighborhood is that it's old enough to have proper vegetation, so the view from the kitchen window to the back is a jungle of berry bushes, tall trees, shrubs, rhubarb, and cats that prowl through the underbrush. From the front of the house the view is bounded by the mountains to the southeast, with bits of ocean visible between the cute houses opposite. It's a street I remember walking down in 2005 on my way to the immigration office, never imagining that someday I would occupy one of these lovely places.

Our downstairs neighbors have lived here for decades- he's been in the house since he was 3 and he's now in his 80s. They've got a book binding room and a Finnish sauna in the basement, and the garden overflows with plants I didn't know could live happily here, like deep pink peonies that are blooming now against the warm stone wall of the house. It's a lovely place to live.

Since returning to this neighborhood I've returned to Sundhöllin as my local pool, a spot that seems most frequented by tourists who wander lost in the mysterious maze that is the locker room. These mini-dressing rooms are one of my favorite elements of this pool, as well as the generously sized hot tub on the roof with views over the city (and into the apartment opposite once occupied by a friend). I've noticed that the locals who go there seem to have certain locker loyalties, so while I'm lacing up my shoes I overhear the classic old pool-going men specifically asking for locker sixty-two please. I haven't noticed any particular difference in the lockers, other than the importance to get a high number so as to avoid the boring overflow lockers, so I do wonder what the attraction is.

But back to lucky number seven, where I am typing this while watching the little calico cat that lives opposite prowling the territory, and admiring the flowering trees that line the street. I've realized that with the exception of my first home here, I've always had a view- a snippet of mountain, a sheen of sea, maybe both. It can spoil a girl to have a couch oriented so that the seagulls and the airshow are all on display. This is why there's no need for a TV- an open windowshade is all I need.

I'm still finding out about the neighborhood essentials though. Yesterday en route home from downtown I found a video store, and there's a bakery that seems heavy on the chocolate-themed baked goods but not so much on the breakfast staples, but I'm still hunting for the last-minute-open-late shop. Plenty of guesthouses and hotels around though, and we certainly don't lack for tourists because of that. It's a great place to walk around, full of architecture that varies from late 19th century to a few more modern 70s looking places, trimmed with charming gardens and friendly cats patrolling their section of pavement. The only downside is that I've had to learn how to parallel park properly for the first time in my life. Can't have it all, I guess.