Category Archives: Travel

Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Ahhh…it’s that time of year…vacation-planning season.  The weather is starting to warm up a bit; people are getting “itchy” to start moving around; and everyone is fantasizing about what they’re going to do for vacation this summer.  Having done just a little bit of travel in my life, I find myself becoming a bit of a “travel advisor” for my friends and coworkers.  Not that I mind, mind you…there’s almost nothing I love more than encouraging people to travel, to fill their heads with enticing stories about what awaits them, to watch them, wide-eyed and giggling, as they imagine themselves there already.  So, my next few posts will be completely travel-related.  First stop, Europe.

Three years ago, with the economy spiraling downward, the company I work for, in a valiant effort to eliminate layoffs, began a program of periodic furloughs for all employees…forced vacation without pay.  At first, we grumbled about it, felt like we were being bullied into it…but it was a helluva lot better than losing our jobs; and, I have to say, it forced me to take a trip I always wanted to take but never did.  I was one of the many who would have loved to have backpacked through Europe between high school and college, or between college and the headlong plunge into the working world.  Alas, high school transitioned instantly into college, which in turn forced me upon the working world while in school.  There was no way to stop the momentum; and my dream of traveling the world alone, a young, wide-open book, passed me by.  (Besides, there were other distractions…but more about that later.)  I eventually landed a job that took me all over the country and all over the world; and I loved every minute of it.  However, the romance, the adventure of traipsing through Europe with nothing but a backpack pestered me…like a 25-plus-year butt itch!

Enter the furlough.  With 2 weeks of furlough facing me, in March 2009, refusing to spend that time at home, I embarked on my dream trip.  I bought my Eurail pass for unlimited train travel through Europe (First Class, oh-la-la!) and loosely planned my circuit of Western and Central Europe.  This is the first of 5 installments I texted on my Blackberry to family and friends of my journey.  Come join me…


Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Sent Tuesday, March 17, 2009 5:46 PM

Hello! This is the first installment of my 2-week backpacking-through-Europe trip. Don’t feel any obligation to read each installment, which will come every few days; but if you do, I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures…or should I say MISadventures? (And…oh…stay tuned…there’s a surprise twist at the end…it’ll be in the last installment!!!!)

So, you may ask, “Kanani, aren’t you a little OLD for this kind of trip?” Haha! Yeah, this is the trip I shoulda taken at 18 instead of at 44….but at 18, I was just discovering the Big Gay World out there…it was exciting and eye-opening…and during that amazing, fascinating time of self-discovery, Big Gay World trumped Big European World. (I mean….drugs, sex, rock-n-roll…well, more like, “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah, It’s Raining Men”…the choice was QUITE clear to ME, thank you very much!)

Since the late ’80’s, I’ve made many trips across Europe…on business and pleasure, alone and accompanied variously by Ralph, my parents, my brother Kawika and several close friends. All fabulous trips, no question about it; but there has always remained that unfulfilled, romanticized adventure of procuring a Eurailpass, hopping on and off the train as much as I want, in any country I want, staying in youth hostels (a strange yearning for the college dorm life I never had, perhaps?), and savoring the experience fully for “pennies”…er…”Eurocents”…a day…oh yeah…all the while carrying all I need on my back. (Well, that part kinda sucks; but it comes with the territory. Thankfully, I’m a master at packing light; and Mom and Dad helped me pick out the perfect backpack at REI when we were in Seattle in January…big enough for 2 weeks of “stuff”, without looking like I’ve murdered someone, wrapped them in a tent, and nonchalantly strapped the evidence to my back!)

At 44, I know this whole scenario should sound repulsive to me; but instead, it sets my heart a-flutter and creates the same thrill in me I had as a kid when my Grandpa took me and my sibs to the circus at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, or my parents shelled out the big bucks to take us to Six Flags Over Texas! Maybe it’s the thrill of the unknown, the bizarre and unexplained love I have of “not knowing”, of being plunked down in unfamiliar place and having to just “figure it all out”. Or, maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis…my proverbial “red sportscar”…except there’s no gas, maintenance, insurance…nor the DREADED Mahelona-Family-Broke-Down-Automobile Curse!!!

So, the trip begins with fasting the day of departure. (C’mon…y’all know I don’t do things “normal”!)  I had read that drinking only fruit and vegetable juices (no food, caffeine, milk or alcohol) from the time you wake up on the day of departure until your morning arrival in your destination city (including the free “food” on the plane and all that free wine-DAMN!!!-you get on Trans-Atlantic flights) is the ultimate jet-lag prevention…something about recent findings that it’s the feeding cycle that affects our body-clock more than anything else…the fasting allows you to sliiiiide on into your destination feeding cycle smooooothly.  It sounded pretty primal…and compelling to me!

I’m happy to tell you that it worked like a charm…the ONLY thing I’ve ever tried that really works! Over the years, I’ve tried timed naps and sleeping, jet-lag pills, abstaining from caffeine or alcohol (but not food), melatonin, drinking lots of water….and always, about halfway through the day in my arrival city, BAM!…I hit a wall and am reduced to a worthless, snoring, drooling, zombified Dorothy-in-the-poppy-fields-of-Oz. But my entire first day in Brussels, I had tons of energy, wakefulness and clarity.

Granted, when the flight attendants began the hard-sell, “We’ve got (mummified) chicken or (rubberized) lasagna today (surprise, surprise!)”, I actually felt a fire of desire in my stomach…but I stuck to my guns and doused it with another bottle of V-8. But I have NO regrets….my body-clock and appetite were immediately on Brussels time…I never got sleepy (until all the Bruxellois did); and I haven’t kept odd hours or needed a nap since then!

Good thing, because I’m on a tight schedule! I’ve basically allowed myself an afternoon train arrival in each city, 1-1/2 days and 2 nights of exploration (read: walking my ass off) and sightseeing, then an early morning train departure to the next city.  It’ll be the same pattern for the entire trip. I’ll start in Brussels/Bruxelles, with a daytrip on the 2nd day to the Flemish town of Brugge/Bruges. (They spell everything 2 ways in Belgium…Flemish and French…how international…how cooperative…how annoying!)  Brussels will be followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I had originally left the last 3 days of the trip open before heading back to Brussels for my return flight to NYC. But, I’ve decided to head back to Brussels for the last 3 days, “rounding out” my “European Tour”!

Oh…and did I mention that I’ve budgeted 100 Euros for each city? Not each day…each city! At the current exchange rate, that means about $80 for each 2-night, 1-1/2-day stay…including lodging, food, sightseeing and local metro/tram/bus transport (hence the “walking my ass off” I mentioned earlier!).

This means sitting down in restaurants will be out of the question. Instead, I’ll be eating mainly local “street food” which, in my opinion, is the best way to “soak up the local flavor” (and grease!). That, and beer and cafe food…again, not a sacrifice for me at all! Top off my nutritional pyramid with amazingly cheap (not to mention fresh and delicious) European supermarket fare, plus the free (and pretty damned good!) breakfasts at the hostels.

Wanna know the REAL clincher here, without which this whole trip would be completely ludicrous? My hostel stays average only about $18 a night! (Sit down, Rick Steves! Haha!) Ever wonder why Europeans can travel so much? It’s not just because their countries are so small and close together…it’s because they stay in hostels!

So far, the hostels have been fantastic…way better than I expected.  (They even have their own bars; and I’ve made some great new friends there!) I’ve eaten lots of delicious food; and I have imbibed more awesome beer than ever (well, at least since my beer-buddy, Ben, shared his German beer collection with me last Thursday in NYC!).

At this writing, I’m already in Amsterdam, leaving for Berlin in the morning, having enjoyed Brussels (and especially Brugge) tremendously. I will work on the 2nd installment of my travelogue (Brussels, Brugge and Amsterdam) tomorrow, during my 6-hour rail journey across The Netherlands and northern Germany (with a train change in the Dutch town of Amersfoort) into Berlin. Until then, I hope you enjoy the reading!

Guten Nacht! (Yeah, gotta practice my German for Berlin; and I gotta get up early tomorrow!)

Playtime in Puglia

Ralph’s speaking engagement having ended a smashing success, we have two full days to relax and enjoy (read: PLAY!!) the southern Italian region of Puglia. Our newfound friends, Denise and Angelo, have armed us with a list of local sightseeing favorites: Polignano a Mare, Alberobello and Matera. Our first dilemma: how to get there. We could do a group tour…NOT!  We could catch a train to the one coastal village on our itinerary, Polignano a Mare; but the train wouldn’t take us to the other two, inland towns up in the hills.  We could rent a car; but the traffic signage here is a jumble of incomprehensible, nonsensical (though highly aesthetic) symbols and icons…just like a Mac! (Haha!  Sorry…had to get ONE Apple jab in!)  Besides, southern Italian drivers are mad and make the worst NYC cab drivers look like Grandma behind the wheel.  We’re not taking our chances.  Thankfully, Ralph has the perfect solution: he’s hired a driver for the next two days.  At €200/day, it’s not that much more than a high-end group tour would be; it’s totally stress-free in terms of getting to and from our destinations; and we can explore on our own, on our own timeframe. Plus, relaxing in the back of a comfy Mercedes-Benz sedan with a good-looking Italian man at the wheel is nothing to sneeze at!

Polignano a Mare

First stop, Polignano a Mare.  A mere 20 minutes south along the coast from Bari, this is a beautiful, if somewhat run-down, village of whitewashed cubes for homes, stacked one atop another and perched delicately on vertical cliffs overhanging the sea.  Our first stop is a scenic overlook dominated by a beautifully-posed statue of Domenico Modugno, a singer/songwriter and native son of Polignano a Mare who wrote and sang the 1958 song “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” (better known as “Volare”).  “Volare” means “to fly”; and the bronze statue depicts Domenico with arms outstretched, head raised toward the sky.  It’s quite beautiful, especially with the open sea at his back and the wind blowing into his hair and face.  Domenico looks like he may ascend to the heavens any second.

I’m just old enough to remember the TV commercials for the hideous Plymouth Volare automobile; and the song is ingrained in my memory forever.  I have to admit, at the time, I thought it was a beautiful car and secretly wished my Dad would buy one.  But I knew that until said Volare could survive the steep levys and mud bogs of the Trinity River bottoms in Dallas or take on the dirt bikes chewing up the landscape off Hwy 360 near the then-new DFW Airport, I would just have to fantasize about cruising suburban Grand Prairie, Texas in a shiny, white Volare, wearing a corduroy blazer with suede elbow patches and leather pants,  waving to my schoolmates in their front yards .  (Pimpin’ the ‘hood, 70’s style.)

The water of the Adriatic is a gorgeous, deep turquoise here (oddly enough, the artificial blue of Tidy Bowl on the first few flushes!).  Ralph and I are standing on a rocky ledge 30 ft above the water; and it’s all I can do to resist tearing off my clothes and jumping in.  I’m certain that if I’m in any danger once hitting the water, the fishermen dotting the ledges, dangling their lines below, will rescue me.  (Or maybe they’ll just think, “One less crazy American tourist in the world!”)  I think Ralph breathes a sigh of relief when I head back up, fully clothed, toward the town.

Crossing the tiny bridge, Ponte Lama Monachile, over a great, dry ravine leading from the upland hills to the sea, we enter the old, medieval part of Polignano. Entering under a large, crumbling arch adorned with faded frescoes, the Arco Marchesale, we step into the enclosed village – and into a time warp.  I imagine the surroundings haven’t changed much since the original fishing village was established eons ago. The impossibly narrow streets, criss-crossed overhead with laundry drying in the gentle sea breezes, twist and turn out of sight, but all eventually lead you to another overlook onto the gorgeous, azure sea.  Wherever the sea reappears, we run to the edge and peer down, fascinated by the sheer, uninterrupted drop from the houses to the ocean’s surface.  I can only imagine how beautiful it must be to open your windows to the breezes and views these people must have!  They may not have much money; but they have views that “Trump” (pun intended) those of any Central Park West socialite!

The minimalistic, white-plastered homes and stairways, brightly-painted shutters, vibrant, potted bougainvilleas, delicate lace curtains, and fluttering clotheslines (all backed by an impossibly blue sky) cause Ralph and me to pause in awe, to allow these beautiful images to settle permanently into our memories.  “This is EXACTLY what one thinks of when thinking of Italy,” Ralph exclaims.  I couldn’t agree with him more.  It’s early on a Saturday; so no shops or restaurants are open, not a soul stirs outside. Ralph and I practically have the whole town to ourselves; and we take full advantage: running through the town like Wee Willie Winkie, disappearing separately down one lane one minute and crossing paths with each other the next. It’s so perfectly “Italian”, I’d swear we were running through an empty movie set!  We stop to curiously admire the ancient church, Chiesa di Purgatorio, with its morbid skeletons and skulls-and-crossbones above and beside its entryway.  We pass through the town’s main piazza, surrounded by more churches and stuccoed buildings shabbied by time and sun, but whose years and years of peeling paint layers, salmon pink on top of golden yellow, on top of rusty brown, on top of sage green, create a stunning texture and mosaic of color.  The piazza is empty now – peaceful and silent except for the “squeak” of little seabirds and the “look!” and “wow!” of me and Ralph.

When people finally begin to come out of their houses to sweep their doorsteps, bring in their laundry or gather with neighbors to chat, I notice the population is quite old. They eye the few tourists wandering into their secluded village with curiosity but do not speak. I engage them with a cheerful and well-pronounced (if I do say so myself) “Buongiorno!”, which brings surprised smiles and return greetings. I would love to have the opportunity to sit down and get to know them, to savor their local dishes and wines, meet their grandchildren, hear their family histories, answer their questions about Americans and the U.S.  If only I could speak the language…DAMN, that pesky language barrier!

There is a spot in the village, a tiled, rustic and very sun-worn patio, which presents the onlooker with the most beautiful vista of the Adriatic, including, directly below, the small, pebbly beach cove where an eager, lapping tongue of the sea, the Cala Ponte, reaches in to get a taste of this town of stacked sugar cubes.  An elderly gentleman, obviously a longtime Polignano resident with rather rustic, sunworn features himself, offers up a seat in the two plastic garden chairs he has set up for the handful of mesmerized tourists who pass by.  Realizing I’ve been wandering alone for a while and thinking I probably need to reconnect with Ralph, I decline with a soft, “No, grazie.”  Later on, I see this same aging-yet-still-handsome  man hobbling to and fro, gathering additional chairs from other residents’ homes to accommodate the tourists. I nod at him in passing and am rewarded with a warm, Italian smile.  My heart smiles back at this man from another culture and another time, proud to share the fortune of this place, his home – eager for us to put up our feet, to stay awhile.


Our driver, Angelo, waits for us patiently; and when we emerge from Polignano’s medieval quarter, passing back beneath the Arco Marchesale, he whips us away from the coast, inland, through acres of olive groves, to our next destination: Alberobello.  Ralph and I have been fascinated by the olive groves since we arrived in Puglia.  Spreading out as far as the eye can see, they cover the lightly undulating hills, separated by crumbling, ancient limestone walls.  We notice large nets spread on the ground beneath certain trees, presumably to catch the olives as they fall.  I’m intrigued by the trees’ grotesquely-twisted, thick and stout trunks and silvery leaves glimmering in the sun. Ralph is curious about the way the branches grow skyward to a certain height, then abruptly turn back down to the earth. We’re not quite sure whether this a natural growth pattern or (more likely) a result of years of pruning to keep the fruit low.  I wonder the age of these ancient trees; and I try to imagine the generations of farmers who have tended them. (And of course, the designer in me thinks these silvery branches with their onyx-like, black fruit hanging in weighty clusters would look FABULOUS in a floral arrangement, mixed with tall, black hollyhocks, the giant, ghostly leaves of cardoon and trailing, blood-red roses!)

One by one, “they” soon appear – the “trulli” – Alberobello’s claim to fame. Tiny farmhouses made of “chiancarelle”, flat stones, thin as tiles, stacked to form a circular wall and culminating in a perfect, conical roof, these whitewashed beauties are amazing to behold!  Each one we pass, few and far between at first, in varying states of disrepair (or all-out crumbling) brings gasps of excitement from us both.  We had been told about the trulli by Denise and Angelo at dinner the night before; but we had no idea how precious and endearing these Lilliputian homes would be!  And so it was that we were left speechless when our driver made one last, unexpected turn into an entire village, two hillsides ascending on both sides of the road, entirely encrusted with trulli!

Like two kids let out, wide-eyed, at an amusement park, we are giddy with excitement at the prospect of exploring the twisting lanes weaving throughout the village.  We are surrounded by trulli, like clusters of giant mushrooms in the golden sunlight near day’s end. At any moment, you almost expect a family of woodland elves to peer out behind the tiny, wood-framed windows or step out of the miniature door frames. Some trulli sport chimneys releasing the homey scent of woodsmoke. Other trulli appear to be 2 trulli merged into one, Siamese-twin of a structure – medieval Puglia’s version of a “double-wide”.  Some trulli feature white cryptograms etched onto their stone roofs, magical symbols to ward off evil or bring good fortune to the home. Nearly all the trulli have distinct and beautifully-shaped limestone pinnacles capping their conical roofs, each a signature of its builder.

Back in the 16th century, the noble family Acquaviva, Counts of Conversano, brought 40 peasant families to this area that was once a great forest (“Silva Arboris Belli”, which eventually became “Alberobello”), to have them settle and cultivate their land. In the 17th century, in a stroke of deceitful brilliance, the tyrannical Count Giangirolamo II Acquaviva Aragona (known as “the Squint-Eyed of Puglia”) decreed that the families build their miniscule homes without mortar.  In the event that a representative of the ruling King of Naples should arrive to survey the land and tax the Count for every home on it, the families could simply be ordered to knock down their homes, presenting the surveyor with nothing more than piles of rocks, then quickly rebuild the trulli after the surveyor’s departure.  In 1797, the king proclaimed the town of Alberobello to be under his rule, free from the Counts of Conversano; and the people were allowed to build their homes with mortar, to finally feel grounded, to feel, at long last, at “home”.

Ralph and I have a chance to peek inside a couple of trulli – one that has been turned into a snack bar (where we scarfed down the most delicious pizza and insalata caprese), and another that has been turned into a shop and gallery featuring the beautiful work of a local photographer. A central room is surrounded by thick walls into which deep niches have been excavated, creating places for storage and sleeping.  A well inside the trullo provides fresh water; and a hearth provides fire for warmth and cooking. In the photo-gallery trullo, a wooden platform in the conical roof space hides a cozy sleeping loft, accessible by an ancient, wooden ladder. I want to move in immediately.

Our arms stocked with black-and-white photos and postcards from the gallery, as well as little, trullo-shaped bottles of the local, almond-flavored “mandarle” liqueur, Ralph and I survey this fantasy town of Alberobello from the rooftops and stop by the town’s pièce de résistance, the Chiesa (church) di Sant’Antonio (built in traditional trullo style). Reluctantly, we head back to Angelo, patiently awaiting us in his black Benz. The drive back to Bari finds us both nodding off in the backseat – kids that have played hard, finally giving in to exhaustion.


Though yesterday’s excursion would have served as the perfect end to our trip, we have one more full day in Puglia; and we’ve saved it for the further trek to Matera.  I read an article about Matera several weeks prior to our trip and was fascinated to learn about this ancient and unique town carved into the rocky hills of Murgia. Ralph has hired Angelo again for the day; and as we head further into the interior, we also head to a much higher altitude than we’ve been thus far.  Soon, the entire coastline of Puglia is spread out below us – the rocky, dry hills giving way to an infinite, grey-green carpet of olive groves, and that piercing blue sea beyond.

It turns out that Matera is a fairly modern, sprawling mountain town; and we aren’t much impressed until Angelo stops the car in the older part of town and we catch a glimpse of the Sassi, two ancient settlements, the Sasso Barisano and the Sasso Caveoso. That’s when our hearts leap from our throats.  Deep down below us, in a narrow valley, winds a small-but-once-raging river, the Torrente Gravina di Matera. Rising from both sides of the river are steep hillsides, covered in carved-rock dwellings. On the side opposite us, true caves – natural rock formations punctuated by a myriad natural and man-made openings in the rock. It’s a honeycomb of a village – settled since Paleolithic times by cave-dwelling troglodytes and thought to be among the first human settlements in Italy.  (I’ve always loved that term, “troglodytes”, reminding me of the big-eyed, lime- and fuchsia-haired “troll” dolls of our childhood.)

We are on the “newer” side of the river, in the city founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. as “Matheola”, after the Roman consul Lucius Caecilius Metellus. This area features Roman-style homes and water cisterns carved deep into the soft tufa stone.  It’s a fascinating, steep village of stairways above, below and on all sides of you; and being in it is a little disorienting and surreal, like wandering inside the famous M.C. Escher lithograph, “Relativity”.  Intrigued and eager to follow each stairway, the hundreds of stone steps you have scaled simply escapes your awareness.

The gorgeous vistas offered here are innumerable; and it’s no wonder people have wanted to live in Matera for the past 9,000 years. Beautiful churches hang precariously on the edge of the ravine, which is majestic, wild and rocky, yet serene. The carved houses are so interesting, especially their earth-colored, clay-tiled roofs and (my favorite) their distinctive, decorative ceramic air vents in a myriad of pinwheel- and flower-shaped forms. A group of students exploring the caves across the ravine calls back to us, their echoing shouts bringing smiles of delight to tourists and locals alike.

As is the case of many European villages, if it’s a Sunday and you’re hungry, you better get your food- and drink-on early!  Everything starts shutting down before you know it; and you’ll be wandering aimlessly, stomach growling, through a town of shuttered storefronts and stacked cafe tables and chairs.  This has happened many times to me in Europe.  (One of my most memorable European dinners was the one spent with my parents, brother Kawika and his wife at the time, Trudi, in our chateau B&B in the Loire River Valley in France, eating our collectively-scrounged meal of cookies, a bottle of wine and potato chips.  We had spent a Sunday driving around the countryside; and before we knew it, every restaurant for miles around was closed.  We laughed at our lack of foresight and planning; but potato chips and wine never tasted so damned good!)  Ralph and I got so caught up in the scenery of Matera that we got caught in this European food vacuum, once again.  Luckily, we found a Turkish doner kebab shop still open.  Now, one thing you will know about me if you travel with me is that I ALWAYS eat the local food.  You won’t catch me ordering Chinese takeout in Paris, or ducking into an Italian cafe in Lima…and you will NEVER, EVER catch me sneaking beneath the Golden Arches to scarf down a Big Mac in Prague.  So, I was very happy to see a menu of rustic pizzas and hearty calzones in the kebab shop!  Ralph and I split a calzone; and I accompanied my half with a big, cold bottle of Birra Moretti.  Biting into the hot, crisp calzone, dripping with gooey mozzarella and tangy marinara, our eyes roll back in our head.  Italian food in Italy is probably the most delicious food on Earth; and I marvel at the ability of Italian cooks to use the fewest ingredients, yet create food whose flavor is a veritable Roman orgy in your mouth.  If you’ve been here and tasted the food here, you know what I mean.  There is no way, try as you might, to describe to someone just how delicious the food is.  They just have to experience it for themselves.  (So if you haven’t made this journey, DO!!)

And it’s not just the food (and the wine!) – southern Italy is a feast for all the senses.  It’s a place of warm, boisterous and beautiful people.  It’s a place dripping with history so ancient and important, it’s practically a huge, outdoor museum.  It’s sunshine that warms your skin and entices your inner olive complexion to come out, ocean so blue it’ll hypnotize you, and balmy breezes that convince you to let your hair down.  In Puglia, you just can’t help but want to “come out and play”!

*For my full photo album from Puglia, feel free to click on the link below.  Enjoy!                                                                      

Turning 40…again…

Well, today is my 47th birthday (ouch!)…and all the birthday wishes from friends and family have made it a GREAT day!!!  When I first started the blog, I made myself a promise that I would post new entries on a somewhat regular basis; and, at the request of several of my friends (and my blogging guru, Anna Brindley), I would put up some of my older “blogs” from years past.  Kinda like watching old reruns on TV.  Today, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by posting an old rerun with a birthday theme.  Below is the “blog” I wrote when I turned 40, a major turning point in my life, as I was preparing to step into middle age and move away from Dallas to start a new life in New York City.  I have several friends who turned 40 this year or will turn 40 next year.  This is in celebration of them…enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

November 28, 2004

2004.  What a year to turn 40….

I turned 40 the year my sister was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, breast cancer; the shock and fear seared my insides as if the chemotherapy and radiation had been accidentally turned on me .

I turned 40 the year I decided to move to New York City, extracting myself from a closely-knit family and dear friends, straining to pull up roots that had grown strong and deep through years of nurturing, years of loving.

I turned 40 the year I felt personally and profoundly defeated in the presidential election, the most crucial one ever for gay people like me fighting for true equality in our country.

What a year, 2004……..

But “be careful not to confuse the year with the age,” I reminded myself.  For most of 2004, and through all the sad events above, I was 39, not 40.

So today, I sit here as a 40-year old, gay, Hawchigermiriguese American man (made that up…that’s Hawaiian-Chinese-German-Irish-Portuguese), “feeling my forty-ness”.

At 40, I feel more “at home” in my body than I ever have in my entire life, finally accepting its limitations and imperfections, curiously (not fearfully, nor eagerly) awaiting the next gray hair…”sparkles”, I call ‘em.

At 40, I don’t mind the fact that I’m a little thicker around the waist than I was at 38.  (I’m not jumping for joy about it either; but I’m not grossed out by it, nor ready to join the carb-repulsed masses.)  Besides, at 40, I can stand comfortably in the yoga asana Natarajasana – on one leg, reaching behind to grab the opposite ankle, and bringing it up and behind, level with my head.  At 20, I would’ve injured myself even trying.

At 40, I no longer define myself by my status in my profession or the company that I work for.  Those things that seemed so important in my 30s now completely (and in good conscience) get put to bed when I leave the office.

At 40, I read mostly for pleasure, secondly for information….but no longer to feed someone back “the right answer”.  I no longer follow one genre or read the bestseller list.  I read what good friends and loved ones recommend…it’s always the best bet.  I also feel absolutely no pressure to finish a book that’s just not rockin’ my world.

At 40, the “old school” music of my childhood and adolescence groove me even more than they did back then…in addition to the bad-ass rhythms of soul, disco, funk and new wave, this music washes me in wonderful memories of growing up with my parents, my siblings, my friends…memories of shakin’ my groove thang in some awesome 70’s bell bottoms or some fabulous, bleached-out, jacked-up 80s hairdo…and eyeliner…of course.

At 40, I no longer watch TV and rarely read the newspaper.  I feel released from the claws of corporate advertising moguls trying to coerce me into liking things I really don’t, believing in things I really don’t, wanting things I really don’t.  I feel liberated from the endless news chatter, of the media making mountains out of molehills, of everything being the latest, biggest story…”this just in”.  I feel excused from reality TV, from becoming addicted to the everyday moments in the lives of people I don’t even know.

At 40, I have learned the meaning of TRUE friends.  The ones that were there in my 20s and 30s and are still here at 40 are the ones that will be there forever…the lasting ones.    The ones who accept me as I am, and love me anyway.  My “short list”.  You know who you are…this letter went out to you.

At 40, I’m finally beginning to understand a relationship.  My track record was never that good…and boy, have I had a track record!  But I know now that the common denominator in all those failed relationships was…well…me.  Not that it was all my fault; but it took me 2 decades to realize that I needed to look at “me” closely before I could even begin to visualize “us”.  I’m in a good one now, one that feels loving and wonderful and happy and sad and tough and all kinds of things…and I hope it always feels that way…ripe and raw and unexpected and warm and scary and safe.

In my 30s, as I watched my niece and nephews grow up, I realized how short a childhood is….mine seemed so, so long!  At 40, I realize how short adulthood is.  It’s kinda spooky, a bit humbling.  But it has made me appreciate each year, each month, each day so much more.  “Spend it while you got it”…”Eat the good part first instead of saving it for last”…”You can’t take it with you”…at 40, I finally “get” those things.

At 40, I finally feel like I know exactly who I am…what I like and don’t like, what I believe in and don’t believe.  I know my faults, my talents, my strengths and my weaknesses…and I accept them equally…my different colors.  Just as blue is bluest when there is red or yellow to highlight its blueness, the things I love best about myself are heightened by the presence of the things I like least about myself.  I care less about whether anyone likes me or not…as long as I do.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve learned, the loves I’ve lost and gained for anything, even the youth, vigor (and smooth skin) of my 20s and 30s.

When my partner, Ralph, told me last year that he wanted to take me on a 40th birthday trip somewhere and asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, I asked for 2 things:  to wake up next to him and to do yoga someplace amazing, high on a hilltop or cliff or pyramid.  This year, as my 40th birthday approached, he told me the destination for the trip would be a surprise until the moment we arrived there; that both criteria would be met; and that they would take place somewhere beginning with a “B”.

B? Berlin?  Too cold in November.  Boston?  We already went there this summer.  Brazil?  Belize?  Bali?  Too far for a short trip.  I was so tempted to get out a world map and comb the globe for “B” destinations…surely, it’s not Ralph’s hometown of Beaumont,Texas!

We arrived at DFW airport.  As I checked in at the self-service kiosk at the terminal, I learned of our destination: San Jose, California.  “B?” I thought.  “Oh, by the way…we still have a 2-hour drive from there,” Ralph mentioned.  Sneaky-deaky.

From San Jose, we drove South along the California coast for 2 hours, half of it making dark, twisting turns on the edges of cliffs that dropped to the sea…hmmmm…cliffs!

We arrived for the night in Big Sur…at the most beautiful resort nestled in the redwood forest, Ventana.  I won’t make you too envious with all the details of the 4 luxurious days there.  Let it suffice to say that we spent the days and nights surrounded by hummingbirds, soaking in hot Japanese baths, taking amazing hikes through ancient redwood forest and enjoying breathtaking views of the ocean.

At 40, I learned that coastal redwood trees grow in families.  They grow in a perfect circle; and each tree in the circle has the exact same bark pattern as every other tree in the circle.  Trees in a different circle have a totally different bark pattern; but each tree in that circle has the same.  It was so awesome…no longer like looking at just trees…but like looking at a family that has been together longer than this country is old…a family that has stood as one and witnessed countless historical events,  that has withstood the deaths and cutting of members among them…a family whose members all resemble one another, standing in a circle, holding hands.  It was like my own family.  It was beautiful!

At 25, at 30, at 35, the earlier milestone years, I never experienced the depression or anxiety I often hear about.  Those birthdays weren’t that different from my others.  But the day before I turned 40, I hit a wall.  I was silent; I was sad…I was, I guess, depressed?(!)  I didn’t know what was wrong…and everything was wrong.  I was sad about moving to New York.  I was sad about my sister.  I was sad about my parents getting older.  I was sad about what I had for lunch.  I was just plain pathetic.  Poor Ralph.

I took a walk on my own that evening and went to lay down in the middle of the family circle of redwoods on the Ventana property.  The sun was close to setting.  The dense carpet of redwood needles was soft and comforting.  Birds flitted back and forth from tree to tree within the circle.  There was power within that circle.  The Esalen Indians who lived in the area married and had their children within this circle.  I looked up at the sky through the ring of trees, listening to the quiet of the forest; and the tears began running down my cheeks.  I just closed my eyes and let myself cry, not trying to figure out why I was crying…for nothing…for everything.  After about a half hour, I opened my eyes.  I felt healed…completely refreshed and relaxed, yet energized…smiling.

I walked back to our room to apologize to Ralph for being so distant the entire day.  He hugged me and reassured me, saying, “Sometimes you just have to get away from it all, to slow down enough so that you can deal with all the things you haven’t had time to deal with.  You’ve had a lot to deal with lately…you just had to go through the sadness.”  He put the words, clearly and concisely, to what I had been feeling the entire day.  He amazes me.

The next day, my 40th birthday, was wonderful.  I got to wake up next to Ralph; and I got to do yoga with him someplace amazing.  I got to climb up to a cliff and sit, overlooking the ocean.  I got to walk through a grove of eucalyptus trees covered in thousands of monarch butterflies, on their way to Mexico from Canada.  I got to stand under the oldest living coastal redwood tree, 1,540 years old.  As we stood in awe, looking up from the base of this great, living being, Ralph whispered to me, “Fifteen hundred and 40 years?  Now, 40 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?”

Not so bad at all…it feels pretty damned good, actually!

So, how does my “forty-ness” feel?

For me, 40 feels like this:

And 40 feels like this:

Travel: The Fountain of Youth

In response to one of my recent Facebook travel posts, my Aunty Jan responded, “Wow, you guys are traveling a lot lately!”. That started me thinking about my love for travel; and why it’s such an important part of my (and Ralph’s) life. I noticed an elderly couple in Roma’s Fiumicino Airport today on our way back to New York: holding hands, energetically pulling their small roll-aboards behind them at a brisk, determined pace. You can spot a seasoned traveler a mile away: minimal luggage, sailing cleanly and quickly through an airport (rather than standing, dazed, mouths agape, at the TV monitors, blocking all traffic around them.)  I wondered, “Are they young at heart, therefore they travel? Or…do they travel, therefore they are young at heart?”. I pondered it for about an hour (I ponder a lot, as you will see from upcoming blog posts), then came to the conclusion that though it is a mixture of both, the answer leans heavily toward the latter – they travel, therefore they are young at heart.

Travel keeps you young by re-awakening the child in you.  Everything about traveling to a foreign place (whether it be across 7 time zones or the other side of the tracks in your own hometown) is like being a child again. You experience everything fresh and anew:  new places, new languages, new ways of doing things. People (strangers, in fact) have to show you the way, explain things to you, teach you how to speak, how to listen, how to behave properly. You have to try new foods; and your reactions are just like those of a child trying eggplant or cotton candy for the first time: you wrinkle your nose in disgust and grab the nearest beverage to wash it (and the memory of it) down, or your eyes grow to saucers and you lick your lips in recognition of a new addiction.  When you travel, you are afraid of getting lost; yet you can’t wait to venture ahead – through that narrow alleyway, down that craggy ravine, into that deeper, bluer water. You greet everything with equal parts fear and exhilaration, like your first rollercoaster ride, your first trip away from home without your parents, your first kiss.

The travel experience can be a beautiful thing, a uniquely creative affair. The trip itself is just an empty canvas, a blob of clay awaiting your touch. You are the painter, the potter; and the place you visit, the people you encounter, the experiences you allow yourself, are your tools and your media. You can sculpt and paint with the familiar, cellophane-wrapped logs of modeling clay in the 3 primary colors (yawn!) or the pre-packaged, dime-store paint-by-numbers kit (with it’s horrid paintbrushes that start out with 5 mangy, synthetic hairs and end up with 2 by the time you’re done); or you can venture out into the wilderness, the unknown, to execute a wild and wonderful composition of charcoal strokes and swirling ochres, siennas and umbers, or handbuild an organic, “breathing” body of vivid, palm-staining riverbed clay studded with bits of shell and fossil.  No one determines the outcome but you, really.

This is what it means to travel…to artistically create “works of life”, to become a native of the world, to bravely surrender your soft underbelly by being a beginner, a child again…to be re-schooled in the filled-to-capacity class, Life 101…to know (once more) what youthfulness feels like.

And contrary to popular belief, it really doesn’t require a lot of money to travel.  “Travel” can mean heading to the next state, next town over…or even your own city. (There’s nothing more fun than being a tourist in your own hometown!)  I camped out for several days in a backpackers’ lodge in New Delhi’s Paharganj district for less than $5/night; and in 2009, I backpacked solo for 2 weeks through Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest…after being robbed of all my money less than an hour after arriving in Europe from New York. (I will re-post those travel blogs soon, if your curiosity is piqued.)  A crispy (“bien cuit”), paper-wrapped baguette from a corner boulangerie and a bottle of grocery-store wine, all for pocket change, have been some of my most memorable meals in Paris.

See yourself, as I see myself and Ralph, holding hands when we’re in our eighties…hurriedly pulling our roll-aboards through JFK (I’m guessing we will have eschewed backpacks by then) to catch our flight to Timbuktu. (Better yet, come WITH us to Timbuktu!)  We can live life like Auntie Mame, ebullient and daring…or we can play it safe, stay home and watch reality TV – the canvas left unpainted and bare, the unmolded clay a shrunken, hardened rock, rattling in its container.  I know my choice.  I’m with YOU, Rosalind Russell…”live, live, LIIIIIVE!!!!”

Tagging along in Bari, Italia

Ralph and I knew this conference in Bari, Italy was not going to be your “ordinary” breast cancer conference (if there COULD be such a thing) just by looking at the photo on the brochure: a vintage 1930’s photograph taken by the celebrated and avant-garde photographer, Man Ray.  The subject? A nude, Italian woman standing behind the large, metal gear-wheel of a printing press (huh?!), one breast poking through an opening in the wheel (HUH?!), and one arm, covered in black ink, raised to reveal an armpit hairier than my own.  Other than the exposed breast; I’m not quite getting it…but, oh well!  Leave it to the Italians!

Nor was it going to be an ordinary trans-Atlantic flight.  Our usual juice fast is quite bearable; and the only time we have to “put on our big-girl panties” and “suck it up” is when we smell the food carts coming up the aisles (that familiar, overcooked-chicken-mixed-with-melted-cellophane smell), or when the flight attendants start pouring wine (even if it IS cheap, airline wine in plastic cups…what snobs we are!).  Something you should know about Ralph:  he’s usually a quiet, observant and very likable guy…but on an empty stomach, he can be a caged tiger.  I know I have to treat him delicately on these long, international flights…especially if I’ve convinced him to fast.  Enter the planeload of Hassidic Jews from Brooklyn, on their way back to Jerusalem.  I’ve always been fascinated by them – their customs, their devotion to their religion, their hairstyles, their dress.  Living in NYC, I’ve had the privilege of being around them and learning to understand and appreciate their traditions and customs. I’ve learned to be careful about offering foods that are not kosher.  I’ve learned not to be offended when meeting a married Hassid woman and having her jerk her hand back in horror when I have extended mine in greeting, lest she break the law of another man touching her.  It’s all good…I know I’ve got my own, quirky ways that can be puzzling to most – like not having a car, air conditioner or (God forbid!) a television.  One of the interesting things I have observed with Hassids is their rather “laissez-faire” way of dealing with children who are behaving badly.  (In all fairness, this is just my humble observation; but I just don’t see it as an effective method of discipline, which, at the very least, should involve the words “no”, “stop” or “enough”.)  Not a problem, it’s their kids…but I’ve got a hungry, fussy wildcat on my hands; and in an enclosed fuselage for the next 8 hours, I’m thinking a bunch of screaming kids throwing fits and running up and down the aisles is not going to be good…not good at all!

In minutes, the stern, Alitalia flight crew is at wit’s end and, unlike  ANY American flight attendants would DARE, they begin screaming at kids and parents, snatching wild, little hellions out of the aisles by their arms and tossing them into rows of seats, often to the wrong set of parents!  Ralph, meanwhile, has his head buried into my shoulder, trying to block out the near-comical chaos and drift off to sleep next to me in the 11th row.  (Thank goodness I had 1-1/2 Ambien tablets from our flight to Sydney 4 years ago still stashed in my toiletry kit!)  Ralph has stuffed the bag of pretzels handed out by the flight attendants into the seat pocket, in anticipation of the first morning light, when it will become his pre-breakfast snack (and first solid food in over 24 hours).  The cutest (albeit brattiest) little boy on the plane makes a beeline for Ralph’s seat pocket and grabs the package of pretzels, thinking Ralph is asleep…that is, bless his heart, until he looks up and encounters my uniquely horrific brand of The Evil Eye of Certain, Painful Death and Obliteration.  (Some of y’all have lived to tell the tale of my death-stare and know how frightening it is!)  Fleeing so fast he practically leaves his yarmulke floating in midair, the terrified toddler returns, traumatized, to his seat…sans pretzels, of course.  (Score 1 for the mean bitch in seat 11L!)

Upon our morning arrival into Roma, my first REAL Italian espresso since my last visit here years ago reminds me that we Americans really DON’T know how to do coffee right.  (Sorry, Starbuck’s…your Emperor has no clothes!)  A second, short flight from Roma to Bari, located in the boot of Italy on the Adriatic Sea, and we reward ourselves for our day-long fast.  We practically inhale crispy-chewy, blistered-crust pizza simply sprinkled with bits of bresaola (a full-flavored, dried beef), followed by a substantial, rib-sticking arancini di riso (a lightly-fried ball of rice and melted parmigiano), topped off by pistacchio gelati in a vivid shade of green that looked GORGEOUS dripping down my arm and chin.  All served at cheapie snackbars geared to students of the Universita Degli Studi di Bari near our hotel, these would have garnered rave reviews from even the most unbearably uppity New York food critic; and they were just hints of the culinary pleasures to come.

As a city worth exploring, however, Bari proved to be a bit of a dud – a slightly-masculine Sister Raymunda Aquinata (the one with a slightly hairy upper lip and clunky shoes) in a nation of Sophia Lorens and Gina Lollobrigidas.  Despite its seaside location and beautiful weather, it is highly industrial, with almost no tourism industry to speak of.  (Come to think of it, neither Ralph nor I had ever heard of it before!)  The day Ralph was slated to present his talk on ultrasound breast cancer screening, I decided to walk the miles into the Centro Storico, the historical center of the city.  Passing block after block of uninspiring, concrete Soviet-era-style apartment buildings from the 1960’s, I finally reach the train tracks that separate the ugly post-war neighborhoods from the 19th-century city built by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law.  At least the architecture in this area is interesting – old, Parisian-style mansions and civic buildings, grand avenues lined with palms and fountains leading to the sea.  Alas, they are dusty, dirty, neglected and crumbling today.  As you walk along the promenade bordering the littered, stinking harbor, you are sorrowful in the knowledge that this city may once have been as beautiful as Nice or Monte Carlo.  Grand, columned buildings graced by stately date palms overlook the blue sea beyond the harbor.  Ornate and imposing theaters, now empty of great performances, once welcomed the upper crust Baresi in their carriages to the opera.  House servants now long-gone once greeted the little wooden boats in the harbor, to haggle with the “pescatori”, the Italian and Greek fisherman, bringing in the sea’s bounty.  Now, it seems that bounty encompasses mainly tin cans and plastic grocery bags.  It’s all a bit depressing to me; so I press on, to the peninsula jutting into the Mare Adriatico, containing the “Barivecchia”, Old Bari, the medieval town.  Also run-down and neglected, this area is nevertheless the most fascinating: a twisting-turning neighborhood of skinny, dark passageways, ancient churches, and the beautiful (but empty) Castello Svevo, the Swabian Castle, built in 1233 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.  This city has so many possibilities, so many beautiful sites and buildings, blue ocean made vibrant by bright sunshine…not to mention the resting place of San Nicolas, the city’s patron saint who spawned the legend of Santa Claus!  The American in me, the designer in me, wants to pretty everything up, “gentrify”, bring in farm-to-table restaurants and artisanal retail, plus wine bars and bed-and-breakfasts for good measure.  But, as Ralph reminds me (and I guess he could be right), perhaps Bari is just the way the Baresi like it – low-maintenance, unimposing, unbothered, off the radar.  (OK, y’all, whatever…but this just isn’t clicking with my gay sensibility and sense of aesthetics.)

But Bari has a trick up its sleeve – one that more than compensates for its dullness and drabness – cucina pugliese,  its regional cuisine.  The capital of the region of Puglia, noted for its food and wine, Bari is covered in olive groves, the silvery, twisted, ancient trees literally dripping with green and black fruit.  On the edge of the sea, it also has the freshest seafood.  This all makes for restaurants that will knock your socks off.  Ralph has always told me that a) doctors love to eat and b) moreover, doctors love to eat for FREE…and he wasn’t kidding.  I’ve observed this at more than one of his professional, social soirees; but I cannot protest – I was an utterly indulgent participant, I’m afraid. This conference was no different – gather a group of mostly-Italian doctors in a region known for its cuisine; and you’re going to eat well.  And when you speak at the conference, you (and your partner) get to eat for free…lucky me!  I could go on and on about the food; but I’ll tease you with just a tiny fraction of the foods we were served our first 2 nights in Bari:

Bright pink, thinner-than-paper-sliced prosciutto, perfectly salted and soft as velvet in your mouth…ice-cold heaps of the freshest frutti di mare: silky baby calamaris nestled between salty cockles and smoky mussels…spiny, black sea urchins cracked in half to reveal bright, orange-red ambrosia the taste of the sea itself…giant yellow melons sweeter than honey…nearly-fluorescent, fuchsia-fleshed “fichi d’india”, a cactus fruit with a taste somewhere between watermelon and rose…the freshest (made right at the table, in fact!), creamiest mozzarella you ever tasted…highly-sought-after, cheese-of-the-moment, burrata: a chewy mozzarella skin filled with a sweet, heavenly, cream-and-mozzarella center…gigantic, porcelain platters of elegant, coral-colored langostinos, sliced lengthwise to reveal the sweet, white flesh within…tiny, orecchiete (“little ear”) pasta made right at the table, quickly boiled and served with the simplest tomato sauce…tiny glasses of Sicilian-style, house-made cordial liqueurs: almond-mandarin, fragola (strawberry), and (my favorite) rose petal, “rosoliu”.

The night of the 2nd dinner, Ralph’s last official participation at the conference, was a beautiful affair held at Sala Zonno, a nice restaurant located at the end of a jetty into the harbor, with beautiful views looking back at Bari (which, I must say, looks lovely all lit up at night, her “shiny jewels” reflected in the black water).  During pre-dinner cocktails, Ralph and I meet a young, Italian surgeon, Angelo, and his Filipina wife, Denise.  Raised in New York since she was 9 years old, Denise worked in an interior design firm in Manhattan before Angelo, educated at Columbia University on the Upper West Side, took a job in Milan and moved their family of 2 small children to Italy.  Eventually, they ended up moving south, to Monopoli, outside Bari.  Needless to say, the 4 of us find lots in common with each other; and we dine together at a gorgeous table set with white, wax-paper luminarias, glowing from the candlelight inside.  Throughout the whole meal, Angelo and Ralph are as heavy in left-brain conversation as Denise and I are in right-brain chatter.  Denise and Angelo also happened to live in Washington Heights for years, where Ralph and I now live.  It is uncanny how much we “click”; and when the bus begins boarding to take all of the visiting doctors and their spouses back to the hotel, Angelo and Denise ask us to please allow them to drive us back instead.  Unwilling to cut our conversations short, Ralph tells the group coordinator to leave without us.  We have great conversations and lots of laughs on our drive to the hotel; we exchange email addresses; and we say our goodbyes, with promises to meet up in New York City or southern Italy, whichever should occur first.  (I’m rooting for southern Italy!)  Before departing, Denise and Angelo recommend a few nearby towns that are must-sees before leaving Italy:  Polignano a Mare, Alberobello, Lecce, Matera.  We feel fortunate to have met the perfect dinner companions tonight and to have been given “insider tips” to the best offerings of the region.  Funny how life puts things (and people) right in front of you that are so perfect for you.  (I LOVE that about life!)  We can’t WAIT to continue exploring these ancient Italian villages…but for now, we thank Bari for a wonderful evening…and bid her goodnight.

*For my full photo album from Puglia, Italy (including Bari), feel free to click on the link below.  Enjoy!