Posts Tagged ‘italy’

Art Street, Milan

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

The Don Gallery

In Milan, I follow the advice of a slick travel magazine and ring a doorbell in a neighborhood that’s covered in street art. It’s a gamble and the first time I try, I don’t get an answer. I do this just to see if it works, if the press is a liar like everyone says.

After a few minutes, an embarrassed shuffle of my feet, a fleeing thought about a potential language barrier, a little girl with long blond hair comes to the gate. She’s holding a jump rope and and is wearing a pastel t-shirt that’s a staple at grownup stores that have fashionable kids’ lines.

Boungiorno?” I ask. Little kids who speak languages other than English always strike me as freakish alien supergeniuses. Like their eyes could bore holes in concrete, too.

“Hello,” she says back with an accent and a grin. She runs back to the house and shouts “PAPAAAAAAA!”

Just behind her, a guy with a mustache is strolling around the driveway behind the gate strumming a guitar. He smiles and waves and doesn’t let me in, but holds up a finger, the universal symbol for, “Hold on a sec.” He’s not Papa.

Papa does show up, though, an instant later. He’s wearing loafers and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes. He’s tanned like it’s September even though it’s only May and he lets me in when I ask if the gallery is open.

“It’s open,” he says in English. “Only it’s not a gallery right now. It’s a house. It’s my house.”

He introduces his daughters — there’s another tiny blonde alien racing around just inside the door clutching another jump rope — and the guitar guy, whose name is Antonio. He nods, keeps playing.

He escorts me into his living room, and then his office, and the stuff on the walls is outrageous. A Shepard Fairey, a Space Invader, a Banksy, a Ron English sculpture. All of it just sitting there in a house behind a gate in a residential neighborhood in Milan by the crappy train station — not even the good train station.

When I tell him I’m from New York, he says, “Ah, but you have much better street art than this.”

Probably. But not in my living room.

He gives me a tour, points to the Fairey and says, “This is your Shepard Fairey, of course.” Mine, though. Mine meaning American, mine meaning New Yorker, mine meaning I have borne through the door of this house/gallery some idea of authenticity, and that’s a hilarious.

I don’t know anything about anything. I just like to look at pretty things. Cathedrals. Paintings. Italian men with tans and very blue eyes.

I circle the room slowly, trying to get a handle on where I am and what I’m doing, and the little girls watch me the whole time, keeping just enough distance, still holding their jump ropes. Antonio continues his song. After a few minutes, the silence gets awkward and I say goodbye. When I tell him that I heard about the gallery in a magazine, he says, “Yes, well. We did some PR. We had a party.”

So I guess that’s why I’m here. Because at some point there was a party.

I step back out onto the street feeling strangely accomplished. About street art that’s not on the street. That’s curated into the living room of a white-painted Milan apartment — the first private space in this city that I’ve ever seen. Until this moment, for me, Milan is all squares and churches and arches full of visitors, all train stations and expensive hotels. It is men on Vespas in business suits, jetting off to places I’ve never been, and darting behind doorways where I can’t go.

This glimpse behind the gate, I am not so sure about. A gallery or a house, indoors or out, it is maybe the real Milan or maybe not. Maybe it’s a party that happened a long time before I arrived.

Europe: The Yellow Houses

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011


Mellow Yellow

Yellow House


Mellow Yellow

Listening to iPods on a Train in Sicily

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Stef Puts a Toe In

Slinking along the north coast of Sicily on a train, my sister and I watch the landscape out the windows—blue water on one side and steep, scrub-covered cliffs on the other. In the seats behind us, two American teenage boys are doing their best to woo two mildly disinterested teenage girls, also American. I can only hear one of the boys speaking, his grownup voice booming through the half-empty train, right behind my head. He pretends to know about European history.

The station at Taormina wooshes past and I feel a pang of regret. It would be good so good to get off the train, to spend another day in the sun before shacking up with our relatives. Before days of my impossible, badly-accented Sicilian and host/guest protocol that we barely understand.

We’re half-asleep from our early-morning plane ride, from lulling woosh of the train, from the heady sense of not being anywhere yet. We listen to music, our ears stopped up, to forget where we are or always remember, one or the other. Nothing blocks out all the noise, though.

I ask my sister, “What are you listening to?”

“R. Kelly, ‘Ignition Remix.’ You?”

“’You Dropped the Bomb on Me.”

Stromboli: What Erupted

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010


The island of Stromboli looks like a volcano in a cartoon, in a movie where people get stuck on a tropical island. It springs up out of the blue Aeolian Sea like a perfect jutting triangle, the bottom two-thirds covered in a sheath of rippling grass and brush, like Shar-Pei wearing a green sweater. The top is dark with the rock of new eruptions, a plume of brown and white smoke coughing steadily from the crater.

We approach it in an excursion boat called Paloma that hits the top of each wave with a loud thunk. In an irrational gesture that will neither stop me from getting hurt in case of an accident, or getting seasick, I grip the edge of a wooden table, my knuckles white with desperation.

We have just come from the island of Panarea, a sloping slab of white rock with a single, tiny, exclusive town full of white stucco houses with neon blue shutters and doors, and 4-Euro granita in the port. We’re looking forward to something a little more low-key on Stromboli. If we get there alive.

No one else on the boat seems bothered by the choppy waves, especially not the ship’s staff—the handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired captain or its first mate, a genial old guy who keeps making the rounds, asking if we’re all OK. I lie every time, partly because when it comes to me and seasickness, admitting there is a problem almost assuredly creates a problem, and partly because I have no idea what he’d do if I told the truth, and I have no desire to find out. The third member of the ship’s crew, a teenage boy in a pair of aviator sunglasses, is mostly busy hauling ropes and flirting with my sister. Every time we reach a port, he makes a point of telling her and only her the return time in broken English.


Strombolito With Its Tiny Lighthouse

Rambling Stromboli town is bright in the sinking sun and full of tourists returning from a day of trekking to the crater. Walking away from the port, we find a restaurant with a terrace and order a heap of antipasto—grilled eggplant, olives, and artichoke hearts—and a half-carafe of white wine. We eat and take photos of the incredible view—a stripe of blue water broken only by a little rock of an island in the distance, the lighthouse just barely visible on the top.

The little offshore island is called Strobolito—literally, Little Stromboli—and it really is nothing more than a jutting rock with a lighthouse on top and a single zigzagging staircase leading up to it from the ocean below. It looks solitary and scary and a little sad at sunset, its sides brilliant with iron ore. On the way to Stromoboli, Paloma got close to it, but the ocean felt so rough that I thought we’d be thrust into its craggy sides.

Everyone who enters the terrace does the exact same thing—eats, snaps photos, marvels. Wonders how reality will feel afterwards, whether their eyes will adjust.


Stef Wanders

On the obsidian beach near the port, I cannot stop touching the sand. It sits in the palms of my hands like piles of silky caviar, sticks like a swarm of insects. The smoke from the crater drifts directly above our heads, a white stripe through the sky.

My sister goes swimming and everyone on the beach stares as though she’s sprung a third arm. The water is freezing in the late-afternoon shadow. The vacationers on their yachts and schooners have wrapped up in jackets and shawls. Only the occasional squall of a gull, or the shout of a wriggling kid breaks the silence.

Paloma is scheduled to return for us in a few minutes, and I savor the still ground under my body, knowing it won’t last. Our footprints in the black sand look like fossils, like nothing could shift them out of shape. When we trudge back up to the dock, I take half the beach with me in my shoes. I need to sift and shake three times to get it out, or maybe just for luck.


Paloma sweeps past Stromboli’s flat seaward side, the side that erupts.

A smooth sheet of hardened lava, the chute of so many eruptions, begins at the lip and cascades all the way to the churning sea below. The sun is just about to dip below the horizon, to give the Stromboli by Night tour its name. The captain explains that the eruption from just a few years ago lasted for months, that it created the long lava flow we’re seeing now. And all the while, the boat rocks.

“If you wait,” he says, “You may just see the eruption happening before your eyes.”

We wait. Beside me, a man with a video camera keeps rolling. I try to imagine who would want to watch this video back on dry land, the camera shuddering with the motion of the ship. The boat rolls too, first front to back and then side to side as we make a lazy spin into the waves.

All of my photos are on strange, sloping angles, as though I can’t properly feel the floor.

We crane our necks around like people watching a tennis match, focused on the dim smoking mouth. We circle and circle.

At one point, the captain calls our attention to two distinct colors of smoke pouring toward the sky in separate plumes at the same time—one a milky gray and one a filthy brown. That’s when it happens—a crimson fountain of lava bubbles up in a long, sparkling spout. In the same instant, the boat hits a massive wave and careens forward, tossing half of us off our seats. Everyone on the boat collects themselves and cheers, as the first mate shouts at the top of his lungs in Italian, fists raised, “It’s erupting! Oh my God! Stromboli by night! Stromboli by night!”

That he has probably seen this every single night since he took this job seems irrelevant. It seems likewise beside the point that Paloma’s rocking has reached a nerve-rattling extreme, that people are tumbling over themselves, craning their necks and spinning around backwards to see the volcano, which, by now, has ceased in its pyrotechnics.

As the sun slides lower behind the horizon, the boat continues to turn, and my stomach remains lodged somewhere against the inside of my ribcage. We wait for it to happen again. We wait for an hour, the boat bobbing all the while.

It is dark when the captain decides that we should be on our way, that we’ve seen enough of Stromboli and her treacherous dark water and bright plume. The people on the boat groan in collective disappointment.


Facing backwards on one of Paloma’s rear seats, I focus on Stromboli’s shadow in the distance, a ghostly blue-black monster breaking the line of the horizon. It is the only thing to do to keep from getting sick.

As it shrinks away from us, I feel as though I’m falling into a kind of trance. Or perhaps my sister and I are just reluctant to look away, or to speak, out of fear of what might happen.

The captain has turned on Paloma’s interior lights, and their reflection bounces between the windows. We remind each other to look past them at the objects in the distance, at things that are fixed and anchored to land. Others on the boat, apparently, do not share a similar strategy.

Because halfway back to dry land, the woman sitting behind us starts to vomit. The first mate and his assistant—the aviator-wearing teenage boy—leap into action. Stores of plastic bags are hidden all over the boat—under the seats, in the panels along the ceiling. They hand one to her, along with a fat lemon wedge that materializes out of nowhere. The woman hangs her head in misery—the only hint that anything is amiss, along with the wafting smell of lemon.

Then, a second sound arises from the other side of the boat—another woman is vomiting, hunched over herself. An instant later, the man sitting beside her starts to do the same, and is followed by no fewer than three other people. The first mate and the teenage boy move between them as though nothing were amiss, handing out lemon wedges and bags and rubbing backs.

My sister flashes a tight smile. “Everyone on this boat is throwing up right now.”

“Let’s not talk about it, please,” I say, fixating on the island in the distance.


By the time Lipari, our home port, comes back into focus, everyone is weary and slumped over and silent.

On the pier, my jelly knees quake. We walk carefully back to our hotel under the street lamps, queasy and in a haze. I mention that it was good to see the volcano erupting, even if we had to wait, had to turn around in circles for an hour to see it.

“I mean, look on the bright side,” my sister says. “I took a tortuga tour in Costa Rica. And the thing with that tour is that eighty percent of the time, they don’t see a single tortuga.”

Go there:
The island of Stromboli can be reached directly by ferry from the town of Milazzo in Sicily. Tickets for the Stromboli by Night island tour, which includes stops in Panarea and Stromboli, can be purchased in the main port towns throughout the Aeolian Islands.

Palermo, Sicily: The Bad Tourists

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Palermo's Sleepily Austere City Gates

We sleep all day. But not before we try to accomplish things. We try so hard.

We sit down to plates of pasta and grilled eggplant at an outdoor trattoria that looks like my grandmother’s living room. We walk to the literal center of town, the four corners of the street hemmed in by fountains and statues. Back at our hotel, we study city maps with purpose. We inquire about ferry schedules and Google famous local restaurants, including one that isn’t a restaurant at all, but just a woman who cooks. You need a code word to get in, and a friend who speaks Sicilian. In front of the lumbering, gorgeous Teatro Massimo, a flier advertises a screening of a film about Jeff Buckley; I photograph it with great hope, thinking we’ll look up the web site later and go.

And then, somewhere in the middle of all this, we realize that our bodies are failing us. That as much as we want to explore. Talk to the fruit vendors. Go to the screening. Find the beach and the botanical garden, we want to do something else so much more.

We want to sleep. We want to curl up on our queen-size bed in the Tropical Room at the Casi di Amici—an amiable, second-floor B&B situated in a lumbering apartment building—and just forget that we’re traveling. And make up the hours and hours of lost sleep in Venice, in a hotel room swarmed with mosquitoes and tiny and hot as a pizza oven.

So we do. For hours.

We lose complete track of time. We sleep through the day and the night, waking only to check our Facebook pages using the free wireless. We vow to become tourists the next day, to see, in the words of our rather poorly-translated guidebook, what’s deserving to be seen, instead of closing the door, and making the city disappear.

Go there: Palermo is Sicily’s capital city. It is located on the island’s northwest coast. A Casa di Amici bed and breakfast, emphasis on the bed, is tucked away behind the Teatro Massimo.

Venice Nocturne 2: Indoors

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Venice After Dark

It’s 2 am. My sister is asleep and has forbidden me from opening any of the windows in our hotel room. Mosquitoes will come in, she says. And she’s right. I mean, she is. And I’m not really forbidden, but we agreed on it.

Before we turned out the lights, we made a promise that if any mosquitoes buzzed around our ears in the night, we’d immediately turn the lights back on and kill them. We even kept the windows closed all day and swept the room beforehand. She found one and killed it, smearing its guts down the wall, just to have some visual proof of our diligence.

This was a really great plan, we thought: Keep the windows closed at all costs and be vigilant about stragglers after the fact.

The worst that could happen, she said, is that the room could get really hot. But we’d be mosquito-free—a quality that we agreed was more valuable than, say, being properly temperature-adjusted.

The mosquitoes kept us up the night before—you don’t even understand. Chewing away at our backs, risen up out of this sinking swamp of a city.

In fact, this was not the worst that could happen.

The worst that could happen was as follows: My sister, immediately before lights out, takes a sleeping pill. Which renders her unable to hear any buzzing mosquitoes (which appear out of nowhere, in my ear and not hers, as though they’d grown out of the wall like Darwin’s meat experiment). It also renders her unable to sense that the room is stifling.

I kill the mosquito. I cannot kill the hotness.

Which is why I’m sitting on the bathroom floor of a hotel room in Venice, Italy, unable to sleep, writing in the dark, not wearing any pants, unable to open any windows because we agreed, wondering how long I will keep this agreement, desperate for air, because really I’m older, waiting for morning, or for the pill to wear off, whichever comes first.

Burano: Italy Through the Kaleidescope

Friday, May 28th, 2010


The storm on Burano coincides with our visit nearly to the moment and gives the impression, at first, that the entire island will run in the rain like a bleary watercolor.

We huddle under the awning in a bar and drink too-expensive hot chocolates while old men rattle away in Venetian dialect around us. Day trippers scamper for the vaporetto and for the lace shops. The town hardly looks real with its low stucco houses painted in rainbow colors—from peppermint twist pastels to blinding neons. It is Italy out of a feverish dream, Italy gone Willy Wonka.

The best colors are in the interior, when you slide through the tiny entryways off the main drag. The buildings form little courtyards in the center. Enter, and you’re swallowed by color, by an umbrella hanging on an outside hook, but three girls jumping rope, by a spluttering fountain. Steps away from the tourist din, Burano is a real place.

In the overgrown churchyard, the brick steeple leans so precariously that it actually seems dangerous—not like that other Italian leaning tower with all of its history, its army of scientists to protect it and the gawking tourists below. We ponder the chances of it tumbling on our heads when an old man comes up behind us and stares. His blue-striped sweater is done in the hues of the town–cobalt and cornflower. It is that time of the afternoon when old men in Italy take their walks or sit outside, their hours of afternoon commiseration.

When I look over, he says, “You probably don’t speak Italian.”

“I understand it,” I say.

“Ah, he says. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, but when I see pretty women, I have to look. I know I’m old, but still. Have a good day.”

I feel bad taking photos of people’s everyday lives, until I remember that in New York City, tourists constantly take photos of my everyday life, and that I don’t really mind very much. So maybe this is cultural exchange of the highest and most literal order—your little houses for my skyscrapers, your canals for the pond in Central Park—a way of seeing what is colorful and bright about the places we visit, and about the ones we come from.

Go there: The island of Burano is located about 12km north of Venice. To visit, take the LN vaporetto from Piazza San Marco (Pieta), or Fondamenta Nouve. The latter is quicker.

Venice Nocturne 1: The Walk Back

Thursday, May 27th, 2010


After dark, the arrows point in both directions. They do in daylight too, but it doesn’t seem so challenging then, when aimlessness is its own kind of reward—the reason why you visit Venice in the first place. Once the sun sets, though, the labyrinth turns Alice-in-Wonderland sinister—lit with high yellow bulbs and silent to the point of distraction, save the footsteps just around the corner.

Unless you’re in love, I guess. In which case, the challenges of the shoulder-narrow streets, the hitching corners, are probably different. Then, you can probably appreciate the safety of the thing better, the fact that there are no muggings or murders here. The darkness, the shuttered storefronts, give way to nothing. The threat dissipates, falls away like a length of cloth in a magic trick.

We’ve eaten dinner—overpriced and the wine was terrible, but it’s hard to know sometimes. Choosing a restaurant in a nook or a cranny guarantees nothing, partly because the entire city is nook and cranny both, but also because “off” and “on” the beaten path are slippery terms here. To go to Venice is to visit both the most touristed, most traversed, most memorized and mapped, most known of known places, and to be utterly, pointlessly lost. All we want, at this point, is to get home.

Around a wide corner, we get harassed by a group of big, intoxicated boys. It happens by the shuttered fish market. This is as close as I will ever come to definitively identifying the spot. One of them latches on, says things that are distinctly tame and rather beautiful, compared with things I’ve heard on the streets of New York, but his marginally-more-sober buddies tell him to give it a rest, especially when they see our averted eyes, the tense lines of our spines.

Near the Rialto at high tide, the water has brimmed up over the edge of the canal and people are having their dinner at tables perched on the edge, the water creeping up against the soles of their shoes in harmless little waves. The building just behind them—a slouching white stone structure that could use some of the city’s abundant restoration budget to wipe the generations of soot off its grimy face—is immersed up the threshold. The candles on the tables flicker anyway.

When we finally find the Ponte Scalzi, we scuttle like mice who have reached the cheese—spat out the right end of the maze, finally. Four or five other tourists, lumpy in their fanny packs, their khaki dinner clothes, have been following us and seem grateful in several different languages. We reach our hotel and stay for an instant. Create the illusion of a fixed point on the map, pretend that the city isn’t always shifting, sliding out from underneath us.

The Ancients

Friday, April 10th, 2009


Anna Maria and I walk across the Villa of Adrano under a bleachy white sky and a canopy of palm trees. It is before dinner and I’m hugging my shawl around me like a hunched-over widow. We don’t speak much. I don’t have much to say.

My cousin is a little stooped and pouchy around the middle and her glasses make her eyes look bigger and fishier than they are. Her clothes—clingy t-shirts, quilted coats—make it difficult to tell how old she actually is but she projects the air of a disaffected, chain-smoking soccer mom. Such things aren’t spoken of, but in hanging out with her, I get the distinct sense that she is condemned now to old maidenhood or maybe just to oldness. The bitterness of it has turned her words vinegary and short. In a week, I don’t recall ever seeing her smile.

Before I leave that tiny island, I will see her shout, lecture, swear, scold, and cry in wracking sobs like a little girl, tears rolling down her face. I never sort out whether she likes me or not. But she takes care of me. Unlike my Aunt Maria, she has a car and friends under 75, and she shows up, every single day, unsmiling and brisk, for an outing.

One afternoon, it is Adrano. It’s never totally clear what we’re going there to see because Anna Maria speaks more Italian than Sicilian, which I have trouble following. In the car, she asks me a question and I make a decent guess at an answer. She falls silent and then bursts out in her big, half-angry laugh and speaks to a third person who isn’t there.

“Jesus Christ, this girl doesn’t understand me.”

She tries another way of saying it and I still don’t understand. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think of the word in Sicilian but she can’t.

“You know, Anna,” I say, finally, fishing for whatever words I know. The rickety old language. “In Italian, I’m kind of stupid.”

“No!” she says, feigning politeness.

“But in English, I’m pretty smart, I swear.”

Her laughter dissolves into a wheezy smoker’s cough.

In Adrano, she walks with me past the baroque town hall, glancing up at the sky and frowning as though she could frighten the clouds away with a glance. Fat stone cherubs cavort over the doors. Explosions of carved fruit and leaves grace the doors. I am exhausted from speaking Sicilian, my poor brain frazzled and clicking like an old computer, working hard for every word. So I stay silent.

I still have no idea what we’ve come here to see. She tries to explain but I just shake my head.

“Fine,” she says. “Just walk. I’ll show you.”

At the edge of the park, she points.


It is a castle. Right in the center of town. An enormous fortification—a single tower up on a high platform.

“What is it?” I ask as though I’ll be able to understand the answer.

“Ruins,” she says. Just like that. And I want to ask a million questions. What kind of ruins? Who left this here? But I know she doesn’t know and I know I wouldn’t be able to understand if she did, so I do the only thing I know to do. I reach into my bag and draw out my camera. I take a photo.

A year later, I will see an almost identical photo on Wikipedia in the entry about the Normans, the part about their incredible conquests in Sicily. The greatest rulers the island ever knew, according to some. The Normans! With their weird language that must have seemed so odd. They brought castles. They brought blue eyes. They left their stones behind.

We make a circle around the ruin and see some other things near the Villa. A tiny church that’s painted in music box colors. A stretch of green and ocher buildings, their facades perfect and crumbling and beaten down by the sun, the sulfur in the sky. A stretch of jewelry stores all in a row down one street.

When I was a baby, my grandmother made a visit back to Sicily and came home with a gold necklace for me in a tiny box, a Madonna in painted enamel on the medallion. I wasn’t allowed to wear it until I’d graduated from college. The box still bears the inscription of a jewelry store in Adrano. Maybe the one I stood outside of that day. Maybe one that stood on that spot.

Then there were the old men. On our way back to the car, we pass them. In chairs, wearing their hats. All in a circle. It is that hour of the day when old men in Sicily sit and talk and talk and sit. Wearing their best clothes. In that between-time around the edges of siesta. And they look, their heads all following in unison as though I am a tennis ball. They look as though I am an alien, newly coughed up from a gleaming space ship. As though I have sprouted a tail, an unruly tentacle. They grow silent as Anna Maria and I approach and she pays them no heed but I switch, manic, between cool disinterest and gaping fascination.

How do they know? I am wearing a red cotton skirt and a pair of sandals. The shawl renders me modest but I would have been anyway, shoulders under a t-shirt. It cannot be the clothes because other women are out and about. They look like me. They’re wearing less, in fact. It’s something else and I can’t see it and I don’t have enough words to ask about it. But I wonder what it is, this thing that makes me American.

Meanwhile Back at the Castle

Thursday, April 9th, 2009


This is the Castello Normanno in Adrano, Sicily. My cousin Anna Maria took me there on an overcast spring day when I didn’t have a whole lot to say, or maybe I was so exhausted from speaking Sicilian—from reaching so far back into my memory bank—that I just didn’t have any words left.

When I first saw the castle, I had no idea what it was and Anna Maria tried to explain but I couldn’t understand. (She is of the younger generation of my cousins that went to school and speaks more Italian than Sicilian, which I can only half-follow.) There are so many ruins in Sicily. In the middle of downtown. In the middle of fields. And the Roman and Greek ruins are spectacular, to be sure, but there’s something about the Norman ruins, like this one, that were particularly haunting and beautiful to me. Maybe because they seem so out of place amidst the palm trees and enormous pink flowers. A million miles away from home. Which of course makes no sense because Sicily was home to the Normans. Well, these Normans anyway.

I’ll write about that day with Anna Maria, the whole history of the thing. How my cousin Angela lives in Adrano but we couldn’t go see her because she was fighting with my Aunt Maria. How Anna Maria walked me down the main street with all the jewelry shops selling mountains of Italian gold. How all the old men in the square watched me pass as though I was an alien. Someday. When it’s ready to be written.