The Calm Before the Storm
“Dové, Choco, Dové”
We must have heard that phrase 100 times on our white truffle hunting adventure in the Chianti region, just below Florence. Humans are incapable of farming white truffles, which means the best way to gather these little delicacies is to hunt them down in the woods with a trained truffle-sniffing canine. In 2015. In a developed country. In a world where we visited the moon 50+ years ago and clone dogs for a $100K in Korea. THE BEST WAY. Crazy.
Choco was the name of our trusty hound, and it was his trainer Elizabeth repeatedly asking him “Dové” (meaning “Where”). This seemed largely unnecessary, as Choco’s intense love for truffles is only rivaled by zombies affinity for brains and the Kardashians passion for the beds of NBA players (to be fair, they probably have very comfy oversized mattresses). In short, he was rarely off duty, sniffing every inch of the wooded area and, upon locating a potential truffle location, digging feverishly until Elizabeth called him off to dig out the treasure herself with a miniature shovel.
After the hunt, our guide Ray Liotta provided us with a lunch that featured truffles in every dish, and wrapped up the tour with some local olive oil and wine tasting. No need to reread that sentence. I’ll confirm it here. Ray Liotta was our tour guide.
Truffle hunting marked our last day in Tuscany, as we took the two and a half hour train ride from Florence to Pompeii the following day. Winter is closing in and, just like birds and monarch butterflies, Zoxan is migrating south this trip.
Pompeii was unbelievable. It’s absolutely amazing to be in the presence of two millennia old ruins that are better preserved than parts of Detroit. Our trip amongst the old city started out in poor form when we made the foolish mistake of trying to go it alone. Maps were outdated and the posting of informative signs are outlawed (one can only gather from the lack of them). Frustrated, we decided to turn back and and hope to find a tour another day when Zoë ran into Julia, a fiery old native of Naples that provided small tours of the historic site. We joined forces with an American named Anton to split the cost and received an incredible trip through time.
Pompeiians apparently weren’t the most subtle of people. Pompeii was know for two things: wool and prostitution. Locating a brothel a simple process. All one had to do was follow the dicks. Erect penises in the cobblestone pointed you in the right direction, and a large phallic stone jutting out the side of a building let you know you had arrived. Afterwards the happy customer got back to their wool trade, working feverishly with the goal of saving up for a return trip, undoubtedly. Ah, the simple life.
Positano was the next stop on our travels, one of the beautiful little towns that make up the famous Almafi coast. Despite only being an 90 minutes away from the town, we managed to make our commute nearly as long as our flight from LA to Istanbul.
We attempted a “20 minute” walk to a nearby train station that had a more convenient route than the train station outside of our hotel. That walk morphed into a two hour hike, suitcases in tow, which could have extended longer if not for a kind Italian couple that took mercy on us and drove us to the station. We then boarded a train bound for Sorrento, only to inexplicably exit at the Prima Sorrento station (literally translated to “before Sorrento”). After boarding a second train and arriving in Sorrento alas, we jumped on the Vomit Comet to complete the last, stomach churning leg of our journey (I’m being told by Zoë that it was just a regular bus, but it sure felt like a theme park ride).
Luckily we handled this with the calm and clarity our relationship is built on. Ok, not really. I told her to stop being “crazy” at one point. Don’t tell your wife to stop being crazy, ever. Silence can be so brutal sometimes.
There’s nothing like a beautiful view to cure some bickering, and our AirBnb had that and then some. Both our place and the village of Positano were gorgeous. After an eventful two weeks that felt like two months, we spent five days happily doing very, very little. We ate. We slept. We walked down narrow little alley ways and back up different narrow little alley ways in attempts to get lost. Our thighs tripled in size and strength (Well maybe only doubled in strength. The last third was probably due to the gelato.) as we made our daily trip down to the beach and back up to our condo.
The highlight of our time spent in Positano had to be a cooking class we stumbled into on one of our alley walks. Chef Peter, a boisterous British bloak (say that five times fast), did his best to drink us under the table as he taught us how to properly prepare calamari, prosciutto wrapped mozzarella, and stuffed pasta. He failed in making me any better of a chef but succeeded in providing me with the most powerful hangover I’ve had since my college days attending (read: pretending to attend) the University of Arizona.
Feelings of guilt and a need to be of service to others typically accompany Zoë and I anytime we allow ourselves the type of self-indulgence we did in Positano. It was here that we decided, after our time in Crete, we would join volunteers in Lesvos working with Syrian refugees. More on that later.
We boarded the Vomit Comet one last time as we left Positano and made our way to the Naples Airport and out of Italy. I was a little upset at the timing of it all because I had finally mastered asking my Italian waiters for the bill (pronounced Cone-toe) instead of demanding they sing for me (Con-to). I couldn’t be disappointed however, as we were on our way to Crete, with a one day stop in Athens (because Athens is not a city one should just connect in).
Upon arriving in Greece, I quickly came to the realization that I speak zero Greek. I can’t say please, excuse me or thank you. I can’t even say hi. I was damn near fluent in Italian in contrast. Here’s a video capturing my first attempt at asking a friendly Greek man where the bathroom was in Athens (I was dressed a lot like Rachel McAdams that day).
We holed up at the Plaka hotel and spent our day touring the famous Plaka and visiting the Acropolis. It has been a trip visiting these historic sites in off season. Being surrounded by ancient ruins and so few people at such famous locations has been both amazing and borderline eery in an ‘I am Legend’ kind of way.
A mid-day one hour flight on the 31st marked the beginning of our Cretian adventure. Adventure probably isn’t the correct term for it as 99% of our time has been spent within a 5 block radius of “old town” near the ancient Venetian harbor.
I’m going to stop prefacing things with ancient from here on out. Just assume, unless I say “brand new”, whatever I am referencing is very very old.
The sputtering of the Greek economy is nearly audible here. 50% of the under 25 population is unemployed. As I’ve been told, the austerity measure Germany and other debtors included as part of their provisions for the bailout lowered government employee wages by 1/3, which in turn dramatically decreased consumer spending and dried up non-government businesses.
All this doesn’t stopped the Greeks from being some of the friendliest people we’ve ever encountered. Zoë is enlivened here. She feels at home due to both the kindness and the relaxed culture (which is in stark contrast to the fashionable Italians). Her fathers side is Cretian, which has caused some confusion as several Greeks have launched into full conversations with her, assuming she’s a local. If you want to know how Zoë reacts in such situations, please refer to the ‘Notebook’ youtube clip from earlier.
Next on our agenda is volunteer work in Lesvos. The crisis in Syria is one of many news stories back in the states, but it is omnipresent in Europe. The more we learn about it, the more it becomes clear that it is the biggest tragedy of our generation. 11 million displaced people and 4 million refugees forced from their country and into a world that is largely unwilling to provide asylum or aid.
We are scared about what may await us in Lesvos. We keep reading stories like this one, knowing that an experience such as holding a dying child will irrevocably change us. However, Plato would have us believe it’s best to leave our caves if possible, even if the shapes on the wall draw such satisfaction, and I’m inclined to follow his lead.