Finding a Travel Story Anywhere

For anyone who has ever read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, you’ll know he’s very calculated and precise when he creates a piece of writing. He urges people who want to write to “get on a plane”. He explains, “If a subject interests you, go after it, even if it’s in the next county, or the next state, or the next country. It’s not going to come looking for you”. This applies to any situation — not just writing. Writing is a concrete way to jot down memories. Journaling and blogging are ways to record experiences, so that’s what my travel blog is for.

Zinsser is partly right; in order to capture a new experience, it is a good idea to board a plane. It isn’t necessary to book a flight somewhere simply to tell a story, though, because a writer — amateur or professional — can express an emotion or share an experience from any perspective. I stopped blogging because I had thought my travels weren’t interesting enough to publicize. I haven’t gone on an exotic trip in a while. However, I still explore on a daily basis! Like Zinsser, I thought I would find interesting stories by traveling. Some travel writers are locals who write about familiar places. If I’m not on a fancy trip somewhere, I can still discover something interesting to write about closer to home. Today, I felt the need to do something different and break my usual routine.

I don’t know about you, but Fall Back confused my sleeping schedule. I woke up early on Sunday because the orange glow of the sunrise begged me to open my eyes. I ignored the sun and tried to sleep, but my flimsy blinds lost its battle with the sunlight. I went for a walk. Did I mention I dislike rising early and exercising?

As much as I would rather sleep in and plop myself in front of the TV, I left my cozy house. Bleary-eyed yet mentally awake, I ambled along the tree-lined paths of my neighborhood. The houses, painted different pastel colors and blocked off from strangers by soccer-moms’ SUVs and white-collared sedans, represented a sleepy suburb. Within its manicured lawns and wood-paneled walls, I imagined that young children slept soundly while parents prep their waffle-makers and juicers. But who knows?

The houses sat by glistening lagoons that looked pristine from the outside. I’ve never seen anyone row boats in them in all the time I’ve lived here. All the row boats that wealthy people owned in the community lay overturned in their spacious backyards. If Nicholas Sparks relocated to anywhere outside of North Carolina to write about a similarly picturesque community, my hometown would probably be where he set the scene for one of his tragic romances. If Hollywood decided to remake “Dawson’s Creek”, I’m sure the casting agents could find a dozen Joey Potters sneaking through windows of the aforementioned houses.

What’s the story? What can be found within this middle-class community? I don’t have to travel far to find a story to write about. Granted, I may not write about my hometown in the future. I wonder what I might find if I decide to write about it.

San Gimignano & Siena, Italy (Nov. 4, 2012)

There’s no Tuscan Sun here, but it’s still serene.

Tasting the Vernaccia wine of San Gimignano

The remaining bell towers of San Gimignano. This medieval town used to have several, but only four remain today.

The ice cream shop in San Gimignano, Dondoli Gelateria, is the Gelato World Champion of 2006-2007 and 2008-2009. If you happen to find yourself there, try the “Fiordilatte” (flower-milk). We don’t have it in the U.S., and it tastes smooth!

The town square of Siena was originally built for meetings. Wealthy families built their city around the town hall.

Siena is also home to the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, an old and respected conservatory that’s known for hosting the Musicologists’ Convention. The only reason I know this is because the tour guide is a vocalist, specializing in classical music, who dabbles in the tourism business!

Here is the academy’s website:

Rome, Italy (Nov. 3, 2012)

The Coliseum


This was the last stop on my cruise itinerary. Ending a cruise in Rome seemed like a lovely notion until my group discovered that the cruise company dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. Tour buses could not enter the dock area, so we were stuck with a long walk from the port to our bus. I didn’t have a problem with walking, but a lot of people in my family weren’t ambulatory. After our trek, we finally met our guide.

The guide was trilingual (English, Italian, and Mandarin). She spent two years studying Mandarin in Beijing, so her Chinese sounded much better than mine! Not only did she speak three languages fluently, she mixed them up throughout the day. She communicated with the bus driver in Italian, spoke to the elderly members of my family in Mandarin and also gave information  in English.

I should also mention that only a few family members spoke English. Most of us relied on Cantonese, but we couldn’t find a Cantonese-speaking tour guide in Italy. Mandarin was the closest thing we could get to assuage the people who didn’t understand English. We didn’t want them to be bored on these various tours. I mean, there’s only so much you can enjoy when you don’t understand the history, culture, or language of a foreign country. When you hop around various locations between countries, it can be confusing.

On top of the tour guide’s translations, most of us were translating Mandarin into Cantonese.

Interior of the Coliseum at the basement level, where they kept their animals caged until showtime. There is an upper platform that was reconstructed to give visitors a visual of the performance arena overlaying the basement.

Sistine Chapel ceiling

I’m sure that I could Google the history of the Sistine Chapel. Much of what I learned in high school art history class about the Sistine Chapel has been forgotten. On this particular tour of the Sistine Chapel, I was trying to listen to the tour guide’s explanations of Biblical stories in Mandarin. I didn’t understand most of it. Surprisingly, I was able to understand her description of a panel depicting Adam & Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden. I guess there isn’t a big difference between the word, “apple” in Mandarin and Cantonese except for the tones.

On another note, the Vatican Museum is ridiculously crowded — and we visited on a good day. I wish the photo above was less fuzzy, but I took this picture while walking backwards and out of the room. There’s a wave of people circulating through the room at any given time. If you linger, you WILL get pushed around and sucked out the door.

Toss a coin in the fountain and make a wish! You might return to Rome. 🙂 Is it weird that I kept having visions of myself as an animated cartoon character who is mistaken for an Italian pop star and befriended by a native who whisks me throughout the city on a vespa?! 😀  If you know which tween movie I’m talking about, be sure to roll your eyes and “like” this post.

Naples, Italy (Nov. 1, 2012)

Temple of Apollo at Pompeii

Pottery excavated from the remains of Pompeii

what looks like a Roman Bath

Even though it looks serene in the picture, it decimated Pompeii. The ash preserved the city and transformed it into a relic.

This is a five course meal at a local, hearty restaurant named Ristorante L’Abate in Sorrento, Italy/ The waiters served an appetizer (a cheesy Margherita pizza) with vegetables (grilled eggplant, pumpkin, and zucchini), pasta (rigatoni with basil and marinara sauce), and dessert (cake). Fanta, an orange soda, is popular in several European countries. I prefer it to Sunkist, which seems more sugary than Fanta. The soda cans in Europe are taller and thinner than the cans sold in the U.S. The meal was $30 per person, including drinks. It was slightly expensive, but the portions, variety, and friendly ambience made the meal worth it.

View of the Amalfi Coast as we drive further up and away from Sorrento

View of the Amalfi Coast as we head toward Positano. Positano is a region in the Amalfi Coast that is famous for producing limoncello.

I thoroughly enjoyed traveling through Naples mostly because the van driver was loquacious, and the tourism company was a well-organized family-owned business that treated its clients like family. The driver chatted about various topics throughout the journey.  One particular topic of discussion centered around the 2012 Election. Even though we were abroad in a stunningly gorgeous locale, we talked about American politics. The driver preferred Obama to Romney and asked if we did, too. What struck me about the conversation was the driver’s interest in an election in which he couldn’t vote. Even citizens of other countries await the outcome of November 6.

When was the last time I paid attention to international politics? I should start paying attention to current affairs and practice global awareness.

Catania, Sicily (Oct. 31, 2012)

An increase in rain correlates with a decrease in sightseeing.

I can’t say that I saw Catania, Sicily in-depth, even if I was there for only a day. Two factors influenced my experience in Catania: the weather, and the tour guide.

No one can control the weather. However, one can control the type of tour guide who shows foreigners around the town. In this case, the tour company my family chose gave us a tour guide who, for unknown reasons, was not licensed. Maybe the guide we received was in the process of working toward a license, and this tour counted toward points. It’s also possible that no one else was available that day, so this guide was provided. In any case, this guide had limited knowledge of English and spoke with an accent so heavy that speech was unclear. To be fair, the guide will always speak English better than I will speak Italian. (I don’t even speak Italian, other than to order gelato, per favore, and offer a smile with my buongiornos and arrivedercis).

Nevertheless, we were all stunned when the guide admitted that the company allowed her to give a tour without a license.

On the bright side, we were able to have some fun and see sights of a different kind. We went to a quirky bar to sample the local wine, Vino Alla Mandorla (Almond Wine). Vino Alla Mandorla is a sweet dessert wine that tastes richer with every sip. The best part of the bar? The phallic sculptures! If you are ever in Taormina, be sure to visit this place.

Valletta, Malta (Oct. 30, 2012)

Malta is a small island that influenced Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. He drew inspiration from Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta”, a story about revenge. Shylock’s “pound of flesh” obsession originates from this play. If you overlook the anti-semitic themes in these two works of British literature, the port city of Valletta is worth seeing in and of itself.

Valletta is currently known for having numerous cruise ships and transport ships registered in its name. The tour guide at this location told us that the registration brings good publicity for the city…until accidents at sea sometimes generates negative press. It is a city that is influenced by Napoleon’s reign. Malta maintains positive historic ties with Portugal through its connection with Britain. The island exerts a strong British identity as seen in the locals’ British accents and heavy tourism from the UK. Many locals speak English due to British influence and Italian because of its proximity to Italy, but the national language is Maltese. The tour guide explained that the language closely resembles Arabic rather than English or Italian.

Governed by Spain in the 16th century, the rulers bequeathed the territory of Malta to the Knights of St. John. The Knights of St. John consisted of aristocratic families all throughout Europe. The Knights of St. John supported Christianity during the Crusades and prevented the Ottoman Empire from encroaching on their land during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. This victory gave them their claim to fame. The city of Valletta is named after the Grand Master of the Order, who led the Knights into battle.

The Knights of St. John were so respected in Malta that they were able to have their own church built. This church is named St. John’s Co-Cathedral, and it is an important symbol of the city. Many members of the order are buried underground.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral

The cathedral houses two prominent paintings by Caravaggio, “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” and “Saint Jerome Writing”. Unfortunately, the cathedral museum didn’t allow photographs because they’re the gems of the cathedral, but these images can be found online. According to the tour guide, “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” is known for Caravaggio’s use of “chiaroscuro” (lightness and darkness) to illuminate specific points in the painting to create a sense of depth. Notable points about this painting include the fact that Caravaggio signed his name within the blood of the recently beheaded subject, and none of the characters in the painting appear to be focusing on the beheading. All eyes look elsewhere, which demonstrates a sense of irony in the dramatic event. Caravaggio was known for being rebellious and walking left when every other artist of the day was drifting to the right. His style and demeanor landed him in jail in Malta away from his native Florence. His work in Malta is known for being particularly abrasive yet influential to his legacy.

Caravaggio based his artwork on common people, eschewing the heightened idealism that was common in “beautiful” works of art. Instead of giving a figure the expected six-pack, he created an ab-less, normal human being in his work. This drew criticism among his contemporaries. However, his “Saint Jerome Writing” is important for its depiction of realism, especially in the detail of the hands.

Apparently, the mark of a talented painter is determined by the way he or she constructs the hands.

Dubrovnik, Croatia (Oct. 28, 2012)

View of the boats through a stone bridge in the old city. There’s a moat and a drawbridge!

The interesting part of Dubrovnik for me was taking the bus to the mountains where we saw Bosnia-Hertzegovina. I’m not familiar with the history of Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia-Hertzegovina, and what used to be Yugoslavia. Before the trip, I purchased a guidebook, but the complex history within and between these countries cannot be fully understood merely by reading about it. I read and re-read the history portions of my book like the nerd I am, but I got a better sense of the cultural climate by seeing the border in person.

There’s so much overlap between the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnians, and what used to be Yugoslavia that I’m not going to mislead or bore you by trying to piece it all together in a blog. This is my understanding of their relationship, and this is what I learned: All these nationalities are next-door neighbors. Their language is the same with differences in dialect, just like American English differs from British English and Australian English. These countries are sometimes united and sometimes divided throughout history (more so the latter than the former). Croatia has faced annexation throughout periods in its history and has distinct identities between the north (Split) and south (Dubrovnik).

I got the feeling that my tour guide, while he was happy to answer any historical questions I had, was hoping to remain apolitical and neutral. In my opinion, he didn’t really seem to like talking about historic events and mentioned that a lot of people were still affected by wars that couldn’t seem to be put in the past fast enough.

View of Bosnia-Hertzegovina from the mountains of Croatia

Isn’t the view beautiful?

Grilled seafood lunch

Yummy seafood in the Mediterranean!

Kotor, Montenegro (Oct. 27, 2012)

Back in 2010, some friends and I were at a bar in New York. We were sitting a few chairs away from this guy who told us he was from a jumble of places that I recall sounding something like this, “Serbia-Montenegro by Bosnia-Hertzegovina”. Never having heard of most of these places — just Bosnia and Serbia — and unable to locate either country on a map, I shrugged it off and attributed his ramblings to the glass of alcohol he nursed in his hand.

I thought to myself, I have no idea what he’s saying. If Yugoslavia were still around, I guess he’d be Yugoslavian, but I’m not sure where he’s from now. I guess he’s just Eastern European or something.

I actually saw Montenegro and realized it is on the map, indeed. Next door to Croatia, it is a newly-established country with migrants from Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, to name a few countries. It takes pride in its medieval roots and cherishes its history as a melting pot of different cultures. According to the tour guide, Napoleon occupied Kotor at one point and built a theater in the town square to showcase French culture in Montenegro. It’s located to the left of the bell tower.

Bell Tower of Kotor, with a medieval apparatus below that was used to publicly humiliate criminals

While I took this photo, the tour guide told us about the legend regarding the city of Kotor. I had some difficulty hearing her at first, and I was in the middle of taking this picture as she shared this with the group. Take what you will from this account: the city was heavily protected due to the high walls surrounding the mountains. The people of Kotor lived in a village under the safety of a king. One day, the king found all the people in the village sleeping. A fairy approached him to warn him not to expand the town on this site because there was no source of water nearby even though they were nestled in the mountains. He refused to move the town toward the sea and made a deal with the fairy to awaken the people from their slumber in exchange for one drop of water. The fairy granted this request. As a result, the old town had only one small well from which people drew water.

Kotor’s water pump

Although the legend claims Kotor has a limited water supply, the weather begged to differ. It was raining hard the day we visited! Luckily, we had the shelter of a bus in which we could view the city. It snaked up curvy hills and brought us to a nice bayside restaurant for lunch. The tour guide asked us what we ate in Split yesterday.

“Pizza,” we responded. “The guide recommended it.”

“Pizza?! No, that’s unacceptable. Today, you’re going to try local Montenegran food. We have great barbeque with grilled chicken, pork, beef. You can try some of the local flavors today.”

We sat against the wall of the restaurant with tables pushed together to seat 18 people. Pulling pieces of bread apart and dipping them in a mixture of olive oil and vinegar, I couldn’t wait to see what the tour guide meant about the food. When the salad arrived, the lettuce tasted crisp and fresh. It was good.

When the barbeque platters arrived (four platters to feed a family of 18), I got really excited! I had never seen so much meat on one dish. Combined with french fries and a red dipping sauce that was reminiscent of ketchup mixed with chili, this dish put yesterday’s pizza to shame.

Barbeque meat: Montenegro-style!

Not only was the meal delicious, we couldn’t even finish it all. My family can eat, but we underestimated the formidable portions. Converted to dollars, the meal cost about $20 per person, which was not bad at all for the quality of the food and hospitality of the restaurant.

Split, Croatia (Oct. 26, 2012)

Yep, there’s a city named Split in the English language! It’s in Croatia, a country I never thought I would see but am really happy I did. Located on the east side of Croatia on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Split has a mixture of maritime activity and historic sites for travelers to enjoy.

Old Town

We strolled around the well-preserved Old Town, a fortified city that includes a tourist site: Diocletian’s Palace. We stepped on uneven cobblestones that date back to the third century. The walls of the Old Town are made of limestone walls caked with sediment from centuries of exposure to activity.

Some buildings of the Old Town had to be reconstructed, and their whiter facades contrast with the older walls that became darker over time

Old Roman walls

The buildings I saw in Split looked ancient, and many of them are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It felt odd to walk around a city that was so old it held vestiges of the Roman Empire. I mean, I consider Mount Vernon old! To sum it up, Split was unbelievable. The tour guide introduced the city as if she were showing us rooms in her house. It was so casual that I wanted to ask her if she was joking. Were we truly stomping around on cobblestones that date back to the third century or was she was just marketing it that way? The sites were clearly very very old, but it was hard for me to imagine they were as old as she claimed.

The combination of old walls and modern restaurants with free wi-fi created a weird juxtaposition of old and new. I just couldn’t believe we were in a location that effortlessly fused ancient buildings with wireless technology. We sat down at a restaurant for a pizza with a lonely olive on top. The checkerboard tablecloth dangled a few feet off the cobblestones. It was just a funny sight to see.  🙂

Ravenna, Italy (Oct. 25, 2012)

At one point, Ravenna overshadowed Rome as the hotspot of Western Civilization during the Byzantine era. To this day, gold mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora decorate shop windows. It’s known as a town of mosaic creation.

Fun fact: Dante, author of “The Divine Comedy” and “The Inferno” is buried in Ravenna.

artist in a shop making a mosaic

Happy Halloween!