Storytime Wednesday: Three Sicilian Men of Increasing Creepiness - Part 2

I did a third lap around the streets of Siracusa, since trying to find a place open for dinner on a Sunday was proving to be difficult. All the places listed in my trusty guidebook were closed, at at this point I was just stalling the inevitable of having to eat at an unknown and therefore terrifying place. On my final trip through the same streets, a restaurant proprietor called out to me, "Hey, I've seen you walk by three times. Do you like mussels?" I didn't, but he offered me bread, wine, and mussels for 10 euro (in Milan, where I was living, this was the price for approximately two pieces of lettuce), and, not wanting to think about dinner anymore, I acquiesced. We exchanged the usual pleasantries as he seated me on the patio outside, and when he brought over the bread, he pointed to the man two tables over from me, "You know, he speaks English."

I ended up talking to this older stranger (given his gray hair, I'd put him around 45), speaking loudly across the two tables until he moved his seat over to me. He spoke English pretty well, had the owner bring over some good wine, and as far as I was concerned he was my new best friend for the evening, which had taken a significant turn for the better. During the conversation, he mentioned how I should come live with him and teach him English in exchange for rent, but I was used to Italians saying a bunch of shit they don't mean, so I brushed it off. He said he was meeting with some friends for pizza the next day, and we exchanged numbers to meet up. The part that I did find creepy though was when, as we were walking out of the restaurant, he asked me what my sign was, and then said, "Ah, a Gemini! Your sign is trouble... my exgirlfriend was a Gemini - she was about your age (22), too." Yeah, OK, weird that you had a girlfriend who was so much younger, but whatever.

The next day, I went to Noto for the SOLE REASON that I heard there was a gelateria there that was, "a taste of Sicily in your mouth," but more on Noto in the next chapter of this tale. Suffice to say, I came back from my journey a little shaken, and was glad to not be on my own for dinner this night.

My new friend had texted me the pizza location, and mentioned that he would be with people who spoke English. I arrive at the pizza place and find: 1) The Italian man I met the night before 2) His Italian friend, who spoke no English 3&4) Two women from the Czech Republic, who speak great English. I thought it was pretty crazy that there were Czech women living in Sicily, but whatever. There was a very odd group dynamic here, but I couldn't quite figure out what was going on - my "friend" is shamelessly hitting on the women, who are married - suggesting a romantic walk around the Old City after dinner. I find myself mostly talking to his friend in Italian, who seems a bit moody since he can't join in the conversation. After we finish our pizzas, the two men go outside to smoke, and I ask the women how they met the guy who invited me. "Oh, we just met him today, walking around the city." I'm very innocent and a little incredulous as I realize that he's creeping on married women, but they say they know what he's trying and they're playing the game to get free food but they are, y'know, married, and have no desire to let anything further unfold. 

So now I'm wondering how I came to befriend and agree to dinner with the town's skeezy foreign-woman Casanova, and I'm trying to think of how to get myself out of this extremely awkward situation, when the guy comes back and says - in Italian so the women can't understand - "Erin, we're going to take a walk around the city now...but just the adults, ok?" 

"FINE BY ME!" I say, and get the hell out of there, chuckling to myself at how these dudes are about to strike out big time. 

I leave very early the next morning, and shortly after my train pulls out of the city, my phone starts blowing up. It's my "friend," saying that I am so beautiful and he never should have let me leave Siracusa and how I should come back because he was serious about me living with him and that he would take me on a motorcycle ride through the countryside of Sicily and blah blah blah. He kept calling and probably sent me 20 texts to this effect, as if he had not dismissed me to hit on some married women less than 12 hours earlier. I politely declined the first text, and then deleted the shit out of everything else. 

Storytime Wednesday: Three Sicilian Men of Increasing Creepiness - Part 1

The first vacation I booked while living in Italy was a trip to Sicily by myself. I ignored warnings from my students that it wasn't safe because I was told they have the best desserts in Italy and I have an infinite capacity to consume sweets. My first thought when planning the trip was that I'd take the long, romantic train ride through Italy to get to Sicily, but once I found out I could fly there for half the cost and 1/10th the time, I opted for the more modern route. I booked a flight on Air Italy, which none of my Italian friends had ever heard of, so I showed up at the airport unsure if there would be a flight or if this was some kind of elaborate hoax. Luckily, I got on a plane that whisked me off to Siracusa, the subject of my next blog post, and then I took the train to Catania before flying back to Napoli on the main land. This is the story of Catania.

As I mentioned, everyone had told me I was totally insane to go to Sicily by myself, and having more or less confirmed their fears at this point, I was a little on edge. For this part of the trip, I had booked a hostel, which is totally unlike me due to a scarring hostel experience to be addressed later, but, like me, I booked a single room all to myself. The hostel itself was totally awesome - it was right in the city center and had built an underground restaurant in a natural grotto, complete with a small stream running through. 

The hostel was next to a fish market, meaning the surrounding area stunk to high heaven. While it was kind of cool to see things like this:

 Those are not silver belts.

Those are not silver belts.

It was slightly more disconcerting to see things like, a guy carrying A QUARTER OF A COW through the market ON HIS SHOULDERS. 

Or to see/smell the leftovers at the end of the day. (Though it did make it easy to find the hostel - just follow the stench!)

Given the surrounding grossness, I more or less arrived in Catania, dropped my bags, and left immediately to spend the day in Taormina. I returned to Catania close to nightfall, and despite being painfully (PAINFULLY) shy, decided I should go have a drink. My first attempt was at the hostel grotto bar, but I got too nervous being there by myself and left before ordering anything. Armed with a map labeled by the hostel concierge, I decided to just walk through the city until I found a bar. 

I walked for about ten minutes until I arrived at the area by the university, but there were no bars to be found. At this point it was night, and I was wandering through the streets of Catania alone, holding a map - you know, like the locals do. After a few minutes, I realized a man was following me. He was probably in his 40s, with graying hair. I crossed the street and kept walking, not necessarily knowing where I was going. The area I was walking into started to have more and more dead ends, and I noticed that most of the streetlights were out. The man continued to follow me, and I started to panic. I decided a drink was wholly unnecessary and quickly walked back in the direction of the hostel, but then the man yelled at me to stop. 

"What are you doing?" he asked me. I replied that I was just walking around, and he stopped me and said, "Are you crazy? Catania is not safe at night for a girl by herself. All those streetlights that were out? The mafia does that." At this point I was shaking and close to tears - he saw that he was scaring me and asked where I was from. I told him I was in Catania on vacation and had wanted to find a bar for a drink but now I just wanted to go home. 

"You want to have a drink? I will take you to have a drink."

I thanked him for his offer (which was more hospitable than creepy) but explained that really I just wanted to go back to the hostel (also I didn't want to have a drink with someone old enough to be my dad). He insisted on following me back to my hostel to make sure I got home okay, and at this point I trusted him enough to do that. Once I was safely deposited at the door, he waved goodbye and I retreated to my room, locked the door, and left the next morning.

You may be shaking your head at this point, thinking to yourself that I've got this backwards, that a man following me through the pitch-black streets of Catania couldn't possibly be the least creepy Sicilian man of the trip.

Yeah. More to come next week.

Storytime Wednesday: Saying Yes and No in Athens

My natural state does not have the "say yes to everything" mentality that seems to be so popular these days. Some of my more extreme type-A friends (and my mother) may argue this point - Erin, didn't you go full-time freelance and figure everything would work out? Don't you go on vacations by yourself and figure everything will work out? Didn't you move to another continent assuming everything would work out? 

Well, yes. But there is someone who taught me to be like that: My best friend from college. 

KT is someone for whom it does all work out. Don't get me wrong - she works hard for her success, but she also has this crazy, positive, say-yes-to-adventure attitude that I've always admired. In fact, she moved to another continent first, studying abroad Australia and regularly calling me drunk before my 9am summer school math class in the States. I think her secret is that even if things don't go the way she has planned, she shrugs it off and parties on, and this zeal for life makes her the kind of person everyone wants to be around - leading to even more escapades for KT. She lives her life out loud, and is the embodiment of this idea that saying yes amplifies your life. 

I'm naturally more of a cynic. I'm in my own head a lot (hey, it's an interesting place), and I'm overly responsible. I'm the one who never gets so drunk she loses control, never forgets obligations, never forgets people watch when she dances. I do put myself out there on occasion, especially now that I'm older and give fewer fucks, but when I was younger, letting go required a lot of effort. And I think people could see that, so as much as I wanted to be like KT, I never quite shone light like she does.

***

It was time to leave Italy. My boyfriend had cheated on me, my parents missed me, and I was tired of the constant dreariness in Milan. It was a period of my life where I was forced to say yes out of loneliness and necessity - you can't exactly move to a new place and build a life from hermiting yourself away. But it was wearing on me. I planned one final (solo) exploration of Europe in my last months as a resident, and I wanted the exact opposite of Milan - so I chose Santorini, an island in Greece. The only flights available on my shoestring budget were atrocious - arriving in Athens around 9:30pm and flying to Santorini at 5am. Getting a hotel for those precious few hours seemed silly, and online research promised that lots of people spend the night at the airport. Though this sounded horrid to me, I tried to embrace the KT spirit on this trip. I was still brokenhearted and trying to generate any positivity I could.

As people gradually stopped filing onto the plane from Milan to Athens, I had the blissful optimism that I would have a row to myself. Then, minutes before we pulled away from the gate, two men in disheveled suits came blustering aboard, speaking rapid-fire to each other in a strange language and, of course, squeezing in next to my window seat. The man next to me was the burlier of the two, a bit older than me, with short curls falling around his face. After arranging himself in his seat, he asked me in English about the book I was reading, which I soon put away because this was clearly the kind of seat mate who was going to give me his life story.

He explained that he and his friend, who clearly did not speak English, had just come from doing business in Germany. They were from Athens originally, and he expounded upon all the virtues of his city, like visiting the Acropolis at night, with only stars overhead. When I shared that I was sad to be spending the night in the airport, he seemed actually offended. "No, that will not do," he said, and after a short burst of words with his friend, "You will come with us. We will make it a night to remember!" Thinking of KT, I said yes. I wanted that kind of night.

We continued talking for the rest of the flight, with him excitedly describing the things we could do for my one night in Athens - where we could go drink wine, what streets to explore, and how no one would sleep until he dropped me safely, and punctually, at the airport. I found out he had a daughter with an exgirlfriend, and he told me bits and pieces of their relationship while I conveniently glossed over the transgressions and impending doom of mine, to demonstrate that I was a taken woman. I started becoming a little uneasy at the degree of intimacy this conversation had garnered, and the number of times he called his exgirlfriend crazy. Shortly before the plane landed, he turned to me and said, "You know, with your curly hair, you remind me of my exgirlfriend." And that was what ended the magic for me.

I realized I didn't know this man, and I had just agreed to spend an entire night under the shroud of darkness with him, in a city I did not know and he knew very well. They waited for me as we disembarked, his silent friend who had seemed leering before now felt like more of an ally than this man who thought I looked like his crazy ex. I started to sweat. I was worried about being impolite - He was so nice! He had offered to show me his city! - and missing out on an adventure with locals. I wanted to say yes. I made it out to the parking lot, with the man's constant chatter telling me how his friend would go home, and we would go to his house to shower, and then he would show me the city, but when we arrived at their car and they started loading their suitcases, my sense of self-preservation kicked in. I was not getting in the car with strange men. I was going to say no.

I said it many times, in fact, as I was backing away from them and apologizing. "Erin!" he called after me, "Are you sure?" 

Despite the fact that I did not get one wink of sleep while uncomfortably positioned on a coffee shop booth, one hand locked protectively around my suitcase in case the group of Danish girls that I should have been making friends with were more sinister than they seemed, despite the fact that I am fairly sure KT would have gone with them, and despite the fact that I might have missed out on those rare, magical nights making an innocent connection with someone in a beautiful city, I have zero regrets. I am absolutely sure I made the right decision to stay alive, and sometimes, it's okay to say no to protect that.

Storytime Wednesday: A Boy Would Like To Offer You A Drink

I realize that, despite my best efforts, I might as well change the name of "Storytime Wednesday" to "Erin's Hilarious Encounters with the Opposite Sex, Usually Involving a Language Barrier." But delving into why these stories are the ones I remember is a topic for another day. This is about Málaga.

Having absolutely loved visiting Barcelona, I wanted to explore another part of Spain, despite the elaborate pantomimes necessary as I clearly do not speak the language*. I was advised to see Málaga, and I highly recommend for those who haven't gone: there's fascinating architecture (it's one of the oldest cities in the world!), a lovely beach, and vibrant colors everywhere. It was the last night of my trip, and I decided to make it a "treat yo' self" evening. 

One of the things the Spanish and I do not necessarily agree on is food. I don't really understand why dinner happens SO LATE and many of the more prominent flavors - sea insects, garlic, olives - are not my cup of tea**. I usually end up just getting tapas and calling it a night, and, to bring things full circle, I decided to revisit a cafe I'd been to on my first night in the city.

I was initially paired with a waiter who, upon realizing I didn't speak Spanish, ran away terrified and was replaced by a waitress who spoke halting, but good, English. I sat on the patio by myself, ordered some tapas and cava, and then dessert and, what the hell, some more cava. It might be worth noting that I am a ridiculous lightweight, particularly when it comes to sparkling wine, so with two glasses of cava I was having myself a little party. As I relaxed, stuffed from the meal and pretty tipsy, the frightened-rabbit waiter came out and started speaking to me in Spanish, which I obviously didn't understand, so he enlisted the aid of the waitress once more. 

"A boy," she said, "would like to offer you a drink."

This remains the only time in my life this has happened to me, so I was actually pretty intrigued. "What boy?" I asked. 

Obviously indicating that she was supposed to keep it a secret, she replied, "I don't know! A boy!" 

I really did not want anything else to drink, but temptation of free booze was too great, so I got another glass of cava. Having already finished my entire meal and dessert, I just sat there, sipping awkwardly and looking around wondering who the culprit could be, until a several minutes later "the boy" sat down across from me and started speaking to me in Spanish.

This man was WAY too old to be talking to me. I was 25, and based on the white and grey in his beard, I would guess he was at least 20 years older, and not in the sexy George Clooney kind of way. He had apparently missed the award-winning charades display I had put on earlier in order to understand the menu, so when my response to his rapid-fire speaking was a completely blank, gape-mouthed fish-face, he managed to eke out some English. I would put his vocabulary at a maximum of 10 words, creating the rare situation of him speaking less English than I speak Spanish. We proceeded to stumble through the most awkward, stilted conversation of my life. The only part I clearly remember is him saying he thought I was Nordic, which still wouldn't explain why he thought we would be able to understand each other.

After what seemed like an eternity, he clapped his hands together and said that he had paid for my dinner, and that he would like me to join him and his friends at a bar across the street, something I would rather be lobotomized than do. I don't know what part of our - and I am using this word VERY loosely - "conversation" indicated to him that spending more time together was a good idea.*** I bought some time by saying I had to go to the bathroom, and was literally pacing inside, trying to figure out if the window was too small to escape through. 

Finally I emerged and ran into frightened-rabbit waiter. "Did he really pay for my dinner?" I asked. 

"Yes," he said, "And the back door is that way." Thank you, rabbit waiter. 

I don't know if sober Erin would have been so bold as to do this, because I still have that terrible girl complex that I "owe" someone if they buy me things, but treat-yo-self, three-cavas-deep Erin literally sprinted the fuck back to the hotel, where I spent my last night in Málaga holed up, blissfully alone.

 

*For those of you who say Italian and Spanish are basically the same: Yes, but also, NO.
**That being said, I will eat the shit out of some jamón.
***We couldn't even communicate basic thoughts like, "Why are you doing this, you creepy old man," or "Why do you stupid Americans come to other countries without speaking the language."

Storytime Wednesday: Why I Didn't Drink Bourbon Until I Was 27

The tooth fairy was very generous in my house. I know some kids would get quarters under their pillows, but I got cool coins like half dollars, Susan B. Anthony dollars, and even $2 bills. So, losing a tooth was an exciting experience and something that I was maybe a little overeager to do, sometimes. 

(Though now, the worst nightmares I have, and I have them often, are that my teeth are falling out. Why is this so common?)

When I was in third grade and probably close to my last rounds of losing teeth, I had a wiggler that was being stubborn. I was watching TV with my parents, fiddling with it, until finally I decided I'd had enough and went to the bathroom to yank it out. Big mistake. It immediately started gushing blood, so I fled to my mother to fix it, as eight-year-olds are wont to do.

At this point, I would like to assure you all that my mother does not drink TOO much, something I wrote on a "What I'm Thankful For" card for a class project elementary school, which thrilled both my mother and my teacher. But, despite her badassery in the modern business world, she's still a bit of a Southerner at heart, so her response to my mouthful of pain was to assume that third grade was definitely time to start on the hard stuff. She handed me a capful of Jack Daniels and told me to rinse my mouth out with it.

Now, as a kid, this was a huge deal. Sure, I'd had sips of their margaritas, but your parent handing you a shot of whiskey is obviously an important rite of passage for any Texan. I felt very mature for getting such a privilege while still in elementary school. I ran to the bathroom, super excited, with my shot of whiskey. It smelled amazing. I tipped it into my mouth, swished, and...

SPAT ALL OF THE BURNING LIQUID OUT IMMEDIATELY. What the hell was that??? Why did adults like this? My confusion mounted as I frantically tried to rinse the taste away with water, which somehow only made it worse. I don't remember my mother's response - I want to say she was sympathetic, but also kind of laughing at my extreme reaction to a half shot of whiskey.

I spent the next 15 or so years avoiding the stuff, which was not a problem while I lived in San Diego and Milan. However, within literally weeks of moving back to Austin, I was out with some friends and said to myself, "You know what, I could really go for a Whiskey Ginger right now." I don't know if my Texan genes were kicking in or just that enough of my tastebuds had died so I could appreciate it, but bourbon is one of my go-tos now.

This whole experience taught me a valuable life lesson that I still use to this day: if you avoid your problems for years, you can totally overcome them.

 

 I was significantly younger than 3rd grade in this picture, but look at those curls!

I was significantly younger than 3rd grade in this picture, but look at those curls!

Storytime Wednesday: The Strangest Thing Anyone's Ever Said To Me

This is going to be a short one, because I'm crazy busy at the moment, but I have a stock of stories for later.

Once while I was walking down the street in Milan, a vaguely creepy (not Italian) man was walking in the other direction was staring at me. Normal, for Italy, used to it. But then, when our paths crossed, he said, "Ma mangi solo la crema?" (But do you only eat cream?)

I still have no idea what that means. 

Storytime Wednesday: Why I Can't Be Trusted With Chocolate Pastries

My students in Milan had told me that breakfast in Sicily was golosa - gluttonous, rich - but a must-try indulgence. Despite the rush of traveling, I parceled out time to stop for breakfast before departing Catania, putting aside dependence on my beloved guidebook to stop in a nondescript bar by the bus station. I ordered what one must in Sicily: an almond granita and chocolate brioche.

As with most food in Italy, breakfast is subject to a bizarre but ironclad set of rules, and accepting them without meddling in details like “scientific facts” is key to enjoying the culture. Italians define their morning meal less by food and more by espresso beverage. Eggs are considered unthinkably heavy for morning, yet cake is a regular occurrence and the cream cheese brownies I made my first host family were served as breakfast. But a brioche AND a granita? That radical indulgence is reserved for those gluttonous Sicilians.

A granita is essentially a more refined snowcone. Using the simple ingredients of water, sugar, and flavoring, the western part of the island freezes and scrapes the mixture to keep a granular, icy texture, while the eastern side, where I was staying, uses a gelato machine to ensure smoothness. Eaten as a dessert, snack, or yes, for breakfast, granitas are essential to staying refreshed in the unrelenting heat of Sicilian summers.

I never saw another person order a granita and brioche, despite its supposed tradition status. Granted, my mental setting of vacation-mode meant I generally arose just in time for the tail end of breakfast at my hotels, so I wasn’t regularly partaking with locals. But even on this, my last morning in Sicily, when I dragged myself into the bar something far less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I got strange looks from the waiter as I placed my order at the bar. He brought out a still-warm chocolate brioche and set a small coupe of almond granita next to it, the judgment clear on his face.

After one taste I did not care. The American granita I was used to had an icy, grainy texture to them, but this was cool silk. I exhaled the nutty, floral notes in a reverent bliss before taking a bite of the brioche. As flaky morning pastries require a great deal of skill to make, most bars in Milan relied on an Italian version of Sysco, meaning the same standard, stale brioche were found at every bar. This was different. I felt the warm chocolate smear on my face, but in my sugar rush there was no time to be a delicate lady. I alternated between the impossibly creamy granita and the flaky, gooey pastry until there was no more.

Satisfied, I leaned back from my feeding frenzy and the barman slid a napkin dispenser towards me. I touched my face in horror: it was like I had gone bobbing for apples in chocolate. The sticky mess covered my mouth, chin, cheeks, and nose - the napkins were futile and the barman laughed at my attempts. I finally gave up and headed to the bathroom to wash my face and salvage some of my dignity.

When I returned to the bar chocolate-free to collect my suitcase and head to the bus, the barman commented, “Goloso, eh?” Even he thought my breakfast had been wretched excess. “Si,” I replied, thinking of the 10 minutes I just spent shamefully cleaning my face in the bathroom, how my jeans already felt tighter, and, wistfully, all the mornings wasted eating cake at a hotel when I could have had granita, “Ma se vale la pena.” It is worth it.

Storytime Wednesday: Worst Drink Ever

The worst drink I've ever had in my life is when my Rice friends came to visit me in Florence and, not understanding the Italian labels, made cocktails of pineapple juice mixed with what they thought was vodka, but was actually anise (licorice flavor + pineapple = "GET IT OFF MY TONGUE!"). But this next story is a close second.

When I should have been old enough to know better, I met two of my friends near Sixth Street for dinner and afterwards we opted to hit the bars. If you are not familiar, Sixth Street in Austin is where 21-year-olds go to drink carefully crafted cranberry vodkas, and generally is a place where bad decisions are made. We made our way inside Barcelona, a basement locale with sticky floors and pulsating EDM music. I texted another friend to come share the joy of this experience with us, and for some reason he agreed and said he would be over soon.

Satisfied with this development, my friends and I headed to the bar and ordered drinks, when one girl realized her parking meter was about the expire. My other friend agreed to accompany her to her car, leaving me alone at the club, holding all the drinks we just ordered, in case the person I invited showed up. So here I am, awkwardly standing alone at the bar, with three drinks, in a club full of people too young to know what hangovers even are, and the bartender comes over and says, "You need a shot." Who am I to disagree?

So he puts a bunch of stuff in a shaker, does bartender stuff, and pours a shot for me and one for himself. We say cheers, and then I throw down what I immediately identify as the most horrible shot I've ever had in my life. It tasted like purple cough syrup gone horribly, horribly wrong. Like a grape Jolly Rancher had been mixed with Windex and been left to marinate in the sun for a while. DJ Screw would have spit out this shot. Unable to even try to conceal my displeasure, I turned to the bartender with, "What the hell is this?"

"Statutory Grape," was his response.

Can we all agree that:

1) That is a horribly inappropriate name for a shot, in general

2) It is definitely an inappropriate shot to give a girl BY HERSELF AT A BAR

3) Why are you giving rancid Dimetapp ("grape")-flavored shots to someone who is 30

4) Seriously, why are we making jokes, much less drinks, out of statutory rape

I took my armful of drinks and escaped far, far away from that bartender. 

Storytime Wednesday: The Dominican Cab Driver

In what would turn out to be one of the only high points of the year, I decided to splurge on a lavish tropical vacation for my 30th birthday (booked before both the loss of my beloved car and one of my traitorous organs). All I wanted was to sit on a warm beach and relax, maybe get some writing done. I settled on the Dominican Republic after being influenced by two of its countrymen (Junot Diaz and my exboyfriend), and opted for what I thought was the best of the island for my trip: resort-heavy Punta Cana and actual city Santo Domingo. 

I knew basically nothing about the country except what my exboyfriend told me, which was that there were places where you could snorkel and see starfish for miles (essentially fulfilling all requirements I had for the trip, which were: 1. must have beach 2. see point #1). I booked a round-trip flight to Santo Domingo, thinking that, since it was an island, it was probably small and navigable. So imagine my surprise when I found out that the two cities I chose to visit were actually something like three hours apart. I changed my flight in to arrive in Punta Cana, and figured that surely the Punta Cana - Santo Domingo route would be traveled frequently and there would be easy transportation between the two cities.

I arrived in Punta Cana and despite the fact that I was definitely the only non-honeymooner at the resort and heard, "But you're here...by YOURSELF?" about a hundred times, I had a truly wonderful stay.

The night before I was due to leave, I talked to the concierge about my travel needs, and he seemed to think that there was a bus I could take to Santo Domingo. Great, no problem. 

Morning comes, and I visit the concierge desk again to check out and finalize my transportation. This concierge, who speaks much better English than the night concierge, indicates that there might be a problem and spends the next hour on the phone trying to find a way to get me to Santo Domingo. It turns out, I would need to take two buses which, given I was a solo female traveler with toddler-level-at-best Spanish, was too daunting of a prospect for my taste. We tried to arrange a taxi to the second bus station, but then realize there's a strike in that city and I can't take the bus. The only viable option is to take a taxi the entire three hours to Santo Domingo, which, after much haggling by my concierge, would run me about $200. Well, crap. 

(The concierge also transforms himself from friendly to creepy at this point by telling me that he wishes he could transport a beautiful lady like me to Santo Domingo himself, foreshadowing the rest of my experience in the city. But that is neither here nor there.)

So I get in the cab with the taxi driver, and due to language barriers we quickly realize communication is going to be stilted, which is always fun for a long car ride. After about ten minutes of leaving the resort, we start driving through these insane dirt roads with no signs of any kind, pedestrians inches from the passing cars and extremely burdened mopeds with laundry, livestock, etc. Every intersection was some elaborate game of chicken, and though my driver was flying through with extreme skill and speed, I was cowering in the backseat actively reassuring myself that I was not going to die. Finally, the dirt roads turned paved, and then suddenly we were driving down a modern multi-lane highway like we had never passed a moped precariously burdened with two people and four dining room chairs. With the threat of death lowered, the taxi driver visibly relaxed, then began to flip through some CDs. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to listen to, and I said he could choose.

To practice for my upcoming trip and get used to hearing Spanish, I had been listening to the Latino radio station in Austin. My strategy absolutely did not work in terms of helping me with any kind of useful language, but still, I was excited to hear what was on the radio in the DR because I might know some of the songs. 

With one last look in the rearview mirror, the driver pulls out a CD and pops it in. After my stay at the extremely whitewashed resort, I was ready to hear some bachata, some merengue, and see if I could pick out some words. But I was absolutely dumbfounded when a familiar flute sound started flowing sweetly from the stereo. Was that..?

Céline

Fucking

Dion. 

Oh yes. And when the ending notes of "My Heart Will Go On" (seriously) turned into the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar," it became very apparent to me that my driver had chosen his "white people mix." It was surreal to hear the soundtrack to a 20-year-old movie while in a tropical country with palm trees flying by, but not wanting to offend his musical sensibilities, I didn't say anything. Until we were about 30 minutes outside of Santo Domingo, when the CD restarted and when "My Heart Will Go On" started playing again. I lost it. The driver noticed me laughing, and asked, "Ah, te gusta esta musica?"

"NO!" I choked out, unable to even pretend.

He was genuinely surprised at this, and I explained as best I could that I had been expecting actual music in Spanish, like I listen to at home. He started making outraged noises and said I should have told him, and I realized we'd spent the majority of the trip listening to songs we didn't like out of politeness for the other person. After a good laugh, he played me some bachata for the brief remainder of the car ride, before dropping me safely at my hotel in Santo Domingo.

Storytime Wednesday: The Naked Prude

(Programming note: Storytime Wednesday took a break last week since I was in Brazil. Not sorry bout it.)

It was a typical weekend in college and I was participating in wholesome activities with my friends (beer pong). I noticed an attractive gentleman at the other end of the table that I hadn't seen before, and after engaging in coy conversation over Solo cups filled with Miller Lite, I found out that he did not attend my university, and in fact was in only town for the weekend visiting someone I knew and trusted. He was very nice and very cute and I was very interested.

Our flirtation led us to team up and play a game of beer pong together, which we lost shamefully due to his complete ineptitude at the valuable skill of throwing ping pong balls into cups. Somehow he was attractive enough for the insanely competitive part of me to overcome this and keep talking to him. I'm sure you can see where this is going: Our sparkling conversation led us to sneak off and find somewhere to make out.

We ended up in a room in the basement of my dorm that had been furnished with couches, but could be accessed by anyone who lived there. After briefly making out on the couch with my suitor, I got up to turn off some of the lights to really enhance the "dorm basement" atmosphere. When I turned back around from this task, I was surprised to find the guy lying on the couch Burt Reynolds-style, completely naked.

Honestly, I have to respect the superhuman speed at which he freed his body of clothing, but given that 1) The door to this room definitely did not lock and 2) We had made out for like one minute and 3) I was still fully clothed, my first response to finding a completely naked dude on the couch was to blurt out, "We are NOT having sex!" 

"Ohmigod," came his response, as he shifted into a position I associate with teenage girls talking on the phone (lying on stomach, chin in hands, legs crossed at the ankles). He continued, completely seriously, "I'm so glad you said that. Are you a prude? Because I'm a prude too!" 

Irony, folks. 

 

EPILOGUE: We continued to have a conversation about prudes and sex while he stayed completely naked and I internally stressed about our clothing inequity. Noticing that I was not touching him, he finally dressed and we returned upstairs and parted ways. The end.

NOTE: Yes, he probably was the inspiration behind The Naked Man on How I Met Your Mother, though the incident happened years before that episode and the strategy obviously did not work out this time. Someone is stealing my life stories and owes me a LOT of royalties. 

Storytime Wednesday: Trap Queen

Although 2016 as a whole trumps (intentional) 2015 for "Shittiest Year Ever," the summer of 2015 was real bad for me. The first omen was when I wrecked my beloved 2007 Fiji Blue Honda Civic Si, Pearl. Pearl was a gift from my parents when I graduated college; she was fast, badass (i.e. manual transmission), and most importantly, a vibrant shade of blue. I loved the hell out of that car, and I was more than a little saddened when she met her untimely demise thanks to an uninsured driver running a red light.

Ultimately though, as one of my least sentimental students told me on our last day of classes together, "When the pope dies, you get a new pope."

I already had a pretty good idea that I wanted an Acura TSX, which is basically a more grown up version of a Honda Civic. So, I did a search for blue Acura TSXes in Austin, and there was one in the entire city. I didn't know at the time that you are supposed to call ahead to the car dealership, so I took the day off work and just showed up shortly after they opened. After waiting for like, ever (to be fair, it was probably 9:30am on a Tuesday, not exactly prime car-buying time), I finally flagged someone down and was handed off to a salesperson, let's call him Milton (because he looked pretty much exactly like a Milton).

Milton was a paunchy guy in his 50s with white hair and a bristly mustache. He reminded me a lot of The Simpsons character Gil: he seemed kind of down on his luck, which was sad, but he also had the personality of warm ham. I'm really mystified as to how he got into the car-selling game, much less why dealership management paired him with me, a fairly vivacious girl in her 30s. So Milton pulls the blue TSX around, and we get in and drive, making the incredibly awkward chit chat that I would generally make with someone my father's age. I'm pretty sure we discussed my college major and responsible budgets interspersed with him awkwardly trying to sell me the car by saying things like, "It really goes, huh?!"

Anyway, so after about 20 minutes of stilted conversation, we finally arrive back at the dealership and are sitting in the parking lot when Milton decides to pull out all the stops to make the sale. "Check out the stereo on this thing!" he said, eagerly reaching over to crank the dial. The radio, which had been inaudibly playing in the background, was set on a local rap station, and when Milton decided to get the party going, the stereo started blasting "Trap Queen." 

If you are unfamiliar, Trap Queen is basically an ode to drug dealer girlfriends*. Milton and I sat there, too stunned to move, as this rap song, that I am 100% positive Milton did not know the meaning of, blasted from the TSX's truly impressive stereo. Every fiber in my body wanted to reach over, turn the music down, and make this sad attempt at a connection end, but I didn't know if that would just be more embarrassing to him. After an interminable 90 seconds of enduring a rap song playing way louder than I am comfortable with normally, much less with my awkward-dad-salesperson in the car, I just turned the car off and said, "Yeah, that sounds great!" 

Milton did not make the sale that day. In fact, I take my silver TSX (Sheba) to a dealership on the opposite side of town for the sole purpose of avoiding Milton for the rest of my life (also: because they give me cookies while I wait) (it is very easy to keep me happy). 

As much as I never want to experience that awkwardness again in person, I do think of "Trap Queen" as Sheba's theme song. Whenever it comes on the radio, I chuckle to myself, then reach over to turn it up. For Milton.

 

*(If you are one of those people who didn't know what a Trap Queen is, FOH. Pay attention to the context clues!)

Storytime Wednesday: Let's Not Consider the Lobster

My first boyfriend in Milan spoke impeccable English, refused to eat fruits or vegetables, and though he was a rare specimen of Italian man that did not live with his mother, he never went out. I know that in the US staying in and binge-watch Netflix is an acceptable lifestyle, but in Italy it's pretty weird. Unfortunately, it's one of those quirky habits I didn't realize until we'd been dating for like a month. 

I was in Milan to teach English, halfway into a five-month internship that paid 500 euro a month. Despite the meager paycheck, I wanted to experience all that Italy had to offer (Read: the food. I wanted all of the food.) and I had yet to have dinner at a restaurant. Italian Boyfriend was the kind of person who did not understand why someone would go out for gelato when you could buy a carton of it at the grocery store for the same price, but eventually he saw that I was losing interest due to aforementioned hermitude, and offered to take me out. He chose a Sicilian restaurant, which I was super excited about because I'd heard they had excellent desserts (unlike the rest of Italy but that's a story for another time).

We go to the restaurant, and it's very nice, and I open to menu to find that Sicilian food is almost 100% seafood, which I do not like. Now, I understand that will cause me to lose some friends or maybe some respect as a food writer but seriously, the ocean is full of either sea snot or giant, strangely crunchy insects drowned in butter to hide their true flavors. Except crab. Crab is delicious. 

So I'm looking at this menu trying to find something - anything - that will be a form of seafood that I can tolerate, when the waiter comes over. He says that the special of the evening is "Linguine all'astice," a word I do not know. I ask Italian Boyfriend and he says astice is a fish. Promising! Pasta! I love pasta! Fish! Fish are filled with fish glop (official biological term) but I can like fish. The waiter comes back and I order linguine all'astice, and Italian Boyfriend does too. "Excellent choice," the waiter says, "L'astice ancora camina" (The astice is still walking). Oh! I think. What a cute way to say that the fish is very fresh! I am very pleased with myself for picking up on this subtlety of the Italian language.

Italian Boyfriend and I are continuing on whatever conversation a doomed relationship has, when the waiter comes from behind me and, with a flourish, places a plate of pasta in front of me with a giant dead insect on it, its creepy little legs and eye stalks just dangling there. Even better: the giant dead insect is split in half so I can see all of its cooked insides artfully poofing out. Of course, at this point I realize that astice is lobster and that not only have a) I ordered something I do not like, but b) I have ordered a very expensive thing that I do not like c) I have no escape since Italian Boyfriend ordered the same dish. 

I am not allergic to giant insects or anything so I trudge through, eating the pasta and occasional chunks of giant insect (to be fair, the giant insect did not taste terrible despite it being a former prison food, but I still didn't like it). Italian boyfriend is happily eating like I would ever kiss an mouth that ate eyestalks again. Afterwards we get cannoli, which almost makes everything better.

We have taken five steps outside the restaurant when I turn to my boyfriend and demand an explanation for calling astice a fish when it is so clearly not a fish.

His response: "It lives in the ocean! It's a fish!"

My response: "IT'S A FUCKING CRUSTACEAN." (Side note: the Italian word for crustacean is crostaceo so this really isn't a translation problem.)

We broke up shortly after.