Bologna in 24 hrs.

I planned an intentional but quick stopover in Bologna on my way from Tuscany to Paris, and despite being so excited to revisit the city where this blog more or less started over a year and a half ago, I was still fighting a month-long battle with strep throat and was feeling downright shitty. There’s really nothing worse than being on the road and not feeling good. I tried to visit my old haunts and roamed mindlessly around an antique market, and I even forced myself to eat some gelato just for ‘old time’s sake,’ but I couldn’t get out of my sick funk. Bologna, however, was still charming, and is, in my option, one of the most livable and perfect cities in all the world. I’ll go back when I’m feeling 100% and can devour a cioccolata calda or two.

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This is what it feels like to travel and feel like crap. Not super glamorous, right?

This is what it feels like to travel and feel like crap. Not super glamorous.

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Tokyo: The Magic of Tsukiji

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market has always held mythical status for me and has sat high on my must-see list, mostly thanks to lots of sea-loving men who strongly influenced my life. As the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, handling over 2,000 tons of fish a day, my morning visit well exceeded my expectations and left me wondering how our seas were supporting this kind of consumption on a daily basis anyway. Are there still that many fish swimming around our oceans? And this was just one of Tokyo’s fish markets.

If you’re suffering from jet-lag or thrive on pre-dawn excursions, head on over to the market around 3 or 4 am to secure your place as an observer in the tuna action. Only 120 lucky tourists get a spot each day during two showings (5:25-5:50 and 5:50-6:15), so get your green tea to-go and wipe the sleep out of your eyes to guarantee a spot in this astonishing tuna slinging.

I strolled in at 9am (I was too busy watching the dozing diners at Jonathan’s) when the wholesale market floor officially opens to the public and spent hours wandering through the maze of tight isles, a gazillion beady fish eyes glaring up at me, trying hard not to eat it on the slippery floor or get hit by one of the hundreds of zippy “turret trucks” whizzing down the many corridors.

When your belly starts rumbling, find a spot at one of the numerous small sushi bars and counters on the outskirts of the sales floor. The problem, of course, is deciding which one to try. I settled on a locale with no English posted outside with a moderate line of non-touristy faces. The toro and hamachi were melt-in-my-mouth exquisite, as it was easily the very best sushi I’ve ever had.

I’m officially spoiled for life. Sushi at my fave cheap sushi counter in Berkeley will never quite taste the same.

Plans are underway for a brand new market in Toyosu due for completion in the spring of 2016. You still have a little under two years to get there and witness the real deal. Go on, hurry up.

It’s worth it. I promise.

THE PRODUCTS (AKA THE FISH)

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THE PEOPLE

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Tokyo: The Metro Maze, Persimmons and A Couple of Quaint Neighborhoods.

After an impressive four cups of tea at Jonathan’s this morning (I’m developing a pretty severe addiction to green tea flavored drinks), I felt ampted and ready to navigate the subway system. And with the help of a newly acquired, prepaid Suica card, I could just swipe away and easily go wherever I desired within Tokyo via train or bus. It’s only my second full day, but already the subway map, which looks a bit like a Candyland game-board on acid or a Pride postcard, is beginning to make a lot of sense.

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I got off at the Shubuya station to witness and participate in the famous pedestrian crossing, but I wasn’t particularly impressed and didn’t like the big crowds. Then on to neighboring Harajuku known for its youngsters dressed in unique fashion depicting anime characters, Goth girlies and anything bright and extravagant. I forgot these teenagers have to go to school, so the street was eerily quiet and disappointingly ordinary. I looked for Gwen Stefani too and her girl gang, but she wasn’t around either, so I was left with little choice but to eat some sushi!

I decided that I had to partake in conveyor belt sushi at least once in this fine city, but I think I made a bad decision in a rather touristy and chichi section of town on the gingko-lined Omotesando boulevard. The little containers of powdered green teas and personal hot water spigot at the bar impressed me the most, and I did enjoy watching all the colorful little plates roll by enticing and flirting with hungry diners.

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After lunch, I decided to ditch the guidebook and wander by foot. Turns out I discovered lots of great little neighborhoods and non-touristy sections of town.

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Some of the architecture was extraordinary.

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And I loved the mix of old and new, small and big, country and city in some of these smaller less-trodden blocks.

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Persimmon season is my absolute favorite. Turns out I also love orange.

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These hanging hachiya persimmons reminded me of similar drying endeavors by my pals Trilby and Zack, although I’ve never seen it done outside like this.

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These lily pads for sale outside a small hardware store made me smile.

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You can take the elevator up to the 39th floor in the Yebisu Tower in Ebisu for a great view of the city, especially at sunset.

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Doggy beauty parlors are big in Tokyo, and that little black poodle was about as cute as ever, and significantly less furry based on the floor coverings!

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My evening ended with a stroll around the hipster Nakemeguro neighborhood with loads of adorable specialty shops, cafes and restaurants.

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Tokyo: Sleeping While Present in Multicolor.

I came to Tokyo thinking I would be lost in a sea of people, stuffed into bulging subway cars only to be groped by wandering hands, a nameless gaijin crossing the street with thousands of other pedestrians. With close to 13.3 million people in the world’s largest capital city, Tokyo is surprisingly quiet. At least that was my first impression from the airport to my hotel the evening of my arrival. Compared to Oakland, this city is on mute.

This quiet theme played out my first morning in Tokyo, when I was certain I stumbled into one of those prank TV shows with undercover cameras. My hotel provides breakfast at the adjoining diner, Jonathan’s, (imagine Denny’s only with green tea and bowing servers), and all the patrons were asleep. Well, almost all of them. A couple of the other confused hotel guests were milling about half-dead with jet-lag trying to decipher the 100+ beverage options at the highly mechanized drink bar, but sleeping teenagers and middle-aged business men sporting untucked button-down shirts with crumpled suit jackets occupied the rest of the booths. It’s common for the Japanese to sleep in public. There’s even a word for it, inemuri, which roughly translates to ‘sleeping while present,’ which is both culturally acceptable, necessary for an over-worked population and perfectly safe in such a crime-free society. As I was gulping down my green-tea latte and watching the drooling diners around me, I was liking this city more with each gentle snore.

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For those diners awake enough to appreciate it and/or chew, breakfast was a tasty and perfectly un-American combo of pork soup, rice, pickled radish, seaweed and Natto, an ooey-gooey mess of fermented soybeans coated in their own slime. Natto is best described as somewhat rotten tasting soy-beans rolled in uber sticky snot. Forgive me for not painting a very pretty picture, but really, it’s quite dericious and nutritious. Really.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more forms of transportation, exploring the city on foot seemed like a good first day plan, and according to my guidebook, there were all sorts of notable things to do in my neighborhood. A quick ten minute stroll from my abode, and I was in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden where I admired some grandiose gingko trees and enjoyed a chrysanthemum exhibit.

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Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo...

Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo…

I traveled from the tranquil park to the bustling shopping district near Shinjuku station, then through the sleepy, neighboring red-light district and on to Korea-town where I sampled the most divine stuffed grilled pastries with sweetened red beans, walnuts and other yummy things I couldn’t decipher.

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I know, I know. I flew all the way to Japan to eat Japanese food, but since I was in Korea-town during lunchtime, I decided on a make-your-own-Bibimbap-bar for lunch, primarily because the place was packed with people and they had bright-colored chairs outside. I even got a token piece of classy looking gum when I paid my bill!

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I don’t consider myself a rookie traveler, but I made the mistake of taking a nap in the afternoon because the voices in my head were strongly persuading me to close my eyes. The natto slime from breakfast must have had something to do with my eyes being glued shut, because I couldn’t get them open. Finally by belly won over the drowsy war, and I realized I had bigger, better things to do in Tokyo.

Like eat.

A tiny ramen shop on a deserted side street was home for dinner. I tried my darndest to duplicate the slurping sounds of the pudgy diner to my left, but gave up after splattering my shirt with too much flying broth. Table manners in Japan encourage zealous slurping as a sign of true enjoyment.

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What’s struck me most about Japan in these first 24 hours are all the colors and incredible design. Here are a couple more favorite images from the day.

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These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

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I’ll catch y’all tomorrow over a cup of green tea.

Paris in 24 hrs.

Guess who’s returning to Chicago for her dear, older sister’s wedding!?!

Moi!

But before flying across the Atlantic, stuffed into the plane like a marshmallow Peep in an Easter basket, I get to spend a long Sunday afternoon in gorgeous Paris. I imagined traversing the city at a spry pace in my trusty, colorful barefoot-running shoes, racking up 20+ kilometers while strategically stopping for espressos and jubilant selfies near overly-visited monuments.

Turns out, after arriving at my very pink hotel, a drowsy, 2-hour nap overtook me, and after downing a quick coffee, I started walking in the wrong direction (as if there were a wrong direction in Paris when exploring). A cold beer for l’aperitif complete with a bowl of peanuts and some serious people watching from my sidewalk perch further slooooooowwwwed me down, so I decided to leave my high ambitions in the gutter. I succumbed to all-you-can eat, Bruxelles-styled mussels and frites (the all-you-can-eat concept still really surprises me in France), and sadly lost speed and motivation to see everything, but that was a dumb idea anyway.

After many, many months of hard work and being constantly on the road, I officially got tired as the sun was going down on Paris. I got on the metro, rather resigned to it all, and went back to my cozy hotel. Really, there’s no other city on earth like Paris, and I anticipate my return. Next time, I know I’ll see it all…

Vive la France!

Vive la France!

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Even though I get to stay in fancy-pants 5-star hotels while I work, I always appreciate the simple rooms I book for myself when I'm not working and can nap!

Even though I get to stay in fancy-pants 5-star hotels while I work, I always appreciate the simple rooms I book for myself when I’m not working and can nap!

Chamonix, you’re cool!

The site of the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix wins my vote as the coolest mountain-town in France. Plus, any city with a significantly highly percentage of handsome, rugged, adventure-seeking, outdoor-loving men to women ranks high in my book 😉 But really, tucked in the Arve Valley with unbelievable views of the all-powerful Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles Rouges and all those pointy Aiguilles (needles) of Chamonix, a zillion yummy restaurants (tartiflette, anyone? For those of you who haven’t eaten this rich, creamy concoction, it’s potatoes, onions, bacon and melted cheese all baked into a gooey, artery-clogging mix), and fun bars and cafes on every corner, Chamonix is perfect in any season. Mountain biking, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, trail running, ice climbing, paragliding, rafting, squirrel-suit jumping, you name it, you can do it here. Now I just need to learn to ski so I can go back in the winter…

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Joucas at dusk

Yesterday afternoon, under misty and grey skies, I revisited the town of Joucas with my dear friend and colleague, Nathalie, to find some new hikes for our trips. After a couple of hours on the trails, we stopped at the only café in town for a glass of red wine, sat outside and gazed across the Luberon Valley at the distant hills of ochre in Roussillon. The locals seemed pleased to have a couple of new smiling faces in town, if only for the afternoon ‘aperitif.’

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Canola in full bloom

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No matter how small the town might be, every French village has a ‘Mairie,’ or town hall.

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Spring Irises!

Joucas is home to a unique husband and wife artist team, Mieke Heybroek and Ulysse Plaud, who have adorned the village with their striking sculptures of human-figures carved from wood (near the 18th century church of St. John the Baptist, you’ll find some sculptures made from 700 y/o olive wood from a Greek isle), and fortified with metal and stone. Check out their small ‘atelier’ as you stroll through town. You can’t miss it.

Firenze by Train

Although I could have happily spent my entire month of Italian immersion inside the boundaries of Bologna, I agreed to a day excursion to Firenze with a French friend. After 45 minutes on the high-speed train, in and out of a myriad of tunnels through the Alpi Apuane Mountains, we emerged. Firenze, unlike Bologna, is horribly touristy. Don’t get me wrong, Florence is stunning and full of amazing museums, and parks, not to mention a pretty spectacular and imposing cathedral in the center of town, but the streets are overcrowded, English is rampant, and after a half day, I was ready to return to a more authentic Bologna. Here are a couple of shots from the day, in black in white, to match my mood.

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Tosca in Bologna

I finally went to see my first Opera, Tosca, and it changed my life. I had to strain my neck a bit from my balcony seat to see the stage and not block the view of the adorable older couple in my box, but it really didn’t matter what I saw. The sounds of the songs entered deep into my soul, in a hidden spot I didn’t know existed until that moment.  Somehow I feel more grounded.

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