Quick Tip: Where to Stay and Eat in Siena, Italy

I totally forget who was asking for this information, but here is the skinny on Siena, Italy from my stay there:

This restaurant is one of my favorites in all of Italy, which is saying something:

Taverna San Giuseppe

I seem to remember an antipasto that we seriously considered ordering again and just canceling our main dishes. Luckily, we didn’t do that, because the rest of the meal was ecstasy.

And this hotel is AMAZING and not hella expensive:

Palazzo Ravizza

We stayed in an INSANE room there. INSANE. Ridiculously high beamed ceilings, winsome writing desk by the window, bathroom bigger than most kitchens and tiled within an inch of its life.

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Greenways Italia: Nothing But Flowers

Don’t you just LOVE IT when a public works project actually benefits the people, and they also do it right when it comes to informing the people about it? I do. That’s why I want to discuss Greenways Italia.

That website has an adorable English language icon at the top corner, but apparently it’s just for show – so I’ll fill you in via this description from moleskinecity.com:

March 2 marked the first national day of the abandoned railways, a cultural initiative to recover the abandoned infrastructure, and promote more environmentally friendly tourism. There are more than 5000 kilometers of abandoned railroad, and many of them are being transformed into Greenways, bike paths, and hiking trails. This initiative aims to increase public awareness, and protect the cultural heritage of these forgotten railways. It highlights the importance of promoting tourism consistent with environmental standards and sustainable mobility.

Which is awesome. And there’s a great overall map on that moleskine link showing Greenways locations throughout Italy. But the thing I really love about Greenways is its website – specifically, the itineraries. The organization has chosen five distinct routes of varying lengths, and have given you pretty much all the information you’d ever want to know about them:

  • The technical stuff – distance, time on bike and by foot, type of surface, best times of year for the location, types of users (rollerbladers, bikes, etc.), suggested sites along the way.
  • Description – a delightful tour through the entire trail’s historic sites, flora and fauna, information about the abandoned stops along the way.
  • Map – by Google, of course, darlings.
  • “A little history” – telling the tale of the building, life, and ultimate demise of the route as a railway. Fascinating, poetic, better than Cats.
  • I just spent 20 minutes trying to find the old ad that phrase came from – “better than Cats” – if I am remembering correctly, it was a New York local ad for a musical, the kind they used to do where they’d interview people coming out of the theater. That’s where that phrase came from; the full one, I believe, is: “I loved it. It was better than Cats. I’d see it again and again.” Either that, or it was an SNL parody of those ads. God, those ads were always so awesomely lame. I miss my Dinkins-era New York!
  • Useful information – how to get to the beginning of the Greenways route by car or by train + bike.

It looks like they’re still updating the site with other routes, and I’ll keep checking back to the site and will let you know when it’s in English. But if you’re going to Italy and you’re interested in biking, blading or walking trails, Greenways Italia is definitely the site for you!

Group Therapy: Renting a Villa in Italy

When I’m feeling lonely for my friends back home, I get the urge to (first, become rich) and (then) rent a villa in Italy for an entire summer, and invite them all to stay with me. I imagine long days in golden sunlight, cooking experiments with fresh food, lazy afternoons chatting and cocktailing by the pool, and at least one crazy night out and about in the nearest major city.

I’m pretty lucky in this regard – no, I am not rich; but I must admit that of my closest friends, not one of them would be annoying during this imaginary summer of love. As for as my criteria go, they would be my ideal villa mates:

1. No picky eaters. We use real butter, we eat meat, and carbs are our friend. No one in my gang sits at the end of the table nursing a bowl of weeds.

2. No camp counselors. Everyone enjoys sleeping as little or as much as they want, and doing whatever they want in their waking hours. I will not be awakened and recruited into mandatory sunrise yoga.

3. No slobs. If someone thinks it’s alright to leave food on the floor and underwear on the couch, then they’re springing for the daily housekeeping service.

4. No cheapskates. If we’ve worked out a group budget, we’re sticking to it. No one is going to only drink one bottle of wine the whole week or complain that Katie ate all the cheese. United we stand, and all.

5. No whiners. We are all incredibly fortunate to have the time, the means and the motive to commit this crime of sybaritic luxury. There is no boredom in paradise.

In terms of the actual villa – I’d say these would be the most important criteria:

1. Bedrooms for everyone. You don’t want to have to tiptoe around bodies in the living room.

2. Lots of kitchen space. I personally have visions of a huge stone cook’s kitchen, but I’d settle for lots of counter space for food prep and bottles, and an open plan so whomever’s cooking isn’t stuck away from the fun.

3. Outdoor areas. A large table with plenty of chairs is key – as is that area being covered. You don’t want to be cooped up in the house, and you don’t want to have to run inside with all the plates and bottles if it it starts raining.

4. Check out the possibility for a cook and/or maid during your stay. Many villas offer it, and it’s worth it to work this into your group budget for at least half the time you’re there. You don’t want to experience the chores of a home just because you’re staying in one.

5. Your location. As I’ve said before, sea trumps all – but that’s just me. And the further south you go, the easier it will be to take advantage of their off-season rates while still having nice weather. Many people love the rolling hills of Tuscany, and it is lovely; but I get antsy if I’m not near water. Also, being near the sea can mean foregoing a pool within the villa grounds.

Now that the bitching is over, let’s take a look at this paradise of which I speak:

This gem of a place in Montepulciano has plenty of room for 10 people, a pool, and an open kitchen plan. And at $4758 per week, that’s $67 per person per day. Not bad!

I’m hyperventilating about this place on Ischia. For nine people, it works out to $82 per person per day in the off season. But, their high seasons are very narrow, so it’s entirely possible that this one is very doable.

Cinque Terre boasts this lovely perch, for six people only $70 per person per day. I’ll see you there on that magenta sofa, where I’ll be gazing at the sea.

I’ve actually stayed here. I had the poolside apartment to myself and had one of the ten best sleeps of my life. I don’t want to know how much it is, because I wasn’t paying for it – but here’s a picture to prove it!

Airline Travel – Open Letter to Bill Gates (Yes, Really.)

There was an interesting article in the New York Times about the apparent decline in services, amenities and even common courtesy in the cheap seats on airplanes. OK, well, the article’s alright but they received over 400 comments on it, and the comments are where all the action is. The comments range from “I’ll never fly again” to “Get over yourselves, you get what you pay for.”

As you’ve probably guessed, Miss Expatria has her own opinions about airline travel. So fasten your seat belts and make sure your trays are in the upright and locked position, because we’re taking to the skies.

Many of the complaints had to do with the lack of or quality of the food received. OK, people. Seriously? If you’re complaining about this – especially on domestic flights! – it’s because you’re a whiner. Yes, the people in first class get real plates and real food. But they also paid $4,000 for it. Would you pay $4,000 for a better meal on a plane? No? Then pack a sandwich and pipe down. And why are you so ravenously hungry on a plane? You can’t wait a few hours and get a real meal o the ground?

I make sure I eat before hand – even on transatlantic flights – or I pick up something to bring on the plane with me. (Orly airport in Paris has the most delightful brie and walnut sandwiches, if you’re interested.)

And a side note about water. Yes, the TSA doesn’t allow you to bring liquids. Bring an EMPTY bottle and fill it up at a water fountain once you’re inside the perimeter. Or, spend the extra buck or two and buy one at the snack stands near the gates.

Another popular complaint was about missing pillows and blankets. Again, get over it. Men, layer up and buy compact travel slippers. Ladies, it’s called Pashmina – bring a wrap and settle in.

The most valid complaint, however, was about the tight quarters. This one I can relate to. There simply is no room. I’m not asking for my own cabin; but I’m 5’1″ and my knees shouldn’t be brushing up against ANYTHING. I really hate the lack of space.

The saddest thing about the comments, however, was the wistful desire of those who had traveled internationally for a halfway decent, cost-friendly alternative to plane travel within the United States. AmTrak could be making a killing off all of this – but instead they are turning into Dagney Taggart’s worst nightmare.

In light of this is my open letter to Bill Gates. I was inspired to write this after seeing one of the final episodes of West Wing (best show ever, by the way), in which CJ Cregg, the Chief of Staff, is approached by a Gates-type character and given $10 billion to save the world. She chooses to build roads in Africa, so that all the medical supplies we’re giving them can reach the people who need them. I’m hitting a little closer to home.

Dear Bill,

I know your foundation is doing wonderful things all around the world. But, I have a suggestion for the good ol’ U.S. of A.:

Build us some trains. Fast, efficient, on-time trains. Build a national network of trains that can get people from one place to another without all of this ridiculous hassle, fear and discomfort. Build it, and they will come.

Love,

Miss Expatria (even though I am a Mac user)

Italian Pronunciation – Cities

Hello dear hearts. I’ve been getting a lot of queries lately about how to pronounce the names of Italian cities – so, without further ado, let’s pronounce them correctly!

As explained in previous pronunciation guides, my pronunciation spelling overcompensates for the American pronunciation of the letter “e.”

Rome = Roma = ROAM-ah

Milan = Milano = meal-AH-no

Venice = Venezia = vain-AITZ-ya

Padua = Padova = PAH-dove-ah

Naples = Napoli = NAH-pole-ee

Bologna = Bologna = bowl-OWN-ya

Florence = Firenze = fear-ENZ-ay

Sicily = Sicilia = see-TCHEEL-ya

Turin = Torino = tor-EEN-oh (Olympics flashbacks)

Assisi = Assisi = ahs-SEE-see

Capri = Capri = COP-ree (Yes. Really.)

Ischia = Ischia = EESS-kya

Cinque Terre = TCHEEN-quay TAIR-ay

And, as an added bonus, other places we know and love:

Paris = Parigi = Pahr-EE-gee

London = Londra = LOANED-rah

Nice = Nizza = rhymes with pizza

Barcelona = Barcelona = Bahr-tchail-OWN-ah

United States = gli Stati Uniti = let me just say something here about “gli.” It is the WORST SOUND EVER to try to pronounce if Italian is not your native language. The closest I can come to is this: make your tongue go into position like you’re going to say “yes.” Keep it in that position, but instead say, “lee.” I know. It sucks.

Anyway. Just say, “America” and you’ll be fine.

Italian Pronunciation – How to Pronounce the Harder Words

Blessed cherubs! No doubt you’ve passed with flying colors my other lessons – now, let’s get cracking on some of the harder words you’ll come across in the course of your delightful stay in Italy.

(A note about the vowel, “e” – in my pronunciation guides, I write it more like “ay” than the “eh” it might sound like to your ears. That is because we as American English speakers tend to make the soft “e” sound like “ih” as in “hit” to Italian ears. So, I’m giving you the automatic overcompensation.)

gnocchi = nyaw-key
A hearty pasta, also known as “belly bombs” in my circle; best eaten in winter.

sfogliatella = sfole-ya-tell-ah
A pastry from Napoli, crunchy yet flaky with cream inside. Do not eat when wearing black, as the powdered sugar will be your demise.

Termini = TAIR-mee-nee
Rome’s train station. The emphasis is on the first syllable. Yes, really.

un’uovo = oon-wo-vo
Egg.
le uova = lay-wo-va
Eggs, plural. This is one of those words that does not follow the usual singular/plural agreement in terms of the vowels on the end of the word.

olio = ohl-yo
Oil. As I learned to my dismay during a particularly heated political discussion, this is not the same as war-causing oil – that’s petrolio (pay-troll-yo).
aglio = ahl-yo
Garlic. Aglio e olio? Best pasta dish ever. (And no, people from my family: not pronounced “eye-yoy” unless you’re in our great-grandfather’s town.)

pesce = pay-shay
Fish, singular. Plural is pesci (pay-shee).
pesca = pay-scah
Peach. Plural is pesche (pay-skay). Do not confuse fish and peaches when ordering juice – the waiter will look at you funny. Trust me on this one.

ceci = tchay-tchee
Chickpeas. You’ll see this word more than you expect.

stazione = stahtz-YO-nay
Station. In Rome, if you pronounce the “z” as in fizz instead of as in “pizza” they will think you are from up north and give you wrong directions.

tiramisu = teer-ah-mee-SOO
The dessert we all know and love. Yes, the emphasis is on the last syllable.

cena = tchay-na
Dinner.

lo sci = low-shee
Skiing. No, you will never get used to saying this word. It just plain sounds weird.

Il Papa = eel-PAH-pa
The pope.
Papa = pa-PAH
Dad.
pappa = pohp-ah
Baby food.

Yes, I learned that the hard way.

spiaggia = spee-YA-jah
Beach!

I think I’ve given you enough for today. Check back soon for more! And remember, if you’ve forgotten the basics, simply go to my earlier posts for more pronunciation fun!

Italian Pronunciation – It’s All In The Vowels

It seems that my cheeky language guides are by far my most-viewed posts! You might remember such great hits as:

How To Sound Like An Italian: Pronunciation Guide For Tourists

How To Sound Like An Italian, Miss Expatria Style

and the ever-popular Italian For Tourists: Advanced Guide.

Well, this next section we might call the super-advanced guide for tourists who want to speak Italian when they go to Italy. And better yet – you’ll hear all about the mistakes Miss Expatria herself has made, to everyone’s amusement and to my abject humiliation. Ready?

Just beware – a great many of my language follies resulted in the most embarrassing double entendres – so keep the kiddies at home for this one. OK, here we go.

A popular cheese in Italy is called pecorino romano, made from sheep’s or goat’s milk and most frequently used in my favorite dish, cacio e pepe. Say it with me: pay-co-ree-no row-mah-no. Most Italians will just call it pecorino. Easy enough, no? Well, not if you’re me.

I once was trapped in a small mountain cabin with five Napoletani and my friend Vincenzo, the only one of the group who understood both me and them when we spoke. Vincenzo was cooking in the kitchen one evening – a delightful saffron risotto, if you must know – and I was watching him while I slowly carved my way through a block of pecorino romano. As I gazed lovingly at the piece I had just hacked off, I mused, “Adoro pecorina.”

Vincenzo’s head snapped around, his eyes as big as saucers. What did you say, he asked me.

“Adoro…pecorina?” I held up the cheese to illustrate.

He started laughing. He ran out of the kitchen, and after a moment’s silence, there came the distinct sound of the Napoletani laughing. I remained in the kitchen, confused.

It appears that while pecorino is a delicious cheese, pecorina means to have sex doggie-style. Needless to say, I was very popular among the Napoletani for the rest of the weekend.

For this next lesson, please take a moment to watch this video. It is an example of the Italian version of peek-a-boo, which is known as “Bu-bu… settete.”

At my friend Luca’s house, I noticed a postcard of a garden gnome peeking around a corner, and the caption to the photo was “Bu-bu… settete.” I didn’t know what it meant, so I called Luca over to ask him.

“Luca, che significa, ‘Bu-bu sette tette?'” I pointed to the postcard to indicate why I was asking.

Once again, I found myself in a kitchen with an Italian who was looking at me wide-eyed and shocked after I had said something I thought to be perfectly innocent. Once again, an Italian ran from the room and hysterical laughter followed a few seconds later. This did not bode well.

It appears that while “Bu-bu… settete” means “Peek-a-boo,” “Bu-bu… sette tette” means “Peek-a-boo, seven tits.”

Which brings me to my third but by no means final gaffe, and your last lesson for today.

This summer I attended a chic and wonderful party in Rome, on a rooftop on via Urbana. It had a beautiful view of the neighborhoods rooftops, which I noted to my friend Leo as we munched on tiny tramezzini sandwiches.

Cue the shocked look, the repeating of my perfectly innocent statement, the ensuing laughter.

It appears that while we had “una bella vista dei tetti,” a beautiful view of the roofs, we did not have “una bella vista delle tette,” or a beautiful view of the tits. (At least, not from where we were standing.)

Like I said – it’s all in the vowels.

The Cost of Things in (My) Europe

This article proposes the unthinkable – skipping a trip to Venice because of the decline of the U.S. dollar.

My advice, in a word? DON’T. Venice is just too amazing to pass up.

But, this article got me thinking about the cost of being in Europe, whether on vacation or living here. As I mentioned in a previous post, it now costs roughly double for me to live here as it did when I first moved here five years ago.

(Aside: HOLY CRAP HAS IT BEEN FIVE YEARS? I love me.)

But, it all depends on where you are and what you’re doing there. For example, Cal’s daily vices – a pack of Gauloises and one extremely dry martini – now cost as much here in Montpel as they would in New York. But, going to the doctor and prescription drugs costs much, much less than in New York. So do most foods, with the notable exception of Old El Paso enchiladas, which are fancy exported items and therefore a rare treat.

When I’m in Rome, I can still get a pack of Fortunas, a bus ticket and a piece of pizza for under $8. And I drink house wines, so I rarely spend more than $4 a glass (or, from the supermarket, $4 a BOTTLE).

My point is, it can be expensive or cheap to be anywhere, at any time – it all depends on how you choose to spend your money.

Cal likes his daily martini because for years, he couldn’t find one in this town and used to have to go to the Hard Rock in Barcelona to get one. When we move to Italy, he’ll revel in a Peroni at the end of the day, which is distinctly cheaper. Our cigarettes will be cheaper. Our food, while not that bad here, will be MUCH cheaper. But, our rent will be higher.

The same thing can be said for vacations. If you don’t have a bunch of money to throw around on vacation in Venice, don’t! You can buy a 3-day boat pass for less than the cost of one gondola ride. You can feast on cicchetti for cheap or even free during cocktail hours. You can order a carafe of house wine instead of a fraction of the cost of a bottle from the menu. You can do any one of a thousand things that will still make your trip an adventure without feeling like you’ve skimped at all.

Italian For Tourists: Advanced Guide

We’ve already had the pronunciation guide and the basic phrases you’ll need to get by. The following will show you how to be taken more seriously.

Never say “ciao” to anyone unless they say it to you first. Ever.

If you’re looking to get off a train or bus, and someone is standing in the doorway, and you want them to know you’re getting off, you have to instead ask them if they are getting off: Scendi? shen-dee? Say it to as many people as you need to until you get to the exit.

OH, which reminds me – remember the c and g rule?  Here’s an additional tip:

When it’s sci or sce, the “sc” sounds like “sh.”  When it’s any other vowel, it sounds like “sk.”

I’ve often found that when I approach a stranger to ask them for directions, I usually say, “Hello, I’m a stupid American” and then the rest of what I want to say with a big knowing smile, and they immediately love me: Buon giorno, sono una scema Americana… bwon-joor-no, so-noon-a-shay-ma-meh-dee-gan (say it exactly like this and you’ll sound like you’re Roman!). If you’re the kind of person who can pull this off, it will get you far.

If you’re invited to someone’s home, ALWAYS say “permesso” before entering
, as you cross the threshold. This also works if you enter a store and it appears to be empty.

When in doubt of a word, say it in English with a heavy Italian accent. No kidding. You can test this out by saying “computer.” Say it like you normally do, and watch them glaze over. Say it, comb-poo-tair (not “pyou,” “poo”), and they’ll light up like a Christmas tree.

The “@” sign on their computer keyboard IS NOT IN THE SAME PLACE. Find it on the keyboard – it’s over on the right hand side, next to the L or somewhere around there, then push it and “alt gr” and you’ve got it.

LEARN HOW TO LOG ONTO YOUR EMAIL BEFORE YOU GET THERE. I know your grown kids set up your computer for you, but those kids are not with you now. Find someone who will teach you about the Internets BEFORE you leave for Italy.

Italians are not fond of lines, but they know exactly who is next. You’re going to have to go with the flow on this one, because you’re not going to change them. If you feel that someone is jostling you, look around you for a sympathetic person and roll your eyes with them, so they will come to your aid if someone gets really out of hand.

A good phrase for when someone cuts in line is, simply, and spelled as they would spell it if it was a word, “aho.” This is pronounced almost like “ohw,” but how Tony Soprano would say it. You’re going to feel like you’re imitating a mobster, but Italians really do say this.

This will be a hard one to explain, because there are no words. But this is a secret I learned and it’s done wonders for my relaxation and comfort.

If you’re approached by someone selling something and you don’t want what they’re hawking, shake your head “no,” make a “tisk” sound, and shake your finger. Like you’re telling a four year-old not to throw their Cheerios on the floor. If you say, “no, grazie,” they will still offer their wares. If you do exactly what I said, they will walk away.

Don’t ask me why. It just works.

If you’re swarmed by a pack of gypsy children and their breastfeeding mothers, a hearty NO with a wide backhand motion will make them scatter.

When you’re on a sweltering bus that’s going nowhere and more and more people crowd on, a quiet “che palle” (kay-pahl-ay) will suffice. Italians have no problem piling in like sardines, and no one will give you the normal American-size personal space bubble you desire. Deal with it and know your stop will come soon.

If you’re speaking to someone your age or younger and you have no idea what they’re saying, you can say, “non capisco un cazz’.” (known-cah-peesk-oon-cahtz) This is crude, but if you can pull it off with a self-deprecating smile, you’re in like Flynn.

Who is Flynn, anyway?

How to Sound Like an Italian, Miss Expatria Style

As promised, I’m including some phrases one should know when one visits God’s living room, also known as Italy.

This has been a favorite obsession of mine ever since I was in Rome in 2001 with Pavlov Memento, the ex. We had just finished dinner and were walking down via Cavour, when we passed a knot of Americans who mentioned a town very close to where we were living back in the States.

Pavlov, being Pavlov, stopped and spoke to them. During the course of our conversation, one of the women complained about the gelato shop they had just come from. She said the kids behind the counter were rude, and pretended not to know what she was saying when she was talking to them.

After some cursory questions, we ascertained that she had in fact been speaking plain old English to them, and these high school-age kids had no idea what she was saying. I suggested, as kindly as I possibly could, that maybe she would be better off learning some basic phrases to make her time in Italy a bit easier.

“I can’t be expected to learn the language of every country I visit,” was her verbatim reply.

Sigh. Grit teeth. Smile. Walk away.

No one is expecting you to learn THEIR ENTIRE LANGUAGE when you’re visiting a country. While you’re snapping a photo of the wife and kids in front of a famous monument, a native of that country will not run up to you and ask you to discuss political theory. Your waiter does not want to know your opinion on stem cell research. You will not need to sing the national anthem, sign formal documents, or conduct any business there.

They just want to see that you have an ounce of respect for the fact that you’re on their turf.

OK OK, enough ranting. Here are the key phrases you should know when visiting Italy. I’ve included the very basics here – the vocabulary you will need to look up yourself. The information is found in a phrasebook you can buy for about seven bucks, or the back cover of your guidebook.

As I said yesterday, learning these things will take you about an hour and will go a long way toward having a better experience.

Ms. Pants, I’m not yelling at you! You have the Gay Mafia’s full endorsement.

Here we go. These might be a little different than you read in your guidebook that’ because they’re REAL.Oh, and I did not bother with accent marks, because frankly I don’t know how to do that on my Mac.

Where is…/Dove…/DOE-vay
Do you have…/Lei c’e l’ha…/lay-tchay-la
Can I…/Posso…/POH-so
I would like…/Vorrei…/voh-RAY
Help!/Aiuto!/eye-YOU-toe
This is delicious./E’ squisito./ay (as in bay)-squee-ZEE-toe
Hello. (til after lunch)/Buon giorno./bwone-joor-no
Hello. (rest of day)/Buona sera./bwone-ah-say-rah
Have a good day!/Buona gionata!/bwone-ah-joor-nah-tah
Good night./Buona serata./bwona-ah-say-rah-tah
Fabulous!/Favolosa!/fah-voh-low-zah
I’m in love with this./Sono immaorata di questo qua/ so-no-een-ahm-more-AH-ta-dee-quay-stow-kwa
Thank you./Grazie./grahtz-yay
You’re so nice./Lei e’ molto gentile./lay-ay-mole-toe-jen-teal-ay
I’m not crazy about this./Non mi fa impazzire./known-me-fahm-pahtz-ee-ray
Sorry./Mi dispiace./me-deess-pyotch-ay
Excuse me (interrupting)/Mi scusi/me-skooz-ee
Excuse me (to pass)/Permesso/pair-mess-oh
Does this go to…/Questo va a…/quayss-toe-va-ah
Please/Per favore/pair-fah-vor-ay
Check please?/Il conto, per favore?/eel-cone-toe-pair-fah-vor-ay
I’m just looking./Sto solo guardando./stow-so-low-gwar-dahn-doe
I’m looking for…./Sto cercando…/stow-chair-CAHN-doe

Tomorrow, we’ll go over some customs, and a quick lesson in how to be rude AND charming.

How to Sound Like an Italian: Pronunciation Guide for Tourists

I am fluent in Italian.

I forget words. I emphasize the wrong syllable. I hate that every object on earth has a gender. And don’t ever ask me what I “would have been doing” because I guarantee you, my answer will take a while and most likely be incomprehensible.

But, I can go entire days without thinking a single English thought, or uttering a single English word. I dream in Italian. I sing in Italian. I laugh at the absurdity that is Italian television. So, I feel I have earned the right to say: I am fluent in Italian.

Language has always been easy for me, so I have never understood when people get panicky about going to a country where they do not know the language. I know there are some people who are just blocked about it – I get the same feeling when someone talks about Algebra – and those people are allowed to be panicky.

But the rest of you? Take one hour – one single hour! – out of your life before going on vacation and learn the basic phrases you’ll need to get by. No one is asking you to be fluent. No one is going to stop you on the street while you are taking a picture of your family in front of a monument and ask you to discuss political theory in the native tongue.

Italian is really the easiest language with which to get used to the idea of communicating with the citizens. For one, it’s a fun language (at least to me). It’s easy to pronounce – there are very few ways to mess it up. And, Italians LOVE IT when you try to speak to them in Italian. LOVE. IT. As long as you’re able to laugh at yourself, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.

The key to sounding like an Italian are two things:

  1. Every letter in every word is pronounced.
  2. Each vowel has its own sound, and only that sound. There are no two ways to pronounce a vowel.

Here is how the vowels should be thought of if you normally speak American English (Brits are on their own):

a sounds like the “o” in “cot”

e is like “bed” – but we have the tendency to round that out so to foreign ears it sounds more like “bud” – it’s a brighter “e” in Italian, more like halfway between “bid” and “bed.” Actually, scratch that – it’s more like the “a” in “day” if you didn’t then go on to finish the word

i sounds like the “ee” in “feet”

o as in “go”

u sounds the the “oo” in “boot”

Even when there are two vowels together, their pronunciation does not change; they’re just said a little faster.

The only other major thing you have to know is about c’s and g’s.

  • When c is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “church.” All other times, it pronounced as in “cook.” “Chi” sounds like “key” and “che” sounds like “kay.”
  • When g is followed by i or e, it is pronounced as in “Georgia.” All other times, it pronounced as in “goal.” “Ghi” sounds like “Peggy” and “ghe” sounds like “gay.”

Other stuff to know:

  1. gn – listen to yourself when you say, “can you.” That “n-y” is what you’re going for. I’d say think of when you say “gnocchi” or “filet mignon” but I’ve heard these two words butchered enough to not suggest it.
  2. gl– this is a tough one. The closest I can come to is “fall you” – the “ll-y” feeling in your mouth. This letter combo is always with an -ia or an -io after it, so: “fall yonder” or “fall yoke” gives you the sound you’re looking for there.
  3. double letters, like the two “t”s in “spaghetti” – they are held a microsecond longer, like your mouth doesn’t want to let go of the word. Don’t worry about this one, it’s seriously not that big a deal. Just pronounce them and you’ll sound fine – i.e., spah-get-tee, not spah-geddy.
  4. sf – yep, just say ’em both.
  5. r – roll it on out. Come on, roll that r! If you’re genetically incapable of doing so, give it a soft “d” sound as in “pudding”and you should do alright.

Tomorrow, I’ll give you some basic phrases you should know if you want to get by while in Italy!

How to Leave Amsterdam – Step Away From the Brownie

Miss Expatria received a request yesterday from gentlest reader and dear cousin, Mr. Fab. He’s headed off to Amsterdam in a few weeks, and wanted to know if I knew of any places that were easy to get to from there, for a day or overnight trip.

Why, yes. Yes I do.

First, I’d like to clear something up, right here, right now, that really annoys me when people get it wrong: Holland and the Netherlands are two different names for the same country. The language they speak in this country, as well as the people who speak it: Dutch. Dutch people call their own country Nederland. Amsterdam is a city in Holland, and in fact, it’s the capital.

Are we all set? OK.

(Oh, except I just want to say that The Hague has always captured my fascination. How cool is The Hague?)

OK, here we go with the advice.

Within Holland, there are many interesting places that are a short train ride away from Amsterdam, and are very, very…Dutch. I mean, we’re talking windmills here. Utrecht, Volendam, Zaanse Schans. So step away from the brownie and go see some stuff! This site has excellent information on these trips.

Berlin is a bit of a haul, but with a bit of creative scheduling is totally doable. This site teaches you, step by step, the very Googleable task of How to Book Train Travel From Amsterdam To Berlin. Brilliant!

Ryanair flies out of Eindhoven airport, approximately 120 km from Amsterdam, and flies to Rome, London, Madrid, Milan, other places.

Easyjet flies out of Amsterdam airport, which is definitely not 120 km from Amsterdam, and goes to Milan, London, Geneva, and a lot of not-London cities in the UK.

My personal favorite trip, which wouldn’t really be to GET TO anywhere but just to take it, is the combination train and ferry to London. They even have overnight voyages! Love it.

Mr. Fab is going for just a few days, but I know now he’s reading this and calculating how feasible it would be to stay longer.

Discount Airlines in Europe

Does everyone know about wikitravel?

I’m sure everyone does, but I feel like it’s my own little secret. It’s basically wikipedia, but for traveling. I really love it and find it immensely useful, but the thing I don’t love is that there is not a specific section describing the gay community in its city descriptions. (Someone has to look out for my gay mafia. They didn’t elect me doyenne and head muse for nothing.)

Anyway, they have travel topics as well as guides, and an excellent example of the former is called Discount Airlines in Europe. There are just SO MANY WAYS to get around Europe these days, and this page is a huge help in sorting all of your options.

Sometimes it can be impossible to divine which airline can serve you, and you don’t want to miss out on a spectacular flight deal (as in, FREE – you just pay the taxes) (yes, really) just because you didn’t know a certain airline flies to your desired location.

I have a secret for this. Ready?

For whichever city I am interested in, I go to that city’s airport’s website. (If it’s in a different language that you can’t figure out at all, pop the page into a translator.) Smaller airports can actually have the day’s flight schedule on their sites, and you can see which airlines use the airport – or even find the exact flight you’re looking for! Large airports usually have a page on their website that simply list all the airlines they host, with links to their pages.

When you’re looking for flights, start checking on RETURN flights first – on almost all of the discount airlines’ websites, when you type in your departure city, the drop down menu changes to show ONLY the cities that you can get to from there. Seeing a list of exactly how you can get to your destination might reveal an alternate city you hadn’t thought of before.

Hypothetical example #1: Let’s say I wanted a getaway weekend, but I had no idea where I wanted to go. The first thing I’d do is go to my local airport’s web page and check out where I can get to. Once I saw a flight I liked, I’d go to that airline’s website to book it.

Hypothetical example #2: Let’s say I wanted to go to Venice. (I always want to go to Venice, but let’s say I actually was planning a trip.) I’d go to Venice’s airport’s website and see what flights are on schedule there, and check if any of the cities are near me.

Hypothetical example #3: I could also go to a discount airline’s website and find their route map, then slide my mouse over Venice and see what cities are connected to it.

Phew. I hope that was not too confusing!

Prepaid Debit Cards – Excellent!

I was perusing my daily travel briefings and came across something that is just wonderful.

A lot of people who come over to visit me get nervous about money – not about not having enough, but about the ability to retrieve it when they need it. I give them the following tips:

1. NO TRAVELLER’S CHECKS! The last time these were popular, my mother was the proud owner of an avocado-hued fondue pot. No one takes them anymore.

2. You can exchange a bit of cash before you get here, but the best thing to do is to hit an ATM in the airport immediately upon arriving. BUT:

3. Call your bank and any credit cards you’re going to use and tell them you’re going to Europe before you leave the States. Otherwise, they can get panicky and block your card and it’s a hassle.

3A. While you’re on the phone with them, ask them for non-800 phone numbers should you need to call them from over here.

And now I am going to add a fourth piece of advice for the particularly budget-conscious, thanks to AAA – the Visa TravelMoney Card! You just load it up with the amount of money you’ll be spending on your trip – up to nine grand – and then you use it like an ATM or credit card wherever you travel!

You can order it right online, and check your balance there, too. Seriously excellent idea.

How to Choose a Hotel Online

As promised, here are my secrets for finding a great hotel room online. These time-tested tips have been closely guarded until now – so get ready to travel like Miss Expatria!

We’ll use Paris, France as an example.

First, I go to Wiki Travel. This is just like Wikipedia, but with a focus on each city from a traveler’s perspective. It gets my head into the game and gives me an idea of where I should be staying in the city.

Then I go to Expedia. This gives me a rough indication of what to expect in terms of hotel prices and styles for the city of my choice. I check out the hotels using the map feature, so I can get an even better idea of the areas of town I should be looking in. I don’t love Expedia for booking, but that’s just me; I tend to find better deals elsewhere. However, I do keep the Expedia page up for double checking, so don’t click away from it!

My next stop is Venere. You can use your favorite hotels website, but if you don’t know about Venere, bookmark it now! I click on “Paris” on the main page, and 757 hotels come up. Yikes.

At this point, I choose the “Find hotels on a map” option – it makes my choice easier, because an important rule is: LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Don’t choose a hotel based on price alone – you’ll be miserable and since the cheapest hotels are usually located in the sticks, it will wind up costing you more to get to where all the action is.

Now, for Paris, I love the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th arrondissements. (This is how people refer to these neighborhoods, for the most part – if you wanted to know which arrondissement a certain place is, check out the postal code of that place – it’ll end in the arrondissement number.) I’m going to start in the 1st. Click!

OK, that gives me 37 hotels – MUCH better. Again, this is why I love Venere – I’m a map fiend, and you get a map close-up at the top, with the map overview on the right, so you always know where you are. Right below the maps is where you can choose how to sort the hotels. At this point, I go by price – there is no point in looking at an awesome hotel only to find it’s a kabillion dollars a night. This depresses Miss Expatria and sends her into her Bratty Princess mode, which should always be avoided. I also have gone by star rating at this point, which can produce roughly the same results.

Alright, now we’ve got a working list. The first thing I look at is the price – again, no use in getting one’s hopes up. The 1st arrondissement is pricey – the Chanel store is here, darlings – so I’m not freaking out that the first one is already 89 Euros a night. In a major city in northern Europe, that is probably the minimum you’re going to find, so get over it now. Sure, you can bare-bones it at a hostel or other place, but you’re an adult, and you’re going to be in Paris – bite the bullet and pay the bucks.

If the price is right, I glance quickly at the star rating, but I don’t let it rule my life. In choosing a hotel, once I’ve settled on location and price range, the single most important factor for me are PHOTOS. Let’s take a look at that first hotel to illustrate my point – Hotel Saint-Honoré.

Once I click on the hotel’s page, I go straight for the photos. This hotel has two photos – one of the reception and one of what I can only believe is their finest room.

The reception photo has several red flags in it – the desk on the right is smashed into the seating area, and is of poor quality. There’s no warmth in the room – no rugs, no color. The lighting above the reception desk is actually OK – you want to avoid any strip fluorescent lighting. It’s also a plus that it opens out onto the street – many one-star hotels are on a single floor in a larger building, which just sucks. But, the overall effect of this photo is sadness.

Now, onto the room photo. The framed picture on the wall is just sad, and shows they’re cheap because there should be a print above each bed. The phone on the wall is tacky. The room is painted stark white – no character. The single running headboard with connected night-stand tells me they are using the cheapest materials available. Also, there is no bedside lamp, just the two on the wall above the beds. The bedspreads look worn and thin – I don’t want to crawl into those beds at the end of a perfect day. And the use of the flash makes it look like a crime scene, and tells me there is probably no view and little natural light.

But, this is a one-star hotel – so I was not expecting anything grand. Go back to the browser window that lists all the hotels in this neighborhood. Let’s skip down past the one-stars to the Hôtel Du Cygne. I chose this one because the tiny thumbnail photo shows potted plants at the front door – a nice touch. And 115 Euro ain’t bad for Paris! Let’s go to the photos!

Outside shot – cute. It looks like a happy place. Rooms – ADORBS! Coordinated colors, fresh look, unusual room shapes – all pluses. I can see from the furniture placement that space is going to be tight – but I might be able to overlook that due to the cuteness. The TV mounted to the wall and the wall-sconces-as-only-lighting remind me it’s still only a two-star – but it’s obvious they take pride in making each room have its own character. BONUS POINTS – beamed ceiling in one photo, and the one thing that gets me every time: SUNLIGHT STREAMING ONTO THE BED. I have chosen between two hotels based on this single factor, more than once. It just makes me happy – and it also tells me that they took some time to plan the photos, as opposed to sending up the maid with a digital camera. They’re savvy and they want to make a good impression – two good things in a hotel.

At this point I check out customer reviews to see if the photos are a lie, or if there were any hellatious experiences – but I weight them as a whole. I like these reviews! I implore you to ignore any bad reviews about hotel breakfast prices – this should never come as a shock to an experienced traveler. Also, what are you doing having breakfast in the hotel, if it’s not free? YOU’RE IN PARIS – GET OUT OF THE HOTEL AND HAVE A CROISSANT.

This hotel has definite possibilities, so I scroll back up to the top, copy the name of the hotel, and paste it into Google. Naturally, there are a bunch of hits – but I am looking for the hotel’s personal website. Bingo!

Looking for, and at, a hotel’s personal website is important. First off, if they don’t have one – don’t stay there. It shows a distinct lack of pride in their business, and in 2007, there’s no excuse not to have one. Number two, check out the quality of the website. Does it look like it was put up in 1996 and left alone? It’s not a deal breaker, but it shows they aren’t savvy. Third, you want to check to see if their prices are better than the travel website, and if they have any special deals you can take advantage of.

I wouldn’t book this hotel immediately, because I want to see what my other options are – but I’ll definitely write down this name and keep the website open. The rates and confirmations for the hotel of your choice, you can figure out on your own – but I usually check for the hotel at other travel websites, and do a quick comparison of prices before booking at my final choice.

Two more pieces of advice. One, if there is no difference in the price, book directly with the hotel through their own website. You’ll have an advantage if you need to change or cancel, and you’ll probably get a name of an employee when they write back to confirm, which can help. And my final piece of advice is this – don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. If you see from an exterior photo that there is a room with a spectacular balcony, ask for it! If you want to make sure you have one large bed and not two single beds, confirm it! If you read somewhere that a particular room is the best, make sure you get it!

OK, enough of my secrets – for now. This is how I search for a hotel room for a major vacation – next up, I want to show you the ins and outs of splurge weekends! And coming up soon, a special post about hotels I have loved, and how and why I chose them. That’ll be fun!

How to Check for Low Air Fares

When I worked at Big Ad Agency, my coworker and friend, MK and I fed each other’s travel addictions like two junkies in an alley. One of our favorite pastimes was checking for cheap airfare, and then fantasizing about going on that trip.

Not to date ourselves, but this was quite a few years ago – yes, we had the Internets, we’re not that old – but we did a lot of the fare-searching ourselves.

But lo and behold, check out what technology has done for us lately.

Mark Kahler, who is a very knowledgeable guy over at About.com, has made a list of fare-watcher tools that, as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to sign up for immediately. (Well, all except the one that’s based in Cleveland.)

Check it out here!