Lockdown

We are locked down abroad…not to be confused with being locked up abroad. Thought I’d blog since lots of people are checking on us to make sure we are okay and ask what the lockdown means.

Today is day #3 of lockdown. We are not sick, we do not know anybody who is sick, and we do not know anybody quarantined for coming into contact with someone who tested positive either. We are under lockdown, teleworking from home, and doing our part to stop the further spread of this virus. The trending Italian hashtag is #iorestoacasa which means “I stay at home.”

The new decrees and regulations seem to be constantly evolving and becoming stricter as we go. Originally, shops, bars, and restaurants could be open from 6 am to 6 pm, as long as people maintained one meter distance apart, and outdoor time in the park was allowed as long as people did not get too close. If you needed to move between municipalities you had to have an allowable reason (emergency or work) and carry a self-certification form. There was no limit on taking a walk with the dog or going to the park to exercise, as long as it was not group exercise.

The new decree issued last night enacted stricter regulations. Nothing can be open, no commercial activity, except for grocery stores and pharmacies. If you need to get something, you can send only one person per household, and you need a self-certification form for any time out of the house. I believe this includes walking the dog. How convenient that we do not own a printer! (If we do get stopped the police can supply us with a form on the spot) It’s not illegal to go for a walk or jog, but they ask that you stay home as much as possible.

Grocery stores and pharmacies must limit the number of people who can be in the store at one time. Everyone forms a line outside the store, distanced one meter apart from each other, and they let one person in per one person out. Italians are notorious for cutting lines, and I was impressed by how well everyone seemed to be respecting these lines…until someone tried to cut me in line at the pharmacy this morning! A lot of small shops have posted signs, like the ones below, indicating how many people are allowed in based on the size of the store. They have no problem telling you to wait outside and will bark at you if you stand too close to another customer.

We see a heavy police presence, but have not been stopped. This morning we were out walking the dog, when our friend passed by on his motorino on his way to work. He was wearing a helmet and sunglasses, and we did not recognize him. He aggressively yelled at us in Italian to show him our documents. I’ll be honest, I panicked. I had my documents, but no still no self-certification form. Then he started laughing. It was funny…you know…except for the mild panic attack.

The weather has been absolutely beautiful since this started, with blue cloudless skies every day. We have been spending a lot of time in our garden, hanging with the dog and working in the sunshine. Our neighbors whose terrace overlooks our garden have a two year old who loves our dog. We have been chatting from one floor apart. She yells down “bao bao,” what Italian kids call dogs that mimics the bowwow sound. It’s adorable. Her parents are saying “how do we entertain a two year old all day and get work done?” All of the parents I know are going crazy!

I made the mistake of checking the calendar yesterday. The lockdown is scheduled to end April 3, which did not sound that far away until I looked at the calendar and discovered it is 25 days of lockdown. That’s assuming it ends as scheduled, and who knows what further restrictions will come out either.

A word to my friends and family in the US and other countries… Does anybody really know what the appropriate amount of caution is? Is Italy going overboard? Is it doing enough? I am not sure, but I do know that Italy is suffering. Forget how much of a disruption it is to be on lockdown (a big disruption, but I can handle it). Look at the medical system. Hospitals are overrun, there are not enough doctors, there are not enough ventilators…  Stay home if you can, and take this seriously.

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Monti Nostalgia

It’s been a long time since my last blog post, but as we are about to move apartments (staying in Rome), it feels like the end of one chapter and the start of a new one, so I felt inspired to write.

We have now lived in Rome, Italy, in our beautiful apartment in the amazing neighborhood of Monti, for just shy of four years. We love Monti, we love our apartment, and we are so sad to leave! Neither of has lived anywhere, not in a single apartment or a single city, for this long since we left our parents’ homes for college at the ripe old age of 17. The bulk of our relationship has been here. We have hosted SO MANY people for dinners and parties and multi-night stays. We have made such great memories. It is very bittersweet.

When we first moved here, we knew nothing about Rome, and we had no idea that the neighborhood we chose to live in was so special. Monti is a beautiful neighborhood in the historic center of Rome, with narrow cobblestone streets, tons of bars and restaurants, and we are so lucky we got to spend four years here. As we have lived here, the tourists and Airbnb’s have increased, but we became a part of the local community. They know us at the local coffee bars and restaurants. I have made friends with all the old men of the neighborhood, in particular my 88 year old friend Pasquale from across the street. We know our neighbors, and stop to chat with them when we run into them in the neighborhood or grab a coffee before work downstairs.

One of the things we will miss most is Barzilai, the restaurant we live on top of. It’s a very sweet family-run restaurant and bar, that has become an important part of our life here. Gabriella (next to me in the pic below) still does all the lunch cooking, bakes all the desserts, and pinches our cheeks as if we were five years old, working alongside her husband Oliviero, their son Massimiliano, and a few others we have gotten to know. We love it there. We will be back.

Oliviero, Gabriella, me, Massimiliano, Adam

Our apartment is awesome and huge, with a real feeling of Roman grandeur. People have been living in this building since the year TWO HUNDRED! It’s so old! Certainly it has been razed and rebuilt since then. The current structure is also old, from around the 1500s (estimated by our landlord, no idea if this is correct). We have high ceilings with chandeliers, detailed extravagant crown molding, and antique tiled floors. The highlight of the apartment is the large terrace, where we have spent many nights with friends, eating and drinking until the neighbors (kindly) ask us to shut up and go inside. We look out over charming Via Panisperna, where vines hang over the street, so beautiful that no tourist can pass without stopping for a picture. Below, some pics of our apartment, a bit messy as we already started packing, and the building from the outside:

The main reason for moving is Adam is changing jobs (he is moving to another UN agency that is also headquartered in Rome) and the commute from our current location would be long. My bike commute will be about the same distance, but I will no longer have to pass through the colosseum every day, where maneuvering around the hordes of tourists has become the bane of my existence!

In addition, although we are so sad to leave Monti, we are also ready. The apartment is old and things are constantly breaking. We are tired of living in a limited traffic zone, where you can only drive into the neighborhood at certain times of day. And although we love the vibrancy of the neighborhood, it’s annoying to walk the dog at 11 pm when there are 50 people outside, dressed up, drinking and smoking on our doorstep.

The bar crowd, outside our door

This week we have been going for gelato in the piazza almost every night, appreciating our Monti experience for the last few nights we have it. The Christmas lights are out, making the neighborhood especially beautiful and even harder to leave.

The other night I came back from our gelato feeling very nostalgic about moving…but then the shower hose broke in the middle of my shower for the umpteenth time, the next day the restaurant we live on top of told us our apartment is again leaking on them, and the next day the toilet broke (unlike a normal toilet where the water tank is right on top of the toilet, our water tank requires climbing a ladder and hoisting yourself into a crawl space to access). We love this place but it is time to move!

Where are we going? Only two miles away, to a very residential neighborhood called San Saba. The new apartment has central air conditioning, a parking spot, and a dryer! What more could we ask for?!?!?!

To those who visited us here, we are so happy to have had you and to share this amazing place with you. And to those who never visited, you missed out! Our new place has less character, and is in a less charming neighborhood. But we still have a second bedroom for you!

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Biking in Roma

Rome is not a biking city. The city is chaotic. The taxi drivers are aggressive assholes. The motorino drivers are even more aggressive assholes. There are very few streets that have bike lanes. And the cobblestones…well…they’re rough on the bike and rougher on the body.

Adam and I have the best commute! It takes just ten minutes to get to work by bike, and most of the route is on streets that are either pedestrian only, or restricted to buses and taxis only, so the traffic is not too bad and we don’t get run over by the crazy lunatic Roman drivers. Along the way we pass the Imperial Forum, the Colosseum, and the Roman Forum.


Obviously this is the most amazing commute I have ever had, and surely the most amazing commute I ever will have!!! But…the Colosseum is the sooooooo annoying to bike through…because TOURISTS. Tourists are especially terrible at the Colosseum because it is so BIG. They’re always stepping backwards to try to get more of the structure to fit in their photos. They don’t look before they step! They stare at their cell phones, step backwards and sideways, and they don’t look. They’re the worst!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I completely realize I am a jerk for complaining! It’s the Colosseum! It’s crowded BECAUSE it is the Colosseum! I try to remind myself this every time I bike through, and try to find ways to enjoy this part of the commute. When there are people posing for pictures, as I bike past them I look directly at the camera and smile. I imagine that there are people all over the world who go home and show their friends the photo of the idiot biker who photo bombed their picture.

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The Problem with Google Translate

About a week ago I got a nasty gastrointestinal virus, which left me in bed, feverish, and quite miserable for days. I’ve basically recovered, but because of some lingering “tummy issues” I decided to get a stool sample test just for some peace of mind…

Before going to the pharmacy, I used Google Translate to find out how to say stool sample kit in Italian. I then went to the pharmacy and confidently asked for a “kit campione sgabello,” the phrase that Google Translate suggested was the translation for stool sample kit. The pharmacists looked at me like I was a complete moron. They had no idea what I was asking for.

I described what I was looking for, and they easily figured it out and I bought the stool sample kit. Then the pharmacist said “questo e un sgabello” (“this is a stool”), and reached down to pick up… a step stool. Ha! Of course! Also FML.

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Final days of vacation

On our last day in Myanmar, we returned to the big city, Yangon. We spent our day just hanging out, eating in some of the city’s posher restaurants, including the Rangoon Tea House, inspired by typical Burmese teahouse culture but actually more of an upscale yuppie eatery. For dinner we ate a a restaurant named Rau Răm, where my friend’s friend’s ex-boyfriend is the chef! This is not exactly a close connection, but how many chefs do I know in the world…let alone Myanmar!

We also went to an incredibly awesome store, with tons of artifacts from all over Myanmar. There were paintings, sculptures, Buddhas and more Buddhas, tons of lacquer ware, and large pieces of intricately carved and hand painted furniture. It was a really incredible collection, more like a museum than a store. Every corner was bursting with stuff. Inside every piece of amazing furniture, every shelf was filled with more stuff. There was an antique British diving helmet – like something out of a movie – when do you see these things in real life?!?! The rest of the clientele were spending thousands of dollars and discussing six star hotels (yes – six stars – who knew that even existed!), while their personal drivers waited for them outside the store… so…we didn’t exactly fit in…but who cares! The store owner was one of the only people we met during our entire trip who spoke English well enough to discuss politics, so we attempted to ask him about the political situation in Myanmar…but he refused to take the bait.

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On our way back to Rome, we had another ten hour stopover in Singapore. Adam kept us on an aggressive schedule, and we saw a LOT. We walked through an incredible park with creative architecture like nothing I have ever seen before. We ate extremely excellent Japanese food…twice. We walked through Chinatown, which was insanely crowded as they had just set up the night markets in preparation for Chinese new year. We hung out along the water front. It was a great day, and a great end to our wonderful vacation.

Our return to real life was ROUGH. I got a terrible cold. In addition, while we were away, our pipes had been leaking into the restaurant we live above, so we were not allowed to use the heat and hot water during our first days back, which happened to coincide with a cold spell. Our landlord and his plumber played a fun game of cat and mouse, digging a series of holes into our kitchen floor in the hopes of finding the leaking pipe. They never found the leak, but the hot water somehow stopped leaking into the restaurant. This is the second leak in our building that magically just stopped leaking on its own..obviously this makes no sense, but as long as I have heat and hot water I am quite content!

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Inle Lake

The next stop on our trip was Inle Lake! According to our careful research before we departed, the weather in Myanmar would be perfect for our whole trip, and we had packed accordingly!

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Ha! Our first two days in Inle Lake, it poured. We asked at the hotel what there was to do at Inle Lake in the rain, and the woman behind the desk giggled and said “Nothing!” We didn’t believe her so we found a local tourist agency. Again we asked what there was to do in the rain, and again a woman behind a desk giggled and said “Nothing!” We hung out under a hotel awning, playing pool with the rainy day in the background.

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Before we left for Myanmar, we had planned to do a trek with a local guide, who had specifically told us that there was no need to bring rain gear since it was the dry season. He called the day before the trek and advised us that his last trekking group had canceled and we probably should too. We changed our itinerary, canceled the trek, and lamented the weather which was predicting another three days of rain.

But we got lucky! The next day the rain stopped, and we had a great few days in Inle Lake. During one of our days there we rented bikes and followed a circuit route around lakeside villages, stopping along the way at hot springs, temples, and a winery. The highlight of the bike route was when we crossed the lake by boat with our bikes, so that we could make our way back along the other side of the lake.

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The next day we hired a boat tour to take us around on the lake all day, where we saw life along the lake – fishermen, kids playing and adults washing, floating villages, two temples, and the jumping cat monastery. Supposedly the cats at the jumping cat monastery used to actually be trained to jump through hoops, but now they are just regular cats who do no tricks. I was lucky enough to have a sweet cat come snuggle up to me all on her own. Adam tried to pet a cat but she scratched him and he bled.

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Anyone who has ever traveled in Southeast Asia knows that by the end of your trip, you’ve seen so many temples that they all start blending together, and it takes a truly special one to make an impression. The final stop on our boat ride was at an incredible temple – it had hundreds of stupas in varying levels of repair and disrepair. There were also tons of puppies roaming around, and I will gladly take puppies over cats (sorry Aunt Paula, and any other cat lovers out there) any day.

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Finally, of exciting and noteworthy news to nobody other than me…our hotel was right near the Department of Agricultural and Land Management Statistics! This is highly exciting for someone working in the statistics department at FAO, and probably not quite as exciting to everyone else!!!        🙂

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Mandalay 

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city. The city iself is kind of generic and not particularly nice – there are a few sites to see in the city, and a bunch more to see in the surrounding areas outside the city. To be honest, we might have skipped Mandalay altogether, but we were meeting our friends Seth and Maryana for NYE. We ended up spending most of our time in Mandalay with them, so even though it was a less exciting destination, we had a really great time with them hanging out and sightseeing! 

The city center has an old palace which was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1996. Although it is one of the main sites to see in Mandalay, based on the excessive number of extremely negative reviews we read, we decided to skip it.

Instead we went to some of the city’s other sites, which were actually pretty cool, including Shwenandaw Monastery, made of teak wood with incredibly detailed carvings, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, a pagoda surrounded by 729 shrines, with each shrine containing a giant marble slab with Burmese Buddhist writings on both sides – together these make up the world’s largest book. Just like in Bagan, all tourists are on the sunset shedule, and we attended the requisite sunset viewing on Mandalay Hill.

Teakwood monastery

No ladies here!

Shrines containing the world’s largest book

One slab of the world’s largest book

Sunset from Mandalay Hill

At night we went to see a performance by the Moustache Brothers (actually two brothers and one cousin). They’ve been performing shows that combine political satire with traditional Burmese dance for years, and became internationally famous when their jokes landed them in jail in the 1990s and they were sentenced to hard labor for seven years. Amnesty international and a host of others got involved to help get them out, and they continued performing. Now two of the brothers have died, and the remaining brother and his family members (who also perform) are quite old. The performance takes place in a garage, and the family still lives upstairs. Online we read very mixed reviews and weren’t sure what to expect.  It was super low budget (which actually added to the atmosphere) and the English was hard to understand, but it was funny, highly interactive and a really unique experience. We loved it! 


The next day the four of us arranged for a tour guide (actually just a man with a license and a vehicle and zero English skills) to take us around for the day. 

In the morning we went to a monastery and school for monks/novice monks/pre-novice monks to watch the monks’ morning assembly. What I always find incredible when I see large groups of monks is how so many individuals can appear so the same while still being individuals. They dress the same, they all have shaved heads, and for the most part they all maintain a neutral expression (with the exception of the occasional young monk you catch smiling – which I love). But they’re all individuals too, with families at home in the cities they’re from. 

On this particular day, we found one monk who was extremely eager to practice his English and talk to us. We had a really nice conversation, which other tourists dropped in to listen in on since most of the other monks keep to themselves and don’t interact with the tourists. After learning a lot about life as a monk, and becoming his Facebook friend, we went off sightseeing for the rest of the day. 

For me, one highlight of the day was dropping by a school. We interacted with the kids, played and talked with them, and Adam jumped rope with the little girls. I was particularly annoyed when another tourist actually interrupted my conversation with a kid who wanted to practice his English to ask me to move so he could get his perfect photo. Maybe he should come out from behind his lens and have an experience once in a while. Obviously I also want great photos with no tourists in them, but sometimes you have to wait, take a different photo, or even (gasp) stop taking photos to more fully be in the moment and live the experience. That’s the deal. 

The best part of the day was U-Bein bridge. This iconic bridge is one of THE things that shows up in every guidebook or postcards collection of Myanmar. We grabbed a boat and beer to watch the sunset. Every photo was photogenic and incredible. Simply amazing. 

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