Ciao Italia!

It’s finally here peeps! This is the first of a handful of rants on my amazing trip through Italy last year. I learned so much and want to share as much as I can, from the towns I strolled through to the amazing food I ate along the way. Your thoughts and feedback are highly appreciated! =)

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It’s one thing to read and hear about Italy, it’s another thing entirely to experience it!

In the short time I was blessed to spend in Italy, I was able to discover a great history preserved for thousands of years thanks to it’s proud people and their friends. A country diverse in culture, tasted in it’s cuisine and enjoyed in it’s many stories. I was not just a tourist, I was an admirer finally fulfilling a travel dream I’ve had for years… and I mean YEARS!

As it was our first time in Italy, my friend and I decided to find a group tour to travel with. We came across Gate 1 Travel, a tour company out of the US. This company does multiple tours throughout the world, including right here in the Middle East. I have to say, as this was my first group tour, it was an amazing experience. I meet great people from different parts of the states and felt right at home. I would highly recommend using Gate 1 Travel for your next group tour, especially to a country or region you aren’t familiar with.

Simone Vitti, was our wonderful Italian tour guide who took care of us like we were his visiting friends from out of town. This young man is truly passionate about his country and worked with others in the field that had the same passion when they showed us around their towns. Let me rephrase that, Simone wasn’t our tour guide, he was our Italian professor. He literally gave us a crash course on Italian history, culture, cuisine and language. A few of which I hope I’ll be able to relay in my rants, but sadly, not with Simone’s beautiful accent.

Our 16 day trip started in Como and zigzagged through Italy until we ended in Rome. Below are my thoughts and highlights on some of the places we visited. I’ll go into more details on a few of these towns after I finish sifting through about 5,000 photos and videos from my portable Nikon and lifesaver of a Nexus 6P phone.

Alrighty then, andiamo!

Como, Lombardy – The main city of Lago de Como (Como Lake) in the state of Lombard, about a 40 minute drive from Milan airport (MXP), is a beautifully cozy town. Walk any which way, there’s plenty of green, mountains and water. If you’d like, you can take a train and cross the northern border to Switzerland or hop the trams to visit near by small towns atop the hills. This town literally felt like it had everything within walking distance. We stayed at Hotel Metropole Suisse, which was small but extremely charming. I didn’t pay extra for a lake view room but I think any room in this hotel has a magnificent view of the lake and the lively town square. Stay for a few days, walk everywhere, take a boat through Lake Como, shop the boutiques, visit the Volt Museum and eat everything! Final Thought: One of my favorite Italian cities, highly recommended for at least a few days.

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Bellagio, Como, Lombardy – Deemed “the pearl of Lake Como”, this small town can be walked all around in about an hour or so but there’s so much to discover within it’s smaller streets. Beautifully built homes, boutique shops, lake views from the hilltops… so much so, a day trip in my opinion was not enough to absorb it all. I wish we were able to check out the Gairdini di Villa Melzi D’Eril (Gardens of Melzi D’Eril’s Villa) which was closed during our day trip. The view from every angle was breathtaking, the hills were not difficult to navigate on foot and the people were very welcoming of the massive tourist crowds. And the street pizza we got for 6 Euros was delicious! Final Thought: A town not to be missed! Highly recommended for at least a weekend stay.

Verona, Veneto – From a far, it’s very much a Roman town with many of it’s marks still visible. Once inside though, it’s a whole different story, especially for those seeking love. Everyone comes to Verona for Casa de Giulia (Juliet’s House). Why? Because Shakespeare – who never visited Italy by the way, let alone Verona – used it as the setting for his fatel romantic tale, Romeo and Juliet. Smart Italians then turned the town into the “city of love” and replicated the house Shakespeare dreamt up for Juliet. Everyone swarms there  to stand in Juliet’s balcony and rub her statue’s breasts for luck in love. This fan of Shakespeare didn’t find it appealing at all, especially with the claustrophobic inducing crowds. Instead, I waited for our group outside and checked out some of the really cute craft shops nearby. The craftsmanship of this city is under hyped and deserves as much attention as Juliet’s stone breasts. Final Thought: OK for a day trip or to attend an event, nothing more.

Venezia, Veneto – I found this city of 118 islands to be quite lovely, but extremely overrated. I’ve never seen such small spaces so crowded in my entire life. We stayed at the Hotel Carlton and Grand Canal which is off the grand canal of central Venice, just breath taking! And we were warned that some activities, like the musical gondola rides along the canal, were straight up tourist traps. We took a boat bus through most of the grand canal in about 40 minutes for 7 Euros. Head to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) and be taken back to the fascinating history the square encompasses. Go to the smaller islands like Murano where many world class glass factories reside. Final Thought: Overhyped romanticism, OK for a weekend but please avoid Venice in the summer.

Firenze, Tuscana – After my time in Venice, I was worried this otherwise overhyped city of Florence would disappoint me. I was wrong! As a huge fan of art and museums, this city truly captured my heart. Of course we couldn’t be in Florence, even for just a day, without standing in front of the magnificent marble statue of David. The work, the details and the history behind Michelangelo’s original intention is awe inspiring. The museum and art academy was a breath of fresh air, I just wish we had more time to spend to see the other exhibitions of both historical and modern artists. Since we love shopping, we headed to the many leather and silver factory shops lined up all over town. Be careful during tourist season though, their prices are ridiculously “discounted”. Final Thought: An art lover’s dream city! Definitely try to spend a few days here, one day was simply not enough.

Siena, Tuscana: This was an additional tour that I decided to go on and I’m glad I did. A medival town holding on tight to traditions and a great historical significance, especially to the Catholic faith. A young lady by the name of Catherine dedicated her life to serving the people and the church. She’s the reason behind the return of the Vatican state to Italy from France. Dying at the young age of 33 due to her continued “fasting”, she was later deemed a Saint, with parts of her showcased at the Basilica di San Domenico (aka Catherine’s Basilica). Final Thought: A great day trip! The summer heat can be brutal as this is a walking city, not much aside from bikes roam through this town’s many alleys and small hilly streets.

Sorrento, Napoli, Campania – This is a small town with larger than life vibes. It was used as our “pit stop” for a few days while we visited other nearby towns. We stayed at the lovely Grand Hotel Vesuvio atop a hill overlooking the coast. The lively town square at the bottom of the hill was just a hotel shuttle ride away. I found Sorrento to be a perfect town to take in the sights, eat great food and dance the night away. I highly recommend dining at L’Antica Trattoria just a few feet from the town’s main square. I had the honor of meeting the chef after his staff took note of my excessive food photography and questions. Final Thought: This town is very Naples central, highly recommended to check out during a good few days stay in Naples.

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Capri & Costiera Amalfitana, Campania: The only thing I disliked about Capri Island is that I went in the summer, the crowds were brutal. Everything else, even the drive on the Amalfi Coast in an oversized charter bus driving on the edge of the earth, was wonderful. Take in the coasts and get on a boat tour around the island and inside the caves, AMAZING! Did I mention shopping in the local shops? Great finds, got most of my gifts from these lovely shops for decent prices. And for the citrus lovers, this is the heart of limoncello, so drink up! Final Thought: Do not visit in the summer and do not spend less than two days in what I believe to be the most beautiful coast and island of Italy!

Pompeii, Napoli, Campania: Fans of history will appreciate this historic and practically abandoned archeological town. Practically frozen in time by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius that erupted over 2,000 years ago. Some sights can be fascinating while others can be quite disturbing. It bothers me a bit that the town is more famous for it’s historical brothels than it’s preserved roads, sculptures and architecture. The people of Pompeii were smart and had they lived on, I can only imagine what they would have contributed to our modern day society. Final Thought: A great day trip! Please be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. I’m embarrassed to say I ripped my pants climbing up one of the massive steps. Yikes!

Roma, Lazio: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And so I attempted to do just that in the few days I was there. We walked underneath the city to discover it’s hidden treasures after spending a morning walking through the coliseum’s disturbing past.  The Egyptian part of me lost count of the many artifacts the Roman Empire just “happened to find in their ships” when they returned home. The Spanish Steps aren’t Spanish but the embassy across the square is. I’d seen enough churches during my Italy trip but the Major Mary Church was spiritually beautiful, it’s believed to house a piece of the wooden cross Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was crucified on. Threw in a few coins in the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) for good luck and headed to the Tiber River’s summer festivities for international cuisines, music and games. Rome is truly a city like no other! Final Thought: This city is alive and kicking, not a dull moment. Do all the tours you can, there’s so much to do and discover in this city!

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Until next time, ciao bello mios!

Treat Yourself on Your Birthday!

When my family called me from back home to wish me a happy birthday, I was either on the plane or half asleep on the beach. We got to talking about how we don’t treat ourselves enough and how happy they were that I was treating myself with this trip to Muscat, Oman.
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I had a pattern of always working or studying on my birthday. Moving to Qatar and celebrating my first birthday alone in the midst of the roughest year of my adult life put a lot of things in perspective.

I started treating myself as often as possible, especially on my birthday. Every year, I’ve taken my birthday off from work (paid or otherwise) to enjoy a spa day, shopping spree, fancy meals, complete utter laziness and this year, headed on my first semi solo trip.

I took a short trip to Muscat, Oman where the first two days was spent between getting pampered or sitting on a private beach basking in the glory that God created. When my gal pals landed, we head off to a full day of sight seeing villages, beaches, sink holes and canyon walk/climb. When the hell have I ever freaking walk up a canyon peeps? That was exhausting so we ended our long weekend on the beach and a birthday cake filled lunch before we said “ma elsalama Oman”.
Treat yourself peeps because you deserve it… Alhamdulillah.
I promise my Italy rants are coming up as well as my birthday weekend in Oman to follow soon after. =)

W.I.S.S. – Blue Passport, Part Two

My time in Egypt was simply amazing! A learning experience like no other! I saw history in the making, meet amazing people and truly lived like an Egyptian! The one question everyone seems to ask me since I’ve been back, “did you meet anyone special?”

The answer with a loud laugh is, “of course not!”

Staying with family the majority of my four months stay made it pretty well obvious amongst family, friends and neighbors that there was an American girl amongst them. That theory resulted in a lot of marriage proposals. Some funny and some completely absurd. Two of them were probably one of the worst I’ve ever encountered. Here’s the second story…

“Hala can I speak to you for a moment?”

“Yes Baba?”

“When I went to visit a cousin of mine in a nearby town the other day, he told me of a suitor who was very interested in you.”

“And I’m very not interested Baba”, I said with a big smile on my face.

Two days later, I found out that smile didn’t work! His family invited themselves over to my Aunt Sayeda’s house where I was staying during my father’s last few days in Egypt with me. It was just my Aunt Sayeda, her daughter-in-law Fatma and I hanging out when three men came knocking on the door about a couple of hours earlier then expected.

My aunt and Fatma went to the reception area to greet them with soft drinks while I stayed in the other room. I could hear a man speaking quite confidently of the suitor as I sat there hesitant to meet these people. From the minimal words Aunt Sayeda and Fatma said to the guy, I figured I should go into the reception area and try to end this once and for all.

As I walked in, I saw the three men sitting across from the ladies. As I gave the “salam” formalities, I saw the man whom I had heard earlier, a mutual friend, the spokesman of the family. To his left was a slim white-bearded man and a very young, clean cut slim man. Both rarely raising their gaze from the floor to return my “salam”.

“Are you Nagah’s daughter?” asked the spokesman.

“Yes I am. Who are you?” I blatantly asked.

“I’m ‘so and so’ and we are related through your father. What’s your name?”

“You don’t know my name?” I laughed as I rolled my eyes.

“No I don’t” he answered, a bit confused.

“I’m Hala. So how are we related exactly?”

He continued on as to how he’s related to my father and Aunt Sayeda. Him and my aunt talked a bit about the family tree as I took a second glance at the two men. The older man, the suitor’s father, would switch his gaze between the spokesman and the floor. The suitor quickly returned his gaze to the floor after I caught him looking at me.

“We are here to introduce you and your father to this family here.” The spokesman had now turned his attention to me. “This man here has been my friend for over 20 years! He’s worked his whole life in Saudi Arabia, a self-made wealthy man! He has two sons, one married and lives in Australia. His other son, Bakr here, has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, very smart! They are here to get to know you and propose marriage to you.”

I wasn’t surprised that this proposal of marriage was for the sake of America, nothing more.

“Really? Marriage?” I asked sarcastically.

“Yes, are you surprised?” he asked smiling, not noticing my sarcasm.

“I’m surprised every day I’m here in Egypt!” I laughed. “However, marriage proposals from people who don’t even know my name has stopped surprising me.”

“This is our tradition! We know you come from a good family thus we propose. Not like in America where tradition and religion doesn’t exist.” He caught himself and took a breath before continuing, “Well, if you’d like to stay for this you can–”

“As an American, when something concerns you, it’s tradition to sit through it. Since this obviously concerns me, why would I go anywhere else? I’m going to be sitting right here.”

My loud, proud in-your-face attitude with a smile didn’t put any of the men in any bit of ease. The room went awkwardly silent, tension to be cut with a knife. After a long moment, the spokesman started talking about religion and tradition in this small town. I responded with one or two words before the Asr Azan (call for late noon prayer) started. They left to go pray at the nearby mosque and stated they’d return shortly. When they left I just looked over at Fatma who had been struggling to cover her grin.

Fatma relieved of their departure began to giggle, “I hope they got your answer. Bakr is obviously trying to following in his brother’s shoes, get married to someone outside the country.”

The ladies shook their head in dismay as they left to pray and prepare for the men’s return. About twenty minutes later, I found myself back into the reception area with the men and my cousin Mohamed who had come home from work. We all sat down in that same awkward silence awaiting my father’s arrival.

The spokesman started going off again about how great this unemployed suitor was with his bachelor’s degree and wealthy family under his belt. When he wouldn’t stop, I made sure to state that I on the other hand was a self-employed working lady with two masters degrees. My wealth, however much (or little) it may be, was my own. That shut them up again until my father finally returned.

After all the “salam” formalities, they started talking about family, religion, traditions, almost anything else in the hopes that I would leave, but I stayed through their entire nonsense. With my father now in conversation with the spokesman, the suitor had summoned some kind of courage and attempted to be part of the conversation. He also summoned the courage to look me in the eye every chance he got to speak.

What was he trying to prove, I had no clue nor did I care.

The spokesman again started discussing the suitor’s father’s wealth when the Maghrib Azan (call for early evening prayers) began. All the men went to pray Maghrib at the nearby mosque and finally got a few words to my father away from my ears. They stated that the suitor’s mother had just passed away about a week or so ago, that Bakr’s father wanted to do what was best for him as he had done with his other son in Australia. Bakr’s father reminded mine of how they were wealthy enough, should I accept Bakr’s proposal, to provide for me the lifestyle I currently have, whether I decide to live in Egypt or in America. He stated this with the hopes my father would give them the answer they wanted to hear.

My father simply replied, “we’ll get back to you.”

Upon learning all this from my father when he returned without the men, I was completely irritated and annoyed. These materialistic idiots kept trying to put a price tag on me! My father tried to calm me down but it blew up into an argument as I continued to ask why couldn’t he just say “no thank you”? Why was he being so polite to them? Why was he giving them any hope of a response?

When the argument went no where, I gave myself a moment of solitude on the rooftop terrace of my aunt’s home. No one seemed to understand why I was even upset. They expected me to be flattered at the attention, meet these people politely then go about my day.

I begged to differ.

My cousin Mohamed waited for me to calm down before having a “father-daughter” talk with me. He, to some extent, understood where I was coming from but that cultural formalities required them to be polite and respectful to those that came into their home. I understood however I didn’t want to conform to it when it came to dealing such people.

After my father flew back to California, I was between ElManzala and Cairo. Fatma told me that the family had sent a messenger for an answer while I was in Cairo. Damn it! I thought. Fatma, giggling a bit, shared with me Mohamed’s conversation with the messenger, “Do you have any idea what Hala thought of them? I was sure they had gotten the rejection from either from Hala or her father. So let’s just leave it at that.”

I didn’t see or hear from them or the relative that had discussed them with my father the rest of my stay. The proposals continued but slowly declined, as a relative in Cairo told me, that it was obvious I’m not a stupid girl falling for stupid men. I found all those individuals absurd, selfish with a one track mind. My blue passport was never going to be of any use to them.

…and that’s Why I’m Still Single.

Read Blue Passport, Part One here.

Edited to correct name spellings.

W.I.S.S. – Blue Passport, Part One

My time in Egypt was simply amazing! A learning experience like no other! I saw history in the making, meet amazing people and truly lived like an Egyptian! The one question everyone seems to ask me since I’ve been back, “did you meet anyone special?”

The answer with a loud laugh is, “of course not!”

Staying with family the majority of my four months stay made it pretty well obvious amongst family, friends and neighbors that there was an American girl amongst them. That theory resulted in a lot of marriage proposals. Some funny and some completely absurd. Two of them were probably one of the worsts I’ve ever encountered. Here’s the first story…

Almost everyone in the small farming town of ElManzala where my dad’s from knows everyone else, with a high chance of being related in some way, shape or form. I meet many of these relatives who were related by marriage, by blood or because his wife’s brother-in-law’s brother married her sister’s cousin’s niece.

One of such relatives, Mariam, thought it would be appropriate to try and help her married brother Ahmed to propose to me. Several attempts and talks with my father, my Aunt Sayeda who I was staying with and her older son Mohamed didn’t work. I soon bumped into Mariam as I was on my way back to my aunt’s home from a short Cairo trip. A short conversation with her got me to believe I had put that to rest.

I was wrong.

Mariam thought it would be appropriate to send her husband along with Ahmed to Aunt Sayeda’s home the very next day! My father & cousins were out and only my Aunt Sayeda and I were home with a couple of her guests. As they walked into the house, the tension that rose up in the air was noticed by the guests. The men entered the reception area, walked right past me where I got one look at Ahmed and threw-up a little in my mouth. He was just surrounded with a really ora, it was odd and disturbing.

Ahmed had the nerve to sit on the far end of the couch where I was sitting. I tried to be as polite as possible for the sake of my aunt and her guests. I turned the other way and continued to listen to the guest’s little story thinking to myself, “what the hell is going on? Didn’t I make it clear to that stupid bitch I was in no way interested in whatever that thing is that just walked in?” The men decided to start smoking and that was my que.

I looked at Mariam’s husband and politely asked, “Can you please not smoke in here?”

“You don’t like the smell of cigarettes?” he asked with a dumb coy smile.

“No, I can’t stand it! It’s disgusting! Please either don’t smoke or take it outside.” Which is Egyptian for, “GET OUT!”

They immediately left realizing Ahmed won’t be able to get two words through to me asides from his awkward “salam” and many side stares. Aunt Sayeda held her laugh until the rest of her guests had left about ten minutes later. She couldn’t believe Ahmed’s audacity after he and the family were told their proposal was simply not welcome. Aunt Sayeda then told me about how he married a divorcee with four kids about a couple years ago. He had fathered her fifth child before taking a job in the UAE. He was in Egypt on his annual vacation oddly staying with his sister in the country rather then with his wife and children in the city. From what she had heard, he had been attempting to go to America for a while now. 

His proposal of marriage was for the sake of America, nothing more.

Mariam still attempted to invite me over to her house the next day by sending her daughter as a messenger of the invitation. Mohamed and his wife of course had a fit with the family. They again refused on my behalf her attempts, letting her know that I had threatened to confront her if she made any further attempts to contact me. Confrontation in a small town like this is seen as a scandal to the confrontee. Mariam and Ahmed finally stopped pursuing me.

ElManzala being the small town that it is, everyone knew everything as it happened, many feeling the need to share their disgust and disbelief with me. It was from them that I learned that Ahmed’s wife in the city had soon found out too. She called Ahmed’s employers in the UAE stating how Ahmed had abandoned her and their children, asking for spousal and child support. The company not putting up with such embarrassment immediately fired him and retracted their visa sponsorship. His wife soon filed for divorce.

I was not happy to hear such news but honestly I didn’t feel sorry for him either. I found him repulsing and disgusting. A man ready to leave his wife and children on the hopes of going to America. His selfishness and greed took him to a dead end. In a matter of months, he lost everything. My blue passport was of no use to him.

…and that’s Why I’m Still Single.