Category: travel

fare la scarpetta

Full-leafed trees criss-crossed the Tuscan countryside, interspersed by flat fields of green. Every now and then the land was punctuated by grape vines.  There were hints of red leaves scattered in ribbons across the hills, and the taller cypress trees lined the roads to buildings or villages; first planted as landmarks to help find your way home. I read that cypress trees have been used as a symbol of immortality to signify sacred space and a detachment from the everyday mortal world.

For every meal, the truffle or porcini that accompanied meat or pasta was picked just that morning. “It’s mushroom season,” the locals would declare with a smile. Their happiness was infectious, as if they knew a secret. And share it with us, they did.

I return often to Pico Iyer’s reminder that our greatest aspirations and virtues have always relied on a measure of inner equanimity. Some of the best moments were sprung upon us without plan — the ones that, for example, found us gazing at a lightning storm during an otherwise calm night, all of us trying to take photos or video. Despite our varied success in capturing the lightning with our various cameras, the best success was watching it in each others’ company under the open night sky. 

Though we still had the occasional everyone-sitting-around-on-their-computers moments, there was something about the remoteness of where we were staying that reminded us to be present, to sleep in, to look up at the sky.

***

For our final meal, Francesco created delicious dishes that were served during sunset. A friend used his last slice of bread to sop up the juices of the mushroom broth. Francesco came outside at that moment and grinned while watching the sopping. “That’s precisely how to do it,” he said admiringly under his breath. “Scarpetta!”

I have heard “Scarpetta” used as a restaurant name and I don’t know enough Italian to know what he meant. I’m not sure anyone else heard him say it, but I noted it to look up for later.

The next morning at an earlier hour than we all preferred after several bottles of wine, we wiped away sleep as we said goodbye to the countryside and rode towards Florence. We watched the sun rise over the Tuscan hills, our eyes sweeping over the landscape one last time. The pink-bottomed clouds leaned against the edges of horizon and even the freshly-tilled dirt looked golden.

I remembered the word from the night before and looked it up:

“Fare la scarpetta” is a phrase in the Italian language that’s close to the heart of everyone who has enjoyed a delicious plate of pasta with sauce. Meaning “make the little shoe,” it refers to the small piece of bread used to mop up the last of the sauce on your plate.

It’s not only an essential part of an Italian meal, but it is seen as a way to extend the pleasure of the repast.

***

At the airport, we hugged each other as though we were scooping up the very last bit with all our might. Fare la scarpetta, soaking up every last drop. But also, we hugged like we knew that we’d be seeing each other again very soon. Our friends around us like cypress trees, their presence meaning we have already found our way home.


la

The thing about unexpected storms is that the unexpected sunset is even better.

It was my first evening there. I went to watch the water and stumbled upon the sun setting, clouds of all textures reaching out like loving hands.

My friend texted me back after seeing my photo: “I lived there three years and saw a total of like five clouds the whole time.”

I consider this my brand of luck.

on the nature of maps

Marfa Texas

The skies of Marfa, Texas

A space “without” seems strange: in today’s world, we are so accustomed to more rather than less. More buildings, more cars, more people, more things. Things everywhere.

The desert and open skies expand something in the heart; the apparent endlessness feels both intensely personal and coolly insouciant. Empty yet simultaneously so full of possibility. I referenced a friend’s tattoo once: a Chinese character that means “emptiness” but is idiomatic because it connotes “a space waiting to be filled,” which is arguably different from emptiness. There is a beauty in the waiting, in the pause in between. Sometimes when we see or feel emptiness we feel rushed or anxious to put something in it, rather than exploring the space. Stillness and space are necessary for us to find ourselves. Pico Iyer says, “I began to think how much we need space in those we love, space enough to accommodate growth and possibility.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to embrace the uncertainty of the future despite a past that is laden with preconceived notions of how things will go. I stumble a lot, take a lot of wrong turns in life. I try to preempt disappointment and protect myself by following the maps I’ve already made, but in staying in the harbor, I may pass up that one turn that will take me to the view I’ve been searching for; the one that will change everything that the past has programmed in me. I worry a lot about knowing the right path ahead of time, when really we are still the explorers of the path. Not everything is known, and that is ok. Epiphanies rarely repeat themselves. Rolf Faste’s “On the Nature of Maps” can be interpreted as double entendre, a metaphor of how to charter the new; he acknowledges the usefulness of the maps we already have, while also recognizing the space beyond that which is familiar.

  1. Maps are useful.
  2. Maps are useful in inverse proportion to their completeness.
  3. “The map is not the territory” – Korzybski
  4. Maps of known territories can be purchased.
  5. You can’t buy maps for unknown territories.
  6. Explorers go into unknown territories.
  7. In the absence of maps, explorers outfit themselves in other ways.
  8. The future is an unknown territory.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

— Pico Iyer

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Hiking the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland

As promised in a previous post, here’s a guide to help you prepare for hiking the Laugavegur trail (or Laugavegurinn) in Iceland. National Geographic named this trek one of the Top 20 World’s Best Hiking Trails, and for good reason. WSJ also featured the trail in an article from 2014. We had bought our plane tickets to Reykjavik and had to decide if we were going to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road or walk the Laugavegur. We chose walking, of course.

“Walking… is how the body measures itself against the earth.”  — Rebecca Solnit

Rose Kuo Laugavegur Hike in Iceland

Me, traveling to other worlds to find you.

At about 34 miles (55km) long, Iceland’s Laugavegur trek takes you through everything you could have dreamed that Middle Earth would have looked like. Most travelers start in Landmannalaugar and end in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), although you can also opt to trek the other way. Who wouldn’t want to visit a place called “Thor’s Wood”? The scenery is incredible. I previously wrote: just when you think the last landscape you crossed *had* to be the MOST-BEAUTIFUL-and-best-thing-on-this-earth and there is no way anything can top it — a new one comes into view and takes your breath away.

Laugavegur lake flowers

On the banks of the lake

I would suggest allocating 4-5 days for the Laugavegur trail. There is an optional final leg from Þórsmörk to Skógar, which we skipped because we were limited on time (and we heard that the terrain is much more difficult). There are only 2-3 months out of the year during which it is possible to hike the Laugavegur trail (another reason to reserve accommodation ahead of time, since it will be in demand during the hiking months). Outside of mid-June through mid-September, the roads leading to and from the trail are impassible and buses do not run. Residual snow may make this trek difficult even in June. We played it safe by planning our trip towards the end of July/beginning of August. Definitely research snow/weather conditions before your hike to ensure a safe trip!

(I have included a complete gear list later in this post.)

Laugavegur mountains

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“A Little Life” (or, more straightforwardly: “Taiwan”)

“You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole–like the world, or the person you loved.”

— Stewart O’Nan

It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.

— John Guare

阿姨 sits down next to me and notes admiringly that I have been glued to my book the entire trip. “You’re so studious,” she said. I’ve always loved to read, I confessed. My parents would scold me at breakfast and dinner and in the car. “Stop reading at meals, pay attention, your eyes will go bad if you read while the car is moving.”

I told her I am currently reading an excruciatingly sad novel. “Doesn’t it color your mood?” she asked. “Of course,” I responded.

“Why don’t you only read happy things then?” I laughed and shrugged. I’m reminded so much that I am too emotional anyway, why not face it head on? Someone once told me that the world is wrong to frown upon emotion and vulnerability. So many people deem it weak, but perhaps it can be considered bravery that one opens herself to feeling. I admit I probably also want reassurance that writing about sad things doesn’t preclude becoming a good writer.

I know I will always be a person who thinks about feelings too much, but there are worse things to be in this world (as we are reminded daily by the news). The sad literature and events in life are what provide contrast for us to know what contentment is. The adversity we face is what prepares us for what we need to do to attain peace.

I guess the thing about the sad novel is that it reminds me of the obscure details, the tiny things that make waves. The tiny obstacles that can turn ships, but also the tiny miracles that can turn tides.

***

For months after I bought the plane ticket, I was anxious. I was convinced that my family in Taiwan would scold me:
1. Tell me that I’ve gained weight (which is senseless to say since: of course I was going to look different. The last time I was there was over a decade ago).
2. Comment with dismay about how I am “still single” and childless.

The way I’ve learned Asian families do.

My mom insisted that my arrival to be a total surprise to everyone. I was concerned about this, too. What if grandmother is out somewhere else when we arrive? What if I give her a scare? My mom reassured me. “Don’t worry, grandmother is always there. Where would she go? And don’t worry, her heart is very healthy.”

***

Grandmother was sitting in the yard with her friend when my father and I first walked up. She did not see me at first. When it became clear the visitors were here for her, the friend helped her to stand up. Her face was cloudy, her eyes squinting through the distance to see. I called out “Grandmother, it’s me, 樂樂.”

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