Thursday, August 27, 2009

a bed by any other name

I don't know if they're two different things when I say I love my sleep, and that I can sleep anywhere. Or perhaps it is because I love to sleep, it's fairly easy for me to sleep anywhere.

Our first host in Rome laid out for us a comfortable inflatable mattress in blue in his kitchen. When I first found out about it before leaving for Europe, I was imagining us brushing teeth, eating and cooking from our bed. That would be very convenient, we wouldn't need to leave our bed very much.

It turned out that the mattress took up all the walking space in the kitchen we had to move it out of the kitchen every morning when we wake up. The funniest part was that Imm slept facing the oven while I was just below the sink.

Our second host in Florence had a living room which was somewhat separated from the rest of the house in the sense that it had its own door and lock. This time we were literally couchsurfing, sleeping on couches, cushioned by thick blankets and throw pillows. Since I've always liked to nap on our family sofa, sleeping on someone else's couch was not that much different.

Not only was our Milan host the supernicest, we also had the best accommodation because we finally had our own beds in our own room. It was very nice to be able to spread out our things without having to worry that they would get mixed up with the hosts'!

Turned out since he and his housemates were gradually moving out of the house, there happened to be an empty room available for us. What blessing.

Since our Nice host was also planning to move out soon (either that or he actually lived like that), the apartment had everything everywhere. In fact, we almost could not distinguish between the living room and common area. I didn't mind taking up the sofa this time while Imm took the matress on the floor. That way, she had more space to move around.

However, since we were near the beach and the night sky filled with stars, she decided to use the sleeping bag to sleep outside on the balcony instead. I joined her for a bit, before realising it was too cold to continue sleeping like that (there was only one sleeping bag available).

The last host seemed to have the nicest looking apartment, and we had an Ikea-ish sofa bed for the night in Lyon. Since his studio was on the top floor, the sofa was strategically located just beneath the sunroof.

Even though there weren't stars that night, we woke up to natural sunlight and cloudy skies the next morning. Makes me wanna have something like that too when I grow up!

It was quite therapeutic looking up the clouds, we wanted to just lay down and do nothing but that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

of home-cooked in europe

Since it is impossible to write about everything that has happened in Europe, Imm and I have decided to cross-link each other's blog. Even though we've gone on the trip together and share many similar interests, our style of writing is different. So far she's been more factual, whereas I've shared more of my personal reflections especially with regards to our hosts.

For some of the earlier stories through Imm's eyes :

Europe 2009 : Day 00
Europe 2009 : Day 01
Europe 2009 : Day 02
Europe 2009 : Day 03

To continue on our hosts, since backpacking and couchsurfing are together once-in-a-lifetime experiences (especially for us from the Asian background), I must say again that each of our hosts are distinctively different not just in terms of personality, but also their residences and how they open their homes and treat their guests.

We had already planned to cook for our hosts in return for their hospitality and as part of the cultural exchange. So we brought along some Malaysian ready-made spices and sauces, with some dishes in mind where the ingredients could be easily found. Just a few days before our trip, I went to shop for our hosts Japanese souvenirs in addition to some Malaysian ones which I already had. With all these packed, I was getting excited for our trip.


Ingredients needed for the meal.

Francesco purposely took out his beloved David apron just for the occasion.

They didn't have to, but Fra & Massi helped with preparing the ingredients.

We had a very fun time exchanging stories about each other's culture while eating Malaysian food in Rome! They even practiced for their little "Japanese" sketch in the kitchen after that.

We cooked curry chicken (lite/oil-less) without rice. Took out the oil because we feared they might not be able to take the spiciness, no rice because they did not sell rice in the groceries.


Our host cooked for us fusilli with capsicum, tomato and onion the first evening we arrived.

Our 2nd Francesco was generous enough to let us wander into his kitchen to use whatever ingredients was available.

Imagine, me cooking REAL Italian pasta with REAL (well maybe doesn't matter) spices in a REAL Italian home in Italy itself!

Imm supplemented with her egg fried with onions and Japanese curry dish to complete our meal for the 2nd evening.

Too bad our host just remembered he had a concert to attend so he could not join us for the meal. So we left some for him as supper.


Our most generous host paid for the ingredients we bought at the local supermarket. We even found some instant microwaveable basmati rice to eat with the curry.

Stir-fried long beans with baby carrots. I think I overdosed on the chicken stock, it was too salty!

Imm cooked the curry kurma with potatoes.

We had a nicely laid table with the best dessert wine (from Sicily) ever tasted! Wonder if they sell it here...

The next evening, Fabio cooked for us spaghetti with tomato and basil complemented with red wine. For dessert we had lemon ice-cream on a liquorice stick.


This was all our host had in his larder (I'm actually using this word now that I know how it looks like!) because it was already late and the shops were closed.

But we managed to find some edible (by edible I mean those which have not expired :p) food and some eggs in the fridge.

So while I entertained Sandy (more like listening to him regale his stories of Asia), Imm managed to whip up a grand meal of fried rice with egg and tuna, red beans as side dishes. We even found packets of instant soup, 3 different types though.

After having an excellent walk through Nice on the 2nd evening, we were delighted to come back to some home-cooked meal. Pasta with cream cheese and bacon, hong kong spring rolls with sweet and sour sauce plus some red wine to top them off.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

not french enough

Funny how all our hosts in Italy were REAL Italians, whereas those in France weren't French. Our first host to welcome us to France was Sandy, a British who's decided to make his home in the French Riviera city of Nice.

Even more ironic is the fact that he loves Asia more than Europe. He's lived and travelled around Asia so much that he wants to come to tropical shores soon. But since Euro is worth a lot more than any of our Asian currency, he's decided to stay on a bit before taking the plunge.

Sandy was very welcoming even through our communication on the CS site. He was sweet enough to come pick us up at the station, then as we introduced ourselves, found out that his house was lacking in groceries, even went out to the streets to look for food for us.

You have to know that in these parts of the world, the sun does not really set until 9pm+! We usually don't realise how late it has become until our stomachs start growling. Many a times when we reach our destination, it would have been dinner time, and not many shops would be open even though the sky is still bright.

We didn't get to take pictures with our 2nd host in France, a Belgian who's made his home in Lyon. It was a very short trip in Lyon, felt more like a stopover than anything. He's lived there so long, he behaved so French that I think my real Belgian friend would not have thought our host was Belgian in the first place.

I must say he had a dry sense of humour though. Not sure if this could be a French attribute or it's just him. When we asked him how best to go around Lyon the next day, he suggested that we use Google Map. GMap has become so advanced you can look at street views of the city that you want to visit, so much so you don't have to be there in person.

But to be fair, our last host seems to have the nicest accommodation. This one's a yuppie, his apartment is decorated in deep wooden hues, art pieces hang on the wall (neatly and strategically, unlike the one in Florence), wine bottles become decoration in the kitchen, photography magazines strewn on the dining table and even serve as reading material in the toilet too.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

meraviglioso milano!

I think Imm would agree with me when I say our best host would be the one in Milan. Ironically he's not even a Milanese (if there is such a word!), but hails from the south of Italy. Fabio worked as a mechanic in the suburbs of Milan (his workplace reminded me of the Proton service centres at Glenmarie), looked very cool in his goattee and sunnies on his CS profile and sounded quite busy in our correspondences.

He was the first to respond to my request for a host, so even though many people discouraged us from going to Milan, I didn't want to change my mind after thanking him for his offer. Almost all the Italians we spoke to advised us to head to Venice instead, but since our schedule was quite tight, we had to skip Venice and Pisa because they were not on the way.

Our first impressions changed when we met him in person. Turned out, he's actually what you would call a "gentle giant". He came all the way to pick us up at the station even though it was out of the way.

When we offered to cook Malaysian dishes for him, he paid for all the ingredients even though we insisted it was our treat. Plus the little bottle of aloe oil that I bought because I didn't bring enough supply of lotion and hair conditioner :D

He had a housemate whom he very nicely called "the b*st*rd", because he would always leave the dishes on the sink for Fabio to wash up. Whenever Fabio cooked something, he would offer some to the housemate even though he didn't eat them.

Our dinners together were really something. He would lay the table nicely, placemats, dimmed lights and all. In the background would be some Italian aria of some sort playing. Later only did we find out that it was an online radio. Nevertheless, we loved the songs on that selection, and they complemented the evenings very well.

If I hadn't known Fabio personally, he could have passed off as a burly but friendly Italian. We were pleasantly surprised to find that he had good taste not only in music but in life in general. He was also very soft-spoken and hospitable. He even left the house keys with us because he had to leave early for work.

When we gave him some gifts from Japan and Malaysia, he seemed so touched as if his previous guests had never done such a thing before. On the last day when I went to say goodbye to him, I passed him a Japanese postcard as a final thank you note. In return, he actually bought some company t-shirts for us. I just hope it was not because we told him how "obliging" Japanese as a society could be (gifts are always reciprocated).

In the end, we had a really good impression of Milan despite what we were told. All thanks to our host.

We were Fabio's last guests in Milan, for he is know in Australia on a working holiday visa. Fabio was our last host in Italy, and we left the country with very warm memories, enough to last a lifetime.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

the arty host in firenze

I had a bit of problem trying to contact our host in Firenze. I almost wanted to give up and get ourselves booked into a hostel instead. Imagine not having his contact and address just before boarding the plane, hoping that we would have a place to stay by the time we arrive.

While we were at Siena, I finally managed to call him and get directions to his place. From the train station, we had to drag our luggages through the cobblestone roads to his house. Imm had a bit of problem with hers because of the wheel and we were afraid it might not survive the journey.

We finally reached the street of our host's apartment. The numbers on the side where we were standing at didn't look quite right so while Imm went to the other side to check, I waited with our luggages.

Shortly after she had crossed to the other side, she stopped by to talk to a man dressed in long-sleeved shirt and what had looked like a sarong wrapped around his waist. He looked kinda dark and had curly hair.

Suddenly Imm hugged and kissed the man. I knew it was an Italian thing to hug and kiss even for strangers, but I was shocked that she was doing this to a mamak-looking man! You have to forgive me for sounding stereotypical but I come from Asia, and he really looked like those Indians we have in Malaysia.

For Imm to do this is even stranger, and I was bursting out laughing because my imagination ran wild and I thought she had suddenly became friendly with an Indian in Italy. (We had earlier seen many Indians selling their wares in Roma, we had expected Chinese instead!)

Anyways, of course, later I found out that he was actually our host. He was on his way to top up his credit for the mobile (which explained why he was not responding to my messages), and had asked her what she was looking for.

Our host in Firenze was more of an arty person, havin trained as an architect and now working at an advertising agency. His house was littered with paintings, photos, and many decorative items I would simply categorise as art. It had an air of a hippy around it, whatwith the eclectic arrangement, colour scheme, mirrors in everywhere, and his recreational junkie habit.

As weird as that sounded, he was nice enough to cook us our first home-cooked pasta that evening. He looked like a professional Chinese chef, tossing up the ingredients in the pan without the aid of any spatula or spoon. Just the pasta in a boiling water in the pot, onions+capsicum+tomatoes+cheese in the frying pan.

Sounded really simple, but good home-cooked Italian meal nevertheless!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

surfing couches and first impressions

The idea of seeing a country through the eyes of a local interest me so much that I decided to try out Couchsurfing (CS). Basically, it's sleeping on a stranger's couch in a foreign country. How scary can that be, you may ask.

A lot of people got quite worried when I told them I was going to do this. That's why I didn't tell many people about it! Surprisingly, my parents were pretty okay with that idea.

If I was traveling alone, I wouldn't have done it. It helped that there were verification processes in place, one of which were references left by couchsurfers on their hosts' profile.

You can imagine the amount of reading I had to read in addition to my studying for the JLPT exams. I had to vet through the profiles of potential hosts, on top of writing a customised email for each of them, and then communicating with those who responded positively.

Some sounded very nice on the email, some took their time and did not respond until I was already in Europe and even had to call one to ask for directions to his place. But generally you get a feel of who your hosts are through all the correspondences.

Staying with hosts would sometimes mean that you have to follow their schedules and be subjected to their whims and fancies, but I would say I had positive experiences overall.

Each of our hosts were different in their personalities and lifestyle. Inadvertently, we formed impressions of each city through our interaction with the hosts.

Our first host was the happy-go-lucky funny man kinda guy. His childhood friend from Sardania happened to stay with him during the time we were there. Together we had hilarious moments, especially the one where we all made a video of them speaking in Japanese.

We had a lot of fun learning about each other's culture while driving through the streets of Roma and mingling with other CS'ers on the steps of Piazza Trillusa. We were his first Asian guests (he actually thought I was Japanese and was disappointed to find out otherwise and even said he couldn't host me, all jokingly of course) and he was our first impression of Italy.

Just right after we arrived after 20 hours of flight (including transits at Incheon and Milano), he asked if we would like to meet up with other CS'ers in town. I was a bit tired, but didn't mind since I needed to eat anyways. We were oooh-ing and aah-ing at as we whizzed through the ancient city of Roma. It felt like doing the Italian Job flying around town in that little car of his!

Ancient ruins and relics everywhere we turned, the city was lit up beautifully at night. We were so amazed at everything we saw, nevermind the fact that all we wanted to do was to shower and get some rest. We were still very excited at the fact that we were actually in Europe and everything looked so different from where we came from.

So much so that we had forgotten to take pictures!

Our first meal was pizza, no surprise there. Thin crust has always been my favourite over thick ones, so I loved REAL pizza even more. For a square slice with toppings, it cost about Euro2-4, depending on the size. Everytime we bought pizza, we would try out different flavours.

Being on the steps of Piazza Trillusa we were instantly educated on Italian culture. We met so many other people that night, not just Italians out for a good time. Sitting on the steps with a slice of pizza and beer in hand, Italian youth hang and chill out with their friends, usually going back at around 2am even though some have to wake up early to work the next day. Speaking of lepak, this was quite different from Asia.

We were probably the only Asians there, and for the first time I knew how it felt to be a minority! Don't even mention Australia, there were as many Asians as Australians where I went that I didn't feel as if I left Asia at all.

If I had ventured out on my own, I wouldn't have ended up at a place like this. Not that it wasn't safe, but it was as local as it could get, we were very glad to have our Italian hosts with us to show us around.