Friday, September 13, 2013

Modern Life Is Not Rubbish (Unless We're Talking Bottled Water in Countries Where Tap Water Is Perfectly Safe to Drink)

Warning: I'm getting ready to rant and rave again. But don't be misled by the first harsh words I've uttered about Rome since my arrival here three weeks and one day ago. I still wouldn't want to be anywhere else on earth at this very moment.

As for my current stint in Europe, which will end when I head to Tel Aviv in one week and two days, to quote country great Ronnie Milsap, I wouldn't have missed it for the world -- or anywhere else in it. The past two months have been the realization of a life-long old-world dream. Since my first trip to Europe in 1993 (during which I hit Amsterdam, Spain and the South of France), I've glamorized the continent in my mind, dreaming of someday having the opportunity to spend more than a holiday in this land of sophisticated, vintage elegance.

When I dream, two places have consistently topped my wish list: London has been calling for nearly 20 years now (since 1994, when I made the first of roughly 20 visits), with Italy a close second. South America may have distracted me for four and a half years, followed by, alternately, Australia and Asia, for a few more, but in the back of my mind, it's always been all about Europe. Now that my dream has come true, and I've been based here for two consecutive months (one in Berlin, one in Italy), I've come to an unexpected conclusion: It's a great place to visit. Wouldn't necessarily want to live here.

Don't get me wrong. Europe remains my favorite continent. There's nowhere else on earth where you can find such a colorful confluence of cultures, languages, history and beautiful men. I even discovered during my month in Berlin that I can go for prolonged periods without air conditioning (though I'd rather not). I learned that I'm perfectly okay with hanging my laundry out to dry on a clothesline outside the window of my third-floor walk-up in Rome and that I welcome the workout I get from climbing the stairs to that third-floor walk-up because there don't seem to be any apartment buildings with elevators in the city. I also realized that for better or for worse (and probably more for worse), I'm even more of a slave to technology than I previously thought!

In the past, I found the fact that much of Europe seemed to be living in the distant past to be charmingly quaint, key to its appeal. The early 20th-century-and-before vibe was fine, as long as when I returned to my hotel, I was surrounded by contemporary luxury.

When you're visiting a place on vacation, your requirements and expectations are different, too. You don't mind eating all of your meals in restaurants, and if you don't feel like going out, there's always room service. But when you're sticking around for more than a week or two, living in a regular apartment, with the goal of trying to live the way locals do, you get culture shocks that can be more jolting than anything you might experience when you leave the holiday comfort zone of your hotel.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by all of the ultra-modern amenities I enjoy in Bangkok (and the constant proximity to an ATM machine when I'm there). Or maybe it's having grown up in a culture where everything works (from remote controls to Internet connections). A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with my friend Shirley in Florence, and when Shirley asked where the bathroom is, the waitress curtly replied, "It's not working." She didn't even offer her paying customer an alternative!

It's hard to imagine that happening in a tourist-heavy restaurant in New York City. I've never had the lights cut out mid meal there either, but that's exactly what happened while I was on a date a couple of weeks ago at a Turkish eatery one street over from my apartment in Rome, due to too many appliances being in use. (In my flat here, every time I turn on a light switch, the television set hiccups, and I'm just waiting for the AC to announce that it's had enough by shutting off permanently.)

It's even tougher to fathom a public toilet in a U.S. train station that would charge $1.30 for the honor of using it. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that you have to pay 1 euro to enter the filthy toilets in central train stations in Berlin, Hamburg, Warsaw and Italy. And since I'm on the subject of money, if most places are going to demand cash instead of credit cards like its 1977, wouldn't it be practical to make it readily accessible? Of course, having to hunt for ATM machines in Europe means I spend less money, or I get more exercise walking block after block to find one, so there's at least a financial and health benefit to the lack of convenience.

But would it be too much to ask for a complimentary glass of water when I sit down in a restaurant afterwards? In Germany and Italy, the tap water is as safe to drink as it is in Australia (probably more so in Italy, since it comes directly from the aqueducts, and when it's pouring from one of the fountains around Rome, it tastes even better than the bottled thing), but unlike in Melbourne, it doesn't automatically come with the meal, with the option of upgrading to a bottle. If you're looking to quench your thirst, expect to pay several euros for a few meager sips or risk being on the receiving end of "How could you drink that? looks when requesting water from the tap.

I've learned to live with it -- and pay for it -- but I'm still having trouble adjusting to life without a microwave. I never realized how dependent I am on them until I spent two months in cultures that seem to be completely anti-microwaves. Even in Buenos Aires, a city that often felt like the most backwards place on earth (incomplete with ATMs that work only about half of the time -- when you can find one), I don't believe I ever stepped foot into an apartment that didn't have one.

I've only been in five private homes in Berlin, Warsaw and Rome, including the two I've stayed in, during my two-month stint in Europe, but I've yet to see a microwave in any of them. Since cooking is not anywhere on my list of things I enjoy doing, Europe, we have a problem. I'm not saying I wouldn't ever choose to spend eternity here (a great job offer and/or a great guy could be strong persuaders), but if I did, it could be hazardous to my health. I'd either gain a dangerous amount of weight, or I'd starve.

Compared to Rome, in Berlin I had it pretty easy. Sure the symbols on the stove in my rental apartment were harder for me to understand than the German instructions on the washing machine in the bathroom, but I was able to make it work in order to heat up the frozen dinners that I occasionally shoved into it. By the way, I had no idea that a microwave-safe container wouldn't burst into flames in a conventional oven, but what did I know?

Apparently, ovens have changed in the several years since I previously used one -- or perhaps I've never used them often enough to know everything that should and shouldn't go into them. Thankfully, the one in my Berlin rental was electric, as all ovens should be in 2013. I'm sure that someone will correct me, extolling the health and/or environmental benefits of cooking on gas, which must be even more beneficial than nuking things, but from where I'm standing, trembling, I just don't see it.

Every time I face the gas stove/oven in my Rome rental, I tremble on the inside. It's the same feeling I had when the owners showed me the water heater, until they informed me that I wouldn't have to do anything with it in order to enjoy a warm shower (which, shockingly, works perfectly). They were just showing off the charmingly antiquated trappings of their home.

The stove presents enough of a challenge. I keep imagining a burst of gaseous flames to disfigure my face, or I worry about forgetting to turn the gas off completely and suffocating after falling asleep. The story I heard on the Millie Jackson Unsung episode the other day about her mother didn't help matters. She was burned to death while trying to light a wood stove. That could be me, I solemnly thought to myself afterwards while heating up the pan to make another grilled-cheese sandwich.

Thankfully, I haven't had to fire up any matches to use the stove, otherwise I might not have found out that I'm actually a passable cook (if you don't mind having grilled-cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs for every meal). The oven, however, is a different story. It's apparently out of gas, and even if I knew where to light the match to get it to work, I wouldn't dare try it at home alone.

So unless I want to consume an at-home diet that consists of only eggs, bread and cheese, I have to find other options. (And I'd better look for them before the witching hour because not only do restaurants and supermarkets close relatively early, but there are no 7-11s on every other block, no 24-hour delis, no all-night diners.) There's a panini press and just about every kitchen utensil known to man in my rental's huge kitchen, but it's missing the one thing standing between me and a satisfying at-home diet: a microwave oven.

This means no prepared chicken from the local supermarket (not that the scant offerings I've seen look all that edible), unless I want to eat it all at once as soon as I get home. It also means no leftovers. How would I heat them up without endangering my life. For the most part, as with pretty much every place I've lived as an adult, I must depend on the kindness of strangers if I want to eat in Rome. Unfortunately for my appetite, the take-out/delivery options here are even more limited than they were in BA: pizza, pasta and Turkish kebab stands.

It's bad enough that the supermarkets in my Roman neighborhood offer even fewer options than the two I lived close to in Berlin (oh, how I miss Melbourne's Woolworths with its huge aisles stocked with multiple choices and the self-checkout registers!), but in Rome, I have to pass by the frozen-food section completely. Right now I would kill for a microwave oven and one of those Heinz jumbo packs of frozen vegetables that I practically live on when I'm in Melbourne.

In Rome's defense, there seems to be a stand selling ripe-looking fresh fruits and vegetables on practically every block, and it's the one department in which the supermarkets don't skimp. (Though having to measure my own bananas feels so 40 years ago.) But when in Rome, you probably won't get to eat your vegetables unless they're prepared in your own kitchen. It's like the wild wild west, only you eat what you cook, not grow and cook, yourself.

While I did enjoy a delicious Greek salad my first night in Florence, when I think health-enhancing veggies, I'm not thinking lettuce with feta cheese, onions and black olives doused in vinaigrette dressing. I'm thinking more along the lines of a heaping side of firm, green broccoli -- and not those limp, faded flower heads that they're calling broccoli at the pizzeria on Torpignatarra and Casalina that sells those adorable mini-bottles of wine for 1.20 euros (speaking of awesome things that you can't get outside of Italy -- and yes, I realize that we weren't).

Now that my skin is starting to dry up and shrivel, I'll resist the temptation to blame Rome and its limited food options. The scales that are forming on my forearms are not from a lack of proper nutrients but a visit from that old devil called eczema. Unfortunately, that 4 euro Neutro Roberts lotion that smells like shampoo and sticks to the skin like grease that I bought from Carrefour last week isn't doing it any favors. And I'd better remember to keep it away from that gas stove.

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