That Time I Was Naked With the Europeans

Merano is another small, charming Italian city nestled in a fertile valley between split ranges of gray-capped mountains dusted with snow. Here is where kings liked to summer, drawn by its noble-born inhabitants and the glowing, white stone of which its buildings are, well, built. The jewel of its tourism, however, is to be found within the Merano Thermal Baths.

Several large pools of steaming water are dotted with people splashing about and basking in the late afternoon sun that is soon to slip behind the soft ridge of a green mountain. Jacuzzis sparkle here and there offering highly coveted seats to the bathers, who chat and laugh in their respective tongues: Italian, mostly, but also the German of Austria, Switzerland and Germany herself. We swam about for a while in warm waters which extended outdoors into the cool mountain air before retreating for a light snack in the cafeteria. Our next destination within the spa was to be the sauna…

Once we passed beyond the gate which we opened with our wrist passes, beyond which only adults are permitted, I was soon to experience a phenomenon so European I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it coming. We found some lounge chairs together in a quiet corner and it was suggested that we go sit in the steam room for a bit. “But we go naked, covered only with our towels until we get there.” I paused… Was I ready? I’m an experienced traveler, not terribly ugly, and I did live in the hedonist paradise of Provincetown for quite some time… Could I really get naked and run around a spa for two hours?

Yes, yes I could. And I did. After my moment’s hesitation, I modestly stripped off my very American swim trunks–everyone else was in a Speedo… or nothing at all–and wrapped my towel around my waist as it seemed only appropriate. Lo, and behold, several dozens of Europeans who were walking about as if they had never been clothed in their lives, uncircumcised penises swinging like fleshy ornaments on odd trees, breasts bouncing perkily (or not) and ever so proudly beneath the dignified gazes of unabashed women. In the steam room, couples scrubbed each other with handfuls of sea salt as they soaked in the steamy half-light. I spent the first ten minutes with my hands placed modestly on my legs, not fully hiding my manhood because truth be told I have nothing of which to be ashamed, but modestly nonetheless as I acquainted myself to the feeling of celebrated public nudity.

After the steam room, and the recovery of my towel and flip-flops, we pondered what to take on next. As we stood by the door leading to the outside jacuzzi and its neighboring cold bath, a pair of what I was told to be Sicilians marched by, unceremoniously nude, and went straight through the door and plopped themselves into the cold bath. It’s true that a cold bath after a hot sauna is the best gift the skin can receive and I watched bemusedly and amusedly as this bit of scientific fact was tested and proven beyond the hypothetical before my very eyes. Perkier, and, for him, a bit smaller, they marched back inside and proceeded to their next stop. I opted for the sauna next and, after being briefly berated by the attendant for not having left my sandals at the door, I found some quiet comfort in the dark room, as I sweat out my inhibitions, naked on a soft towel, stretched across the hot wood bench.

We spent the next twenty minutes in the jacuzzi outside where I was befriended by a nice Italian man, 40-something with good hair and pretty eyes. He and his friends began chatting me up, as it was obvious that I was the only American in northern Italy that day. I am not fluent in Italian, so conversation is challenging, but I learned many tricks during my days as a server in the restaurants of Provincetown, and I am sure that he thought I understood every word he said. Apparently he was attracted to me but I honestly couldn’t tell… All Italian men have the style and the energetic presence of gay men. Too bad for me, as I have been suffering whiplash getting glimpses of the treasures of Italy, only to be reminded by the unreturned glimpse that, Oh, sorry, I know that everything I’m wearing would make me look like a homosexual in America, but alas, I’m just goodlooking and stylish.

I’m beginning to become convinced that the old American adage is the reverse here: All the goodlooking ones are actually straight, in Italy.

After an interesting fifteen minutes in another sauna where an amusing old man held a hell-hot holy court as he swung a towel around pushing waves of steamed heat which carried rosemary and lemon around the room to singe my nostrils, I took a quick dip in the cold bath. Before I passed out from the extreme change in body temperature, I was fed a few pieces of apple, and the sugar abated the hangover. We had a fresh pressed juice as I said goodbye to my new friend, who I still couldn’t tell was gay, until just after he left and my friends told me so. I was only briefly disappointed by having missed out on my first European daddy, but quickly found consolation in the continued evidence of my outward grace and beauty. As you read this, you may be questioning the inward counterparts… I assure you, they are still there, and I am only pulling your leg.

Outside the spa, Merano was jammed with thousands of tourists who came from far and near to partake in the giant Christmas Market (“mercato di Natale” or “Christkindlmarkt”). Hundreds of vendors in cute wooden stands purveying cheeses and breads and soaps and clothes and booze and sausages, as the mountains retreat into shadow and the twinkle of strings of holiday lights outnumber the unseen stars. We wandered for a while in the throng before returning to the car and to Moena, the even smaller mountain valley village where I was spending the weekend. Thankfully, the crowds were missing along with the winter snows, although for the local economy which depends on wintry weather to welcome ski-happy tourists, the sparse streets are probably rather dire. Fully clothed and jacketed, I reflected on the time I spent naked with the Europeans, and was glad. And my skin was glowing.

MOENA

Moena, Trentino Alto-Adige

Merano Thermal Baths

http://www.termemerano.it/index.php?lang=3

Piazza Terme 9
39012 Merano
tel. +39 0473 252 000

Rovereto, Romantico

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Rovereto is a small city nestled between hills and mountains around which long clouds cling like wet cotton. A blue river races through the eastern neighborhoods, its fragrance fresh, its sound loud. Terra cotta roofs and cobblestone give texture to the scene and the locals give it the living essence so typical of Italy. “Ciao” echoes along the streets, dancing with the clatter of leather shoes on stone. Small cars squeeze by on the narrow lanes. Hats and umbrellas smile from granite-clad shop windows. Here, umbrellas are tartan plaid and gelato is not “ice cream.” A Christmas market stretches festively along the town center, small oaken vendor stands line a wide crimson carpet and families stroll along admiring the seasonal delights for sale. Candies, cookies, cakes, and ornaments; hot cider, roasted chestnuts, loaves of bread and bottles of beer. Little white lights twinkle tastefully and even the stars above scintillate in unison as carols play from unseen speakers. It hasn’t snown yet in this lush Italian valley, in fact we are still enjoying the warmth of late autumn. Further north, ski season has already begun, and winter’s white dress slips slowly toward us…

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Turkish Delight

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Istanbul-Ataturk is a sprawling bazaar of gates, shops and endless polished floors. Its heritage as the city that straddles continents is made plain by the diversity of people bustling about the airport, dining, shopping or hustling to their gates.

Dark-featured Turks are omnipresent as both travelers and airport personnel. I’m easily charmed by the handsome men in traditional costume manning small ice creams booths. Sadly, I am also lactose intolerant and have no need to interact. Not partial, either, to the thick coffee favored locally, I was amused and embarrassed by the Starbucks where I inevitably purchased a tall soy latte for eight lire. I paid in euro, to the chagrin of the barista, yet I had managed a decent Turkish hello (“merhaba”) which I think smoothed over the rest of the transaction.

Legs stiff from the nine hour flight, I ambled slowly toward the windows to glimpse the Caucasus mountains lying low in the distance. The impending sunset haloed them in pink before being obscured by the grey clouds that hovered above the range. Planes roll by on the runway and the crowds around me shift ceaselessly, moving parts of the noisy business of travel.

I am the furthest I have ever been from home… despite the Burger King and Sbarro that I can see in the food court. I walked past them toward the purveyor of Turkish fare: baklava, deliciously stuffed grape laves, kebab, tabouleh and other dishes on display. These are surely more enticing and satisfying than those symbols of America far beyond their origin. I, also far beyond my familiar world, am seeking the novelty of foreign tastes on my tongue, strange words and new flavors.

I will have to return and see Istanbul someday soon. I am impressed by the diversity of its travelers. It may be here, more than anywhere else, that variety is truly the spice of life. Such a Turkish delight.

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Turkish Delight – A traditional confection made from honey and pistachio. These are served not long after take off on all Turkish Airlines flights.

 

Leaving on a Jet Plane, or Arrivederci!

Rovereto, TN, Italy

In about twelve hours, I will be boarding a plane to Istanbul. From Istanbul, where I’ll have spent a few hours people-watching in the airport, I will fly to Munich, and I’ll spend the night there in the city. It will be my first time in Germany. On Sunday, I will travel by car from Munich southward through the Alps via Innsbruck and the Brennerpass, which connects Austria with Italy. A few hours later, I will arrive in the small city of Rovereto, where I will spend at least the next year as an American English teacher, and maybe a French and Yoga teacher, too.

Rovereto is home to about 40,000 northern Italians, in the region of Trentino Alto-Adige, formerly part of the Holy Roman and Austrian Empires. It is about two hours north-east of Milan and two hours north-west of Venice. The geography of the region is mountainous, situated within the Dolomites, a southern range of the greater Alpine. Maybe I’ll learn to ski there.

I once visited Rovereto, rather by accident, about seven years ago during my travels in Italy. I was studying in Normandy at the time and spent two weeks exploring Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome. It happened to be that a classmate from school in France was home in Italy during our spring break and she scooped me up in Verona and drove me north… to Rovereto. We walked around the city and I shared spaghetti alla carbonara with her and her family, wondering why they were all yelling at each other until I realized that it’s just Italian. I caught a train back to Verona the next day and went further south to Tuscany. It is astounding that I am returning to this small Italian city and even more that I will live and work there.

I have longed to return to Europe ever since I left France. I often think that I was never supposed to leave that day, there were many obstacles that pushed themselves into my way as I made my way from Caen to the airport in Paris. I could sense invisible hands gently holding me back but I pressed onward, I had one more year of school to finish and I suppose I wasn’t yet open enough to the importance of the world’s subtle signposts. This, then, is going to be an exciting adventure yet almost equally a return home. Back to foreign lands and new tongues and strange vistas!

Start planning your visit.

New York City: Injera, Ethiopian Delight

Injera_NYC
These are the hands of the immensely beautiful and happy Roman who, with her French husband Pierre and her sister, run the restaurant Injera at 11 Abingdon Square in the West Village. She insisted on feeding me half of my meal with these hands, citing an Ethiopian tradition that I hadn’t heard of but truly I didn’t mind. I walked in out of the blue and was immediately embraced by this amazing woman whose delight and kindness do not belie her true age. For her, hospitality is human nature and she just loved me, simply, with many hugs and kisses and joyful little laughs as we talked and watched Chile win out over Brasil after a series of penalty kicks in a game that was already in overtime.

I ordered the yetimatim fitfit, which included misir, my favorite form of lentils, and a delicious teff and avocado and tomato and jalapeño salad, and plenty of fresh, rolled pieces of injera, the staple bread of all Ethiopian cuisine. I left Injera full and full of love. This is the best Ethiopian in New York, with a definite touch of French brasserie- the coffee was real and the wine list sound. An overlooked brunch spot that should be put on all top eats lists. Please go in and tell Roman and Pierre that Stefan sent you and be embraced and eat well.

Injera
11 Abingdon Square
The West Village
New York, New York 10014
212.206.9330

The Salt Flats of Provincetown

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The salt flats of Provincetown are some of its most celebrated natural features. Separated from the harbor by a breakwater that reaches over a mile and a half across the waters to Long Point, the flats are home to marsh grasses, cranes, cormorants, and the bite of green headed flies.

When the tide is out, one may trek along a familiar path through this desert wonderland to the outer shore of Herring Cove, which also serves as the unofficial nude beach of the Cape. An uninformed adventurer may climb the dune that separates the beach from the flats and behold in surprise many a naked man. The women tend to gather farther north toward the park service-operated parking lot. If you choose to join in the undressed revelry, keep an eye out for park rangers. They will scold you–and even fine you–if they have to bear witness to your private sides! These lands are part of the magnificent national park which holds the deeds to most of Cape Cod.

On the other hand, when the tide is in, and especially when it is high, the flats fill with the warmest waters and make for excellent swimming. Jumping from one of the large rocks that comprise the breakwater is a coveted treat for those in the know. If you can catch the tide on its way out, it will take you on a lazy marsh-river ride. Don’t mind the horseshoe crabs, little blue harbor crabs or even eels–the little ones think you’re a danger and daren’t come near.

“Provincetown for the Summer!”

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I said that to a friend today and it rang true in a way it hasn’t in two years.

I first came to Provincetown in April 2011, seeking freedom from a stifling relationship, seeking as well new friends and what I heard to be a good chunk of money to be gained from the summer tourists. That first summer was fun, liberating and full of personal discovery. I believe that this summer, my fourth consecutive summer spent at the tip of Cape Cod, will rival the expansive glory of that first one.

The two summers between were tainted by the death of my younger brother-the first was spent grieving, the second healing-and I was also living in Provincetown full-time, using the fat of my summer savings to make it through the winters. Winter on Cape Cod is beautiful yet desolate and almost completely unfitted for residence. A small contingent of hardy locals keep the town hearth warm nevertheless until the return of the spring and, with it, hundreds of happy, familiar faces.

I left Provincetown at the end of last summer, in October 2013, and spent six months in New York trying to find my way into any notable industry job. Instead, I was stuck waiting tables and struggling to make ends meet. Such is the fate of many young people now that New York is “going corporate”. Fortunately, Fate is kind, as the song goes, and I have found my way back to Provincetown once again to put money in the bank and bum on the beach.

I’ll be writing for this website, of course, telling about my adventures and the places I love to frequent in Provincetown and the Outer Cape. This summer I’ll also be teaching yoga! Subscribe to my blog somewhere on the right-hand side of the page! And go out and make your own adventures!

You can also see it all through my eyes on instagram (@arcncl) as well as at planetstefan.tumblr.com

Provincetown: MAP

MAP Ptown
MAP, legendary purveyor of fashionable goods, is the best place in the village for cultivated All-American style. A little hip-hop, hipster and rock star all tucked into the ground floor of an authentic Cape Cod clapboard building, this store offers the stylish gay man a chance to explore his glam side. (Yes, most of the gear is geared toward guys.)

Brass rings, leather wallets + chains, clever notebooks and bangin’ backpacks, bags and boyish bling fulfill your most stylish desires. Books on art + culture fill the in-between spaces like glorious glue–especially media about the awesomely weird cult classic god John Waters, whom you’ll spot in town now and again sporting his notorious mustache. To go with your vintage aviators and paisley kerchief, the second half of the store is tastefully jammed with the best collection of Levi’s denim in New England, plus Orwellian printed tees and Hollywood-level rebel jackets to top off the image, like a maraschino on a malt.

Go in and tell Pauline to dress you up and this boisterous Irish babe, owner of MAP, queen bee of rock star glam, will dress you down in so much killer style, you’ll be the next righteous heartthrob of Cape Cod and beyond.

MAP
141 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA 02657
508-487-4900

Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training

Miracles do happen. I was sent to a yoga teacher training at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram and Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. I met one man who, after listening to my story, decided I needed a month of intensive yoga practice. He signed me up, sent a check, put me on a plane and said, “Good luck.” That is how I ended up becoming a certified instructor – through the goodness and compassion of another person.

The Sivananda Yoga Ashram and Retreat is located on a spit of land wedged between millionaire mansions and the Atlantis, a sprawling hotel and resort complex. Swami Vishnudevananda, founder of the Sivananda Centers world-wide, was given this land by the family of a girl whom he helped to heal through the practice of yoga. It was believed by him that the Bahamas are a remnant of the ancient civilization of Atlantis and that this location was well-suited energetically.

Caribbean Bliss

With crystalline Caribbean waters and soft, white sands to the north and a bustling harbor packed with cruise ships to the south, the ashram is a curiosity nestled in an unlikely place. Orange-robed swamis wander the grounds with curious smiles while the yellow and white-clad initiates and volunteers run the resort and maintain its occupants. Saronged vacationers, who have come looking for yoga and respite, marvel at the religious attitude of the ashram: Please keep your shoulders and knees covered, and no running. Meanwhile, aspiring yoga teachers are shipped in and out monthly to be trained and stamped with the marks of a certified beach-side yogi – vegetarianism, flexibility and a good tan.

Most of the students, and many of the guests, camp in tents during their stay, for this is less costly than lodging in private rooms or shared dormitories. The bell would ring at 5:30am, calling all volunteers and students to the temple for meditation, chanting, and a lecture. Afterward, we would have a two-hour yoga asana class in the giant wooden pavilion in the center of the ashram property. Then off to a picnic-table breakfast of Indian-spiced bean soups, rice, fruits and breads. All students were assigned to a karma yoga position, and I spent forty-five minutes after breakfast packaging the remains up for later use. Others washed or dried the dishes, swept the floors, or carried the garbage to the boat which took it to the main island.

Home Sweet Home, Sivananda Yoga Ashram and Retreat, Paradise Island, Bahamas

Home Sweet Home, Sivananda Yoga Ashram and Retreat, Paradise Island, Bahamas

In our classes, we read from the Bhagavad Gita, yoga’s holy book, a tale in which Krishna instructs Arjuna on the many paths of yoga and transcending earthly passions. My favorite verse from the book is translated as follows by Swami Sivananda:

Renouncing all actions in Me, with the Mind centered in the Self, free from Hope, Egoism, and the fever of Sorrow, Do Thou Fight.

We also took a class in ayurveda, the yogic perception of healthy being, as well as in kirtan, devotional singing. I would go when possible to the Balakrishna puja ceremony and watch as the ceremonial priest and Vedic astrologer lit a candle and incense and offered flowers, butter and raisins to the statue of Krishna as a mischievous, joyful child. How important I learned it is to be in touch with this aspect of ourselves!

Krishnaji

Some mornings we would take our satsang, or gathering of people interested in the knowledge of yoga and God, as a walk down the beach right before dawn. The sun would crest over the horizon as we reached a point  just beyond the hotel, whose pools and patios and beachfront were empty yet as its guests were still sleeping inside. Sitting, watching the sun rise, we would sing together, led by a man who goes by Arjuna, a name given to him by Swami Vishnudevananda himself. Arjuna would instruct us anecdotally about learning how to see oneself in others through the lens of Love, and once I even led the gathering in a song dedicated to Shiva, god of transformation.

Transformation is exactly what this experience offers to those who seek it out. Many yoga teacher programs are more asana-inclined, as most people assume they want to teach vinyasa yoga classes. However, the Sivananda experience is rather religious. I did not complain–for me it was truly a novelty. I was coming out of several years of intense family tragedy and the catharsis offered by devotion and regular physical and mental exertion worked. What’s more, the other aspiring yogis were amazing people from places like Belgium, British Columbia,and San Francisco.

Official Yogi

I will probably say many times on this blog these two things: Wherever you go, there you are; and, I met amazing people.

When I returned to Cape Cod, where I was living at the time, I decided I was not ready to jump into teaching. I hadn’t fully assimilated the teachings of Yoga and decided to hone them for my own benefit until the time would be right. Now, I am living in New York City and opportunity abounds. More on these experiences to come.

Om!

Fearless!