All posts by Melissa Ruttanai

Melissa Ruttanai (@worldwinder) is a travel writer and SEO blogger. In 2010, with a tenured teaching position at a top middle school, she did the “unthinkable”—and quit. Now on a 2-year world adventure with her husband, Melissa writes in cafes and hostels, sharing her stories in hopes that others will think outside of conventional life, and travel. Her work has been published by International Living Magazine, Escape from America Magazine, DINK Life, Weekend Notes, and Flip Key Travel. You can also find her at You can also find her on Google+

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”

Christmas Party with the South American Explorers Club in Lima, Peru

Photos and Story by Melissa Ruttanai

Explorers Club South America“Most of the time, I don’t really miss my family.”  My Belgian friend Ana shifted on her feet and shrugged in a very matter-of-fact way.  “But then, during Christmas, I can’t stop thinking about home.”
On December 14th, the Lima Clubhouse of the South American Explorers Club had its holiday party.  A grill sizzled away with hot dogs and burgers.  A German volunteer, Juliane stirred a mammoth pot of mulled wine, or Gluhwein, and Christmas music streamed in from a computer on the front desk.  With both members and non-members welcome, the SAE filled with travelers from around the world.  Some folks were working expatriates, others chronic nomads.  But during this time of the year, we converged on the SAE club, looking to spread holiday cheer.
Celebrating Christmas in Lima, Peru
Peruvian ChristmasThroughout Peru, green wreaths decorate shopping malls and nativity scenes cluster around every plaza.  The basilica hosted a children’s choir over Kennedy Park as 8 million Limeños gear up for a day of gift-giving, wine-drinking, and merrymaking.  It’s Christmas in Lima and although the city is technically in the middle of the desert, Peruvians up and down the coast sip hot chocolate and slice open huge round cakes of Panettone bread.  Electronic shops kick into full-campaign mode and every other apartment window blinks with holiday lights.  Walking through the Ovalo in the Miraflores district, I look up to see giant commercial billboards, inviting me to enjoy the “Magica Navidad”, the Christmas magic.
Peru Christmas for expatsFor backpackers all over the world, the holiday season equates to a mélange of meanings.  For us, the end of the year signifies higher hostel rates and overbooked rooms.  It means planning with travel buddies over Facebook to coordinate Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve plans, and accommodation recommendations. It signals a time to count those passport pages and make sure you have enough for next year.  Christmas for travelers is about logistics—who you’re going to meet, where, when, and for how long.  Meanwhile, we ignore that homesick needling in our chests that chronically hearkens: You haven’t been home in over 4 months, 8 months, 2 years.
But at least there is refuge.
This year, my husband and I found ourselves in the mega-metropolis of Lima with an open invite to join the festivities at the SAE’s annual Christmas celebration.

Peruvian Christmas giftsYear-round the organization offers great advice and concrete information about traveling through South America.  With four clubhouses and exclusive online information, the SAE helps travelers find tours, accommodations, discounts, volunteer work, and even some free WIFI in a congested city. The staff is congenial, comprised of full-time workers and a handful of volunteers who reside upstairs.  Together, they organize trip reviews, book exchanges, charity events, luggage storage, and free Spanish classes
For the holiday party, the entrance fee of 8 soles or about US$3 included a ticket for the first cup of (addictive) mulled wine.  Burgers, hotdogs, and a cheese plate with white corn choclo were also for sale.  In the sitting room, many travelers mingled with new friends and familiar faces from the clubhouse.  Banter remained light until the games began. 
Christmas in Peru“Pass the Parcel” came first, where to the sound of music, participants passed a wrapped gift from one person to the next.  Once the music stopped, whoever held the box peeled away one layer of wrapping.  The parcel stopped twice with my husband Neil, but in the end, the music cut out and the box dropped into my lap.  Opening the package, I had won a Christmas mug stuffed with Peruvian chocolates and sweets!
After a short break, the volunteers introduced the next game, while dragging a whiteboard and markers out into the sitting room.  It was time for Pictionary and Charades. Sofa chairs shifted, teams divvied up, and the competition heightened as people pulled slips of paper and proceeded to draw and act their way to victory. The scene was similar to Christmas Eve at my sister’s house, with my cousins bunched together over board games for a night of trash-talk and subtle cheating. At the SAE, people shouted in surprise, the room muted over in disbelief, and the game continued into the evening. One volunteer even threw himself to the ground, shaking his fist like a madman as he acted out his clue.

Suddenly holidays on the road seemed a little bit like home, even if we stood among strangers who just like us were traveling the tourist route.

Organic Retreat in Le Marche, Italy

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai.

A local belief states that the Romans preferred to march to war across Le Marche, so their troops would arrive at battle well fed and fueled for victory. Organic Tourism in ItalyThe Italian region of Le Marche is famed for vineyards and farmsteads spanning from the Adriatic to the Apennines. At La Tavola Marche, a farm inn and cooking school, chickens cluck cheerfully while the cat Piccolo stalks through flowerbeds with his uncle, Buster.

Health begins in the soil where alfalfa, grains, and carrots grow. At La Tavola Marche, owners Ashley and Jason Bartner focus on organic, traditionally prepared meals. He is a classically trained alumnus of the French Culinary Institut. She is a foodie and columnist for Taste Italia. Together, they’ve created an agriturismo that crosses a Roman feast with heart-warming hospitality.

The Farmhouse
Farmhouse in ItalyLa Tavola Marche sits atop a green knoll, crowned by a 300 year-old farmhouse renovated into guest rooms and apartments. A nearby spring feeds directly into the pool and pipes, providing mineral rich waters for cooking, bathing, and swimming. Down a stone path, the garden produces over 80% of their cooking ingredients, including zucchini with tender blossoms, strawberries, fava beans, parsley, and potatoes. Each morning Jason waters the plants for over two hours, twining tomato vines around traditional bamboo stakes and staving off fungal invasion with organic probiotics.

While Jason razes a virtual symphony of succulence in the kitchen, his wife Ashley tends to the chickens and monitors her cache of homemade liqueurs. House specialties focus on digestives created from local ingredients like green walnuts, plums, and cherries. By using seasonal fruit, Ashley packs vitamins and minerals into traditional after-dinner drinks.

The Feast
On a typical evening, dinner encompasses five courses. In the stone courtyard, white votive candles cast a romantic light. The rooster calls his hens home. Housecats greet each other after a day playing in the fields. As Jason garnishes plates, Ashley sweeps dishes out to the tables. They are almost too pretty to eat.

With no less passion than her chef-husband, Ashley describes each platter with gusto: ripe melon wrapped with salty prosciutto, lentil salad with cucumber and shaved cheese, and garden-grown fava crostini. Primo and secondo courses playfully utilize what is locally available and at its height of freshness: hearty tagliatelle traditionally handmade without salt, roasted veal breast of puntine di Vitello. Table wine is locally made and bottled at the farmhouse. Just when you’ve reached maximum stomach-capacity, dessert and digestives appear to finish the meal with a sweet finale.

With their belief in healthy cooking, Ashley and Jason willingly provide recipes for their meals as well as cooking classes in the farmhouse kitchen. Don’t miss their Thursday night pizza parties. Visitors should take advantage of agrotourism and country lifestyle in Le Marche. Here, farmers chop wood for winter. Neighbors help weed each other’s gardens. And the moon rises over pre-Roman ruins. In La Marche, wine embodies the spirit of life while homemade meals remain at its heart.