Welcome to Florence, Italy

Our introduction was polite, cultured. Florence sat on an embroidered stool, hands folded into her skirts, chin high. Her inviting smile was genuine. She was quality and royalty and she did not need to prove it. “Look into all my closets and cupboards if you like,” she invited, “Make yourselves at home.” Once you have played hostess to Michelangelo, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, Boccaccio, Dante, Botticelli, and – did you know? – Florence Nightingale, let alone the Medici family, I guess we were small potatoes.

Florence was in the midst of tidying up when we arrived on the train. Exiting the station, we were greeted with welcoming sunshine and a brisk wind that was looking into every corner for a speck of dust that may have escaped her. It was the cleanest city we’ve ever seen.

The taxi line was significant and our hotel, per the map, was a bit of a walk away, but by now Hubby and I were seasoned travelers and with a shrug we toted our luggage down the steps and set off. We followed the slant of the sun, knowing that once we reached the Arno, we could follow it four bridges east, to our hotel.

The next thing we noticed was the cobblestones. Or lack thereof.

“Cobblestone is a fun word,” I thought, “It makes me think of a cobbler who has to fix the shoe you broke on the cobblestones.”

I hoisted my suitcase over a curb.

“Also, a cobbler is a delicious dessert. So there’s that.”

There were larger flagstones along some sidewalks, but most of Florence was paved with asphalt. I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad.

Apparently, neither can Italians. Riotous cobblestones rule the roads in Rome, but Florence (because rattling the spinner-wheels on your luggage as you truck down the street is not very lady-like) smoothed it and encouraged us to look up instead of down.

Our hotel room had a little balcony that overlooked the trolley turn-about, the sound of which eventually became background noise and not a problem. The trolley turned out to be our compass and we followed those tracks between our hotel and downtown thereafter.

Our hotel also had a rooftop pool that was closed due to the high winds, but gave us our first overview of the city. There was Florence, waving to us. We had missed lunch (hence my thoughts on cobbles), so per routine, went out to discover what she had made us for supper.

The afternoon was slowing to a saunter, as we crossed bridges, wandering the riverfront. Florence was softer than Rome, quieter than Sorrento, and larger than both, her skirts rippled out in shades of green, gold, and pink.

She offered us many options for dinner. We paused at a little spot along the Arno, where the last two patrons were finishing up. The menu held variety, the seats had a view, food remnants left on the plates looked promising.

Bending over to retrieve a napkin was a waitress. Just as she touched the napkin, a distracted patron shifted her chair and the leg came down squarely onto the waitress.

We watched the waitress stifle a shriek and hold her hand tightly so that it wouldn’t accidentally fly at the patron, who was overflowing with apologies and rapidly paying the tab.

The waitress turned and saw us. I stared into hot eyes, topped with turquoise eye shadow, a red mouth pulled tightly in a straight line. I watched her make the conscious decision to continue her job instead of quitting. Her hair was equally hot and bothered and was also in the midst of either fleeing or quitting. It was a moment of suspended animation and all I could think was, “She is Italian but not Italian. Who is this?”

Deborah from Miami Beach, Florida…and her attitude screamed the truth of it.

She, in the same instant, had sized me up and either my face of sympathy or my look of co-conspiracy led her decision to seat us at a table.

“They are rude,” she waved at the retreating tourists, “But I give you my house specialty, yes?”

Deborah proceeded to schmooze and entertain us for the next three hours. We were her only company. She talked us into an antipasto platter of olives, cheeses, fig jam, onion jam, greens, and oh glory be, it was yummy.

We shared the biscetta platter with roast potato wedges and beautiful porcini and onions.

“Cinque bambini!” she keep exclaiming, once she found out why we were in Italy.

Just as we finished the last of our wine, Florence spoke up.

Calling out over the river to us was the most luxurious sunset I have ever watched.

Deborah and the chef came out for a smoke then made themselves some pasta and joined us on the patio. They were used to Florence showing off. They were ready to pack it in.

Later, Hubby and I walked to the local laundromat and ran some Italian laundry, just like locals, the other tourists and Florence offered to dry everything nicely for us, back at the hotel.

Which is why I felt so guilty the next morning. We snuck out of the hotel, trying not to wake her up. Sarah (a Tribe Member) wanted me to bring her back a hunk and I knew just the guy.

Florence would not approve my stealing her man. But for Sarah, I had to try.

We were going to crash a museum.

After missing the Borghese in Rome, I wasn’t about to muck this one up. We arrived an hour early for the Accedemia. There were two little doors facing the road and we found three people already standing at the “Walk Up” one. They looked as sleepy as we were, but at least they had thought to bring a banana. Stomach growling, we stood there as slowly over the hour, our line grew and grew. By the time we went in, it had reached the corner, and by the time we left, it went around the building, down the road, and out of sight. Some things are worth hustling for.

We went in promptly at opening time, and moved easily ahead of the groups of prepaid “skip the line” tours. We went straight to the apple of Florence’s eye: David in all of his seventeen foot tall glory. I took my time admiring him from every angle, photographing until I was sure that Sarah would be satisfied.

Helloooo Handsome!

We still had plenty of time to revel in the rest of the museum. It includes paintings, other works by Michelangelo, a plaster cast room full of statuary, and the Musical Instrument Museum, full of antique instruments. What a beautiful place.

The next stop was the Museo delle Cappelle Medicee nearby. Inside are more statues, works by Michelangelo, and the Chapel of Princes, containing the Treasure of San Lorenzo, many with intricate miniature metal work. Some of this stuff is pretty creepy, I’m not gonna lie. Floors, however, along with toes, are something I was constantly photographing all over Italy. The stonework here took on the appearance of carpeting on the floors and tapestry on the walls.

On our way back we wandered around the train station, trying to find out where our tour was supposed to meet. It was time to leave Florence for the evening, to meet her relatives in Siena and enjoy the Chianti of her cleverly won vineyards. We kept our manners.

Florence is a delightful hostess. Just don’t touch her man.

“Michelangiolo” by Daniele da Volterra

 

When a statue is trying to be born…

 

Plaster cast room full of concepts

 

Nice Stradivari, 1716

 

Getting down with their Bad Selves.

 

Does the Pope wear a funny hat? That depends who you ask, I suppose…

 

Wafer-thin, scrolling stonework.

 

The Coward of Capri

Let me begin by pointing out that spending a day on the Mediterranean, lounging on a little jet boat, a little swim time, a little sun time, before exploring the glittering isle of Capri where butterflies and movie stars flock, is pretty much everyone’s idea of a good time.

But I’m not everyone.

This day was planned by the merman I’m married to, and you have to understand that, after his gift of the opera, I was certainly bound to go along with his own anniversary fantasy.

I was terrified.

Standing in the mouth of a volcano, facing off with seafood dinners that had actual eyeballs staring back at you….not a problem. But this trip was not exactly as advertised.

“Includes pick up from your hotel and transfer to the Port of Massa Lubrense,” says the brochure.

Translation: “Our little bus will drive two nautical inches from the Cliffs of Insanity, missing oncoming busses by one. If you scream, we drive faster.”

“Depart to Capri following the Sorrento coastline, stopping at the waterfall of Marciano,” the brochure continues.

Translation: “We will, after sizing up your group, decide to go full throttle across the bay instead, racing for the Blue Grotto. If you flinch, you will fall overboard and we will not circle back for you.”

“At Capri, visit the Blue Grotto, White Grotto, Green Grotto, Wonderful Grotto, Natural Arc…with stops for swimming and snorkeling,” it says.

Translation: “We will arrive at the Blue Grotto and wait for an hour while everyone else who arrived ahead of us proceeds, one at a time, to attempt access to the cave.”

This was no joke. The Blue Grotto has a tiny opening, no larger than a single narrow boat. Said boat can hold four tourists and a pilot. The tourists sit bobsled style on the floor in each others’ laps and when the tide, currents, and boat wakes align to dip low enough and open the cave entrance, they all lie down flat. The pilot gives a mighty push on his oars, ships them, and then lies down flat on TOP of the tourists. As the boat shoots into the crevasse, the pilot grabs a rope that has been strung along the entry and pulls like mad to get into the grotto before the waves lift the boat back up and smashes it into the cave roof.

I sat there watching these little coffins shoot in, perhaps one every ten minutes or so. This is because those inside the grotto must sooner or later fight their way back out and how either side knows who gets the next turn, I have no idea.

There were several large boats full of tourists ahead of us, plus a long line of tourists snaking up the cliff, where the grotto can be found by land.

“It may be a while,” said our professional English speaking skipper, casually, “You have to be ‘in’ with the operators here to get your people into the queue.”

Translation: “My tour company does not have an ‘in’. We can wait all day or move on. Your call.”

We continued around Capri, seeing only three of the advertised five grottos, briefly and from the poopdeck. They were beautiful of course, like La Jolla but missing the seal pups. Finally, within sight of the Natural Arc, we got to stop and jump in the sea.

Translation: “Hubby jumped in the sea. I took the photos.”

I do not get along with any version of water, so you will have to take Hubby’s word for it that the Mediterranean is saltier, more buoyant, and not overly warmer than our Pacific in SoCal. It’s incredibly clear, vivid blue, and contains jellyfish. Which factoid Hubby realized a bit too late and came back on board with sting marks that were red and swollen and peeled twice before healing.

I rest my case.

“Stop on the island for 4-5 hours to explore Capri and Anacapri,” the brochure touts.

Translation: “You get three if you’re lucky. Meet back here on time or…you know the drill.”

Skipper tossed us each a foil-wrapped sandwich for the road.

The harbor of Capri is the most crowded place in Italy. Read that again. We needed to hop on a bus and head directly to the top of the island. We wasted precious time bumping shoulders with heaps of humans trying to do the same. How no one was run over by a little blue bus there, I will never know. Lynette, by the time we found a bus, everyone started looking like George Clooney…

***************************

The bus drove straight up. We were not provided with parachutes. It dropped us off at the top of Anacapri and I was faced with my next fear. To get to the tip top, you must sit in a single chair hung by a cable along a lift, for the thirteen longest minutes of your life.

I put a peppermint in my mouth and got on.

I kept my eyes closed, my hands fisted around the thin bar. I shut down my brain. I slowed down my breathing. I held perfectly still and did not care that everyone passing me on the way down would see my cowardice.

Let’s do this.

The air is very thin and quickly there is nothing but dead silence and the soft squeaking of the pulley overhead. Each cable post is a gentle little boost upward and I tried to shrink in on myself. I heard a dog bark, millions of miles below me.

What if I really am a million miles up? What if don’t see the exit coming and it carries me back around again? What if I can’t get the bar to move and I’m stuck? What if the wind picks up?

I cracked my eyes just enough to determine that I was above a tree and about to soar over a ravine.

I slammed my eyes closed just as I heard nervous giggling ahead of me. The lady in the chair in front of me called out to her boyfriend in the chair in front of her: “Hey! Remember that movie we saw when that one guy got stuck on a ski lift and had to climb off?”

Eons later, I heard her call out, “Are we there yet?” The peppermint held back my nausea until the last minute, when I heard the operators at the top of the lift discussing something in animated Italian. I had enough time to peek, take a deep breath, and then launch from my hot seat.

The view from the top of Anacapri is spectacular. Brilliant. We sat on a patio, eating gelato. But deep in my heart, I knew I had to make that return trip.

From near the umbrella pines, I heard a lady quietly sobbing.

“Me, too, kid,” I mumbled, “Me, too.”

But she was crying because she had just been proposed to. And her fiancé was by turns comforting her and laughing with her. I glanced Hubbys way and blessed him for being sensible and proposing to me on a freeway onramp. Actively merging had not kept me from letting him pop the ring on my finger. So romantic.

And at sea level.

The Island of Capri was blooming with small yellow and white flowers. Butterflies danced in every corner and out over the cliffs. Joyful, exuberant in their efforts to extract the most delight from every moment. I took that picture into my mind and got back onto the lift.

When I dared to open my eyes, I was in a place quite close to the ground. A field of flowers were at my feet. It was covered in butterflies. Floating colors swirled around me and off into the sky.

“Look,” they said, “or don’t. We will hold the space for you. You are safe.”

I closed my eyes again, and stayed right there in that little bit of field, watching butterflies dance until I landed at the bottom.

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Limoncello

Sorrento” and “Limoncello” are interchangeable concepts. Outside of Sorrento, only groves in neighboring Capri are accepted to create this specialty liqueur. You should not buy it outside of Campania. Even Pompeii boasts a mural celebrating the Sorrento Lemon. Locals are fiercely proud of their limoncello, and you can purchase it on every street corner.

The terraced lemon groves in Sorrento have been organically cultivated for generations, surrounded by fencing and protected with overhead canopies and 60% of the harvest is reserved for making limoncello. Lemons are hand harvested when they turn from green to yellow: they never touch the ground. Once harvested, they are carefully cleaned, then kept away from human touch thereafter because limoncello is made from peel. The thick, intensely perfumed peel is distilled in vodka or Everclear, with a little sugar syrup added towards the end, completing up to a three month long process.

A shop owner gave us a brief education, showing us how to read the labels for quality limoncello. The bottle must have the Sorrento seal, and the ratio of lemon to alcohol should be high. 30% alcohol is acceptable, less is for the tourists, and 33% is ideal.

It is served chilled in a shot glass at the end of a meal as a digestive or as an aperitivo.

If you linger at all in a shop, you will be plied with samples. The limoncello speaks for itself.

The rest of the lemon is put to good use: you can buy lemon cookies, lemon candy, lemon balsamic glaze, lemon chocolate, marmalade…and don’t forget the complimentary kitchen baubles. After a few samples, it feels perfectly reasonable to pack it all up and bring the happiness home with you.

It smells and tastes like lemon candy with a tart kick beneath it. It makes you think of sunshine, bright blue ocean water, and good friendships. This is something you drink together, adding a sparkle to great conversation.

After we came home with our bottle, I went out to check our Meyers Lemon Tree. Sure enough, it’s cycling into bloom, with little green lemons being born on the branches. Winter in SoCal is citrus season. Now, my research informs me that the only other place – in the world –  you can cultivate a real honest-to-goodness Sorrento Lemon Tree is right here in San Diego. The lemons are here, if you look hard enough. I am not at all surprised. We may not be volcanic, but as I told you earlier, a lot of Italy sure feels like home.

I’ve never made limoncello but there are plenty of recipes online. I’ve gathered some of them together for us, below. If you have experience in the process, I’m interested in hearing about it.

For now, we will focus on our Italian treat and have you all over for sharing.

Salute!

 

From Sorrento Food Tours, Recipe #1

From Nonna’s kitchen, Recipe #2

From allrecipes (worth reading all the comments), Recipe #3

From Genius Kitchen, Recipe #4

And another from The Chew, Recipe #5

Rome, The Vatican

We signed up to see the Vatican and the Colosseum on the same day. Which is ludicrous. But necessary. This is why espresso is the Italian drink of choice.

I warned you, you won’t see it all and you have to keep moving. Buying a tour is a great way to utilize time and stay disciplined. I would still be standing in the Vatican foyer staring at an urn if it weren’t for our tour guide, Leti. She got it done.

We dashed from our hotel that morning and caught the metro to the Ottaviano exit. At that point we were lost in a maze of wet streets with hundreds of other tourists, all searching for their particular group. If I hadn’t gone onto google maps at home and visually street walked the place, we never would have found it. You can’t do too much homework before a trip like this, because tour guides do not wait.

Leti led our earbud-fitted group of 25 through the mobs to the Vatican’s back door. It’s protected by a massive orange brick wall that goes to infinity in both directions, so you must wait in line with the other tour groups as each entrant is scanned for obelisks and other hazards to the Church.

The Vatican museums don’t open until 9am but groups can come in at 8:30. We shuffled along in line and unlike Disneyland, our entertainment began immediately. Leti told us history and interesting things about the Vatican while street vendors walked by shoving umbrellas at us. Yesterday, it was silk roses. 

Street vendors are pickpockets in disguise. If you let them, they will shove a thing in your hand and then demand your money, even if you try to return the item. Hubby and I prevented this by holding hands. Also, yelling “Stop it!” seems to work. They are sworn enemies.

Then it started to sprinkle. We knew it might, but it doesn’t rain on the Metro and it doesn’t rain in the Vatican and the afternoon was supposed to be sunny. We huddled together for another twenty minutes before we were the begrudging owners of a black five-euro umbrella.

My hair was mostly saved.

We are now going to move briskly into and back out of the Museum wing, leaving photos below for you to stop and stare at and block the way for everybody else because how many people can you cram down the corridor without knocking over a priceless work of art? Answer: an awfully lot.

At the end of this corridor, and bypassing so many other corridors that your heart breaks from the missing of them, you arrive at the Sistine Chapel. Leti told us everything we needed to know before going inside, because you aren’t allowed to speak, take photos, or otherwise rumble in the Pope’s personal space. He has really loud guards in there, telling you so.

Stare up at the ceiling until your neck cricks. It is outrageously fabulous. You can identify most of what you see, just keep in mind that Michelangelo didn’t want this job in the first place and he mostly did the first few Genesis squares and let an army of other painters work out the rest. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter. But when the Pope demands you do a job, when he makes you leave your home in Florence and move to Rome for years to do it, well, as an artist, you get a bit moody. You think thoughts.

When he painted the Last Judgement on the wall, he went ahead and put the Pope’s face onto St Peter. After all, the Pope was paying for it. But he also painted his enemy’s face into the corner of hell and his own face into the flayed skin of St Bart. Talk about a statement. But most of all, he painted all of the patriarchs as nudes. Very healthy nudes. When a religious eyebrow raised, he explained that…he was a sculptor. And this is how he rolled.

Much later, after Michelangelo died, painters were sent up there to add strategic little loincloth swags and later during restoration, most came back off again. Today, the mural is a bit of everyone’s opinions.

You also very much need to know that Botticelli, one of the painters on the team, had a pet chihuahua that was inserted three different places in the chapel wall murals. Because he could. I’m sure there were purse dogs in the time of Noah, I just can’t show you chapter and verse. And now the Pope has them.

St Peter’s Basilica is a kaleidoscope of color and gold and movement. It’s like walking into a huge, hollow layer cake that has too many frosting roses on it. At first, it’s sweet, then it’s hard to swallow.

The Pieta is there, a very early Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Christ, so early that he felt compelled to sign the thing, to prove he’d made it. It continuously floors me that flowing, rippling motion and emotion can be evoked from naked rock like this. Leti had to prod us forward, past the areas of other popes, the latest of whom was lying, mummified, in his glass coffin, still handing out benedictions. His waxy face peeking out from sumptuous robes had no life in it whatsoever. In the Vatacombs below, where countless other popes lie, you can get an idea of their visage from the likenesses carved on the tops or sides of their sarcophagi.

I’m not convinced a live performance after you’re dead is a better plan.

Finishing the tour brought us out to the edge of St Peter’s Square, but Hubby and I had one more item to cross off the List. We bought ten-euro tickets to climb the Duomo. You take a lift to rooftop level where you find yourself on a small piece of the ledge that runs back around the inside of the domed Basilica ceiling…so we could look down…so far down it made you dizzy…on the places we had just toured with Leti. Swirling tourists, chanting priests, flickering candles, arches full of color and golden light are all around you. An immense space overflowing with opulence. My home feels quite bleak in comparison, but what a thing to see.

We walked away and entered the Dome. Don’t do this big climb if you have issues with claustrophobia, because although the beginning was an open curved pathway painted gold, eventually you are in a narrow, tilting passage, and then you are in staircases twirling straight up and you are hoping the guys in front of you don’t stop because the air is getting tight and there is no going backwards and now it’s stuffy and where is the top of this thing? The return trip is in the opposite side of the Dome and both are one-way traffic only. It’s a commitment.

We enjoyed getting back onto the rooftop, because the Pope had kindly provided us with a souvenir shop and a snack shack right there, with a view to die for. Do you know what all of those saints parading around the edge look like from behind?

Hubby got a bevmo and I went next door and wrote five postcards (with Papal stamps) for the kids and left them for the flying nun to deliver. Below us, St Peter’s Square undulated with multitudes waiting to begin their visit. We strolled past them on our way out, pausing to take a photo of the guards. Honestly, who else gets to wear a uniform this awesome outside of Hotdog-On-A-Stick?

Back in our hotel, Hubby was grateful to put on shorts and let his kneecaps out for some fresh air. We headed to the metro, our new best friend, and sped towards the Colosseum and the Forum.

We left the umbrella behind.

Let’s begin with the fine art: ginormous toes. Pedi time! When even ceilings make you gasp. The map room is this boring…! The Pieta is behind bullet-proof glass. The High Altar Bernini made. That’s the guy… Domes inside of domes. You could go on and on… From the Duomo top. St Peter’s Square is round.

Rome, A Walkabout

Like fish and company, touring new cities begins to stink after three days. We filled our days to the brim and left while we were still having fun.

Another travel maxim is: you cannot possibly see it all. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know. It has layers. Three days forced us to prioritize The List into something manageable. As this was not our first rodeo, we also took into account a little regular down time and things out of our control like jet lag, weather, or mood swings. If gelato sounded better than climbing the campanile, then we had permission to rebel.

But usually, we did both. Simultaneously.

Today, I wanted to begin at the Galleria Borghese, but I had not booked this museum ahead. I read that you could go early and try for walk-up tickets, so although the website said “Sold Out”, I was hopeful.

Now, a hotel concierge is a fabulous resource and I recommend asking them all of your foolish tourist questions, even if you aren’t technically staying in their hotel. In Rome, ours was “George from Venice”, who was very helpful when our electricity converter wasn’t working. George opened a drawer and pulled out a dozen different types that didn’t match and finally sent Hubby across the street to buy a new one. Meanwhile, I told him my plan for sneaking up on the Borghese. George frowned. He didn’t recommend it. He called the Gallery, speaking in rapid Italian. “They are sold out completely until two weeks from now,” he said. “Yes,” I explained, “but perhaps if we show up in person, they will have room.”

George talked us out of it. It wasn’t until Florence, when we snuck up on the Accedemia and won, that I realized George just didn’t want a screaming disappointed tourist in his face later, so I guess I don’t blame him. My asterisk is that if you want to gamble, don’t involve the concierge.

Instead, we opted to follow Rick Steve’s Heart of Rome Walk, beginning at Campo di Fiori. I had already downloaded his maps and tours into my phone and although Hubby is not a fan, he went along with it, choosing to let me listen and guide him through town. Campo di Fiori is a beautiful little morning market selling flowers, veggies, and the daily bread.

Brooding Bruno.

Rick was telling Bruno’s story when Hubby decided there were two more men in my head than he was okay with. Rick and Bruno had to skip to the end and direct us forward, and it wasn’t until the train ride from Rome that I sat back and enjoyed the full tour, using the photos I had taken and hearing with delight about what I had already seen.

You can do it too, from home: ricksteves.com. I preferred to form my own opinions before hearing everyone else’s but perhaps you want do it before you go, to get some context.

Piazza Navona is wonderful. Here is a selfie per Jenni’s request:

Piazza Navona selfie.

I didn’t say I was any good at it.

We studied the fountains and practiced selfies and enjoyed the group of lederhosen that joined us. There were kilts and wimples and ball caps. We followed them to the Pantheon. Not the Parthenon. Not the Panthenon. It was funny listening to people try to figure it out.

And it is something quite special. I don’t have a lot of intuition or “gut feelings” about places. There are tombs here and layers of religion and history and architectural genius and undeniable art in every stone. But the oculus – the space where there is nothing – spoke to me. Our day was a bit drizzly and the wet came in and made the marble floors slick. The area was cordoned off. I read that during the right time on a sunny day, a palpable column of light forms in the center of the room.

Empty space that isn’t empty.

It made me think this:

Here are mans efforts over the ages, marching in circles, trying to reflect/create/become/reach something and that Something is this space at the Center. The Light fills the gap and floods down into the arena of souls instead of the other way around.

It made me ignore the beauty around me and admire the Light.

The oculus is the only light source in the building.

Oculus.

From there we accidentally detoured into Piazza di Pietra and worked our way back to the Piazza Colonna, each with columns worth seeing. We found a shopping mall, cleverly disguised as a piece of Rome and this detour brought us back to the Trevi fountain. Why not?

This day had been pretty fulfilling, but now there was a practicality to figure out: the Metro. We wanted to practice before our Vatican tour in the morning, so we bought tickets in a tiny shop on the corner and headed down into the belly, looking for thugs. Once we decided which direction we needed, it was easy enough to hop on and back off at Piazza Popolo. Efficient, light, clean, and easy to navigate. No thugs in sight other than a grandmother returning from her marketing. I wish SoCal had a metro.

The Piazza Popolo is a spacious place to unwind and it comes with it’s own obelisk, fountains, statues and tourists. There are thirteen obelisks standing in Rome today, many more were lost in transport or invasions. They are legit stolen from Egypt and covered in hieroglyphics.  At some point in history the church decided that they were just a bit too pagan and engaged in a struggle with the townspeople to remove them. Romans were having none of it. Obelisks are cool. In compromise, the church topped each one with a cross to make them more palatable. It’s an odd combination.

Obelisk. Updated.

We went up to the little park area and crossed a bridge to a residential side of town. A statue of Pietro Cossa met us there and invited us to walk along the sleepy Tiber. We looked down on riverboats identical to those that Audrey Hepburn danced on. Hmm. A couple of hours later and we might have joined her.

The metro brought us back to home base, and we finished the day in a half-underground little restaurant with a curving brick ceiling, sipping wine, eating risotto with prawn sauce, and capping it off with a creamy dreamy tiramisu.

 

Surprise! It’s been soaked in espresso.

Favorite bit from Piazza Navona.

“Trying to get up on a Monday morning.”

Marcus Aurelius’ story goes literally in circles.

Hanging out in Piazza Popolo.

Fancy architecture around the Piazza Popolo, but I love bells!

Walking along the Tiber.

Below are the flatboats for dining and dancing.

Adventure is Out There

Bongiorno, Tribe!

I hope you are as excited to hear about our Italian adventures as I am to tell them. It’s certainly been a strange, jet lagged last couple of days attempting to remember who I am and what I do. I have no idea where I’m going next. But this trip reminded me that the unknown is only as scary or adventurous as you decide it is.

Attraversiamo.

Thank you for being here with me.

First things first!

Congratulations going out to Melinda, our Forgetful Files Give-Away winner!

Your gift was purchased with real euros from the Firenze Musei (secret code for Florence Museum) gift shop in the Galleria dell Accedemia and carried all over Italy and then back to America. So it’s already got a history. This Fine Art Colouring Book contains full colour photos of…fine art and pulls excerpts out for you to…colour. Shipped in it’s original plastic sales bag, it comes with extra “u”s and includes a bookmark of my main man David.

The man is fine. Suitable for framing.

 

Before we launch into the stories, I will give you the nuts and bolts of our trip planning, in case you are going to Italy sometime soon.

(If the thought of planning a trip to Italy – or anywhere for that matter-  seems overwhelming, I am happy to refer you to my girlfriend, Kim, who is a travel agent. She can hook you up!)

Five cities, three days each. Rome, Sorrento, Florence, Cinque Terre, Venice.

Airline tickets, airport transfers, four of the hotels, travel insurance, and tickets for Pompeii/Vesuvius tours and an opera performance were planned and purchased through tripmasters.com. They have a phone app that operates off line with your full itinerary and the map section worked very well for navigating new cities. You can download a city on googlemaps while on wifi and have it handy later, but this did not always cooperate.

The fifth hotel was secured directly (Cinque Terre).

Train tickets were purchased through trinitalia.com.

Ferry tickets (Naples to Sorrento and back) were purchased through traghettilines.it.

More tour tickets were secured through tripadvisor.com (Capri, Siena/Winery Tour, Vatican/Colosseum).

Vouchers for St Marks Basilica and the Campanile through venetoinside.com.

Tower of Pisa was booked directly at bigliettionline@opapisa.it.

All other tickets were bought on site as needed, like the Metro, museums, duomo, buses, vaporetto, hiking trails, bathrooms…

There is no Uber in Italy. The “Uber” they use is black Uber. Everyone uses the “mytaxi” app instead. You can rent cars or scooters but only if you’re a crazy person. We walked everywhere and loved it. But we might be crazy people, too.

While I purchased an international plan for my phone “just in case”, I only used it once. Our family uses the “whatsapp” app. Between the app and social media, we had plenty of communication. As a side note, although hotels and trains claim to have wifi, more than half the time it was completely inadequate for use. It’s a good reminder that you are on vacation and the kids are just fine and you should let it go already.

If you have any specific questions on my trip planning, I will try to answer them below in the comment box.

Meanwhile, if you have to know, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed by the Italian landscape. It was gorgeous and felt, most of the time, like we were home. My hunch that we live in paradise is fairly well cemented after this trip. There were lantana, eucalyptus, oleander along freeways. Olive, lemon, and avocado trees. Morning glory covering fences along extensive grape vineyards. Hibiscus, succulents, and geraniums in pots. Cactus. The cypress and ash were the same trees from my neighborhood.

The one exotic thing (by Dr Seuss standards) we discovered in Italy was the Umbrella Pine. Instead of the triangular Christmas pine tree that I am used to, these pines grow up and out, creating a green canopy as the lower branches turn brown and die back. In the cities, they keep the dead stuff trimmed up and the result is an elegant lofty pine that shades the park without taking up path space. They very much resemble the interiors of basilicas: towering columns supporting curving domed ceilings.

I would love this for Christmas. Well. The decorated tree or the decorated ceiling. I’m flexible.

Now, on with the show!

Planning a Roman Holiday

So I’ve been doing some homework on Italy. Rome, to be exact. It’s the first stop on our itinerary for next months big “We managed to stay married for HOW long?” anniversary trip to actual Europe.

Because after thirty years of dues, you should get to cash out. In euros.

We’re sampling the country’s smorgasbord, squeezing in a little of everything: Rome for savory big city vibe, Sorrento for a sting of menacing volcanic ghost town flavor, Florence for piquant vineyard and villa countryside, Cinque Terre of the salty Mediterranean cliff dwellers, and Venice for a tangy dessert. Venice may be more like stinky cheese than tiramisu, but let’s not judge before taking a bite first.

I have learned a little Italian in the meantime, my phone app turning it into a game which makes me compete for the next level but insists that I learn grammar instead of vocabulary, so I can tell you in very clear Italian that “the boy eats an apple” but cannot ask you for an apple myself.

I don’t want to starve in Italy.

So I memorized torta (cake), gelato (ice cream), , and te` al latte (milk) e zucccero (sugar), which is at the top of my list. Surprisingly, my Spanglish has been pretty helpful, and some words translate directly: festa, pizza, si, no.

“Pasta” covers all manner of delights but should not be confused with “basta” which means “enough already!”

I’m set. But this is not enough information to navigate a big city.

I haven’t been able to plan beyond day two in Rome, and I’ve been staring at it for a month.

Rome is older than your mother. Rome drives like your mother. You will never see all of Rome in  two days. Like Disneyland, there is above-ground Rome, underground Rome, take a picture with a gladiator Rome, and a hop-on-hop-off ride that goes in circles just to relieve your cobblestone tromping soles. I’m hoping they have a little pineapple gelato stand next to the gate.

We must stop in and see the Pope. I’m pretty sure he’ll have some thoughts for this blog. Wise words like, “Be sure to buy a little Papal snow globe in the gift shop!” I always wondered what he keeps in that hat of his.

Although you can purchase bottles of holy water, I was warned not to drink it. Which is silly, because only a fool would get pregnant at my age. I will focus instead on the myriad of sparkling fountains around the city. I’m guessing one of them could be the Fountain of Youth and I’m happy to sample them all and let you know.

Speaking of which, some women got into a fight over a selfie-spot near the Trevi Fountain the other day and got Rome all worked up over whether they should close access to it. They should take a page from the Book of Rollercoaster and mount a camera there. When tourists have a spat, they can purchase their photos at the booth.

Imagine the possibilities!

I myself hate being stared at and from what I can tell, Rome is nothing but statues. Cherubs and saints and frolicking water nymphs and Italian men on street corners. It’s like Greece sent Medusa over and the Italians said, “Do your worst” and now whoever’s left is just holding up lampposts and smirking over the fact that they can take my money to show it all to me.

“Hey lady!” they’ll call out like circus carnis, “You wanna see a really old thing?”

And they will laugh all the way to the bank. Right behind Mickey Mouse.

It really is legit, though, the ruins have the scorch marks to prove it. Everyone appears confused as to why Nero would just light the place up like that, but it’s obvious to me what happened: they had ants. Rome was built – quite unknowingly until it was too late, and much like my own palazzo – on seven ginormous ant hills.

At some point, they make you crazy and there is only one option left. Basta.

Hand me my fiddle.

Sunrise in Cancun

Buenos dias, señoritas y caballeros,

Como se dice “Wow, what a weekend!”?

I’m writing you today from the aeropuerto in Cancun, Mexico, although the resort we stayed in lies in Akumal in the Riviera Maya. Hubby has gone to buy a coffee and I’m sitting here surrounded by his luggage at the gate.

I don’t recommend staying in Cancun. From an airplane, it looks like the Vegas strip, only squeezed between spans of lagoon instead of desert. The massive hotels scream “trapped in a teeny weeny bikini and can’t get out!” at me.

You can have it.

About eight years ago, the Hubbs and I spent a week in our first ever “all-inclusive” resort, the theory being that all the adventure you really need on a vacay is wondering which drink to order from the nice lady who saunters past your king-size beach bed with a tray.

While you soak in the Caribbean sun and get fanned by the ocean breeze and doze to the sound of the surf…

Surf, sun, sand, sleep…repeat.

It was a real strain to lift a pina colada to my mouth, thank goodness there was a straw.

Hubby did all the planning this time, chafing for weeks over prices, airplane connections, timing. It’s a mercy he didn’t make our connections on United in O’Hare. He sussed out our resort and read volumes of tripadvisor reviews and had small seizures over getting things at work together so he could actually be gone for a couple days.

Then he packed all his worldly possessions, fretting over the traffic and the weather because somebody had to do it, and by the time we made it via LAX to here (“Jolie, don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to anyone!”) and took the hour long shuttle south (“But, señor, your shuttle is at gate 34!”) to the wrong resort (“I don’t understand, señor, your name is not on our reservations list?”) I was ready for that drink.

“Not to worry, señor, we will make it all O. K.”

And they did.

They took our luggage as security and plopped us into a golf cart and whisked us away to one of their restaurants, “You must eat here, best breakfast in the place!”

I stepped into an air conditioned food brothel. And the vacation began.

I filled a plate with an omelette, topped it with a fistful of bacon, decorated the edge with kiwi and berries, and balanced some french toast on the side. I hid a vanilla yogurt under the plate because there, at the end of the counter, was a five pound candy jar full of toasted coconut calling my name.

This place was fantastic and I hadn’t even seen the outside of the restaurant yet.

When we finally sat down, the waiter approached.

With a lifted brow, he offered mimosas.

Obviously, the man didn’t know me. When I need a drink…I need a drink.

Ya’all, the Mexican garçon brought me tea. The real deal. Brewing in a pot, milk and sugar on the side. Dilmah English Breakfast.

Aye yi yi, I am not leaving this place. (words of spanish ecstasy)

For four days, I pondered decisions like, “I wonder where I’d rather recline right now? SPF 30 or 55? Crab-legs, pad thai, or ribs?”

Although plenty of activities were offered, I got my cardio by leaping into shrubbery every time I walked around a corner and faced:

The resident iguanas. Who’re YOU looking at?

They keep the rodent population down and tourist heart rates up.

They own the place, and they know it.

For those of you wondering, I never saw a bug, probably due to the welcome palm-beach breezes. Most of the peninsula is dense, jungly impassable brush and trees. Resorts and towns and roads are bulldozed right through it. I saw laundry strung like banners across flat rooftops on the drive out, and wondered how it dried in the humidity.

You can day trip to the Tulum ruins (where they have plenty of flies) or swim with dolphins or cuddle crocodiles. You can dive in cenotes, or parasail or shop at Sam’s Club.

But my focus on this trip was to tan my muffin top. I roused occasionally to read some Sophie Kinsella or watch Hubby snorkel, but I took a great deal of pleasure from the fact that I (unlike the honeymooners across the way) have no use for perfection or posing.

I had packed a hair clip and a tube of mascara to be fancy, two swimsuits, and a maxi-dress.

This explains why, when we had to catch our shuttle home, I had plenty of time to order a nice lunch while Hubby was running in circles trying to repack twenty outfits and four pairs of shoes.

I downed my last pina colada as we bustled into the van. Party of two.

It was a nice twenty minutes of peaceful commuting as the driver wove his way through traffic.

Now Hubby is polite.

But Hubby is an engineer.

And twenty minutes in, Hubby had a question.

“What are they installing along the highway here?” he asked, pointing to miles of freshly trenched shoulder we were passing. The Mexican highway was busy with median work, replanting trees and laying down fresh oil and vinegar. Or whatever. I’m not the engineer.

“Que?” said the driver.

“The digging,” said my helpful Hubby, “the digging along the road.” He pointed again.

The shuttle slowed instantly, veering into the bike lane (dude. a bike lane) and put on the emergency blinkers.

“You stop here?” he asked as busses flew by, inches from my window.

Realizing his mistake and knowing there was no espanol to save us, Hubby loudly tried to correct it.

“No, no, no, no! No stop! All good!”

The driver looked at him doubtfully, anxious to be of service. It was clear he didn’t know why Hubby had wanted to stop and see the side of the road or why he had changed his mind so quickly, but he sighed with a deep patience borne from years of American passengers and veered back into traffic.

Federalis carrying AK47s were a presence along the highway. Here and there, speed bumps made everyone slow to a crawl for reasons I couldn’t understand. At large intersections, peddlers held kites and water bottles and bags of pumpkin seeds to the windows.

It was slow going.

I leaned over to Hubby. “I need el bano,” I muttered.

“It’s not too far,” Hubby said with alarm, and the freeway slowed to a crawl as yet another speed bump bounced me and my situation around.

“Oh boy,” I winced, “this is not gonna end well.”

Bless Hubby’s heart. He leaned forward and asked our driver for el bano, and the driver’s look said a great many things that even I understood:

“In the middle of Nowhere, Mexico, a gringo needs a bathroom that isn’t a bush on the side of the highway but probably shouldn’t be anywhere else, either, and these stupid touristas can’t go before we leave and can’t wait until we get there and what am I supposed to do about it?”

The shuttle pulled into a gas station ten wretched minutes later. I girded up my loins and ran for it before I could think about the locals loitering on the corner or iguanas hiding behind toilets or diseases on the door handles or the…attendant barring my way?

He unlocked the door to the ladies with one hand and held out the other saying, “five pesos”.

I must’ve had a certain look on my face because he did step out of my way as I hollered over my shoulder to a worried Hubby, “Give him pesos!!”

Now, we had not a single peso between us, but Hubby reached for his wallet anyway, and I am happy to report that it was the best dollar we spent on the entire trip. The bathroom was spotless and reptile-free, and we made it here to our flight in plenty of time to stare at the tarmac and write this.

I suppose if United offers us a million pesos or so to bump our flight home, we won’t be opposed.

I only made it half-way through that jar of coconut.

Sunrise in Akumal

Welcome to Victoria, BC

We crossed the border on Canada Day, which just sings with appropriateness, however unplanned it was. Already we felt Canuck. Slightly french, but with beer undertones.

Victoria is on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, and unlike Hawaii, you can take a ferry to get there. On a map, the whole area looks like a crushed potato chip floating in a water glass.

With trees.

We took the longest ferry ride they offered and scanned islands in every direction, waiting in vain for explosions.

I can watch a dozen fireworks shows from the hill in my backyard on the Fourth of July.

Come on Canada, blow something up. It’s a party, eh?

 

Our hostess with the mostest baked this lush beauty for the occasion, so we had some party after all.

 

Our week was packed with shenanigans, and the very next morning we planned to get onto a(nother) ferry and head to Salt Spring Island for the day.

The girls took the van early, to get a good spot on the boat. The boys decided to take bikes for some manly fresh air. Somehow I missed the memo.

I woke to an empty house and a lone teenager who was assigned one job: getting me to the ferry on time.

Now there’s a good first impression.

By the time I was dropped off at the bustling docks, it was ten minutes to launch.

Striding down to the wharf in a manner that showed I clearly knew what the heck I was doing, it occurred to me that there were multiple ferries going to multiple islands, and none of them were labeled.

Vehicles began to snake their way along the asphalt. Where was ours?

I turned to the nearest orange-vested custodian of the seas, and asked which ferry went to Salt Spring. He pointed to all of them and I didn’t hear his reply because suddenly I realized:

  1. All of my people were on a boat somewhere right now and I was not.
  2. All of my people had a ticket. I did not, because I had been dropped at the curb.
  3. What if my people had my ticket but now they – and my ticket – are on a boat?
  4. My cell phone was internationally useless. I was on my own.

What is this nonsense? Who has to hop on a boat anytime they want to go somewhere? Where are the bridges? Why do we all need tickets? Where do you buy tickets?

It was five minutes to launch.

I must have babbled some of that out loud in a properly befuddled American tourist accent, because the orange vest then pointed in the opposite direction. I retraced my steps at a trot now, fondling the one thing that could save my bacon: a credit card.

The tiny office held a lone officer who was talking a tourist through something that was obviously not as important as my imminent hysterics.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to communicate my plight telepathically.

Manners are so overrated.

Just then, another officer walked through the door and I leapt into her personal space crying, “Ineedtogetonthesaltspringferrythatleavesrightnowandidonthaveaticket!”

“Oh, honey, I think it’s too late to sell you one, but I’ll just call up there and ask.”

Maybe they just like to watch the tourists writhe a little.

She sold me a ticket, one eye on the clock, and I flat out ran the entire length of the landing, past startled shoppers and through queues of moving cars and lounging coffee sippers and disapproving orange vests.

Dignity is so overrated.

The last vest pointed to a boat and breathless, I reached the gate.

There was the Hubbs.

He was standing on my side of the ferry.

An orange vest escorted us on board and closed the gate. The engines started up.

“What were you going to do” I asked, “if I missed the boat?”

“Stay here and have Tim’s with you,” he said.

I reckon that guy can pack the luggage in the car any way he wants, eh?

 

I (Almost) Left my Heart in San Francisco

As a mom of five children born over ten years, I know the feeling of being surrounded at all times with a busy brood of toddlers.  When you’ve got the house battened down, the gates up, the doors double-latched and the baby-proof outlet covers in place, you can be lulled into a sense of temporary security.  You may or may not be able to take your eyes off them for a moment to use the toilet.  Maybe some will have to come with you.

Maybe you’d better leave the door wide open, just in case.

Knowing my distractible forgetful self, I spent every move of our day doing headcounts.  The numbers may have changed over the years, but the routine stayed faithful.  If we went from playing outside to coming in for bath time, we counted heads.  If we are going to the park, line up for headcounts.  As a matter of fact, line up your shoes, hats, and water bottles for a count.  We moved in a herd, and if one kid needed something, we all just lined up and got tended together.  Call me obsessive if you must, but we never lost a kid.

Until him.

When I tell you that if he had been my first, he would also have been my last, I tell you the truth.  If I had not already had four children, enough to know exactly what I was doing, my dear fifth-born would have broken me.  The poor child had inherited my ADD from birth.  While other children nursed calmly, he could not stay focused more than five minutes or so before wondering if he were missing something.  Of course, surrounded by siblings, he was missing things, but a newborn should not be thinking about that quite yet.

I’m explaining up front so that my guilt level doesn’t rise as I confess my story.

This was my only child to break an arm, lose teeth in a living room rumpus, get a concussion, and, heaven help me, get lost on major family adventures, all before the age of 5. He is the most curious, enthusiastic, happy, people loving, gregarious boy you will ever meet.  And when the world is your oyster, you are never lost.  Perhaps your parents are lost, but you most certainly are not.

I spent a lot of my time during our trip to San Francisco head counting.  I did not go so far as to dress everyone in matching neon yellow shirts, although looking back I guess it wouldn’t have hurt anything but our dignity.  The kids rode the trolley cars and toured the city, playing in parks and enjoying the views.  Pier 21 was bustling and a big lure was the sea lions congregating in the water along the edge.  We are animal lovers and many photos were taken.

It wasn’t until all the way around to the other side that my headcount came up short.  You can guess who was AWOL.  Truly when people are massed and moving, your family suddenly looks like everyone else’s family.  We regrouped and spread out to find him.  Those ten minutes were an eternity.  I stayed put like every mom says to a lost child, so that you can be found.  There was always the chance he would find me.  There was also the real possibility my legs couldn’t move as they turned into jelly with terror.

I’m not sure I was breathing.

Dad found him back on the other side of the pier. Our little boy was enjoying an ice cream with a policeman and had not a care in the world.  Apparently he stayed behind to watch the sea lions and then wandered along enjoying himself.  He was the only calm person involved in the story and I have to say we rather hovered over him for days afterwards.

Yes, there are mothers who tether their children and I was happy when the kids could be belted into a stroller.  If only the older four had not lulled me into thinking we had no need of such things.  Even holding mom’s hand was considered sissy stuff, so the head counting was my way of invisible tethering, of ticking off the fingers, of collecting all of my precious children in one hand.

I have since discovered ways of making sure the kids, now older, will watch for me, peering over the crowd to find the mom who has something they desperately want….ice cream.  For the older ones, cash works.  They can just count my head, an easy number of one, as their precious thing to track.