Swiss Bliss with Mamma

In 2004 when I earned my Masters in English, my mother took her first trip to Europe.  During this graduation gift, I escorted her to many of my favorite highlights at the time, visiting London and where I studied in the Cottswolds countryside.  We went to the Tuscan coast, with day trips to hill towns, and then to the Swiss Alps for the finale of our trip.  With frequent backpacking, I always ensured to visit Interlaken at the end because if I went somewhere else afterwards, it felt anti-climactic–even the quaint mountains of Innsbruck. This region of Switzerland, the Berner Oberland, is natural, pristine, extreme and serene beauty.  It just makes you feel good.  There is a special energy that ameliorates nearly everything.  I would stare at pictures of the blue lakes and jagged peaks during a dreary Bronx winter and dream of returning.  I was thrilled to be back, and Mom adored it.

2004.  Top of Harder Kulm, in Interlaken, Switzerland.  Mom's first trip to Europe, and the travel bug is spread.

2004. Top of Harder Kulm, in Interlaken, Switzerland. Mom’s first trip to Europe, and the travel bug is spread.

As we walked through the charming valley town, she kept pointing to the snowcapped Jungfrau mountain.  I often caught her just staring, with a blissful smile on her face.  I don’t think I had ever seen her like that my entire life.  We ate cheese and chocolate fondue, pet goats and cows, and just enjoyed the peace.  While we did take the train up to the top of the local mountain, Harder Kulm, we never made it to any of the high peaks around the Jungfrau, though.

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When I accepted the job in Genoa, I was excited for both the proximity to the Cinque Terre as well as the reasonable train ride to Interlaken, Switzerland, a place I visited nearly every summer since 2001.  I planned to go as often as possible.  And I did, with five visits over my two years in the region.  I would have gone even more frequently if the six hour train wasn’t so expensive.  I wrote about the mountains in the spring here.   And now 13 years after my first visit, I was finally going to ski.

Many schools in America have February break (although, sadly, many have cut it in half or eliminated it).  In Europe, they call it Ski Week, because a majority of the families head to the mountains for up to a week of skiing.  Learning on icy, artificial snow in the Ramapo Mountains and other bumps in Bergen and Sussex counties, skiing the alps is always a treat for me.  And the lift tickets are way cheaper than resorts in Vale.  (I have yet to try skiing out West, but hopefully this year).  In any case, while I have made sure to ski the alps last year and this year, I have not yet skied in my favorite place in the world.  Last year, I got to see the high peaks around Interlaken covered in snow as I escorted my 12th grade students on a self-designed writing retreat perched in the peaceful mountain bliss in Wengen, Switzerland.  This year, to save money, we stayed in the valley, with day trips to up to the magic. I vowed I would eventually ski there.  This February, I did.

After a few days relaxing in Genoa, where Mamma enjoys living like a local (along with preparing a snack for me when I return home from school!), we boarded a train to Switzerland.  We had a peaceful journey into Interlaken, where mom commented how relaxed she felt in the mountain air.  There, we boarded the scenic train that would take us to Lauterbrunnen, the valley at the base of the high peaks, where we then boarded a cog railway up the dramatic slopes.  Mom kept pointing in awe.  But I noticed one very important thing was missing.  Where was the snow?  As we climbed higher and higher, I noticed the snow wasn’t covering the streets and paths as in January.  Apparently, it was so sunny and warm that it had melted.  Sigh.  Meanwhile, back in the States, New Yorkers were pummeled with multiple snowstorms a week and low temperatures that didn’t allow it to melt.

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Nearing Lauterbrunnen

Once out in the car free village of Wengen, we called a cab (a little electric car) that took us and our bags to the hotel for check in, just around the corner.  They make a fortune at 20 swiss francs for the journey yet it was necessary especially with mom’s recent knee injury. The quaint hotel, perched on the cliff, offered dramatic views and plenty to enjoy even for a non-skier.  When I had stopped by for a peek when I was here with my students earlier this winter, I saw the owner, who gave me a little tour and suggested I book a meal for the first night so we don’t have to worry about going out for dinner.  I thought that would be convenient, so we opted for that.

Shortly after settling into the quaint and cozy room with panoramic mountain views, Mom and I went downstairs for the meal of the day. Each course was savory and scrumptious.  We didn’t leave a drop of soup in our bowls or a piece of meat on our plates.  I could easily stay here a week!  I forgot to write down what we had, but the ever changing fixed menu was more satisfying than any of the more expensive restaurant food.

dessert

dessert

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We vowed to sign up for dinner the next two nights, I took a starlit walk, and then we both drifted into a peaceful sleep you only can get in the mountain air.

twilight view from one of our windows

twilight view from one of our windows

The buffet breakfast was plentiful and delicious, of course, and soon after, I rented skis for two days along with a two-day all-mountain lift ticket.  For a bit more, I was able to get the premier skis, which were newer and extra sharp.  This proved amazing for cutting the very few icy patches on the slopes.  I boarded a cable car for the peaks while mom enjoyed a relaxing day in the sunshine, watching the skiers and the mountains.

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When I exited the cable car, it was amazing to be in a place I hiked with Dad a few years before, on top of the world.  These are stunning views that tourists pay to see during the summer, and now I got to enjoy them in the winter, while playing and carving the snow.  The shop gave me skis up to my lips, a lot longer than I am comfortable with.  But they explained that when I opt for the shorter ones, I can out-ski them, and the lack of control is even worse.  I definitely realized that for my experience and skill level, these were the best — even though I’m  a very cautious and often nervous skier.

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It was such a delight to explore all the options, from quiet powdery trails to big, crowded bowls with moguls and stunning views.  The skis helped me to advance my technique, and I got a great workout as I went down to the valley of Grindelwald where the snow melted and I wished I wasn’t wearing a jacket.  I stopped for a trail-side restaurant where I devoured a full plate of Rosti, a hearty mountain dish of cheese, egg and fried potatoes, in a sublime setting before heading back up.

Hearty mountain Rosti in a sublime setting

Hearty mountain Rosti in a sublime setting

A man took this photo of me when he saw me trying to take a selfie

A man took this photo of me when he saw me trying to take a selfie

At the end of the day, I stored my skis at the lodge for tomorrow and met Mom for another amazing dinner at the hotel with our super hospitable hosts.  Nearly all of Switzerland is hospitable, so this is quite a compliment.  I usually don’t like to give away hotel secrets, but Hotel Edelweiss deserves some recognition, so my modest little group of readers, you are in on my secret.

view from one of our balconies

view from one of our balconies

For day 2, Mom joined me on a cog railway up to Kleine Sheidegg, a place where Dad and I enjoyed petting goats in the summer of 2009.  The goats have been replaced with skiers for the winter, and Mom got to watch me do a few runs while she basked in the sun by a tepee.

Kleine Sheidegg, Feb  2014

Kleine Sheidegg, Feb 2014

Dad found the same shot from our summer visit in 2009!

Dad found the same shot from our summer visit in 2009!

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As much as I was enjoying this side of the mountain and the super fresh snow I found, I decided to explore a bit and began heading for the other side of the valley.  Apparently, I somehow got on a very, very steep slope — so steep that when I stopped due to nerves, the chunks of packed snow tumbled down the incline, a reminder that would happen to me if I didn’t allow my skis to cling to the terrain which was actually easier while moving rather than crouched in crying baby, a seldom used yoga position.  I focused on one turn at a time, a girl whose only lessons were the “beginner ski packages” on those little bump places at age 9, and made it!  At that point, I noticed I was on the World Cup Slalom trail, an “expert skier only” slope.  They should have marked that a bit more clearly before my entrance . . . and expert sking in the alps, that’s some serious business.

With tired quads and frayed nerves, I tried to find my way back into Wengen where I would take the cog down and then a cable up to the other side of the valley, Murren.  I did pay for the all-mountain pass after all . . .  yet I should have paid more attention to the “trail closed” sign, noting the melted slush that covered it, because as I went down, the slush disappeared.  I was downhill, by some farm, and had to remove my skis, toss them on my shoulder and do the awkward, clunky ski boot clomp on a hiking trail, past a barn with cows, bells jingling as they tossed their heads towards the intruder.  Clomp, clomp, clomp, down, down, down — the sun making my head dizzy, steam escaping from my pink fleece, dehydrated and dizzy when I looked across the hill and realized that cute town up above me was . . . Wengen.  I went down too far, and this trail was no good to me.

Clomp, clomp, clomp up the trail — dehydrated, I grabbed fresh mountain snow for a pathetic attempt at refreshment.  Back past the jingling cows, back up the closed trail and onto the lift again where I would take the correct path down to Wengen.  Except, the path looked very familiar.  Very steep, and  . . . oh man, tempting fate once again on the World Cup Slalom Slope.  I again made it down safely, back up the lift, and finally safely back to Wengen, swishing by fields and pine trees, and ever changing vistas, often the only skier in sight.

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As I prepared to board the cable car up the other side, I realized I needed more hydration. I thought about buying a water in the vending machine (which happened to include a pregnancy test called Maybe Baby, for when you just gotta know on the slopes) but opted for a Capri Sun because I figured the extra sugars would do me good and hey, it’s been a while.  With the skis in my hand, I jabbed that silly straw into the squishy pouch.  I think I missed a couple of times, and eventually got it.  A few minutes and a big sip later, I looked at my hand, blood dripping down from my thumb, a chunk of my skin cut clear off.  I must have sliced the hand on the ski in my straw jabbing attempt.  The skis were so sharp, I didn’t even feel it.  Since I had no bandaid, and the machine had every other convenience except that, I pulled my thumb loops over it, gloves back on, and tried to ignore it.

When I got out in Murren, dizzy, dazed and bleeding, I couldn’t find a chair lift in site, so I clomp, clomp, clomp walked.  I walked for a long while . . . and then found the cable car up to Schilthorn, the site of a James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  My  a Dad and I traveled on this cable car in 2010, for panoramic views of . . . clouds.

the restaurant was featured in the bond movie

the restaurant was featured in the bond movie

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Dad enjoying the panoramic view of clouds

Here I was now, without a cloud in the sky, for stunning views.  And then I saw it, the dreaded sign” For expert skiers only” as our cable car sailed over struggling skiers clinging to a tiny, narrow cliffside trail that made the Slalom Look like a bunny hill.  I exited the cable car, dizzy from the altitude, took a few photos, then rode the car back down, disheartened but alive.

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Schilthorn Piz Gloria

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Clomp, clomp, clomp — ski lifts were closing, so clomp, clomp .  . . let’s try to cross country ski in the slush. . . . but these are not cross country skis, so  . . . no.  I was sweating, still bleeding, and regretting the journey to this side since I wasn’t actually skiing, just toting a lot of equipment for a peek at other peaks.  Yet it was beautiful.

Eventually I returned to Wengen for an amazing shower, our last hearty and delicious meal at the hotel, and a final starlit sleep.  It would be so sad to leave tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Mom had a great day in the sunshine, loving every minute of her time on the mountains she pointed at from the valley 10 years ago.

Here are more photos from our lovely stay

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Under the American Sun

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Greetings from my parents’ house in the leafy suburbs. Their adorable backyard feels like vacation. I have a new apartment in a quaint neighborhood of the Bronx, but my movers aren’t coming until the 18th. Now I just chill and reflect as I get settled back into the USA.

There are so many stories to tell — I’m only in January and might jump around, focusing on whatever I’m in the mood for that particularly day.  My head is spinning, my brain buzzing with so many experiences that I didn’t allow to resonate and soak in before jumping into the next amazing adventure.  Sometimes I worry it’s like dipping a white t-shirt into too many tye dye colors, turning the shirt into a murky brown, over-saturated.  But I think with space and reflection, the stories can shine through. 

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Sunrise Swim at my local beach. And even though it was the closest, it was also my favorite place to swim in Genoa.

I took my last swim and scooter ride at sunrise on July 31st, did the final check of my apartment, called a cab and boarded the plane on a gorgeous day for a tearful farewell to one of the most beautiful places in the world.  And I was lucky enough to call it home.  Just because a decision is hard or painful, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  I know it’s time to move on, and I’m already planning to spend most of the summer back in Liguria and Europe, but there is nothing like living there.  When I was interviewing for international jobs, one director said, “It’s like taking a cold shower every day.”

It really was.  I have been shocked by how easy it is to communicate and get things done here back at home.  How boring and normal it all seems, but also how comfortable.  Like a warm shower or bath. Now the challenge is to keep Italian Kristin alive in NYC.  Part of that will be sharing my stories here, and hopefully one day turning them into something more polished.

ciao ciao e a presto!

Nothing’s the Matterhorn

In the fall, I received a text from my great friend Kat in New York City.  She just started a new job and did not have many travel days, although she found an amazing airfare ($676) to Milan.  “I can’t turn this down.  When are you available this January?”

Many friends don’t like to travel to Italy when it’s not peak season, especially in the dreary days of winter, when even the Italian Rivieria can get soggy and cool.  Yet such a great friend, Kat was only interested in seeing me and catching up, knowing we will always find great adventures.

Kat arrived last March and got lucky with great, warm, blue-skied weather for her visit as I posted here: Whirlwind Weekend

Again, this year–although I know Kat just wanted to see me–I was determined to find something wonderful to do during that short time.  Why not take advantage of the winter weather and the proximity to the mountains?  “Kat, do you want to ski the alps?”

“Why not?” she said.  “I’ve always wanted to.”

This was extra special because for the second year in a row, I had to sadly miss our annual ski retreat in New Hampshire with great friends.  Every President’s Day weekend in February, we would drive up to the cozy hilltop farmhouse where my friend’s mother lives, arriving after midnight on a Friday, waking to sunshine and mountain panoramas on Saturday, bacon and eggs for breakfast while someone prepared our sandwiches, then we’d drive to Mount Sunapee for a day on the slopes, chatting on the ski lift, laughing over our crazy antics, and convening for lunch and hot chocolate in the cafe.  As the day grew to a close, legs weary and ice on the slopes, we’d call “last run” and meet in the lodge for the best moment of the day– the orgasmic crying out of “Ski Boots!” as they are removed.  After, we’d indulge in craft brews and live music for Apres Ski, then eventually a winding car ride home with a stop at the grocery store to prepare dinner.  Taking turns for showers, we’d gather around the dining room table, rosy cheeked and vino filled, for philosophical conversation, great laughs, and the kind of moments that can only happen on a retreat like this with special friends.  The following day, we’d sleep in then depending on the weather, we’d head out to the slopes for a half day, go tubing, or find other random activities in sleepy New Hampshire, followed by another great dinner.

Since I’ve been gone, the crew always calls me from the slopes or Apres ski shouting “Ski Boots!”   Kat and I have had many great conversations on chairlifts, and we were eager to do the same in the Alps.  I chose Cervinia, the Italian side of the Matterhorn, with an easy bus connection from Milan. (The Swiss side is Zermatt). I told Kat to enjoy Milan when she arrived, then I would meet her after work.

Kat now works for a luxury travel company in New York.  For work, she was able to get us two free nights in luxury hotels.  Kat told me to cancel the bookings I made at budget hotels by the train station because on Friday night, we were staying at The Four Seasons.  Saturday, we kept our cozy hotel suite in Cervinia.  Then on Sunday night, we were treated to a room at the Park Hyatt right next to the Duomo. Ahh, luxury!

At 3:35pm on Friday, I made my usual mad dash to the train station, arriving just in time to take the 4:10 train to Milan.  Although, the 4:10 was not on time.  It was 2 hours delayed due to heavy rain.  Only in Italy would there be train delays because of rain.  Meanwhile in Switzerland, the train goes up snowy mountains. Anyways, despite Trenitalia’s frequent success in aggravating me on my departure, I eventually arrived in Milan.  After enjoying a bit of of the city and a few winks, Kat gave me a big hug at the station, then escorted me to The Four Seasons.  This budget traveler–who often grabs rooms in hostels, sometimes even sharing a dorm–was absolutely mesmerized for the treat.  This room can cost almost 500 euros.  A snack, fruit and prosecco were waiting for us along with some delicious truffles.  After indulging, Kat and I were exhausted yet made it out for dinner in a local restaurant.  With good wine and conversation, we strolled back in the misty evening, enjoying living how the others live.  (It’s not really the other half . . .)

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Welcome from The Four Seasons

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delicious chocolate truffles

The next morning, we awoke for a very early departure, but first Kat ordered the American breakfast to the room, where we indulged in French toast and bacon!

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My backpack on the floor – a travel buddy since Australia 2002!

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Next, we dragged our gear to the metro and then hopped on the bus that wound its way up into the alps.  It was snowing when we arrived in cozy Cervinia, an idyllic welcome to a quaint town.  We dropped our bags at the hotel, suited up in ski gear, and grabbed skis and passes to get on the slopes as soon as possible.  The heavy snow meant an abundance of fresh powder.  Yet it also meant almost zero visibility at times.  I was sure there were beautiful views of the Matterhorn and nearby mountains.  We just couldn’t see them.

Cervinia

Cervinia

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Kat on the Ski lift, planning our route

Kat on the Ski lift

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After playing on the slopes for a while, enjoying the fresh powder experience, we decided to go up as high as we could.  We originally anticipated skiing to Switzerland, but sadly, those lifts were closed–so we would be stuck there with no real transfer back.  Instead, we went up as far as we could to the high lifts on the Italian side of the Matterhorn.  The altitude was very high, and as we emerged into the horizontal icy conditions, I felt lightheaded and lost my side vision.  Skiers struggled, falling because apparently it was so steep.  If I had the views, I might have been very intimidated, but for me, that worked to my advantage as I struggled just to focus in front of me.  I was also so dizzy that I was extra cautious, and somehow made it down the steepest part, hair soaking wet er rather, frozen  . . .along with my eyelashes.

We found our way to a mountain lodge.  In many American ski resorts I’ve visited, such a lodge would have overpriced hot dogs, hamburgers and other processed, greasy foods with little flavor.  Here, we had real Alpine meals.  We indulged in bresaola (cured beef), salad, cheeses, and realized our restaurant was featured in Bon Appetit magazine.  We just had to pose for a picture with the owners, who were so sweet and proud of their work.

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Bresaola

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Swiss Bliss.

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The article in Bon Appetit

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The owner. Kat has a cute one with all of us including the chef.

 

How did they even get supplies there?  So high up.  So delightful.  after navigating the not so delightful squat toilet in ski boots and pants, we enjoyed the slopes for the rest of the day, although never got any views.

That evening, after a glorious “Ski Boots!” experience and a warm shower, we strolled through town, finding a quaint restaurant for fondue and great conversation.

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flaming fondue

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We were not interested in staying out late for dancing, although even sleepy Cervinia had that option.

The next morning, we awoke for a quaint breakfast, then decided to ski again!  Why not!?

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morning views from our bedroom

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quaint decor at breakfast

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We checked out of the hotel, back into our ski gear and up the slopes, and again  . . .it was snowing.  We enjoyed another amazing meal on another part of the mountain, although sadly . . . we still couldn’t ski to Switzerland.

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dancing on the slopes — Italy loves to play music for skiers!

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You can see the actual snowflakes!

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We hopped off the slopes just in time to grab the bus back to Milan where we checked into the Park Hyatt before an amazing dinner.  They recommended a restaurant in the museum Nove Cento, which had panoramic views of the Duomo along with absolutely amazing cuisine.  The prices were very high, but the flavor, ambience and service were wonderful!

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The Park Hyatt was right by the Duomo, so we had a relaxing walk through quaint neighborhoods, and tried to get some sleep before my very early wakeup call.  Kat ordered us breakfast!

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Then I grabbed the 6:10am train back to Genoa and work, napping along the way with sweet dreams and great memories of another fabulous whirlwind weekend!

OrvietOH MY!

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Orviety, Italy – in the heart of Umbria

 

Since my arrival in Italy, I have taken once weekly Italian classes with my wonderful colleague, Chiara–a Genovese local who I adore. In the beginning, our class had six teachers, yet by the end, it was me, Louise (Maths), and Peter (History/TOK).  School days for teachers can be long and hectic, with a constant barrage of questions and tasks, prepping and grading, followed by tutoring, more prepping, and more grading after school.  Yet, we nearly always made it at 3:45 for Italian and our slow and steady progress tackling a new language.   Sometimes we’d surprise our classmates with wine and/or cheese and snacks, and often we’d add an extra class down by the sea during aperitivo to practice Italian language, inviting others to join for 5 euros each.  The combination of structured lessons, games and grammar (oh, grammar is so hard for me in foreign languages — why? I have a stellar memory!) and these “Italian-only” speaking sessions have really pushed my language skills.

My language is not fluid or beautiful or quick, yet I can say what I need to in many situations.  For my last hair appointment, I even found myself chatting with my stylist.  I can order food and drinks (let’s be honest–I took care of that in the first week); call Vodafone regarding problems with my internet; flirt with a cute guy; ask for hiking recommendations; order tickets at the train station with special requests; and most recently, I was able to cancel my bancomat (ATM card) at my bank all in Italian, received instructions on how to go to the police station to report it lost, then filled out the report with the Caribiniari all in Italian.  This was an inconvenient and stressful situation that led me to realize that I’m acclimating to the language quite well and know more than I realize.  While listening and reading are much stronger, I am finally able to speak.

For the past year or so, Chiara has mentioned that she wanted to do a trip for Italian class.  “Let’s go somewhere!” she said enthusiastically.  “Let’s speak Italian on a trip.”  We checked our busy schedules (and as you can imagine, free weekends for me are really rare).  Yet finally, we coordinated the first weekend of April hoping for the bloom of Spring. I suggested Orvieto, Italy.  Orvieto is a gorgeous hill town in the heart of Umbria (near Perugia, which you may know for both chocolate and Amanda Knoxx).  I know Orvieto because my alma mater, Fordham University, used to have a summer program in Orvieto. I could have studied creative writing or film for a stunning month, but I didn’t want to give up my amazing lifeguarding job that was a decent hourly rate to be in the sunshine plus 20 bucks a half hour for swim lessons.  40 bucks an hour for a college student in 1999?  Bella!  But I remember the gorgeous Duomo on the cover, and the tales of beauty from my friends who did study there.  It stayed in my mind, yet somehow over my dozens and dozens of European trips over the years, I never made it.  My colleagues were enthusiastic about Orvieto, and Chaira hadn’t been, so we began planning.

Our Italian class

Our Italian class

We invited anyone who had taken Italian with Chiara over the past four semesters as well as the other after school Italian teacher, Manuela.  (We were in the Beginner Plus class, those who had some prior familiarity with the language before.  I studied it for one afterschool program in 5th grade as well as one year of college “Spoken Italian.”  I’m sad to say that while the first semester went well, the second semester, my professor was a flake who rarely showed up, and we found ourselves trying to teach ourselves spoken Italian with a book.  Suffice it to say, my language skills were lacking.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was to have the ever optimistic, great and fun Chiara!)  Ultimately, it was me, Chiara, Manuela, Louise, Peter, Etmae (grade 3), Nick (IT), and his girlfriend Kelsey (Kindergarten).  Group trips can be so fun!

So, we bought our tickets online for two-for-one Saturday specials, and headed off for the 7.5-hour journey, but the time passed very quickly with sleeping, laughing, sharing stories, and gazing at the ever- impressive views along the way.

I’m glad I made the train!  I had a scooter accident the evening before, on my way out for “American Style” burgers with friends, I had opted to keep my heels on, even though it was chilly.  I was going up my street, and a speeding car darted out and cut me off, giving me no other option but to cut to the right to avoid hitting him.  When you do that on a scooter, you’re gonna tip.  I was lucky I was going slow, although I smashed the right side mirror with my upper thigh, broke the buckle of my shoe with the road and the top of my foot, and scraped my foot and ankle for a super nasty road rash.  I also scratched my right elbow through my blue Mango peacoat.  I was sad things got ruined, and I was in a lot of pain, but I was able to get up and walk away.  The jerky driver sped away from the accident he caused, yet two men who were on scooters nearby ran over to help me up, get my bike started again, and ask if I was ok.  “A posto? A posto?”  In my frenzied state, I answered in English “Yeah, I’m fine” but then switched to Italian after noting their quizzical looks.  In any case, I went off to dinner after cleaning my wounds at a friend’s house, and the next day I felt like I was hit by a truck, even though it was a scooter.  I was lucky I didn’t break any bones, and Stella was still rocking, so all good.  I did, however, improperly fill the gas tank after the accident (probably because I was shaken up), so I ran out of gas on the main road to the train station.  I had to roll the scooter, then ditch her on a side street, hail a cab, and made it to the platform just in time!

So, we had a brief stop for lunch in Florence.  It wasn’t the main station, so we had to wander a bit for food, yet were delighted with some Kebab and Falafel as well as beers, why not?

But first, some falafel

But first, some falafel

The laughter and chaos had already started, although the Italian conversation had not.  Shortly after, the rolling hills and sunflowers of Tuscany gave way to the rugged and more dramatic hills of Umbria.  Then finally, Orvieto.

I had organized the booking at an adorable villa/B&B with views of the city perched on its hill.  It was a short walk to the funicular up to the city, or a long winding walk.

our bed and breakfast

our bed and breakfast

walking from the hotel to town

walking from the hotel to town

view from the hotel

view from the hotel

view of Orvieto from our B&B

view of Orvieto from our B&B

Fun fact: This Neopolitan song was written in 1800 for the opening of the first funicular on Mount Vesuvius! How very Italian!  And it’s hard not to think of it when riding one.

We rode the funicular and were in awe of the stunning views, savoring the peaceful feeling, the fresh air, the calm, and the excitement of being away.  It was also fun to all be together, a group that normally wouldn’t travel together, yet a group that got along quite well.  We spent much time taking photos, and noting our hotel in the distance.  Whenever we were facing that direction, inevitably, someone would call out “There’s our hotel!”

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there’s our hotel — the little building on the hill jutting off to the right of the road, next to the vineyard.

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admiring the view

admiring the view

 

We visited the Duomo, with its bold and stunning frescoes and gilded mosaics, explored inside where they had a relic.  Apparently, a doubting priest broke the Eucharist for mass, and the bread bled all over his white vestment.  The brown-stained vestment is on display inside the Church for many to view and wonder.  Chiara had explained this along with other sites, food and history via readings she had selected for us to study in the classes prior to our trip.  Fun.

I remember this image on the Fordham Summer Abroad brochure

I remember this image on the Fordham Summer Abroad brochure

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gilded mosaics on the Duomo

gilded mosaics on the Duomo

The inside also had the image and words of many famous Italian writers.  It was lovely to be inside, and my admission was a treat from Chiara. Only a few of us went inside. The rest were basking in the sunshine, content to just be.  We then wandered the quaint and well-kept medieval streets. I ducked into a pharmacy to get some better coverings for my wounds, then we had amazing gelato.  My cone had a surprise chocolate center, that I apparently couldn’t stop talking about.

Excellent gelato and company

Excellent gelato and company

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Later, we visited St. Patrick’s well, for a long vertigo-fueled walk down.  At night, we went to wine tasting, where they brought delicious local treats while we sampled several wines from the region–all amazing.  Our group grew more and more tipsy, although we still didn’t use our Italian.  Every time I’d say “Ok, solo Italiano per quindici minuti”  – a minute later someone would say something in English and it would all be over.  Nobody seemed to mind.

Then our group wandered the streets, looking for dinner.  It appears our antics were unwanted in several locations, although we were welcomed into one where I had one of my favorite meals in Italy.  The food in Orvieto is fantastic!  I had Mezzaluna pasta stuffed with something amazing and in a buttery, savory sauce that I can’t describe.  It was delightful.  More wine, more fun, and then a bunch took a cab home.  A few of us wanted to walk.

We found the trail that took us down the cliffs under the stars, yet it was so dark we could barely see.  I worried about wild boars attacking us.  Nick thought it would be funny to say “There’s one!” and I shrieked.  Finally we made it down and onto the road towards our hotel.  Unfortunately, the road didn’t have a pedestrian lane, and one of my colleagues tripped and fell into the road, just before a car that stopped just in time.  My colleague was more worried about the wine bottled that had rolled into the street, yet I’m happy to say that both are unharmed.

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walking along the cliffs

walking along the cliffs

a ladybug!

a ladybug!

The next morning, we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast spread with peaceful views, walked along the cliffs and to ancient Etruscan ruins framed by the blossoms of spring, a ladybug landed on me (good luck!), and then back to the train for the long journey back.  It was a gorgeous and peaceful getaway with great company.  We still say “I miss Orvieto,” when we see each other.  Orviet OH MY!

 

2 Years Gone

“Do not cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”-Dr. Seuss

Yesterday, I walked out of the building for the last time as a teacher.  Saying goodbyes to colleagues I wouldn’t see this summer, I eventually choked up on my way out the door, overwhelmed that I was leaving my favorite job, my favorite apartment, and my beautiful home in Europe, walking distance to the sea.

This was a dream I had for many, many years – probably since I took my first trip to Europe in 1997: Paris, the Riviera and Rome.  The tour also included Florence and Assisi — and I realized I loved Europe, loved the way I felt in Europe, and wanted more.  I studied abroad in England in 2001.  I backpacked alone for the first time that summer.  I came back the following summer for more.  I kept coming back.  I remember telling a close friend,”When I close my eyes, I see Europe.  It’s all I want.”  I dreamed, and schemed, and then in January 2012 I accepted my job, in a story as told here when I celebrated 6 months in Europe.  I almost chickened out, but I knew in my gut it was the right step, a necessary check on my timeline.  And when it was time to decide whether to stay in this beautiful, peaceful, comfortable life or move on to my next adventures, I waffled and struggled, but for many reasons, I knew that it was time for NY.  Maybe not forever, maybe just for a year or two, but for some reason, it’s time to be in NY.  When confronted with the easy path or the hard one, I know I will grow from the challenging path.  As weird as it sounds, the challenge at this point is to move home.   I have enjoyed every moment of my time here, and rather than stay and resent certain things or wonder what if, I am leaving at my peak of enjoyment, preserving the memory.  But before I tie the bow on this experience, I have a Grand European Farewell Tour!

I remember my New York Grand Farewell Tour.  From February until my August departure, I savored every moment of my life in New York, visiting things like a tourist, going out with my friends as much as possible, and realizing how great things were at home.  With this new trajectory, I scraped off my barnacles and felt revitalized and full of energy.  Of course,  none of this was easy.  The emotions of leaving my job, friends, family, car and familiarity; the bureaucratic paperwork that took until just days before I hopped onto my plane–my friends wondering if I’d even be able to go when I was at my farewell party; packing my apartment for storage and shipping some belongings overseas; completing the days of paperwork and office visits upon arrival; figuring out how to get a cell phone and internet, how to ask for things at the grocery store, how to call a taxi, where to find tacos, where to buy cheddar (not in Italy!), where to get deodorant with antiperspirant; cooking daily; purchasing and riding a scooter; retrieving contacts stuck in customs; changing that strange fluorescent light bulb; getting the guy to get the geckos out of your water heater; getting stuck places because of delays or train strikes; dealing with Italy in general.  But it was all worth it, and it was all possible thanks to the kindness of my colleagues and the patience of my friends and family who listened to my homesick gripes as they faded.  Genoa became my home.

They say you can’t go home again, so I know I’ll have to reacclimatize to  New York City, finding my more relaxed Mediterranean ways might not suit me well in the frenzied city.  Yet I will have friends, family, and all the things I’ve been missing.  I am setting new goals, treating my time back in NY as possibly temporary, so I need to enjoy it while I can.  I want a nice apartment (no downgrades since I love what I have now); I have my leased car and I’m going to get a scooter there as well!  I’m going to try out more adventure activities (rock climbing, kayaking, whatever comes my way).  I’m going to do more US travel on the weekend.  Friends in Cali and Chicago, I’ve never been to Colorado, Skiing in Vermont — so much to see!  I’m going out in the city as much as possible mixed with many chill dinners at home with my closest friends.  I’m also looking forward to my cats; I’ve been known to Skype them.

The job search from abroad was certainly tricky.  I had resigned from the NY City public schools, so I wasn’t guaranteed a job in the system.  I had to apply to even be considered as a candidate.  Then I had to find the right fit.  All through email or skype and with a time difference.  Yet it worked out!

I absolutely love where I work now.  I’m happy to say that my new school is also an excellent match for me: internationally minded,with coworkers who have worked abroad and/or traveled extensively like me, IB-inspired, semi-selective and serving a community of students who want a rigorous curriculum despite their incoming scores (except for the honors classes–which are selected).  I will only be teaching 11th grade plus one elective (currently I teach 8,9,10,11,12). I enjoyed the variety of 5 grades, although it will be nice to just have one preparation so I can focus.  I really liked what I saw when I flew in last month for both the school visit and a wedding,  Just before I received the official job offer, my boss told me that my job opened up again here.  I had agonized over the decision, spent a long time preparing for my job search, and ended up with something special and rare.  I knew I couldn’t second guess.  I just had to go, so I accepted the offer and am on my way.

But first:

A few days here to enjoy the gorgeous weather of June in Genoa.  Days at beach, nights at beachside bars, perhaps dancing.  Riding my scooter all around.  Then next week, I fly to Belgium to visit my friends in Ghent and enjoy a charming canal view hotel room in Bruges.  Upon my return, I have some time in Genoa again before Krakow with a friend for 4th of July weekend.  I fly back, then that evening, two great friends from NY will be staying with me to explore the region.  After they leave, I have a day to pack for my big adventure and pack up my apartment for the big move.  I head to Interlaken, Switzerland in the Alps for a charming 2 nights on Lake Brienz, one of my favorite spots in the world.  Peaceful reflection, hiking, biking, swimming. . . ahh!  Next, I take a train to Constance, Germany where I meet up with my father.  We will visit spas, museums, and explore with a car. Next, we take a train to Merano in the Dolomites, for hiking and fresh air, followed by Trieste where we meet a family friend, then a drive to Lake Bled, Slovenia (new country for me!), then to Rimini for a night, a quick peek at San Marino, then finally a couple of nights in the Cinque Terre before my shippers come.  Dad and I enjoy a couple of days in Genoa, he leaves, then I have a few final days before back to the USA.  It’s been great, and there are great things ahead.

 

My 10th grade students were so sad I was leaving. They wrote a sweet card, thanking me for "Being the Best English Teacher We Ever Had" and gave me this gorgeous Murano Glass Heart necklace. So touched!

My 10th grade students were so sad I was leaving. They wrote a sweet card, thanking me for “Being the Best English Teacher We Ever Had” and gave me this gorgeous Murano Glass Heart necklace. So touched!

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I was wearing the perfect outfit for this sweet gift. That evening, I went to Milan for the evening to meet up with my brother and his girlfriend who just arrived from NY. This is in my hotel room there. I spent a lot of time in Milan hotel rooms coming and going somewhere special or meeting with friends and family.

For our last Italian class, we walked down to the sea for aperitivo and Italian conversation.  Our colleague/teacher gave us these wonderful gifts so we can take a bit of Genoa with us!

For our last Italian class, we walked down to the sea for aperitivo and Italian conversation. Our colleague/teacher gave us these wonderful gifts so we can take a bit of Genoa with us!

I’m enjoying every moment.  Right now, I’m enjoying a lazy day in bed, the door open to my terrace as the sunshine spills in, birds singing sweet melodies that are the soundtrack to my life here along with the occasional scooter.  I have the peace and time to reflect.  Content.  Filled with gratitude.  I have been truly blessed.

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G is for Genoa

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a very interesting perspective on life here in Genoa written by the mother of one of this year’s graduates.  It’s very informative, and I’m posting this both to share with my readers and also so I have the link ready for myself!

U.C. Sampdoria vs. Fiorentina — Football game in Genoa

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague explaining that Sampdoria has invited us to the stadium for free.  They needed some teachers to chaperone, and I said I’d be interested.  There are two major football clubs in Genoa: Genoa and Sampdoria.  Both play in the same stadium, a 15 minute scooter ride from my apartment. I always felt I’d be a Genoa fan because, well it has the name!  And a bunch of my friends and colleagues support Genoa.  I guess Genoa is like the Yankees of NY.  The others support Sampdoria. (The Mets of Genoa?).  I can’t compare to US soccer teams because I don’t follow them, and NY doesn’t have two.  Anyways, fans are fiercely supportive of their club and the rivalry, so when Dave announced the tickets were for Sampdoria during a group assembly, some cheered, and about half the crowd booed: Genoa fans.  With all my weekend travel, I  never made it to a Genoa game, although I gladly accepted this opportunity and rooted for Sampdoria.

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I looked up their colors, Blue, White, Black and Red — fusing the colors when they combined two clubs into one team at some point in the past.  Since a lot of my friends were Genoa fans, they said they’d root for Fiorentina, so I didn’t wear colors for either team — trying to be neutral.  Silly decision, ultimately.  So, 170 people total lined up near Gate 7: parents, students, and teachers to enjoy a game on this warm, sunny Sunday.  As we walked in to our seats, they handed us some Sampdoria swag, including a flag to wave, a clapper to make some noise, and even a snack!  (Good marketing, Sampdoria!).  We sat together in our neatly formed groups, a few players jumped over from the warmup to pose for a picture with all of us, then jumped back to complete their warm up.

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I love soccer.  I really do.  Why don’t I ever watch games live or on TV?  I say this every time the World Cup rolls around.  “This is the year I’ll get into Soccer!” I always declare, after many evenings cheering along side friends (usually during European travels).  I watched in Switzerland in 2002; I randomly ended up in Cologne for Day 1 of the 2006 World Cup then later cheered along in the city square of Dubrovnik as Croatia played; and in 2010 I was living in Norway and rooted for Spain along with my Spanish friends in outdoor viewing areas, all the way to victory where fans jumped into a fountain in their underwear!  So much fun.

So, as the team ran out onto the field, and my hormones raged a bit — I wonder where they hang out!— I got emotional.  Why? I can’t exactly say.  Missing Yankee games?  Memories of watching live soccer games with friends in high school, in Belgium, and the many years of playing Ultimate Frisbee.  For my time in Genoa, sports really aren’t part of my life, and I guess I just missed that — and was happy to be a part of it for a bit.  Image

With a big smile on my face, the club moved our seats to the sunny side, with a brief tour through the backstage / press area.  Along the way, they handed the kids pencil cases with rulers, erasers, etc.  Adults received plaid baseball caps. There was a bit of chaos as 170 people dispersed and didn’t really know where they were going, but we enjoyed the sunshine and the atmosphere, clapping our noisemakers, waving flags, and getting oh so excited when — is it a goal? no.  almost! — By the end, no score.  0-0.  Although the crowd did go wild when they announced that Genoa was losing to Verona.  Also, my Italian is good enough to recognize there was quite a bit of swearing all around us from all ages.  Some of my 9th grade students, in between texting and catching me up with their boy gossip– told me it made them uncomfortable that “everyone was taking their shirts off. Is this the naked sections?”  Just the guys, and not with our school group.  But still.

Even though I don’t follow soccer, don’t follow Sampdoria, don’t know the players . . . I still had fun and felt connected.   I got to spend time in the sunshine with a bunch of my students outside of the classroom. I got to see another side of Genovese culture, and new neighborhoods I hadn’t yet explored, walking through them after the game as fans celebrated outside with beers, and music, and . . . just loving life.  With my Sampdoria swag, I felt part of it, one of them just for a little bit.  One of those days when I wasn’t “the other.” I’m glad I got to experience this.

 

Sampdoria Swag.  Not pictured, the snack. (Banana, biscuits, peach juice).

Sampdoria Swag. Not pictured, the snack. (Banana, biscuits, peach juice).

Now, filled with sunshine after this beautiful day — off to do some grading.  I’m still smiling.

Hallo Berlin

Exactly 24 years after watching the Berlin Wall topple from my tiny bedroom TV in suburban America, I walked along the remnants at the Eastside Gallery.   On November 9, 1989, I was mesmerized while watching the media coverage–only 9 years old yet mature enough to understand the importance, moved by the emotions.

The world was changing.  Just a child who still played with Barbie dolls within her peach-colored walls, I knew I was experiencing history.  I felt the joy.  Some time later, I received a map in the mail along with my National Geographic Junior subscription: the new Europe.  I unrolled the scroll along with travel dreams, taping it in my bedroom where it still remains today.

4 years later in 8th grade, we read Night and learned about the horrors of the Holocaust.  I wanted to know and understand more about this time in history.  I wanted to know how it happened.  Why?   I wondered what Germany was like today, wondering how have they moved on after such a painful past.   In college, I studied abroad in England where I read Goodbye to Berlin, a novel by Christopher Isherwood, set in Berlin’s eerie prelude to World War II.  The protagonist said, “I am a camera,” wanting to just record the events as they happened, to remain a detached observer.  Yet he soon realized that you can’t remain detached because you become involved.  You care.  This novel turned into a screenplay which eventually led to the hit Broadway musical Cabaret, later a film starring Liza Minnelli.

My interest grew.  That semester, I visited Germany for the first time, exploring the Rhineland with a friend, impressed by Germany’s amazing culture and beautiful landscape.  I liked Germany.  I liked the Germans.  History was clearly history in this country that has moved on. Don’t mention the war.

In 2006, I ventured “beyond the Iron Curtain” for the first time.  Ok, the former Iron Curtain, but growing up in the 80s, it was hard not to view Eastern Europe without thinking of life before the fall of the U.S.S.R.  As I crossed from Austria to Hungary on the train, I felt a chill and a thrill, going somewhere that seemed so forbidden as a child, memories of long lines for food and basic necessities– then the long lines at the first McDonald’s. Here I was now, crossing borders into free countries.  On that trip, I explored Budapest, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and then headed down to Dubrovnik before back to Switzerland and home.  I truly enjoyed my time: learning much, spending little, and exploring fueled by a decade of curiosity of life in Eastern Europe.  Things were changing.  Prague was modern, hip, cosmopolitan.  Cesky Krumlov was a little gem along a river — fresh air, a valley, restored and inviting medieval streets with few tourists.  It was absolutely lovely.  But Budapest. . . Budapest bothered me.  The facades were destroyed at street level.  Buildings that once looked like Parisian architecture were cemented over, painted uniformly gray.  To see the beauty in Budapest, you had to look up.  And that just made me even more sad, grieving for what history has ruined.  Pockmarks from shells, bullets, and grenades marred the buildings and streets.  Tracks from the tanks scarred cobblestones.  The stores didn’t offer much.  The city was clearly poor, struggling.  This was 2006. They just needed a bit more time.  Decades later, Budapest is apparently doing much better, and I’d like to visit again.   But I’m glad I saw Budapest then — it helped me get a feel for how grim the past was.

Always a travel addict, I devoured armchair travel when I was not on the road, watching episodes of Rick Steves and Samantha Brown, learning about Berlin’s progressive attitude, high quality of life, vibrant art scene, and general good vibes as well as the abundant museums.

Berlin might not have the jaw-dropping scenery of Italy or the quaint charm of Bavarian cities like Munich, yet it had so much to offer from a cultural and historical perspective.  I had to go. Once I moved to Italy, it topped my list for a weekend visit.  This year, I made plans to meet there with my friend Ashley (who resides in Düsseldorf).  We planned for a weekend in November, my first available after much fabulous fall travel.

Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Ashley and I strolled around the neighborhood outside our modern hotel until we reached a nearby palace.  Next, we headed to the Eastside Gallery as it was a must-see for both of us.  Here, we strolled along the remnants of the Berlin Wall, featuring graffitied murals.  I walked up to the giant slabs, touching them, touching history, feeling an overwhelming connection to the past, almost dizzied by it.  Did that 9-year-old girl ever think she would be here?

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

As we walked along, posing for pictures, reflecting, we ended up walking in front of some television cameras while someone was announcing things in German.  We wondered what it was about but kept walking along, snapping more photos.

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IMG_6068Then on the way back, I stopped to pose in front of one mural featuring a car with today’s date on the license plate.  November 9, 1989.  “Is today the anniversary?” I asked Ashley.   A quick search on google confirmed the answer, and then I was really in awe. What a fortuitous travel coincidence.

24 years later

Later that day, we explored an alternative hippie playground that reminded me of the vibe in Christiania in Denmark, as I wrote about here.   When we spotted it from the train, a local said, “It’s like a playground for adults.”  A giant cat statue peeked above the trees, so we vowed to find “Cat House” later.  We followed the cat across the river, although once we arrived, we were clearly not welcome.  There was some kind of cool party going on inside, but when we tried to enter, they said they were closed.

After departing, we grabbed a yummy currywurst  (I learned all about these from Samantha Brown).  We then walked to the Jewish museum, which was a celebration of Jewish history and culture as well as a sobering remembrance of the horrors of the Holocaust. There is an art installation where you enter a pitch-black unheated space, hearing only the echoes of those breathing around you.  Quite an impact.

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With Berlin’s cosmopolitan vibe, I was excited to explore multiple food options since in Genoa it’s mostly just Italian food.  We had an excellent Greek dinner followed by drinks at the hotel before heading to sleep in our 7th floor room overlooking the train station.

The next morning, we hopped on a bus tour.  While some scoff and mock them, I love bus tours because you can learn a lot, easily and efficiently see all the major sites, and be carted around for a nice relaxing break.  Travel can be so much go-go-go–especially after yesterday where we walked almost all day, and Ashley blistered her poor feet.  After the tour, we visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, two more iconic images from the media during my youth.

Brandenberg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Check Point Charlie

Check Point Charlie

At Checkpoint Charlie–the most popular crossing between the American and Soviet sectors–I posed with some Germans in US military uniforms, then we went to the museum, as featured in this episode of Rick Steves.

The museum was filled with information, way more than I could read during our hour there.  It was absolutely fascinating to see all the ways people tried to smuggle others from East to West Germany.  The museum had cars with hiding spots carved into the floor, metal machinery, and even two suitcases that were held together, used to transport a man’s girlfriend on the train.  The museum highlighted the struggles, success and heartbreaking failures of those who were so desperate to escape that they would risk their lives.  I just couldn’t fathom that.  As I watched Reagan’s Speech, I was moved to tears.   “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The next room featured a whole dedication to Reagan’s life.

As we left the museum, I had plenty to reflect upon.  I only saw 3 of Berlins 200 museums and barely scratched the surface of this vibrant, artsy, creative city.  I had to return. The air was crisp and invigorating as we made our way back to the hotel and eventually to the airport.  As Air Berlin whisked me back to Milan, I relished my freedom to easily hop borders.

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Third Time’s a Charm in Barcelona

Barcelona wins me over more and more each time I visit.  Actually, this blog could have been centered in Barcelona because the year before I accepted my job offer in Genoa, I had an opportunity to work there.  In the end, I wasn’t ready to leave NYC — needed a year to prepare myself mentally, vest my pension, and some other logistical things.  Sometimes I regret that decision but realize that my life here in Italy has been absolutely lovely so there is nothing to regret.  Yet for much of my third visit to this vibrant, cosmopolitan yet distinctly Catalonian city, I kept wondering: “Why don’t I live here?”

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I first visited Barcelona in 2003, a trip booked entirely on my credit card with plans to pay it off later.  I don’t know what I was thinking because I was a grad student / lifeguard at that time.  That was a bad plan, yet I have always  had the travel bug.  I met up with friends where I went to school in England, then headed to the Netherlands to meet up with a KLM flight attendant I met while traveling in Australia.  Finally, I flew to Spain for the first time, playing the following song over and over on my disc man (I did not have an ipod until early 2005).

 Go ahead – play it.  It makes a soothing and appropriate background to the post.  But not if you don’t want to . . . it would end up too much like the old myspace, then . . .

Spain was absolutely beautiful, but it was in the middle of a continental heat wave, with temperatures reaching 104 degrees each day.  I spent most of my time in Internet cafes, blogging about my thoughts while I briefly emerged into the searing heat for a stroll or a sticky, stuffy metro ride.  I got heat exhaustion while riding on upstairs an open-topped bus, and when I walked into one of the Gaudi buildings, the air conditioning made me gasp, and I dropped my SLR to the floor, the case popping open, exposing my film.  I found time for a refreshing break in Montjuic, the setting of the 1992 Olympics which I remember well, and had some paella on Las Ramblas–but felt that, ultimately, I didn’t really experience Barcelona properly. I had to return.

My second visit, I accompanied four of my high school students from the Bronx on our school’s first trip to Europe, which I had coordinated.  It was early spring in 2010, and a magical time in Barcelona, with sunshine and mild temperatures that invited long, wandering walks.  We explored the coast, the medieval streets, saw the major sites, were entertained by flamenco dancers, and had a wonderful time.  My students expressed their interest to move here one day–maybe for study abroad.  We just had a couple of nights, and I knew I still didn’t know Barcelona.  I had to return. She always had something to offer.  Visiting Barcelona just once would be like visiting NYC just once for a couple of nights.

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With Dad flying back at the end of our trip, I knew I’d have some time left in my vacation.  I wanted to see Spain again and looked up airfare deals.  The cheapest fare was to Barcelona and I figured that was perfect for just a few days.  I made arrangements to meet up with my friend and fellow blogger Jessica at European Escapades, uniting at the hostel just off Las Rambles near Barceloneta and the beautiful beach.

I arrived on Halloween, not sure what to expect.  Barcelona had an international crowd, so I figured there might be some parties.  Jessica and I each packed our dirndls from Germany in case there were costume parties for the night.  We met up, enjoyed some tapas, and wandered the medieval streets.  It made me sad to see another seaside medieval city that was better cared for.  Barcelona was open, warm, clean, inviting . . . very different from Genoa’s slightly gritty Medieval streets, small international scene, and overall closed perspective.  Coming from NYC, provincial Genoa was a very refreshing, challenging, and authentic cultural experience. Yet I always felt like I don’t belong, craving more people my age, more international folks to mingle with, more things to do.  Barcelona has that.  As we wandered around, I used my high school Spanish here and there, and with all the time studying Italian, it had improved my Spanish listening skills.  I was extremely comfortable here.

Exhausted in the evening, Jessica and I knew we wouldn’t make it to the Halloween parties advertised at the clubs, noting the general scene wasn’t that festive, although we did enjoy a couple of bars for tapas, and enjoyed singing along to the Ghostbusters theme song while being served by a Vampire in an Irish Bar here in Barcelona.  We fell into a blissful slumber but were awakened way too early by a giant group of manga fans who were here for the convention.  They were shouting in Spanish to each other very early.  Eventually, I came out to ask the front desk to help silence them, which is something I have never done before.  They did attempt, but shortly after the group was shouting and slamming doors again.  The hostel was well reviewed but sometimes you can’t avoid these things, especially with thin walls.  Jessica was especially disappointed because she was able to get single rooms in hotels for the price we paid here.  Sadly, though, it was an expensive city over a holiday weekend (All Saints).

Jessica was open-minded and up for anything, not wanting me to have to see things I already saw on other visits.  I mentioned I had always wanted to go out to Montserrat, a monastery in the mountains a short train ride outside of town.  We enjoyed the ride, even with the holiday crowds, and emerged in the country for fresh air before boarding a cable car up the mountain and even fresher air in Montserrat.

before the cable car at the base of Montserrat

before the cable car at the base of Montserrat

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We posed for pictures, wandered around, hiked a bit further up the mountain, and enjoyed the peaceful, zen vibe in this spiritual center.  Raised as a Catholic with many years of Jesuit education at Fordham University, it was extra special for me to be here as the area was founded by Jesuits.  I felt connected to my faith and spirituality, at peace.

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very unique crucifix

very unique crucifix

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We enjoyed a simple yet delicious meal in the mountain air with splendid wine, played around for jumping sunset photos, and headed back to the city.

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mountain laughter

mountain laughter

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When we arrived, we found our way to the museum, following the fountain light show featuring splendid colors and designs coordinated with the music.  It was extra special because we hadn’t planned it.  We didn’t read about it in a guidebook.  We didn’t go out of our way to find it.  We had no expectations.  As I have noted in previous posts, expectations breed disappointment. It was all a pleasant surprise — one of those magical travel finds.

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The fountains leading up to the museum

The fountains leading up to the museum

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silhouettes

silhouettes

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During the show, I ordered some churros and hot chocolate, dunking them in time to the music and lamenting their passing when they were all gone.  Afterwards, a quick peek at La Sagrada Familia at night — a sight I had never seen up close– then back to the hotel where we sang along to “Holiday in Spain.”

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The following day, we went up to Montjuic, enjoyed free entry to the museum (another surprise), and made our way down to the beach where we just chillaxed.

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A woman approached me asking if I wanted a 5 euro foot massage.  Just what I needed!

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As the sun sank leaving her pastel trails, I once again found perfect peace.  Next, we ate a fabulous meal of steak and black paella along the sea.  Back at the hotel, we freshened up for a night out clubbing.  As we strolled the winding, medieval streets, we had several offers to come to clubs for free.  We went to one, and although it was kind of slow and empty, we had a great time, getting lost in the music.  And despite my best efforts, I found myself getting wildly excited when “Blurred Lines” came on.  That song just doesn’t leave your head, and I ended up humming or singing it the rest of the trip.  Poor Jessica.

The next morning, Jessica and I had breakfast and Starbucks.  (There is not a single Starbucks in Italy).  We took our luggage with us. I left it at the train station while Jessica departed for her flight home. I opted for the cheaper, later flight which allowed me a bit more time in Barcelona although I risked missing the last train back to Milan.

IMG_5994 IMG_5995 IMG_6002 IMG_6006 IMG_6012 IMG_6016 IMG_6020 IMG_6027I used the time to wander the streets, enjoyed mass at the stunning cathedral, and lazily made my way to the port for a meal at the buffet chain Fresco where I just happened to double check my EasyJet itinerary when I noticed I was wrong about my flight time back.  The flight was leaving 45 minutes earlier than I thought.  I sprinted across the port, into the metro, grabbed my bag and just missed the train to the airport.  I had to wait a half hour for the next train and arrived at the airport with just enough time to sprint to the ticket counter.  As my lungs burned, I kept reminding myself “Don’t give up now.  If you don’t make it, you don’t get home tonight, you don’t get to work tomorrow. You are in major trouble and will lose a lot of money.”  I arrived at the check-in desk where they said they just closed a minute ago.  Noo!  Why did I stop and walk slowly once I arrived?  I said I was already checked in, so they let me go ahead, but they charged me extra to check my bag at the gate.  Rushing through security with all my belongings, I made it to the plane at the tail end of the boarding line.  Whew!

I arrived in MIlan with enough time to catch my train back to Genoa and back to work the next morning.  What an amazing, sunny, beautiful vacation.  This was the first time I ever had a fall break, and I loved it!  It almost kinda made up for having to work on Thanksgiving.

Here are a few more photos:

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