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.

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.

*  *  *

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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Oh Sicilia!

Sicily was such an amazing surprise!  It was the last stop on my heritage tour.  I’m half Italian, quarter Irish and quarter Spanish, via Puerto Rico.  In Italy, I’m from Piacenza and Sicily.  This was the only place I hadn’t been.  For that reason and because I heard so much about how beautiful it was, I wanted to go.  At the end of October, I thought the weather would still be warm, sunny, and with the promise of swimming.  Dad, however, was not too thrilled with the idea.  He was going just to go, but didn’t really have high expectations.

After our weekend in Genoa, we boarded a very affordable flight (about 20 euros each with Volotea) to Palermo.  The bright sunshine remained with us for the duration of the short flight, and then soon I could see a stunning, craggy coastline appear below us.  As the sun was in that sublime glow of golden hour, it illuminated the terrain.  After all my travels and all the beauty, I was in absolute silent awe as we slowly glided to the runway.  I found myself taking photos even from the airport bus, because there it was — a beautiful mountain, right there.  And the sky, the sunshine, the temperature…everything was perfetto.

Scenery on the drive from the airport

Scenery on the drive from the airport

We picked up our rental car, and as Dad drove, we admired the rugged terrain–more like North Africa than Italy.  Sicily was clearly her own place, and that’s exactly how she wants you to feel about her.

As we had just turned the clocks back, we lost daylight swiftly as the sun sank into the horizon casting a brief yet glorious pink glow across the shifting scenery, lingering just long enough for our arrival at the seaside hotel.  The resort, perched at the edge of a cliff in Balestrate, overlooked a new marina with panoramic views of mountains and sea.  This was paradise.

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Sunset view from our room

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As it was the end of October, we were in the off-season.  Not peak time for tourists, but absolutely peak time for weather.  The temperatures had cooled from the boiling summer highs, and as they receded so did the crowds.  But for our entire stay, we had bright sunshine, a cobalt blue sky, and weather in the mid-70s, perfect enough for poolside lounging and a quick dip, and just splendid for runs along the beach.

Since it was the off-season, we got a great rate on the room.  I remember emailing my father back and forth, deciding whether to stay in Palermo proper or somewhere along the coast.  We browsed a few hotels, and then Dad found this.  I wasn’t sure if it was ritzy or not, but the price and location seemed wonderful, especially since we had a rental car.  We didn’t pay extra for a sea view, but we did get a bit of a view from our wonderful, newly renovated accommodation with ceramic tile floors, a balcony, and cozy amenities.  Dad kept saying, “WOW!”  as he pulled the car into the parking lot.  He repeated the phrase throughout the journey as much as he mentioned the war in Germany.

The hotel was a splendid resort–not faded glory, but an expanding work in progress.  We were two of only a few guests, so had space, peace, and felt like it was our own private villa at times, the staff there only for us.  We had so many things we wanted to explore, yet the property itself beckoned for relaxation, whether at the pool, beach or spa.

We strolled through the tiny yet quaint town that night looking for dinner, but could not spot a restaurant.  I thought it was hard to find somewhere to eat in Genoa . . . but this was a whole new level.  Where do folks go?  Mamma’s of course.  Eventually we stumbled across a pizza parlor, walking inside to discover a spread similar to what we were used to in NYC, big pies with lots of topping choices as well as chicken rolls and calzones.  Much of the New York Italian food must be influenced by Sicily as many of her immigrants came from here, including Dad’s maternal grandparents.

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Sicilian influences for NYC pizza

I felt like I was in Pugsley’s, a favorite pizza joint by Fordham University and across the street from where I lived for many, many years in the Bronx.   Sal was from Sicily before he came to America in the 60s and enjoyed Woodstock among his many adventures he shares with Fordham students and alumni.  He always said: “Pizza is good, but love is it.”

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/21720884″>Pizza is Good, But Love is it: Pugsley Pizza</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/vsw”>bob.sacha@journalism.cuny.edu</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

I felt at home as we sipped some beers and took a startlit stroll back to the hotel.

The next morning, I stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the sunrise and felt called to run.  I hadn’t been able to run in years due to back injuries and problems.  I just had to run here, so I laced my sneakers and headed along the coast, eventually finding my way to the super sandy beach below, littered only with wild stray dogs.  It was a fantasy run, the beach all to myself, so I stopped for some yoga and stretching, enjoying the pure zen peace as the sun renewed my summer bronze.  I made it back to the hotel, feeling invigorated and super excited that my back held up and that I had made room for an extra large breakfast spread.  They had everything you could imagine for breakfast, including mini Sicilian pizzas, pastries, and even candy for your yogurt!

Post-run glow!

Post-run glow!

Breakfast in Eden

Breakfast in Eden

After lingering at the breakfast table, we changed into our swim suits to lounge by the pool for a few hours, grabbed lunch in town at another pizza place where the friendly owner kept calling dad “my brother” and me “my sister!” kissing us on the cheeks and exchanging long chitchat.  Afterwards, armed with food for later (“you must get this for later, my brother!”) we hopped into the car.  We set off to explore the Valley of the Temples, an ancient Greek site right here in Sicily.  The drive inland stunned us with more rugged beauty, and we were grateful this road was here–financed by the European Union.  Only a few years before, this trip would not have been possible via highway.  We’d have to spend many more winding, uncomfortable hours on local, small roads.  Instead, we were smoothly gliding along well-maintained roads with unparalleled views: ruins, castles on hilltops, farms, vineyards, hills..simple beauty.

In the Valley of the Temples, we were once again losing daylight, but we made it up to see some of the structures as the sun set.

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To our delight, the ruins were spectacularly lit in the evening, creating a different and even more dramatic beauty under the stars.

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As we drove home in the inky night, we were starving and found a little roadside pizzeria that was just opening as we arrived at 8pm.  They were just firing up the oven, but we waited patiently and both ordered pizza littered with fresh seafood, including prawns in their shells.  I was pleasantly shocked that my dad ate them, something he would never try at home.

Upon returning to our hotel, we nestled in for the night.

The next morning, I started the day with another great run.  Afterwards we enjoyed a few hours at the hotel.

A perfect setting

A perfect setting

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lounging poolside

lounging

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and a ride exploring along the coast.  We passed many wild dogs, and I stopped to feed some.  They barked,and their friends showed up shortly after.  Then we found gigantic piles of garbage just outside the city, spotting dozens more wild dogs feeding there.  Was there a garbage strike?  Is this the way it always is?  We explored some hill towns and then had a silly, scenic mountain drive back at night.  Silly because although we wanted to follow the coast back home the way we came, the GPS somehow sent us inland and up and down the ridge of a mountain before dropping us off alongside a lake then back to Balestrate.  Hours later, we were dizzy and tired, but glad we had a bit of an adventure and just enough time to visit the spa.

For our last day, it was time to finally see Palermo.  We drove in.  Yes.  We had heard all the rumors of chaotic driving, but the two trains a day from Balestrate were sporadic and unpredictable in timing, so we thought this was the best solution.  The ride to Palermo was easy, but once we got into the city center, we noticed absolute chaos. There were no traffic lights — it was a free-for-all similar to the way Rick Steves had explained traffic crossings in places such as Egypt. It was a novelty to see, but I wasn’t the one driving. Dad, white-kunckled and red-faced, finally navigated towards what seemed like the center, and we popped the car into a parking lot, finally freeing ourselves.

You can note the chaos we experienced in the above video.

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Selecting a bit of everything at the buffet in the Palermo backstreets

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more reminders of NYC Italian food

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Dad in the homeland

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We strolled a bit, found some traditional Sicilian buffet food, explored a few monuments, churches, and stores, pet a few stray cats, then back to the car for a chaotic drive home, hoping to avoid rush-hour traffic. We had just enough time to see the beach were I ran every day, enjoying the golden hour before sunset, a scene straight from a cologne ad.

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My favorite picture of Dad!

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See what I mean by cologne ad?

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I wondered if I would like to teach in Palermo.  Would it be too chaotic?  Too bureaucratic?   When I travel, I often try to imagine living in the place, but while it was interesting, I concluded Palermo was not for me and if I had to live somewhere in Sicily, I’d prefer Balestrate.

The next day, we flew to Milan.  We were hoping to see Taormina and perhaps Mt. Etna, but Sicily is too large, too beautiful, and filled with too many treasures for a quick weekend snack.  We had to devour more of her another time.  I hoped to return soon.  With the heritage tour “complete” I realized how incomplete travel always makes me feel.  The more I see, the more I want to see.  I don’t travel to check items off a list.  I travel to make friends with a place or to revisit old friends.  I just keep adding to my “want to see” list.  Places may get checked, but they are rarely checked off the list.

Next stop: I would head to Barcelona to meet up with my friend Jessica while my father enjoyed a couple of nights in Milan, exploring Lake Como and visiting friends before heading home.

Here are some more photos from our trip:

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A Weekend in Genoa

When I first accepted my job offer in Genoa, I knew very little about the city other than salami and her seaside location near the 5 terre.  A NYC colleague told me, “You have to see the movie with Colin Firth . . . it’s filmed in  Genoa.”

Luckily, that movie happened to be streaming on Netflix, and I watched it over and over and over as I prepared for my departure.  I was mesmerized by the medieval center, the stunning coastline, the scooters, and other aspects of the city.  I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in La Superba!

Before my departure (as well as several times after) family and friends have shared this great NY Times Travel Article: 36 Hours in Genoa.  I have hit many of these items, but a few remain (including the aquarium).

Anyways, with all of my crazy travels, weekends in Genoa are actually quite rare.  I love exploring with a visitor, and this time it was with my Dad.  Dad celebrated his 60th birthday just a couple of days after I left NY this summer.  I was so sad to miss it, and I wanted to make it special.  This visit was about seeing me, but also about seeing Europe and celebrating this milestone.

[important note: My parents are happily married of 37 years, but they do not travel together because of the cats.  Ask me later . . .]

So, I came home from work and began preparing a special birthday dinner for Dad.  I wrote a letter of recommendation for Fordham University for a student / daughter of my colleague.  As a thank you, the mother gave me a jar of delicious homemade sauce.

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I used that sauce to make some fresh pasta, and I whipped up one of my favorite treats:  I take round focaccia (oily, crispy yum found only in Liguria . . . well, it’s only good here), and spread it with pesto (again, only good here).  I slice tomatoes and bufala mozzarella (sometimes just regular fresh mozzarella), and spread on the focaccia followed by garlic powder and fresh ground pepper.  I bake in the oven until it smells amazing and serve.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I served these things for Dad along with salad and some beer.  Then off to the city center for drinks with a bunch of my coworkers.  Yet another fun al fresco night in Piazza del Erbe, the social center of Genoa.

The next morning, I made Dad coffee and French toast, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon (can’t find maple syrup here).   I finished the recommendation process for the student while Dad took a stroll down to the sea.  Upon his return, we took the bus to the train station then transferred to the metro to the port.  Genoa’s metro only has a few stops, but it’s convenient even if it doesn’t have any maps at the stations!  Once down there, we visited the resident submarine at the sea museum.

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Watch your head!

Watch your head!

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The museum was such a surprise.  After a visit to the sub, we had an hour and a half to explore.  We didn’t realize that we spent almost an hour on the first floor at the Columbus exhibit; as we finished that first floor, two workers came to tell us that we had to hurry as there were only 45 minutes left and 3 more floors to see.

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World Traveler

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Replicas of Columbus’s ships

It was well-layed out, interesting, engaging, and fun.  The top floor featured a replica of a ship that immigrants would have taken to the USA and Ellis Island.  I was retracing the steps of my great Grandfather who came from Podenzano (near Piacenza).  He left the port of Genoa for Ellis Island!

My great grandparents came over in similar quarters

My great grandparents came over in similar quarters

The museum closed before we got to finish, rushing a bit at the end, so I will certainly be back.  What a wonderful suprrise!

Then to dinner along the port, in one of the most stunning settings — something I will miss dearly whenever I decide to move on from my life here in Genoa.  We enjoyed absolutely fantastic appetizers (fried vegetables), a great meal and ambience.

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pernod!

pernod!

We had great conversation, and then dessert.  I had pernod flambet — it was like absinthe and I couldn’t feel my lips.  I was perfectly content as was Dad.  What a nice life.

Back to my apartment and to sleep.

The next morning, we had cereal and coffee, then out for a scooter ride. I took Dad onto Corso Europa, the fastest highway I can go on with my 125 — then we wound our way up a local mountain before heading back.  It was exhilarating.  Come along for a ride with us:

Then back for our bags and to the Genoa airport for a quick flight on Volotea to Palermo, Sicily — where Dad’s maternal grandparents emigrated from!

Don’t Mention the War

On the 18th of October, I flew to Cologne, Germany after work.  That morning, my dad flew in from New York, had checked into the central hotel room, napped, and was waiting for me at the train station where he snapped this photo.

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German efficiency is such a refreshing break and change of pace from Italian chaos.  German trains are on time, they run as scheduled, and their transportation links can get you easily and reliably from all locations with minimal cost and fuss.  It was just a few euros to take the train straight from the airport to Cologne city center, then a short stroll to our hotel on a cobbled lane.

“I wonder how much of this has been rebuilt,” mused Dad, looking around at all the buildings.  “Ya know, after the war.”

“I know.  Most of it, I think.  They chose to rebuild in the old style, but it’s mostly post WWII construction.”

Throughout our short time in Cologne, Dad kept mentioning the war.  He’s fascinated by WWII history, amazed at the horrors of the past and how Germany has worked to create a new, amazing, progressive, and overall pleasant country.  But I told him, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war.”

Dad knows what I mean.  Maybe you do, too.  If not, check out this scene featuring John Cleese in an episode of Fawlty Towers.  Filmed in the 70s, it was definitely soon to be mentioning the war . . .

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Dad upon my arrival

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A full moon and a beautiful night — taken on my iphone

As my flight from Milan was delayed, I arrived later than anticipated and all the restaurants had stopped serving dinner.  Dad waited for my arrival to eat, so we were starving but as with other trips to Germany in the past, we satisfied ourselves with a visit to a kebab shop.  After stuffing ourselves with falafel and beer, I crawled into my bed and drifted off to a blissful sleep.

View from hotel room

View from hotel room

We awoke Saturday morning to a delicious breakfast spread followed by a ride on the skyride (built in the 50s) which took across the Rhine towards a beautiful leafy park in its autumnal glory.  We were looking for the spa, but weren’t sure exactly where to find it.  Then as the skyride descended, I looked down and saw naked bodies sprawled in an outdoor pool and realized that we were right over it.

“It’s here!”

“Oh, right there.”

“Germany is so different . . . people could take pictures.”

“You’re just an anonymous body. . . do you not want to go now?”

“No, I’m cool with it.”

More on the spa later.

First, we got to stroll around the park, and in all of its every day real-life simplicity, my father and I loved this the best.  It was such an unexpected joy, a surprise addition to our itinerary.  We watched little toddlers on their tricycles san peddles, walked to the edge of the Rhine, watching the water lap the silty shore, and both envisioned our lives there.

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Dad: “It would be really cool if you got a teaching job here.”

Me: “It is very pleasant.  It’s pretty in it’s own way, not the dramatic beauty of Italy . . . but the quality of life, the infrastructure, everything is just so pleasant.”

After the park, it was time for the spa.  Germany has many thermal baths, several dating back to Roman times.  Cologne’s thermal baths are a recent addition when engineers kept drilling until they tapped into the source for nutrient-rich spa water.  The water itself is known for its healing properties, and the spa provides many treats focused around the water and relaxation.

Now, it’s not as weird as it sounds to be there with my father. Yes, there is a naked area.  No, it is not the whole spa, and my father and I coordinate our times.  We have a whole routine.  We meet each other back in the bathingsuit area before switching off to the naked area, to avoid unwelcome suprises.  “I thought you said 3:30!!!”   There are some things you can’t unsee . . .

We had such a blissful time swimming, bathing, exploring, and relaxing that we were there for over 8 hours.  In the regular area, I especially enjoyed the hot tea soak and the indoor outdoor pool, featuring a circular current.  Getting out of that fast moving stream was like Clark Griswald navigating the traffic circle in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.  “Look kids, Big Ben . . . Parliament.” In the naked area, I enjoyed floating in a brine pool, like the dead sea.  It’s amazing to completely relax your entire body, even your head, and you are still afloat!  I’d always wanted to try that . . . and unlike a visit to the Dead Sea, I got to do this naked.  I had the extra luxury of having the whole pool to myself a bit, but not before I almost bumped uglies accidentally with a guy next to his girlfriend . . . the slightest move will send you right across the pool, apparently.  Also, it’s very salty . . . rinse throughly upon exit.

I enjoyed the Finnish saunas, walking in with my towel modestly covering myself and releasing it once securely seated.  Everyone tries not to look, yet we all take a peek . . . And I realize how awkward the sauna can be.  You have to climb up wooden steps in a cramped space, avoid the hot fiery stones, and avoid dropping your bits into someone’s lap.  One false move, and it can be an awkward, sweaty tangle only seen in orgies.  Yeah, these places are coed unless you choose a female-only area.

Once outside, you rinse in a cold shower and if you wish, a plunge into a pool while the skyride descends above you.  It’s liberating.  Something that works in Germany . . . and there are guards all over the spa to ensure people aren’t gawking, taking photos, hooking up, or just ya know, being weird.

“I’d like that job!” said one of my friends.

It wasn’t my first time at the naked spa.  I had some practice in Aachen, Germany and again in Wengen, Switzerland.  You get used to it, and to be honest, I hate wearing a bathingsuit in saunas now.

After a relaxing day, we showered, left the spa, and headed for a delicious dinner in the city center.  We were drawn to the quaint architecture and charm of one building, and found out later that it was original, from the 1500s, the oldest building in Cologne.  Our waiter took us for a tour of the basement after a delicious al fresco meal.  During the tour, Dad kept mentioning the war . . . Anyways, I took the special salad with champignon mushrooms, fresh from the fields.  Good beer, good conversation.  Great day.

dinner

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Sunday we awoke for yet another wonderful breakfast spread, followed by a stroll along the river, a one hour river cruise, and a visit to Cologne Cathedral.  Of course, Dad continued to mention the war.

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Beautiful fall colors by the cathedral

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Scenes from our 1 hour tour

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Dad always liked these buildings. (We stopped in Cologne briefly back in 2011 where he first saw them).

After a scrumptious lunch along the river (mine was chicken au gratin!), it was time for me to gather my things and head back to the airport and Italy.

View from lunch

View from lunch

I was only saying farewell to Dad temporarily, though, because he was coming to Genoa on Friday after heading to Salzburg and Verona.

What a wonderful start to our fall adventure!

Prost! Oktoberfest – Year 2

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in the famous and festive Hacker tent, one of Oktoberfest’s 12 main venues.

Ever since I was a kid, Oktoberfest has been a bucket list item.  I crossed that off my list with last year’s trip as featured here on this blog.  However, as it was my first time and a very busy weekend — I didn’t get the full experience.  It was rainy and soggy.  I was confused and unsure about what to do and where to go.  How do you get in a tent?  Any tent?  We were unsuccessful on Saturday night, and tried to see the scene on Sunday around 10:30am.  I was impressed and in awe of the festival atmosphere and how nearly EVERYONE was dressed in a dirndl or lederhosen.  I didn’t want to drop 100 euros on one, especiallly in the cold, rainy weather.  But, I vowed to return next year, and with a dirndl!

This year, I hemmed and hawed about booking.  Did anyone want to go?  Hotels were too expensive, with a 12-bed hostel room costing 160 euros! Airfare was insane.  Then a week and half before the last weekend of Oktoberfest, I went to the train station and booked a night train.  I hopped on booking.com and found an affordable single room in a hotel outside the city in Passing, located a short walk from regional and S-bahn connections to the city center.  My colleague was staying with a friend 45 minutes away in Augsburg, and we arranged to meet up via WhatsApp.

On Friday October 4th, I darted quickly into the staff BBQ held in our school’s courtyard, then back to my apartment to change into jeggings and a comfy top for my night train.  I strapped on my backpack, straddled my scooter, and was off for the train station.  At 1am in Verona, I boarded my night train for Munich.  But . . . it wasn’t so easy.  I walked to the train as it approached the platform, but car 181 was not there.  The conductor said, “Ah, 181?  You must wait.  It’s on the way.”  Odd.  Then a few minutes before the train was to depart, 181 arrived.  A woman approached me and said, “It is a regular car.  We don’t have any beds left.”

“But I booked a bed.  I need to sleep.”

“I know but we don’t have it.  It didn’t come.”  This was a German train.  I was used to this kind of chaos in Italy but was absolutely suprised to see this with the German rail system.

“I need to sleep.  I’m going just for Saturday and it’s going to ruin my day.”  I said it sweet and concerned.

“Ok, I’ll get to you in a minute,” she said.  Meanwhile, fellow Italians in my same predicament started arguing with her.

“We must sleep!”  They shouted.

“Don’t yell.  I don’t have a bed for you.”

“With all these beds?” one man said, gesturing to the empty cabins visable as the curtains were drawn.

She pulled them into the cabin and they disappeared.  Then she returned to guide me to a bed.  They found a room for us, and someone was hustling to throw in sheets and pillows as they set up the beds (6 in a cabin).  I was so insanely grateful not to be spending a sleepless and uncomfortable night in an upright coach seating.  My friend Anna and I did that once, booking a last minute train trip from Amsterdam to Switzerland after unable to find accomodation there.  They were out of beds, so we spent quite a sleepless night  . . .  and at one point, along with an American guy we met, we went into one of the compartments, pulled the curtains, and made sex noises to scare others away.  It worked, and we were able to stretch out and get some sleep while others crowded in the hallway outside.  Overall, it was not an experience I was keen to relive on my short weekend.

I curled up into a ball and started to fall asleep the minute the train started moving.  Ever since I was a baby, I loved to fall asleep in moving vehicles.  Even if I’m not tired, I will want to sleep on a train.  And if I have a bed? Perfetto.  The Italian gentlemen were chatting noisely to each other, snapping photos for facebook, but eventually they fell asleep.  But then, we were interrupted.  “Passports, passports!”

Wait, they are waking us up to check our passports as we enter Austria?  But when I ride the train in the daytime, they don’t check anything!

Then an hour or so later.  “Pardon the interruption.  Is there a doctor on board?”

Then an hour or so later.  “Tickets, tickets!”  Yes, they woke us up to check our tickets instead of checking them as we boarded.  UM!

Then an hour or so later. “Passports, passports!” as we entered Germany.  Luckily, I fell asleep after each of these interruptions, but with each interruption, the Italians started chatting again.  I lost a lot of sleep.  Then of course, the signal in the morning that we were on time and rolling into Munich Central Station in 20 minutes.

Even at 6:30am when I exited the train, the station was coming to life with dirndl and lederhosen-clad folks in good spirits, awaiting a day of fun.  Many people were even sleeping on the station floor, taking a break between last night’s festivities and the 10am opening of today’s tents.  I freshened up at the restroom sink, hopped on the S-bahn to drop my bags off in Pasing, then returned to purchase an authentic dirndle across the street.  As the old woman zipped me up, she said, “You look great!”  Then she tied my apron knot on my left side, asking “Are you single?  I hope you are,” she said pointing to my cleavage.  “You will have a lot of fun tonight!”  I later learned that you wear your knot on the left to indicate you are single.  On the right if you are taken.  Brilliant!  But there was no equivalent for men with their lederhosen.  Well, that’s not fair.

Oh, men are so darned sexy in those leather suspender pants.  They are never washed, and they say they are better the older they are, after many days of wear, sweat and beer spills.  Starting at 90 euros for the lederhosen alone, I was suprrised at how many men invested in them along with the gingham top and sometimes even special shoes and socks.  Yet, I dropped 100 euros on my dirndl and 20 for the half shirt that goes underneath . . .   if you’re gonna go all that way, dress the part.  And the slightly cheaper train station ones were only a fraction of the quality of the authentic ones found across the street.

I felt at home, part of the scene in my Bavarian attire.  I posted some pics on facebook and twitter, then sat down for a nice fruhstuck (breakfast) at a delicious restaurant in the train station.  I was enjoying the food, the energy of the scene, and people watching.  Then I headed for the fairgrounds, ducking into a small tent for lunch, where they let me in as a single, seating me with a random group of early 30 somethings.  As often happens at Oktoberfest, we became fast friends, drinking, saying “Prost,” and sharing jokes and tales.

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They were mostly Americans (New York and Chicago).  And the guy next to me was from the Netherlands.  One of the Americans said, “Did you ever  have a bucket of ice thrown on you in the middle of sex?”

I laughed at the random intimacy and said,  “No!”  And he said, “It’s not fun.  They did it to me last night.”

Then they asked what’s the secret to get in the tents?  I explained that I only got in at 10am on Sunday last year, and that I had no idea how to get in but we had some German connections who were going to help us this year.

“They’ve got to accept money, right?  Someone’s gotta be paid!” he said.

“I’m not sure that works,” I said.  “Nothing worked last year. . . ” after a long pause, I added matter-of-factly, “That was a wasted blow job.”

The Indian-American Manhattanite in front of me said, “Aw, can we keep her?!”

Before long, my friend arrived at the fairgrounds, and I left the group to go meet up with her.  We vowed to keep in touch, and they said they’d let me know when they were in Italy.  (They are a bunch that loves to travel. This was their second year in a row at Oktoberfest).

My friend and her German friend arrived, and we walked around the fairground as it started to rain.  Both of us set into panic mode, traumatized after last year’s cold, soggy experience.  Tents were closed.  We couldn’t get in anywhere . . . or so we thought.  We ended up at a cute little dessert tent that looked like a fairy tale castle.  We joined the short line as I pulled up the Oktoberfest pamphlet I downloaded on kindle for iphone. ” Oh, this tent has sweets and prosecco and wine,” I said.  “But no beer.”

But it was cute, it was dry, it had alcohol and there was live music!  We went in and had a blast.

We squished at a table, ordered our food including traditional kaiser schmarrn, and before long, we were dancing on the benches to the live music, featuring traditional German songs, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” and modern hits such as “Blurred Lines.”

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The energy was positive and reminded me of the vibe of a wedding.  Good music, alcohol, food, strangers and old friends dancing and singing together — a positive carpe diem attitude.  Let everything else go.  “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”  I vowed  to return to Oktoberfest annually if I could, even if I was in the States.  I would make it happen.  This was not a bucket list item. This was a new tradition!

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This video does not adequately capture the mood because vibes are non-transferrable.  But it can give you an idea:

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After about four quick hours, we decided to leave the crowded tent and try getting into the Hacker tent.  Hacker is one of the most popular tents, decorated with blue skies and filled with folks of all ages enjoying the Hacker-Pschor beer in the classic oversized glass Oktoberfest mugs.  Earlier that day, we heard that there was a waitress we could pay Schuzen tent.  We got our 25 euros ready, but the bosses were around, and she couldn’t take bribes.  This time at Hacker, we knew someone else who knew someone else.  His waitress friend got us all in, so we paid an extra 5 for our 10 euro beers as a thanks.  Minutes later, I was invited to squish up, standing on the bench, dancing to “In the Mood” and ACDC’s “Back in Black” and all kinds of fun tunes.   After every song, it seemed, the band had us sing the German drinking song “Ein prosit, ein prosit . . . ” After which we would all clink glasses and drink!  A special wordless bond forms as you make eye contact with a stranger over your crashing mugs.

Another round of giant beers.  More dancing.  Then a stroll around the very, very crowded venue — so packed that sometimes we couldn’t even walk, ribs getting crushed, guys reaching out to flirt, couples kissing in the corners, everyone in great spirits.  Back to the benches for more dancing and another beer.

Again, this video is just a peek at the scene in the Hacker tent.

For much of the night, I danced next to a woman in her early 60s who only spoke German, so I said “Dat is Gut!” Then a guy at the table behind us fell onto me as I collapsed onto my knees on the slippery table top.  He offered to buy me a beer, but I had no need for another at that point.  We met many more people — lots more singing, lots more dancing.  Then the final song.  Michael Jackson’s “Heal the world.”  We all swayed back and forth in a dizzy, tipsy glowing happy mood.  A local said, “They play this as the last song on Sunday night.  Too bad you can’t be here tomorrow.  When they close Oktoberfest, it’s very emotional.”

After 8.5 hours of beer, music, dancing and partying, I was happy and satisfied as I boarded the S-Bahn for Pasing and back to my hotel room.   There were after parties, but I was done.  I took a shower and crawled into my comfy bed for a blissful sleep.  The next morning, I awoke to church bells, enjoyed a delicious breakfast spread, and headed back to central station.  After buying a few of those traditional bavarian gingerbread cookies, I was on my train and headed for Genoa again.  I napped, enjoyed the stunning scenery that rolled by, and had one of the best meals in all my travels: Austrian Kalbsbutterballn.  Meat in butter.  Yum!  Oh, and nobody checked our passports at either border crossing.

I was so glad that I had the opportunity to go again and to live the great vibe under the tent.  I’m grateful that my parents gifted me some money to help make my travels possible.  In Italy, when a project such as a bridge, highway or rail network, is funded by the European Union, they post the EU flag along with an explanation of the project.  My parents need to design a flag so I can post it along with all my pictures.  Danke Schon!

Prost!

Without Reservations: Travels of an Independent Woman

Back in Italy for year 2.   Three weeks after landing, I’m getting settled back into my routine, learning to let go of home again, and moving forward.   I had such a relaxing, restful summer with the people I love most, so it broke my heart to leave again.  Yet Genoa welcomed me with sunshine and stunning views, and along with some wonderful people, she reminded me that this is home too.

My flight landed on the 25th of August, and I began work on Monday the 26th — a week preparing for our students with evenings swimming in the Mediterranean or scooting about with Stella.   The next weekend, I was lucky enough to return to Venice as one of my best Fordham friends and her boyfriend were about to depart for a 2 week Adriatic cruise.  We shared an apartment one vaporetto stop away from the train station, and enjoyed a delightful Friday night strolling the streets, searching for the most perfect restaurant while catching up.  I was jealous of their upcoming cruise, but Kristen reminded me that I live in Italy.  Even if I had to go to work on Monday, it was the start of a new school year at a job I love, a far cry from the chaos and stress of the life I left behind in the overcrowded schools as one of many frazzled and under appreciated NYC teachers.   On Saturday the 31st, before they boarded the “People Mover” to their cruise, Kristen handed me her copy of Without Reservations, a book she mentioned over dinner in the US this summer.  A woman leaves her job for about 9 months, to follow her dream of immersing in several European locales without reservations.  She was going to avoid planning and to see what happens.

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I began the book yesterday.  The best and worst aspect of living alone far from home is Saturday morning.  I wake up in my cozy, renovated apartment with its terra cotta and marble floors, exposed brick, and garden views.  I wake up too early due to the ever present bells, birds, and scooters.  I make some coffee.  Maybe turn on Netflix or Apple TV.  I check to see if I got any iMessages or texts on WhatsApp.  Scroll through email.  Scroll through my Twitter and Facebook feeds.  And it’s only been 15 minutes.  The weekend looms before me, all mine for whatever I want to do, whether that is nap on the couch, stare at the wall, or travel somewhere.  But as exciting as independence is, it’s also lonely.  We are wired for family.  And I left mine in the States.

I went to move my scooter, but it was so beautiful and sunny that I couldn’t just go back inside after circling the block, so I rode along the coast.  I hit a snag of traffic and tried something new . . . passing the huge line of cars, crossing into oncoming traffic cautiously, and relishing the true pure joy of owning a scooter.   Winding high in the Ligurian Hills, with the Mediterranean to my right, glittering in the sun, I could smell flowers and fireplaces.  I saw my reflection in the rearview mirror, and I was smiling.  I paid a price for this, but what bliss!  As I reached Recco, known for inventing delectable focaccia formaggio with its flaky crust and liquidy stracchino, I climbed high into the hills on unexplored little roads, treating myself to sublime views.  I stopped Stella and was about to reach under the seat for my iPhone but realized I didn’t have it.  I just stepped out for a minute . . . didn’t plan this.  So, free from social networks, free from sharing the experience, I was able to fully immerse myself in it and enjoy in the moment.  It felt more special and pure as a result.

I wound my way down the hill, past super fit bikers challenging their lycra-clad quads, and headed back home where I changed into a swimsuit to hit the beach before the good sun was gone.  The pebbles were strewn with seaweed, providing a softer than usual bed.  I fell asleep to the cadence of Italian voices.  When I awoke, I practiced deciphering the sounds, realizing that I understand more than just snippets of conversation these days.  “Watch me, watch me uncle!”  “I can’t believe what she said.”  “We had ravioli and prosciutto and [kisses fingers] it was delicious.”  “Children, it’s time to go.” Real conversations.

I waded into the choppy water for a good workout.  Instead of just swimming, I have been using the aqua-size skills I learned from Mom’s class at the Y.  And since the salt water makes us more buoyant, I can do these exercises without the flotation belt.  It’s fun, and I can do both cardio and strength training while enjoying the stunning scenery all around me.  After a half hour of cross country skiing, reverse jacks, hamstring curls, etc . . .I swam back and towel dried.  When I reached into my bag, I saw the book from Kristen, and as the sun turned into the Golden Hour, I began.  Over a year later, I’m still in awe at where I am and what I am doing.  The old me would have read this book with complete longing, traveling vicariously through the author.  Now I read it as a companion to my own journeys.

I was drawn in right from the opening inscription:

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.  -Zora Neal Hurston

This is my time for answering, I suppose.  While I am temporarily rooted in Italy, I have the freedom to wander on weekends and breaks, or even after work.  I have the mental space to reflect and allow my mind to wander.  And after all the hard work of settling in last year and prepping for 5 different classes while learning the IB and catching up students who were behind . . . ahh . . . I have space and free time this year.  It is wonderful, and I have earned it.

When Alice Steinbach left for Paris, a friend said “Cheers to a successful trip.”

What I didn’t say was that “success” was not something I was seeking from this venture.  In fact, I was determined not to judge this trip, or its outcome, in terms of success or failure.

As I noted in previous posts, expectations breed disappointment.  I am trying to take this adventure as it comes: the good and bad, the wild and relaxing, the painful pining and euphoric awe . . . filling my days with wonder and writing my story.  I’m writing some of it here as I reflect along the way.  But my mother reminded me, “Your story is not yet written.”  Who knows what is next?  All I know are my plans for class and the trips that I have booked.  Sitting here on my couch, shipped from NYC, with my cozy favorite blanket and a bottle of Barbera del Monferrato vino . . . I relish my freedom and independence.  I don’t want to live like this forever, and I won’t, so cogliere l’attimo.  Back to my book.