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

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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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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.

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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!

Waldwick Girls in Italy – Genoa and the 5 Terre

Living in Italy, I have many wonderful colleagues and friends.  However, nothing can replace my best friends at home, friends who have become like family.  In May, I was super lucky that two of those friends visited at the same time, ladies I’ve known for about 19 years.  When Jen and Anna arrived, we called it “Waldwick Girls in Italy.”  And that entire time, I felt at home and was filled with pure joy as I had the best of both worlds.

They arrived on Friday May 10th and flew back early morning on Tuesday May 14th for a quick Girls’ Getaway.  I know Jen and Anna from the track team in high school, and since then we have had many, many adventures from road trips to meets at Princeton and Brown University to visiting Jen in California to traveling in Belgium and Switzerland with Anna.  Now it was time for us to kick back, chillax’, catch up, eat up, and soak up some sun.  Would the weather finally cooperate?

Upon their arrival, I escorted the girls to my apartment for a nap while I finished the workday.  Afterwards, I went down to change for the volleyball tournament against the German School.  They were  our #1 fans, as we played.

I'm in the royal blue and tennis skirt

I’m in the royal blue and tennis skirt

IMG_20130510_112331_567After a quick tour of the school, we met in the staff room for pizza, focaccia, salami, and of course prosecco.  We had the opportunity to chat with the staff of the German School, all intimidating in their matching uniforms, then headed to the apartment to freshen up for dinner.  The girls surprised me with many gifts.  Anna brought a selection of tastes from home, including cheddar cheese! and ingredients for Thai and Tacos.   Among other goodies I requested from home, Jen surprised me with a mortar and pestle so I wouldn’t have to make my guacamole with a bowl and shot glass.

tastes from home

tastes from home

After the goodies, we walked down to one of my favorite restaurants by the sea, facing the beach where I love to swim.  This upscale place is a bit expensive yet worth it for the delicious quality.

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After a super delicious dinner and delectable desserts, we walked towards Nervi, enjoying the fresh sea air and views, then back up to my apartment where we tucked ourselves in for a relaxing night.

On Saturday morning, we lazily awoke and convened in the kitchen for coffee and cheerful chatter.  We didn’t preplan our train to Vernazza because there were many options, and we just wanted to rest.  I put out a little breakfast spread for the ladies, then we were on our way to Nervi where we caught the train to the Cinque Terre.

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After a beautiful hour and 20 minutes, we arrived in the Cinque Terre.  The Five Lands — 5 small villages nestled in the mountains along the rocky coast, villages that have preserved their own unique culture due to their isolated location for many years.  It is possible to hike between all five villages, although after the devastating flood of October 2011 there are still parts of the trail that are not yet open.  It took more than six months to clear the earth that swamped the villages– destroying homes and businesses, bridges and the landscape.  Yet with careful determination, 5 Terre was open for business last summer and was looking absolutely great for our visit this May.  On his site, my travel idol Rick Steves explains the disaster and recovery efforts.  He also provides much amazing information about the region.  He may be the reason why the predominantly heard language in the 5 Terre is English, and most of those folks are toting his guidebooks.  But these are my favorite type of traveler, so I don’t mind.

Vernazza before the flood:

The floodwaters rush through the charming town:

Rick Steves takes us to Vernazza 6 months after the flood:

When we arrived in town, we were happy to see that Vernazza was almost back to her old self, vibrant and restored.  But it’s impossible to forget the floods, as a giant photo reminds visitors as they exit the train.

We walked up the main street to our charming B&B, where we checked into our quaint room, then proceeded to walk around, explore town, and enjoy a great lunch.

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The main street’s looking good

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Colorful umbrellas provide a stunning backdrop for lunchtime reverie

After a delicious meal, we hiked through town and then decided to stroll to enjoy the gorgeous views on the trail to Monterosso, where I stayed with my mother in April.

The following slideshow features highlights of our journey.

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At the conclusion of our awe-inspiring hike, which was also an amazing workout, we saw a line.  People were queuing up for a limoncello and lemonade stand on a man’s farm, served fresh from the lemon trees.  Anna and I enjoyed lemonade while Jen had limoncello. I had a sip and regret not buying any.  I’ll have to go back.  Luckily it’s so close that I can return.  We made friends with the old man selling the lemonade, and he invited me to go on his boat one day when he’s in Genoa.  I have his business card.
Jen snapped this photo of me talking at the stand

Jen snapped this photo of me talking at the stand

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Jen enjoying her limoncello

Next, we completed the trail then to Monterosso.

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Once in Monterosso, we took some photos

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then I took the girls straight to Cantina di Miky where a fellow Waldwick Girl works, as mentioned in my previous Cinque Terre post.  We enjoyed a delicious meal, then posed for a picture with Christine.

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We had delicious food, and anna especially loved the fried stracchino and vowed to recreate it when she returned home.  She even found a distributor for stracchino in the US.  At the conclusion of our meal, we were happily buzzed and boarded a train for a quick ride back to Vernazza and our cozy hotel room.

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I fell asleep before I even touched my book.  Unfortunately, the girls had a bit of jet lag and were up a while.  But we woke up happy the next morning and enjoyed breakfast at the restaurant downstairs run by twin brothers from Sicily.  Sicilian breakfasts are very, very sweet.  The guys entertained us, and I got another business card as I made more friends once they realized I lived locally.  “Come back and visit soon.  Watch TV, you will learn Italian,” they said as I left.

We had just enough time to hike the hills right in town for some gorgeous photos.  Finally, the Cinque Terre under stunning blue skies.  Splendid.

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On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

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After a Siren photoshoot, we boarded the train for Genoa, where it was finally swimming weather.  We enjoyed a couple of hours on my local beach before dinner.

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perfect weather for my first dip of the season

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Next, we explored Genoa’s Medieval Center, where I gave the girls some tips for tomorrow’s exploration as I would sadly be at work.  Then we enjoyed a nice meal at the Porto Antico.

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Photoshoot at Piazza de Ferrari

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Waldwick Girls in Italy

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Golden hour of sunshine at the Porto Antico

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On Monday, Anna and Jen explored the Medieval Center on their own after a lazy start and a yummy breakfast at their hotel.  (They stayed at a hotel the last two nights since I would be working and so they’d be more comfortable).  I met up with them for some shopping at the COOP Supermarket, then chilled in the room a bit before boarding a bus to Nervi where we walked on the passegiata for more stunning views.  We had an aperitivo on the passegiatta,

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then concluded the evening with a meal at Halloween, a pizza place in the little port of Nervi.

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Back to the hotel for vino and Girl Talk before I headed to my apartment for sweet dreams.  The girls left very early the next morning, and I missed them right away.  I was so grateful for such a wonderful and joyous mini-break!  Thanks Jen and Anna!

Mamma’s Spring Visit and the Cinque Terre

My mother visited for 10 days in November over Thanksgiving, which just happened to coincide with the glorious warm sunny weather turning to chilly rain.  She had a lovely visit yet was eager to see Genoa in the sunshine, so she booked a second visit this past April . . . just in time for a 4 day break for the Italian Holiday (Festa della Liberazione) from Thursday April 25 – Sunday April 28,  followed by a 1 day holiday on May 1st for European Labor Day.

When she arrived, she already felt comfortable and at home in my apartment while I worked, and was looking forward to living like a local, shopping, walking around, and meeting me at an osteria or bar for lunch or making lunch together.  At night, we’d visit Nervi or downtown Genoa, make dinner, or just enjoy a light snack in the apartment.  We settled into a cozy routine and tried not to be too disappointed that the glorious spring weather everyone had promised us had not yet arrived.  It was still a bit cool and awfully rainy.

We booked 3 nights in the Cinque Terre, my favorite nearby playground.  The Cinque Terre is only 1.5 hours away by local train, yet feels like a magical vacation paradise.  In fact, when I was first recruited for this job, I looked at Genoa on the map and gasped, “It’s right on the water!  And  . . .it’s right by the Cinque Terre!”  I had always wanted to go there after seeing gorgeous blue glimpses from the windows as our train darted between tunnels back in 2004.  My Mom and I were traveling around Europe together as a gift for my Masters in English.  It was her first time in Europe, and I was taking her to some of my favorite destinations.  We glimpsed a new possibility and knew one day we had to return.

We had originally only booked 2 nights in a Monterosso hotel on the beach, but added a third night when we saw a chance for sunshine on Thursday.  Our original hotel wasn’t available, so we opted for an upgraded wonderful hotel with a wraparound balcony, also on the beach for that first night.  Yet while we left a warm sunny Genoa, Monterosso had turned chilly and cloudy unlike the prediction.  It was still lovely.  We spent the next few days enjoying the quiet peace of the Cinque Terre, walking through town, hiking hills, and wishing the sun would come out just a bit so we could see that stunning blue, the scene we saw from the train, the scene I loved when I visited my second weekend in Genoa last August.  We hoped to swim, but we didn’t mind reading on the beach when it wasn’t raining.  And we ate very, very well.

In fact, one of my favorite stories in Genoa happened while eating in Monterosso.  My mother and I were feeling a bit hungry and were about to look for a place to eat.  Randomly, Mom said, “What about here?”  We were outside a turquoise blue and black colored place with indoor seating and outdoor seating overlooking the beach.  Gorgeous, and the food smelled great.  We sat down, and our friendly server said to us in perfect English: “Are you from NJ?”  My mother looked a bit embarrassed, thinking Is my accent that bad?  But actually, she’s originally from NYC.  Anyways, I said, “Yes,” wondering why she asked.  “Are you from Waldwick?”

“Yes. . .”

“Are you Rich’s sister?”

“Yes . . .” I was floored.

“I’m Christine.  I went to school with your brother.”

WOW!  My mom then immediately recognized her from the church and from town.  We talked a while, and she explained the story about meeting her boyfriend while studying abroad and how the family sponsored her work visa and now she works for the family business.  They also own the restaurant down the street.  Amazing.  So amazing that the Australian couple next to us who overheard . . . they were floored.

Christine said, “You should join our American girls’ club.  There are 16 of us in the area, 4 here in the Cinque Terre and a bunch in Genoa.”

“Definitely.”

With fellow Waldwick Girl, Christine at Cantina di Miky in Monterosso

With fellow Waldwick Girl, Christine at Cantina di Miky in Monterosso

The food at Cantina di Miky was so amazing and delicious that Mom and I went twice, and on our last night, we tried the food at the fabulous restaurant, Miky’s, and met most of the family.  These restaurants feature some of my favorite food in the region along with excellent hospitality, and I return each time I’m in the area now.

Mom and I finally had some warm sunshine on her last day in Genoa, and we enjoyed some time in the Medieval Center.  She left but said, “I’ll return soon . . . next time for a month.”  But right now, I’m writing this sitting next to Mamma on the couch in Waldwick, NJ.  🙂

Photos from Mom’s visit are featured below in this circle gallery.  Click any photo for an enlargement and entry into the gallery with captions.  With so many photos, I thought this was a better method than the slideshow.  All of these were taken with my Canon PowerShot SX260HS, which is a really nice pocket camera, but alas, not as stunning as my SLR.  I’ll have to make sure to use her more in next year’s adventures.  I just don’t always want to lug her around.  🙂

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

So here I am home again after 10 months away, with just a 2 week interlude at Christmas time.  Coming to America then after 4 months abroad, it was nice to be home; it was such a whirlwind that I didn’t have too much time to notice differences.  But now after 6 straight months, after Liguria started to feel like home, after I’ve gone through all the phases of culture shock and adjusted to life in Italy . . . coming home has been . . .surreal.

Back in my city with my Starbucks Iced Coffee and the Empire State Building in the background

Back in my city with my Starbucks Iced Coffee and the Empire State Building in the background

Of course home is comfortable.  And it’s wonderful not to work, focusing on traveling, seeing friends, and just curling up on a couch with a book or my computer and this blog.  🙂  But it has definitely been a kind of reverse culture shock that has had me feeling weird and sometimes overwhelmed.

They say, “Leave New York before you get too hard; leave Los Angeles before you get too soft.”  I chose Italy instead of Cali, I guess.  Same idea.  But while I’m still known around the school and the hood for my “tough, no nonsense, get it done and get it done now style” I have learned to relax and slow down more.  I have that side of me that loves “Il dolce far niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing, as the Italians like to say.  In New York, that is viewed as time wasted, and we’d be criticized for being unproductive.  Let me tell you, I love to chillax’ and I brought that peace right here to my couch and the local beaches.

Jones Beach Field 6 in Long Island -- where I went Saturday (not my own photo)

Jones Beach Field 6 in Long Island — where I went Saturday (not my own photo)

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A local swimming hole by my parents’ house. I used to be the head lifeguard here for many years. Now I just enjoy the sand and fresh water swimming.

Before boarding the plane, I had a strange thought.  “I’m heading back to a gun culture.”  A thought that never really crossed my mind until I had so much time away from it.  I could walk around Genoa at 3am, and often did.  Even in the “bad” neighborhoods, you wouldn’t have to worry about guns, and shootings were not really in the news.  I lived in a neighborhood in the Bronx where I used to hear gunshots periodically, sometimes once or twice a month or more.  I got used to it, and I knew how to protect myself and avoid dangerous situations.  But now that I’ve . . .softened . . . I’m wondering if I let my guard down too much.  I have to remind myself to watch my back but to avoid fear.  My coworker Paul said it best: “Genoa is so peaceful and passive.  We really don’t have much to worry about here, do we?”  And that has been nice.

There have been other moments of reverse culture shock that I will list.  Not necessarily bad, just clearly different.

  • Driving my car, I realized I didn’t have those smooth, sharp skills and couldn’t just parallel park her like a thoughtless breeze.  I did, however, improve my scooter skills during the past few months.
  • In the grocery store, I was overwhelmed and almost didn’t know how to handle it.  All the variety of foods that I couldn’t find for months.  Cheddar, all kinds of cheddar all over the place. Mexican, Thai, all kinds of options.  Yum!  And then aisles and aisles of pre-packaged, processed or frozen foods — foods that taste great but are filled with things that poison us.  I learned really quickly once I moved to Italy that my health, fitness, weight and general well being improved in days just by eating fresh food.  I missed a lot of these foods, but I knew that I couldn’t just dive in and gorge because my body is not used to it.  How do I shop now?  And oh wow, that blood orange juice from Italy is $7, where I could get it for 2 euros in Italy.
  • In Duane Reed, waiting for a train, I spent the time walking up and down the aisles at the absolute variety of products.  Dozens and dozens of options for shampoo, deodorant, even 5 types of nail scissors.  In Italy, you got the few items (or item) that the store chose.  And I saw Opi nail polish for $9.  It’s 17 euros in Genoa!  I just walked up and down, and left without anything. I have trained myself that I don’t need that much stuff, and ultimately can’t afford it.  But I was just mesmerized by the variety.
  • Walking through the streets of Manhattan, I heard English everywhere and felt comfortable.  And the streets were wide, big.  Manhattan is cramped and overbuilt, but there was space.  Genoa consists of tiny streets, alleys, roads where you have to squish up against a wall to avoid being slammed by a passing car’s mirror.
  • Lying in the sand at the beach. It was powdery, soft, take it home with you type sand.  So different from my pebbles or the trucked-in “tiny pebbles” that some beaches have.
  • Lawns and trees.  I’m staying at my parents’ house in the leafy suburbs in NJ, 25 minutes from Manhattan.  There are green, landscaped lawns everywhere.  Tall trees, pine trees, so many different types of vegetation.  I was worried how I’d react after leaving so much sublime and stunning beauty, but I have come to realize that it’s still beautiful here, just a different type of beauty. And I’m enjoying it.
  • Tipping.  As I purchased my Starbucks Iced Coffee from a drive through — how American!– I saw the tip jar and remembered to throw in a buck before grabbing my marshmallow dream bar.  I have to remind myself I’m back in a tipping culture.  In Genoa, you don’t really tip at all, except maybe a euro or two at the hair salon.  When I went out to eat, I had to remind myself that the bill was more than I thought.  I’m afraid I’ve turned so European that I’d accidentally leave without tipping — but luckily, I’ve been with others so far.  I did have that mistake in Ireland after a haircut when I walked out without tipping more than a couple of euros, then went back to be sure they got their 10 percent.  oops!  And as we know, the US is a 20 percent culture.  It’s so weird to me after so much time in Europe where it’s included.  But I know all too well that servers don’t get paid much.  When I worked at Chili’s after college before my Australian jaunt and then eventually grad school, I only made 2 bucks an hour on the clock!  Then I had to report my tips.  I needed those tips, and what I actually made wasn’t mine because I had to tip out to the bartender, the expeditor, the food runners, etc.  Whew.  Anyways, differences.

This is all that’s on my mind for now.  I’ll continue to post as they come to me.  It’s fun to drive the same roads and bridges, sit in the same diners and cafes, and visit the beaches and city streets that I missed so dearly during my time away almost as much as the faces of those I love.  But I’m not the me of Summer 2012 . . . I’m slightly European and it’s all slightly foreign.  Very interesting.

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I can’t even imagine how comedy author Bill Bryson felt after moving back to the USA after living in England with his wife and children for 20 years.  Upon his return, he published the book I’m A Stranger Here Myself, which I have chosen as the title of this post.

Medieval Ferrara

After Christmas in 2009, through the New Year, I went to one of my favorite places, Bruges – as mentioned in previous posts such as My Magic Bruges.  On that trip, I was relaxing and warming up in the hostel common area when a friendly fellow backpacker wandered in.  His name was Joseph, and he spoke briefly with my friend and me.  I had plans to see my Belgian friends, and then we left the hostel the next day. But just in that short time, it was clear this person would become a nice friend.  Thanks to facebook, it was easy for that to happen.

We chatted online over the years.  Joseph is even more of a Europhile than I am, and with his duel French citizenship, he has lived in France and now Ferrara, Italy since he departed his hometown in Midwestern, Iowa.  When I was in Italy in the summer of 2011, Joseph gave me some great advice as my mother and great aunt prepared to visit the hometowns of my great grandparents in Emilia Romagna, his local region.  With our tight travel schedule, we didn’t get to meet up, although I appreciated his super helpful advice.

Last January, when I received the job offer in Italy, Joseph was one of my biggest proponents.  “Come to Italy,” he said.  “I’ll visit Genoa and we’ll paint the town red.”  I knew how happy he was teaching English language at the University of Ferrara, and I knew it was time to live my dream as an expat abroad.  It was extra encouraging to know I’d have a friend in country.

When I arrived in Italy, Joseph was there to chat on Skype, counsel me through the many translation or bureaucratic issues, and we shared many laughs and good times, becoming even closer friends.  Due to our busy schedules, most of the year went by before either of us had a chance to visit each other.  Finally, with my summer flight home booked, and the last of my visitors had departed, I set a date for the weekend of May 25th.  I was going to Ferrara, finally!  And I would see Joseph in person for the first time in 3 years.  Wow.

Over the years, I have been following Joseph’s facebook posts: stories and pretty pictures from the flat, charming, peaceful medieval city.  A month ago, I boarded a 9am train, departing soggy Genoa and arrived in sunny Ferrara.

Joseph met me at the train station, and we walked to have yummy piadine — I chose speck  and cheese with a creamy mayo sauce.  Yum.  We chatted over a beer, then I wandered through the center with a little bit of history from Joseph, explaining the Jewish ghettos and information about the various buildings we passed.  He had some things to do in the apartment, so I went for a nice wander. I deliberately did not consult a guidebook or too much on the Internet so things would be a surprise.  A wandering adventure.  I snapped many photos on my walk, then returned to prepare for our evening.

Joseph’s friend, a woman who owns the cafe down the street, invited him to an outdoor concert that night, featuring her husband’s band.  It got unseasonably cold, so we bundled up and Federica picked us up.

While we waited for the show, wandered in search of food, and ended up in a tent that was a fundraiser for a local church.  I tried the local treat cappellacci, made with squash and filled with yum. BLIpqfQCMAAPyX4.jpg-largeOur servers were parishoner children — it was just a really super special, super local night.  We chatted and ended up enjoying the show very much.  When Fedi noticed that I was into the music, she returned later with a surprise — an Inspiral album for me, which she then had all the band members sign. 🙂  What a special treat.  It was also fun hanging out with her because she helped me practice my Italian.

The next morning, we had lazy Sunday.  Joseph had delicious pastries and made fresh coffee, then we went out for a stroll around town, followed by another coffee.

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

 Before departure for my train, we stopped for pizza at a place he never tried before.  With so much good pizza in Italy and so many great places in Ferrara . . .Joseph was diasppointed that his 4 Formaggio was made with a premixed spread and that my pizza featured canned olives with pitts and awkward tomatos.  Not as good as expected.  He said, “We just got fu*cked.  They could at least kiss me next time.”

That aside, it was still a lovely day. We took a peek at some Palio-related events (this Palio is older than the famous Siena one). It was a nice atmosphere, but I didn’t see too much. Before long, it was time to board my train and head home.  I was lucky that I had business class for the stretch from Bologna to Milan on the high speed train, for a little spoiled comfort.  It was the same price as the 2nd class ticket because they still had some super economy fares left.  Woo!

Here are some photos from my adventure in Ferrara.  I’ll certainly be returning:

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Spring Break: Genova, Roma and the Swiss Alps (Part 4 – Medieval Genoa)

On Friday 5 April after the lovely afternoon in Switzerland, we were on our way back to Genoa, arriving just in time to run to the Carrefour Express before it closed at 8pm.  When Brendan expressed all his desires for amazing Italian food, I responded “The best food in Italy is at home.”  He told me that, “I want the Italian Restaurants!”  He’d heard about Italian food his whole life, but what fails to come across to America is that Italy is a Cucina di Nonna culture, Grandma’s Kitchen, home-cooked, family sitting around the table eating local, fresh ingredients where the flavor really shines.  Going to restaurants is actually a rarity, and I’ve noticed that most of the time, even my homemade concoctions are better.  This is Italy.

As we did our mad sprint through Carrefour, I think Brendan was beginning to notice that home cooked is the way to go. We got pasta fresca tortellini for a euro, some sausages, and some other ingredients before returning to my apartment to make a quick yet delicious meal.  We both agreed it was better than the restaurant food, and we had not even put in any effort.

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Sipping on Tuborg beers, we called for a relaxing night in with Netflix, and watched a Bill Murray movie Broken Flowers, which ended up featuring lots of scenes where we hike in the summer in NY State.  I could barely keep my eyes open during the movie, and fell asleep exhausted.

I awoke the next morning, battling a sinus infection but happy the sun was shining.  We were hoping to go swimming, but the weather was just not warm enough yet – even though it should have been.  Brendan wanted to see Milan, hoping for a better impression in the sunshine, but I said, “You haven’t seen Genoa.”  He looked at me quizzically, because . . .well, then where were we?  But the truth was, we were in the resort area, along the sea. Except for Brignole train station, we haven’t seen the medieval center or the port.  Brendan was looking forward to seeing those things and another excuse for a scooter ride.

So, we piled onto Stella and hit the highway, still going slow as novices but gaining more confidence and speed.  We rode along the sea by the fair grounds, and parked by the Porto Antico, wandering by the ships and soaking in the vibrant scene in the sunshine.

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Next, we walked up through the Medieval Center and wandered into salumeria, Brendan lured by the enticing cuts of meat in the window.  He requested a sopressatta and gorgonzola sandwich. When he first tasted it, he said “Ahh, this is the sandwich I have been waiting for.”  Brendan eventually got the kinds of food he was hoping for, but they were in unexpected places and usually cheap.  “The best food here is under 10 bucks,” he said.

“Yep, that’s Italy.”

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After the traditional photos at the Piazza de Ferrari fountain (Blue for Autism Awareness), we had time for some shopping as Brendan wanted some new threads.  I suggested Celio, where I bought some things for my brother at Christmas time and thought Brendan might like the style.  And boy did he.  We spent over an hour searching and trying on clothes, purchasing three pairs of awesome pants, and a couple of sharp stylin’ shirts.    The fit and fabric were of great quality and would be much more expensive in America.

Next we found a market where Brendan bought 7 new ties at 5 euros each.  The style and price were too good to resist.

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Next, it was time to head back to the port and to Stella.

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We rode home and Brendan had a chance to ride Stella a bit on his own.

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Then we packed, and boarded a train for Milan.  Ahh . . . Milan again.  Brendan’s flight was at 10:30am, and we’d have to take a 5:30am train from Brignole after calling a cab.  To save ourselves the weary stress, we booked a hotel in Milan for the final night, ending up with a great deal at the Hilton for only 80 euros.  Fabulous hotel.

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

By the time we arrived in Milan, we were super exhausted and opted just for a light cafe dinner before crashing.  We had a wonderful journey and as Brendan said, “I have squeezed enough out of this trip.  Let’s just rest.”  Milan has a lot of culture and events, but it does not really have much to offer for sightseeing.

The next morning, we woke, boarded the bus for Milan Malpensa airport, did a bit of souvineer shopping, and we hugged farewell.  I headed back to Genoa, not knowing that Brendan was sitting in an airport lounge with a three hour delay, journalling all his favorite moments and memories from the trip, which he later sent to me.

It really was a lovely time, and I’m so lucky I got to spend this break with a friend of almost 15 years.  I hope he gets to visit in the summertime where he can experience Genoa at her best and see more of my Italy (Tuscany, Venice, Capri, Naples?).  We shall see.

-Written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes.  Part 4 of 4.

Spring Break: Genova, Roma and the Swiss Alps (Part 3 – Switzerland)

On the morning of  Wednesday April 3, we awoke in Rome for another yummy breakfast in our hotel, featuring fresh-baked cakes, breads, Nutella, cheeses, eggs, cereals, coffee, juice . . . plenty of options for a free hotel breakfast in a country where it is very common to just have some bread and coffee.  The sun was making an appearance, brightening the room and our spirits.

I grabbed a few pieces of fruit for the journey, and we headed to the room for the final check out.  Farewell Sacre Coure golden statue, the beautiful view from our 6th floor room.

View from our Rome hotel room

View from our Rome hotel room – taken from my iphone.

Luckily, our hotel was just meters from the Roma Termini Train station, so it was easy to walk and board our train to Milan.  It was a super high speed train that would whisk us to Milan in less than 3 hours, a journey that could take a very long time with regular trains.  We paid dearly for the ticket, but with limited time and an ambitious itinerary, this was the way to go.

A bit of reading, a bit of napping, passing through gorgeous Tuscan rolling hills . . .Brendan tapped my knee to point out when we were in Florence.  “You love this city, right?”  I do like Florence, and was especially fond of my recent visit with Kat.  Then before long, we were pulling into Milan’s Central Station where were transferred to a packed Swiss train for the Alps.  It was so crowded, that even though I booked weeks in advance, we didn’t have seats next to each other — just across the aisle.  No problem.  Brendan was reading a good book, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. I had a book for book club, Erik Larson’s  Devil in the White City, but I just couldn’t get into that dark world of mystery and terror.  I was craving more of light and fun travel writing.  Anyway, I was sitting at a table with two Italian grandparents and their charming little granddaughter, coloring and chatting away. Grandpa was kind, and we spoke to each other with my limited Italian and his limited English.  Very friendly.  And Grandma made sure I was well fed throughout the journey with pizza, foccacia, and other snacks.  It made me miss my own grandparents and my own family in general.  They were from Recco, a local town nearby on the Ligurian Coast, bringing their granddaughter back to their son and daughter-in-law, who live in Frankfurt, Germany.  Maybe she was visiting for Easter?  The son was going to pick them up from Basel to lessen the amount of time the girl would have to spend on the train.  But she was loving it at this point.

This train ride is one of the most scenic, starting just minutes after Milan. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks surrounding Milan.  We glided right towards them, first stopping in a charming town called Stressa.  Stressa is nestled along a lake, and seems like a charming and inviting escape near Milan, and ultimately not too far from Genova.  I should go sometime during swimming season.

After Stressa, the mountains grew more dramatic, the lakes bluer, and soon we passed through some tunnels and popped out along Lake Thun, stopping in Spiez.  I traveled this same route with my seniors in February for a snowy writer’s workshop perched in a hotel in Wengen, up in the Alpine Peaks of the Berner Oberland.  When Brendan said he wanted to see alps, I knew we had to head to that region, and I could think of no better place than my favorite spot, Interlaken, nestled at the base of those peaks between two turquoise glacial lakes, Thun and Brienz.

The air was fresh, the vibe instantly awe-inspiring.  We climbed into our last train for a short ride to Interlaken and exited in bright, relaxed spirits.  It was sunny and slightly foggy, probably because of the snow-melt.  We had arrived in the off-season, where skiers were squeezing in their last runs on the slopes while snow melted in the lower elevations.  I clapped my hands with exhiliration and pure joy on my 10th visit to my favorite place in the world.  Brendan’s hay fever and jet lag were both minimized and he instantly appreciated the stunning peace and beauty of the region.  Even in the off season it was stunning, with both green grass and snow-capped peaks.  “Are you happy?” he asked.

“Oh yes!”

The Jungfrau Region.  Interlake is in the valley between the lakes.

The Jungfrau Region. Interlaken is in the valley between the lakes.

We took the short stroll to our hotel, which I had found along the River Aare, a blue green river connecting alpine, glacial Lake Brienz with the slightly warmer castle-strewn Lake Thun.  I spent many days swimming in these lakes during summer visits.  In my winter visit they were a steel gray, so I was glad to see them back to their vibrant blue.

View from our Swiss Hotel Room, over the River Aare with Jungfrau and paragliders in the background

View from our Swiss Hotel Room, over the River Aare with Jungfrau and paragliders in the background

View from the hotel window

View from the hotel window

The Beautiful River Aare

The Beautiful River Aare

Our hotel was actually a few guest rooms above a restaurant.  We had a view of the river and the high peaks beyond, including Jungfrau, the highest peak in the region, snow-capped even in August.  We were extra lucky with our room because they upgraded us to a spacious suite, and the hotel staff couldn’t have been more friendly. Brendan was impressed with the Swiss Hospitality, and while I had grown to love it from all my other visits, I too was impressed and appreciative.

Jungfrau in the distance

Jungfrau in the distance

We wandered through the city, touristy but in the good kind of way: friendly shops, adorable knick-knacks, snacks and chocolate, and paragliders floating through the sky in peaceful descent to the big green field in the center of town. Elderly couples strolled hand-in-hand, groups of tourists gazed up in awe, friends and families in good spirits.  Switzerland is Peace, Love, and Happiness.  Brendan later told me, “Your soul lives here.”

The difficult task of choosing from all the wonderful swiss chocolate.

The difficult task of choosing from all the wonderful swiss chocolate.

After some shopping, we went for a walk to Lake Brienz.  In this shoulder season, we had the whole trail almost to ourselves as we wandered through the woods, gazed at the majestic water, and passed my swans in Bonigen.

Bonigen

Bonigen

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We continued along to Iseltwald, nearing the waterfall when, suddenly, the souls of my 1998 hiking boots literally split and fell apart.  The rubber was that old.  The boots were not worn away, but I guess that stuff doesn’t last forever.

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In such a charming location, it didn’t affect me much at all as I hobbled along, but we decided to turn back, and boarded a bus for Interlaken back in Bonigen, continuing good, animated conversation and philosophy.  Then we booked PARAGLIDING for tomorrow.  My third time and Brendan’s first.  We were going to fly.

That night, we went for dinner in the Happy Inn Lodge, a very special place for me because I stayed in this hostel my first time in Interlaken with my friend Anna the summer of 2001.  We had always wanted to visit Switzerland, and spontaneously boarded a night train from Amsterdam when we were unable to get accommodation.  We didn’t have sleeper cabins, so we sat in the seats all night and made friends, groggily rolling into town in complete silent awe along with our fellow passengers as the mountains revealed themselves to us.  It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.

At the train station, we went to the hotel board, saw hotels with availability, picked up the phone, and the Happy Inn Lodge welcomed us.  We stayed there, shared some drinks, and enjoyed a splendid stay, my first of many.  While Brendan and I opted to stay in better accomodation, Happy Inn Lodge has good beer and food, and was perfect for a peaceful dinner, followed by a walk through town to the outskirts, where I checked on the dance club at the hostel Funny Farm.  Closed tonight, but it would be open tomorrow (Thursday).  Good Plan.

Back to the hostel where we watched some tv on NBC.com on the iPhone before drifting into mountain-air dreams.

On Thursday morning, we awoke for an absolutely delicious Swiss breakfast in the hotel, including homemade jam, fresh breads, farm fresh eggs, cappuccino, hot chocolate, whatever we wanted.  Everything was fresh and flavorful, and again, the staff were super warm and friendly.

We prepared to fly, and a van came to pick us up, toting us to the top of a nearby mountain.  I went paragliding that first time with Anna in 2001, and it was the most exhilirating experieince of my life to that date.  It was summer.  And it was summer when I went again with my friend Krista in 2006.  Now in 2013, I went for my third flight in early spring.  They suited us up in helmets and our seat, attached us to our instructors, and I snapped some photos of snowy mountains and the grass making her spring appearance.

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Before long, Brendan was running down the hill then AIRBORNE.  I was so exited for him because I can never forget that first time you are flying, feet dangling in the sky among the birds and trees.

Then I ran down the hill, and shortly after we were in the air, my instructor had me take the controls and allowed me to steer and fly a bit.  “You’re ready now. It’s your third flight.”  He explained that I could take flying lessons in Interlaken, spread out throughout the year, or in an intense two week course with several flights a day after some ground training.  Once you are done, you can buy the equipment (used) for about 1200 CHF.   “At that point, it’s a pretty free hobby.”  Something to really think about.  There is no feeling like it.

Brendan flying

Brendan flying

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The flights always feel too short because before long, I was spinning to the ground in dramatic dips and curves before a soft landing.  Brendan gave me the thumbs up, clearly high from the adrenaline.

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I was so excited to see him feeling better and truly enjoying the trip at this point.  Yay Switzerland!

We packed our bags for the mountains.  According to my iPhone, it was in the teens and 20s up in Murren and Wengen (two sides of the valley).  I took him up to Wengen, where I was just visiting with my high school students in February.  We hoped the roads would still be snow-covered for some tobogganing.  We also packed our swimsuits, eager to use the spa at the Hotel Lauberhorn, where my dad and I stayed in the summer of 2011.

We took the train to Lautberbrunnen
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then boarded the cog railway up the mountain to Wengen as Brendan gazed in awe.  The alps are impressive from the valley and even flying.  But we were going way up into them now, and the views were dramatic and ever-changing.  When we exited the train, it was clear that the iPhone was wrong and the snow was melting, so we put our bags in the locker, stopped in the Coop where we found some Duff beer, yeah Duff, and went on a snowy/muddy hike up the mountain.  We stopped at a bench on the edge of the woods to just be.  It was the most peaceful, wonderful moment of the trip.

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Then back down to Wengen where we enjoyed traditional Swiss food.  We ordered fondue with herbs and rosti with eggs and cheese.  A hearty mountain meal where I ate with both my father that summer and my students in the winter.

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We were saddened to learn that the Victoria Lauberhorn was closed for the season (we missed it by a couple of days) so we couldn’t use the spa, to our dismay.   We enjoyed a bit more of Wengen.

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Then we took a train back down to the Lauterbrunnen Valley and had enough time to walk to the famous waterfall before our train to Interlaken.  I thought with all the snow melt, it would be more impressive, but it was just a well-lit trickle.

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In the summer, it’s a raging, rushing waterfall.  However, it was still beautiful and impressive.  Then back to town where we prepared to dance.

We walked to the disco club, which was quite empty when we entered.  Brendan felt slightly uncomfortable and asked what I wanted to do.  I said, “We are gonna dance.”  We tore up that dance floor, and soon others joined us.  It was a lovely, fun night followed by a nice starlit walk back to our hotel for another sweet mountain air sleep.

The next morning, we did not want to stress ourselves unnecessarily with an early train.  We were woken up in the most swiss way possible.  I heard a cacophony of metallic sound in the street.  What was this?  A bunch of metal wheels?  A truck?  I went to the window and saw the road filled with a parade of cows donning giant bells.  They were heading somewhere.  I had to wake Brendan up to see this special site.  It truly made my day.

Back downstairs for another delicious breakfast, sad that we couldn’t stay another day or two.  But we were lucky that we had a few hours to enjoy Interlaken before our train.  I went to get my Jowissa watch fixed, and we rented a tandem bike, heading through town and back to Bonigen and my swans.

Tandem Bicycle

Tandem Bicycle

What a new, fun experience!  The guy at the bike shop was super talkative, friendly and informative, and he gave me tips for my future visits, knowing I like to come so often.  Apparently, there is a special camping hut in the back of the Lauterbrunnen Valley (below Wengen), where you can have a nice, peaceful time.

Time was unfortunately running short, so we had to return the bike and grab our bags from the hotel, where we passed the Cow Parade going back from whence they came this morning, perfect bookends to our final day in Switzerland. We grabbed sandwiches from the supermarket, then boarded our train back to Genoa.  It was a wonderful stay and always sad to leave, but we had a fantastic time. Brendan said, “I don’t want to steal this as your favorite place . . . but I love it.” Yay Switzerland!

-written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes

-continued in Part 4

Spring Break: Genova, Roma and the Swiss Alps (Part 2 – Rome)

Easter Monday, we woke early when it was still dark.  Brendan’s hay fever had taken full hold, and I found some Aleve and Claritin to give him to help him breathe a bit better.  However, it was a mostly sleepless night before we groggily got ready and headed for the bus to Brignole station.  Off to Rome!

I was a bit apprehensive after checking the weather all week.  Rome — usually sunny and beautiful in the spring, was showing a soggy forecast.  All of Europe seemed to be stuck in unseasonably cold and rainy weather.  My students and colleagues told me that it was usually possible to swim this time of year.  I felt so guilty because I had told Brendan it would be a good time of year to visit.  But all of this is part of travel.

I checked my transit ap to see when the next bus would arrive at our stop, growing a bit nervous because it looked like it would cut it close.  “Should we take a cab?” I asked.  “Whatever you think is best,” he said.  I decided to take the risk.  The bus dropped us off in plenty of time, we got to the platform, and as the sun began to rise, we saw our train was delayed.  “Good thing we didn’t spring for the cab,” Brendan said.

Now we both felt like zombies.  It was cold and quiet as we waited for our train, moods tense.  I felt like I was on an episode of Amazing Race . . . these things happen.  And with both of us tired from long workweeks, we both just needed some peace.  I was hesitant to book such an early train, but this was just over 4 hours instead of 7 hours, and would give us more time in Rome.

Eventually we boarded, and napped our way along the Riviera and down the coast to Rome, pulling into the station around 1pm.  It wasn’t raining.  In fact, the sun was shining!  Brendan was finding it impossible to breathe and still feeling epic jet lag, but we both knew we had to get out in the sunshine for some wandering before the downpours.  We dropped our bags off at the hotel which was right by the train station, then saw the Colosseum, The Forum, and other iconic landmarks.
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I had a Frommer’s Rome Travel Guide, but instead of trying to navigate to one of the suggestions, I figured we’d pop into one of the little cafes on a side street.  The food was ok, but mediocre and didn’t impress me or my foodie friend.  The price wasn’t too bad, but I knew that Brendan was waiting for some mind-blowing Italian food.  Having been spoiled by years of Arthur Ave (Little Italy in the Bronx), featuring the best of all of Italy, he may have been expecting all of Italy to be like that.  In addition, Rome is known for many things, but not necessarily their cuisine, especially for lunch.

We found a pharmacy where, hurrah! they gave Brendan some antihistimanes that helped him breathe with sweet relief.  He took a long nap, then we wandered out again at dinner time, once again finding a disappointing dining experience.  Mediocre and slightly expensive pizza. “It’s all pizza and pasta, everywhere,” he noted.  Yeah . . .

Toting my takeaway Quattro Formaggio, we looked at the tourist map, trying to find the Ice Bar.  The winding backstreets of Rome were quaint and a bit empty due to the holiday.  If it wasn’t cold and rainy, it would have been more enjoyable but we weren’t really feeling the scene. We wandered into the Ice Bar, where we were the only folks.  “Come back tomorrow, for open bar for 20 bucks.  There will be a crowd,” they advised.  Sounded good, so we left and tried a few other places, but couldn’t find a seat or a good scene.  We eventually ended up sitting at the bar of an Irish Pub, talking to the Australian bar tender over Guinesses. We walked home past the ruins lit at night as Brendan entertained me with his comedy.

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Tuesday 2 April, we got to sleep in a bit, waking up just in time to head to the free breakfast upstairs in a sunny room.  There was good variety as we woke up and hoped the rain would hold off.  We had “Skip the Line” tickets to the Vatican.  For a nominal fee, you don’t have to stand in line for hours.  Perfectly worth it.

We took the metro and arrived, wound our way through the halls filled with art, peeked out the window at a massive thunderstorm, and eventually found our way to the highlight of our visit, The Sistine Chapel.  This was my third visit to Rome.  Both other times, I had been on EF Tours.  1997 as a high school Junior and last year as a teacher, bringing my own students.  in 1997, we were not able to get admission to the Sistine Chapel, which was a major disappointment.  Last year, we did get to go, and I found it to be so moving and one of the most amazing works of art I had ever seen.  This time, it actually brought tears to my eyes.  It was less crowded than our Easter time visit last year, and I didn’t feel squished and pushed through the room while trying to look up and enjoy. I could really take it in and absorb the wonder as it was meant to be appreciated.  Splendid.

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

Brendan identifies with Mercury and even uses the symbol for his brand, as seen on his shirt.

Brendan identifies with Mercury and even uses the symbol for his brand, as seen on his shirt.

Upon our exit, I went into a little gift shop to get pink rosary beads for my great Aunt Minnie.  We almost left the premises to get online for admission to St. Peter’s, which we had to do last year.  That line was winding around the giant square.  But first, “Let’s just pop into that pretty chapel,” I said, peeking through a door featuring lots of marble inside.

We walked in and Brendan immediately said, “Wow!”  This was not some little chapel . . . it was St. Peter’s, and we had entered without a line.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

We went straight to Michelangelo’s gorgeous Pieta, and I explained how someone had smashed it in the 70s, so it doesn’t have the original glow, even though it was carefully repaired. It’s still amazing.

The Pieta

The Pieta

We wandered around, and Brendan was excited because he got to “see a dead pope!” in one of the many tombs.

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After some pictures and prayers, we exited into torrential rain.  First I sent my parents and my friend Kat postcards with the Vatican postmark.

Welcome to the new pope.

Welcome to the new pope.

Where to now?  Rome is enjoyed by wandering, walking and soaking in the beauty — not by actually soaking.  It was so disappointed because last Easter it rained a bit, but we had a sunny day that was just splendid.  To stay dry, we hopped on the first tram we saw, and figured we’d go on an adventure, not knowing the destination.  En Route, we skimmed Frommer’s for ideas for aperitivo later. We stopped for gelato and saw this:

Viagra Gelato! ha

Viagra Gelato! ha

Eventually, we made our way back to the hotel, cold and wet, and each had a warm bath trying to get our body temps back up. When we departed for dinner, we had plans to head to the Ice Bar, then the Disco after, so I took a small purse and no guidebook.  We headed to Spagna, the neighborhood where the Spanish Steps are, and wandered in the rain until we found an amazing, trendy cafe with stadium seats for chairs.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

There were tiny snacks for aperitivo (that came out with our wine), then I ordered Ceasar Salad and Brendan got meatballs and some pasta.  The meatballs were absolutely divine, and as much as I try not to eat lamb, we think there must have been some inside.  “This is the pasta I’ve been waiting for!” Brendan exclaimed with pure joy, finally having found the Italian meal he’s been craving.

Next, off to the Ice Bar, touristy but fun.  Again, we were the only ones there as they draped us in capes.  Nobody looks good in a cape.  We waddled into the icy room and settled into a little igloo, drinking our vodka mixed drinks out of ice glasses.  While we waited for others to arrive, I noticed some glasses left behind and began smashing them like a disgruntled wife.  Eventually, a bunch of college-aged kids arrived, and we made small talk.  We each had 5 or 6 drinks, and there’s only so much time you can spend in the ice bar, so we waddled on out, but not before taking some photos that made us look like Bond villains. photo-1

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Drunk on vodka, we were too beat and money conscious to spring for the disco, so headed for the hotel and Brendan wandered into a kebab shop for a late night delicious snack.  Tomorrow we would depart Rome for the Swiss Alps!

We didn’t really get the best vibe from Rome or give it the best chance, but we saw it.   I had visions of visiting the fountain of Trevi, Trastevere, drinks in piazzas, wandering along the Tiber, maybe even a boat cruise.  The weather was a real damper.   I felt bad and almost responsible, but Brendan reminded me to relax and that he was not mad.  (Although clearly disappointed).   Rome deserves another chance with more time and better weather, but we enjoyed our mini adventure. This is all part of travel, and overall, it was fun and we saw a lot. 🙂

Brendan’s been thinking about Rome for years.

 Check out one of his many comics, Hannibal Goes to Rome.

-written 26 June but posted in April for timeline purposes
-continued in Part 3