Spring Break: Genova, Roma, and the Swiss Alps (part 1 – Genoa)

One of my best friends, Brendan, has always wanted to visit Italy.  When I got the job offer last January, he already started talking about his visit.  We decided on Spring Break, so I could be the female Rick Steves, and take him around my beautiful local hood as well as Rome and the Alps, as he requested.

Our spring break began on Friday March 29, which gave me a day to chill and take the train to Milan.  Brendan got the shortest and best airfare to Milan, arriving at 7am on Saturday March 30, Easter Eve.  Since I was off and eager to enjoy the city, I said I’d meet him at the airport.  I booked a single room at the Bio City hotel, an eco friendly, brand new hotel that was just before its official opening.  At this point, I let out a big “Ahh” as I looked around the cozy room.  The weather was not cooperating, with a chilly drizzle, but I was just glad that my much-needed vacation had started.  For teachers, breaks always come just when you think you can’t handle another day.  I checked the mini bar, and for reasonable prices, I saw natural soda and super yummy sesame seed bars, which I devoured while watching BBC news.  I tweeted a couple of pictures and fell asleep knowing I had to wake early tomorrow to get to the bus for the airport.

Brendan walked through the gate, and I ran to give him a hug, amazed at how guys can pack all they need in a little carry on duffle bag.  Well done.  The weather was cloudy, but I was hoping the rain would hold off.  We caught up on the bus ride, then by the time we arrived in the city, the rain turned into a downpour.  Luckily, I still had the hotel room, so we had it for a few hours where I figured Brendan could take a nap and I could enjoy my free breakfast.  As soon as he passed out, though, they started drilling.  (They were still working on the hotel, so I knew this might happen).  He managed to fall back asleep . . . until the belt sander came on. “We’ll find this funny later,” he said. But clearly not now. The poor guy was exhausted, having not slept on the plane.  So I went outside and asked the guys if they could move, which they so kindly did.

At 11, Brendan was in a sound sleep but I had to rouse him for check out.  “You said I could sleep,” he said like a school boy talking to his mom, wanting to go to school late.  I know the feeling.  I remember telling my mother, in my sleep, that “The lake is closed today,” when she tried to wake me up for my lifeguarding job and I knew I just couldn’t make it.

I felt so bad, but I had to get him, up.  We checked out, and luckily they didn’t tack on a fee for bringing a second person into the single room.  Then we had to brave the rain again.  We originally considered the thermal spa, which I love and have posted about before here: My New New York . But it was not the weather for wandering or sightseeing, so we boarded a train for Genoa, gliding through the soggy landscape to Liguria.

2 hours later, we boarded a bus to my neighborhood as exhausted zombie Brendan said, “How much longer?”  It might be initially more convenient to fly to Milan, but ultimately it’s a big pain in the butt, unfortunately.  Once in my hood, we had to find food.  As it was the day before Easter, nothing was open, so we walked through the hills for 10 minutes to Jungle Pizza, which is always open with its 100 varieties.  But alas, even that was closed.  Back to my apartment where I offered some of the food I had purchased and Brendan passed out into a deep sleep.  I used this time to go on my second ever scooter ride!

The clouds cleared, the sun came out, and I enjoyed stunning views over the sea as I tried to keep steady and not tip over.  Back at the apartment, I had to wake up Brendan again, afraid that if I didn’t he wouldn’t sleep the night.   Arrival day is often very hard, especially when the weather is not helping.  Starving, we walked down the hill to restaurants by the sea, looking for something open.  He gave up meat for Lent, so we went for some pizza or pasta at 5 Maggio, a place I had enjoyed many times, along the sea by the monument.  We shared pasta, cooked in foil in the brick oven, foccaccia formaggio and one other kind of pizza as well as creme brulee for dessert.

Brendan wanted to meet one of my friends, and I wasn’t sure who was in town but remembered that Robin was both in town and nearby.  At 11pm, I called her then we showed up at her apartment (with its splendid castle view), and got her ready to go out dancing down by the sea.  At that time, Brendan felt it was time to ditch his Lenten beard, so Robin lent him a disposable razor.  And off we went.

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The club was fun, and unlike some of the other ones further downtown, where guys like to come up and grab you while you are dancing, the people were older and a bit more chill — but the vibe and music were great.  We even got free shots from the bartender because we were from NY! 🙂  We walked Robin home, then up the hill to my apartment where Brendan realized it was Easter, running to the fridge and tearing open the packages of cured meats I had bought for his arrival.

Easter Sunday bells rang at noon, but Brendan was still sleeping off his mega jet lag.  He had tried to warn me it could get like this, but I had never seen jet lag this bad.  Around 1:30, he woke up and we tossed the football-sized Easter egg that I bought for a charity fundraiser at school.  It broke to reveal the gift inside — a boxed silver-toned bracelet.  Not bad.  Apparently, these chocolate eggs are very popular as Easter treats for kids.

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Soon we went outside into the warm sunshine for one of the prettiest days of our trip. Buona Pasqua!
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We piled onto my scooter for my third ride, and my first ride with a passenger.  Once I mastered the weight balance, we took it nice and slow, heading straight to Nervi.  It was Brendan’s first time on a scooter, and he was thrilled.  Once we parked, we went for a walk along the gorgeous passageiatta — bright turquoise water, waves crashing into the jagged rocks, Portofino in the distance, and families and friends, tourists and locals strolling along for a Happy Easter.  The vibe was perfect.  The flowers were blooming, but unfortunately so was Brendan’s hay fever.  We didn’t let it get in the way of our fun, though.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter!

We did not have reservations for dinner and were worried about finding quality food on a day when so many locals head to the restaurants.  Luckily, even though we were in Italy, both of us were craving sushi, so we planned for that.  While we were waiting for the restaurant to open (Many places in Genoa open for dinner at 7:30 and close by 9 or 10 for a small dining window), we wandered through gorgeous Nervi, through a local park watching families with their dogs, bacci balls, and picnics.  Then we found a little church on top of a hill and decided to see if there was an evening mass.  We walked in sometime near the beginning, and enjoyed a special, beautiful Easter service.

The sun was starting to tinge the sky pink, promising an awesome sunset.  I regret not heading back to the passegiatta because I know Brendan would have appreciated it, but we were already at the restaurant, where we enjoyed a lobster roll among some others.  As Brendan gave up meat for Lent, he also gave up sushi, so this was a treat. And for me, who was growing quite sick of Italian food, I was happy for the change of pace.

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Back to the scooter and home to prepare for tomorrow’s trip to Rome!  The fastest train was at 7am, so it was gonna be another early morning for us. I popped Mad Men on Netflix, and we enjoyed a chill evening.

Here’s a small slideshow with more photos:

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–to be continued in Part 2 – Roma–

-written 26 June, but posted in April for timeline purposes

Whirlwind Weekend

When I departed for Genoa, one of my best friends Kat was there at the airport to send me off along with my parents.  Kat gave me lots of luck and hugs, and said “I’ll be there soon.  I’m also good with postcards.”

Kat kept good on both promises, with postcards arriving frequently to brighten my day and a whirlwind weekend visit planned.  In the fall, Kat called and said “I can’t get much time off from work, but I’m coming.  Alitalia has good fares.  How about March 1st?”  

Kat arrived fresh from JFK on a Friday and departed on Monday morning, for a fantastic, fun-filled weekend adventure. What perfect timing.  Work was at its most chaotic of the year, with International Baccalaureate assessments and paperwork due — super high stakes work.  As this was my first time through it, there were a lot of nitty gritty details and stressful aspects (work to be redone, late work, formatting) that I didn’t anticipate.  All of us IB teachers were like zombies walking through the day.  Usually, Friday arrived and I was relaxed and peaceful with a light schedule, all classes completed by 11:30.  When Kat arrived from the airport, I was in a meeting with a student, and didn’t even have a minute free to run down to the office to notify them of Kat’s arrival fresh from the Genova airport.  Luckily, she met the director who asked around and found me.  When I exited the classroom with my student, there was Kat’s smiling face.  How can she look so awesome and fresh from an overnight flight?  Amazing.

Originally, Kat said she was up for anything and just wanted to spend time with me.  But this was her first time in Italy.  She was also a Medieval Studies major (along with Spanish), so I knew she would appreciate a lot of the wonder of Siena and Florence.  In the days before her departure, I said, “I have a crazy idea.  Want to spend a night in Siena?  It’s beautiful.  Then we can visit Florence before heading home on Sunday.”  When I saw that the train to Florence stopped in Pisa, we planned for that as well.  3 nights, 4 cities.  And we did it!

I gave Kat a quick tour of the school, which she noted was beautiful.  She also asked, “How do you like it with all the little kids?” As a group of 3-year-olds walked by in a neat little line like ducklings.  “I love it.  It always brightens my day,” I responded.  The director had generously given us lunch tickets to enjoy a meal in the cafeteria.  I had hallway duty upstairs for the first part, so Kat took the opportunity to meet many of my coworkers, noting that they were extremely sweet, friendly and positive.  That truly is the vibe of our school.

I joined Kat when my duty was over, and she was in mid conversation about all the wonders of Siena.  One coworker said, “You will eat well.  This lunch food doesn’t count as your first Italian meal.”  It’s ok for school food, but this is true.

I walked Kat down to my apartment, which is just minutes from the school, where she settled down for a short winter’s nap, and I went back to work until the end of the day.

Back to my apartment, I roused Kat as we prepared for an evening in Nervi, a nearby resort neighborhood along the sea — where I take all my guests on their first night much like the school brought me when I first arrived.  There is no better welcome to Genoa and the Ligurian Coastal beauty.

We walked along the passegiata and walked into a quaint seaside restaurant called Chandra, with views of the waves crashing against the rocks.  With a slightly Indian vibe, we enjoyed the quaint decor, snacked on the free snacks with our drinks, and then ordered our meal, featuring focaccine (friend dough filled with soft, yummy stracchino cheese). I had chicken tandoori and Kat had a pasta dish, I believe.
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I’m showing off the beautiful new necklace Kat bought me at the Met as a hostess gift along with plenty of other practical and fun goodies and meals to spoil me.

 We chatted, caught up, enjoyed the sea, and then enjoyed the live music as it began to play.  With jet lag for Kat and general fatigue for me, though, we couldn’t last through more than a couple of songs.  Back to Genoa for bed.  A big day ahead of us on Saturday.

We were blessed with glorious spring-like weather that weekend, with temperatures climbing into the low 60s, a delightful break from the soggy 50s we had in the week leading up to her visit.  Saturday morning we had breakfast, then headed into the city to see Genoa.  I showed Kat the medieval center, the port, Columbus’s alleged birthplace, and we even had some time for boot shopping . . . while there were some good potential options, we didn’t find exactly what Kat was looking for but we enjoyed the browsing experience.
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 Back on a bus, we grabbed our overnight bags, then back on a bus for Brignole train station, then to Siena via Pisa.  I slept most of the train ride, absolutely exhausted from work.  Kat began her many postcards (I believe she sent 30 something).  The sun was in that glorious golden hour, and with our latitude, it lingers longer than in other parts of the world.  We consulted the map, and made a mad dash for the iconic slanted architecture.  
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It leans a bit more every year, and as I had not been since 2004, I could really feel like it was leaning noticeably more.  After posing for the obligatory “let’s hold this thing up” pictures, we strolled back through town, past postcard shops and touristy knick knack pushers, back to the train and towards Tuscany and Siena.

At one random station, we stopped to get a snack and read the board for our connection.  Our train was cancelled!  Ahh, Italy . . .always full of frustrations.  We had to sit in the station and wait a bit for the next train, but we were grateful there was a next train.  We rolled into Siena a bit later than we anticipated, but glad to be there with fresh air and stars peeking out of the inky sky.  Having not been there since 2002, I was very pleasantly surprised by the redo of the train station. Previously, you had to board a bus, grab a taxi, or walk up a very long hill to the city, with the station settled at the base of a big hill.  But now, they have constructed an elaborate system of escalators and people movers that bring you easily and conveniently to the top of the hill, where you can then stroll through the medieval wall and right into town, all lit up in its serene romantic beauty.

We were tired from the travel, but captivated by the magic of the city.  Siena is special, and I will always choose staying her over Florence.  It’s a popular day trip place, but to stay allows you to experience the real magic when the tourist crowds disperse, and you can wander and enjoy in peace and serenity.  Kat had articles from the New York Times Travel Section and she had a recommendation for a restaurant in the main square.  We found it, and enjoyed an absolutely delicious meal with a view of City Hall.  Then a short stroll just outside of town to our hotel, which we were so excited about. We chose a quaint b&b with 360 degree views of the hillside.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we experienced a bit of a snafu.  They accidentally gave away our room to someone who arrived looking for a room.  The person working the desk was not a regular, so she made a mistake.  I was so exhausted and irritated by that point, but Kat works in hotels and knows this can happen.  They rebooked us in a nearby hotel in the same area.  We ended up with two single rooms, and the rooms were on the road instead of secluded like the other hotel.  However, the quality was excellent as was the service. The original hotel was very apologetic and offered us discounts on future stays. So it’s all good — and these things are part of the travel adventure. I slept very well, and we awoke to a beautiful breakfast with views over the hills and valley in the bright sunshine.  Delicious.  No complaints.  Another gorgeous day awaited us.

After some photos in the garden, we saw the civic museum with its famous mural.  Kat educated and entertained me with her wealth of medieval knowledge, enhancing the experience.  We then boarded a train to Florence and headed to the Duomo for a quick photo stop then straight for the Uffizi Gallery, where we had booked “Skip the line” tickets for a nominal fee.  This was my 5th time in Florence, and I was finally getting to see the Uffizi.  So much outstanding, famous and beautiful art to contemplate.  We spent hours there soaking it all up, took some photos outside along the river, stopped for some yummy pizza, then back to the train.  Yes, there was unfortunately a lot of clock-watching on my part to make sure we could do everything — and it wasn’t as laid back as I would have liked to be.  But we made it happen, it was a great adventure, Kat was in awesome spirits, and I had a blast.

We rolled into Genoa that evening, and instead of going straight to sleep, I hung out in the living room with Kat for a sleepover style late-night chat.

Here is a slideshow of our adventure:

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Kat left for the airport 5:30 the next morning, with a stop in Paris long enough for her to enjoy the city then back to New York.  What an amazing, fabulous adventure.  Thanks for visiting!

“I’ll be back!” she said.  I’m looking forward to our next adventure, whether it’s a weekend somewhere in Italy or Europe, or a longer break.  We shall see. Until I post our next adventure, you may be interested in checking out Kat’s photography blog: http://hhphotogsummerstreets2013.tumblr.com

-written 26 June 2013 but posted in March for appropriate timeline

Visit #10 to the Emerald Isle

There is definitely a theme to my travels.  I repeatedly visit favorite places in Europe like some visit a favorite park or beach.  An open Europhile, I traveled to Europe every chance I had.  In fact, I tell people I moved here in order to reduce my carbon footprint.  Now I fly Transatlantically twice a year as opposed to the 4-5 flights I did when I lived in NYC.

Ireland is one of my favorites.  What are the other repeats?  Well, by now you should know Belgium (12).  I lived in England and went back 6 or so other times (it gets fuzzy due to years I popped in just for a night en route to the continent).  Switzerland (10).  Other places, I’d like to pop in and visit, but I would always go to the favorite spots as well.  Europe allows for that, with countries like US States.  (You don’t count how many times you visit NY when you live in NJ, for example).

But why not Italy? Why is it not on the repeat fave list?  Let’s see, before I moved here, I had traveled to Italy 5 times, so I clearly did enjoy my time but was not lured as often as nearby Switzerland, for example. Well, to be honest, I always liked popping into Tuscany especially and always had visions of one day chilling in the Cinque Terra (that’s just 1.5 hours away now!).  But train strikes, overbooked trains, missed connections, tourist crowds,  and general chaos makes Italy a bit frustrating for a tourist (as well as an inhabitant). Not to knock my host country, but I just didn’t feel as strong a lure to Italy as to my faves. Switzerland, Belgium, and Ireland are calm, ordered, peaceful, beautiful, friendly, and extremely accommodating to tourists.

Even after all these visits, I was still excited and at peace when I landed around 8pm.  Ahhh.  The fresh air, the  . . . how do I say it?  Ireland has some kind of magical hold over me.  A friend told me, “It’s in the blood.”  I am 25% Irish, with my mother’s grandparents hailing from County Monaghan.  As a result, she just got her Irish passport after validating her dual citizenship status.  She also qualifies for Italian dual citizenship (actually, as do I as they honor citizenship through great grandparents). But as I have learned after the 6 months it took me to get my Visa, the process is very bureaucratic, but I’ll get it one day.  🙂  I’m 50% Italian, by the way, with Mom’s maternal grandparents from Northern Italy, the Piacenza region, to be exact.  And Dad’s grandparents from Sicily (Palermo).  Anyways, I do feel a bit at home in Italy, and I certainly look Italian.  But I’m still trying to find a way to articulate why Ireland is so special to me.

Is it the incredibly fresh, crisp air?  Not to knock Genoa’s air, but it doesn’t have the same pristine quality.  Is it the fact that they speak English?  With the fun brogues?  Is it the people’s wonderful sense of humor?  Their open and friendly nature?  The fact that even the cab driver will tell you his life story if you get him started.  Mom loves to get them started, always asking, “How is your day so far?”  That’s all it takes.  Before long, we are learning tales of relatives in New York, snowstorms 15 years ago, slow business days, daughters and sons-in-laws, advice for traveling, commentary on the “Gloom and Doom” economy . . . it goes on and on.  Mom is always quick to say, “I come every February and now I have my Irish passport.”

“It’s the promised land,” said our Cabbie last night.

Ahh.

Ireland is a beautiful country.  But while the views are splendid, I guess it is the people.  We love the people.  The Irish make everyone feel at home, like we are all family.  I love that.  And now we actually do have some friends here who are like family.

We met them in Lake Como, Italy actually.  How?  Mom’s gift of gab.

I was swimming in the small pool on the terrace, overlooking gorgeous Lake Como, summer 2011.  Mom was sunbathing and happened to strike up a conversation with a young woman.  Her friend was floating on a raft in the pool, near me.  Before long, we discovered they were both teachers working in Dublin.  We enjoyed lots of conversation, laughs, and some drinks, kept in touch through facebook, and reunited last summer for dinner and a concert at the National Concert Hall. The music of Danny Elfman. (Simpsons, of course!).  It was all in connection with the Jameson International Film festival that is held this time every year. And I’m always here this year because it’s my February break.  Luckily, my February break at my new school (the Ski Week) coincides with that of my old school.

Anyways, this year, the music at the concert hall was a bit dark so Mary Bridget and Elaine booked tickets for The Gate theatre, a small, intimate theatre.  After a delightful dinner and sinful dessert at the Gresham Hotel (seriously sinful — bread and butter pudding for me that must have had a whole brick of Kerry Gold in it, mmm), we walked across to the Gate Theatre where we discovered we had 2nd row seats for “A Bedroom Farce,” a very funny British Comedy.

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We were laughing our arses off for the duration, especially while watching a John Cleese like character stuck in bed with back pain.  He dropped his book and the look on his face and the perfect mannerisms . . . it was wonderful.  If the wrong type of actor was cast, it just wouldn’t be funny.  But this was delightful.  Having just suffered a flare up of an old track injury where I had a slipped disc/sciatica, I know all too well the comic positions, faces, and noises you make when your back gets “stuck” as his was.

2nd Row Seats for the show.  Intermission.

2nd Row Seats for the show. Intermission.

So, after a lovely evening, we thanked the girls for their delightful treat (Aunt Minnie got dinner for us and the girls just insisted that they treat us to the show no matter how hard Mom tried to protest.  Elaine said, “We won’t take it.  We’ll just leave that as a very nice tip for our waiter.”)

Mom said, “These are our first international friends.  You’ve been traveling for years, but for us, this is new and they are so special.”  She is right.

“Who are your first international friends?”

I thought a minute. “Jasper and Dave” I said.  From Bruges. “11 years later, I still talk to them and visit them.”

Mary Bridget said, “It is so wonderful to have international friends.”

“It Tis,” said Elaine.  We all nodded our heads, said a farewell, and Mary Bridget promised to be in touch to help me plan my trip.  I’m taking some students to Dublin to study the Irish Nationalist movement, the revival, WB Yeats, James Joyce, etc.  As she is studying at Trinity College in the English Department (for her Masters) she said they would be happy to help.

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What else did we do on this tour?  Well, a quick recap.  I arrived via Paris the evening before and stayed in a single ensuite room at a lovely hostel I had visited in 2006 in a dorm room.  This was the first time in a private room, and it was spendidly comfortable.  The next morning, I walked over to our hotel where I met Mom and Great Aunt Minnie, freshly arrived from JFK in NYC.  They napped, I got a haircut at Toni & Guy. (It’s very hard to find English speaking hairdressers and my Italian is just not that good yet).

That evening, we took a DART train ride to Dun Laoghaire (pronounced Dun Leary) for a lovely stroll in the sunshine along the sea and a delightful meal.  I had sweet and spicy chicken wings.  mm.  Back on the electric commuter rail (60% financed by the EEC) and back to Dublin.  Did we take a stroll around?  I don’t exactly remember, but the ladies were jetlagged and to bed early.

The next morning, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast, hopped on a hop on/hop off tour bus — an annual tradition, stopped at the Guinness Storehouse for their first visit (I went in 2001).  I enjoyed a pint at the Gravity Bar with views over the city. Mom had half of hers, and Aunt Minnie had a soda.  I loved it and couldn’t believe that when I came in 2001, as a Junior in College, I still was making bitter beer face, even with Guinness.  I had a couple of sips and then handed it over to the man sitting at the bar waiting for such an opportunity. He must buy his ticket every day and then drink discarded Guinnesses all day for free.  I did not see him in 2013 on this trip, though.

Anyways, we completed our loop and returned for high tea.  Later that night, I ordered room service for puff pastry potato and chicken leak pie.  mmm.

The following morning, we boarded a bus for our annual Wicklow tour, the gorgeous mountains just outside of Dublin where many movies are filmed, including PS I Love You.  I can’t go to Wicklow without thinking of this clip: Mom saw it on TV and said it reminded her of me.  Aww.  What a sweet movie.  With great music.  Love it.  Of course, as it was February, the fields weren’t filled with the gorgeous purple heather, but they still have their own special quality.  More about Wicklow along with photos in another post.

That evening, Mom and I walked to Grafton Street, where there was shopping until 9pm and I had a wardrobe to restock a bit.  But somehow we got separated and somewhere there is security footage of us comically passing each other.  In fact, we both said we were watching the street sweeper go by.  We were probably on either side of him. And somewhere in that sweeper went one of my new favorite earrings.  Oh well.

Yesterday was a lazy day.  We woke up for breakfast, Mom and I shopped (finally), then we rested until dinner with the girls.  And finally I did some yoga to try to fend off this food binge.  Oh, but how lovely it all is. And now here we are, Lazy Day 2.  We might go to a movie. It’s really cold, actually snow flurrying.  And while I did not need gloves in Switzerland when it was -9 degrees Farenheit, Ireland at 30 degrees freezes my hands off.  It’s a chilling, damp kind of cold.  We were thinking of heading to Howth to see the sea lions at the other end of Dublin bay, but it looks like a movie is in order.  I want to see Lincoln, but Aunt Minnie says, in all seriousness, “I don’t want to see that.  I know how it ends.”

So we shall see.  Off for a walk so housekeeping can come in.

Belgium calls again!

I have just returned from visit number 12 to Belgium!  Che Fortuna!

Here’s how it all happened.  I am teaching an International Baccalaureate (IB) course called Language A. (I teach it in English, but it is offered in dozens of languages).  I already have training in Language and Literature, but it’s a different track for English than my school offers.  I applied for funds through the professional development committee to go, originally for December in Oxford, but it’s a crazy time of year and I had already received some funding, so I applied again for spring semester.  The soonest course was in Brussels, Belgium.  So once again, back to one of my favorite countries.

As you may recall from my previous Belgium post My Magic Bruges , my heart lies in Flanders – the Flemish (Dutch dialect) speaking region north of Brussels.  But while I may love Bruges the best, Brussels is certainly nice.

It was a whirlwind.  I worked on Thursday, my crazy day, for four 80 minute classes, jetted home to get my bags and dash to the airport where I had to transfer in Rome, finally arriving in Belgium at midnight.  Brussels airport is super convenient with a rail connection to Brussels Central, so I did that then groggily showed a taxi driver my hotel info and arrived at my hostel/hotel around 1am.  Whew!  Reception normally closes at 22:00, so I’m so glad I notified them in advance and someone waited for me.  When I arrived, I soon learned that he was “going to sleep for three hours” because then he had to work again very early in the morning.  Yikes.

I awoke the next morning to pouring rain as I had a yummy hotel breakfast – just some warm croissants and breads along with coffee and OJ.  I was worried about my transport connections to the Management Conference Center, so I jetted out and on my way.  I somehow got on the right tram, but in the wrong direction, with foggy windows and no signs to announce the stops, it was a collossall guessing game.  Where am I?  Where am I going?  I dunno.  Eventually I asked someone what stop we were at, then I learned I had gone the wrong way.  I am not necessarily a shy person, but with certain things I’m painfully shy — asking strangers for directions – yeah, that’s tricky for me.  Everyone was being super helpful, but they were also confused, too.   The directions listed the wrong name for the tram stop, which thanks to google maps and some help from tram riders, we learned was Baili.  Next, the website said, “once you get off at the stop, the Management Center is a short walk away.” No map, no indication of the direction.  Nothing to help.  Again, luckily I had a google maps printout with me as well, but that was not exactly correct.  One woman said, “I worked at that stop for 20 years, and I have never heard of that place.”    There was a lot of passing around of my documents, a lot of discussion and a lot of wishes for good luck.  We had a while to go, so we chatted about books and how much she loves Faulkner.  So friendly.  Everyone was so kind, and I was so grateful.

Once I exited, I clung to my soggy paper and finally found my way.  After a hard start, the day was lovely.  My teacher was extremely warm, positive and helpful– an IB English A teacher in London.  We had people in our class from all over the world: Russia, Netherlands, Turkey, Jordan, Poland, Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia . . .and all teaching in different languages.  Very cool!

The information was extremely helpful for my coursework.  We shared ideas, and it was all information my students and I desperately needed, so I soaked it up like a sponge and the days flew by.  They provided us with coffee breaks after 90 minute sessions.  Yummy treats, and then an absolutely delicious lunch buffet.  The first day, there were cheese croquettes as an option!  My favorite!  And two different types.  I just love how these are done in Belgium, fried perfectly crisp with a sumptuous filling.  I need to write poetry about these cheese croquettes to do them justice.  They also had a huge salad spread with smoked salmon, meats, tasty raisin and cranberry bread . . . I couldn’t stop eating, and even went for a second helping of croquettes.  Even little glass bottles of coke.  And one of the dessert options at the buffet was creme brulee.  At a buffet!

At the end of a long yet productive day of coursework, I grabbed a fresh-made warm waffle with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and ice cream, then headed straight for a train to Ghent, where I’d meet up with Jasper, one of my Belgian friends I met in Bruges in the summer of 2001 — all those years ago.  Both Jasper and Dave have become really good friends, and due to both my love for Europe and Belgium, I get to see them a lot.

Jasper met me at the station, and we walked around the very quiet streets of Ghent.  It was Friday night — and unlike most university towns in America, the college kids go home.  Virtually all of them.  Ghent is a major university where most of the Flemish speaking college aged kids go to school.  Both Jasper and Dave went there, and both of them now have their own apartments in the city like many young adults stay. Jasper walked me through a street that was like a mini Greenwich Village, if I wanted to stretch a bit. . .er, a lot.  He kept calling Ghent the “New York of Flanders”

“Take a photo,” he said, “and post it as the New York of Flanders.  And everyone will wonder — ooh, what is that city.”  I laughed and turned on the sarcasm.  Then he said, “No really, look at that tall building they are constructing.”  He pointed to a solitary communist-style architecture apartment building that was clearly an eyesore on the gorgeous medieval landscape.  “That makes it like New York, and this is my neighborhood.  So I kind of live in New York.  I’m a New Yorker.”

“So move to New York, ” I said.

“No, I can’t.  My heart is here.”

And I hear that from so many Belgians.  They often love to talk about and visit New York.  They have a fondness for America, American things, and American people.  (Do they like me for me or my country, hmmm?)  Yet they wouldn’t want to leave their country.  I can’t blame them.  It’s a good , peaceful life.  People are provided for.  Overall, it’s calm.  It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and delicious food and beer.  Yeah, I get it.

I had to get some fries.  Though they try, they just can’t get them right in the “Belgian Fry Shops” of NYC.  This night, I tried the Mammoetsauce (mayonnaise, tomato, onion,glucose, garlic, soy) because I remember loving it out late in Ghent in November.  To help me choose, the girl put four different sauces in a dish for me to dip a fry in to taste. Cool!  I loved them all, but chose the Mammoet for this night.

Jasper had a water.

I refused to feel guilty devouring the fries as he counted calories and just ate his traditional one fry in sauce.  I was in Belgium and I was determined to eat my way through it.  As usual.

Afterwards, we went to a bar in a student neighborhood, where on a Friday night, there were only four other people, all around age 18.  We had Leffe Blondes, then moved on to another bar for a cocktail.  I had a mojito and Jasper had a Bloody Mary, mostly for the political reference.  (He’s a history teacher).  He kept making a face while drinking it, saying “I hate tomatoes, I should have known I wouldn’t have liked this.”

Um . . .yeah.

We had some good laughs, sharing memories over the years, and then I had to dash home to catch my train.  Bummer.  I’m usually here on holiday, where I can crash if I miss the train — no big deal.  But my class was super important and super expensive for my school, so I wanted to make sure I got the most out of it.

I arrived back at Brussels Central and decided to walk to my hotel that night, through the Grand Place, past students, locals and tourists out for Friday night fun, and I got to my hotel around 1 am  . . .again, and passed out exhausted.  7am rise the next day.

Another pleasant hotel breakfast, another amazing and informative day of class along with fabulous lunch (Turkey Cordon Blu), then I dashed to the train for a ride to BRUGES!  I was so excited both Jasper and Dave agreed to meet me in Bruges this night so I could see it.  🙂  Jasper hopped on the train in Ghent, and Dave was already home in Bruges for the weekend, so he would drive over later.

As Jasper and I walked around Bruges, he was oohing and ahhing at everything: the quaint winding Medieval streets, the peace, the architecture.  “I’m starting to appreciate my city like a tourist,” he said.  “I see why you always want to stay here.  I can really see it now.  It’s special.”

We walked through the market square, passed the Belfry, then stopped in a fry shop where I indulged in bitterballen —  fried balls filled with something delicious.  Then I had a Kaas Kroqet.  mmm.  After, we had beers in a bar I visited several times before, including NYE 2010.  When Dave arrived, we went to a bar on the T-Zand, the other big market in Bruges, with the fountain.  I had a Brugse Zot (Bruges Fool) and a Kriek, followed by profiteroles.  mmmm.  Dave was distracted because he had a crazy girl stalking him and getting him and his friend in trouble with their girlfriends, so he was outside on the phone for much of it.  But we understood. Then all too quickly, it was time to catch the train home.  Jasper and I said farewell to Dave, boarded the train, and he departed in Ghent.  I wanted to snooze, but Jasper said, “That’s not social!” So I stayed up to spend time with him before my next visit.

Back in Brussels late again, and again, I arrived at my hotel around 1am.  Really exhausted now, but it’s all worth it.

The following morning, I rose early, ate breakfast, checked out and left my luggage, and darted to class for the last time.  It was a super helpful conclusion.  We said our farewells and had lunch at 12:30.  I sat with my teacher and a woman who is an admin in Lebanon.  I’m going to try to arrange a visit.

After, I strolled around a Brussels park a bit, at the stop called Parc on Tram Line 1 and 5.  Then I got my luggage and headed for the airport an hour early.  I wanted more fried food, but didn’t have the opportunity there.  I did have the opportunity to purchase some Neuhaus cocoa powder for hot chocolate. mmm.  To kill time, I had a nice Leffe Brown beer in the terminal and headed on a long journey home, transferring in Rome.  I arrived in Genoa before 11:30, but by the time I waited for the air bus, switched to the local bus, and walked home, it was almost 1am . . .yet again.

The next day at work, after going, going, going — I was super exhausted.  But I was also glowing because it was an awesome, productive and fun trip filled with much joy and a lot of food.  I don’t know how this is possible, but I swear my pants already don’t fit.  Worth it.

**Please note, there seems to be an issue with inserting a slideshow in WordPress.  The button is no longer there.  Any ideas?  I inserted a gallery this time instead.

My Magic Bruges

November 1 and 2 is the All Saints holiday in Italy, so we had off that Thursday and Friday.  As with any break, it was time to travel somewhere.  I chose to visit Bruges, Belgium to see one of my favorite cities in the world as well as good friends I met over 11 years ago.

This was my 9th visit to Bruges . . .10 if you count 2002 where I visited twice during one long backpacking trip.  There has always been something extremely magical about this fairytale city, a step back in time and a break from reality.  A place to wander and imagine.

While studying abroad in England in spring 2001, my friend Mike and I booked a mini break to  Brussels, Belgium.  We were looking for something different and new, and figured this would be a nice three day escape.  Our travel agent in Banbury said, “Oh, you must go to Bruges.  It’s very special.  Canals, swans . . . you must go.”  Mike and I kept that in mind.  After wandering around the beautiful yet congested streets of Brussels, we returned to our hotel and saw a poster advertising a day trip to Bruges the next day.  We signed up, and the next day, we arrived for a big surprise.

I knew nothing about Bruges except the swans and canals.  I was not prepared for the sights that had me spinning my head in all directions like my cat when we throw too many catnip mice at her.  We oohed, we ahhed, we wandered, and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures — beauty everywhere.  Extremely ornate baroque architecture, with intricate details on every piece of moulding and wood, from houses to churches.  The carillon bells chimed throughout the day, a live organist playing sweet melodies for us at the top of the Belfry, the centerpiece of the quaint, picturesque cobbled square. The square was lined with  restaurants, horse-drawn carriages, and tourists happy to discover one of medieval Europe’s best kept secrets.  Back then before the release of the movie, who knew how beautiful things were In Bruges?

Bruges is considered one of the world’s largest outdoor museums.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  How did it stay so well-preserved? Bruges used to be on the coast, an important port city,  an epicenter for trade and Flemish art and architecture.  But when the water receded, Bruges was no longer on the coast and the city was abandoned, almost forgotten for centuries.  In the 1800s, when travel became a leisure activity, Victorian tourists “re-discovered” the beauty, putting Bruges on the map for the Grand Tour. Though filled with tourists, and tourism certainly has increased after the release of the 2008 movie, people do live here in this very special place.

During our walking tour, we wandered down a cobbled back lane, and I peered at the lace-covered windows, wondering about the lives inside.  What would it be like to live here?  I’d like to live here.  I need to come back.  I was absolutely mesmerized, and then I tried the food.  Fries like I’d never had in my life . . . crispy and flavorful, served in a white bowl, mayonnaise on the side.  Chicken in a delicious cream sauce.  I don’t know the name, I’m not even sure what else we had — I just remember the sensational flavors.  This was so early on in my world travels, just my second time in Europe — and I was overwhelmed with sensory ecstasy.

We took a cruise along the canals, dipping below low bridges, gliding past more intricate buildings and past the majestic swans, undulations trailing them.  We sampled the rich chocolate truffles, watched some lacemaking, then we stopped at a convent for cloistered nuns.  I sat amidst yellow tulips and imagined a life cloistered amidst all this beauty: thinking, praying, writing, reflecting . . . how peaceful.  I envied the nuns a little bit.

We boarded the bus and left the magical city, the spires disappearing in the distance before we entered the highway back to chaotic Brussels.  I began to regret not staying in Bruges instead.  I didn’t know.  But I knew I’d be back.

I had no idea it would be so soon.  That was March 2001.  That summer, my best friend Anna announced that she was going to be studying abroad for a month in . . . BRUGES . . .  as she was working toward her culinary degree at Johnson and Wales.  My heart pounded with excitement for her and a tinge of jealousy because she got to stay in that city, to experience life there like I had dreamed while wandering the streets.  She invited me to visit after her studies.  I had just returned from life abroad and was already dreaming of being back in Europe.  My parents said, “We’ll buy you the ticket as your birthday present.  You just pay for the hotel and incidentals.”  I did not hesitate and booked my flight for that July, just two months after I had returned from England.

Just before my 21st birthday, in low pigtails with a bright lifeguard tan, I boarded the plane for my first international trip alone.  Oh yes, I had the travel bug big time now, and this trip launched the next phase of my adventures.  I met Anna at a hotel in Bruges, and we rode bikes into the countryside, discovered a beautiful park, stumbled across a festival at a beer garden, and enjoyed summer beauty.  Before heading to Interlaken, Switzerland, we ventured out to her favorite bar, Bras, located in another square by the fountain. I threw on jeans and my royal blue Superman tank top, and we were out the door.  I remember being a bit tired that night but knew that I’d have a good time if I could just make it out.

At Bras, I had my first Belgian beer.  I usually involuntarily made “bitter beer face” every time I tried to have a beer when out, and instead opted for mixed drinks like vodka and cranberry.  Anna ordered me a Duvel, and it glided right down with a pleasant aftertaste.  Smooth.  No headache.  Nice buzz.  We sampled different beers that night, including Hoegarden and Stella, enjoyed the music, talked to the bartenders that Anna knew well, and then . . . magic.

A guy came up to me and said, “What do you think of that guy over there?”  He pointed to a very attractive, tanned, athletic Belgian.  “He’s cute,” I said.  Shortly afterward, he came over and in his good but not practiced English, we began talking.  And then  . . . kissing.  We kissed so long that the bartenders sprayed us with tap beers.  We barely noticed. Anna said she had to make new friends.

His name was Jasper and he had a fun, cute friend named Dave.  I found out he had lied about his age when his mother kept texting him to come home.  They were only 18, just having graduated from high school — about to enter college.  I was about to turn 21 in a couple of weeks, about to enter my senior year of college.  Oh well.  Jasper scrawled his email on a bar coaster and the next day Anna and I woke up without hangovers and were off for an amazing adventure in another one of my favorite places, the Swiss Alps.

At the end of that trip, Anna headed to Greece and I was back in Bruges for just a few days by myself.  I emailed Jasper, he met me at Bras again with Dave, and a long friendship was born.  Dave said, ‘We noticed you because of your Superman shirt . . . we thought that was so cool.”  And then when they found out I was a lifeguard, I had to explain that, no, I did not know Yasmin Bleethe.

We emailed throughout the year, and I visited the following summer while backpacking throughout Europe on my own for 3 weeks.  This was my two visits in 2002 . . . and well, I guess you could also say I had two visits in 2001.  Maybe 11 visits to Belgium depending on how you count it.  🙂  Bruges was the 2002 Culture Capital of Europe, so there were even more museum exhibits and cultural activities than usual.  I explored Van Eyck paintings, I learned more about the history, I shopped on the quaint streets, and I ate well.  Of course, I met up with Jasper and Dave at Bras and met some of their new friends and introduced them to some friends from Fordham that I ran into serendipitously on a back lane on the outskirts of town.  I also visited Ghent University, where they were now studying in another beautiful canal-laden city with grand architecture.  And then life happened.  Emails changed and we lost touch.  But we never lost the fun memories.

In 2005, I received an email from my friend Charlie.  The guys had posted a comment on his blog because he had mentioned my full name.  I guess they were searching for me and they said, “this may be the Kristin we met in Belgium some years ago.”  He asked if I knew them and said yes, and then we were back in touch.

We kept in touch with emails, but I did not get back until 2006 when I was in Belgium with my entire family . I had to show them how beautiful it was.

I’ll never forget the family’s faces as we walked to the market square at night on my birthday, August 11, 2006.  Sweet 26.  All lit up and a surprise feast for the eyes.  Then an absolutely amazing meal at one of the restaurants, facing the belfry. Cheese croquettes.  Delicious meal in various sauces.  A special beer called Kwak that required it’s own wooden holder to keep the hourglass shape from tipping over.  Bubbles and a bubbly mood.  Have I ever been this happy?  It was the only time our whole family traveled in Europe together, and we were in one of my favorite places.  On a whim, I emailed the guys, and then we met at the fountain, just like old times.  My brother met them and we were all fast friends, enjoying the music festival in town, talking in the bars until 4 am each evening, and just savoring the moment.  They told my brother, “You are our hero.” Did I ever laugh so much?  Good Times and Amazing Memories.

Life got in the way again, but I was able to return in the summer of 2009 on a grand tour with my father to Switzerland and Belgium.  Dave took me to a friend’s birthday party, then we met Jasper in Ghent for some beers and fun.  I was back that winter to experience New Years’  2010 in Bruges with my friend Krista.  Partying till dawn and making new friends, it was another of my favorite experiences.  I really enjoyed wandering the Christmas markets, sipping mulled wine, and peering at all the lights and Christmas decorations — one of my photos made it to the cover of my Christmas cards the following year.

Summer 2010, Dad and I were once again traveling through Europe, and once again returned to our favorite city to wander the streets and savor the food.  This time, I didn’t get to see Dave who was out of town, but Jasper and I met up a few times for good meals and good conversation. I also met up with Kai,Tobi, and Simone, friends I met at New Years.  And my friend  from NY, Josh, was backpacking in town that weekend, so we all had drinks together.

Summer 2011, yup, I was back in Europe again.  I spent a week in Italy with mom and Aunt Minnie, then flew to Brussels.  At Dave’s new apartment in Ghent, he popped some champagne for the three of us to celebrate 10 years since we first met in Bruges.  Anna said, “I wish I could have been there.  And who’d have thought that you’d still be in touch all these years later?”  We were grateful for the friendship, and I said, ‘Here’s to the next 10 years.  Hopefully I’ll come with my family one day and our kids can all play together.”  .

This year, as always, it was great to see my friends.  Thanks to facebook, I know everything that’s going on in their lives, and it’s so easy to just pick up where we left off, chatting, laughing, wandering.  We had some good beers in Ghent.  We ate delicious fries and bitterballen.  We watched Dave’s soccer game and met his teammates and their friends and girlfriends.  Everyday Belgium.

The trip was quick, but there was plenty of time for a visit to Ghent and plenty of wandering around Bruges, beautiful even in the cold November rain.  I was heartbroken and upset after all of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in New York.  I was feeling far away and alone, and this trip ended up being at the perfect time.  The beauty and magic of the city soothed me as always.  The long walks cleared my head while I traveled back in time. The conversations with my old friends were special as always, and I enjoyed meeting more of their friends.  I ate well, laughed much, and soaked my soul in beauty.  I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving as always, and I am very thankful for the many, many happy memories I’ve had in Europe over the years with friends, family and new friends.  More about this particular trip in the photo essay.

Verona: Looking for Romeo under some balconies

A few weeks ago, I planned a lazy, cozy PJ weekend spent dozing and catching up on movies.  But when a couple of friends invited me to Verona, I couldn’t say no.  A new city!  Yay!  Unlike Shakespeare, I was actually going to see Verona.  Yup, he set his star crossed lovers in this quaint medieval city without ever setting foot in Italy at all.  When I announced my departure on a Girls Night Out skype chat in NY (well, they were still up, and I was about to hop into the shower), they said “Have fun looking for Romeo.”

“Where do I find him?”

“Check under some balconies.”

Sleepy yet excited, I met my friends at that train station and we headed on over for our adventure. We were greeted with torrential rain upon our arrival – bummer.  We walked to our quaint hotel, which was midway between the city center and the train station, and began exploring.  Knowing nothing at all about Verona and having not even seen a guidebook, the city was a complete surprise.  Quaint castle.  Cool bridge from that castle with views over the river and the panorama of the city.  Various lookouts filled with tourists and necking teens.  This was definitely THE makeout spot for the Vernoese – wannabe Romeos charming the pants off their girls in that old fashioned lip lock we so often forget as we grow older and  . . .anyway.

My friend kept saying, “I love my life!  Seriously, I love my life.”

This was just a simple weekend trip for us.  Yes, I love my life.  We are so lucky.  Even in the rain, we were blissfully happy, wandering, exploring, just being.

Strolling through town, it was apparent that not just the locals were inspired by Romeo.  Many couples made it a kind of romantic pilgrimage to walk hand in hand in the streets that inspired the tragic love story.  People do love this story.  It came up in my 10th grade class, and all the girls swooned about how romantic and sweet the story is, and my snarky, sarcastic Korean student said “They die.  It’s tragic.  It’s horrible.  Nobody wins.”

And I said, “Would you rather have that amazing love and then die or would you rather live a long life and never know love?”

The girls said “love and die,” the guys said “life!”  hmmm.

After the bridge, we wandered in search of good food.  We heard that the people are really nice here and that the food is splendid.  We followed an amazing scent to a local restaurant where we learned that both rumors were true.  Our waiter was nice, sweet, funny, and spoke English!  Coming from non-touristy Genoa where almost nobody speaks it, this was a welcome treat.  I ordered macronicini with pumpkin and pork.  My friend ordered tortellini filled with a mix of meats. That sounded amazing and I went to switch and the waiter shouted an alarmed, “NO!”

Startled, I said, “Huh?”

“The macaronicini is amazing.  You must have it.  It’s my favorite.”

One friend switched her order and we were absolutely not disappointed.  Apparently the tortellini was delicious too, but that pumpkin … mmmm, such hearty flavor.  In Northern Italy, near the Sud Tirol, the food shows an interesting alpine influence.  Italian cooking — so regional.  Travel a hundred miles in any direction, and you’ve hit an entirely different style of cooking.  Living in Genoa, all the restaurants (and even the shops) feature ligurian cuisine, food from the land — simple compositions that let the ingredients shine.  But I get sick of the same thing over and over, and therefore love trying new cuisine!  YUM!

It was cold and wet, so we met up with friends at a bar.  They used to work with my colleague in China and are now at an international school in Albania.  We traded teaching stories, planned a visit, enjoyed lots of vino, then strolled through town, down cobbled lanes, into an old church with a funky pendulum, past a market, and then into another bar next to the coliseum, where I had 4 more glasses of delicious vino and aperitivos.  Chatting, enjoying, and relishing the evening.  Afterwards, we were hungry for more food and ducked into what we thought was a chill restaurant.  In our fleeces, with soggy hair, we didn’t exactly fit in with the packed crowd dolled up for date night, but we enjoyed our snug table by the open fire where the chefs cooked veggies and bread.  I had a simple onion soup, thick and tasty, while gnoshing on bread.  Then back to the hotel and to bed.

The weather got even colder the next day as the rain came down even heavier, so we decided to grab an earlier train home.  But first,  we grabbed a nice heated outdoor breakfast, featuring hot chocolate that was like melted candy bar … mmm… then we figured, hey why not . . . let’s go look for “Juliet’s House.”  Of course Juliet is fictional, but they set up a balcony and a bronze statue of Juliet.  Tourists rub her right breast for good luck in love and sex.  That breast was worn shiny by all the . . . love? I touched it quickly for a photo with silent apologies to the bard for the huge disgrace that must have him turning in his grave . . . but I couldn’t help it.  When in Verona . . .

The whole area, a little cove off a side street, has turned into a shrine for love.  Couples attach locks to a grate, engraved with their names.  Locks of Love.  I wonder how many of those relationships outlasted the lock.  I wonder how often someone comes over with clippers to ditch the locks.  And in the archway leading to the whole scene, couples doodled their names, initials, and love messages to each other within hearts.  The urge to mark, whether it’s a tree, a bathroom stall, or “Juliet’s” balcony.  The urge to preserve when everything is ultimately transient.

It’s hard to think of Romeo and Juliet without thinking of this song:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fiXkvsKpdk

Here are some pictures from our trip:

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