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.

Image

Image

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.

ImageImageImage

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.

ImageImageImage

Image

The main street’s looking good

Image

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

IMG_1112

Jen enjoying her limoncello

Next, we completed the trail then to Monterosso.

IMG_1114 IMG_1113IMG_1123 IMG_1119 IMG_1118

Once in Monterosso, we took some photos

IMG_1133 IMG_1132 IMG_1128 IMG_1127 IMG_1126 IMG_1124

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.

IMG_1139

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.

IMG_1142

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

IMG_1192 IMG_1191 IMG_1189

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.

IMG_1194

perfect weather for my first dip of the season

IMG_1195

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.

IMG_1198

Photoshoot at Piazza de Ferrari

IMG_1202

Waldwick Girls in Italy

IMG_1206

Golden hour of sunshine at the Porto Antico

IMG_1199 IMG_1201 IMG_1203 IMG_1204 IMG_1205

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,

photo-3

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

photo-4

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.  🙂

Send me on my way

Today’s a special post. Live from my office at my school on the last day of work. 10 months to the day since I boarded the plane in a whirlwind of emotions, leaving for my new life in Italy. The amazing, challenging, fun and incredible year has come to a close. My 9th year as a teacher. 6th year as a high school teacher. 2nd year teaching middle school. And my first year in Italy! It was a huge and exciting decision, and I can’t imagine if I had not accepted this amazing offer which has changed my life so positively. So much joy, beauty, adventure, some loss and lots of reflection. I spent much time thinking about NYC and my family, missing home and the familiar comforts. I spent much time getting excited about my travels and exploring the gorgeous landscape and culture of Liguria, but I was also always counting back hours to see what time it was in NY, looking at the weather, and messaging friends at home. Yet over all that time, Liguria became home. Tomorrow, I have a ticket to fly home. Where is home?

When I purchased this ticket — Thanks Dad! — my father then said, “You should have stayed a week or so to enjoy Italy and your scooter . . . or even to travel.” To be honest, I’m low on my travel budget, everyone’s heading off, and I just was really looking forward to a long, relaxing, extended time in NYC and Jersey with family and friends I have missed so much. And my cats! But now the weather is absolutely stunning, day after day. The turquoise blue waters call, and I dive in after work, then bask in the warm glow of sunshine sprawled on warm, smooth rocks and pebbles. I head to my friend’s house for vino on her balcony, which faces a castle, as we watch the sky turn pink then an inky indigo, long after 9:30pm before walking home under the stars. I stroll uphill to my apartment, past balconies strewn with beach towels, couples walking dogs (everyone has a dog here in Genoa), and smell the flowers in full, lush bloom. Genoa is at her finest right now, and I have chosen to leave her. And that hurts.

One of the many beautiful beaches along Genova's coast.

One of the many beautiful beaches along Genova’s coast.

Genoa will be stunning when I return in August, as I have learned from last year’s arrival. I was able to swim well into October. It was sunny almost every day in those months, and it will still be lovely. I have so many adventures, good times, wonderful conversations, beaches, lakes, mountains, hikes, fire pits, great food and smiles waiting for me at home. I guess I’m just really realizing the huge effect of a transatlantic move. My heart belongs here as well as there. I’m very grateful that I have another year to return and enjoy, and now that I am settled, the lessons are planned, the books read, and the details sorted — I can enjoy it all even more!

I’m overwhelmed with emotions. Last night, I just said goodbye to a choir friend who is moving back to Lithuania. (A great excuse to travel one weekend in the fall!). We had an excellent sushi meal followed by Neopolitan pastries, and then stood in the parking lot, lingering, delaying the inevitable. Now, my classrooms are cleaned, posters torn off the wall, drawers emptied, my office tidied, papers purged . . . and it was all a crazy trip down memory lane with flashes from the past school year. It really was wonderful and joyful. This is a special school.

At graduation, we said farewell to our seniors. Administration prepared a special slide show, showing pictures of the kids through the years. 3 of them started at age 3! I managed to hold back the tears until that rolled across the screen to one of my favorite songs “Send Me on my Way.” A few days later, the seniors returned to our farewell ceremony, to give some more speeches, lots of hugs, and then . . . on to their lives. It was an honor to be their teacher, to get to know them, and to be part of their lives. They have touched my heart, and while we had so much work to do, I always looked forward to class.

It is my last day of work with my colleagues, friendly faces I met on an August day before sharing focaccia formaggio by the sea, sharing aperitivi in Piazza del Erbe, dancing till early morning, laughing in the office during stressful times, and over time, becoming cherished friends. Off to lunch, one final meal for the school year.

Send me on my way now, but just for the summer.

It’s really not all sunshine and roses – but life is still beautiful.

Sweden’s Disillusionment.  My friend and colleague just wrote the previous post about life and travel in Italy vs. other, wealthier countries.  I truly agree.  It’s amazing how people ooh and ah at home about Italy and refuse to let me say a negative word, thinking that I’m doing some kind of Eat Pray Love La Dolce Vita who knows a whata experience all the time.  One friend even said, “It’s a 2 year vacation with just enough work so you don’t feel lazy.”  No, no, no.  And . . .it’s work just to live here.  There is a very high price for all this beauty.  I’m happy to pay it . . . at least for a little while, but I do love the ahhhhh I feel when crossing the border into Switzerland, for example.

I’ve had many visitors since I arrived, and many were happy to take in the sights, but they also quickly grew to see the subtle annoyances of life here.  “Where can I buy a razor?” Not at this hour. (8pm) “Why is the store closed?”  Nap time, lunch time, holiday, because they don’t care.  “Why is this post box shut?” They can’t be bothered.   “Where can I buy bus tickets at this hour?” You can’t.  Hop on and take a risk.   “Why did they just charge us 13 euros for boxed pasta?”  Where is the food I’ve heard about?”  The food in Italy can be hit or miss, and actually, the best food’s at home.  Pasta Fresca, 2 euros!  “Where is the sun?” Uh, I have no idea, that’s supposed to be a given . .  .  

I know some of my visitors on their first visit to Italy may have been disappointed.  I remember the feeling.  In 1997, I signed up for a High School trip to Europe. That year, it was Paris, The Riviera and Rome.  yay!  I wasn’t too psyched about Paris, but with low expectations and it being my first European country, I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised.  I remember gazing in awe at the canals, finding the people friendly and helpful, and just kept hugging my friends because I was so happy.  When we arrived in Italy, it was nice — but we were starting to get tired as we visited Assisi and then we got lost in Florence where the ATM took my credit card and the bank was closed and  . . . it was a lot of nonsense.  By the time we got to Rome, it was pouring rain, we were exhausted, and I just wanted to go home.  Italy and the food didn’t really impress me.  Too many tourist traps?  Package tour food?  Whatever it was . . .I was ready to go.  Perhaps extra disappointed because my expectations were too high.

Moving here, I was well-informed.  I had been to Italy 5 other times.  I enjoyed the summer days Under the Tuscan Sun; saw the gorgeous Cinque Terre through train windows and wanted more; studied a bit of Italian in college; and had an amazing week along Lake Como.  But I had my share of cancelled or overcrowded trains, travel stress, disappointing and overpriced meals, tourist crowds, frightening travel chaos, and bad attitudes . . . to make me notice the reality.  I came to the conclusion that Italy knows that tourists will visit anyway, so who cares?  They are too busy enjoying life!   I also devoured travel writing that made no secret about how complicated, bureaucratic, and often completely nonsensical life can be here sometimes.  I was prepared.  But it can still be hard.

This is further exacerbated when the weather does not cooperate.   The weather and beauty soothe the soul and make the nonsense tolerable. But this year . . .is a bit different.   For some reason, Europe has been plagued by very strange unseasonable weather. Dublin was getting snow into March.  Genoa even had snow.  My students and colleagues said the swimming season is definitely in full swing by the end of March . . . but this year, I STILL have not been in the sea, except for a brief wade up to my calves while visiting the Cinque Terre for four days.  Yup, for the Festa della Liberazione (Italian holiday last Thursday and Friday) I thought for sure I would have the opportunity for sun-soaked days in the turquoise water.  But we had mostly clouds, walked around in our jeans and jackets — and were even drenched in pouring rain one day.  I had a friend visit for Easter break, and excitedly told him “pack your swimsuit.”  That was the only item of clothing he did not use, and we spent quite a bit of time wandering around the soggy streets of Rome and Milan.  I felt so bad.

We’ve all been waiting for the spring that was supposed to arrive a while ago, but . . .it’s just taking it’s time.  I have my mother here these past two weeks, and then on Friday, two of my best friends from High School arrive for a girls’ weekend, where we head to the Cinque Terre again.  Mom and I spent 4 days in Monterosso, and I’m heading to Vernazza with the girls.  I hope we have sun!  I’m sick of disappointing my visitors and myself.

I often think of Wordsworth who wrote a poem when climbing through the Alps.  He was looking forward to his first view of Mont Blanc.  All the others on the Grand Tour, the artists and poets, have explained the view — talked it up so much, that when he did see it, he was disappointed.  He regretted choosing the wrong trail, the mountain revealing itself in a different way, not the way he pictured it. He couldn’t appreciate it for how beautiful it was because it didn’t match the image in his mind’s eye, didn’t live up to the hype he expected.  He didn’t feel the sublime light of sense he craved.  Expectations breed disappointment.   That’s why, sometimes, a small unknown city can bring me so much more joy than a famous tourist destination — ESPECIALLY when I don’t know a thing about it.

Italy is so hyped up.  People have been raving and talking and writing about it for years.  In NYC, there are whole neighborhoods devoted to Italian culture and cuisine.  Movies are filmed here, books written . . . I remember when I posted that I was moving to Italy, the response was absolutely overwhelming.  I wondered if people would have been as excited if I accepted a job in Kiev or Oslo or Kuwait or Jakarta or even London.  I made the choice.  I wanted the weather, the language, the location, the comfortable familiar culture, but I also know that if I was in London or Switzerland or Germany I would have a better quality of life.  But . . .hey, the grass is always greener.  I currently have a friend in Switzerland who can’t wait to leave and feels it’s too Xenophobic and cold and harsh.  These feelings are all a part of expat life.

In grad school, I wrote an upside-down sonnet inspired by Wordsworth’s disappointment.  I remembered hiking in the Swiss alps, with the beautiful snow-capped peek of Jungfrau in the distance.  I have included this poem now because I was thinking about it this weekend in the Cinque Terre when I was disappointed like Wordsworth.  I wanted to show my mom how beautiful and lovely it was with crystal blue skies, igniting a bold turquoise sea and an unparalleled, sublime vibrant glow to all the scenery.  I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy the beauty that was before me because it wasn’t matching what I had in my mind’s eye.  My mom, however, was able to appreciate it for what it was — gorgeous and relaxing.

Jungfrau, Switzerland

Shadowed by the image in my mind’s eye,
the crest thwarts my dream from across the vale.
Like Wordsworth climbing for the light of sense,
I grieve and regret choosing the wrong trail.
No sublime, no flash, can’t see — though high
struggling to comprehend the immense.

Soon I realize there’s no single right way
for in countless, varied directions lie
diverse perspectives of the same blue sky,
framing the same grand pinnacle. A gray
frosted mane of wisdom reflects each ray
as I snap breathless photographs and try
to explore every path, pretending to fly
soaring–arms spread– till the end of my day.

~July 2003

6360_612688944390_1956269_n

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

IMG_0720IMG_0721IMG_0722

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.

IMG_0726

IMG_0724

IMG_0723

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.

IMG_0729

IMG_0730

IMG_0732

IMG_0735

IMG_0739

IMG_0740

IMG_0741

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

IMG_0748

IMG_0746

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.

IMG_0752
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
IMG_0763

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.

IMG_0766

IMG_0768

IMG_0773

IMG_0772

IMG_0771

IMG_0770

IMG_0769

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.

IMG_0779

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.

IMG_0782 IMG_0781

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.

IMG_0786

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

“My” Beach

On Sunday, I strolled to several beaches along the way to the resort neighborhood of Nervi.  At first, I was unsure if they were private, how things worked, and if I was allowed to be there.  But eventually I figured it out.  They are mostly free to use; you pay for chairs, umbrellas, bars, etc.  A private beach will be clearly marked.  Anyways, more about Sunday’s first dip at another time.

Despite my best intentions, the week slipped away and I did not make it to the beach again after work.  Today was humid and slightly stressful, so when I came home, I slipped into a bikini and updated my twitter status.  Before I made it out the door, the thunderstorms rolled in.  At 6:30, the rumbling had stopped and the rain reduced to a slight mist.   In less time than it took me to get to Metro North in Woodlawn, I could be in the Mediterranean.  I had to go.

I arrived at my closest beach to find it was completely empty, periwinkle gray waves crashing on the smooth pebbles.  “Don’t swim alone,” I heard my mother’s voice calling to me.  But the sea beckoned, and I went in “Just for a dip.”  There were people strolling about under the dark skies: a man tying up umbrellas in his bar, a woman with her dog, a hotel guest peering out the balcony.  I wasn’t totally alone . . . But for me, on this day, the beach and sea were mine.  Has this ever happened to me in America?  I couldn’t recall a time on our jam-packed beaches.

I slipped off my blue patent birkenstocks and gingerly walked over the stones, feeling like I was at a German spa, wading through the “pressure point” pools.  Then a few steps into the rocky water and it drops off immediately to the great, deep blue.  I like that.  I swam out towards the open water without my goggles.  I was just going for a dip, so I just grabbed a towel, no bag or anything.  Was there a giant rock beneath me?  Were these waves safe?  Would I be caught in a fishing line or bang my toe against a sunken barge?  I always worry when swimming in open water, but it was absolutely delightful.  Clean, clear, and relaxing.

Suddenly, the day drifted away as the ebb and flow of the sea soothed my soul like a day at the spa.  Soon I noticed a man snorkeling at the beach next to me, along the reef.  Then another man came down for his swim.  Storm clouds gathered again on the mountains just behind Genoa.  Knowing that lightening can strike without warning, I decided not to push my luck and eventually left the sea after 20 minutes of “above water” crawl [lifeguard save style] mixed with backstroke.

As I dried off, I watched the old, fit man enter the water, hands on hips, gazing out to the sea — beautiful in any weather.  After 5 minutes of stretching and anticipation, he plunged beneath the waves and breastroked out, far out, beyond the buoys.  Climbing the stairs back to the main road, I kept turning back to watch the man, afraid of being creepy but unable to stop.  I was so curious to see how things were done here, to learn.  How far would he go?  What is ok?  Acceptable?

I plan to come often.  Who is this man?  Who is the lady with the dog?  Eventually, they will recognize me.  Slowly but surely, my Italian will improve.  One day, I just may talk to them.  But for now, I am still a stranger, relishing my enigmatic presence as I soggily creep back up my hill.