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.  🙂

Medieval Ferrara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

Making friends on a Sunday stroll

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

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

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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep, that’s Italy.”

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

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

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

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

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

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

View from our balcony at the Milan Hilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from our Rome hotel room

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

View from the hotel window

View from the hotel window

The Beautiful River Aare

The Beautiful River Aare

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

Jungfrau in the distance

Jungfrau in the distance

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

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

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

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

Bonigen

Bonigen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan flying

Brendan flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tandem Bicycle

Tandem Bicycle

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

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

-written 27 June but posted in April for timeline purposes

-continued in Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

The ceiling in one of the main galleries

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

Thunderstorm as viewed from one of the windows

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

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

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

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

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

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

The Pieta

The Pieta

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

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

Welcome to the new pope.

Welcome to the new pope.

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

Viagra Gelato! ha

Viagra Gelato! ha

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

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

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

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

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

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

Brendan’s been thinking about Rome for years.

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

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

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

Hot Wheels!

Ciao!  I bought a scooter!  Finally.  🙂  I am so grateful for my administrator and his wife who took me out to a few shops this morning to finally get my scooter.  Like many Italian cities, scooters are super practical in Genoa whereas cars are an expensive pain in the bum, leaving you broke and without a place to park.  Meanwhile, a scooter can zip you around the tiny, winding roads and up and down the hills or along the coast, with easy parking options.  Unlike flat Florence or Rome, though, Genoa’s mega hills require some more power and fatter, bigger wheels, so Vespas are a bit unsafe although classically sexy.  It’s ok, this scooter will still work for the European Dream Eddie Izzard describes in his comedy.

Now I can be all like, “CIAOOOO!”

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I got a Yamaha 125 cc, which is less problematic with a US license.  She’s an oldie, but I love her.  I knew she was mine when I saw her, and the price was about half of what I was prepared to pay.  I worked after school for two days a week last semester, which gave me enough money for the bike.  But now I can afford both bike and insurance without scraping the bottom of my sickly bank account.  Like I said, I won’t get rich, but I’m living richly.

I have her just in time for the spring and summer weather that is arriving soon.  🙂  Fun, fun, fun!

Cogliere l’attimo.  Carpe Diem.  Sieze the Day.  No Regrets.

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