Waldwick Girls in Italy – Genoa and the 5 Terre

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

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

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

I'm in the royal blue and tennis skirt

I’m in the royal blue and tennis skirt

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

tastes from home

tastes from home

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

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

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

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

Vernazza before the flood:

The floodwaters rush through the charming town:

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

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

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

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The main street’s looking good

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Colorful umbrellas provide a stunning backdrop for lunchtime reverie

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

The following slideshow features highlights of our journey.

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

Jen snapped this photo of me talking at the stand

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Jen enjoying her limoncello

Next, we completed the trail then to Monterosso.

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Once in Monterosso, we took some photos

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

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

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

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

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On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

On top of the world on a gorgeous day.

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

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perfect weather for my first dip of the season

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

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Photoshoot at Piazza de Ferrari

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Waldwick Girls in Italy

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Golden hour of sunshine at the Porto Antico

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

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

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

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.

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

Visit #10 to the Emerald Isle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahh.

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

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

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

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

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

2nd Row Seats for the show.  Intermission.

2nd Row Seats for the show. Intermission.

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

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

“Who are your first international friends?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers in Dublin to 6 months living in Europe!

Exactly 6 months ago, on an unusually hot and humid day, I saw the twisting, stunning Ligurian Coast from the airplane and landed in Genoa, Italy with several new colleagues.  It was the culmination of a whirlwind of planning that commenced around this time last year, as I started paperwork and the long process of packing up my wonderful, comfortable life in NYC for the adventure I always dreamed about.

The fountain at Piazza de Ferrari, cooling off in the mist. I was not posing, believe it or not . . .a friend just caught the bliss.

The fountain at Piazza de Ferrari, cooling off in the mist. I was not posing, believe it or not . . .a friend just caught the bliss.

I had been plotting and scheming a way to do this for so many years, even as a high school junior, contemplating attending college at the American University in Paris.  Studying abroad in England, with weekends all over the country and the continent, ignited the travel bug; the summer after that study abroad experience, I had the fever big time.

I was heading back to England for my flight home after three weeks solo backpacking around Europe post graduation from college.  I was sitting on my overstuffed backpack at the Bruges train station when a woman started talking to me, explaining that if I was a teacher, it would be easy to live abroad. “I don’t want to leave Belgium” I had told her. “I love it here.”

“There are jobs in Belgium and all over Europe at US Military Bases,” she explained.  That stuck in my mind, and a fantasy began exploding, but honestly, I had no intention of becoming a high school teacher, with dreams of a Masters and eventually PhD in English on my mind.  A tanned, happy girl in low pig tails, a dreamer.

We parted ways, and I kept that dream in the back of my mind but thought it would probably be something else that brought me to Europe.  One day, one day.  Maybe grad school.  Maybe working at a hostel, I dunno.  But I had to come back.  And LIVE here.

Eventually, after backpacking around Australia and many other fun post-grad adventures, I started my MA program in English at Fordham University, then wanted to get a PhD but took time off to sort things out, get on my feet financially, and figure out my whole deal.  I got a job as an adjunct professor at Iona College in 2004, when I had just turned 24 years old.  That was so much fun, and I knew I loved teaching.  A few years later, very happy but pretty darned broke, it was time to reevaluate — and I saw a poster in the NYC Subway: “You remember your teacher’s name.  Who will remember yours?”  It was an ad for the NYC Teaching Fellows.  I realized I loved teaching, wanted to give high school a try and wanted to help the community I had been living in for many years as I lived by Fordham University, which happened to be located in one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the city.  I applied after the deadline was extended, after I stopped hemming and hawwing, and before I knew it, I was in an overwhelmingly intensive summer training program.  Instead of sunny days on the beach at my lifeguarding gig, I was in an overheated un-airconditioned classroom with 60 kids.  Yes, 60  “Don’t worry, many will drop out,” said a supervisor as I watched kids sit on the windowsill and floor.

That fall, September 2007, I began teaching at a high school right by my apartment, and met wonderful colleagues and amazing students that I am still in touch with today.  It was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life.  Although I only had a 2 year commitment, I stayed 5 years, 3 additional years after completing my Education Masters at City College.  Then it was time to reevaluate again. Time was ticking, life was slipping away and I thought: hey, I’m not married, have no kids, no property, and no serious strings. Remember that dream?  Remember it? GO FOR IT!

So, how did I figure all this out?  I thought, ok, I want to work at an international school.  I looked into the military schools, but you have less options to choose where you work.  Even still, I did apply.  But after studying in Norway on a fellowship in Summer 2010, I learned about international schools and how great they are.   I thought, ok, what are some of the best schools?  Looked them up, and then looked up who accredits them.  CIS.  Ok, so I applied to be a candidate for CIS, the Council for International Schools.  I also entered my information, got recommendations from my principal and other supervisors, put together an application package, and I was in the system.   I paid for some of my own International Baccalaureate training (IB) to distinguish myself from the heaps of other English teachers, trying to give myself that competitive edge and a school the incentive to hire a non-EU teacher.  Although they tell you to be open-minded, my heart was set on Europe.  I was coming from one of the greatest cities in the world, and I wasn’t going to leave it for anything other than my dream.

January 2012, I flew to London for a huge fair, and was overwhelmed by the response of notes in my email and my mailbox in the candidates lounge.  A day and several interviews later, I had narrowed it down to four exciting prospects.  But Genoa was number one in my mind.  Let’s be honest: I saw the salary online and didn’t even contact the school, thinking, “Oh no way can I make that work.”  I did not know Italy had a special tax exempt status for two years.  But still . . .

So, one of my emails was from my boss in Genoa.  He seemed so positive, and I was curious. I  went to google maps, knowing Genoa was in the North, the food belt . . . but where exactly?  And then “OMG, it’s on the water!!!  Oh, right on the sea!” I enjoyed the interview and there was just something so unique about the school community that came across in the director’s presentation. He showed us pictures of Salty Cats Day, and I thought “This place is special.”   So, I had options at other schools that were amazing but when the Genoa offer came in, I knew I had to take it.  But not before I had one of the most sleepless agonizing nights ever as I tried to decide.  I woke up, and after checking my email, I discovered my dad had worked out my financials  to show me that it would be possible.  And that  . . . they would help.  (It is in a very large thanks to them that I have a little travel budget!!)  My mom, who was originally against my coming said, “Who could you be if you followed your dream?”  It was simple and short.  And I knew what she meant.  I walked over to accept my position.

When I told my other prospects I had accepted another offer, one man said, “It is a good decision.  It’s how I started my own international career . . . in Italy.  You won’t get rich, but you’ll live richly.”  It’s true.  I may not be paid a fortune, but I’m paid a fortune in beauty.  La Vita e Bella!

Flying home, I was walking on air.  I ended up getting a taxi ride all the way to the airport for the same price as if I had transferred to the train (nice cabbie), and then when I flew out of London, I flew right over Central London, with a sparkling view of the London Eye, Tower of London, all bright and glimmering in the sunshine. I had never flown this way in all my years of flying to England.  Everything magically fell into place.

When I came home, I was so ecstatic, I couldn’t contain my excitement, as I called everyone and then eventually broke the news on facebook for 86 likes and a bunch of comments and well wishes.  “This is pretty much a combination of everything you love,” somebody wrote.

yes.

Everything was dreamy after that.  I had a glow that just didn’t wear off. Oh, and then I received a message from the US Department of Defense to come down to DC for an interview for positions for the 2012-2013 school year.  Ahh, but I already had my job!  But still, so nice to be invited.  🙂  With departure on my mind,  my life had a new trajectory and spark, and I began to carpe diem and savor every sweet, delcious, awesome moment of the life I was leaving behind . . .for now.   It was half a year of celebrating and partying which was revved up in the summer for The Grand Farewell Tour, one of the best summers of my entire life.

I was elated and exhausted when I finally landed in Genoa.  While I do miss home, especially everyone I love, I also am savoring every moment here because although I can stay international as long as I want, I know this particular experience, given many factors, can’t last.  But oh, it is so so beautiful and it has changed me and my career forever.  Whether I return to the NYC school system (They have Public IB Schools) or continue at an international school or seek another private school, I know I will always stay with the IB and that I will always have this experience tucked away in my heart, soul, and  . . . the very fabric that is me.

Grazie Mille to my former self for giving me this great gift!  Grateful for everyone in my life for all their support during this process.  I have never smiled so much.

Today, I am in Dublin for my annual visit with my mother (who just got her IRISH passport!) and my Great Aunt Minnie.  Instead of flying from JFK with them, I just met them here.  I will certainly have a Guinness in celebration.  CHEERS!

I’ll leave you with this video which is like my theme song while living this good life here: One Republic “Good Life”  🙂

My Magic Bruges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verona: Looking for Romeo under some balconies

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

“Where do I find him?”

“Check under some balconies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startled, I said, “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some pictures from our trip:

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