Monday, June 6, 2011

June 6: Kicking Around Milan

This morning was a lazy morning. After yesterday's excitement we could barely stand to get ourselves up and out by noon. That doesn't mean we weren't awake, however: Benny woke us all up very early after he had an alarming dream where I turned into a monster and tried to kill him. Gosh, as a parent, I can't even describe how wonderful it is when kids have this type of dream. It just fills my little heart with satisfaction when I learn that my child's nightmares are populated by deviant versions of ME. Sigh.

At this bed & breakfast, we have our own fridge and I have permission to use the kitchen when I need to, but it still very much feels like we're living in someone else's house: not quite guests but not quite customers... it's very odd. IF it were an overnight, it would be perfect, but in terms of living here for a week, I'm not sure how we're going to get through it. Dan has a horror of visiting people because he worries so constantly about inconveniencing them, disturbing their routine, causing them trouble, messing up their house, etc. I think that this week might feel a lot like that to Dan, and put him on an edge that is already finely sharpened.

The lady who lives here and runs the B&B is very sweet though. And she and I are communicating pretty well considering she speaks very little English and I speak very little Italian. I like her, so that helps. Maybe she likes me too, but probably not as my doppelganger in dreamworld is a monster who kills children. Ok, the situation is making me a little testy as well.

So at about noon or shortly thereafter, we headed out to adventure in Milan. Dan has a rest day today because of his exertions yesterday, so no bicycle, but we did need things for the bicycle, so our first stop was the bicycle shop around the corner, which was closed. Many things here in Italy are closed from about 1 to about 3, we are finally learning. So we turned the car toward downtown Milan.

Milan is a modern town, a friend told me before we came here. There aren't that many things to do. And it is. In many ways it reminds me of Chicago. It's not like Rome and it's certainly not like Florence or Venice. However, Milan's sophistication is sort of charming -- the cafe capitol of Italy, the panini capitol, and most enticingly the gelato capitol? I could get used to this kind of modern. Though there are skyscrapers and a lot of construction, which is actually really nice to see (progress good, paralysis around exhibiting artifacts bad), there is a historic "core" to Milan that we were attempting to find.

My plan was to start with the cemetery. We love cemeteries and this one was supposed to be a majestic example of exorbitant markers, spendy statues, etc. However, it was wreathed in construction and then when we finally did figure out how to get near the gates, it was closed. A cemetery closed on a Monday? I guess yes. Our parking spot was so perfect, however, that we decided to just ditch the car and walk down to the Sforza Castle, which we found to be huge, medieval, daunting, and on the other side of a lovely green park which the children enjoyed.

DaVinci lived in Sforza Castle for years, but while we appreciate any connection to DaVinci, we did not subject the children to any museums. Instead we marched on bravely toward Il Duomo, and on the way stopped for paninis for us, hot dogs for the children.

Sadie is driving us mildly crazy with her eating issues on this trip. She ranges from very very brave and adventurous, for example the grilled chicken the other night, to completely picky and ridiculous, like today when she first refused to eat any of the bread of her hot dog and then refused to eat what were basically cheetos, just because they were white! In Italy they don't use lashings of artificial colors all over the place. We explained this to her at length (again) and also the fact that the color orange, in cheese itself, is actually *also* an artificial color, and that white is the color of milk and therefore cheese, etc. etc. to no avail. Luckily Dan and I seem to alternate getting frustrated on this, so that there's always someone sympathetic to her issues. Sort of. When we get home she's going on a steady diet of brussel sprouts and cottage cheese.

After eating, we pressed on to the Duomo, which is a huge, staggering, monumentally gothic thing, laced with decor on top of decor. Like one of those drip castles you make with wet sand. This was not my favorite cathedral. Inside it reminded me of the austere gothic architecture of, for example, Notre Dame, without any of the attendant sentiment. The space, inside, felt cold and forbidding. The cool part of this cathedral, however, is definitely, definitely the roof! You can go up stairs or an elevator and explore almost the entire roof on multiple levels -- it was so cool! The best thing about it was that there were stairways, doorways, walkways and openings that showed the designers/builders had created these spaces on purpose to be used for people to go up and stand on the roof -- which was just so awesome. Loved that. I also did love one of the windows inside -- picturing a white horse and angels fighting a dragon and demons. It was beautiful and completely riveting.

After the Duomo we fed pigeons. These were by far the best pigeons we have found in Italy thus far -- they were very friendly, had no problem working with our crushed pretzels as food, and made Sadie and Benny very very happy. After pretzels were gone, we went to this very lovely, very old covered mall where we saw the Prada flagship store, a Louis Vuitton store, and other pricey hovels, as well as a McDonalds and a store selling sports jerseys and caps. But no Chipotle! Hahaha. Sadie and I have plans to embark on some sort of colossal Milanese shopping excursion, but for today we were just window shopping. We window-shopped back down to the Castle Sforza, stopping for gelato on the way, and then to the car and the bike shop, which was now open.

We now understand that parking in Italian cities means finding any spot into which you can jam your car and jamming it in. However, when Dan jammed our car into a "passe carribile" doorway, someone came and shouted at me and honked for me to move it. I did move it, but good grief. People double park, park on sidewalks, park in other people's exhaust pipes, and commit all manner of violations, and the only remedy for any of it seems to be shouting. When we got back to our place there were no available spots on our street, so we parked on the sidewalk on the next street over. When I say on the sidewalk I mean there was a FOOT HIGH CURB that Dan had to get the car up onto without scraping up the undercarriage. Which he managed, of course, being Dan, but again, good grief.

We ate dinner which I awkwardly cooked, and then I immediately washed up all the dishes which is completely unheard of for me, as my friends and family can attest. There is no reason for me to feel awkward around this nice lady -- she's been nothing but helpful and kind to us, but I think I just feel observed and maybe critiqued. Probably the language barrier, she seems immune to my charms. Or maybe she's enslaved to my charms -- who can tell? I'll find out tonight when I turn into a monster and assault her in her dreams.

Prada

Milan duomo

Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 5: An American at the Milan San Remo Gran Fondo

This morning came early. Dan’s iPhone alarm cheerfully sang out in the dark, and he got up and lurched downstairs to feed his machine. I rolled out a bit later, and when I got downstairs he was in his kit, sitting in the glass patio, eating breakfast. There was a pot of coffee waiting for us which was sort of tepid – we wondered if it had been made the night before. I am uncertain about operating stuff in the kitchen, what I’m allowed to do and what I’m not, so we drank what we had and made do. The children had gone to bed in today’s clothes so that they could hustle out to the car immediately on waking, and I tumbled them out of bed and into their shoes, and into the car, and Dan packed up the bike and his stuff and we were off to the NH Hotel for the start of the Milan-San Remo Gran Fondo.

It was cold. About halfway there, the rain started.

Dan and 1000 other guys were applying embrocation to their legs, donning rain coats and gloves, and preparing for the ride. The Gran Fondo is an amateur event that traverses the same course as the pro event that happens each year in the spring – basically a point-to-point road race between the city of Milan and the seaside resort San Remo. A two-hundred-mile race, the longest single-day event in pro cycling, I believe. So of course for amateurs it's a proving ground! When we got to the hotel we crammed our car into an available spot and Dan commenced embrocating and gloving himself. The children were mostly asleep in the back seat and the rain was misting down. "Are you serious?" I asked Dan. Not only was he going to be riding 200 miles to San Remo in the rain but he was also going to then have to sit in San Remo in his kit waiting for the shuttle bus to bring him back. Sit and wait for like 4 hours while regular people finished up the race in a slower, more sedate fashion. And he took nothing with him except the gels and bars he could fit in his jersey pockets. In the parking lot at the start, we ran into not one single other person that even spoke English. The thought of setting out on such a trek with so little support was just insane to me, but that's the man I married. No one else is like him.

Off they went, and I got into the car and drove us back to our house, miraculously finding a parking space. On this street, there are parking spaces. There are also parking spaces on the sidewalk. You can access the sidewalk parking by driving up onto the house side of the sidewalk and scootching along until you reach the space, then shunting into it. It is perilous at best, and yet this is how they park. So there are actually three available parking spaces at any point in the street -- one on each side of the street and one beyond that on the sidewalk. I was hoping to find a street one and I did. I could not have managed the alternative.

The kids and I went back to sleep for a bit, then got up and ate breakfast. The rain continued. I obsessively checked the weather for every city between here and San Remo: rain. I kept my phone in my hand, sent Dan a message that said I would come and get him if necessary, not that he didn't know, but still. A guy has to try and gut it out, right? And yet... 9 hours of riding in the rain? Could there be worse torture? I wrung my hands on Facebook, waiting for someone to tell me to go get him, but no one came forward with that definitive advice, and since going to get him would have meant wandering around uncertainly in the rain, I decided to stick with the plan, and pick him up back at the hotel at 10:30pm.

Meanwhile the kids practiced their violins and Benny played the beautiful antique piano in the parlor. Looking around at the photos and art in the house, I determined that our hostess' husband was Roberto Negri, an Italian composer and a rather famous pianist. I am not entirely sure but I believe his ashes or at least a shrine to him occupies a table at the front window of the house, beside the piano. He died in 2006, his Italian wikipedia page tells me. I suspect his wife was an opera singer, perhaps someone he met as an accompanist. While we are downstairs practicing instruments, she is upstairs cleaning our rooms. I am fighting the embarrassment of having someone make my bed who is maybe a fellow musician and artist, having someone straighten the children's shoes who is a widow of a respected composer -- it feels very odd. But I had no idea she was going to do it, I thought we would just have our rooms to ourselves for the week. However, when I went up, everything was reorganized, even our suitcases, and I guess that's just how she wants to do it. Tomorrow I will pick up the children's socks though!

At last the rain stopped, and I stuffed down my anxiety enough to take the children for a walk around the neighborhood. Just before we left, Dan called to say he had made it to San Remo, so that was a huge relief! We found some cool streets to wander down, a very interesting gelato store that had some bizarro flavors (like licorice and FISH), and then a playground with live actual children that my children were able to play with and have fun. That was definitely the highlight of the kids' day, gelato notwithstanding. And Benny ran into a woman who spoke French and he was so excited to speak French with her. Listening to him I realized we know a lot more French than we know Italian. I think this is because the Italian people are nicer about trying to help us when we speak English, so we don't have to use our Italian as much. Maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but certainly a more comfortable thing!

We returned just in time to avoid the renewed rain, ate some dinner, and then went to pick up Dan at the hotel at 10:30. We parked in what appeared to be a very dark and deserted parking lot, although it was full of bike-ish looking vehicles -- larger ones than you normally see tooling around here in Italy. So I knew we could expect to see some cyclists. About 11:00 a van pulled in and some guys jumped out and started unloading bikes. I went to ask them if they knew anything about the bus, and they reported terrible traffic around Genova, told me to expect the bus to be very late. It was pretty late, but at midnight it finally rolled in. Dan showed us his trophy for being in the top five in his age group -- very impressive! He was also extremely tired and sore, more than a little stinky, and very ready to shower and go to bed. A great day for Dan, a worrying day for me, an ice cream and play day for the children, and now Dan's first Milan-San Remo is in the bag. Yay for Dan!

Up the marble staircase and into our roman appartment

This is my favorite place to stay. It is big, has a good supply of food, and has WI-FI!!!!! My favorite part is the cusions on the backs of the beds that you can lean on when you're sitting down.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4: From Rome to Milan

Woke up in digestive distress over the upcoming move to Milan, with all its parking complications and timing issues. Dan said, "It's going to go off without a hitch," and that made me feel better. He went on a bike ride while I packed up the kids and the kitchen, then we all threw everything together into bags and began toting it down the 110 steps to the front door. That was some major toting, be aware. At 9-ish the guy came to check us out, and we checked out without incident and without further parking tickets. Because my irrational desire was to find a cappuccino cup for our neighbors that was in the shape of a coliseum, we ended up driving around historic Rome for a while looking for one of those sprawling, amorphous tourist shops with coliseums in baskets and endless knick knacks. Ironically, having practically fallen over them all week, we couldn't find one to save our lives. The one we finally found was in a pedestrian-only zone, so we probably got a few thousand more electronic tickets in getting me to and from this shop, only to find there was no such thing as a coliseum-shaped cappuccino cup to be had. Well, balls.

From Rome we headed north on Via Flaminia, an ancient Roman road, looking for Calcata, an ancient medieval hill town. This is the hill town I had been reading about during our stay in Levico Terme -- so being so close we just had to visit. We found it as it was described in the book -- overrun with hippie artists and groovy cats, beautiful in the extreme, quaint beyond measure. Little alleys, stairways clinging to the sides of stone buildings, tiny terraces tucked away behind little cafes blaring The Doors and operated by cool dudes. Calcata was condemned and due to be demolished by the government, part of a series of hill towns that were deemed unsafe after an earthquake collapsed one and killed a whole bunch of people. The ancient inhabitants were moved to a safer, more modern town that was built for them, but before the government got around to demolishing the medieval village, a bunch of artists and hippies moved in and fixed it up enough that it was pronounced habitable again. We wandered around for a bit, took in some stunning views of the valley, slurped up a cappuccino in a scenic terrace, bought some jewelry, peeped in at the church that for years and years housed the Holy Prepuce as an official relic, and then somehow peeled our car out of the strange, crowded little parking lot at the bottom of the hill and continued north.

Entering Milan, we immediately needed to find the NH Hotel so Dan could pick up his race packet. I have been trying not to compare Italy to France too much, since I compare them in my mind constantly and I imagine that would make for a pretty boring blog, with most paragraphs starting with "Whereas last year in France..." However, this day was so much like our day coming into Pau for L'Etape last year -- including the sky being overcast, the city being strangely modern, and our urgent time crush, I can't help but compare. After we'd gotten the race packet, we saw a Carrefour and decided to stop for groceries. Little did we know that this Carrefour was a titan among grocery stores, and stretched the entire length of Milanofiori, a giant shopping mall.

We parked, and I "ran in" to pick up a few things. I emerged over an hour later: haggard, despairing, having seen things no human should see. For example, a soccer game set up in the middle of the grocery store, where you could kick balls at some soccer pro. Swimming pools fully set up and on sale. A fish market that took up an acre. Yogurt for miles. Ruinously gigantic piles of baguettes. Just finding everything on my list took most of my soul and all of my energy. When I emerged, having had to cry my way into the cashier accepting my credit card without ID, I was a wreck of a person. But I had breakfast for Dan.

GPS brought us to our apartment through modern Milan, which is a fine enough city but remarkably graffiti-ridden. Everything here is tagged either by a gang or by an activist of some sort. Our hostess opened the door, showed us our elaborately baroque rooms, explained how we have our own fridge and how to turn on the stove, and then pointed to the other room on the second floor and said, "There is a boy sleeping in there, but he won't bother you." The boy turned out to be a middle aged man. Having a middle aged man sleeping in the next room from my two children, when there are no solid locks on the door and we are all sharing a bathroom... this was a little disconcerting.

We went out to eat at a restaurant that seemed friendly and was close. Dan ordered piles of pasta and I ordered actual bonafied Chinese food. As it turns out, Milan has a sizable Asian population and there are tons of "Ital-Cinese" restaurants around where you can get tortellini, hot and sour soup (zuppa agropiccante) all at the same time. I ordered the zuppa agropiccante without hesitation and it was awesome. They brought Dan heaping plates of pasta and meat which helped him stoke his fire for the big race, and Sadie actually tried grilled chicken with lemon and ate most of what they brought her.

We went home, fell into bed, and slept.

Gttting set

Milan

Calcata

Monday, May 30, 2011

May 30: The Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica

Today is a rest day for Dan, cycling-wise, so we planned our most massive excursion for today: The Vatican. Once again we saddled up the Peugeot and rode across down. This time we had a much harder time parking although we found a great spot in the end, right next to the wall of Vatican City. Our first stop was the Vatican Museum. We had been warned about very long lines, and had tried to get reservations online, but without a printer, I was worried we wouldn't get in. As it turned out, there was no line, and the guy who sold us tickets gave Benny a reduced rate and let Sadie in for free, so we saved a lot by chancing the line.

The entrance to the Vatican Museum is very modern and high tech, but you soon drift back through the centuries, away from the glass and steel and toward the marble and frescoes and whatnot. I highly recommend buying the official guide: it gives you a room-by-room run-down of what to pay attention to, and has lots of maps that break down the museum by section so you can see the flow of the thing. It is HUGE and you will NEED a map. I am a pantsing type person, but this guide was very useful.

The Vatican Museum does not contain only stuff pertaining to church history. It's a repository of artifacts from every important civilization in the west, including some from the Americas. There were amazing Egyptian things -- mummies, sarcophagi -- and insanely cool Mesopotamian stuff. All of this was before you even get to the Greek/Roman galleries, which are absolutely stuffed with interesting things. Now let's be honest with each other. There are like 30,000 things in this museum. If you're going to properly see everything in it, you're going to have to take all day. And you still will miss stuff. Now factor in the two children, for whom one bust of a Dacian looks just as pensive as any other bust of a Dacian, and you will have to just march through some of this museum without looking at anything at all.

There, I said it. In parts of the museum, I literally forbid the children to appreciate anything or even look at anything, but only walk forward. We skipped several galleries completely. And it still took us like four hours to get through the place. Formidable museum, this. It's only formidable though because it's so full of things that are *really actually interesting* like astrolabes and bizarro old maps and frescoes that show people deciding, "Hey, what about we teach immaculate conception?" and busts of Hephaestus and the Borgia apartments and quirky little reliquaries. The rooms really tell a story. But it's a long story.

The end of the attention span, for us, was the Sistine Chapel, which was beautiful to behold even though it was *stuffed full of people.* There is no furniture in the room, and there are no columns. It's like a box painted all over the inside, and you stand in it and just look around, around, around, and around, trying to figure out where everything is. Moses on one wall, Jesus on the other wall, The Last Judgement over the altar, and then the creation of the world on the ceiling. Seeing the ceiling in the context of all the art we'd already seen, we were able to look at Michelangelo's version of God and connect it directly to the Greek and Roman version of Zeus and Jupiter - the same image. So, God as a sort of stern old man with a white beard and dark brow doesn't really originate with Michelangelo, but stretches back into older mythologies. Did not put that together before. Guess dumb me.

After we'd eaten some Vatican lunch at the Vatican pizzeria, we struggled out of the museum and over to St. Peter's Basilica where we instantly saw that this church was a whole new level of huge. We saw Michelangelo's La Pieta. We saw under the altar where St. Peter was supposed to be buried. We saw a beautiful, rippling statue of St. Veronica with her veil. And then we saw the best thing -- Bernini's monument to Alexander VII, which is built in such a way that it incorporates a side door to the Basilica. It looks like a skeleton is trying to lift up a blanket around the door, and he's holding an hour glass and seems to be floating there. It's an amazing piece of work, and Bernini would have been 80 at the time, making this "doorway to the afterlife" theme very relevant to him. I loved this -- it was beyond awesome.

Of course since there was a dome to be climbed, we had to climb it. Arriving at the first level, which is actually inside the church at the point where the dome starts to curve up, we made our careful way around a fenced-in catwalk and looked down on the whole place. There was a mass starting and we watched part of it from up there -- very strange perspective. The mosaics all the way around were beautiful. Then of course it was time to go even higher, and this is where my resolve was really tested. The dome being dome-shaped, the stairwell slants a bit to the right as you're going up. So at times you have to kind of lean right, as if the left wall is collapsing on you. NOT GREAT. Did not enjoy that. Since the family had cantered up blissfully and was way ahead of me, I had no one to screech to and had to just soldier on, even up the last bit which was just a tiny tight spiral staircase around a rope. Eternal emotional scarring from that experience. Eternal. Was the view worth it? For the kids it was, of course. For me, as Randy Jackson says, it was just alright.

Back down. Through the tiny spiral, through the slanting bits, back out into the square and to the nearest gelato purveyor. Actually we went to a very specific gelato purveyor we'd seen on the way in, which was located just next to a crepe purveyor. So I went and got in line for gelato while Dan scored us a nutella crepe and diet Coke. This gelato store was excruciatingly popular. There was no line, just a surging mass of people needing gelato and shouting in Italian. People were walking off with cones mounded with three and four flavors of the stuff, perilously stacked and molded into wild shapes, like little old ladies' hairdos out in the wind. We got ours, threw some coinage at the guy behind the counter, and slurped it all up on the way back to the car.

Could it be possible that after all this awesomeness we could also accomplish our final agenda item of the day, which was to procure Dan a decent bicycle pump so he could ride on an inflated rear tire? The pump he'd bought in Levico Terme was not sufficient, and he ended up leaving it in the doorway of the closed bicycle shop, rather than bother toting it on to Rome. His need was dire for a bike shop, and the GPS found one and eventually even got us there while they were still open. Bike shop hat on head, bike pump in hand, Dan emerged victorious. We came home and ate pasta, I drank some local wine mixed with this superfabulous red grapefruit soda (DON'T JUDGE!), and we went to bed exhausted.




Sunday, May 29, 2011

May 29: Hello to the Pope

This morning we woke up with one objective: to get some rosaries blessed by the Pope. Dan's family is Catholic and our niece is having her first communion soon, so his mom thought it would be bangin' to get a rosary blessed by the Pope in St. Peter's Square to give her for this event. We were up to the challenge. We retrieved the car from its illicit parking location (no ticket) and Dan began swooping and diving through Rome traffic. The guy who rented us the apartment warned us that traffic on the weekend would be pretty nuts -- wow, he was right. The pedestrians in Rome do not wait for traffic: they just go. They have utter, total faith that motorists will stop. And motorists do stop, eventually, even in the middle of a roundabout. This holds its own terrors.

After driving in Rome, we learned that there are no rules. There are suggestions, given by traffic lights and street signs and whatnot. But these are not rules. The main rule is to go forward. If traffic stops moving forward, horns start honking and people start yelling. As long as traffic is moving forward, no crime offends. You can cut people off, park and get out in the middle of an intersection, stopping to chat with someone on a roundabout, pulling up on the sidewalk to get around stopped cars, wedge yourself into any spot you an fit your car into, all without criticism, AS LONG AS TRAFFIC IS MOVING. They relentlessly move. It's like a river. If rocks rise up in the river, the river runs around it.

Another cool thing we learned about Rome today was that the rumor about spring water fountains everywhere providing free, cold water to inhabitants and visitors is absolutely true. There are little fountains and spouts all over the place. All cold. All fresh. The children love this, and douse their heads and faces and hands and feet and fill up their little bottles and are happy. Thank you, Rome.

So, we were driving from the Coliseum to the Vatican City, following our GPS sort of but mostly my little Frommer's map, and we suddenly find ourselves directly in front of St. Peter's Square and looking at the Basilica! And Dan says, "I guess we better park" and then finds absolutely rock star parking right around the corner -- someone pulled out of a spot, we pulled in, we left the car, we walked like two seconds, and THERE WE WERE buying rosaries on St. Peter's Square. Unreal. The whole entire thing had a very unreal feeling, I must admit, all of it. I've seen this place on TV so many times, and in movies, and being there in the middle of it, seeing it, was otherworldly.

The Pope did the blessing from his apartment window, which was hung with a red velvet flag. When he appeared, people went crazy, waving signs and yelling like he was a rock star. It was very cool. The crowd was full of priests and nuns and other faithful Catholics, as well as spectators and generally interested people like us. He did a liturgy which we did not understand, then a blessing in Latin, and then he did what appeared to be shout-outs in all different languages. He would say something like, "Now I'm going to speak Spanish!" and a whole section of the crowd would go crazy. Then he'd say, "Now I'm going to speak German!" and another section would erupt. And I think he was mentioning groups in attendance from different countries. I have my doubts about the whole concept of "Pope" especially historically speaking, but he sounded like a very sweet, nice little old man, and I get that people refer to the Pope as "Papa" and sort of love him like a grandpa. Which is fine. Why not?

After we'd finished with that and made our way back to the car and through a HUGE traffic jam full of massive tour buses, we zoomed home and parked in another illicit place. Dan put his bike together and went out for the 5 1/2 hour bike ride that he had scheduled. The kids and I hung out here, me doing laundry and hanging it out the window, the kids resting and recharging in their various ways they do that, including a massive, overflowing bubble bath in the huge jacuzzi tub in this awesome apartment. When Dan got home, we went out to look for dinner and fell for a little place with tables out on the sidewalk where we could look directly at the coliseum all through the meal -- appealing! The food wasn't the greatest but the wait staff was very accommodating and entertaining, and all in all we did alright for day 1.

Dinner by Coliseum!

Pope Blessing

P

St Peter's

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28: From Trentino to Roma

Today was a travel day, but also a day where Dan was scheduled to ride for 4 hours. Not to be deterred, he woke up at the crack of dawn and headed out into the mountains for his required exertion. The kids and I packed up and loaded as much as we could into the car, and when he got back, showered, and broke down the bike, we were ready to say goodbye to our landlady, Daniela, and jump on the road for Roma!

It was Autostrade almost all the way, which was awesome because we had no puking and minimal complaints of stomach upset. Yay. We came into Rome in kind of a dodgy neighborhood, lots of tall apartments and graffiti, overgrown median weeds and the whole thing was looking a little sketchy. However, we soon crossed through the old wall into the historic part of the city and WOW, it was ready to knock my eye out right away. Wherever you look, in Roma, there are statues, churches, old bits of ruin -- it is a crazy amalgamation of different time periods' idea of what was hot in decoration.

We found our apartment, literally a block from the Coliseum. After some help from our very friendly rental agent, we got up the 97 flights of stairs (going to have to count those) and then back down to the grocery store and parking the car. Parking in Rome is rumored to be awful, and it is. More on that later. For now, we are very excited to be in this gorgeous huge apartment, with bright white walls, stone tile floors, huge windows with shutters you can really "throw open" and 20 foot ceilings. We thought we had a smaller place, but the kids have their own room with each their own bed, we have a long hallway/closet for the bike stuff, a living room, a kitchen, and it's all full of windows and light. Very happy to be here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Otzi

We saw a caveman today and his name is Otzi. His name is a cross between the German word for vally, and yeti. They displayed all his tools and clothing, and some carvings too. His flesh is dried out and all he is just looks like skin and bones. He was pretty cool though, and I'm fascinated on what he did in his time.

May 27: Otzi and Bolzano

This morning Dan went on a two hour ride in the rain, came back freezing and a little it disenchanted with mountains. Ok, he still loves mountains but judging from his aspect and demeanor on his return, in the rain and cold, mountains are a little less easy to party with.

Our task this day was to visit the town of Bolzano and find the iceman mummy that was discovered in a glacier just west of there. We got on the old SP47 (Dan says SP stands for Someone Pukes but I think it stands for Strade Provinciale) and shot over to Trento, then up the Autostrade to Bolzano. This was a beautiful, beautiful drive and especially on this strange cloudy day with the clouds draping over the mountains and the valleys open up in front of us like we were looking down from Mt. Olympus. A very prehistoric feel to these mountains, particularly when they are wreathed in clouds.

In Bolzano the GPS got very confused and so did we. Most signs were in Italian *and* German, which was actually more difficult to process than just the Italian, even though Dan and I are stronger in German. Somehow translating both simultaneously and separately was blowing my tiny little mind. Also the GPS was determined to send us in mindless circles, attempting again and again to put us onto a one way street, which we were determined not to go down. Fortunately Dan was feeling so happy from his nice warm ride in the sunshine earlier that he just chuckled gaily at our troubles. Oh, wait, no, Dan was low on blood sugar, high on road rage, and ripped the GPS off the window and threw it on the floor. That's what happened! I was misremembering that other thing.

Eventually we found the Archeological Museum, found a parking lot, got out, and it was raining. We hustled to the nearest food source, which was the Italian version of fast food. We all ate pizza, salad, and drank lots of liquid, and felt better. While up on the second floor we were looking down on the front of the Museum and seeing lots of school groups coming in and out -- apparently Friday is field trip day in Italy as well.

Inside the very high-tech and 21st century museum, there were lots of school kids too, but not too many. We had plenty of room to walk around and take our time looking at everything. As Benny pointed out, this archeological museum is actually the Otzi museum (Otzi is the name given to the "iceman") since everything in it is in some way connected to Otzi. There were some very good interactive bits, where the kids could piece together magnets to show how archeologists reconstructed Otzi's birchbark containers, or where they could wind and weave their own ropes like Otzi's. There was a great screen the size of a table, laid out like an examination table, and you could push around different screens over it (in English, Italian, or German) and show different layers/views of the mummy. It was all very good.

The mummy himself was not as poignant as I thought. He was in a cold tank and gets periodically sprayed with freezing water, to keep him preserved in the state in which he was preserved for 5000 years when he was outside. There are amazing technologies dedicated to preserving his hat, his boots, his belt, and his body, including backup generators for backup generators, specific humidifiers, etc. It reminds me of the *lack of* tech in the Uffizi Gallery in which each room had kind of a dusty humidifier like you'd see in someone's house, with a handwritten note on it sometimes explaining its stats. I guess Otzi is more significant than Botticelli so that's fair.

Seeing the mummy didn't bother me. I didn't think "Oh, how dreadful. Someone should properly bury that." Nor did I think "This conection with the past moves me and provokes me to get a tattoo." I just sort of felt like it was a thing that was dead. The lab report on the contents of his stomach were more interesting to me, I guess. Should we clone Otzi? Should we clone St. Peter? I don't know. Sounds interesting.

We had planned to go on down the Great Dolomite Road to Cortina D'Ampezza and take in some more mountainage, but as it was raining and cloudy this would have been kinda ridiculous. So we stumbled our way home where the children played their violins outside to the enormous appreciation of the neighbors, including a herd of teenagers from the apartments up the hill, who stood there and clapped and cheered for the kids, and wanted them to play more, more, more.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26: Verona is Fair, Frommer's Notwithstanding

May 26

Today was seriously a chill day with no incidents. No one vomited, nothing significant was lost, and we had a minimum number of U turns. The only blog fodder I have for you is the usual travelogue type stuff: seeing the sights, eating the food, driving the roads, washing the underwear, etc.

Speaking of washing the underwear, when I got up I did all the dishes, all the laundry, and cleaned up the kitchen. When the laundry was drying on the line and the dishes were sparkling on the shelves, I finished up the book I was reading, An Irreverent Curiosity, which had been such an interesting book about church history, hill towns, odd relics, and Italian culture. However, it ended on a little bit of a low note. No matter, I am now free to read The Wings of the Dove again, which I intend to do tonight. By this time Dan was home, and I fed him eggs, prosciutto, brioche, and we got on the road for Verona.

Verona is a city that the Frommer’s Italy guide regards with scorn and distaste. Scoffing at the faux literary relics, and comparing it to its detriment to the nearby and more romantic Venice, Frommer’s gives nothing in Verona more than two stars for tourist value. However, since I am a literary nerd and since there is a statue of Juliet with a shining right tit, and since we are sooo close, I felt like we had to go.

Boy am I glad I didn’t listen to Frommer’s underwhelming evaluation! Verona is awesome, perhaps my favorite place in Italy so far. I don’t know what it was about the city – the marble streets in the shopping district, the ornate and decorated arches over even the humblest garage, the profusion of flowers, the statue of Dante, the many little alleys and byways leading to interesting little piazzettas and churches and facades, the winding Adige river snaking through town… it was all excellent. It was a city to explore – ducking down small streets, following a sign or a distant tower or just a whim. I loved Verona!

We started out at the Castelvecchio, a 15th century castle on the river. We walked through its main gate, strolled around the inside (but skipped the museum) and then went over the bridge that was part of the castle. On the other side of the river, we walked down the waterfront to the next bridge, which we also crossed. Back on the Southeast side, we cut through to the Piazza Bra where we saw the arena, a very well preserved Roman “coliseum” which miraculously survived an earthquake in the 12th century with two rings intact. Nowadays they stage operas and concerts there. The space is big enough that they can do Aida with processions of elephants and huge armies – we saw pictures of them doing it! And the acoustics are so good you don’t need microphones.

We walked all around the arena and headed down Via Mazzina, a glittering shopping street with literally sparkling marble all across the road. Beautiful! Fancy shops interspersed with Gelaterias. At the end of Via Mazzina we turned on Via Capella and entered the courtyard of Casa di Giulietta, or Juliet’s House. Now Frommer’s will be happy to tell you that this is most certainly NOT any sort of actual historical residence of any Capulet. In fact, in the 19th century, it used to be a brothel. However, in the little tunnel leading to the courtyard, bazillions of people have graffitied their names in hearts, and looking up at that little stone balcony, you can use your imagination to recreate the whole “but soft” scene. And what the heck! Why not?

We made our way to Piazza del Signoria where we ate dinner at a café, watching people strolling around the marketplace. Then we headed north toward the river again, finding the legendary home of the Montagues (Frommer’s: “NUH UH! MONTAGUES ARE LIKE TOTE-LY FAKE!”) and also a statue of Dante, who was a professor at the University here in Verona, along with Galileo! We found the river and wandered down it to Ponte Pieta, where we turned into the byways and found the Duomo, a medieval masterpiece.

Winding our way through the super-charming, super-awesome, super-renaissance streets, we got back to the Piazza and then with a much-needed, much-anticipated stop for gelato, we found the arena again and then the car. It was so easy to imagine Shakespearean action going on – Mercutio and Tybalt skidding across the cobblestones, Juliet gazing out her window at the morning sun, Romeo kicking a rock along the river, lovesick always.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I liked Verona. Maybe it was because it felt more inhabited than visited. Maybe it was that there weren’t walls of souvenir shops, but rather florists, groceries, Dolce & Gabbana, cafes, and actual homes. Do not miss Verona, if you’re near it. Head to the old town, where the river snakes around. I was charmed to the pit of my literary gizzard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25: Chasing the Giro D'Italia and Losing Our Minds (and Keys)

May 25

This morning Dan went on a two and a half hour ride. When he got home, we were raring to go and see the Giro D’Italia come through our own little town. We had lawn chairs. We had beverages. We had our t-shirts, hats, clappyflappers, cameras, and children. We jumped in the car and rumbled down the hill to the 175 km to go mark. And there it was.

BUT the roads were still open, no one was congregating to watch, and Dan felt a little bit like we could do better. So we rolled down the road into the next little town where there was a feed zone, or not really a feed zone but a bottle zone. We thought if we camped out at the bottle acquisition zone, we’d be likely to get tossed a bottle or something like that. So we figured out a great place to park, determined that the roads would be closing in ten minutes, and there it was.

BUT Dan wanted a diet Coke and a newspaper, so instead of parking safely in our perfect spot just by the feed zone, we jetted off down the road to an Alimentari to find these things. They didn’t have them, but there was a spot just 1 kilometer down the road, a Tabaccheria that would have both, we were told. Now it was only ten minutes until the roads were CLOSED and we would have no choice but to stay where we were when that happened, as the Cabinieri were out telling people where to go. So we jetted off in the wrong direction, with Dan hollering that we had plenty of time, made several more stops and acquired an official guide magazine, which had all the information that we needed for the rest of our lives, and then zoomed back to the feed zone where we parked next to a bus stop just in time.

The bus stop provided us with ample shade. We set up our chairs. We watched the advertising caravan go by. We watched the team vehicles and official vehicles. We watched the racers. We yelled and screamed. Then it was over. We had accomplished it. I said to Dan that this was probably the easiest and most relaxing time we’d ever spent watching a bike race in Europe.

AND YET. Somehow it felt anticlimactic. We had this glorious plan to go home and eat lunch, then go to the lake and swim, and have this luxurious easy day, but then something happened. The sign that we’d wanted to grab as a souvenir, the sign that announced the bottle zone, was snipped off the lamp post and confiscated by an OFFICIAL CAR from the race itself. Now you should know that they don’t do this at the Tour de France. At the Tour, they leave all the signage in place and the locals or the fans or the gremlins that live under bridges descend on that signage – the flags, the arrows, etc – and they take it home. It’s their right, their destiny. Of which we were ROBBED by these tidy Italians with their wire-cutters, who snipped down and made off with *our* signs right before *our eyes*.

Suddenly, we had accomplished nothing.

Look, I said to Dan, pointing to the route in our handy magazine we’d acquired at great risk to our freedom on the road. If we drive on this red road right here, as fast as we possibly can, we can get ahead of the Giro, camp out a sign, and get it before that guy with the snippers gets it. Dan did not have to be asked twice. We jumped in the car and fled for the red road, whatever it was. GPS was useless in getting us to Lavis before the tour, but somehow we muddled along with the map in the magazine and by flooring it and taking some blind turns, we ended up in Lavis with plenty of time. We parked on a side street perpendicular to the route, about a hundred meters away from the Carbinieri that was stopping traffic. After high-fiving and locking up the car, we headed down the road to look for the first turn, where there would be signage.

As it turned out, the first turn was 1.5 kilometers down the road. The Giro was making a pretty straight shot through town. However, committed as we were to snagging a sign, we trudged on down the road to the first roundabout where there were two signs. Benny and I stood next to the first one, and Dan and Sadie crossed over to camp on the second one. There were lots of other people around, including one guy who was actually leaning on the sign post, but they weren’t sign contenders. I felt like we had it made.

The riders came along soon after, first one group of 12 and then the rest of the pack. Benny was jumping up and down and yelling, doing his usual big cheering section, and one Garmin rider dumped the rest of his water bottle over his head and then threw Benny the bottle. Which was AWESOME because in Asson during the 2010 Tour de France, a Garmin rider had tossed Benny a bottle only to have it snaked by some guy who found it in the bushes before we did. This time, Benny was all over that bottle as soon as it touched the ground, and he was lofting his prize before all the riders had even passed. YAY!

Dan and Sadie snaked their sign, Benny and I snaked our sign, and we were off back to the car. There was a lot of triumph and victorious behavior on the walk back. We felt we had really “done” the Giro at this point, having seen it twice in one day, and having two awesome signs and a rider’s water bottle – what more could we ask for?

But that’s not the end of the story, of course. You’re ready for the complication now, right?

On reaching our car, Dan began to search for the key. The key to this Peugeot is a little black rectangle. It has a button on it which releases the actual metal sticking-out part of the key, but in its dormant state it’s just a black plastic rectangle, light as a feather and small. Dan could not find it. At all. The kids and I waited by the car while Dan went back over the whole 1.5 kilometers (there and back) that we’d walked, searching for it. He returned without the key, and spent some anxious minutes on the phone with Peugeot, with Open Europe, with who knows who, trying to get advice on what to do. He thought it might have fallen out of his pocket when he took his camera out to film the riders going by. But he wasn’t sure.

The phone’s best advice was that we should rent a car, drive back to Levico Terme to the house where the other key was stowed, drive back to the other car, blah blah blah. There were also trains and buses which some or all of us could take back to the house to retrieve the other key. The problem is that the car wasn’t exactly parked in a space. It was sort of parked up on the side of the road. When the Giro is coming through town, this is acceptable behavior, but as the day wore on and everyone left the area, we were worried that they would tow our car while we were going back to get the other key. Plus, what a pain in the ass.

We used some of Dan’s data roaming to get Google to tell us there was a car rental place about 1.5 kilometers past the roundabout where we’d watched the race. We figured we’d walk back to the roundabout, and if we hadn’t found the key we’d walk the rest of the way to the car rental place and try to convince them to rent us a car although our passports were at home. Remember, originally we were just going down the hill, and only using the car because we had lawn chairs! We trudged along down the busy street, now full of traffic where before it had been all full of anticipation of bike racing action, and no one spotted the key, although we went slowly and looked carefully. We reached the roundabout, reached the exactly sign post where Dan had snaked the sign, and still no key. At the base of this signpost was a clump of thorny flowers. I just despaired, thinking that if the key had fallen in there we could be three hours looking for it and still not find it. It is a pretty crap feeling to be locked out of the car without passports in a rural area in a foreign country, where you’re pretty sure no one is going to understand your explanation, and no one is around to help.

Then I looked up at the hotel whose parking lot we were standing in, and I asked Dan if he thought maybe someone had found the key and turned it in at the hotel. He and the kids went inside while I kept poking around the thorny flower clump. When I had given up and gone in to meet them, they were coming out, asking if we should get gelato to celebrate: THE KEY HAD BEEN TURNED IN. Well we had a celebratory round of gelatos for the kids, red wine for me, diet Coke for Dan, and the kids and I sat at the hotel’s outdoor café while Dan walked back again (he did that down-and-back three times today!) to the car, got in it, and drove to pick us up. It felt awesome just to get in the car.

Back in Levico Terme, we went home and ate lunch, fresh insalata and leftover pizza, and then loaded up the car to go to the lake we had heard so much about. We first stopped at the grocery store and loaded up on non-refrigerated supplies, and then drove over to the Lago Levico, which was a beautiful mountain lake. The kids spent a happy couple of hours swimming, playing with and feeding the ducks, and in general just letting loose.

By eight o’clock we were home and I was cooking tortellini. I sent the children outside to play the violin, and there was soon an audience from the surrounding buildings – people were out on the balconies, standing on fence lines, and a whole crowd of rowdy teenagers were standing on a staircase up to the next street above us on the hill, applauding madly and urging Benny and Sadie to play more, more. When Benny had played all the way through book 6, with Sadie interspersed between songs, he played a lot of fiddle tunes, and then they finished up with a Twinkle duet before I made them come in and take baths. As they were leaving the yard, the people were yelling “Bravi, Bravi!” and one lady from one of the apartments next door was calling “Ein mal! Ein mal!” It was a great charge for the kids, and had them happily chattering their way into bed.

Today was supposed to be a down day. But at least all of the laundry is now dry.

Lago Levico

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24: Giro D'Italia Time Trial and Puking

May 24

Whoever said that everything looks better in the morning has never had a seven year old daughter that rescued a baby bird which subsequently died.

Actually, that’s not true. Whoever said that was brimming with the wisdom of the ages, because everything did look better this morning. Bright sun, the most astonishingly clean air, and Sadie drifted out of her room reporting that she’d had a good dream about Cheerio and Giselle. She said she felt okay about Cheerio and was just glad they got to be friends for a while. Yay! No permanent emotional scarring. She is already planning her next baby animal rescue. No yay!

Dan sprang into the saddle and was off on a two hour bike ride, leaving the kids and I here to recover from all the excitement of yesterday. The children ate breakfast and lounged around on the one place to sit in this apartment: a burlap loveseat. I, having no place to sit except the kitchen table, decided to do all the laundry, even though I’m reading a really interesting book about church history, medieval hill towns, relics, and stuff like that. On my Nook, thank you very much.

There is no laundry facility in this dwelling, so I washed out all the clothes in the kitchen sink, which kind of resembles a laundry sink anyway. There was much toiling and sloshing and squeezing and whatnot, and eventually I got everything hung out on the folding clothes hanger thinger and the fence and a few lawn chairs. Dan got home, we all ate some lunch, and we set out for the time trial that was stage 15 of the Giro D’Italia.

Now there are a few things you should know before you read the next sequence of events so you can fully understand what happened. First, the children get carsick. They vomit, even. I know this. On the day that Sadie barfed on her outfit before we got to Siena, I promised myself I would pack a spare outfit for each of the kids and leave it the car. Did I? No. Second, back in the USA I bought and packed three travel size packages of Cottonelle wipes, for toilets with no toilet paper, and three travel size packages of antibacterial wet wipes for handwashing, as well as many little individual “moist towelettes” for general use. Did I have any of them in the car today? No. And did I give the children their Dramamino 30 minutes before we got in the car? NO!

Furthermore, the GPS was determined to route us to the finish of the time trial directly through the rest of the time trial, because she didn’t realize the roads were closed, so we had to actually look at a map and try and find a route that was not insane all by ourselves. Which we did not accomplish. Instead we took an insane route that had us curving and slicing up a mountainside through hill after hill of beautiful, luxurious, emerald green vineyards, past glorious little villages with domed bell towers on their mosque-y churches, and it was all so lovely except that 1. Benny was carsick. 2. Sadie urgently had to go to the bathroom. 3. We had no gas.

Not that I’m assigning blame, because I would never do that, but Dan is a person who 1. Does not believe in carsickness because he himself does not experience it and 2. Does not stop for gas until it is below a quarter tank. Ever. I can’t blame him for Sadie’s bladder. It was just a bonus.

In Dan’s defense, we did stop two times for phantom pukes, as Benny wretched into the ditch without result. And Benny was, immediately before vomiting, telling crass jokes and laughing. However, he decided to actually volcanically puke when we were spiraling down a hill, no shoulder at all to the right, and a bus coming at us from down below. Dan heroically plunged the car across the road and onto the left shoulder, where there was miraculously a pull-off. Benny, having bathed himself and the car in all the vomit he could muster, went and heaved some more into the ditch, and then pronounced himself done. Dan took Sadie up the hill to pee onto a tree, and I set about trying to clean up the vomit with – paper towels from the apartment? No. My thoughtful assortment of handiwipes? No. I had only a napkin from a set of plastic silverware, which almost instantly shredded in my hand as I tried to clean up Benny. You’d think I had never done this before.

Took Benny’s shorts off and beat them against a tree. Swabbed down the car with some broad leaves I found by the roadside. Wrapped Benny in my black scarf, sari-style, and put him back in the front seat. Sat down in the back seat to wait for Sadie and Dan to get back from peeing, and realized that the leaves I had been using to clean the car smell exactly like spinach. This, combined with the already nauseating task of cleaning up someone else’s vomit, led me to leap back out of the car and uproariously hurl out my breakfast of absolutely magical Sicilian tomatoes. Ping pong vomit, hallo, Venuto-style! It was a low point for us as a family, I must admit. We felt a little bit ground down under the heels of these Dolomiti. But we got back on the road. In a few kilometers, we had a gas station, were all able to wash our hands properly and get some paper towels to use on the car and child, and put some gas in the car. BACK IN BUSINESS. Later in the day, as we were going into our house and taking things in from the car, Dan tiredly said, “Here in the trunk I have the shorts Benny puked on and the shirt that Sadie wiped herself with.” It was such a gloomy declaration I had to laugh.

But back to the main event. There was still the minor matter of getting to the Giro D’Italia and the GPS was no help unless we put in all kinds of waypoints. Which we did. And eventually we found ourselves being dragged up the back side of Mt. Nevegal on the most appalling cow path you have ever seen, literally only the width of our car. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we soon entered a teeny little town that was not made for cars of any size, squeezed through the main street by sucking in our mirrors and holding our breath, and THEN we realized we had to make a sharp left turn. There was just no way, physically, to do it, without shearing off most of the car. I’m telling you your bathroom was much much bigger than this road. Your downstairs bathroom. We had to go turn around in the little square, and come back. That was a heart-stopping moment, realizing there really was no guarantee that the buildings actually were far enough for the car to make it through. We might have just wedged ourselves there, unable to even open the doors.

On up the cow path, we came to a more substantial roadway, and eventually saw people and cars congregating in a bike race fashion. That is to say that people were hurling their cars into the ditch and hiking away up steep hills. After passing one police checkpoint without being stopped, we began to worry that we wouldn’t make it much farther, so we parked on the side of the road and began to hike up like everyone else. Dan was deeply bothered by the fact that there were other cars still going on up, but I think we were both afraid we would be stuck up there with nowhere to park, and have to come back down. We were so recently traumatized by the experience with the narrow road, and felt like at any minute a stone barn and a sagging pizzeria might rise up from the roadsides and crush us. We hiked on until we passed someone coming down who told us it was 4 more kilometers to the summit. This caused Dan a lot of anxiety and I started to worry that we might miss the whole thing just trudging up these switchbacks and enjoying the fresh mountain air. It was really fresh. But we also wanted to see at least a few guys finishing. We knew they’d started going off at 1:30 and it was 3:30 and the route was short.

Dan ended up leaping back down the mountain like a gazelle, ignoring the switchbacks and hurtling straight down through the fields of wildflowers (can’t you just picture it?), retrieving the car and scooping us up moments later. We made it quite a far way up the mountain in the car before we were stopped by a polizia who told us to where to park. He thought we were French because of our French license plate, and we were able to hold a passable French conversation with him. Yay us.

Parked, we resumed our trudge, and it was a considerable trudge still up to the summit. But soon we started seeing team cars, parked caravan vehicles, and even an official Giro swag truck from which we bought a package of stuff including the precious silicon bracelets for Benny, a clapper thinger for Sadie, a t-shirt for Dan and a backpacker thinger for me. It was the perfect prize package for making it up that blazing, unforgiving hill. At the summit, we bought gelatos and ate them with absolute triumph as we realized that there were still 50 or so riders to come in, we found a great spot to watch, right on the rail, and I admit I punched Dan in the arm a few times as if to say “We are victorious over these circumstances.”

I love watching big bike races. Especially time trials. There’s a really festive atmosphere, everyone is yelling and cheering for every rider that comes across, and at this particular race there was a very friendly vibe. I don’t know what makes it psychologically possible for me to enjoy engaging in this particular mass behavior, when usually clapping in large groups makes me want to tear my skin off and fly through the roof, but I like it. As far as I could tell we were the only Americans there. We had no flag, no identifiers, and people kept trying to talk to us in Italian, French, and German. Whatever, I’ll take a crack at any of those languages at this point. Bring it on.

Our spirits revived, Benny in his sari and Sadie riding Dan’s shoulders in her pink outfit with her Giro swag, we watched all the riders come in. For the Italian riders, the crowd went absolutely nuts, calling their names and screaming and yelling, but all the riders got good applause and support. And all along the railing were amateur cyclists who had either ridden up the time trial course or up the back side of the mountain to watch from the summit, wearing all kinds of kits from their local teams to their favorite pro teams. It was a great scene, very fun. Lots of kids.

As Alberto Contador came through at last, wearing the pink leader jersey, with his helicopter escort and six police motorcycles, he was tearing it up in awesome style, and the cheers exploded. We took off down the hill with the rest of the bazillion people who had come up on bikes or on foot or in vehicles. Threading our way down through the team cars, the motorcycles, and all the mayhem was quite a challenge. We finally found our own car, got in, and drove home without incident.

Later, at dinner, both kids ate vociferously including Sadie, and after a hot bath, they went to bed gratefully. Winding our way up to our austere little home here in the mountains, we saw puddles on the ground and I realized that the day had one more thing to throw at us – all the beautiful laundry so carefully cleaned and so well baked in the sun all day was dampened by a shower – not soaked, but just damp enough so it could not be put away. I dealt with it. Tomorrow it will all be dry. And tomorrow, the Giro D’Italia comes right here, to our little town of Levico Terme, and all we have to do is walk down the street to see it. We’re going to take chairs!

At Giro d'Italia!

Dolomiti

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23: Venice, the Dolomiti, and One Lost Cheerio

This morning when I got up, Sadie had already got up to feed her bird. Amazing. I had a bit of worry over the bird’s general silence and sort of floppiness, but she seemed to be eating well and was able to cling onto the kids’ fingers today, which was more than she could do yesterday. I sort of began to have hope that she might actually live. Having fed the bird as much as she would eat, we set out in the car to go grocery shopping and get some cash for the landlord.

The “Polli” grocery shop was down on the main drag, quite a drop down the hill from our little nest, which was much brighter and more cheerful with the morning sun pouring in than it had been in the rainy cold of last night. We got our supplies, got some cash from the Bancomat, and went home. The kids played with the bird while Dan met with the landlord, leaving me to walk down to the market, which was fortuitously happening today. I now understand these tiny town markets and exactly what their purpose is. Yes, there are fruit and plant and vegetable vendors. But mostly this is like a moving shopping mall, selling everything from shoes to underwear to dresses to handbags. I get that these tiny rural towns do not have a variety of stores to give people access to necessary stuff like this, and I now get that the weekly market is when this variety of stores actually makes its way to the town. I did not find anything I wanted to buy, except a used Italo Calvino in Italian, but I did like seeing all the people shopping.

When I got home, we all got ready and went off to Venice. We fed the bird as much as possible and left her in a warm spot, hoping for the best. Driving back through the mountains to get out to the flat southland again was just insane and deathdefying. I’m shocked neither of the children vomited – they certainly seemed near to it many times. The Autostrade took us right across the water and into Venice, and now I will tell you how to do Venice in a very short time, and fully enjoy every minute.

1. Drive into town and park your car in one of the garages at the Piazale Roma. There are several.

2. Walk north to the Grand Canal and to the Vaporetto stand there. Vaporettos are water buses, very awesome, that go up and down the Grand Canal and to other places. Buy four one-way tickets to Piazza San Marco.

3. Get in line so that you’re first into the Vaporetto after it empties. This will ensure you can sit right in the front and have awesome views and happy times.

4. Be driven all the way down the length of the Grand Canal and out into the Venetian Bay before stopping and getting out at Piazza San Marco.

5. Climb the Campanile.

6. Go through the Basilica.

7. Go back out to the water, where the Grand Canal meets up with the bay, and head left down the walk there. Find a café that suits you and get something to eat and drink, watching people and the illegal vendors mill about. Eat gelato. Drink cappuccino.

8. Go to La Pieta and stand there pondering the fact that in the hotel next door Vivaldi worked as a music teacher. These were the stones he stood on. These were the buildings he saw each day on the way to work. This water. That door. Ponder more.

9. Walk back to the Piazza San Marco and just north of the Basilica there is an alley, go down it and find gondolas.

10. Get in a gondola and pay the man to push you around through the back canals. Not the Grand Canal. The remote ones. This is a wonderful, expensive, lovely, excellent and worthwhile experience. It was extra fun because we had a hip-hop gondolier who spoke excellent English and answered all our questions and was charming. I very nearly cried several times as I felt I was having a really Henry James sort of experience. It’s romantic in the broad sense of the word. You can see the watermarks on the buildings from the floods. You can see the steps leading down into the water, even at low tide.

11. Get out of the gondola at the end of the ride. Now you are going to hoof it all the way through Venice back to the Piazale Roma. If you want to buy something, choose a store that is in a small side street. The prices are directly proportional to the size of the street. The souvenir vendors next to the Vaporetto stop on Piazza San Marco were the most expensive of all. Diet Coke ranges from 1 euro to 3,50, depending on where you are in the city.

12. First follow the signs to the Rialta Bridge. On your way, window shop the glass, the masks, and the fashion. Stand there on the bridge and gaze upon the grand canal and think beautiful thoughts.

13. Then follow the signs to the Piazale Roma. You may get lost. That’s okay – just head vaguely Northwest and you’ll eventually see another sign. Venice is mercifully and accurately full of signage. Just because something looks like a tiny alleyway doesn’t mean it’s not the correct way to go.

14. Don’t forget to look up, down and all around. Those things so tightly lidded – are they the old wells? How many winged lions can you spot?

15. When you are back at the Piazale Roma, go to the bathroom, find your car, get in it and drive away.

16. While on the bridge going away from Venice, looking at the sun going down, make sure you annoy your husband who is trying to drive by making him look at ALL the pictures you took.

Venice was as wonderful as everyone said it would be. I really, really loved it. It was like stepping into a book or a movie set, just every little detail is so beautiful and so nice. There is something sorrowful about it, and something brave. The water level rises a bit each year, and the city also sinks a bit each year. Between the global water level and the inherent instability of the spot, the city is going underwater. Yet there it is, beautiful and functioning, marking out its time. The Carnavale is a sort of flaunting, doomed laugh in the face of death. Gorgeous in its morbidity. Masks are death. I need to read Wings of the Dove again.

Looking at the Dolomites on the way home, and thinking about Venice, I had one of those moments where you feel like humanity on earth is just a hiccup. The mountains are composed of volcanic magma and also the fossilized remains of a bazillion sea creatures that fell to the bottom of the sea that used to be where the mountains are now. All that residue of life, shot through with volcanic rock, then lifted high into the air (and still lifting) by the earth. It’s amazing to look at. It used to be at the bottom of an ocean, long before anyone who is now alive could tell you. Will the beautiful Basilica di San Marco sink into the sea? Yes, and so will everything else, ultimately. All this celebration of antiquity is interesting and just, but looking at these enormous mountains of dessicated seashells, so big it takes forty-seven switchbacks at 18% grade to get to the top, you know that nothing we make can really last.

When we got home, we found that the bird had died in its little nest. Sadie was devastated. At first she blamed herself for leaving it, but we talked her through that and reassured her that she had done everything she could do, had fed it and kept it warm, had given it love and companionship and care, and that little birds that fall out of their nests just usually die. The hand was dealt when the bird dropped from that tall tree – Sadie just made its ending a little more sweet and soft, and less like being torn apart by a cat. Or maybe she didn’t, maybe the cat would have been more swift. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The mountains are out there, grinding their way up a millimeter at a time, and no one notices, for millennia, the difference.

At first it was terrible sobbing, and then a nice dinner and a hot bath, and sadness, and after an hour of finding her little playmate departed, she was looking at pictures of her bird and smiling. I know she’s not done being sad, but I asked her if she would, knowing the outcome, still rescue the bird, and she said yes. I know I would make the same choice also, because I would far rather be the guy that says “Yes, let’s try to save it” than I would the guy who says “Leave it there, it’s hopeless.” Even if in the end it means more tears, I’m glad we tried to help the silly little thing.

A long day, a lot of beauty, and in the end a powerful sadness.

Tomorrow, I *have to* find a Laundromat.

Piazza San Marco. VENICE.

We have a bird.

Levico Torme in the Dolomites

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22: Cesenatico and the Nove Colli

This morning started early for Dan, at 4:30, a bit later for me, at 5:30, when Dan left the hotel room to ride the Nove Colli. I couldn’t fall back asleep of course, being worried about his safety and all, so I got up to surf channels and try and find any possible TV coverage of the event. What an adventure I had, sifting through all the channels of Sky TV. Italian kids’ TV, Fox News, porn, Iraqi TV, a Tunisian soap opera, Hustler, BBC, something called “Easy Baby Channel” and something called “Lady Channel,” and no Dan on the TV. I sat there reveling in the hotel WiFi, assing around on Facebook, and flipping channels occasionally. My fun channel-surfing ended when Benny woke up, however, because I couldn’t be quite sure that any of the channels were safe. We decided on a channel meant for kids which had shows Benny found hilarious, like an English-teaching show where a woman was chanting about big horses and small horses. Eventually Sadie got up too, and they watched a rowdy version of Pippi Longstocking in Italian.

Armed with towels and wearing swim suits, the children and I went across the street to the beach. The beach was lovely, with chairs and umbrellas set up to match each hotel along the street. I sat in ours for a while, and then went and stood in the water. The children reported that the water at about 50 meters out was colder but crystal clear, and Benny bemoaned his lack of goggles. After playing on the beach for an hour or two, we wandered back to the hotel to fall into the pool. Actually I stood on the wall and watched the riders coming in from the shorter route version of the bike event. There were lots that looked half-dead, panting their way to the 1km mark, but there were lots that looked fresh as a daisy, singing and bellowing and making much of themselves. Dan’s ride had not yet begun to finish, he was doing the 200 km and apparently it took them longer.

After the pool, I showered up the kids and we went down the street to find a good place to watch Dan come in. The children were so famished and I was so desperate for coffee that we picked a little pizzeria and sat down to wait. I had figured he couldn’t possibly come in before 7 and a half hours, and yet as we sat there, he went zooming by! I was so shocked I could barely yell for him. After he had checked out and turned in his chip, he came back past, and joined us for pasta and diet Coke. His time ended up being 7 hours and 18 minutes, which was good enough to put him well into the top 10 percent – a very excellent result.

While we were sitting there, Sadie noticed a little bird hopping around, not able to fly. She and a woman from another table shepherded it into a bushy area, but it was clear it was a baby bird and had fallen out of its nest. The trees above us were huge and high – how it survived the fall was beyond me, but as soon as Sadie determined she could pick it up and hold it, I knew our goose was cooked. Then the restaurant proprietor started talking about the cats that live nearby. Yes, I am telling you that we took that bird back to the hotel with us. And put it in a croissant box with some hay and one of Sadie’s t-shirts. And took it on the road with us to the Dolomites! Crazy, but what can you do? We had a full, long discussion about how baby birds that fall out of the nest *die* reliably and totally and that it is very very sad but that is reality, and that the best we could do would be to save it from being eaten by a cat, and give it a friend until it died. She agreed to these terms, and named it Cheerio.

The bird was able to eat moistened bread and drink water off our fingers, and hopped around enthusiastically and even chirped once or twice. Who knows what was going on inside its little body? I do know that it was getting showered with love and affection from two little people who adore animals and have soft, big hearts. And that it was living in a croissant box inside a Pinarello bag. Classy digs for an orphan sparrow.

We began the drive north, into the Dolomites. The terrain over here on the east side of Italy is very agricultural, more like fruit trees and rows of crops, and less like grapes and olives, although there were still some grapes about. We saw big stone farms that looked ancient, and also some modern farms. Then the mountains. These mountains are huge and erupt very suddenly out of a flat plain. We first saw them as gray shadows far in the distance, and then they were there, huge and strange, in front of us. It was a bit like driving toward Grenoble from the west, but even more abrupt. The Dolomites are less austere than the alps, more otherworldly, but some of the steep roads and crazy switchbacks we encountered almost laid me out.

Finally, after dark, we reached Levico Terme and our house. We even managed to contact the landlord, who showed up to let us in at 9:00 pm, speaking mostly German which we surprisingly managed pretty well. The house is not beautiful – it’s heavy on the tile floors and bare walls, and light on the ambience. However, when you think of what’s right outside the window, it’s pretty awesome.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21: Hands Full of Mountain

At noon today the owner of the house was coming to receive our key and the rest of our rent money. Dan got up and went on a ride, I got up and began leisurely packing and sorting things out, and the kids rambled about. We knew we were going to spend a night in a hotel in Cesenatica so Dan can do the Nove Colli, so we had to sort our big bags into little bags that we could more easily tote into the hotel. There was a fair amount of stress accompanying this sorting, since we also had to cope with the bike in its bike box, needing to be put together, uncertainty about hotel parking, uncertainty about whether I’d have to check us out of the hotel while Dan was still riding, uncertainty over a whole bunch of other things – it’s the usual thing when you do something for the first time.

Finally in the car and headed west, we managed to shove a Dramamino down Benny, but Sadie refused. Somewhere in the wilds of Umbria, we entered a region of absolutely insane mountain roads. There’s a mountain range that goes down the middle of Italy like a spine, and we had to go over it, see? But instead of finding some sort of flat part to go through, the Italians just build their roads right up over the top. There were switchbacks in the switchbacks, and the children began to look green. First to fall was Benny, who switched into the front seat after heaving into the ditch, and then professed to feel better. We were racing motorcycles all the way to the summit of this crazyass mountain, and at the top there was a giant congregation of racing motorcycles and speedy looking people in leather jackets. Clearly the cyclists own this road.

Up and over, and down the other side. Dan was having so much fun that I knew an eruption was imminent.

“Sadie, do you have to vomit?”

“No.”

“Do you?”

“No.”

“STOP THE CAR. SHE DOES. SHE DOES.”

“I don’t!”

But she did. Dan stopped the car, I grabbed the nearest plastic bag, which happened to have a couple of biscuits in the bottom of it, and attempted to get her to aim for it – which – she – refused! She explained later that she didn’t like the smell of the cookies. Which Dan said he could understand. Uh, you are vomiting. You have a choice of slopping it down your front, destroying another outfit, your carseat (again) and the car (again), or you can stick your head in this bag which may not smell appetizing at the moment but may I remind you – you are VOMITING. Does stuff have to be perfect?

Anyway, she puked partly in the bag, partly on her shirt, and we carried on. Minutes later, her face went grey, her lip trembled, and more puke. This time there was no way to stop the car, since there’s only a shoulder on the road every few kilometers, so I valiantly caught the expulsion in my cupped hands, and on we drove down the hill back and forth, back and forth, precipice on the right, sheer cliff on the left. Oh, it was a golden moment in my life as a mother, I can tell you right now. Dan gave a big lecture on the importants of Dramamino, and eventually we got stopped, Benny managed to find the hand wipes, we cleaned up, and carried on.

Then it was all flat. We found Cesenatico huddled near the ocean, found our hotel. There were cyclists everywhere milling about, drifting here and there, floating around the roads Oceanside. The hotel parking lot was a grassy field that was padlocked, and you had to check out the padlock from the desk and then lock it up and take back the key. Strange! The hotel itself is pretty fancy, and the children and I went immediately to the pool while Dan rode down to the main headquarters of the gran fondo to pick up his race number and packet and whatnot. The pool was just perfect, with a small pool the right size for Sadie and a big pool that Benny could dive in. They had a great time swimming, and when Dan came back he called to us from the balcony and we came up. The kids got showered and dressed and we went out to find sustenance. We also had to find food for Dan’s breakfast tomorrow, because he’s going to have to get up at 4:30 and eat something, then go ride for 8 hours.

After following multiple sets of directions (One set came from a woman who managed to sell us a German chapstick! Huzzah! My lips are saved!) we finally found the little market, which had a very strange selection. We bought unrefrigerated milk, cereal, packaged croissants, canned fruit, nutella, and a sort of rectangular pie pan to eat the cereal in. Weird but functional, all of it. Thus armed, we made for the oceanfront and found a ristorante by the seaside. The kids had pizzas, I had gnocchi, and Dan had tortellini. We left well fed and sleepy, rolled up home to the hotel. We had decided to take one of our rooms for a second night, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about checking out during the race. While we were getting this straightened out, Benny asked very politely if he could play the piano. The desk clerk was completely charmed by his “perfect Italian” and gave him permission. He played his Verdi with great enthusiasm, then pronounced the piano too far out of tune, and said he felt hesitant to play any more.

We came upstairs, reveled in the WIFI a bit, marveled at the fold-away bidets a bit, obsessed about setting an alarm a bit, and then went to bed. Tomorrow is an early morning!