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!

Now our hotel

We are on our way to our next house, but we have to make a quick stop at a hotel. It's a very neat hotel. It has a pool, is close to the beach and a lot of resteraunts. But best of all, WI-FI!!!!!!!!!! We went to the pool, got pizza, and now we're kikcing it, and blogging. We enjoyed it, and we are going to the beach to live it up even more. I hope we go to Italy again, because we eat pizza for dinner every night!

Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20: The Leaning Tower of McPisa

May 20

This morning I woke up to the daunting task of stringing a violin without tweezers or any tools, but at the end of it Benny had a functional violin and was able to march around the little town with his violin and his sister, playing duets for the entertainment of the neighbors. This resulted in one of our more lengthy conversations in Italian, when we were able to chat about how old the children were. Quite an accomplishment, just in a question/answer exchange. My mother would be so proud. :/ And I did some laundry.

The other thing I did, which is pretty surprising in my mind, is to start my new novel over again, and grind out a chapter and a half. I’ve been stuck on this book since November, so being able to write it even while the children were awake and frequently poking at me with requests and sticks – this was significant. Felt like an enormous weight had been lifted. The only problem is that there was a paragraph in that first draft that I really liked, but it’s not on this computer and I don’t have internet. I know that at some point I’ll be able to squish it in, but just at this point it would be nice to have it, to sort of anchor the book. For those of you keeping score at home, I decided not to go with first person. Too many feelings and too much intellectual intimacy, you know I don’t like that.

Dan had a long ride to do this morning, so when he came back it was lunch time. We ate salad and fruit and then set off for Pisa to see the Torre Pendente. Pisa is a coastal town and lots and lots of people want to go there and see the leaning tower. The town around the medieval part is fairly nondescript. We saw our first billboards there, for places like Carrefour. GPS led us to within visual range of the wall to the old town, and we managed to park beside a fence, again ROCK STAR parking for this little ragtag band of adventurers. We found that the tourist traffic inside the cathedral plaza (piazza il duomo) was not so bad, since it was mostly tour groups.

Hear me now: Watching the tour groups we’ve seen so far in Florence and Pisa, I am loathe to become one of those dead-eyed zombies, following the brisk person holding a numbered flag, each zombie with a matching number pinned to his or her garment. Flocking to the bathroom, flocking to the important painting in each room, jostling politely to be the nearest one to the front, falling behind and looking about them nervously, and mostly never having an interaction with an Italian person. I am sure that with our Suzuki group it will be different, being as we are chock full of lively children and rowdy parents. Most of these people are senior citizens. However, it does give me pause.

When we came through the wall and got to see the leaning tower right there in front of us, we were shocked and amazed. It is really leaning, big time. It’s one of those things, like the Eiffel tower was, where you look at it in person and it looks fake, because it’s so iconic that it doesn’t seem like it could actually be real. Benny and Sadie were delighted – they love to find things they can recognize, and they’re all about visiting iconic things. They often have discussions about which artifacts are most famous – the coliseum or the leaning tower? The Eiffel tower or the leaning tower? The Eiffel tower or the coliseum? These are very important distinctions for the kids.

We got our tickets for the various things to see and do around the cathedral. The leaning tower is actually the campanile of the cathedral, like the campanile we climbed in Florence. There is also a baptistery, and a cemetery. This is something we’re noticing about Italian cathedrals – rather than having a baptistery, cathedral, and tower all in one building, the Italian ones are separate, with separate entrances. We vowed to Google this at our earliest convenience. Unfortunately Sadie was too young to go up in the tower – I think maybe it’s a matter of spaces between the guard rails or something, being too large to safely let tiny people climb it. Really we’re lucky any of us got to set foot on it – it’s periodically been closed for years at a time because of the… leaning. It leans, you know. So Dan and Benny got tickets to climb the tower at 4:20 and we all went to wander around the cemetery.

The cemetery was fully enclosed by a high wall, like its own building but without a roof. There was a central courtyard with lush green grass and flowers, and all around it was a sort of hallway paved with graves, with decaying but interesting frescoes on the walls, and sculptures and whatnot lining the path. We like cemeteries. We found much to like here, with spooky skull and crossbones on the graves, and weird memorials. We went into the small attached chapel and found a lot of really really spooky reliquaries. You know how the joke is that if every skull in a catholic church that was supposed to belong to St. Peter actually did, he would have 47 heads? Well we saw some skulls today, let me tell you. I don’t remember any of the reliquaries in France being windowed, but these are proudly transparent, so you can see every finger bone, every little bit of saint. A bit gruesome, in my eyes. But who doesn’t like gruesome, you ask? I do like gruesome, but I guess not mixed with my religion.

Speaking of religion, having looked at a lot of art in the last few days that deifies saints in the various ways they died, and hearing about all the modes of torture and how many people were burned, torn apart, etc. not just by people in other religions trying to repress Christianity but by Christians trying to repress different sects of Christianity, it makes sense to me the urge to raise up a few particular people to a different level than the rest of us. As protestants we don’t really believe in saints, but maybe at the point that protestants had the luxury of splintering off from the catholic church the concept of saint wasn’t really as meaningful or necessary as it had been in medieval times. It was a dark, horrible period of history, mostly, with a lot of ignorance, a lot of suffering, and a lot of abuse of power. The idea that there were sweet, good, pure people who had such beautiful faith and strength of spirit must have been really needed.

Anyway, Dan and Benny went to take a look at the top of the tower, and Sadie and I began a long leisurely crawl down the stretch of souvenir shops. Reuniting, we went to the baptistery, a beautiful round building where we heard an echo demonstration. A man stood in the middle of the room and sang the notes of a chord, and the sound reverberated through the dome so long that the whole chord hung there at the same time. It was really cool. Benny desperately urgently wanted to try it for himself, but there were a lot of shushing Italians around us. The man who did the demo told us there was a statue near the pulpit which was supposed to have been used by Michelangelo as inspiration for the strength of his David, but we promptly forgot to look at it.

Next was the cathedral: massive, exotic, and elaborate. I just kept gasping and saying, “It’s so FANCY.” Even the floors were tiled mosaic, and there were beautiful marble mosaics left and right. And gold. And huge beautiful paintings. This cathedral was not austere and it was not perfectly made – there were a lot of asymmetries and strange little design flaws. But its sheer enormity and all of the details and elegant parts still had an awesome effect.

After the cathedral we fed the children at the only McDonald’s we have seen in Italy (it’s where the Simpsons went while they were in Pisa, you know!), hoping for WIFI but finding none. There was a sign on the wall that promised a hotspot, but when we asked about a connection, we were told “It’s not working these days.” Dan had to urgently check and manage work email so he used a bit of precious data roaming while we ate. It was 7:30 by the time we left Pisa, walking around the outside of the wall to the car. Benny proclaimed it a great day, and we motored on home. At home we got the children bathed and in bed, and I, much to my amazement, finished chapter 2. It’s quite possible this book is fairly dreadful. Let’s face it: all first drafts are weedy at best. But at least it’s getting written, and I am pretty happy about that.

Torre Pendente

Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19: Uffizi Eye-ffizi We-ffizi

May 19

This morning I woke up at 8:30, felt reasonably well situated in time, and toddled off downstairs to make myself coffee in the strange coffee maker. This coffee maker is something I’ve not seen before: you put the coffee grounds and the water down in the bottom of the pot, then a metal filter, then you screw on the top part of the pot. Then you put the whole tiny thing on the gas stove and it boils up into the top part somehow through a valve or pipe or something. With coffee in me, I toddled out the door, around the back of the house, down some highly irregular stone stairs, and to the laundry room. From the terrace down there, you can see where the stream comes under the house. The laundry I’d put in last night was done, and I strung it out on the drying frame and left it on the terrace, put another load in.

By this time Dan was back from his ride, and we rolled the children out of bed (about an hour earlier than yesterday – baby steps to victory on the jet lag here), pushed some food down them, and headed off to Florence. I was determined to see at least one important art item while in Florence, but I also wanted to walk around and look at the fountains, the streets, the piazzas, etc. and pretend to be an E.M. Forster character. Of course no turn of the century doe-eyed ingénue had to contend with getting a van down streets meant for horses, complete with motor scooters zooming in every direction and pedestrians wandering around in herds and one way streets the GPS claimed did not exist. Fortunately I didn’t have to do that either, since Dan was driving, so I just kept pinching Dan on the leg and saying “FLORENCE! FLORENCE! IT’S FLORENCE!” and he kept trying not to cuss people out.

We (Dan) determined that it would be better to park on the south side of the river since that seemed marginally less congested. We ended up finding ROCK STAR parking right in front of the Pitti Palace – it was actually so rock star that we couldn’t believe it wasn’t metered or illegal or only for bicycles or something. But you can only try so hard to interpret Italian abbreviations on parking signs, so we just left it there and hoped to Neptune it would be there when we got back.

Speaking of Neptune, our first stop (after marching happily over Ponte Vecchio with me shrieking “FLORENCE!) was the Piazza della Signorio, where there’s a big fountain of Neptune and attending sea horses, mermen, etc. At the time I didn’t realize there was marker right next to the fountain, probably right where I was standing, in a spot where a rogue monk was immolated. Kind of glad I didn’t know: soul resin and all that. We looked over the giant Neptune, looked over the giant copy of Michelangelo’s David (the real one is safely inside, but this one is almost just as nice), and then got in line for the Uffizi Gallery. The wait time was reportedly 2 hours but we got in much faster than that. The Uffizi Gallery is not my favorite art museum that I have ever been in. It was hot, close, kind of scroungy, and lit with all the subtlety of a high school gymnasium. We saw The Birth of Venus though, so I am now able to say that I saw it, although in person it looked a bit dingy.

I do now understand why the painting was such a big fat screaming deal, however, because what preceded it in Italian art is about fifty thousand dopey-looking Madonna-and-Childs. I mean there was no limit to how many times Mary and Jesus could be sculpted, painted, drawn, and painted. And painted again. Mary looks sort of mild and modest, baby Jesus looks strangely wise and educated, and they’re soooo similar. Everyone is draped in a lot of fabric, and attended by angels, haggard monks, anachronistic bishops, and pious. I mean the piety will knock your eye out. So when Botticelli came along and painted this sexy broad with no clothes on, and you didn’t have to worship or revere her or believe in her or repress any desires for her, and she really was beautiful, the face, the body, everything, I’m not surprised that the world embraced it. If you take the Uffizi Gallery seriously, then Italian art is a centuries-long march of Madonnas, interrupted in one glorious moment by a buck naked blonde on a clam shell.

Benny and Sadie went through the museum like prisoners under torture, Benny getting more and more oppressed and Sadie getting more and more impishly devoted to oppressing him with every passing salon. In their defense, it was really hot and I’d made them wear long sleeves, and we had left the water in the car, and we were overdue for lunch, and and and. The best thing I can say about the whole experience was that I don’t ever have to do it again.

After we were released from the agony of timeless art, we immediately found a restaurant on the piazza, and sat down to tortellini, spaghetti, linguini, and pizza. And chianti and cappuccino. Then we felt better! We set out to stroll through Florence and meandered out way to Il Duomo, which I was greatly looking forward to entering. Unfortunately today only they closed at four, and the Netzers arrived at 4:11. Not to be discouraged, we climbed the campanile. I don’t like those miserable tiny staircases, I’m not going to lie. But the view from the top of this one made me glad I didn’t skip it.

After descending the tower and drinking about a liter of water each, we stopped for postcards at a little store, and since the proprietress spoke English we asked about a music store, someplace to buy violin strings. We followed her directions down a narrow passageway where we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of glorious, booming organ music. There was a door off the alley, and inside was a beautiful little chapel, where an organ concert was going on. We made our donation to their restoration efforts in a box in the aisle, and then sat and listened to first Handel and then Bach – what an unexpected awesomeness. It was too loud for Sadie, but Benny was in heaven and came back out into the street nattering on about “when I play the organ” and blah blah blah. Thanks, unidentified tiny chapel full of music in Florence.

By now we were sure that the violin store would be closed, and hurried to follow the directions. We were surprised to find the music store was actually three levels of music store, including video games and CDs and violins and all kinds of stuff. Not only did we buy Benny a set of Dominant strings (which I told him had super powers because they came from an Italian store), but we also got Sadie a new DSi to replace the one that Brussels Airlines ate. We were walking away down the street, swinging our bag, mightily pleased with all our problem solving, I said, “The only thing that would make this more perfect is if we found an internet café and you found us a hotel room for Saturday night.” Dan lifted his hand, the matrix trembled, and then right in front of us was a chalkboard that said WIFI in front of a café.

At the café, Dan booked us into a hotel for Saturday night over on the Adriatic Sea, so that he can do his other gran fondo on Sunday morning. We got a hotel with a swimming pool that’s right on the beach, so it will be interesting to see how that all pans out. There’s a lot of fuss about checking out of here, checking in there, checking out of there, etc. I checked in with my email while we had WIFI and found one from my agent letting me know that my book announcement came out in Publisher’s Lunch on Tuesday. Here it is:

Lydia Netzer's SHINE, SHINE, SHINE, in which a young mother's "perfect" suburban existence unravels in unexpected ways as her astronaut husband's endangered mission to colonize the moon brings to light her dark childhood secrets, their strange and wondrous relationship and forces her to question the nature of motherhood, dying and what it means to be human, to Hilary Rubin Teeman at St. Martin's, in a very good deal, in a pre-empt, by Caryn Karmatz Rudy at DeFiore and Company (World).

Reading it made me so happy, I did a dance around the café. Probably they thought I was nuts, but I don’t care. No one took my book deal away, so I danced insensibly around the place. I know I will remember that café forever, on the corner of this little street and that little alley, and how it sprinkled a little rain on us, driving us inside. It was a great thing for me to see this announcement written down, undeniable, and real. We bounced back over the bridge and to the car, got inside, and drove home, where I fed them tortellini, fresh strawberries, and hazelnut chocolate gelato. Now I’m going to read, read, read someone else’s book, and charge up this Netbook. And tomorrow I’m going to start writing, writing, writing mine.

Our house

We live in a house that used to be an old mill. There is a river beside it, and it's in the middle of a small little town. It's very beautiful. I like the house, but not the river, because the river is actually the city grey water, which is why, if I found a way down, I didn't go down and splash in it. I am having a great time here in Florence, at an internet cafè, writing for the first time on my DSi! I saw the uffizi gallery, a famous art museum, and I will go home and snack on some gelato (ice cream.)

-Benny

May 18: Sleepless in Siena

May 18

Last night the children had an awful time trying to get to sleep, and I ended up just lying down next to a wakeful, wiggly Sadie and falling asleep myself. I think she was reading Golden Books on the Nook when I finally conked out, and Benny was still reading Ranger’s Apprentice volume whatever. For their little bodies it was only dinner time, not bedtime at all, and I decided to just let go of trying to make them sleep. They slept in this morning, and Dan went out on a bike ride to Florence and back. I made lunch: salad with fresh mozzarella, garden carrots and tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and oregano, and crostini with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and olives. I must say this fresh mozzarella is pretty tolerable.

We left for the medieval city of Siena with no problems in this world, but by the time we got there we had many, many problems.

Problem #1: I forgot the Dramamine.

Problem #2: Dan lost his glasses.

Problem #3: GPS was convinced there were no one-way streets in Siena.

We determined that on any road that inspired Dan to make whooshing sound effects as he was driving around corners, one of the children would be guaranteed to puke. Today it was Sadie’s turn, and she sprayed eggy puke not once but twice during our trek through Chianti country, completely destroying her outfit. (I must interrupt this daily report to tell you there’s something on Italian TV that seems to be American Idol with accordions players. It’s called Cantando Ballando, and I must Google it at my earliest convenience. There is a virtual forest of grinning, dancing accordion players, all glittery and ingratiating. Don’t let me forget.) Anyway, by the time we were in downtown Siena, Sadie was stripped to her underwear, Dan was violently angry at the GPS, and I was doubtful we’d achieve anything much apart from killing each other. Yet somehow within an hour of being in Siena, we had a sack full of Italian Dramamine, Sadie was wearing a new dress, and Dan was wearing his glasses to see sparkling vistas from the Torre del Mangia with the children. (Now on Cantando Ballando, there’s a woman singing some kind of ballad. Behind her on the LCD video wall is a collage of random kitten pictures. One of the kittens has a shmush face, one has a toy, and one of the kittens is wearing a green hat. Everyone in the studio audience is a senior citizen, and now there are half-naked dancers all over the stage. Half-naked dancers, giant adorable kittens, and accordions. That’s entertainment on Cantando Ballando.)

Anyway, Siena turned out to be the city of our dreams, with a convenient and open pharmacie, a clothing store that had a woman’s top we could pretend fit Sadie, a horrifyingly tall tower to climb, a glittering marble cathedral and pretty soon: gelato. We tried very hard to get lost in the medieval byways again, but with such unmistakable landmarks as the tower and the cathedral it was impossible to not maintain our equilibrium. But you don’t really care about that. You want to know what’s going on with Cantando Ballando, and I’m going to tell you that Italian Taylor Hicks is now on the show, and *his* video wall background is concert footage of HIMSELF at a much younger age singing an entirely different song.

After shoving some Dramamine down the children we headed back out to the crazy mountain roads to zip around corners, zoom down steep hills, and also look at the Tuscan countryside in the province of Siena. Siena and Florence used to be at each other’s throats, each an independent principality, until Florence beat down Siena, stalled its art and architecture in the middle ages, and sent a Medici governor to lord it over them and live in their palace. Siena managed to hang onto some dignity with its local horse race, celebrating the founding of the city by Remus’ two sons who raced up the hill on two horses, one black and one white. This explains the black and white theme of everything from the cathedral marble to the ducal coat of arms.

On Cantando Ballando, there’s another old man singing, and HIS video wall background is himself playing the piano on ice while people in harlequin costumes skate around it in concentric rings. And the accordion players are all back, dressed in burgundy, and are swaying back and forth in unison, waving their hands like “here’s the flowing wheat, there’s the flowing wheat.” Dan thinks this is a variety show, not a competition. I don’t know what variety show actually means, but someone in the audience has fallen backward out of his chair, dead of old age or in a spasm of appreciation. Seriously, the audience is a sea of white hair.

Sitting in the piazza at Siena in front of the old palace, you can really sense the specificity of this Italian town. I was reminded of the fact that Italy has only been a unified country for a short time, relatively speaking. There is a strong sense of identity in each town we have visited. I don’t know why this surprises me in Europe, when each of our states has a claim on its own uniqueness. Maybe it’s because Italy is physically so small, and these little city-states so close, to be maintaining their own flavor. But distances mean more here. You just don’t have the same network of speedy freeways. It’s mostly creaky little country roads. So each urban center really feels like an island, surrounded by a sea of olive groves and vineyards and long mountain ranges. It amazes me how unpopulated it is here. Here we are in a countryside that has been civilized and populated for thousands of years, and you look around and see mostly nature. Makes Virginia seem so crowded, long strings of habitations stretching out along every road.