Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre was just as amazing as we'd hoped it would be and not overly crowded. We took a train from La Spezia and got off in Monterosso al Mare where we spent about an hour lounging on the beach. I'm not much of swimmer (either in skill or desire) but I spent most of the time in the water with the heart of a mermaid and the body of an only slightly injured harbor seal. It wasn't as warm as Barcelona and it dropped off sharply (to about 10 feet) just three feet out, but there was something about the salty water that was almost therapeutic.

Later we took a boat over to the town of Manarola where we walked the half mile path to Riomaggiore to catch the train home.


Normally I don't worry too much about “looking like a tourist.” I mean, I am a tourist and honestly, over here the tattoos seem to be a dead giveaway. Today however, we had the Ultimate Tourist Experience. My mom is with us for the week and we went to Pisa where we rented one of those four person bike deals that made us about the same size as the ubiquitous Smart cars. Pisa has tiny lanes that are filled with pedestrians and a smattering of cars that are brave/foolish enough to drive inside the walled city. As if riding those things isn't bad enough, we kept turning down one-way streets (and finally got lost altogether), got a flat tire and had to contend with Vaughn yelling “Ciao!” at every person on the street.
We had a good time in Pisa though. It's entertaining to watch everyone in various poses all pretending to be holding up the famous tower. I finally convinced Jacob to one-up everyone by giving me an 'airplane ride' so that I could hold up the tower balanced on his feet. Despite the fact that we didn't quite pull it off and Jacob griped at me for 'hurting his back', people took pictures of us trying to pull it off. Mission accomplished.
My mom flew into Florence on Saturday and we picked her up after spending two days camped out in Fiesole which is just outside of Florence and 400 years older. We stayed at a campground that was pricey at 40 Euros a night but we were in a sweet little trailer and the place had a gorgeous view, giant pool, and the restaurant by the pool blasted what sounded like the lesser-known hits of Air Supply each night. It was just the ticket after the hecticness of Rome and Vaughn was in heaven playing ping-pong on the concrete table with Jacob.
We're spending the week at a villa that is high in the hills with a great view of the Alps in one of two apartments connected to the owner's home. We've not spent a ton of time here because we've been on the go, hitting Lucca (about an hour and a half south) yesterday, Pisa today and Cinque Terre tomorrow. I'm hoping that come Wednesday I'll be sitting in the grass and watching the man next door herd his sheep. I like walking around the property barefoot and watching his cattle dog move the sheep from section to section and the occasional drama when one of those suckers decides to break with the pack.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


You can be the President, I'd rather be the Pope - Prince

Whenever we told people that we'd be driving in Europe, the horrors of driving in Italy, Rome in particular, would always be issued as a warning. While the traffic is impressive and intimidating, Jacob drove in with his best Bring it baby - I'm from Southern California attitude and got us to the hotel with only a single honk directed our way. Now the car is safely parked and we're on foot for the three days we're here which makes me happy since apparently scooters and the like need not stop for red lights and they zip around you on all sides. At one point I actually saw two police officers zipping through traffic on their scooters, standing up and using both their hands to direct traffic while moving down the street at a pretty decent clip.

The first night we pretty much crashed in the hotel but we did manage to make it out for a bit of food. Just when I had resigned myself to eating potato chips and drinking wine for dinner, Jacob found a place where they featured several kinds of vegan pizzas already made.

Yesterday we were up bright and early to head out for our tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. We had been told by the hotel to leave at 7:15 am to catch the Metro to get to our tour departure location by 8:30. Unfortunately, we got there at about 7:45 and the tour didn't end up leaving until closer to 9:20 so there was a lot of standing around and I was worried that we'd lost Vaughn (emotionally, not physically) before it even began.

The tours get you straight to the front of the line, which is amazing, but you are still faced with massive crowds and lines at every turn. The entrance to the Vatican is like a huge airport terminal with everyone attempting to flee the country at once. You don't quite see the Sistine Chapel so much as survive it. A huge, packed room with guards all around clapping and pointing at those who attempt to take pictures and occasionally shouting, "Silencio!" I can't even imagine having the job of tour guide in those places. Our poor guide kept his cool even while getting extensively bitched out in Italian by another guide (presumably for not keeping our group of 50 far enough on our side to allow for passing) and by a security guard when a couple in our party fell behind and attempted to catch up by passing under a rope barrier.

Still, St. Peter's Basilica is amazing (and large - a key selling point after so many claustrophobic rooms) and Michelangelo's Pieta is breathtaking even from a distance. Vaughn held up remarkably well for a four hour walking tour (not counting the two hours BEFORE the tour began) of things that he cared very little about to begin with and practically despised toward the end of the tour.

Today was my dad and Martha's last day here and they decided to take Vaughn out and treat him the wax museum he'd been eying (perhaps I'd sufficiently guilted my dad by pointing out that I had always wanted to go to the wax museum at Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf and we never did. The cycle of unmet wax museum expectations stops here). I think they had a good time despite the fact that it was primarily Italian notables, including a fistful of popes and Padre Pio da Pietralcina. Faithful readers may recall how tickled I am by translation documents so you'll appreciate this passage from the brochure regarding why the good Padre is notable: Still alive people venerated him; also thanks to the miracle working fame he acquired due to the assumed supernatural capacities he was endowed with, anyway he was also hardly criticized and suspected in ecclesiastic and laic milieus.

Another highlight of today was a visit to the Cappuchin Crypt where the bones of 4,000 Cappuchin monks are artfully arranged to form scenes that fill five rooms and line the ceilings and walls (check out the link to get a sense of just how beautiful and macabre this is). The final room has a plaque inscribed with the following: What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

If You Have To Ask....

No pictures today - just a little story chock full of life lessons! Actually, as most of these things go, the more time that goes by, the sillier it seems.

So it was our last day at the agriturismo and Jacob and I wanted to go by the pottery studio up the road and take a little tour. As I mentioned in my last post, the woman who owns the property is a fairly notable ceramicist and her workshop is in the lower half of her home which also happens to be a renovated church. Since Jacob used to have a little pottery workshop of his own, naturally we were curious to see her operation.

Her husband met us at the studio and began to graciously show us around and explain the operation but she was more stand-offish and seemed preoccupied in the operations of the studio and her two staff. The studio is huge with four kilns and multiple rooms, including one just for shipping orders. It turned out her work was more prominent than we had realized; her husband showed us orders destined for restaurants in New York and Chicago and retailers such as Calvin Klein and Saks Fifth Avenue. It was lovely but fairly standard functional pottery- plates and bowls and such with the occasional teapot or vase. Like many larger artists, the bulk of the actual work is now being done by staff that work in her studio with the artist herself overseeing the work and stepping in to sign the pieces at the end.

When it came time to go, Jacob and I quietly discussed the idea of maybe asking if we could purchase an item as a souvenir. Her husband explained that the front room was full of 'seconds', pieces that had slight imperfections in the glaze or minor cracks and that these were for sale. After a few minutes of walking around, we settled on two mugs with a glaze of tans and creams. Not quite a set but close enough that they looked nice together. We set them down on the table and the woman went to get her pricing book. Fourteen Euros a piece we were told. Okay, a little pricey for a coffee mug but they were nice and thought it would be fun to have a memento from this time. Jacob pulled 28 Euros from his pocket and set it on the table. The woman frowned and looked at the money but said nothing. Sensing something was wrong I asked, "Is that correct?" "No," she scoffed. "Forty Euros. Forty Euros a piece." At today's exchange rate that's about $56 a mug.

This is what has become known to Jacob and I as a "sticky bun moment", so named for the time that I bought a $4 sticky bun that I never would have paid so much for but it was too late to back out graciously. The coffee shop employee had located a vegan treat for me, described the baking process and was already bagging it up when I was told that my treat cost way more than I ever would have paid had I known.

The artist, her husband and visiting daughter just looked at us. Jacob and I looked at each other. "Oh," I said sheepishly to Jacob, "Maybe we could buy just one?" Jacob shot me a look that said You're out of your mind. In that moment I realized that, assuming these mugs even survived the trip back to the U.S., there would be no way we'd be showing them off artistic collectibles (as if anyone we know would even be knowledgeable about or impressed by a famous Tuscan ceramicist); they would become symbols of our foolishness. And how could we ever let anyone even use them ("Say, could you please use the 'World's Greatest Mom' mug? That's our $56 Tuscan mug. I'm sure you understand").

And so we said, "I'm sorry, we just don't have that much money - we cannot afford these" and quietly reclaimed our 28 Euros. The family said nothing. Had we insulted the artist by implying her work was not work such a large amount? Were they embarrassed for us? Stunned that we had refused to pay the requested amount?

I can say with confidence that I believe in living within your means, not buying status symbols and that there is no shame in not having a lot of money but at that moment I felt only embarrassed, a little naive and maybe even a tiny bit backwoods. We thanked them graciously and made a hasty exit, confused as to how we could have been so misguided. Back at the house, Jacob went immediately on-line to find retailers selling the sugar bowls he had been quietly considering for $222 and the medium sized serving bowls I admired for over $600.

I felt on edge from the experience for a good hour. Surely no one was to blame and I don't blame the artist for her prices. If anything, it is refreshing to see that an artist can make a living in these times of everything being mass produced so cheaply overseas. Even if I could afford $56 for a mug, would I want to spend so much money on a mug? I can't say that I do. But it's funny how your mind plays tricks on you in these moments.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tuscan Days

The agriturismo we are staying at is in Lavane, about an hour south of Florence. We've rented a 2 unit guesthouse which sits directly under the home of the young farmer, Frederic, who manages it for his parents with his partner Graziella. Across the garden of tomatoes and cactus is the home of our host's parents built out of an old stone church. The bottom of the church also serves as the workshop for Frederic's mother, a ceramicist with a fair amount of notoriety who is away at a show in Paris for most of the week we are there. The property is lined by organic olive groves and we've been given ample amounts of the homemade olive oil to use during our stay. In addition to producing olive oil, Frederic also raises Garfagnine cows, horses, chickens and rabbits.

I realize this sounds pretty idyllic, but the actual situation took a little getting used to. There are three dogs that often spend much of the night circling the perimeter and barking; five cats (a conservative estimate), some of whom seem like they have respiratory issues, which are constantly making themselves at home in our residence; the horses seem thin to the point of making us uncomfortable; it's hot and mosquito laden and I don't think any of us knew that we'd be so close with the family (who have two little girls - ages 4 and 7) and their stuff which is scattered about the yard. Plus, we're a good thirty minutes drive from any of the really good towns or attractions.

And yet we've settled in and relaxed over the week and it has become something kinda special. It does cool down in the evening, we picked up some bug spray and welcomed the cats into the house. I started really appreciating the multiple butterflies that flit about the yard and the small, white bunny that lingers just on the outside of wherever we are. Jacob and I notice the aspects of the house- particularly the exposed wooden beams, brick archways and red floor tiles- that fit with the home we hope to build someday.

Yesterday we were caught off guard by an announcement that it was the child Violetta's fourth birthday and that there would be a dinner in the evening we were invited to - at least that is what we thought we deciphered (Graziella only speaks Italian). After muttering a non-committal response we fretted for a good 20 minutes about how to handle this situation, mostly devising ways to get out of attending and justifying our actions to each other. We had been told that dinner would start after 8:30; while it was entirely possible we could say we had already eaten, we'd have a tough time not being home.

After a day trip to Siena, we found ourselves home at around 6:00. We sat outside in a short-lived thunderstorm that did nothing for the parched earth; drinking wine and watching Vaughn kick the soccer ball with the girls, who were charmingly dressed in matching flamenco dresses that they later flung to the side after getting too hot. Unfortunately, little Violetta took a nasty spill and hit her head on a rock, requiring a visit to the ER for a couple of stitches. Graziella whisked her into town for treatment while we continued to drink wine, listen to Jacob play guitar, and hang up balloons and pictures of our injured birthday girl from the tree branches.

Around 8:30 miscellaneous family members arrived, perhaps 12 in total, all speaking only Italian but smiling broadly in our direction. Shortly thereafter Graziella and Violetta returned and within minutes, dinner was laid out on the long table in front of the house.

In addition to being a farmer, Frederic also has some formal culinary schooling and this was evident in the simple but delicious dishes. They kindly prepared a separate pasta dish without clams for our first course and we enjoyed the roasted rosemary potatoes (skipping the cheese and bread) for the second. The final course was fish cooked over the fire outdoors and while we did not partake, my dad cheekily proclaimed it "the finest moment that fish ever had." Dinner was a solid two hour affair but nearly everyone except us left the table in between course to smoke or just stretch their legs. After much pressure from Graziella's mama, I broke with my veganism and ate a piece of birthday cake (which was lit by two Roman candles), all the while insisting that it was being shared with Jacob to get them to stop offering him cake. I like to think I 'took one for the team' but despite my guilt today, I have to confess it was literally the best cake I had ever had. We stuck around for the champagne toast and then excused ourselves to bed at maybe 11:30 - exhausted and happy.

Tomorrow we are off for a day trip to Assisi.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Switzerland to Venice

On the way down to Italy we made a couple notable final stops in Switzerland, the first being Chateau de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva. I really wasn't overly excited about it (I'm kind of ho hum about both castles and churches to tell you the truth) but they ended up having a temporary exhibition that made the visit particularly interesting. Entitled "Witch Hunting in the Pays de Vaud, from the 15th and 17th Centuries," the exhibit highlighted texts and artifacts from the witch hunts in the region. During this time, a healing woman couldn't catch a break - often getting a witch accusation if things with a treatment went right OR wrong. Either way she might be in cahoots with the devil and 2,000 death sentences came out of this canton alone. Interestingly, Switzerland (accounting for current boarders) holds the record for "witch" executions per capita- a tragic 3,500 deaths out of 5,000 accused.

The second stop was the Nestle/Cailler chocolate factory. It wasn't quite Wonka but the tour might have been equally schmaltzy (with maybe 80% fewer Oompa Loopas? Hard to say...) and it did conclude with an "all you can eat" tasting room. Sadly for my brother, his souvenir bars were 'lost' in Venice when I realized it would cost $18 to mail them to him (and as Jacob pointed out, they are probably sold at Trader Joes where he works).

After this we made our way to Venice where we left our car and hopped on a ferry toward our hotel. Apparently the resident population of Venice has dropped in half in the last thirty years and tourists outnumber the residents. It's a little rough around the edges with a fair amount of litter and dog poop which made it a little more funky than grand despite the row of high-end retailers. We went out to the island of Murano, famous for glass work and did the obligatory tour of St. Mark's Cathedral before hopping on the vaporetto back to the car.

We're now spending a week at an agriturismo in Tuscany with day trips planned to Siena, Florence and Assisi. It's a little hot here and I'm now up to about 30 mosquito bites but the house and region are beautiful, albeit very dry. We're enjoying having so much space and I think our planned day trips will end up being great. After the hecticness of Venice it is great to be able to have a 'home base' to relax and drink wine and talk with my dad and Martha. After Tuscany we're off for three days in Rome.

**All the pictures in this post are from Venice

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swiss Miss - Lauterbrunnen

Today might have been the pinnacle of the trip thus far for me. We drove up to Lauterbrunnen where we took a train and then a cable car up into the Alps, getting off at Mannlichen. From there, my dad, Vaughn, Jacob and I hiked about two and a half miles down to where Martha was waiting for us at Kleine Schidegg. My dad and Martha offered to take Vaughn on the train while Jacob and I hiked the six miles back down to the village of Wengen before catching the train back to Lauterbrunnen. That's a passel of German names, no? The important part of this is that I hiked eight and a half miles in the Swiss Alps while listening to the sound of cow bells and having "alone time" with Jacob for the first time in two months. It was pretty much like Heaven. If hiking in the Swiss Alps isn't on your short list of things you must do - put it there and I guarantee you won't regret it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Swiss Miss - Bern

Everywhere we've traveled Jacob has asked, "Do you think you could live here?" Mostly, this exercise has just made me realize how much I appreciate Portland but I really like Switzerland. Bern is a fantastic city and yesterday I think we walked most of it. It was our first full day with my dad and Martha and we played with giant chess boards on the street, drank beer and saw bears, bought Vaughn a real Swiss Army knife with his name engraved on it and generally just took in the beauty of the river and the surrounding architecture.

My dad and Martha are staying at a hotel a few miles from where we are couch surfing to avoid paying the inhospitable Bern hotel rates. We're staying with a man named Beat (pronounced Bay-aht), a seasoned couch surfer who has hosted over 60 guests. Last night we all cooked dinner at Beat's place and spent a lovely evening talking about languages (Beat speaks three and is learning Farsi) and Switzerland.

I will leave you with an interesting tidbit gleaned from a visit to Bern's Natural History Museum which was perhaps the most Dada-eque experience I've ever had. Where else can you see a taxidermied elephant seal in a display case with a set of wedding clothes or a couple of mannequin heads kissing above a plastic pile of poo with flies near a plastic pig laying on its side with a video of a giant worm being projected onto its abdomen? The displays with stuffed creatures from the African Savanna were given an extra touch of whimsy through the addition of small, garish human figurines that had been placed in the displays in ways to make it appear as though mini-humans were interacting with the animals (i.e. naked man flashing gazelles, men lowering companion into crocodile mouth by way of fishing pole, obese man with inner tube bathing alongside hippo, etc.). While fascinating, I must confess it did appear to be the final indignity bestowed upon these poor creatures. In addition to all these educational wonders, there was also the stuffed body of Barry, one of the most famous St. Bernards ever involved in alpine rescue work. Apparently, St. Bernards are no longer used in rescue work because the modern breed is a bloated and distorted version of his earlier forbearers. And that, my friends is just one of the ways we create unnatural history.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swiss Miss - Nyon

Through the magic of couch surfing we've ended up in another place that we hadn't planned on going to but are completely charmed by. The plan had been to go to Zurich post-farm and hang out for a few days before picking up my dad and Martha. Alas, the couch surfing scene in Zurich seemed to be mostly younger, single guys and the one family that seemed like a good fit were busy prepping for couch surfers who were coming for two weeks. I opened the search to all of Switzerland since we really could have gone to just about anywhere and we found Claudia who lives in Nyon with her three children. Nyon (pronounced 'Neon') sits on the shores of Lake Geneva about 25 km outside of the city of Geneva.

Claudia is warm, easy-going and laughs easily. She has a younger daughter (age 11) and two children in their 20's who also live with her. The house is always bustling with energy from her two dogs; a gregarious (is there any other kind?) black lab barely out of puppyhood who liked jumping on the trampoline with Vaughn and a sweet mixed breed dog with doleful eyes who was a bit shy at first on account of being a rescue dog. In addition to the dogs she has three cats and two guinea pigs.

Claudia home-schooled her younger daughter up until last year and she was a wealth of knowledge in addition to a source of reassurance when we share with her our concerns about 'doing it right' and our frustrations over the never-ending battles we seem to be having. On our last she observes Vaughn (who has recently decided his new career goal is to be an illustrator for the Simpsons and is already pestering us about special classes when we return to Portland) diligently sitting at the table searching for articles and videos on how to draw the Simpsons and tells Jacob she thinks his tendency to dive intently into one subject at a time makes him a perfect candidate for home-schooling.

Apparently Nyon is popular with ex-pats and it is easy to see why. It's not overly large (population is just under 19,000) but it has everything we could imagine needing and is clean and charming. While it rained the first day we were there, the second day it was sunny and warm and we went and sat on the shores of the lake while Vaughn practiced his illustrations and Jacob began crocheting our winter hats.