The following was a blog that I wrote during our trip to Italy over the last ten days. I took Steve there for his 40th birthday, hence the long time since you've heard from me. Also, I did not want to post online that we were leaving until after we got back. That sort of thing freaks me out for several reasons.
And now, without further ado:
OUR ITALIAN HOLIDAY!
We left the house this morning from Indiana and traveled fairly smoothly to Chicago without much construction or traffic congestion. Instead of paying the outlandish long-term parking rates at O’Hare airport, we decided to use the Park N’ Jet which is only $7.50 per day, plus a small fee for fuel. The valet parked our van and a gentleman took our bags and drove us to the airport, then unloaded for us. I did not, to my surprise, get sick in the back of the shuttle. Normally, I suffer from motion sickness when I am in the back of a moving vehicle. I need to get used to it, however, because on this trip I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Trafalgar Coach driving from Rome to Florence to Venice to wherever and back. Lord willing (and the creeks don’t rise [a phrase that has always cracked me up]), my motion sickness will be suspended for the trip to Italy.
After checking our two bags, which were thankfully under the weight restrictions for Alitalia Airline, we took our passports and boarding passes to the security check-in and did the whole dog-and-pony trick. My friend Heather called me right at the moment I was getting out my passport and boarding pass, and I haven’t called her back yet. I have to remember to do that before my phone no longer works! It’s too quiet right now, and I’d feel awkward having a conversation in the silence. Except for the guy who is hacking and sneezing and coughing. You know, the one who will likely sit on the other side of me for the eleven hour flight. The one with dodgy eyes.
Now we have a nice, restful period in which to read, write, or get online. The WiFi signs are misleading. Yes, WiFi is available throughout O’Hare airport. However, you need to sign up and pay a monthly fee to use it. Not worth it in my opinion. I’d much rather type offline and paste it to a blog when it IS free! Just one more money-saving tip from your friendly neighborhood cheapskate. However, cheapskate or not, I did save up all of my tip money for over two years so that we could make this trip for my husband’s 40th birthday without breaking the bank or screwing up our family budget. Don’t worry, our kids aren’t sitting at home starving. I promise. Unless they forgot how to use the microwave.
More updates as the trip progresses, and another promise: they will definitely be more interesting than this one!
DAY ONE CONTINUED
After approximately 10 hours on a plane with 8,000,000 other people, we finally arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Let me back up a little bit and tell you a fun little story before we get here, because perhaps then you’ll be able to appreciate my level of exhaustion and giddiness at the same time.
While waiting at O’Hare airport for four hours, we ended up sitting (accidentally) in the wheelchair section, which would explain the extraordinary number of people in wheelchairs that were there. At one point, a conversation was begun (as they tend to do, randomly) about who had been to Italy and who hadn’t, and what other countries they’d traveled to, and what they liked, and what they didn’t. The population of our particular area being of the somewhat elderly variety, they were quite opinionated. I mentioned that my dream trip would be to Australia to which one of the women immediately replied, “Oh, I hated it. Don’t go there. It was nothing like I expected. It was filled with Asians!”
Unsure of how to respond to this, I smiled politely and put my headphones on. When boarding finally occurred, in the midst of the aforementioned 8,000,000 other passengers on the largest plane I’ve ever seen, much less ridden in, who should my next-door neighbor be but the lovely elderly racist. Imagine my surprise. To top it off, I was in the middle seat, in the middle of the plane, in between my husband (think: A.D.D.) and the lovely elderly racist (hereafter referred to as “LER”). As politely as I could, I talked for awhile with her about her family, her recent foray into Campbell’s-Peppersomething-Soup (“Don’t try it. It’s awful. I don’t even have taste buds and I could taste how salty it was”), and her other travels besides the godforsaken trip to Australia which was filled with Asians. As this was an approximately 10-hour flight, I had assumed mistakenly that I could perhaps get some sort of nap. I did not expect the snack and two meals I received, so that was a nice bonus, but I’m not sure that anything can really replace the wonders of sleep.
I borrowed a pen from the LER to do some Sudoku and Word Searches (purchased for our trip by my wonderful sister-in-law – thanks, Stacey!) while I listened to an audiobook that I had been trying to finish for awhile. I put the pen down after awhile and listened only to the book, turning my light off and attempting to take a nap. Shortly thereafter, there was a poking sensation in my shoulder. LER said, “Are you going to sleep?” Apparently not, was my internal monologue, but I said aloud, “Yes, I’m just going to try to get a little rest.” The reason for her question? “Well, I wanted that pen back.” I gave it to her. I was hoping to do some more puzzles later, but I was not about to ask for the extremely important pen back once again, so I just gave up the dream. When the entire plane was dark, instead of turning on her overhead light because, as she told me, she didn’t want to bother people – she pulled out a pen light, shined it all over the plane trying to find a few things in her purse, then shined it into her makeup mirror while she applied lipstick. That process took nearly ten minutes. It reminded me of the skit on Saturday Night Live with Fred Armisen playing the stenographer who “can’t find her crackers”… this is only funny if you’ve seen it so if I forgot somehow to link it up, find it on NBC.com.
Sleep did not occur. In fact, right now, at 11:00 a.m. in Rome (5:00 a.m. back home) sleep has still not occurred, and I have been awake for 23 hours, driven through three states, and flown across the Atlantic Ocean, and am sitting in the lobby of the Aran Montegna Hotel waiting for housekeeping to finish up our room so we can… wait for it… wait for it…
I am taken aback (but only a little) by the rudeness of some people. Most people, to be honest. The way they are already treating the tour guide, putting themselves in front of everyone else, acting disgusted that their rooms aren’t ready yet. We just moved seats to another part of the lobby because one particular woman acts so much like Steve’s ex-wife that it’s like we brought her along on the trip. A completely negative attitude, talking about how there are “some things women shouldn’t do” and rolling her eyes, making a comment about me bringing my computer with me… ugh. Seriously? As my husband just pointed out to me (and I agree wholeheartedly), why would you fly 6,000 miles and spend all of this money to act that way and have a bad time and make everyone around you miserable? Couldn’t you do that at home for free?
We bought a prepaid calling card from the very nice Italian lady at the airport for 60 euros which gave us, for a limited time only, 75 euros worth of talking time!!! (See how exciting that sounds? Now imagine a very attractive Italian lady in professional dress saying it with her accent vocally beckoning to you.) Basically we paid $85 for less than an hour of phone time. Viva Italia! But I called my little sister (who is the only person I know that is actually awake at 3:00 in the morning) to let her know that we arrived safely and we’d call again soon if possible, and to pass on the message that we did not fall into the ocean and die. She was very excited and agreed to oblige.
This constitutes as the beginning of Day Two, by the way.
It eventually happened, after a couple of hours of waiting around. We got our hotel room, and it was worth the wait. It’s beautiful. A mirror that covers almost an entire wall, a two-room bathroom with a bidet, frosted glass doors, a sofa, and a HDTV. Electricity is different over here or something, so we have to have an adapter to be able to plug things into the wall (not a 3-2 prong, but a US-Italian prong) which I borrowed from one of the good people on our tour, and might have to purchase in town on our next stop.
After a quick shower and a two hour nap (none of which I remember because I instantaneously fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow), we met for a Welcome Drink in the downstairs restaurant. I had juice, because I’m a fan of neither beer nor wine, and water is not water here just like electricity is not electricity. If you ask for water, you will receive sparkling mineral water. I’d hear d that before, but didn’t believe it. If you’ve never had sparkling mineral water, it’s warm, fizzy, and salty and resembles carbonated ocean water. To get “real” water, you have to ask for acqua naturale, in which case they will give you either tap water or bottled non-fizzy water. I got some tonight and it felt wonderful.
Our tour guide, Sharon (with an English accent, no less) is bright and cheerful and enjoyable, and is taking the rudeness of some in stride, as I suppose must be her job. I would have killed someone by now, as long as she’s been doing this. Steve started saying her name like Ozzy says it, and she told us she was from the same area as Ozzy, and if we’d like her to do an impression, she would. I’m going to hold her to that, eventually.
After the Welcome drink, we boarded the bus once again and headed into downtown Rome for an optional excursion. We took a walking tour of some of Rome. We saw the Circus Maximus as we drove by which is mostly a big blank area where concerts are sometimes held these days. We saw the Pantheon, a building originally dedicated to the worship of several different gods. We saw Raphael’s tomb, some Roman ruins which were breathtaking, and the Piazza Navona, which is the buzzing center square of Rome, populated with tourists but also locals, ristorantes, pizzerias, gelaterias, artists, shops, musicians, and two of the most beautiful fountains on the planet. Of course this is where the camera battery decided it had had enough and wanted some sleep. I did what I could to prolong it, including praying and crossing my fingers, which got a couple more small videos out of it, but that was all. It gave up the ghost, and I put it in my purse and focused on finding food for my ailing belly.
We checked out a few of the restaurants in the Piazza, but decided on a small, outdoor ristorante down an alley leading out of the piazza. I had pizza Quattro formaggio which is a four-cheese pizza including bleu cheese which I am in love with, and acqua naturale which pleased me greatly. I’d been in the process of obtaining a massive headache, realizing later that it was because I have had a complete lack of caffeine in the last twenty-four hours and there is not a single place I’ve found that sells Mountain Dew. I’m debating on whether or not to try espresso. We’ll see. Perhaps just an Americano, but espresso and I don’t usually agree so I might just suffer the headache for another day and give up the caffeine while I’m here, or suck it up and buy a Coke.
Then came the culmination of my trip (yes, on the first excursion into Rome.) The gelato for which I have been waiting. There were gelaterias all over the place, but we finally settled on one closest to the ristorante where we’d just eaten, to save time because we had to meet the tour bus again shortly. The flavors were phenomenal – for 3 euros, I got three flavors in a cup: pistachio, chocolate chip, and Nutella mousse. I may not eat anything else the entire time I’m here besides gelato. I figure if I eat the fruit flavors I’d be getting some sort of fiber, right? No? Well, it was as if Michelangelo had melted all of his talent and frozen it into ice cream. I can’t wait to get some more.
Our local tour guide was Maria del Gratia or something like that. She was a local Italian woman who talked with her hands, and was very physical and we walked approximately 485.2 miles and/or kilometers if you want to do the fake math, because her quick Italian legs walked faster than any of us probably have in a very long time! We got a little of her on video, so we’ll be able to put it up on Facebook, too. I’m in need of a wireless connection somewhere! I’m rather hoping to get some wifi tomorrow and put some things up, but it’s going to be another long day.
Tomorrow we wake early and travel into Rome once again. We have another optional evening excursion as well, and I’ll keep you posted. We’re really enjoying ourselves thus far, and watching Steve see the sights is almost as fun as seeing the sights!
A good rest last night was had by all. At least, all that mattered. We awoke this morning at 6:15 to shower and have breakfast. It was a continental breakfast buffet which consisted of fruit and fruit juices, cereal and milk, Americano (espresso and hot water or what I lovingly will describe as fake coffee), pound cake, sweet croissants, bacon cooked the way I like my steak (as in, almost not cooked), scrambled eggs, and little mini-hot dog things. I had a selection of some of this, and it was all pretty good, even the fake coffee once I added some whole milk and zucchero (sugar). A lot of little things are making me happy – instead of jellies, they had little packets of Nutella! (Well, there may have been jellies, I have no idea – I saw Nutella and forgot about everything else.)
After breakfast we boarded the bus, and the cranky rude lady from day one was there and there was much rejoicing (yayyyy…) We sat as far back in the bus as possible. There is also a gentleman on board who looks exactly like Shrek in the second movie when Shrek became human. I’m not kidding. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that’s actually a compliment. Anyhow, we drove to the Colosseum and took approximately a billion pictures (okay, probably not quite that many since the memory card is only 2G). It was phenomenal. The tour was really a great idea, because this way we can hear the history of everything, while we’re driving and while we’re walking as well. The local guide was back with us again, Maria del Gratia or whatever her very-Italian-name is. She showed us around and then let us go off on our own, which we did, and then stopped at a vendor outside of the Colosseum to get a couple of souvenirs and a Diet Coke for Steve (4 euro = $5.60 for a bottle of Diet Coke). In Italy, it’s called Coca-Cola Light.
Next stop was St. Peter’s Basilica, and we purchased an audio tour of that for 5 euros that we could both plug into, because you’re not allowed to have a talking tour through the Basilica. The guy at the desk didn’t realize that Steve and I both gave him 5 euros, so he was hesitant to give us 5 back when we realized we could both plug into the same tour and we didn’t have to purchase them separately. Once we figured out where the heck we were going, it was pretty cool. I realized soon that the flash on the camera was not going to work inside because all the pictures were coming out very dark, so we fixed that and took some lovely shots and video. All told, 196 pictures and videos today!
Tonight we’re going on another tour, to see the Spanish Steps and the San Trevino Fountain, then a lovely dinner where they’re going to celebrate Steve’s birthday, even though it’s tomorrow. The morning holds the Sistine Chapel, so that’s a fantastic birthday present in and of itself!
One thing I love is all the little, tiny cars! Have I mentioned this yet? Cars I’ve never heard of, and very few cars I have heard of! Yaris and Smart Car and Golf, but also Cobra and Micra and Mangane and Panda, and so many others. I have seen one P.T. Cruiser, but no other regular cars like in the States. It’s fascinating. Parking and driving are a major problem here because of the very small space. You will see Smart Cars parked vertically instead of horizontally in between other cars parked normally, because they are as long as other cars are wide and can fit in half the space. And it is true that traffic lights are pretty much just a suggestion. Our bus ran a red one today while we were on it. Maria says they are for decoration!
A little rest and reading now, and then we get ready and go again at 4pm which is only 10am back home!
After the rest and reading, we plugged in the laptop with our friend’s adapter and headed down to the bus once again. This time, we took it into the other side of town where we had not been yet, and walked for awhile to get to the area where the Trevi Fountain was (which is the right name for it, not whatever I called it the last time I wrote). This was where “Three Coins in a Fountain” was filmed, and the tradition is that you throw a coin backwards with your right hand over your left shoulder and make a wish to come back to Rome someday. Our tour guide took a picture of us doing that, but then we got out of there as quickly as possible because it was ridiculously crowded and we were nervous about getting pick-pocketed. We shopped for some souvenirs, met back up with the group, and stood in the rain with my hoodie and umbrella until it let up a bit. As we stood, we saw a beacon across the street: the sign said, “Absinthe”.
Those of you who know my husband well know that one of his favorite movies is Moulin Rouge and that absinthe plays a big part in this movie. The Green Fairy? Ring any bells? Well, a liquor store where you can just walk in, buy absinthe, and walk out was too much of a temptation, so we did exactly that. Eventually we’ll get around to drinking it, but the fact that we just own a bottle of absinthe is pretty cool when you think about it.
Then walked about ten minutes to the Spanish Steps. We got a few nice pictures, and then walked on to the Piazza del Popolo, which means the plaza of the public and had a four course meal with all the wine we could drink right next to the place in the movie Angels and Demons where the first murder took place! (Steve took the “all the wine you can drink” pretty literally…)
We’ve made some good friends here: Rocco and Jayne, Al and Tracy, and John and Louise, all from Chicago, all Italian I think. They are a trip! Human-Shrek’s name is Chris, and he’s a corrections officer from Connecticut. He’s a pretty tough guy, on this trip by himself, and we’ve all enjoyed getting to know him.
So this evening, I’m planning to try and get some sleep because we’re waking up at 5:30am! I’ll write more tomorrow when, hopefully, this gets charged a little more. Apparently it didn’t work while we were out of the room, because our room card activates the electricity and lights and such. It’s already shut me down once and put me on standby, and I can feel it getting ready to do it again… so, ciao for now!
DAYS FOUR AND FIVE
I didn’t write yesterday because it was completely full and there was really no time to sit and write at all. However, it was Steve’s birthday and I’m pretty sure he had a good one. We got up very early, as mentioned, and went into the Vatican once again. We learned a lot about the Sistine Chapel from another local tour guide, Gooyah, before we entered, because once we got in we were not supposed to talk. Pictures are prohibited, but apparently a lot of people take them anyhow. There are about seven miles of museums and halls and such, only one small portion of which is actually the Sistine Chapel. It was fascinating to learn the history, the different artists, the reasons that Michelangelo painted different things in the background of his particularly famous portions of the Chapel, etc. It was a one-way tour, meaning once you went through each part you could not go back to a previous section. The tour itself didn’t take long, but we had about fifteen minutes in the Chapel itself just to admire the beauty. We got a small amount of video before someone from another tour group tried to take Steve down. He can tell you the story sometime. We’ve decided to call this quick-video maneuver “The Sistine Sneak”.
A side-note story for you. I took my laptop with my in my bag today because she said we should not leave our valuables on the bus, so I was nervous because I hadn’t packed it in my suitcase to be locked up underneath. I had Steve hold onto the laptop while I got things situated in my bag to make room, then shoved it in there and we got into the Vatican line. While waiting in line, Steve’s eyes began to water, then get red and puffy, then swell. There are cats wandering around the Vatican, so we thought maybe that was an issue, or that someone on our tour had cats and some had rubbed off on him. It got progressively worse, and I was concerned about it. He looked like he was very uncomfortable, and I wanted him to be able to see well in the Chapel, especially. We just couldn’t figure out what was going on. It had to be some sort of cat somewhere. After he went to the restroom, he figured it out. This laptop, which I bought from my friend Danny from Ann Arbor, has a velvet cover over it. When Steve held the laptop for me, some of this got on his hands and there was black fuzz on his hands when he washed them in the restroom. Danny has a cat. A cat that Steve and I have never even seen. And Steve must be more allergic to cats than I had even realized for that to happen!
After the Sistine Chapel, we began a very, very long drive to Venice. We were on the bus for a couple of hours, then stopped for lunch which was definitely an experience. Since meals in Italy take so very long, and have so many courses, the term “fast food” in Italy takes on a whole different meaning. We stopped at a gas station/convenience store/rest stop to eat. The protocol is, you go directly to the cash register and tell them which thing on the menu you want, then you pay and take your ticket up to the food area. It’s sort of like a bar – there’s no number on your ticket, you just have to hope that the food-tender notices you and looks at you ticket and brings you your food in a reasonable amount of time. And in Italy, the term “reasonable amount of time” takes on a whole different meaning as well! We were there for about an hour, all told, which isn’t bad considering we have about 45 people on this particular tour. I had a value meal with pizza Margherita, patate fritte, and Coca-Cola for 6.90 euro (which is almost ten dollars American.) Patate fritte, by the way, are French fries. Steve is beside himself because there is rarely air conditioning or ice available for drinks. I think he’s enjoying himself anyhow, though.
After the gas station fun and games, we continued our drive for another couple of hours, stopped again after two hours for another restroom break, and then another hour and a half until we finally arrived in Venice. Our hotel, Novotel, was beautiful and the front desk gentleman was very helpful when I was trying to find a new local dial-up exchange to use my calling card there for free. He didn’t speak a tremendous amount of English, but we understood each other fairly well with a lot of hand gestures. They’re big on hand gestures! We had a small dinner at the hotel, chicken marsala, patate fritte, some pasta with red sauce.
We ended up signing on for all of the optional excursions, so we took an evening tour of Venice, and I am so glad we did that! The city is so romantic, and there is so much history there as well. We took a canal cruise to see the sights around the Grand Canal, and then a Gondola ride with Champagne around the back “streets” of the city, with another Gondola behind us where a gentleman played the accordion and sang Italian songs. It might sound cliché, but it wasn’t at all. It was a marvelous experience.
We went back to the hotel, slept quickly, and got up this morning to pack our things and move on. We put our bags outside the door for the porter, and then drove back into Venice where we saw a glass blowing demonstration and toured the Murano glass shop, seeing some gorgeous but overwhelmingly expensive items, like chandeliers and gigantic glass cobras and jewelry galore. Then we did the best thing so far… we had the optional excursion cruise to the island of Burano, and I fell in love with it. It was like Mackinac Island in a way, and like quintessential Italy in so many others. Canals everywhere for streets, but a lot of land and shops and restaurants. Beautifully handcrafted masques, intricate Burano lace, and a population of about 5000 people who rarely lock their doors, and hang all of their laundry right out front from their windows. We ate at a wonderful restaurant where I experienced some things I never had before: a lasagna with a creamy meat sauce, an Italian steak, and something called “Ben Cola” which is what they brought me when I asked for Coca-Cola (it had sugar and sucralose in it, so it was supersweet!) The actual meal was almost all seafood, but I asked for non-seafood because the only thing I would’ve eaten is a small piece of fish. But Steve had two types of seafood pasta, fish pate, fried shrimp, calamari, fish, and coffee with amaretto. I just took my amaretto so I could drink it later. Speaking of which, that would be good right about now. But I’m saving it for when we drink the Absinthe that Steve bought, in case I don’t like it.
A nice story about my husband: even though the evil ex-wife acting lady has put somewhat of a damper on the trip, she is there with her sister and mother, and they’ve been carting the extremely old lady around in a wheelchair most of the time on this trip. In Venice, there are steps everywhere up and down the bridges, and Steve offered to have him and Chris pick up the wheelchair and carry the old lady in the wheelchair over all of the steps so that she didn’t have to keep getting up and trying to walk it. He’s very tenderhearted, though I’m not supposed to tell anyone that, so pretend I didn’t say anything, would you? After that, the mean lady became much more palatable, and her attitude changed a bit. I guess everyone can be touched by kindness sometimes.
We took the cruise back to the Grand Canal, picked up the rest of the people on our tour, drove back to our hotel to drop off the wheelchair and use the restrooms, and then drove on to Lake Garda which is where our current hotel is. The view from our chalet bungalow is breath-taking, but the service leaves a little to be desired. Our bags didn’t arrive forever, so I went down to get them and they were still at the bus area, so I just grabbed them and brought them up the hill and the flight of stairs – exhausting, but at least I didn’t have to tip anyone else to do what I could’ve done myself a half hour earlier! I washed some clothes in the bathtub and am trying to dry them by the morning so I have something fresh to wear. I sat out on our balcony enjoying the view… and the bats… for awhile, then uploaded our pictures from the last couple of days and erased them from the camera. I hope our camera holds out all of tomorrow, because I didn’t get a chance to charge it this evening. We went to our buffet dinner, which was pretty good. There was a very interesting dessert – it was not pudding, and not jello, and not flan, but it was white chocolate and melted in my mouth and was quite wonderful in an “I’m only going to try this because I’m in Italy” kind of way. This is probably the only time I’m going to be able to just rest a bit, and I’m wired because of the Ben Cola and the coffee I had after dinner.
Some things I miss: our kids, our families, Dunkin’ Donuts, not calculating prices/miles/temperature into American equivalents, cheeseburgers, free wifi, television in English besides news, plugging things in at leisure.
Some things I don’t miss: my cell phone, work, constant need to check email/Facebook.
Things are very different here, but there is so much to enjoy. I wish I had the money to live somewhere like this for a year, or longer. I’d love to learn more of the language and the culture. The pasta is almost all al dente which I ‘m not used to. The language sounds beautiful even when I have no idea what’s being said. I bought some Burano lace from a woman who spoke absolutely no English, but I could understand much of what she said without being able to respond because I can’t speak much Italian. It made me feel like I could really do that someday: just move to a foreign country and make my way along until I learned more and more. It was a good feeling.
Well, Steve’s trying to snooze next to me so I’ll read for awhile. Tomorrow we get up and check out Lake Garda, then move on to Florence in the evening. Looking forward to seeing the Lake up close. More soon!
My feet hurt. I’m struggling to maintain positivity. It’s been a good, fun trip and we’ve seen so many incredible things, but we are both so tired we’re a little tense with each other. We’ve been on the road a lot the last few days and are looking forward to getting back to Rome to have a couple of days without the tour group before coming home for another week off.
Today we got up (after no sleep last night, since I had all that caffeine yesterday and Steve snores like a log-splitter lately) very early and left for Lake Garda and a little town called Lazise (or Lasize, I don’t remember). Then we went into Florence (Firenze) all day today. The travel through the mountains was the only time I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable. We were up and down, through tunnels and back out, and it was so curvy I thought we’d fall off the edge! My mom would have died halfway through the trip if she’d tried it! In Florence, we met up with another local tour guide, Bernardo, and saw the statue of David which was incredible, and learned the history behind it. Then we toured much of downtown Florence, seeing the churches and river and learning more history. There is so much I just can’t remember without the pictures. Tonight we’re going on a sort of Medieval dinner, and the optional excursion dinners are always the best. Usually the words “all you can drink” are involved! I’m looking forward to this because we can dress up, and because it’s close and there’s little walking involved (at least in comparison!)
Right now, a call to my mom and a little rest. My feet are killing me, did I mention that?
Some things I miss besides the last list: Mountain Dew, washcloths, and toilet seats.
Some things I don’t miss: people who supposedly actually speak English screwing up the English language. I can stand it from people in foreign countries, or even foreign people in the U.S.A… but not Americans who don’t know their own language.
DAY SIX CONTINUED
This evening we went to a palace in Florence, only about ten minutes from our hotel, and had a Renaissance Feast. I love the courses, the timing, the beauty of the meals. We got to take a lot of pictures and there was ‘entertainment’ from musicians, a jester, and dancers as well. They performed, but they also brought people out of the audience while they changed out courses and bused tables so that the audience was distracted until their next course. I was chosen to go up with a bunch of other women. They tied a wooden spoon to a spool of twine, and we had to drop it down our shirt and skirt, then up the next person’s skirt and shirt until we were all intertwined, then we circled around and walked around the room a bit. It was cute. My table of people enjoyed themselves, and no one ate my dessert which was still on my plate.
Our appetizer was a couple slices of priuscutto (very thin sliced beef which I likely spelled incorrectly) with pine nuts, greens, and fresh mozzarella with tomato. I ate the meat and mozzarella, of course, true to Stephanie form. I debated whether or not to taste a pine nut, but then I decided against it. Next came an asparagus risotto which I did eat, and it was good. I just gave my large asparagus pieces to Steve. Then there was a spinach and ricotta ravioli with a little red sauce, which was better than I thought it was going to be, considering the spinach. I actually enjoyed it. Next came our main course. I’d ordered the beef, so I received a piece of prime rib with potatoes (sort of fried) and a little sauce which I think had some sort of wine in it. It was delicious. Then came our dessert, a tiramisu and scoop of creamy mousse with raspberry on top, and last but not least, some coffee. Meals are not a fling in Italy, they are a long-term relationship.
This evening we came back and attempted to find gelato across the street where I promptly tripped in my heels running to avoid something that looked like a Smart Car coming at me (they all look like Smart Cars in the dark here…) and messed up my ankle a bit, but it’s all right. No gelato nearby, though. I’ll have to wait until we get back to the square in Florence tomorrow. That was fascinating today, by the way. There’s one particular area that has dozens of statues of historic figures: Donatello, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Amerigo Vespucci, Dante… that’s right about where the camera gave out, so I’ll have to get those pictures tomorrow before we leave out for Rome again.
We’re back in the hotel room and it’s around 11pm. Our wake up call is 6:45, bags out and breakfast at 7:30, and on the bus for Florence at 8:15, then off to Rome again at 12:30. We’re usually not more than a half an hour off schedule, which is no small feat with all of the people we have to keep track of!
Let’s see if I can sleep with the caffeine and the snoring tonight… I can’t take a bath to warm up and relax, because there’s only a shower stall here. By the way, I don’t think I’ll ever take American plumbing for granted again. We have toilet seats, sanitary ways of flushing, toilet paper that comes on a roll and not in single pieces, soap available in our bathrooms for hand washing and sanitizer outside of restrooms, and if a restroom is in public we don’t have to pay for it. I don’t mean in a restaurant where you need to be a customer to use the restroom, I literally mean a public restroom, like in the middle of the mall… the public restrooms here all have to be paid for. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’m just saying I’ll never take it for granted again!
Maybe I’ll read for awhile…
It’s beginning to become a blur, even in the midst of itself. Not a bad blur, though. I just have a hard time remembering at night what happened all day long, but this is the only time I have to write. Where were we this morning, anyhow? Oh, yeah. Florence. We got up early (haha, like everyday!) and had breakfast, which was the same as the other places we’ve been to… eggs, rare bacon, some pastries, meat, and cheese and latte/espresso/Americano. We put our bags out, ate, and got on the bus to go into town again. While the rest of the group went to a gold place and leather place and then had free time, we just did our own thing. We roamed around the squares for awhile, saw the inside of the Santa Croce church where Galileo, Dante, and Michelangelo are entombed, shopped for some souvenirs, and realized we never checked out of the hotel and still had our card, so we walked back and did that. We met up with our group on time, and I had another gelato (double chocolate and tiramisu flavors this time!) Then we got on the bus, rode up the hill and had a fantastic view of the entire city of Florence. I took some panoramic video and had another couple take a picture of us with the background, and Steve bought a couple of shirts. Then it was back on the bus and on the way to Rome.
We had a quick stop at another gas station where I bought a couple of boxes of these amazing milk chocolate covered cookies that I’ve had before, but can’t buy in the States. I almost scarfed down an entire box, but I’m trying to savor it (my mom will appreciate that remark!) I bought another box to take home, but am unsure as to whether I’ll have the willpower to give it as a gift, or if I’m just going to eat it on the plane on the way home. So, so, so good. SO good. Then another two hours of bus riding to get to this fantastic place in Rome, the Grand Hotel Palazzo Cartegna. I guess people invited by the Pope used to stay here, because it’s right behind the Vatican. We had about an hour and a half in the hotel room, where we got cheap internet (and you get what you pay for, believe me!) for 6 euros, and Steve tried to catch up on a few things. We showered and went to our ‘farewell dinner’ for the tour group, tipped our driver and tour guide and said good-bye to the people we’ve met here, trading some contact info for a few of them that we’re going to stay in touch with. The farewell dinner was pretty. We had veal, gelato cake, and a bacon tomato rigatoni. There were two singers, man and woman, who sang several songs throughout the group and then sold their CDs and signed them if people wanted them. We got our picture taken with a gladiator dude, and they sold us those, too. I didn’t buy the CD, though.
When we got back, I borrowed the European adapter from Jane (who is awesome, by the way) and then walked with Steve and Chris to find the subway, which is only one euro to go anywhere on the line. We need to exchange some more money tomorrow and take the subway downtown to shop and hang around. I’m really looking forward to sleeping in, and the McDonald’s nearby has free wifi, too! We’re here another couple of days, alone, and it’s going to be great! Then the long flight back, pick up our daughter, and go home. I’m at the point where I’m ready for the vacation from the vacation, which we actually get this time!
Some things I miss: my bed, my doggies, sleep.
Some things I don’t miss: skim milk. The milk here is like God milked a heavenly cow and poured it lovingly down my throat.
DAY EIGHT, I THINK
Something wonderful happened this morning. I slept in. Seriously! Until like, 10 something. Then I got up and took a shower, and we headed into town to see what trouble we could scare up. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? No tour group, no other people, just the two of us. And what did we choose to begin our new adventure with? McDonald’s! Unsure of how to order a cheeseburger with ketchup only in Italian, I played it safe and went with the chicken Mcnugget meal, because you can’t screw that up. Here’s something interesting: you do not get ketchup in Italy. It’s 20 euros per packet. Therefore, I went on a ketchup hiatus, and enjoyed the fried, salty goodness without its thick tomato counterpart. It’s not Heinz ketchup, anyhow. It’s some strange Italian catsup that might wreak even more havoc on my digestive system. I was not thrown off, I plugged along. Chicken McNugget meal, one cheeseburger for Steve, and a Big Mac meal: somewhere near $20 in American money. I find it calms me to think in euros, and scares me to think in dollars.
We then traversed the beaten path to the subway system. We have no fear of subways and trains and buses like most people traveling in strange places. This was no different from New York, except for it was completely in Italian and filled with Gypsies. (It’s okay, I can say Gypsies because I’m Hungarian.) We heard stories about the Gypsies on our tour, how they will do anything to distract you and take your money, including throwing their baby at you and then taking your purse, or they will aggressively get in your face and just ask for money, etc. We never encountered it while with the tour group, but that was most likely because there are 45 people together and they’re harder to get money from than one or two people at a time. So, we got into the subway station, purchased a ticket for one euro each to go downtown, and enjoyed looking around leisurely at some souvenir shops, changed our last money into euros and walked a lot so that we could just spend some time together in Rome. I had a chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip gelato! Then we hopped the subway again and took it to the train station so that we could check out the tickets to Naples. We prepaid for two tickets for tomorrow so that we can travel to Naples and back, and it was only 42 euros for a round trip ticket for both of us! The trip will be around two hours each way, which isn’t terrible, and we’ll be there for a little over five hours. Just long enough to enjoy ourselves and not get into too much trouble. We plan to buy a map as soon as we arrive and just explore. That’s where Steve’s family is originally from, which I might have mentioned before, so it’s pretty exciting just to be going.
Later this afternoon, we came back to the hotel to rest a bit, change into some fresh clothes, and go to dinner somewhere nice within walking distance. We went to a little place we found that seemed nice and, more importantly, was the only place where we could sit and be waited on that was anywhere nearby to our hotel. I had Quattro formaggio pasta and pizza and some Coca-Cola in a can (lattina), and Steve had a misto bruschetta plate with different toppings, mussel spaghetti with tomato sauce, and swordfish with olives and capers. I’m pleased he enjoyed it… it all looked kind of scary. Mine was good, though!
Now that we’re back at the hotel, we looked at some of the pictures we took when we first got here. We were a bit overzealous those first few days! But we have some beautiful photographs, some of which I’m going to save to a disc and print out at Walmart or something when we get home. He’s asleep already, and I need to find the train tickets so I don’t panic in the morning. We’re getting up at 5:45 to get ready and have some food and get to the train station on time, so I need to get some sleep. Hope it’s as good as it was last night! More on Old Napoli when we get back tomorrow.
LAST DAY IN ITALY
Well, let me tell you, we’ve had an adventure the last couple of days without our tour group! I started to tell you about the gypsies, but I didn’t finish. There was one that got on the subway with us and had her own microphone and portable amp and CD player, began playing music and singing and then walking around the subway asking for money from people. Then there were several younger kids at the ticket machines, where we buy our tickets electronically, asking if we spoke English and offering to help us buy tickets. Which would probably work for people who didn’t know you can press the ‘English’ button and get the tickets with no problem. When we declined their help and thanked them, then they asked for our change. “Change for me, please?” they asked. (Mind you, these were not unkempt children, they were nicely dressed and just trying to get change and/or distract us from stealing some when we turned our backs. As far as we know, this didn’t happen.)
So this morning, we got up early, had a quick breakfast, and took the subway to the train station, where we had purchased our tickets last night to go to Naples. We had plenty of time, and got on the train when it arrived, and rode two hours to Naples. When we got there, we certainly saw some sights we hadn’t planned for. If Rome was dirty, Naples was a sty. (Hold on, it gets better, don’t be offended yet.) A few days ago, someone was sitting next to us and reading an Italian newspaper. Now, I don’t speak Italian or read it very well, but it’s extremely similar to Spanish which I do read very well, and speak fairly well, too. The headline on the newspaper looked like it said something about Naples having a bad tornado and being in a state of emergency. I pointed it out to Steve, who said, “No, that’s just a lot of garbage. It’s an article on all the garbage.” I shrugged it off, and we continued on our merry way that day. So, when we arrived in Naples to see said garbage… piles and piles and piles of garbage, in the streets, in the walkways, pouring over the tops of the bins and piled up next to them everywhere, I was a little disgusted. Okay, a lot disgusted. We took a map that we’d gotten at the train station, and started walking towards where the castle was that we wanted to see, and the port, etc. More garbage. And all of the squares were filled with rubbish, graffiti, and general nastiness. We basically walked through the ghetto of Naples. Then we found this little middle-of-nowhere church, very messy and plain on the outside, and we walked in just to take a look. It was breathtaking. Pipes for the pipe organs were dark brass, and everywhere… stained glass, and murals, and all the beauty that we saw before in Rome, but in the most surprising and unexpected place.
When we got a bit further, we walked over a lot of construction and blockades and took an awkward way down to the water and took some pictures of the port, and a few boats. I was not impressed. I mean, songs are written about this place. Dean Martin songs! We kept walking.
Finally, we found an area that began to look like what we were familiar with in Italy. We passed the castle on the bottom side, and had to climb all the way up and around to get to the front, but when we did, it was all worth it. More of the beauty like in the little church – a mall area that was incredibly ornate. Four different wedding parties were there taking pictures! We bought a couple of souvenirs, and walked on. Up another hill a bit, we looked out and saw a fantastic view of the sea, the port, the boats, the other side of Naples around the bay… we took a lot of pictures there! And guess what we found? A bunch of tornado damage. Steve said, “It looks like they had a tornado here!”
Imagine my utter shock.
We made our way around the town for a bit, pleased to have found the beauty of Naples, and also pleased to find that the bus system is free. After walking so long and being a bit unsure of where we were, we checked out the bus route and hopped on. It dropped us off right at the train terminal, and we had an hour to spare so we ate at McDonald’s before we went in. All was well. Right?
We got on our train and happily discussed our time in Naples. Exhausted, we relaxed in our seats awaiting the two hour ride back to Rome. About halfway through, the man came by to check our tickets. Angrily, he informed us that we did not validate our ticket. Not understanding, we asked for further explanation, which was difficult with the language barrier, but we did our best to ask questions. He, on the other hand, was forceful and demandiong, shoving the ticket back at us, and pointing, and raising his voice. He said we had to put the ticket in the machine the morning we use it to validate it, or it’s no good. He said we had to pay him 50 euros. This is where I began to doubt the veracity of his complaint. Also, I did not have 50 euros on me. He pointed to the back of the ticket where it said if you don’t validate, you can be fined. I explained that the man on the train in the morning just punched our ticket and gave it back. He wouldn’t listen. That was the morning man, this was him. We give him 50 euros or he calls the police and the police come on the train. I called his bluff. I said, “Okay, call the police then, because I don’t have 50 euros.” I think he was a little surprised I said this. Steve was very helpful and calm. I wasn’t lying. I really didn’t have the money, and I knew he was trying to blackmail us. I’ve heard stories like this before. A few minutes later, he came back with a man who had a souvenir bag on him, and said, “This is police.” The guy seemed nice enough and didn’t seem like he had any beef with us. Steve asked if he spoke English, he nodded and said “little bit” and showed us a very worn badge and when I tried to look at it, he quickly shut it. We explained the situation to him, with the ticket-taking man angrily butting in and trying to make things go his way. Eventually, Steve showed him his passport and said if you want to send us a ticket at our home, we will pay it. We just don’t have any money. Steve suggested we get off the train and validate the ticket at the next stop. The “police” said okay, and the ticket man was still angry and just wanted his money. He relented when he realized he wasn’t going to get it. We got off at the next stop, validated our ticket, and the train took off without us. Which was fine, because we weren’t about to get back on it. Another train was due in less than an hour, so we waited for that one and got back on. We arrived safely in Rome, all our money on us, not in a jail cell, and by the way here’s the kicker… no one on the final train even looked at our ticket.
Here we are back at the hotel, packed and ready to go in the morning. We have a taxi picking us up at 7 to take us to the airport. Hoping and praying all goes well on the last leg of our adventure! I’ll let you know how it turns out!
My life flashed before my eyes. I have yet to be able t calculate kilometers into miles in my head, but I do know that when the taxi driver is going 120km/hr in a 40km/hr zone, it’s probably not the safest place for me to be, even if I am in the front seat. I didn’t have time to get sick to my stomach. It was sort of like being in a video game. A blurry, blurry video game. He also continued to get cell phone calls the entire ride from the hotel to the airport. But we arrived in one piece (at least, I think so – I haven’t checked all of my pieces since that trip…)
It took us an hour to get through the check-in line at Fiumicino airport (Leonardo Da Vinci International airport ,technically, which is part of Fiumicino, I discovered. Learn something new every day.) Then we went to the security check-point with our passports, which took us another hour to get through. Once we were finally in, we spent our next-to-last euros on a couple of last moment souvenirs and then boarded the plane. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the plane again, like I didn’t sleep on the way to Italy, but the gentleman that sat next to me was quiet, polite, and didn’t take up much room so though I was sitting between two people in the center of the plane once again, it wasn’t nearly the terrible experience I had on the way there. I fell asleep right away. The problem was, when I woke up, we were still on the ground. Apparently there was a leaky toilet that needed to be fixed before we could take off. I have no idea how long we were waiting, but then the plane fired up and lifted off, my ears popped 800 times, and we were on our way home.
Home. What a beautiful word. Don’t get me wrong, it was an incredible trip, a beautiful country, a learning experience, a rich historical treasure. But I won’t be traveling abroad anytime soon. Not just because I haven’t a single drop of money left to my name, but because I have learned never to take the little things for granted. When we finally arrived at O’Hare, even though there was pee on the toilet seat, there was, in fact, a TOILET SEAT. Bonus. And it was still the cleanest restroom I had seen in 10 days. All of our small souvenirs made it here safely and unbroken, none of our luggage was lost at any point on the trip, the laptop survived with all its 1,000,000 pictures, the camera still works, my cell phone was still charged up, and I didn’t puke in the Park N’ Jet shuttle on the way to get our van, either.
Our first stop?
Dunkin’ Donuts, baby. Fresh coffee, real coffee, American coffee, with cream and sugar and happy goodness in a cup. We were able to carry on. (I actually got a picture of Steve kissing the ground at the airport, by the way.) We drove to Niles, picked up our daughter who now has a purple streak in her hair (it’s okay, she asked first!) and saw my family for a short time before departing for home.
A few days of rest await us, a college visit with our son, a lot of laundry, and a vacation from our vacation.
Some things I have learned:
I will stand up to scary men on trains who try to extort me, whether or not I have money on me.
My husband thinks that if he speaks in an Italian accent to Italian people, they will understand him even if they speak no English whatsoever.
Our kids are very trustworthy.
I can live without fast food and Mountain Dew, but I don’t like it very much. I cannot, however, live for long without a washcloth or a bathtub.
There is only so long I can be on an airplane without wanting to jump out of it.
I can only handle a certain amount of adventure before I’m ready to get back to real life.
It is possible to have an allergic reaction to a cat that you’ve never seen that is thousands of miles away.
No matter what the situation, I always feel safe and secure when I am with my husband.
Few things in life are better than fresh gelato.
Thanks for listening to our spectacular chaos.
Until next time,