Monday, October 30, 2006

Vicenza. . .

For three years I was lucky enough to live in a small Italian city called Vicenza. Steeped in history and magnificent architecture thanks to among others Andrea Palladio, the city was a rich tapestry woven by the wonderful people and places of that city.

Vicenza was about half way between Verona on the west, the city made famous by Shakespeares’ tale of Romeo and Juliet and Venice to the east. It also sits just south of the mighty Dolomite Alps, towering grey mountains full of majestic beauty. Different from my beloved Rockies, they were no less beautiful.

Vicenza is in the Po river valley, a fertile and lush farming area, but it also is close enough to the Adriatic Sea that the people ate more seafood than anything else. In Vicenza, you rarely saw the tomato based sauces so prevalent in southern Italy, usually, when they used sauces they were a cream base. Due to the farming, vegetables were plentiful, but pasta was still their favorite staple food.

The Italians in northern Italy, where Vicenza is don’t resemble our normal pictures that we carry around of what Italians look like. They are small and slim generally and blond and fair skinned. Being so close to Austria and Switzerland, this is understandable. They are very friendly there and the only problem with that was that they thought that US Army personnel had lots of money, or ‘molte soldi’!

Still I loved that city and treasured each day I spent there. One of my favorite places to visit was Monte Berico, which was a scenic overlook to the city. We would go up there and spend the afternoon, looking down on the city, laying on the balustrade in the warm Italian sunshine and feeling at peace. The view from there was glorious.

To the north was the Dolomites and when you looked down at the city you could see the cathedral or ‘duomo’ as Italians usually call them, its copper roof long ago turned a pale turquoise from oxidation. The duomo sat on the Piazza dei Signores, or Plaza of the Men and was surrounded by shops and city buildings. There was a large sidewalk café there where my daughter had her first Italian gelato, or ice cream, wonderfully rich and creamy, so different from American ice cream.

An interesting historical item about Vicenza is that part of the ancient road called the Apian Way still exists there. It's only a small piece, but it is pretty cool when you consider how old it is.

In the downtown area also is the Teatro Olimpico, a fabulous place to visit. It was once used by Napoleon and Josephine as their palace and you can actually sit in their thrones and have your picture taken if you are inclined to do that. One of the most fascinating things about it are the statues that are everywhere in there. They are all made of paper mache, and they looked as good as any that I saw made of marble. But one of them was a bit different—it had a hole in the knee. It seems that Napoleon didn’t believe that they were made of paper and so he ran his sword through it!

That particular statue stands in the auditorium which has the most unique staging system I have ever seen—the stage has 3 city streets on it with doors that open into shops. The shops are actually dressing rooms. It gives a deeper dimension to the stage, but I couldn’t help but wonder what they did for productions that didn’t need streets! Teatro Olimpico also has the distinction for being the oldest surviving indoor theater in Europe, as it was built in 1584.

Everything seemed to be any adventure there, from trying and succeeding in finding a Chinese restaurant and the thrill I found the first time I walked into the Calzatura Fabrico—shoe factory! Almost every woman’s dream, let me tell you!

I often found it puzzling how the Italians took it all for granted, but then I do the same thing where I live. I think that is an inherent trait in humans, we ignore what we are surrounded by everyday.

I have taken away so many grand and wonderful memories of this city and the people I met there that I will never forget. But then, I don’t want to ever forget them. I try to never let those memories slip from my ever forgetful mind, but they will live on in the pictures and stories I tell.

Friday, October 27, 2006

I Bet We Can Sit On These. . .

One of my daughters’ favorite family stories involves our frequent fishing trips when I was a kid. Almost every weekend, weather permitting we went fishing in Atlanta Kansas at my dad’s uncle place. It was exciting making the trip out there because we always passed a wide patch in the road called ‘Smileyburg’ and the name really tickled me. Rock creek ran through my great uncles land and evidently it provided some good fishing. He also owned the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, a gorgeous horse, aptly named Red, because of the color of his coat. I coveted that horse and wanted to ride him more than anything, but only got to once, when I was a bit older and Red wasn’t quite so wild.

The fishing was pretty good out there at Rock creek and dad tried in vain many times to get me to take an interest in it, but I didn’t like it. My dad and I had discussions about that. Maybe I just really didn’t want to sit still long enough because there was always something else to do, skipping stones, exploring, swimming; the creek was a paradise for a kid. But I think the real reason I didn’t like to fish is because the one time I caught a fish, it had swallowed the hook and my dad and grandpa really had to work hard to get the hook out of its mouth.

I watched this solemnly as they tugged and twisted, eventually cutting the barbed end off the hook to get it free. I stood there and watched and felt horrible for the fish. Dad told me they didn’t feel it, but I wasn’t sure. I knew I would feel it if that hook were in my mouth! From there after, when they would try to get me to fish I would retort, “I know I wouldn’t like having that hook in my mouth and I don’t think the fish does either!” I still feel that way.

By far my favorite thing to do out there was swim. It was pretty shallow most of the time and this one place on the creek where we would go had a sort of cove along the side, and it was a natural swimming hole. As an only child, I loved it when friends would come with us and one weekend I got lucky with a couple that mom and dad were friends with came out and brought their 5 kids with them.

Normally, I had little tolerance for these kids. Our parents played cards often and when it was late, we kids would have to go to bed. All five of them went to sleep in the same way; they banged their heads against the wall. Not terribly hard, but loud enough that even as another kid, I found it weird and distasteful.

But this was different, it involved swimming and so my tolerance was high. I could forgive many things when swimming was involved. My mom always told me that dad had me swimming before I walked. I don’t know if that is really true, but I’m surprised I don’t have gills I love water so much.

We always had to wear life jackets out there to swim if one of the adults weren’t swimming with us, which I was highly indignant about. So this one time I got to thinking about those life preservers. They were the old bright orange type that went around your neck and had straps that fastened around your chest and waist. I got to looking at them and somehow the idea came to me that we could sit on them to float if we tied them around our butts and legs.

The other kids were up for this adventure too, so we did it and headed out to the water. Please note that not a single parent had paid any attention to us, even as we waded out at this point.

As we awkwardly walked out into the water, first one pair of legs, then 5 more turned upside down in the water. The life jackets had turned us upside down!

My mom and the other mom had looked up from what ever they were doing to the sight of 6 pairs of legs kicking wildly in the water. They rushed out there and grabbed two kids at a time and pulled us out, yelling at us like crazy.

A couple of those wimpy kids were crying, but I had the time of my life. What I hadn’t understood of course that it might have been the last time of my life. All I could see was that we had an adventure and a couple of those kids were crying like babies!

Sheesh. . .

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gifts from God. . .

Gifts from God come in many different packages, from rainbows to spiritual rewards, God and Goddess work miracles all the time, if we are only astute enough to recognize them.

Often times, I have to admit that I fail to see them, unless they are obvious anyway. Or maybe I just don’t think of them as being gifts from the Gods.

My daughter is a gift and so are my 4 grandsons. But so is my son-in-law. I see this hard-working young man as a blessing to our family and therefore—a gift.

He is amazing, always willing to help out, generally without complaint and I know that I can always count on him. I am awed by his determination to take care of his family, whether it is working double shifts or trying to start his own business on the side.

I know that he has many dreams for his life and his boys’ life, but he is so often caught up in the mundane day-to-day happenings that those things are often forgotten, or pushed aside. I hope with all my heart that he learns to find time for those things too, because in the long run, they are what sustains you and makes you feel as if you accomplished something in this world.

He is one of the finest men I have ever had the privilege to know and I am grateful that God gave us the gift of him in our lives.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Foggy Night Drive. . .

Certain times of the year in the San Joachim valley in California were, by many standards literally fogged in. But the hardy local Californians were used to it and went on about their business as usual and newcomers usually learned to adapt quickly.

It wasn’t unusual to hold your hand out 6 inches in front of your face and not be able to see it. My dad, who made the drive to Castle Air Force base around 5 am every morning got used to the fog pretty quickly. The California drivers had a rather unique system; they would drive down the middle of the lanes on 4 lane roads, in order that the striped lines were directly in front of the car. On two lane roads, it was a bit trickier; they would hug the right hand side of the road. Since there weren’t any curbs, at least where we lived, this usually didn’t present many problems.

My mom didn’t drive as much as my dad did in the fog, but every now and then she would get caught out in it. She hated it, but she coped pretty well really.

One evening we were at my aunt and uncles house, just my mom and me. The fog started rolling in heavily, billowy and thick clouds that made the world seem invisible and muted practically all sound, making the world almost like a huge cocoon.

Mom decided we had better leave before the fog got too thick, but by the time we left it was too late for that, and she realized we would have to just creep home.

My aunt and uncle didn’t live too far from us, only about a mile and most of that was rural, no other houses until you were closer to ours. We got down the road by their house with no problems, but the fog was so thick we couldn’t even see the almond orchards on the left.

We made the left hand turn that would bring us down the road by some houses for a short distance and then we would turn right off that road for a half block and then another right and we would be home safe, on Jennifer Court.

We were driving along that road, inching our way actually. We couldn’t see any street lights and didn’t even see any other traffic, until right in front of us we saw a car, parked crosswise across the road.

Mom made a comment about “What on earth?” and swerved around the car and continued on. Then, we saw a mailbox. It was sitting squarely in the middle of the road! Mom slammed on the breaks and stopped the car. We both scooted out the car and started looking around. It was then that we noticed that we were driving right down people’s front yards!

These days I love foggy nights. Maybe because they bring me just a tiny bit closer to my mom. . .

Monday, October 16, 2006

I’m Eating What? . . .

My dad is the adventurous sort, whether it’s a ‘short cut’ on a trip or food, he’s game to try anything. And game to get me to try anything!

I started when I was about 5. We were in a little Mexican restaurant my parents liked, munching on chips and salsa. There were mirrors running all along the wall where the booths were and there was only 1 other person in the restaurant, a guy sitting a couple of booths away, sipping a beer and eating his own dinner. It was pretty quiet in there and the guy evidently heard our conversation and was watching in the mirror to see what would happen.

My dad was sitting there with his bowl of hot salsa. I had been dipping my chips into a bowl of mild salsa. I watched him eating his salsa, which looked a lot different than my own.

“What’s that, daddy?”

“Salsa, just like yours,” he told me.

“It looks different. Is it hot?”

“Nah, it’s good. Here try some.”

I dipped my chip into his salsa, really saturating it good and popped it into my mouth. Fire, my 5 year old mouth was on fire!

The guy had taken a big drink of beer, and while watching my face turn bright red, he spewed his drink of beer all over himself he was laughing so hard.

My mom yelled at my dad, but I was okay and in fact I decided I really liked the hot stuff—in limited quantities that is.

But so started a scene to be played out many times over the years, with rattlesnake meat (I thought it was chicken), mountain oysters (yummy, that was beef), escargot, frogs legs (they really did taste like chicken, fishy chicken that is) and all sorts of other things. He always managed to get me to try what ever it was, either by cajoling me or even by acting like nothing was different.

You would think I would have learned.

A couple of years ago I was over at mom and dads and he was munching on some kind of sausage. It smelled okay and he asked if I wanted some. Okay, I said, I’ll try it.

It had an unusual taste. And a pretty tough consistency, chewy, very chewy. The more I chewed the worst it seemed to get and when I finally swallowed it, it left a funny taste in my mouth. Not exactly bad really, but just . . . different. There was kind of a greasy coating left on my tongue, which isn’t necessarily unusual with sausage.

“Like it? Here have another piece,” dad offered.

“No thanks,dad.” One piece was definitely all I needed and I was still trying to finish that one.

“You sure, this is great stuff,” he told me, taking another hunk for himself.

I don’t know, maybe you need dentures to chew this stuff, but I knew I wasn’t going to have anymore.

“Our friend Richard sent it to us. He bought it in Alaska,” dad said, smacking his lips.

Uh oh, I thought, waiting. I was finishing the last small bit I had; trying to get it chewed enough to swallow down.

“Its bear sausage!” dad announced, laughing wickedly.

Gulp! I looked at him, hoping I was going to keep it down.

That’s my dad! I wish he could be around forever. I also wish I would learn!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ice Cold Sno Cones. . .

I loved our years in California when I was a kid. It was a pretty temperate area, mild temperatures most of the year. Each season had something memorable about it. In the autumn and winter we would have terrible fog or maybe great fog depending on your point of view. My mom always recalled when I would go out to catch the bus in the mornings and it would be so thick that I virtually disappeared 5 steps away from her.

“Goodbye baby,” she would call out, a bodiless voice in the fog. “Have a good day.”

“Bye mommy,” I would answer.

While she loved hearing my little voice through the fog, it would sometimes make her cry too. She wasn’t sure she always said, but it was poignant.

But summer time in Delhi, California was glorious! A kids dream really. Warm and sunny almost always, but the best part was that we had a Sno Cone jeep that came around.

In Kansas, we had the Popsicle man that came around each day, but in Delhi it was so much better! Any flavor you wanted, delivered right to your street everyday for 10 cents.

My friends and I would gather in eager anticipation to await the arrival of the Sno Cone man. We would talk about what flavor we would get that day. I loved the root beer flavor and the raspberry, but cherry was great too! The only one I remember not liking was banana.

Oh the joys of those Sno Cones! After we had bought our choice for the day, we would go sit in someone’s yard or on a porch and eagerly devour the treats. The paper cups would usually become soggy and collapse, dripping down you arm as you sipped the syrup from them. Sometimes the ice would stay in one hard ball and you had to squeeze the Sno Cone to break it up. Inevitably that sent ice and syrup scooting up out of the cup and you’d try to catch it.

Those were simpler days and a simple and delicious treat made them all the sweeter. What I wouldn’t give for one right now! I think I’d choose root beer.

Monday, October 09, 2006

And The Vet Said, Perhaps Tiger Would Be Happier With a Different Vet. . .

I loved my cat Tiger desperately—and so did all the lady cats in our neighborhood, right under the bushes in the front of our house. By the time he was two, there were many little yellow tiger cats running around our neighborhood. We don’t know that they were all from Tiger, but we had our suspicions.

Mom decided one day that it was time to take Tiger to the vet to have his romancing capabilities curtailed. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but mom explained and I wanted to hide Tiger away so they couldn’t do anything like that to him. I was 12 by then and understood the facts of life, but still it seemed awful!

The day came for Tiger’s trip to the vet. He didn’t handle riding in a car well at all. Those were before the days of carrying cages and stuff. If he got loose, he would run frantically back and forth in the Plymouth station wagon, peeing from one end to the other. Naturally, this was not popular with my mom. So we would wrap him up in heavy quilts, mostly to avoid the frantic claws trying to get loose.

We got him there without too many problems, but as soon as we got him into the vet’s office he let up a yowl. He knew this was the place where they poked you and stuck things up your rear end and he sure didn’t like that. Of course, had he known what was coming, he might have been glad to offer the vet his rear end.

They took him away and told us we could pick him up the next afternoon. I watched him go away peacefully in the assistants’ arms and a tear rolled down my face. My mom took me out for ice cream and explained yet again that this really was the best thing for Tiger, how his life would be better, etc. I wanted to believe her, I did, but it just didn’t seem right.

The next afternoon we went back to get Tiger. The vet told us he had done well, and that he would need to come back in 5 days for the stitches to be removed. He was a very subdued cat on the trip home, and we just assumed he wasn’t feeling very frisky.

When we got home, he got out of the car and walked right up to the house, didn’t even pause at the bushes like he would have before. My mom started talking about how much things were better already and what a good thing this was for him.

Inside the house, we all settled down in the living room. Tiger went and ate a little and paid a trip to the litter box. He came into the living room sat on the living room floor and with his paw, he started exploring and it didn’t take my smart kitty anytime at all to realize that something was different!

His paw was frantically patting the area where the stitches were, and he wasn’t finding what he was looking for. He laid his ears back and stared at my mom. It made her a little uncomfortable, I could tell. He KNEW!

He did seem to recover quickly and on the fifth day we took him back to the vet. He was actually pretty docile, which was unusual, but we were thankful that the ride to the vet wasn’t as frantic as it usually was. Inside the office though he started grumbling, that low growl that cat’s sometimes do when they are really unhappy.

We got into the examination room and the assistant looked him over quickly, scratched him behind his ears and said he looked great, but that the vet would be in soon. We waited for him and I was standing by Tiger, who was still upset and sort of shivering, hair standing straight up on his back.

Finally, the vet walked in, and for the next few minutes chaos and destruction reigned. Tiger, spotting him coming into the room leapt from the table and attached himself firmly to the doctor’s leg. He then proceeded to climb the vets’ leg, using all his claws, slowly until he got to the vets crotch.

Both front paws grabbed the vet and his teeth sank in, deeply. I remember the red staining through the vets white slacks, at first just little specks, then bolder spots.

I had the bad behavior to laugh and the vet was screaming “get him off” and my mom was yelling at me “get him off” and I was laughing. Hard, very hard! I can understand it from my mom’s point of view now—was she supposed to try to open that cat’s mouth and get it off the vets business or what? She probably remembered how he had looked at her the first day back and thought she might be next.

I finally went and pried Tiger’s mouth off of the vet’s genitals, still laughing too hard to be embarrassed at the situation of tearing and crushed flesh. But I did get him off, and the doctor backed away cautiously.

“Mrs. K, perhaps Tiger would be happier with another vet. . .”

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trials of the Travelers. . .

Part 3

As we watched the conductor thumb through the pages in his book, we became more and more concerned. Our eyes shifted between one another’s and watching the conductor. If this train didn’t stop in Venice, it probably would cross the border into what was then communist Yugoslavia. We were dependents of U.S. military personnel. That would mean crossing a border without proper papers or permission to do so. That would get the government involved and probably wouldn’t have been pleasant.

“Ah, bene, bene,” the conductor finally said after about a millennia had passed. He held the book out and pointed with a finger to an entry that read “Venezia, arrivo 20:47”.

Whew! We thought. But what kind of conductor didn’t even know that the train he was on was going to Venice? We never knew the answer to that question, but at least we were on the right train!

The rest of the train trip was quiet and uneventful and when we pulled into Venice station, we were back in the land of cold and rain. It was dark as we looked out the glass doors of the train station and we didn’t have a clue where we would stay the night.

We were standing there discussing some possibilities when an ancient little Italian man came up to us. He was about 5 foot tall on a good day and looked particularly frail. He was wearing a very nice looking navy blue blazer that was a bit worn at the cuffs and white slacks and a white captain’s hat that had a navy blue band around it that read “Hotel Olimpia”.

“You signorina’s looking for place to stay”, he said in heavily accented English. “Hotel Olympia, molto bene, very good. Special price for you”.

My friend and I looked at one another, trying to access the situation. On one hand, we didn’t have a clue as to where to stay. On the other hand, we didn’t know this guy from Adam. On yet another hand, he was offering a solution.

“Let’s find out where this hotel is,” I tell my friend. She is busily looking around the train station for some help.

He understood what I said and started gesturing out the door and pointing to the left. “L'hotel è 1 blocco giù questa via il a sinistra,” he said, indicating the hotel was just one block to the left. I felt pretty good about that, but my friend wasn’t so sure.

“I know exactly where he wants to take us,” I said. I was so tired and cranky by this time that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he led us to a box to sleep in. “Look, if he tries to take us anywhere other than where he told us, we can come right back here,” I told her.

As I stated before, he looked pretty feeble to me and I was sure that if he led us astray we could take him.

“Prezzo molto speciale, appena per voi,” he kept repeating, gesturing us toward the door. Very special price, just for you.

My friend finally nodded yes, but it was a very reluctant yes. Her eyes told me that if anything happened to us, she would kill me that is after whoever else got through killing us. I had to laugh, which didn’t really help any.

When he realized we were going to follow him, before we could stop and think he grabbed both of our duffel bags and started striding toward the door! Those things were heavy and here was this feeble little man hefting them without even breathing hard! We had to step lively to keep up with him.

True to his word though he led us to the Hotel Olimpia, which was exactly where he said it was. My friend sighed in relief—a huge sigh in fact. I laughed at her and followed the little man into the hotel. All these years later, after being shaped by today’s society I get chills thinking about how trusting we were. Ok, make that how trusting I was!

The Hotel Olimpia was a very interesting place. The registration desk was in a beautiful foyer. This building was probably at least a hundred years old, relatively young by Venetian standards, and had gorgeous woodwork and paneling. There were the requisite potted palms in the corners and we could see and very nice dining room to the left. Which was closed. And we were hungry.

The very special price turned out to be about 30 mille, which at the time was about 40 dollars American. That was a great price. After signing in the book and getting our key, the little man again grabbed our bags and started down a hallway to an elevator; a very small and somewhat rickety looking elevator, which didn’t really look capable of carrying 3 adults and two huge duffel bags anywhere.

When we got off the elevator on the 4th floor, he led us down the hallway and we crossed over into another building. This one was really old. Still clean, but definitely worn, from the carpets to the paneling, age was telling its own story.

He came to a set of double doors and unlocked them for us. Inside was a small, neat room with two small twin beds. Hey, it was better than a box!

We gave him a tip and he left us. We decided the first thing on our agenda was something to eat, since we hadn’t taken time in Florence for lunch and we were starving. It was around 10:30 at night, and other than a few clubs you had to know the location of (and we didn’t) we knew it wouldn’t be easy to find something to eat.

We started off on our exploration of possible eateries. Along the way we ran into two American college boys who were getting ready to catch a water taxi out to the isle of Lido, where there were lots of casinos. They tried hard to convince us to go with them, but frankly we were just too tired. They did take us to the place where they had just eaten. It was a small place, sort of like a sports bar. We sat down at an empty table, which wasn’t hard to find since they were all empty. There were red-checkered tablecloths draped over the tables and drippy candles lighted and burning softly in the center of each table. We realized as we looked around that we were sitting in a tourist place, but we were so hungry we didn’t care.

We each ordered a hamburger, fries and a coke. They tasted about as good as a worn carpet, but they were reasonably warm and filling and cost 35 mille, more than the hotel room! But when we left there, it had stopped raining. The air was still cool and sort of misty, and we looked out over the Grand Canal and watched a vaporatto, Venice’s’ equivalent to a city bus system chug down the canal toward its next stop, the Rialto Bridge.

The Grand Canal is almost magical; teeming with every type of floating conveyance, motorized or not. The smells of Venice, particularly the Grand Canal reminded me of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Redolent and pungent with the smell of fish, water, and wood that has been exposed to the water for a long time; it was a smell that was pervasive, intense and for some reason made me feel so alive. Yes, there were undertones of rotting fish and vegetation, of sewage and heaven only knew what else. You either loved the smell or you hated it, there didn’t seem to be any middle ground where the smells of Venice were concerned.

We walked slowly back to our hotel, meandering along the street that followed the Grand Canal. Farther down the canal in the opposite direction the Rialto Bridge was visible, brightly lighted and we could hear music coming from it, something lively and we could imagine people dancing to it. It was 11:30 on a Thursday night and we were in Venice, Italy! Life is amazing.

When we got back to the Olimpia, we went up to our room with the intent of taking hot showers and crawling into bed. My friend gathered her toiletries and the towel that is provided by the hotel and headed off to the shower room. She was back a minute later and said the door was locked. I asked her if someone was in there and she said she didn’t think so. The wing of the hotel we were staying in was pretty deserted. They probably didn’t have too many others willing to pay the “very special price, just for you” as we did. Actually they were probably just more prepared.

We wondered if maybe you needed a key and so we went down to the lobby to ask the desk clerk if you needed a key. No, he told us, no showers after 10:00 pm. It might disturb the other guests!

We reluctantly went back to our room, resigned to crawling into our beds feeling worn and icky, which we did. It was very quiet in our wing, and if there were anyone else in it, we certainly couldn’t hear them.

The doors to our room swung out toward the hall. There was about a half inch gap between them. We laid there in bed laughing about that, how secure we were. About that time someone else came down the hall, to use the restroom which was across the hall. The slight movement of someone walking down the carpeted hallway made the doors rattle and move! All we could do was laugh. We felt perfectly safe, but it gave us something more to laugh about the Hotel Olimpia!

The next morning we got up to a bright, sunny day and we got our showers taken and our bodies, as well as our spirits felt renewed. We went down to a lovely continental breakfast, (coffee, hot chocolate and rolls) and then found out that we could check our bags at the train station for the day while we explored Bella Venetia! So we headed off to the train station, checked our bags and went to the vaporatto station right outside the train station to buy tickets to take us to the end of the line and from there we planned to walk our way back to the train station.

We got seats in the front of the vaporatto which was fun. Usually you would just end up standing somewhere in the middle or back of the vaporatto. It took awhile to get out to the last stop, before the vaporatto goes out to Lido that is. There are always lots of cruise ships docked there at the 4 star hotels around there.

We wandered around to Murano glass and browsed at all the lovely glassware on display. We strolled through the small, ancient streets of Venice; some so small that only one person at a time could walk there and you had to bend down to go under balconies. We visited lots of little piazzas and enjoyed the sound of life without the normal sounds that invade our world without us really being aware they are there.

By around noon we were in St. Marks square, which was full of people and pigeons. My friend is petrified of the birds and I took so much delight in making noise which made them take flight around her and had her screaming, but mostly with laughter. We had been told that there was a Wendy’s hamburger stand right off of St. Marks square, so we found a policewoman and asked for directions. It wasn’t too far and we chattered in anticipation of an American hamburger!

Unfortunately it wasn’t, American I mean. It looked like a Wendy’s hamburger, but it really didn’t taste like it. The fries were wonderful, but as is typical in Italy, cooked in olive oil, so they didn’t really taste the same either. Even the frosty was different, but we had a good time anyway, chatting with some school girls from Australia.

We finished our lunch and started back on our journey to the train station. We wandered in and out of small shops, stopped for an afternoon soda in a trattoria and finally got back to the train station about an hour before the train, exhausted, but really happy. We hopped on the train and relaxed for the next hour until we got back to Vicenza. Our families were there waiting for us and we were so excited to see them. But as we left the train station, we looked at one another and thought of everything that had happened the last 4 days, of all that we had shared and even with all the funny, almost scary things that had happened, we knew we were so lucky to have experienced it all!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Trials of the Travelers. . .

Part 2

The Hotel Michelangelo Panorama was in a very old, probably historic building off the Piazza SS Annunziata. Its main clientele were American college students, but it really wasn’t a hostel. The rooms were spacious, which sort of made up for the bathroom. But at least we had a bathroom in our room, as at least at that time, many hotel rooms (other than nice ones) didn’t have bathrooms in them. We had to laugh, there was a shower in it, but you had to stand in a small “hip” tub. If you stood back from the shower spray far enough to do any good, you were slipping on the slope of the tub. How anyone could possibly find that comfortable we just couldn’t figure out!

K and her mother had plans that evening so my friend and I were on our own. We didn’t imagine that we could get into too much trouble wandering around the streets of Florence on a Thursday night!

The city was alive after sundown, vibrant and busy with evening shoppers out and about. We could smell wonderful things cooking in restaurants and little kiosks. We stopped and bought pieces of fresh coconut, which is very popular with Italians, savoring the chewy sweetness. Kids rushed around buying chocolate and gelato, their giggles were captivating and delightful to hear. Street vendors were out hawking every type of good imaginable and unfortunately we looked too much like tourists. We got very good at saying “No, grazie” as we walked down the street. The area we were in was alive from the voices of people, but was strangely quiet otherwise. There were no cars in that area, as happens in very old areas in Italy. The streets are very narrow (remember that when they were first created there were no cars) and are called “walking streets”. One of the habits or traditions of Italians was strolling arm-in-arm before or after dinner, laughing and greeting acquaintances and meeting new ones. They are a very sociable society and it was always fun to be out amongst them in the evening.

My friend and I stopped often to admire things in shop windows or on tables on the sidewalk. We bought fresh, hot calzones and ate them as we walked. It was wonderful to be strolling without our bags in tow!

We came across the de Medici palazzo and marveled at the architecture of the palazzo, built in 1444. The original buildings were still standing and looked to be in very good condition. You could almost imagine you were in 1444, except for the electric lights shining through the windows.

The de Medici was a very powerful and influential family in Italy from the 13th to 17th centuries and produced 3 popes during that time. As we looked at the palazzo, the wealth was very apparent. The palazzo offers tours during the daytime and the courtyard is said to be quite lovely, but we left it that evening and wandered on our way, and didn’t return again.

We finally made our way back to the hotel around 11 pm and dropped gratefully into our semi-comfortable beds! It had been a totally lovely day and we were looking forward to meeting our friends for breakfast before going to some museums.

Morning came all too early, but K’s mother had a small balcony off of her room and we sat for awhile and enjoyed the view, as well as hot chocolate and rolls for breakfast.

After that we all went to the Accademie Galleria to see the statue of David. Yes, there are many other precious and inestimable works of art there, but somehow, they all paled after you have seen David.

He is very high up on a base, probably around 6 feet. But even so, you can still see him clearly, details that seem almost impossible when you consider that he is made of marble. Veins appear to pulse with life, muscle and skin that looks real enough to touch. His face and hair are so finely done that it takes little imagination to envision your hands touching it, how it would be warm and thick and curly as your fingers slipped through it. Pictures simply cannot do him justice.

We left our bags in K’s room at the hotel and agreed to pick them up by 5 that evening in order to catch the 6 pm train to Venice. Then, saying goodbye to our friends we sat off to find the Uffizi Museum.

The Uffizi used to be (centuries ago) the city offices for Florence and now house a vast museum with room after room of priceless art treasures. I was determined to find Bottecelli’s Birth of Venice, which has long been a favorite of mine. We wandered the day away, visiting room after room. Finally about an hour before we needed to leave, I found her and she was breathtaking. The painting, by Sandro Bottecelli was painted in 1482, at the heart of the great Italian renaissance. It was much larger than I had imagined and I was intrigued by the tiny brushstrokes that made the painting seem so flawless. I leaned closer and closer towards it to get a better look.

An Italian man standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder and started talking to me in very rapid Italian which I had a hard time following.

“Scusi signora, siete appoggiandosi a iete appoggandosi a vicino al’immagine e vi resolerete fuori degli allarmi!”. He was gesturing at me and the painting, trying very hard to tell me something.

“Signora,” louder and more emphatic, “l'allarme, l'allarme si spegnerà! Andrà fuori di voi è troppo vicino!”

I listened to him and all of a sudden a couple of the words started to make sense. I thought vicino meant in the vicinity of, and allarme could only mean one thing!

I took a step back and looked up at the top of the painting and noticed for the first time some type of framing system around the painting. An alarm system! He had been telling me that I was standing too close to the painting and was about to set off the alarm!

“Grazie così tanto signore, molte grazie!” I said, realizing how awful it would have been if the alarm had sounded. Can we say Italian jail, polizia, and a whole lot of panic?

I was very shaken up and took one last, appreciative look at the painting and turned around to find my friend, who had seen the whole thing, but hadn’t heard what was said. I had of course expected there to be alarms at the museum, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be alarms on individual paintings. I explained to her what had almost happened and we talked about it sporadically and giggled a bit as we finished looking at the other paintings in this room.

All too soon it was time to go pick up our bags and get to the train station. I paused for a moment in the door way of that huge room to gaze one more time at The Birth of Venus. It is a spectacular painting and a sight I will never forget. I gradually turned away with a sigh and we left the Uffizi. Maybe it seems silly that one painting could touch you so much, but it did. I have seen one of what I consider the most exquisite paintings of all time and it left a mark on me. Yes, I saw paintings by DaVinci and Raphael and Renoir that day, but none of them touched me like The Birth of Venus.

We caught a taxi back to the hotel and I guess I should say here that after the first experience on the bus in Florence, we always took taxis around Florence.

The trip to the train station was uneventful, but we were both quiet, reflecting I suppose on our trip to Florence. It was an amazingly beautiful city, full of cultural splendor and to Americans, whose society and architecture is relatively young, it seemed so old, but in the best of ways. Life seemed a little slower, although much more constant. People enjoyed life and one another more there it seemed, taking pleasure in each other, not what they owned or could buy, not what their neighbor had or status symbols. It was all about how you lived your life.

We got to the train station in Florence and I went to the window to purchase our tickets to Venice while my friend stayed with our bags.

“Ho bisogno prego di due biglietti a Venezia.” I said to the clerk at the window. Two tickets to Venice, one more day of our tour, then back to Vicenza.

The clerk gave me the tickets and I thanked him. I looked up at the large board that listed the trains and tracks and departure times. I didn’t see Venice listed on it.

“Scusilo ma dove è il treno a Venecia?” I asked the ticket clerk.

He looked at the board and said “Budapest”.

“No Budapest,” I stated. “Venice!”

“Si, si,” he impatiently explained. “BUDAPEST”. In the universal way people have, he spoke a little louder so that the American girl could understand!

Shaking my head I walked away from the window, wondering if this could be right. I explained the situation to my friend and we decided that it was probably correct, that the train was going farther than Venice, so we headed to the right track and boarded the train.

It was pretty crowded, but we finally found a compartment with enough space for us and our bags and settled in for the 2 ½ hour trip to Venice. The train got underway and we both stared out the window as Florence slowly faded away. The conductor came along to collect the tickets and we gave him ours.

He took them and looked at them for a moment, then did a double take and started muttering, whether to himself or us we didn’t know.

“Venezia, Venezia,” he said as he reached around and whipped a book out of his pocket and started flipping through it. “Hmm. . .”

We looked at each other. Oh God, we are on the wrong train. . .