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Charlie’s Angels, Siena, and laundry night

Monday, September 15

Our first day trip. We could have taken a 120 euro, 12-hour tour to Siena and surrounding Tuscany, but we didn’t. Instead, we took the 6-euro Rapido bus to Siena. Just past the Firenze train station, I saw the Deanna pasticceria that I took Deanne’s picture in front of 24 years ago. That made me happy. I was really here the first time around, and I my memory still kinda works.

Oh, but first, “Charlie’s Angels.” It was on TV this morning as we were eating breakfast. Unfortunately, it was the Cheryl Ladd version and not the Farrah Fawcett one, but hey, you take what you can get. Sometimes, dubbed old American programs in another country become a bit more charming when abroad. Maybe it was because the Angels had gone western for this episode and had to fake ride horses, but let’s just say this particular episode had not aged well. Also, two pinkie rings on Kate Jackson. Uh huh.

Anyway, our rapido bus ride to Siena didn’t start out so rapido. Less than five minutes from the bus station, in a narrow turn, our bus got wedged between an illegally parked Maserati and a row of motorcycles. Things like this are exciting when you’re in another country, but so mundane at home. Lots of yelling, some kind of traffic person with a walkie-talkie, horns honking, people in front of the bus trying to guide the bus through, and still we went nowhere. It must have been 10 minutes before the owner of the Maserati slunk to his car and moved it. And away we went.

Here we were in this bus, crossing the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio to the left, churches in front of us, and up a ways, the great wall of Florence.  Wow. No amount of wow could keep me from falling asleep however, and asleep I fell.

From the what I saw when my eyes were open, we passed little towns, lots of farm land, castles, old walls and villages, you know, the kinds of things one doesn’t see from the window when on Bart and going to work. We turned off the freeway into Siena and drove up and down and around the outskirts of town, weaving closer to the center.

We arrived at the bus stop, and followed the signs to the Duomo and Piazzo del Campo. We kept coming upon little piazzos and Shelly would say, “Is this it?” referring to the big square? And I would say, “No, you’ll know when you get there.”

And we got there.  We sat on the square across from the church and ate the lunch we got at a market near the top of the town. Mortadella, cheeses, bread, artichokes, olives – all local foods – a perfect picnic lunch. I shared some bread with the pigeons, and we packed up when it started to rain. We headed back up top, trying to stay close to the buildings to keep from getting soaked by the rain.

The Duomo had a crypt and because it was raining and we hadn’t seen a crypt in Rome, this crypt seemed as good as any. But it was a disappointment. It was as if this crypt had been deep cleaned. It was too clean and there were no bones. What’s a crypt without bones and a skull or two? Plus, it was devoid of that crypt smell. Basically, we visited a clean crypt.

The rain kicked us out of town (shorts don’t work well for a rainy day) and we took a non-rapido back to Florence. The bus, mostly used by locals, took us winding through little towns, and was driven by a tail-gating, cell-phone using driver. Made things a little more exciting.

Sienna's Piazzo del Campo

Sienna

A perfect evening for laundry. It’s 7:30 and we’re at a laveneria on Via Nationale. And it’s all ’80s music. David Bowie, Quarterflash, it’s cracking me up.

A Florence laveneria. Mind the shoes.

A Florence laveneria. Mind the shoes.

We finished the night at a restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. Salad and bean soup for Shelly, insalata mista and a funghi pizza for me. Our dinner was okay. Have to get over that a nearly $50 dinner here doesn’t necessarily make it a great meal.

Watched the BBC talk up the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and went to bed.

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The big David and a slow day

Sunday, September 14

Up early to get to our Michelangelo’s David reservation by 9. Our hotel breakfast wasn’t prepared, so we ate at a piazza restaurant, and made the mistake of sitting outside as they suggested rather than standing at the bar like the locals. Very expensive coffee, tea, and omelette mozzarella paninis.

David was a disappointment to Shelly. She thought he would be larger. Oh well. I just liked seeing him again. A magnificent piece of work. We could talk about Shelly’s necessary lesson on circumcised vs. uncircumcised, but let’s not touch that. Anyway, too many tourists, student sketchers, and we were still pretty tired from the day before. So, we made this a quick visit.

Our meat market hall was sadly closed on Sundays, so we had lunch in a tiny little place just off the main vendor drag. Simple food, but good.

This became our low-key day. We hung out in our hotel lobby, me on my iPhone, Shelly on my Mac, both of us going through email, catching up on news. I tried to get all the latest Sarah Palin news. I know this election will not be decided until November, but until then, it’s like a bad game of volleyball. I know I can’t wince and close my eyes, even though it would probably be less painful. We watched the opening of Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey. Who else could do Sarah Palin like Tina Fey?

We actually both passed out for about 45 minutes from shear exhaustion. I’m not one to take naps, but I had no choice today.

This time the recommendation came from the Tourettes-affected front desk clerk. (He was talking to himself, his arm, and walking around giggling. Creepy is an understatement here.) At Ristoranti da Mimmo, we had to wait about 30 minutes to get our check, Shelly finally had to threaten that we were leaving, and then we got it pronto. We had a frito misto, not that great, Shelly’s eggplant parmagiana, was just okay. My spinach and ricotta ravioilis with a pumpkin and juniper sauce was something I’ve never had before. The Chianti classico was perfect. I even ordered the special lemon crème brulee for dessert. So far the food in Florence outshines the food in Rome.

We turned on our TV, watched some BBC and the implosion of the Lehman Brothers, and settled on a very bad Italian singing show. I will end this post as the show did with a medley of the Village People’s “greatest hits.” Close your eyes and imagine, “YMCA,” “Go West,” “In the Navy,” etc. being sung poorly in English by an Italian man and woman, all the while surrounded by conga-ing older people, also singing along and waving their hands around. Reminds me of some bad weddings I’ve attended.

Goodnight. 

 

 

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Roma to Firenze

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A rainy morning, a taxi ride, and the train station. We’re leaving Rome.

A super speedy train took us north to Firenze in less than two hours. We shared the train ride with a couple from North Carolina. He’s a retired Viet Nam vet – he used to dye socks and work for the city – she does hair. I played mahjong while Shelly carried most of the conversation. At one point, she dared to ask them whom they were voting for and he hemmed and hawed and said, McCain, because he’s a vet. Of course.

The rain greeted us in Firenze as did an argumentative taxi driver. Maybe it was Shelly’s negotiating technique. The two of them went back and forth over a fixed price rate versus a metered price. Lots of yelling and hand gesturing on the taxi driver’s end of the conversation. As he was pulling our bags back out of his taxi, Shelly repeated the fixed price that she originally suggested. He relented. But grumbled. Whatever. He got us to the hotel and we didn’t get wet.

The Johanna Hotel is something like 95 euro a night, very cheap for Florence, and very cute. Plus, it has free wireless in the lobby. A major bonus. We quickly inspected our room, plunked down our bags, bummed an umbrella off the woman at the front desk, and set out to discover the city.

We wasted no time hunting down some lunch. Walking around Florence is slow going only because you want to stop every 20 feet and stare at the sights around you. We made it past the outdoor leather and souvenir vendors by the Duomo and literally stumbled upon a huge indoor food market – meat, cheeses, olive oils, produce, and a few (Italian food court). Perfect. For five euros I had a plate of pasta and salad. Shelly had some chicken and zucchini. I have a feeling that Alice Waters has spent some time at this market. Slow food is what this place is all about.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. Lots of walking: down to the Arno River, over one bridge, up to the Pitti Palace, over the Ponte Vecchio bridge …  . A stop for tea, a couple of cookies, and a real, caffeinated cappuccino for me. Yep, we’re in Italy.

 

The only bridge in Italy not destroyed during WWII.

Ponte Vecchio Bridge: The only bridge in Italy not destroyed during WWII.

 

We decided to hit the area around the Duomo – as big, colorful, and wonderful as I remembered it, but now with a small iron fence around it. We didn’t go inside because of the line, but I dared Shelly to walk to the top of  Giotto’s Tower. It’s open only a few days of the week for only a few months of the year. You know, it’s one of those places where they have warnings in several different languages not to attempt if you have medical problems. She accepted my dare, and six euro and 414 steps later we made it to the top and some of the most breathtaking views in the world. We took way too many pictures and playfully picked out the places we decided we could live. Shelly wanted a rooftop garden, so that helped narrow things down.

And yes, we considered the 818 total steps cardio, as did our calves and quads. We could still feel that hike days later.

For dinner, we took the advice of our front desk woman, and walked around the block to an exceptional restaurant, called Wine Bar Vinolio. We were only the second full table, but by the time we left two hours later, the place was packed. Even though it took nearly 40 minutes to get our bill when we were done, this was by far the best meal we’ve had so far. Insalata mistas, fresh rolls, house red, and a pistachio pesto pasta. I’ve never tasted anything like it. So very good.

Loved the house red. Buy this wine: Contucci Rosso Di Montepulciano – 2005

We skyped Shelly’s sister, wished her a happy birthday, and then collapsed into bed. And for the first time, we didn’t need earplugs.

Ciao Florence.

 

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Our last day in Rome

Today we took it easy – we only walked about four hours. We walked across a bridge toward our Internet café and into the Jewish Ghetto. The buildings were ancient and remarkably, in great condition and still serving as homes. Ancient Roman ruins dotted the area.


I ate a falafel and Shelly had a chicken schnitzel that looked like it could be the sole of a shoe. A nice shoe, but a sole nonetheless. Let’s just say that she was still hungry after she ate it.

After nearly an hour on the Internet (this time round, he didn’t need to photocopy our passports for terrorist reasons), we walked back toward our neighborhood and ended up at an inside/outside restaurant. Shelly wanted a salad and an iced tea, and I wanted dessert. Only problem was that they were out of most of their desserts. And their iced teas were flavored and sugared. She had to pull the “five easy pieces” version of ordering iced tea, so hot water, a black tea bag, and a separate glass of ice. She pulled it off with a combination of bad Italian, English, and Spanish. A real specialty. She also ordered a pizza margarita which I promised to help eat. As we were waiting, the restaurant received order upon order of goods for the evening: huge plastic bags of meat, plastic cups (for water for those ordering espressos at the bar), sacks of who knows what, etc.

Men in suits stopped by the bar, stood, ordered, drank water out of plastic cups, got their espressos, dumped in sugar packets, downed the espresso, licked their spoons, paid their bills at the cashier, and continued on down the street.

As for our food, Shelly’s salad came with tuna, and the pizza looked incredible. I did help out and got about halfway through it before Shelly started in.

That night we each got a gelato (yoghurt for Shelly, and a three-parter for me: yoghurt, caramel, and hazelnut chocolate), hung out in the square, and watched two Cirque de Soleil rejects entertain the crowd before it started to thunder, lightening, and rain. Back at the apartment, we packed and cleaned up.

A simple cheese pizza, but very good

A simple cheese pizza, but very good

I know Shelly’s going to miss our apartment and the loads of laundry she did. Unlike the locals, we hung our laundry out to dry inside the apartment.

Arrivederci little Trastevere apartment.

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Ode to the Roma water fountain

I love the water fountains located all over Rome. It’s really hot here, I drink a lot of water, and bottled water costs a lot of Euros. But for the Rome leg of our trip, all you need is a water bottle and the luck to run into one of these free water stations, and you’re set until you need more.

These water holes are almost as ubiquitous as churches (actually, I’ll need to get those numbers to compare). Find one and you’ll swear that no water tastes better.

Water fountain near the Jewish Ghetto

Water fountain near the Jewish Ghetto

Free water

Free water

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After the Vatican, it’s a long way home

The metro took us to Piazza del Popolo. Shelly’s list included a bunch of restaurants my mom gave us. Naturally, we couldn’t find any of them. And the deli she told us about was back by the Vatican. No way. We settled on a place that had a bunch of salads on the menu – right across the street from a window of doll heads. Perfect.

Doll heads in a window. No caption needed.

Doll heads in a window. No caption needed.

After our late, salad lunch, we took off toward the Spanish steps, popped into a couple of shoe stores and headed home. Or at least, that’s what Shelly told me. We crossed a bridge where she proudly spoke of her Girl Scout skills.

The only problem was that she took us in the wrong direction, back toward the Vatican. Yes, we crossed a bridge, but the wrong bridge. We walked for what seemed like days. Hours at the very least. Around busy streets and not so busy streets. By an Italian film crew. Shelly asked, but they didn’t speak English. By rows of Vespas and Smart Cars. I finally had to summon up my Brownie skills, point out the Vatican wall, and lead us to civilization. By now, we were pretty much laughing uncontrollably at nothing, but I hadn’t seen a mirage, so we knew we were safe. We hoped a bus back to our neighborhood, ate pizza from down the street, and called it a night. Well, first we couldn’t pass up the Gypsy fortune teller with three parakeets (one bad boy was called Antonio). She had the parakeets “pick” out a fortune in English or Italian. According to the parakeets, I will live until I’m 98. Shelly, until she’s 95. Maybe both of us will be fortune tellers.

Fortune-telling parakeets. Antonio is in the front.

Fortune-telling parakeets. Antonio is in the front.

We also stopped in at the Santa Maria church. A bit dark inside at night, made even darker with spooky organ music played by Vincent Price according to Shelly.

By the time we made it back to our apartment, we were grateful that we could still feel our toes.

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Follow the nun to Vatican City

Thursday, September 11

Thursday was Vatican day.  We had to get up early to be at the Vatican for our 9:30 tour. Only problem was I woke up at 2am and didn’t go back to sleep until after 5am.

Had our yogurt, fruit, and hard bagel thing for breakfast. I even made myself a decaf espresso on the stove.  And tomorrow, I might make myself more than a thimble-full.

Caught a bus on the other side of the Tiber River, followed a nun off the bus, and into Vatican City. Taking a tour was the only way we could avoid the two-plus hour wait to get into the Vatican. And the line extended way around the outside of the wall up to the Swiss guards. No thanks. We walked right in. Who knew that we wouldn’t exit until after 1pm.

Our tour guide was a British art student. She walked us through the galleries, around the hordes of people, told us tidbits about Nero’s bathtub and the Jesus tapestry that followed you as you walked past it. I gotta tell you, although the art was plentiful – sculptures, tapestries, paintings, carvings – none of it was happy art. The scenes were all depressing, mostly male, bloody, ominous, all the stuff that reminds you of the darkness of religion. Show me some happy religious art and maybe we can talk.

The Sistine Chapel was pretty cool. Too many people whispering at the same time made the guards yell “Sssshhhh” every few minutes and that was annoying. Not as annoying though, as the prerecorded “No talking” in several different languages set at volume 11. And if you need evidence that Michelangelo didn’t like women or at the very least, couldn’t draw women, the few that are on the ceiling of the Sistine, could have competed in the Olympics for East Germany in the ’70s.

Just when we thought we were done, our guard prepped us on the basilica. I looked at Shelly and sheepishly asked what the basilica was, and she smiled and said she had no idea. See, we’re perfect for each other. We low fived and marched on to the basilica.

Oh, the Basilica. The church inside St. Peters Square. Wow. It was amazing inside. Like another world and nothing we’ve ever seen before. You can fit the Statue of Liberty inside the dome. Comfortably. Lots of crosses, buried popes, mosaics, etc. A saint you could rub the foot of for good luck. We passed. And of course, the pope in wax. The wax pope. Shelly loved him and even took some bad pictures of him.

And that was the end of the Vatican. A worthwhile visit, but so very long. It was now past lunch and we had no idea where to go.  We trekked to the metro and stopped in several Vatican souvenir stores, looking for the allusive tacky plate that had Shelly’s name on it. Alas, not a one called her name. Onward.

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Our first full, very full day in Roma

Wednesday, September 10

Tuesday night, arrival night was a blur. Met the owner of our apartment, gave him some euros, and in return got keys, the instructions for the washer (no dryer), the air conditioner, and the gas stove.  Fair trade.  Oh, and he told us to put out the trash every night, in plastic bags, on the street, right in front of the building.

Dinner at a corner restaurant, a few blocks away, hit the spot. Twenty-four euros got us a great funghi pizza, two insalata mistas, carbonated water, pane (gotta stop accepting the bread since they charge 2 euros for it, and we don’t need it), and a sauteed lemon chicken dish that had Shelly pretty much sucking the meat off the bones. That never happens at home.

We slept with earplugs because of the street and people noise and got about nine hours of sleep. Not bad.

Wednesday was one of those days where you set out to do a couple of things, but end up walking a million miles in the heat, lose track of the time, and end up back where you started about eight hours later.

Highlights:

  • Got our Roma Pass (good prices for museums and transportation).
  • Campo de’ Fiori – overpriced tourist market, outdone by the farmer’s markets at home. Nonetheless, we picked up too much cheese, olives, and a peach.
  • Shelly bought two face cloths. A shower without cloths? Please.
  • Got a hunk of wheat bread and a breadstick at Il Fornio. I swear this was the same place that gave me incorrect change 24 years ago.
  • Had lunch sitting outside of the Colosseum, spent about an hour inside. An inspiring sight no matter how many times you see it.
  • An abbreviated hike through the Roman Forum. Shelly had sunstroke written all over her pink face, so we got out of there pretty quickly.
  • Ran into Trevi Fountain, which was overrun by literally hundreds of people.
  • Had our first gelato – I had yoghurt and pistachio.
  • Hung out inside the Pantheon. Very cool.
  • Did a prerequisite stop at a stationery store, got a name of potential vendor.
  • Checked email at an internet café.
  • Got instructions for and got lost twice going to a Despar market two blocks from the internet café.
  • Walked across the Ponte Garibaldi Bridge, carrying our supermarket goods.
  • Had a mediocre dinner at Lagane e Ceci. Got the pane again, asked for tap water, got bottled, had an okay pasta, and Shelly had very tough mystery meat. Oh well.

Walked around a bit. Fell into bed. Exhausted. Just like it should be. Thursday is our Vatican tour, which means we’ll have to be on our best behavior.

The colosseum in all its glory.

The colosseum in all its glory.

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SFO to Heathrow to Roma

Monday September, 8

Forgetting Sarah Marshall” just so happened to be the best part of the British Airways flight from SFO to Heathrow. I’d wanted to see the movie, Shelly didn’t, so personal screens on the plane made this a reality. We got the edited version, no full frontal shots, but the setup still worked.

The rest of the trip – nine hours in all – was brutal as always. Stuck in the middle seat, forced to try and sleep sitting up, my arms tucked in between the arm rests, my restless legs (short they may be), fighting to get comfortable … the scenario played out repeatedly throughout the trip. The stocky ex-commando grey-haired guy next to me, looking at wifi schematics on his PC, was gruff and spraying bad breath. Shelly was in her own iPod world of podcasts and word-game books.

Trying to sleep, high on two benadryls, is a real mind game. Even my new Ambiance iPhone app, although pretty effective (I like “machine”), couldn’t compete with me worrying about my life, Frances and whether she would eat while we were gone, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, a smattering of work, and you name it. Insomniacs know what I am talking about.

Arriving in Heathrow only made me crankier. Our carry-on bags that had just crossed over the U.S. and the Atlantic were deemed too big for the next leg of the trip. Fucking with the Americans – a pastime shared by too many countries.

Loved being back in England, even if they took our bags, and even if though it was for less than three hours. Had a quick lunch at Wagamama, failed to find free wifi anywhere in the airport, bought some chocolate, and Harrod’s tea, Number 14, for Shelly, and headed on our way.

On the three-hour flight to Roma, I played some iPhone mahjong, slept a bit, and cruised Italy for the first time since 1984. Dusk. We were picked up by a Mercedes driving, slick Italian guy, who smelled of cigarette smoke. He said nothing except when he argued with Shelly to close her window. She wouldn’t because of the smoke, so he argued again and turned up the air conditioning.

Our driver drove through impossibly narrow and winding cobblestone streets and deposited us in front of our Trastevere apartment, our home for the next five days.

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Crappy mobile video of Frances and Mickey

It’s crappy. I’m warning you. Looks much better in a small 2-inch screen. but I’m adding it here,  just for prosperity. I took this video with my old Treo in July 2007. I had just given Fran and Mick a bath and they did their trademark running around the house. If you look closely, you can see that the “toy” in Mickey’s mouth is Shelly’s slipper. Keep in mind, that when this was taken, Frances was 6 and Mickey was probably 14.

Hopefully, this is my last Mickey-specific post. It’s been harder than we could have imagined. Watching this is the last time I get to say “hey bubba” (one of the many nicknames we had for him). I wish we had taken more videos of the little guy. He was so much fun to watch.

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