Sunday, July 31, 2011

Venice. Not the beach.

Venice is confusing to navigate, over-crowded with tourists and miserably hot. Smelly too.

Boy was I surprised when we had a perfect day there with The Pinks and the Singer and the Donell families. The Singers spent a week there previously and Sara was brilliant with the map. This particular visit showed me, at least, a charming view of the city especially through the observations of our children.

One of the smartest things I did was to pre-arrange a Context Travel tour. Monica Chojnacka was ours alone and she customized our three-hour walk to our family's interests: the Jewish Ghetto and family life in Venice.
Monica, a Stanford-educated, American art historian married to a Venetian man, has daughters the same age as our own. She writes books and has taught at universities in both the US and overseas. During our walk we visited the five synagogues in Venice, only two of which remain in use today. From 1516 to 1866 Venice's Jewish population was confined to an islet of the Cannaregio district, locked in at night and guarded. The world's first ghetto was here and the word ghetto comes from the Italian get or foundry, which previously occupied the location.

The tallest buildings in Venice were once in the ghetto; as the
Jewish population grew there was no place expand but vertically. While the neighborhood is no longer solely Jewish, there are reminders of those days: a few street signs in Hebrew, indentations in the stone house facades where a mezuzah would fit, two Kosher restaurants, some Judaica shops. Paris bought a piece of art on her parashah. There are fewer than 400 Jews living in Venice today; in the mid 1700s there were about 5,000.

Monica's daughters study both Greek and Latin in school, and their school days and year are about the same as ours. One of the upsides to having a personal tour guide is that she answered our very pressing questions: the proper direction to stand when using a seatless commode and housing prices. As a bonus, she knew where all the bathrooms were and even took our kids. Let's not underestimate the importance of this during a summer walking tour. She even showed us one of the places that the gondolas cross the Grand Canal, and that you can take them for less than a Euro instead of walking to the nearest bridge, which is often not so near. Paris was thrilled when our tour ended at Lush, the UK-based hand-made soap and cosmetics store. Clearly Monica knows her stuff!

From there we made our way to Piazza San Marco and met up with our friends for a drink at Caffe Florian. Everyone who is anyone has had a drink here; it's been open since 1720! We had Bellinis while the kids had $14 Cokes. Oy! In addition to the couvert, there was a $8 fee for dining while the orchestra played outside.

And then the kids chased the pigeons. Do you think they'll remember the overpriced Cokes or the pigeons?!

Our next stop was the Bridge of Signs, which passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connected the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace. The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. A local legend says that lovers will be granted everlasting love and bliss if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge. The bridge and the walls of the palazzo facing towards the bridge are under construction and it was a disappointment.

We had a late dinner in Venice, magical in the dark of course, and got back to the villa well after midnight. I especially liked seeing Venice after dark: you can peek into the houses.

The pictures here are of Thom and Sara, and Liberty at Caffe Florian, our whole entourage in Piazza San Marco, the extremely photogenic Donell children, and the view of the Grand Canal as seen when we got off the vaporetto.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Letter From The Pinks

Dear Mom,

Thanks for dragging us to Italy again this summer. We do have pasta and pizza in the US, you know! Did we really need to travel 7,000 miles each way to eat it? taking us on a wonderful trip to the Veneto region of Italy this summer.

Three weeks without American TV was torture with a capital T a nice break from all that educational programming reality drivel we've been watching and probably good for our eyes, too.

We will be forever grateful for being forced to eat weird gelato flavors such as Puffo (What is Puffo anyway?!) the opportunity to eat gelato every day, and sometimes twice.

Seeing the insides of all those small-town duomos was so inspirational that we can't wait to study Renaissance art at college. In fact, one of us has already started researching schools that offer a minor in it. NOT. Enough is enough, Mom. Are you and Dad magnets for these places?

We will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do this again in two years. can't wait to go back to Europe with you and Dad. In fact, we're counting the minutes.


Your exhausted, overstimulated Darling Daughters

Monday, July 25, 2011

Check Off #2: Pop Up General Store

The Pop Up General Store is where professional chefs, mostly Chez Panisse-trained, sell the food they make and love to eat. It's in Oakland on Wednesday nights every three to four weeks.

This has been on my list for a while, too. Frankly, it was not worth a trip all the way into Oakland. We had Pizza Politana for dinner there and browsed the stalls, maybe 15 in total. I bought a loaf of expensive bread that the kids ate in the car on the way home. We ran into a family friend and left.

To salvage our trip into Oakland we stopped at Scream Sorbet on Telegraph Ave. Liberty enjoyed the Strawberry Lemon sorbet while we were in the city a few weeks ago and on this evening she had the Seascape Strawberry, Paris had the Tangelo and I had the Apricot. The sorbets get very close to the real fruit taste. You don't have to go into Oakland to get Scream; they do quite a few local farmer's markets, including my parents'.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Laundry & Packing

We're at the villa today doing laundry, packing and getting ready for an early departure tomorrow. The chef is coming in tonight; we'll be up late again I'm sure.

Yesterday was one of the best days of the trip: Venice. We didn't get home until well after midnight. Summary: perfect weather, a great tour guide and lots of laughs. This was the first time we've been to Venice with the kids and we really enjoyed the magic of their discovery of this special city.

I can't believe our two weeks here are coming to an end. We'll be at Lake Garda and in the Dolomites a few days before returning to the states.

This week's friends were Dave's fraternity brothers and their families from Austin and LA. I will miss the quirkiness of this house but not the haunted rooms. I will miss the smell of line dried clothes but not the effort involved in doing it. I will miss living in a village but not the mosquitos that come with the riverfront location. I will miss our friends and The Pinks having constant playmates. I will miss the daily gelato but not scrutinizing the Monopoly money coins in order to pay for it. Everything less than a Euro looks the same to me! I will miss exploring new places but not reading a map every time we leave the house.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Every day, sometimes twice

There are so many things to love about Italy!

Here are some of our current favorites, in no particular order.

The people watching. The well-coiffed and heeled and not-well-coiffed. In big cities the women wear short shorts and high heels. In small towns they wear mumus and Birkenstock knockoffs. I am still working up the nerve to pop pictures.

The gelato. Cafe Teatro, a block from our villa, is pretty good, though. Paris, Liberty and I have been eating limone and fragola (strawberry). Tori favors stracciatela (chocolate chip). Our friend Kate Singer has pledged to try a new flavor each time. Thus far she has had Puffo (Smurf blue and anise tasting) and Nutella.
The pizza. 3,5 euros buys a pizza big enough to feed two children or one hungry adult.
The shoes. I added pair of purple Tod's loafers to my collection. Need I say more?
The pace. I fear that Italy's economy is not far behind that of Greece.

The architecture.
The duomo in Verona, completed in 1187, was just average looking on the outside. The inside was breathtaking, jawdropping. The medieval paintings, frescoes and marble font made this a worthwhile haul across town. Oh yes, and 4pm mass was going on, too. Thom and Sara, Kate's parents, got the checkoff. The Arena is worth another post alone.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Small Town Life

Villa Bartolomea. A one horse town. There are two pizzarias, one full-service restaurant, two bar / bakeries (who came up with that combo?!), a post office, a dumpy shoe store, a pharmacy, an elementary school with a large World War II memorial in front, a huge church, a community center which seems to only be open from 9p - midnight, and Cafe Teatro, the gelato / watering hole.

The villagers find us a curiosity. They are polite yet talk about us as we walk by. Last night, walking home from pizza pickup, I was treated to a parade. There were easily 300 villagers singing Ave Maria and escorting a float of an uplit, gilded Mary.

The residents mostly rely on their bikes for transportation, even during last week's heat wave. I saw a couple riding side-by-side holding hands - adorable! Jill and Wally and Dan Harvey, some of our friends who were here last week, are avid bikers and they rented serious bikes, exercise bikes.

The villa sits on the far end of the main drag, next to the Aidge River. This sounds more scenic than it is; the river is as wide as the Mississippi and from all indications, it is a dumping ground for the products of our bathrooms. I did ride a bike alongside it this morning and as long as I focused on the farms to the sides, it was a pretty ride.

The villa is huge and antiques filled. Most of it has incredible, hand-painted murals. You could stare at the ceilings forever. The oddities make the house fun: the kids play pool for hours on end, the kitchen is three rooms, the wifi only works in the library, formal dining room and billiards room, the front door is locked by a forged iron lever. The outlets are either two- or three-pronged. This is only a challenge when we are moving fans around at night but it is funny. We take standardization for granted. The house manager explained the workings of the villa to me in an hour-long briefing, which was 40 minutes longer than my attention span.

The original villa is 400 years old; the residence we are staying in is about 130 years old. The photos here were taken by Jill and Neeracha. There is a chapel adjoining the house and also stables on the property, which appear to be now used for storage.
Cafe Teatro is a fun spot. Monday night we enjoyed the local cover band. Their version of Hotel California had us in hysterics; they had about 70% of the words right. We sang along and it was another perfect moment. Again, the whole town seemed to be out: teens in packs, hunched-over elderly couples, young families, women with red hair, the shade that does not occur in nature.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Check Off #1: Roli Roti

I'm working my way through my list. I don't generally goal set; I bumble through life trying to cover the basics of staying happily married, actively participating in a family that raises thoughtful children who will leave the world a better place and remaining gainfully employed. So this is the summer I'm working my way through a list.

First on my list was getting me one of those dang rotisserie chickens.

There is a rotisserie chicken truck at the Pleasanton Farmer's Market. But we don't go to that market. It's 15 miles from the house and we have a perfectly fine market in our town. Yet on many Saturdays I have driven past it on the way to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, looked longingly at it, and been unable to pick one up. The way I get this dreamy look in my eyes then drool when we get within two blocks of it drives my daughter nuts.

This time I did the unthinkable: I drove there just to get a chicken. Seriously, the bird was good. The potatoes, which roasted in the drippings and then were salted, were amazing. But even better than the food itself was the smell of the roasting chickens. It took me back to the markets in France. The line was long. The day was hot. The bird was worth it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Taking One for the Team

Independence Day began with me rousing the troops and urging them to get their sleepy bodies out of bed so I could do the sheets and we could flee the mountains. We'd been up late the night before watching the fireworks at Squaw. Fortunately we had a great view from our deck and tried unsuccessfully to muster up some empathy for the many who had to navigate out of the parking lot and the valley that night. We're so spoiled. Ski in, ski out.

We got home in time for me to make two apple pies from scratch and to head to the Greenan's extended family 4th of July party. Jim and Pam Greenan had eight children together; my friend Paige Wycoff is one of them. Over time I've become friendly with her sisters, too. This occasion brings all the siblings and their families together plus the families of a few who married in. There were maybe 60 of us today?

Jim and some of his adult children skied at Alpine Meadows Saturday. We skied with Jim a few times this season; he even sledded with us at Granlibakken dressed in a suit, having come from church one Sunday. Sadly, he did not join us on this occasion as he had a little too much fun Saturday and ended up taking the air express route home from the mountains. This I can empathize with; my father has taken this form of transportation as well.

The high point of the Greenan party was the softball game, both kids and adults. The low point was my nine-year-old fielding a ball that got me out. Observations: most adult men hit, catch and throw very well, my husband included. Under fours do not get called out. When left to their own devices, little girls will make daisy chains. After participating in this family event I get why people have big families.

It was Africa hot outside and the pool got a lot of use. We ate dinner before the game and dessert afterwards. There were lots of babies around and I got a good does of baby bellies and virgin feet. Yum.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hello from Milan

We're here. And oh what an adventure it's been. Does anyone have an easy time flying overseas these day?

We ended up driving ourselves to the airport. The car service called to say they were running an hour late as their driver got a speeding ticket leaving his home.

We were delayed 90 minutes in Philadelphia while a mechanical error was being taken care of.

At the Milan airport the ATM ate our card and would not give it back. Patelco forgot to note that we were taking it to Italy and the only way to get a new card is for them to mail it to our home address in 8-10 working days. How inconvenient do you think it is to have no access to cash while on vacation? Especially when you owe the owner of your rental house $2,000 tomorrow?

The good news is that Milan is as enchanting as ever. Paris slept 16 hours last night after sleeping just 30 minutes in the previous 31 hours. I slept 13. Our hotel, Boscola Excedra, is hip, clean and modern in a museum-quality way. We're all adjusted to the time change now and looking forward to meeting up with our friends in Villabartolomea tomorrow.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Endless Winter

Because we're completely nuts, we headed to Squaw for to ski this weekend.

Summer skiing? Silly idea. Ski season is over. But this was fun, if just for the accomplishment of the checkoff. We've never been up to Tahoe over the 4th of July weekend. In general, we avoid holiday weekends up here. Still, this was one we had to do.

We went to a BBQ in Truckee on Saturday afternoon. Aaron Sturm is a friend of my brothers. Until yesterday I thought they met in college. Apparently not; they met in San Francisco their first year out of college. Aaron and Jessica's backyard is a playground: swings and hammocks for both adults and kids, a fire pit, a BMX-style race track, horse shoe pits for adults and kids, a sandbox, and various other activities. A bunch of these people knew my brother and we were glad to pop by and meet some locals. I don't expect I'll ever see them again, though, as they regularly ski parts of Squaw I never even knew existed.

From there we went to the Martis Valley. Wow! Martis Camp is a resort community with its own back door chair lift into Northstar, golf course, recreation centers ++. The Aus family invited us to join them for Family Night at The Big Red Barn. A cover band had the adults and kids on their feet for hours and inside the Barn was a family-friendly restaurant, a billiards room, an art studio, a movie theater and a bowling alley with a multi-pool area adjacent. The main clubhouse contains an adult pool plus a nice restaurant, spa, fitness center and meeting space. It looks like the Grand Californian.

The place is gorgeous. The few homes that have been built already are mountain-modern style on mostly acre parcels. Our friends' daughter became engaged this weekend and the wedding will likely be at Martis Camp. Who could blame them?!

Sunday we got up early enough to ski. There better coverage than I'd envisioned and it felt like late Spring skiing. What does summer skiing feel like anyway? Whenever I've been injured, though, it's been on that heavy, slushy stuff so I didn't ski all that long. The crowd was not unlike that of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: rock and roll t-shirts, teeny weeny bikinis, beer bellies and lots of tattoos. We ditched our gloves soon after the above picture was taken; it was too warm to even have our hands covered.

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the Lake Cushing Crossing. This annual event brings together 50 costumed skiers go down a steep run and glide across the putrid pond at the base of KT. Fewer than 10 make it across and the rest plunge into the slimy pond. Prizes are awarded for best costume and best form on both snowboards and skis. Two gorillas crossed today; a naked snowboarder did not. It was hilarious to watch, truly hilarious.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I get attached.

My father has always wanted to do something more adventurous than just backpacking. He had long joked that the year he turned 40 would be the year our family would leave our suburban life and sail around the world. In reality, his 40th year was the year we moved to Alaska. I was 15.

It was an IBM assignment and we knew it would only be for 3-5 years. My parents advised me not to tell people in Anchorage that we were short-timers. That would prevent them from getting to know us and reduce our chances of developing meaningful friendships. And so I kept my mouth shut.

Little did I know that the friendships my parents made during that time would grow to be among the most enduring of their adult lives.

Now I'm an adult and this has new meaning. I get attached to people. My friend Denise Nagle moved to Phoenix. How easy do you think it is to make friends in the hospital when you are both antepartum patients on full bedrest and hopped up on muscle relaxants to the point that you can barely speak? And the last time I was in Arizona she had the audacity to be busy laboring with her second child! Another friend of mine, a Chevron wife, moved to Houston. I liked her, too.

Last Spring another friend told me they were being transferred. I should have seen this coming as they'd never lived any place longer than four years. But I got really attached to her; she and her husband are smart, interesting, fun people. Every now and then you meet someone very special, someone you really connect with. For me at least, those people are few and far between. She is one of those people. I tried hard not to pull away from her while the corporate assignment deck was being shuffled. And honestly, I don't think I did: I was as busy as any of us are.

After what seemed like forever, she phoned and told me that, as it turns out, and after many anxious days and nights, they are staying put until their visas expire. Were I not on site at my client, I would have screamed many decibels louder than I did. I am happy for them. And I am happy for me.