Monday, August 29, 2011

And then there's the golf ...

A long time ago someone advised Dave that to remain involved in his children's lives he should make their interests his own interests.

He's done a good job of that. He's been to dance performances and recitals, children's theater performances, soccer, softball and basketball games, ice skating, roller skating, animated movies, amusement parks, and on and on.

We took the kids to an Oakland A's game this summer and I was blown away by how closely they watched the game; apparently it interests them now that they know softball. This is a good example of how, finally, their interests are merging with ours.
This was The Summer of Golf. Golf is a sport you can play your whole life. Golf courses are located in beautiful settings, often vacation destinations. It's both physical and mental. This sport holds huge promise for our family. Hopefully the kids can play at the club with him someday and we can golf together on vacation. To prepare for The Summer of Golf Dave bought three sets of she-colored clubs, balls and bags. I recently tagged along with them to Golfsmith to weigh in on golf clothes. Boy was I in for a surprise. Who knew there was so much gear involved? And that so much of it was girly?

First, the floral hat clips and divot tools. Exactly what needs clipping to your hat? There are two-way pink plastic cleaning brushes. Both ways looked the same to me. And pink club grips. Is your club without a grip when you buy it? Or do you throw out the primary colored one in favor of pink post purchase? Apparently there's an issue with pants falling down during golf. I saw a big display of belts and buckles. Also, golf tees come in all the colors of the rainbow. As do Sharpies, which apparently are necessary to mark one's ball.

All this time I thought it was a relatively simple game: hit the tiny ball into the tiny hole hundreds of yards down the fairway. Apparently not.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Sounds of Summer

Crickets. I'm sad when they go wherever they go for the winter.

Fountains. We have two in our yard and they co-mingle with the crickets at night.

Sprinklers. They go on at 5am. I hear them depending on how deep I'm sleeping.

Piano. The next door neighbors' kids play beautifully and I love listening to it.

The three-year-old screaming. The other next door neighbors have an adorable blond son who is doing age-appropriate vocalization.

Porsche. The neighbor's ride is distinct.

Splashing and laughter. Happy children at the pool.

Paris. She wants her sisters to be quiet longer in the morning so she can sleep.

The fan. A necessity with the treadmill during warm months.

Funky ice cream truck horn. At the pool.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


It's no secret that my sports-loving husband is also a huge opera fan. For him, visiting Verona meant going to the opera. It's one of life's check offs.

I, however, am not an opera fan. We've been to the San Francisco Opera several times and frankly, it's a lot of work: reading those subtitles, watching the performance, listening to the singing in another language, and hours and hours long. Then add the trip into the city and the dinner. Still, we were in Verona and Dave got tickets in advance of our trip. And so we went. At the 2,000 year old Roman amphitheatre called the Forum.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular opera, here's the short version: Aida is an Ethiopian princess. She's captured and brought into slavery in Egypt. A military commander falls in love with her and must choose between her and his loyalty to the Pharaoh. And we all know how operas end.

Aida is four long acts. Apparently Verdi had a lot to say in this particular opera. The triumphal march in the second act was well done, with four obedient horses. There were no subtitles. There was no need for vocal or instrumental amplification. At one point there were more than 350 performers on stage. It was a warm but not an oppressively warm night. The moon was out. The sun set behind the Forum. It was another perfect moment. And the woman seated in front of me gave us a laugh.

We left the kids at the villa and the ten of us had adults-only dinner at Trattoria al Pompieri. The risotto in local red wine was too rich to take seriously but the salumi platter was amazing. I honestly don't remember what I ate but I do remember being embarrassed that I did not offer to share it with anyone. Black and white photographs of famous Italians covered the walls; we amused ourselves by making up stories about them.

Verona charmed us and we took The Pinks back another day for further exploration. It's an adorable town with a cathedral that's less grand on the outside than others in cities of its stature yet filled with beautiful art inside. We poked our heads in during Saturday mass and enjoyed a bit of the service. The people in Verona are friendly, the stores and restaurants abundant and the streets easy to navigate. There are bridges to see. And gelato to eat.

We quickly visited Casa de Giulietta, the dumbest tourist attraction ever. This is the recreation of Juliet's balcony, which isn't real to begin with as Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is a work of fiction. There's also an iron statue of Juliet in the courtyard, which people get their jollies on by rubbing her right breast. Heck, if this adventure enables the kids to better connect with the works of Shakespeare, it was worthwhile.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Camping in the Louvre

Dan nailed it: staying in an old Italian villa is like camping in the Louvre.

Villa Mila is exquisite. Our living space was about 10,000 sf. There's a second stairway leading to another wing, closed off by velvet cord. Several rooms had two sets of double doorways and were locked. Three of us did manage to unlock the internal door leading to the attached chapel, which was hot, musty and used for storage of misc. religious objects and IKEA housewares still in their original packaging.

The bathrooms had working bidets. The hardwood floors creaked, especially in our room. Four of our friends mentioned ghosts as there seemed to be no reasonable explanation for doors opening and closing randomly at odd hours.

The villa is hidden from the street by 8' tall stone walls. It's reached by prying open two green, weathered barn doors then driving under a covered archway past the 400-year-old stables. A large field is to the left with the pool and gardens behind it. All of the rooms are dark, with ornate, heavy window treatments. At first we attributed the darkness to the house being kept shuttered up during the heat of the day. But during Week 2, when the heat wave passed, we realized that the walls themselves were painted in dark colors or were paneled. The hand painting was beautiful with many religious details or elaborate scenery. The grand foyer had swords and rifles hung above oil paintings of dour family members and a large marble shelf atop the lattice-covered radiator. There was also a low entry hall table, which we kept buried under sunscreen, insect repellent, guide books, maps, keys, and shared receipts.

The room we spent the most time in was the smallest room, the library, which had reliable wifi, the lightest colored walls and the most amount of natural light. It held only one sofa and two small chairs so it was a real accomplishment to be seated comfortably!

The formal living room, which we alternatively drank limoncello in and let the kids use for crafting, had an enormous Phantom-of-the-Opera-style chandelier. It was covered in cobwebs, too. The floor was parquet tiles covered with throw rugs.

This is the fourth European villa we've rented and our first experience with the house manager living on site. She was well-intentioned and quite helpful, down to finding our fish-like friend an Olympic-sized pool to keep her conditioning intact for the Trans Tahoe Relay. She arranged for two different chefs to come in and cook for us, which was one of the highlights each week. However, The Pinks could not understand why she, or any of the other Italians we encountered, smoked. None of us could understand why she became unglued when the kids hauled the mattresses from the third floor to the first in order to have a mass sleepover in the music room, which was easily 20 degrees cooler than the third floor.

There's the de rigour pool on the property, where the kids spent a fair amount of time. Each house we've rented in Europe has the same cheap white plastic lawn chairs -- the stuff you see at Safeway -- and this was no exception. Why is this? Perhaps Americans hang out more in their yards than do Europeans?

In hindsight, the best part of the villa was its prime location for integration into (or observation of!) village life. It was at the end of the one-horse-town's main drag and adjacent to the murky Adige river. I loved being able to hand the kids a 20 Euro bill and asking them to return with pizza. I met a friend for coffee at La Boulange here in the burbs this week and noticed how noisy it was. At Cafe Teatro, Villa Bartolomea's equivalent, it would have been much quieter with people sitting together but not necessarily speaking animatedly, drinking their coffee slowly, not necessarily powering through breakfast.

As is typical in Europe, commercial hours are approximate and not set to optimize revenue. Shops are closed either Sundays or Monday mornings, sometimes both. In Modena, shops are closed Thursday afternoons. We wanted to buy a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and the shopkeeper in one of Modena's best-known food shops, although physically in her shop and speaking to us, would not open the door for us to purchase a hundred dollar bottle of vinegar.
I could write a book on the foods of Northern Italy. In fact, many books have been written on the subject. Instead, here, I'll tell you about three grocery stores near the villa. To get a grocery cart, you insert a Euro coin in a slot and the cart untethers from the others. When you
return your cart the coin comes back to you. In Italian grocery stores you must bag your own groceries and pay for the bags. This is not quaint although it does encourage reuse.
Familia was 2 km east of the house. It was adequate, much like a large Trader Joe's. This is where we did our initial provisioning because of its proximity to the house. It's biggest drawback was its limited produce selection.
Galassia was 7 km north. It was like a large Safeway with the addition of basic housewares, that cheap patio furniture and appliances. I bought additional fans here during the Week 1 Heat Wave. We shopped here whenever we were going to get my favorite pesche gelato at L'Arte del Gelato.
We didn't discover Interspar, also 7 km north and near L'arte del Gelato, until the end of our trip, sadly. It's Costco without the membership. We should have provisioned there! Dry pasta was literally two aisles. I could never have imagined so many shapes and sizes of pasta. Truly. Beverages took up an entire aisle -- sodas, bottled water, juices. Cheese was one side of a refrigerated aisle, pork products being the other side of course.
And of course none of these places are open on Sundays.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lake Garda

Lake Garda turned out to be one of the hidden gems of our trip. In case you're wondering, Lake Garda is northwest of Verona, bordering the Dolomites. It's about 90 minutes east of Milan.

While staying in Villa Bartolomea we day tripped to Sirmione, at the very tip of the peninsula. It's an adorable lakeside town whose highlights are a 13th century moated castle and the remains of Grotte de Catullo. The town itself is filled with restaurants and boutiques, and at lunch I ate the local trout baked in a sea salt crust. The tableside serving grossed out the kids but the fish itself was tasty. What do they do with the salt once the fish is baked, anyway?

One shop had a darling girl's dress in its window displayed alongside a matching purse. Liberty and I fell in love with it and then discovered that the purse was actually the packaging for the women's bikini. Dave offered the bikini to Paris and thus it was a win for both Pinks. The bikini is, um, very European in cut, and looks fabulous on her. I'm not sure we would have bought it, though, had she tried it on first. I'm fairly sure Dave has not seen it on her yet.

The day we visited Sirmione was easily in the low 90s. Given that the highest point in the Dolomites is over 10,000 feet, I expected Lake-Tahoe-temperature water but no, it was much warmer. I wish we'd brought our bathing suits so we could do more than just dip our toes in the water. Leeann and her kids rented a paddle boat with a slide off the back. How fun would that have been?! And she did a long open-water swim in the lake because that's what she does.

We went back to the lake after the villa rental was over, this time staying at a German chain hotel in Lazise near the Gardaland amusement park. The hotel was new and modern and filled with beautiful young blond families. It looked as though we stepped into a gathering of German models. Our bodies nearly went into shock for the lack of mosquitoes! They were rather fierce at the villa.

We spent one day at Gardaland, Italy's sorry attempt at the Disney magic. The kids had fun although Dave and I thought it closer to Children's Fairyland than Disneyland. In the kids' opinion, the best part was the lack of concern for safety. Liberty, the most petite of our children, was able to ride on some seriously scary roller coasters. We asked one Italian how they could run such rides. His response? "In America you sue when there is an accident. In Italy we say, 'How tragic.'" That about sums it up. Dave rode them with her.

The town of Lazise is nearly as adorable as Sirmione. A Scaligeri castle sits on the southern end and its 11th century stone walls surround the town. There is an enclosed fishing harbor and stone church. We had dinner overlooking the lake, the kids ate the requisite gelato and I managed to buy two more pair of shoes. We also explored Bardolino, which has large olive trees bordering its lakeside promenade. This area is known for its olive oil. There's also a town further north called Limone sul Garda, known for its lemons, but it was too long of a drive for me to torture the family with given our two days at the lake before returning to the states.