Saturday, May 29, 2010

Top Ten Memories of Italy

As we leave Italy and fly to Sevilla for ten days with my family, here's a list of my favorite moments in Italy this May:

10. People-watching on Rome's Spanish Steps and in the more neighborhood-y feeling Campo del Giacomo del Orio in Venice.

9. We splurged on two nights in a nicer hotel in the Italian Alps that share a border with France, and were astonished by the breakfast served there: hard-boiled eggs, fresh baked lemon pound cake, two kinds of jam, local yogurt, and some of the best granola we've ever had...a great breakfast to be sure no matter where we were, but particularly in contrast to the otherwise sad state of Italian breakfast-eating, which usually included dry white bread and butter.

8. I'm pretty sure I discovered the equivalent of a chorizo burrito in Italy in Bolzano, close to the Austrian border, in the form of heisse fleischkase, a magnificent combination of chewy delicious brown rye bread around a somewhat greasy slab of pork-beef loaf with's crazy, crazy good, and like a chorizo burrito, should probably not be consumed more than a couple times a week. That same day, after taking a gondola up into the nearby mountains and hiking through cute Austrian-looking villages, we ordered a second apple strudel because the first tasted so good!!

7. Michelangelo's last Pieta, David, and his sculptures in the Medici Chapel, all in Florence.

6. Raphael's School of Athens and Liberation of St. Peter in the Vatican Museum, followed by the Sistine Chapel, then Michelangelo's first Pieta in St. Peter's, then mass at St. Peter's.

5. Our "best evers": salami, mint ice cream (gelato, of course), pasta (penne norciana, a pork cream sauce), apple strudel, rye bread, and cappuccino!

4. Resting against an old stone wall on a grassy field to eat a salami and cheese sandwich after a long hike in the Italian Alps while watching ibex graze nearby.

3. Walking to the top of the highest point over the town of Assisi to overlooking the surrounding valley while it lightly rained and the sun scattered its beams across the view between the patchy clouds as swallows dived and rose around us.

2. Watching Laurel see Venice's Grand Canal for the first time from a vaporetto boat. It's her dream city: only boats and feet are available to get around!

1. Sitting under a neon blue night sky next to a spinning bright yellow-lighted carousel in Florence's Piazza de la Repubblica listening to an opera singer belt out a beautifully romantic song.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Face-to-Face with the Wild Ibex

Yesterday and today were spent enjoying Gran Paradiso National Park, the former Alpine hunting preserve for the king of Italy. Although Mt. Blanc was spectacular, this, for me, is even better:  our lodging 3km outside of the village in Cogne is actually IN the park, which means we can walk out the door to a spectacular meadow and begin hiking.

Today was our most ambitious venture yet. And although we only hiked for 5 hours, I'd say it was among my most extreme day hikes. The ascent was steep and constant. The cliffs above and below were of dizzying height. And, to add to the adventure, we weren't exactly properly equipped. We kept seeing hikers in parkas and boots, with two walking sticks in hand and gear strapped to their backs. At one point, a couple walked by that were carrying skis and snowshoes on their packs. Meanwhile, we had our sweatshirts, New Balance walking shoes, and sack lunches. On the bright side, Colin found us some au natural walking sticks on the trail, so we weren't completely out of place. (And actually, I would have paid big money to keep my stick toward the top of the trail.)

Thankfully, the weather was good and we didn't need more than a half day to see over a dozen marmots and countless ibex. I'd never seen either, and to be honest, didn't have a clear idea about what each looked like. I might have guessed rodent-like and cute for marmot, and regal and big-ish for ibex... but beyond that, it's fuzzy. But today seared each in my memory... especially the ibex. (Cue dramatic music.)

As Colin and I passed the snow and tree line, we began to wonder how high our sneakers could take us. But the snow was patchy, and we decided to keep going as long as our feet weren't getting too wet. At one point, I looked across a ravine and said, "Look, an ibex trail!" noting a small line running across the mountain on the other side. But then we saw some people on the trail. And then, a half-hour later, we were on the trail. The number of marmot sightings increased. The number of hikers decreased. And the ibex got bigger and bigger. In our extensive two-day experience, this is how ibex demographics work: Small, juvenile ibex -- down in the valley. Young adult ibex -- an hour and a half hike up. Giant ibex with 3.5 foot horns -- 2.5 hours up. We'd reached the place where the adults like to hang out. 

This was cool, but a little unnerving. I watched one of these giants tumble down the mountain toward my husband (while I watched safely from behind a boulder) and wondered if he might be bowled off the mountain before my eyes. But the ibex just passed him by, and we thought our ibex excitement was over. We couldn't go any further on the trail without snow gear, and the weather seemed to be turning, so we began our descent. (Augment dramatic music.)

Shortly after we turned around, we looked up to find that five full-sized ibex were standing right on the trail. You know, the ibex trail on the mountain ridge. And here's the thing to remember at this point: We knew absolutely nothing about ibex. I mean, I don't even know how to pluralize the word "ibex".  (Is it ibexes?) So there we are, 10 feet from these creatures with horns half my size, and I'm not really sure if I should be scared or not. Are they like moose? Can they be frightened, provoked, aggressive? Will they do to humans what we'd seen the males do to one another? Are we breaking all sorts of Alpine wilderness rules by getting this close? Or are these fears absurd? Hard to say when the big ibex is looking at you. Make that ibexes, plural.

Colin threw down a rock to try to scatter them. They were unperturbed. We made some noises. Still unperturbed. And then, I made our (potentially) life or death decision based on the most mundane thing: my fingers were cold. And the wind was coming up. I mean, we couldn't wait there forever. We had to walk through the ibexes. And so we did, with our heads held high and our little hearts fluttering, getting five feet or less from the biggest horns I've ever seen outside the zoo. The ibex remained unperturbed, and we survived.  It turns out Ibex aren't known to be aggressive. For those who knew that all along, you can stop laughing now. It was a grand and memorable day in the Alps, and we even made it back to our place without a drop of rain.

Just Figured Out the Adjective "Alpine" Comes From the Alps

[Nerdy disclaimer: Internet access has been limited since Florence, at least for "complicated" online operations such as updating our blog, given that the iMac available was running OS 9.2 and IE 4.5 ...]

For better or worse, we left Florence for Cinque Terre as the weekend approached, and the poor/expensive accommodations (sharing one bathroom with 12 French tourists took some strategizing for a turn in the shower) and lots of rain the previous week (resulting in the closure of the walking trails between the towns) kept us moving on after one night in Riomaggiore.

Next stop: Aosta Valley, a semi-autonomous region in northwest Italy at the base of the Alps. We hiked along Sound-of-Music grassflower hillsides listening to cow bells. So cool. They apparently invented Fontina cheese or something too, which prompted me to eat a lot of it, and then I blamed my stomach ache the next day on eating the rind on the cheese (or it could have been my eating the whole basket of bread at dinner the night before). Toured Verres Castle (picture right).

We couldn't resist going a bit farther to Courmayer at the foot of Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe at 15,780 feet. Isn't that picture amazing?! (We didn't take it...the Linux computer I'm using now doesn't recognize my camera...)

The town is quite touristy in the winter for the skiing and in the summer for the hiking (the Tour du Mont Blanc trail is another adventure we fantasize tackling some day)'s somewhat of a ghost town in mid-May. Very peaceful though! Laurel savored the tastiest homemade tagliatelli pasta with bolognese meat sauce that night. My Fontina cheese-inspired stomach ache was in its healing stage, so I kept it simple with pizza instead...with you guessed it: more Fontina.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thoughts on Leaving Florence

I feel compelled to blog this morning - maybe a sign of missing family and friends - but I'm still lacking a particular subject. So, with hopes of saving you from a rambling post, I'll just try the images/thoughts/highlights format again, but this time from Florence, Italy.

 Street Scenes: It's fun to notice images and situations that are either completely foreign - as in things I feel I would never see in the U.S. - or familiar but just a little "off" from my expectations. As an example of the former, the other day I watched as an older man on his bicycle passed by with not one, but two, little white dogs sitting up and barking at me from the baskets hanging on either side of the back of the bike. The dogs were each wearing raincoats -- which, admittedly, I probably would see in the U.S. -- and nestled next to groceries (which I probably would not). And it turns out they may not have been barking at me. When I turned, I noticed yet another dog in a bike basket passing the other direction. As for almost-familiar sights: yesterday I watched a simple but sweet encounter between two elementary school aged boys. We happened to walk through a neighborhood just as school was getting out and all the parents were picking up their kids. For most, this meant taking them by the hand and walking rather than getting into a car. For the others, this meant putting them on the back of a bike. Just in front of us, a little boy sitting on his mother's bike, and as she passed a storefront, the boy saw one of his friends and his face lit up. He waved and yelled, "Ciao, Lorenzo!!!" "Ciao!" the other boy yelled back with a smile. I know it's not all that different from an American boy saying, "Bye, Johnny!" but something about the back of the bike again made it feel fresh.

Seeing things: I often find myself comparing new cities, places, and even churches to places I've already been or lived. Sometimes I wonder how legitimate these comparisons are. Am I just searching for familiarity, or is there really a similarity? When we were in Israel, for example, I looked over the eastern ridge of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, where the landscape quickly descends to desert, and I thought of the transition between Julian and the Anza-Borrego desert in San Diego county. When I mentioned this to our host, the Rev. Bill Broughton, he sort of paused. "Yes, sometimes it's helpful to make those kind of comparisons." But his answer also indicated that sometimes it's not. Here in Florence I find myself thinking of Eugene. I'm not sure this comparison has been made all that many times, to say the least. So maybe I'm just seeing things. Yet as we looked down over the city from a hilltop piazza across the river, I noted all the similarities to Colin: the hills framing the town, the river, the lush green. Of course, Eugene is missing the beautifully dense red rooftop landscape and major features like the Duomo. But I can't seem to stop with these comparisons. Hopefully it doesn't indicate a lack of imagination or openness to truly new experiences.

Earth Tones: One of the most delightful surprises about the cities in Italy has been the earth tones used to color their buildings ... and by extension, their cities. Florence is brown and red and yellow and green and orange: never blue or purple or bright pink or white or unnaturally bright or light shades of red/yellow/green/orange.

Gifts to our Marriage: While Colin and I wrestled with whether or not to take this trip, and thought of it as a sort of field education before seminary - which we both feel it is - other people also encouraged us to see the time as a gift to our marriage. And indeed, it is that too. The other night in Florence we sat in the Piazza Republica and listened to a street opera singer while a nearby carousel lit up both the square and the big arch behind her. We had no place else to go, and we didn't even feel a need to "get home because we have to wake up early to do XXXX tomorrow." This space, which feels more open than any time since our roadtrip to D.C. just weeks after we got married, isn't something we take for granted.

Museum Prep for Seminary: We are both struck by how much we feel the art education we're receiving in Italy is preparing our minds for seminary. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since most of the art is either in or taken from churches, and the themes - religion, the nature of humankind - are ones we expect to wrestle with in divinity school.  But it's surprisingly hard to look at a painting or sculpture without trying to decide what I think about it's expression or representation of god/man/woman. I seem unwilling to simply engage on an aesthetic level. Hopefully I'm not doing the works a disservice in this. I should say that sometimes I AM simply surprised and delighted, as with the David. For me, the most wonderful thing about this most famous man was his ambiguous facial expression. Most guides describe the look as one of sheer determination, as in, "I can totally take this giant," but I saw an equal measure of fear and uncertainty. And the ambiguity between these two opposites was really wonderful, and, I think, really human.

Okay, it's probably too early for this sort of writing, and this post is most certainly too long. The summary would be that Florence is lovely, and we're learning and thinking, but we're also just enjoying spending time together. Sorry if that's a little cheesy, but maybe it becomes less so if I admit that we're both surprised to not yet be tired of spending time almost exclusively with one another :). We've met some friends along the way (like a couple we had dinner with in Volterra, and then Nina Sung - a friend from Stanford - who we randomly ran into at our hostel in Florence), which is really fun. But so is traveling with my husband. (Aaaaaw.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Makes Florence So Romantic?

I'm not really sure. But I think the equation goes something like:

Bright blue night sky plus
yellow lights reflecting off glassy river plus
spoonfuls of mint gelato plus
opera-singing in the piazza plus
Michelangelic marble masterpieces

multiplied by a beautiful wife

divided by a 6-bed hostel room.

(Hey, there has to be a reason to return to Florence some day, right? Besides, the hostel serves free omelettes for breakfast!)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eating in Italy

Once out of Rome and on to smaller town in Umbria and Tuscany, Laurel and I decided we wanted to prioritize food over just about everything else we could spend money on. Italians don't seem to put much effort into breakfast: usually just bread, jam, and coffee. (However, Nutella is often included, and we recently learned, was invented in Italy. Another reason to love this country.)

For lunch we're perfecting the daily purchase of picnic food at the market, although today I shouldn't have picked the cheapest olives because they tasted pretty nasty. That was alright, though, because I think I just had the best salami of my life. All the cheese is awesome too. We have to cross our fingers every day though that the market hasn't already sold out of pane integrale, whole wheat bread, which they always seem to do. I think they should make more of it for all these picky bread-eating tourists!

Anyway, the point is, we're saving money for dinner, and have had some memorable dishes. Black truffles are super rich mushrooms that they shave on your pasta (when combined with cream sauce, it's right up there with my Favorite Foods ever).

In Volterra, a Tuscan hill town pictured here, we tried a bit of wild boar last night and a local speciality: vegetable and bread soup. Laurel was especially excited to eat vegetables...they seem to take a bit more effort to find around here (and she's not as willing as I am to eat raw zucchini for lunch...)

The hot chocolate's hilarious over here: Laurel's last night looked more like chocolate pudding than a drink!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Peace and Pleasures of Assisi

We're in Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis (or, as they say here, "San Fran-che-sco"). We love it, and are glad we decided to stay for a few nights. Upcoming highlights include a renaissance celebration of spring. But yesterday our highlights were distinct: a 5 mile roundtrip hike to the hermitage -- cave, really -- where St. Francis used to retreat to pray. The views as we hiked straight up the mountain (and then stumbled back down) were breathtaking, and it's easy to imagine why Francesco might have sought out such a sublime space. Then, on a perhaps discordant note, we enjoyed our first "real" Italian meal. So far, we've only been able to afford cheese and bread and take-away pizza. So after saving up, we splurged on a meal with two pastas, a meat, and a vegetable side. It, too, was sublime. We ate each piece of penne a la norciana (penne with pork sausage and cream sauce) individually, savoring each piece and not wanting to overwhelm our senses by eating two pieces of pasta at once. :)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Loving Italy!

We made it to Rome on Thursday and have been settling in and seeing the sights. I was so happy to get back to the Spanish Steps...there is something so alluring to me about such a beautiful, vibrant public space.

We ended today with a super tasty hot was thick as a milkshake!