Thursday, July 16, 2009


Florence is an old lady's name. I had preferred the Italian "Firenze" which sounds like fire, or a fiery lady at least. But after seeing Florence, I'd say its English name is pretty accurate.

Last time we went to Italy we hit all the famous places: Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, but missed Florence. I was dying to go and pictured the charm of a Tuscan hill town + some of the world's most famous art. Well, the art was there. But the city was too dirty, too crowded, completely lacking in the fountains and piazzas that make Italy so enticing. Even the square around their epic cathedral doesn't provide enough space for you to step back and get a half-decent photo of it. Yes, I think the main problem is a lack of piazzas.

It all feels a bit like a tourist trap. You pay €12 to see the David, which is incredible, but the rest of the museum is pretty much a dud. There were some uncompleted Michelangelos, but other than that there was a whole room devoted to plaster casts of mediocre statues. Not even the real mediocre statues! We went to two more museums which had some nice art. But by the end of the day we were wishing they'd combine it all into a big impressive museum that you didn't have to traipse through Florence for. Florence is one of my rare pans, perhaps tying with Brussels.

Chillin' at a Villa

For the bulk of the family vacation, Greg & Kim had reserved a beautiful villa in the Tuscan countryside near Cortona (of "Under the Tuscan Sun" fame). We left a steaming hot Rome that morning anxiously awaiting a dip in the villa's pool. However, most of our week at the villa would be near sweater weather, except for a glorious warm patch our very last day.

We spent the week at a more leisurely pace, usually deciding after breakfast about which towns were nearby and interesting and just exploring them. The villa's owners were very chatty and informative about the local area. A lot of the towns tend to blend together in my memory, but a few do stick out for various reasons:

Montepulciano: a pretty, if steep, hill town. It's massive cathedral was one of the more thought-provoking I've encountered in this area. The light inside was an ethereal blue-gray. It still had the prerequisite gory crucifix, but this one seemed more approachable or perhaps I'd gotten used to them by this point. The funniest bit was that by the time everyone had rendezvoused at the top of the hill black clouds rumbled in. As it started to pour we ran down the hill back toward the cars, rain mixing with my gelato. While we ran back to our Fiat Panda Nicky started laughing hysterically, I asked him why and he gleefully replied "I love the chaos!"

Civita del Bagnoregio: This stunningly-situated city is pictured above. Its only accessible by footpath. It's nearly deserted except for a few elderly people who try to entice tourists. One old lady chattered at us something about her garden, inviting us in. It was very beautiful, and with a panoramic view. On the way out I realized she was charging donations. Ryan and his brothers argued about whether they liked the town or not, noting its deserted feeling not unlike that of "the beginning of the zombie apocalypse."

Castelfiorintino: Ryan and I went alone on our last day at the villa to hit the weekly market. It was a cute little town completely without tourists. We bought a delicious picnic lunch and a sundress and enjoyed the winding streets that led up to a tiny piazza.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ostia Antica

Day three we trekked from Rome to Ostia Antica. I'd never been before and heard it described as a less-crowded, more-accessible Pompeii. Ostia Antica is a huge area of ruins from a town founded about BC 200, though much of the sites are AD. We began at the outside of its main street and walked past some ruined tombs. Everyone took tons of photos and marveled at things like a half-destroyed wall.

Little did we know what lay ahead! Everyone began dispersing and I followed Max, Nicky, and Ryan down an unkempt path between some old foundations. Soon the boys were poking around through doors and windows and climbing around on top of the ancient ruins. Climbing up and around and through the buildings I discovered an underground tunnel. We found the others and showed them, spending the next 40 minutes or so groping through the pitch dark tunnels scaring each other.

After lunch in the cafeteria, Greg (Ryan's dad) bought a map of the ancient city and we realized we'd only seen a small fraction of the ancient city. We climbed around and trekked through multi-story ruins, explored underground chapels, and even found a wall-less kitchen. There was more to see, but we were exhausted. The energizer bunny half of our group went back to Rome to see another Cathedral, but the rest of us retired to the hotel for a shower and wine on the balcony. I didn't even think about how old the dirt was I washed off my feet.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rome, the adventure begins..

The first real day of Strange vacation we met up with the delightful tour guide "Ron in Rome." He met us at our hotel before 9:00 and I think we had him till about 6:00. He was an interesting guy, retired military, and lacking consulting work he'd taken up tour guiding. The group of twelve, including Nanner, Greg & Kim's brood, and Greg's brother, Doug and their kids, worked well with him as a benign dictator. Ron took us to all the big sites: Colosseum, Palatine, Forum, Campo dei Fiori, all the big piazzas and fountains, even the place where Audrey and Joe put their hands in monster's mouth in "Roman Holiday," all with accommodating gelato and water breaks. He was a real pro!

Ryan and I had seen some of the sites before, but it was great to have a guide to paint in the ruins for us. In between I quizzed him about his expat experience. He'd only been in Rome a year and a half, but he was un-stump-able! The day was busy and very hot, but everybody, even the tour-haters enjoyed themselves.

Day two was for the Borghese Gallery and Vatican. The Borghese is an old Cardinal palace situated in the middle of one of Rome's few green parks. I've developed a theory about art museums: the best ones are no more than 3 floors and take about an hour or so to walk through. Anything else is just overwhelming and tends to blur together. But Borghese was not too big and plenty of space was given to each piece. I don't know much about art and I bugged Nicky (Ryan's artist brother) by pointing at different pieces and asking if they were "good" or not. At first he gave me a long, intellectual answer about subjectivity, but after I repeated this game a few times he just answered "yes."

We walked back through the lovely park surrounding the Borghese, glad for the shade. It was sooooo hot. My mother always said that men sweat and women "glow," but I assure you I was sweating like a fat construction worker.

At the sun's peak we ambled over to the Vatican museum, and I was relieved to see a minuscule line at this site famed for roasting tourists for hours. The last time we saw the Vatican I remember spending a lot of time in the first few rooms and then speed-walking the rest thinking "Where is the Sistine Chapel? Where the hell is the Sistine Chapel?!" Remembering this, I tried to pace myself, starting fast and slowing at what I thought was the midway point, but I once again severely underestimated the size of the Vatican Museum. Our group of twelve was dispersing in its giantness and after a bit I decided just to stick with my mom-in-law, Kim, and Nicky. I gave up on Ryan due to his habit of reading all the informational plaques.

Finally in the astonishing Sistine Chapel I wished I'd brought the Rick Steves audio guide we'd used last time. The room itself is so huge and detailed that you really need time to soak it in. Without Rick's sweet whispers I couldn't remember much about the various stories behind the chapel. Soon something more urgent was brought to my attention: Max and Alli were lost! The rest of the family had reassembled while our two book worms had hunkered down in places unknown to read.

After a preliminary search of the two exits it was decided we'd split up and meet at the obelisk in the center of St. Peter's square. I argued with Ryan that we should meet by the entrance to the Basilica but he didn't listen to me and I still volunteered to go with him, completely forgetting the huge security lines we'd have to go through to get back into the Basilica. I was kicking myself as we roasted in the middle of the square. But luckily Max and Alli were found quickly enough, and after a talking-to resolved to stick closer by. The above photo are the Strange siblings reunited + me in front of the Basilica. We ended the day cooling in the crypt before getting some much-needed gelato.

Rome, take two, part one

Better late than never, here's my travel journal from the epic Strange family trip.

The plan (I always have a plan) was to make the most of every minute. We did a weekend in Rome in April of last year and I couldn't get enough of it. The city is as stately as Colosseum ruins but with all the thrills and surprises of a Vespa ride with a handsome stranger.

Our plane arrived much earlier than the rest of the family's and, seeing as we would not be suffering their jet lag, I made plans to cover ground that we'd missed last go round. We'd check-in, get breakfast, hit the Cappuchin Crypt and then San Clemente Basilica, where you can go through basement excavations back 2000ish years ago. Then a quick lunch and back to the hotel to enjoy some air conditioned comfort before Ryan's immediate family joined us at 3.

The travel gods must take one look at that and laugh. Of course I forgot my notebook filled with directions, opening hours, etc in Berlin. And Ryan left his now-indispensable Blackberry at the hotel. At 11:00am it was already hot. We slogged through the humidity to a TI and got directions to San Clemente, only to arrive at the basilica 5 minutes before siesta time. We foolishly walked all the way back across town to Campo dei Fiori for a beer and pizza. It was hotter than I ever remembered in my life-- I was stuck to my plastic chair and no amount of beer helped. All the real Romans had slunk indoors to siesta through the heat so we decided to do the same. I fell asleep in the glorious air conditioning and awoke to the cheers of a reunited family. At least my plans got the last part right.

There's No Summer Break in the Real World

....but I'm taking one anyway. Just a quick update on the current situation, before I update on Strange Family Reunion '09. Last week we were in Frankfurt. Ryan's started work in the new office while I spent my days apartment hunting and enjoying the luxury of crappy business accommodation. Where's the kitchenette, you ask? Its in the wardrobe, of course.

We found a small place on the east side near a pedestrian zone and not too far from the subway. After fending off the weird agent's rantings about "gypsies" we managed to get the paperwork sorted and the lease starts Wednesday.

BUT Ryan is working in Passau again this week, so I've decided to hang out in Berlin where my friends and furniture are. Ryan's company has arranged for a moving company (hallelujah, 6 flights of stairs in Berlin and 4 in Frankfurt, not my problem!) but they can't schedule us until the 23rd. Apparently we've picked the opportune moment to move-- all the schools are getting out for summer and everyone with kids is moving now. So we'll get our keys next Monday morning and our furniture next Friday. In between I'll be making lots of trips between Berlin and Frankfurt. Oh well. At least I'm not spending this week in Frankfurt alone and furnitureless. I've had enough of that for one year!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Oh joy.

Updates, updates... we are back from our 3-week vacation (which was great, thanks) and were supposed to be moving yesterday, except that our letting agent emailed the day we landed in Rome to tell us that we did not, in fact, have the apartment. The two weeks previous to our holiday when I was nagging and calling and emailing about him getting us the contract before we left, he didn't because the landlord was deciding to give it to his friend.

So we're facing yet another exciting last-minute move. Ryan starts in his new office tomorrow and we have no flat, so we're leaving out today for Frankfurt's Golden Leaf Hotel, which is not, in fact, leafy or golden. I will be scrambling over the next few days to find a place ASAP.

I have oodles of photos and blogging to upload but the internets is not being cooperative today, and I don't know what our situation will be starting tomorrow, so sorry for the delays. It will all hopefully be sorted soon! Wish us luck.