Thursday, May 30, 2013

Buon Giorno! Diary of a Trip

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - JFK Airport, NYC

Tom picked us up at 9:30 with the unbelievable news that the Twin Cities may get a few inches of snow later this week! Jim has arranged for Matt to take care of spring yard cleanup, and possible first lawn mow but I don't think there was any discussion of snow removal ! All went smoothly at MSP airport with an on-time departure and amazingly, no need for plane de-icing. Flight to JFK was uneventful - the best kind of flight!

I have never been at JFK and am awed by the size of this airport and all of the frenetic activity. So many people rushing about and so many languages overhead and all around. In my intense over - preparation for this trip I read many scary things about Alitalia airlines but I have to say, our initial experience has been positive. The ticket counter agent was very friendly and when I inquired about upgrading our seats to Delta's equivalent of "economy plus" she lowered her voice and said she would see what she could do on this totally full flight to reassign us to roomier seats - at no cost! Wow! (Suppose I should withhold any cheering until I see the seats AND collect the bags we were required to check...)

Now that we have cleared security we are relaxed but excited about finally being on our way to Italy.

Update: seats are ok - in the bulkhead so more leg room. But the latrines are right in front of us so we'll see if we made a good move.

Wednesday, May 1 Midnight - Doubletree Airport Hotel, NYC

Well, we 're not in Kansas, Dorothy - and it ain't Milan either

All was going as we'd planned until about an hour out of New York.  There was a small screen in front of us with a plane showing our progress and I noticed suddenly that it had turned around and was headed back to New York!  I pointed it out to Jim (who told me not to worry -probably just a glitch in the tracking program...) and then the pilot came on (in Italian) to say that a problem with a wing flap has been detected and we could not cross the ocean with this stability problem. He assured us it would not effect our landing but I have to say it was a little rocky and tippy at landing. Fortunately I didn't see all the fire engines and ambulances lined up along the runway.  I prefer my fire engine experiences to be cakes, like the one I recently made for Benjamin's 3rd birthday.  
After a long wait on the tarmac, an even longer wait at baggage claim and an even longer wait to be bussed to a hotel, we jumped out of the line with another couple (Sally and Ernie, from Phoenix) and took a taxi to the hotel. We didn't get any dinner, arriving here at midnight, after the restaurant closed but we did snag some tasty treats from the vending machine (think chef boyardee for the microwave...) and we aren't in line downstairs where one night hotel clerk is trying to check in 200+ people. I take full credit for the taxi idea!
I have no idea when we will learn our fate - still hoping to get to Italy by the time our tour starts on Friday. All we have now is an 800 number and instructions to call in the morning. Right now I am holding with Delta whose recording just said wait time was 40 minutes.

No wonder people go to Disneyland.

Thursday, May 2, still in NYC

Let's try again!

After a night and early morning of uncertainty, Alitalia notified us that our flight has been rescheduled to 3:30, with a 6 am arrival Friday in Milan. We spent today repeating yesterday - back at JFK, checking our bags, getting seat assignments, going through security. We are learning to hurry up - and wait. I think Jim and I are handling this minor setback well. We are losing our day in Milan but are thankful that the mechanical problem was discovered, possibly avoiding loss of all our days!

Friday, May 3
Italy at last! We flew and landed without incident and made our way quickly through the quietest airport I have ever seen. We were relieved to see our red and green banded luggage come down the shute and after some reorganization we caught a bus to Milan's central station. We flirted briefly with the idea of trying to see some of Milan, but after 2 nights with little or no sleep we decided to make a better choice and catch the next train to Varenna. We only had a few minutes to figure out how to buy a ticket from the machine, find the correct departure platform and get the ticket validated, but we made it.

We were thrilled to see the sun on Lake Como as we rounded a bend before pulling in to Varenna . It was a 15 minute walk ( up the first of many hills in this trip) to Villa Cipressi where we were ushered to a most charming room overlooking the garden and the lake. Some of what I had pictured for this trip is beginning to materialize.

We settled in, took a walk around the town and had lunch at Hotel Olivedo by the ferry dock. The dining room of this old hotel was once a ballroom and the ornate architecture and decoration are remarkable. We enjoyed a healthy looking salad with tuna, olives and capers and washed it down with our first Italian beers. A leisurely stroll back to the hotel on the passerella took us past the first Gelateria of the the trip. At 5:00 we gathered in the hotel foyer where we met Rainer, our tour leader and our 22 travel companions, and proceeded to Hotel du Lac for wine and hors d'oeuvres and an introduction to our Italy tour. After 2 nights of very little sleep, we had a quick bite to eat at Bar il Molo on the shores of Lake Como, and wandered dreamily back to our hotel. A long, but very satisfying first day of our trip.

Saturday, May 4

Lake Como - Villa Carlotta Garden
Rainer and Hassan
 We both slept soundly for more than 10 hours and were ready to get serious about this travel business after our first Italian breakfast. Our first day was a "free" day to ride the ferry around Lake Como and stop as we pleased. Nicole and I had visited the gardens at Villa Carlotta in 2004 and I knew Jim would enjoy seeing this beautiful lakeside landscape. With the azaleas and rhododendrons in full bloom, it did not disappoint. We also made a brief stop at Bellagio and enjoyed day 2 of the trip challenge (having gelato every day) Back in Varenna by midday, we took a stroll enjoying more lovely gardens at villas along the lake, as well as the gardens of Villa Cipressi.  We joined our group for dinner featuring a buckwheat pasta that is unique to this area, along with fresh fish from Lake Como. The pasta dish is called pizzoccheri ( buckwheat pasta with potatoes and greens) and I would love to make it if I can locate the pasta in MN.  The house wine was very tasty and I had to resist the urge to have a beer, my usual beverage of choice. We also met our very debonair bus driver, Hassan. I can see the days will be long and action-filled and we are fast asleep as soon as we get in bed.

Sunday, May 5

We were up, packed and at breakfast by 7:30 and on the bus by 8:30. We savored our last views of Lake Como in the morning sunshine and headed toward Verona. Our bus is big enough for a group twice our size and it is nice to have 2 seats each to spread out and travel in complete comfort. And the bus has wifi! This is our longest travel day (6 hours) but Rainer assures us that we will stop every 2 hours for creature comfort breaks.

First stop - Verona.

Juliet's Balcony - Verona

Note stair motif on gate

Roman Ruins - Verona
We enjoyed a walking tour, led by local guide Valeria who pointed out interesting historical sites throughout the city, Juliet's legendary balcony included. Of course this fictitious site gets more attention than the city's amazing Roman ruins. After our walk we returned to the market in progress and bought a porketta sandwich which we ate in the park. Later we took Rainer's advice and made a stop at Gelato Savoia. We kept a wary eye on the weather ( umbrella in the suitcase under the bus, of course) and the thunderstorm hit just minutes before we reached the bus! Next we wound our way up the narrow mountain road to Castelrotto where we will spend the next 2 nights, staying at Hotel Cavallino d'Oro on the main square.
Bell Tower in Castelrotto

After we settled in to our charming room we took a brief walk around the town and discovered a perfectly manicured cemetery behind the church, where the individual graves are all framed by wrought iron and lavishly decorated with picture, flowers and candles. It didn't seem respectful to take pictures but that peaceful little cemetary will always be in my mind. Later we had a delicious steak dinner with our entire group in the hotel dining room. The apple strudel and our dining companions (Debbie and Mike) made for a memorable evening.

Monday, May 6

I have heard about the Dolomites and this area is one I have been anxious to visit. I have seen the Alps on previous European trips but this area is different, characterized by light gray cliffs and spires due to the dolomite rock, similar to limestone. In the right light, the mountains almost appear pinkish. The Dolomites are a memorable mountain experience, although our visit comes at an "in between" season when winter and the skiers are gone but spring and summer have not yet arrived to produce the lush meadows characteristic of the area.
Dolomites - from Alpe di Siusi
It was a "tummy tumbling" bus ride up the narrow winding road from Castelrotto to Alpe di Siusi where we spent a few hours enjoying the views and strolling around the mostly closed village. I bought a walking stick which I had hoped to use for a brief hike but the light drizzle and slippery paths prevented our group from doing much walking. Our local guide explained the history of the area and it's strong German influence due to years of conflict. (Castelrotto even has a German name, Kastelruth) Many people speak German as their mother language, even though they are Italian and they prefer strudel to gelato!

We also visited Ortisei, a little down the mountain where we had lunch, our daily gelato and a bit of window shopping. After returning to Castelrotto we visited the church and a few local shops, and later walked up a hilly road in search of a German restaurant. We couldn't find it and settled for dinner at a pizzeria - which was at the top of the hill. No more walking today for me!

Tuesday, May 7

After breakfast at our hotel (not nearly as good as the breakfast at Villa Cipressi ) we boarded the bus for our trip down the mountain and a stop in Bolzano to see the Ice Man. Rainer helped us bid farewell to Castelrotto by playing a bit of the local music by Kastelruther Spatzen, a group formed in the 1970s that has achieved fame and is featured in an annual concert in Kastelruth that attracts huge crowds.

RS (Rick Steves, fondly referred to as "Uncle Rick" by Rainer)  called Bolzano (Bozen in German) the Italian Innsbruck. I read about a famous Christmas market that is held here every year - what fun that would be!
Our main reason for stopping here is the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology where we traced the discovery of Otzi, the Ice Man and viewed his actual corpse. He was discovered in 1991 by hikers who believed they had found the corpse of a lost hiker. Scientists eventually found that Otzi was a man, perfectly preserved with his clothing and gear in the ice for over 5000 years.
Jim and Jeff with the Ice Man
We were surprised to run into Sally and Ernie at the museum - the 2 travelers we met at JFK when our original flight was cancelled!

Back on the road, we headed to Venice where we taxied to our hotel by boat called a Vaporetto . We settled in to Hotel Serenissima and took a brief orientation walk and were introduced to St. Marks Square. We had a group dinner in a courtyard - opened with a salmon carpaccio and ended with taramissu. The evening ended with a gondola ride on the canal, complete with musicians. The two couples married the longest (we were second, by 6 months!) got to ride with the musicians. It was a cheesy, but memorable evening - ok - even a bit romantic.

Wednesday, May 8

We met our local guide who took us on a walking tour of Venice, timed to end in the Basilica at 11:00am when all the lights are turned on, gradually illuminating the gold mosaics and colored marble. It was a breathtaking sight!

St. Mark's Basilica - Venice

 We also stopped at a local mask maker who demonstrated his craft and had on display in his shop hundreds of masks suitable for wearing at Venice's most famous festival, Carnevale - the equivalent of our Mardi Gras. (I was tempted but resisted the urge to buy one.)
Evening stroll on the Rialto Bridge
At the mask maker's shop
After lunch off the square we headed to the Doge's Palace which was the seat of Venetian government and the home of it's ruling Duke during the years of Venetian dominance. We also saw the attached prison and the "Bridge of Sighs" over which prisoners crossed and saw their last glimpse of Venice, before imprisonment.
Later we walked back to the Rialto Bridge area where we shopped and I purchased a Murano glass necklace and earrings. Later we had dinner along the Grand Canal with Debbie and Mike, and Barb and Jack and enjoyed a late night stroll back to our hotel. We have heard that the best way to remember Venice is to get lost there, walking at night when the crowds are gone and the true beauty is exposed. Unfortunately we are just too tired to even get lost!

Thursday, May 9

We left Hotel Serenissimo and travelled by Vaporetto back to the area where our bus was parked. It was early enough in the day for us to witness the many boats coming into Venice to deliver all the goods needed by the busy city. It was a clear reminder that EVERYTHING in Venice must be brought in by boat.

Duomo - Florence
The bus ride to Florence took about 4 hours with a stop at the auto grill for lunch. After check in to Hotel California we took an orientation walk in Florence to get acquainted with this home of the Renaissance, birthplace of our modern world. The first glimpse of the Duomo was very inspiring since I have read so much about Brunelleschi's famous dome. It was the first dome of the Renaissance, and the model for many to follow. Later we visited the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo's David, a highlight of our Italy tour. David is the ultimate symbol of the Renaissance as he stands there in all his humanistic glory. RS says "David is looking at the crude giant of medieval darkness and thinking, I can take this guy."
We enjoyed a group dinner, probably my favorite - a Tuscan bread soup, pasta with a wild boar sauce, steak and a fabulous lemoncella dessert. It was guide Rainer's 36th birthday.

Friday, May 10

We had an early entrance to the Uffizi Gallery which holds the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. Of special note is Michelangelo's only surviving easel painting, "The Holy Family."
Another memorable work is Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." After lunch we hiked high above Florence to the Piazzale Michelangelo which has great views, and even higher up to San Miniato Church where the views are even greater.
 Our next stop was Grom - the much tauted gelato place that uses organic ingredients and seasonal fruit. A minor communication issue landed us 2 gigantic cups and an 11 Euro treat! Can't say I had any regrets!

Our next adventure was a city bus ride up the hill to Fiazole to enjoy even more views of Florence. Unfortunately, garbled communication again foiled us and we failed to get off the bus before it started back down the hill. Oh well, it was raining anyway and we had seen enough of Florence from the top!

Later, we were standing in front of our hotel pondering dinner and who should walk by but Sally and Ernie from our Alitalia flight #1! What a strange coincidence that we should randomly run into them a second time.

Saturday, May 11

I left Florence somewhat reluctantly because I believe there are many more treasures to discover here. Perhaps I should have found a fountain, and a coin to toss over my right shoulder, to help insure a return trip?
Our route to Cinque Terra took us through Lucca a charming town surrounded by a remarkable wall that has stood for over 2000 years, through Roman, medieval and Renaissance times.
  Several members of our tour group rented bikes and took the ride on the wall's rim. We passed up this activity to seek out some food specialties in Lucca - cecina, a garbanzo bean crepe and buccellato, a sweet bread flavored with anise and raisins. There is a saying that if you come to Lucca and don't try buccellato, you haven't been to Lucca at all. After sampling the local gelato, we boarded the bus and headed to Cinque Terra where we caught a train for the short ride into Monterossa. Here our group split with half staying at a hotel on the harbor and the rest of us taking a steep climb up many steps to our hotel overlooking the city, Hotel Villa Steno. We have a large deck with a great view over the town and harbor.
We gathered for a pesto making demonstration before our group dinner.

Sunday, May 12. Mother's Day

Today we are free to explore the 5 Cinque Terra villages on our own - by foot, train or boat. We decided to skip the hike between Monterossa and Vernazza due to warnings about the condition of the trail, not wanting to risk injury that might ruin our trip. We took the ferry to Riomaggiore and enjoyed a strenuous climb around this little village and the magnificent views around every turn.

We picked up picnic supplies and took the train back to Monterossa, eating at the train station while we waited for the train to Vernazza. This was the village most damaged in the flood (Oct, 2011) and I have wanted to visit every since Claire was here in 2007.

We walked around (and up and down) for a few hours before catching the train back to Monterossa. Later we met our group for drinks on the upper terrace before going to a restaurant on the waterfront for their special fish stew - a tasty broth with every kind of seafood, including a whole octopus , served steaming from a big clay pot. We shared this memorable meal with Jack and Barb (from Waverly, Iowa)

Yes! We ate it!

Monday, May 13

We retraced our route by train back to our bus and started for Siena, stopping first in Pisa. The initial glimpse I had of the leaning tower was a flash back to a grade school textbook where I first saw it pictured so many years ago. Situated on the "Field of Miracles" along with the Cathedral and the Baptistry, the area is alive with tourists but one of the must see sights of Italy. We had lunch in Pisa, a focaccia sandwich with a farro salad. And gelato, of course!
A bright and beautiful day

Rainer pointed out the beautifully green and manicured lawns that constitute the Field of Dreams but said, in his opinion later we would see even more beautiful landscape. And we did!

A few hours later we pulled off the busy highway and entered the Florence American Cemetary and Memorial. It is a splendid field of green, as far as the eye can see, dotted with uniform white crosses. This cemetary site was liberated by the US Fifth Army on August 3, 1944.  The wooded hills that frame its western perimeter rise several hundred feet. Between the two entrance buildings, a bridge leads to the burial area where the headstones of 4,402 of our military dead are arrayed in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines Mountains shortly before the war's end. On May 2, 1945 the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered. It is a peaceful place and we took time on this bright and sunny day to walk among the headstones and reflect on the promise that "time will not dim the glory of their deeds."

Our next stop is Siena and the Hotel Chuisarelli which overlooks the soccer field. Fortunately no games are scheduled during our visit. Rainer led us on a walking tour after a welcome reception at the hotel. He led us to Il Campo, Siena's main square which is the heart - geographically and metaphorically of Siena. Later we met with a local guide who explained Siena's contrade system of competing neighborhoods, and especially their role in the Palio - world famous horse race held twice a year in the square. One of the contrade (the forest) hosted our group at a dinner where we saw a movie of a recent Palio and visited a museum with memorabilia from past Palios. I'm thinking we were actually a fund raiser for this neighborhood - they are always competing to raise money for the Palio. I smile now to remember how our guide kept repeating that she was a "sea shell" - a sign of the continual competition among the contrade.

Fountain in one of the contrade

Tuesday, May 14

Another local guide met us this morning and we toured the Duomo. I will remember this church for the Piccolomini Library with the most vivid frescoes I have ever seen - frescoes that have never been restored and are as brilliant as they were 550 years ago. After the tour we visited a grocery store where we picked up lunch and a bottle of wine, and returned to the hotel for a picnic on the deck. It was a welcome break from our intense touring.

After a siesta we walked a few blocks to the Dominican church dedicated to Catherine of Siena. I haven't quite grasped the concept of relics yet; this church displayed St. Catherine's head and thumb. At 6:00 we met our group in the square and walked to the studio of a local stain glass artist for a demonstration. (I bought a Rudolph Christmas ornament for Benjamin.) Jim and I walked around until we found a quiet spot for dinner but made the mistake of listening to the waiter who described the personal sized pizzas as serving one, so we ordered 2.  Big mistake.

Wednesday, May 15

Siena was a delight - I especially appreciated this pedestrian friendly city, rich with so much history and charm. But we are off again, destination an agriturismo outside Orvieto. Our route took us through Assisi where we spent half a day visiting this beautiful Umbrian town which was home to St. Francis. Jim and I left the group briefly and took a city bus to visit St. Mary of the Angels Basilica which is built on the site where Francis lived, worked and died. We rejoined the group for a tour of the Basilica of St. Francis, which holds his remains and other relics of the Saint. RS calls this Basilica one of the artistic and religious highlights of Europe - it is the 10th largest Christian church in the world. Rich in frescoes by the leading artists of the day, the art retells many legends from the life and times of St. Francis. There is visible damage from a 1997 earthquake and the guide explained the painstakingly slow process that was used to do some restoration of damaged art.
There is a copy of this statue in Winona , MN

Countryside around Assisi

We continued our ride to Agriturisimo La Rocca Orvieto, a spa like resort which has it's own vineyards and olive groves, producing wine and olive oil for sale and for use at the resort. The weather is decidedly unresort- like right now, chilly and damp and there is no heat in our small "apartment" which greatly diminishes the charm of this place! We settled in and gathered later for a presentation about the on-site wine and olive oil production.
Wine tasting
We had a group dinner at the resort restaurant. I wore Jim's underwear top and socks to bed and seriously considered turning on the oven and leaving the door open for some heat!

Thursday, May 16

We are staying on a hill on one side of a valley and Orvieto sits majestically atop a hill, a thousand feet above the valley floor on the other side - very picturesque. We rode a funicular to the top of the hill, and walked uphill several minutes more to enter the old town. Rainer has told us that this Duomo is one of his favorite Italian churches and it was beautiful to see, especially the frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio to the right of the altar.

The chapel is decorated in one big cohesive story: Antichrist, end of world, resurrection, hell, Judgment Day, Jesus and finally heaven which the guide explained. We also noted the "bloody cloth" a relic which prompted the building of the church in 1290. The story is that a priest with doubt was saying mass when blood began dripping from the host, onto this cloth. When it was brought to Pope Urban IV who was visting in the area, he proclaimed a new holy day (Corpus Christi, Body of Christ) and ordered the church to be built to house the relic. We enjoyed the best gelato of the trip - cherry with chocolate chunks - at a shop just to the side of the Duomo.

Orvieto was also my favorite shopping stop. A dress in a shop window caught my eye, as well as a locally made and painted ceramic pot which now graces my kitchen table.
We took a brief siesta on the cloudy and drizzly afternoon when we returned to our "resort." Dinner was a tasty orecchiette pasta with sausage and a rolled, stuffed chicken breast.
The tacky souvenir contest produced a winner - Cindy won with her entry of a snow globe with the leaning tower of Pisa, riding on a Vespa. Yes, tacky but also rather cute!

Friday, May 17

After breakfast we all gathered around the bus for our group photo and a chance to say goodbye to Hassan who will be leaving us when he drops us at our hotel in Rome. He has added much to our trip - always smiling, his entertaining banter with Rainer. Above all, he is a great driver and kept us safe on many roads.
We arrived at Hotel Sonya around noon and took a short walk to get lunch - pizza and salad. We then took the Metro to the Coliseum where we met our local guide, Francesca for a tour of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon. It is a lot to absorb and after walking and standing for a few hours it was a welcome relief to sit for dinner before we began our night walk in Rome, led by Rainer. We saw the Trevi Fountain (and I tossed a coin over my shoulder) and the Spanish Steps, alive with tourists. Rainer, or actually RS treated us all to gelato!
After a long and exhausting day we a took the Metro back to the hotel.
Pantheon Dome


Trevi Fountain

Saturday, May 18

One of the things I had most looked forward to - visiting the Vatican and St. Peter's - turned out to be the most disappointing experience of the trip. We got an early start, taking the Metro and then a short walk to the Vatican but there were unusually large crowd due to the announcement that St. Peter's was closing at noon for a special event. As a result our tour of the Vatican museum was crowded and rushed (we even had to skip seeing the Raphael Rooms :(. One plus was the extensive information our guide provided about the Sistine Chapel before we entered. We had ample time to view Michelangelo' s work and be awed by the brilliantly restored masterpiece.
Ceiling - Vatican Museum
Next we slowly worked our way into the great Basilica, and into the area of Michelangelo 's Pieta and then wandered around until closing was announced and we were led out. Now that I look more carefully at RS's guide book information about the Vatican I realize how much I missed and maybe that's why I threw that coin at the Trevi Fountain - I do have a reason to return to Rome!

Tired out from our intense morning, we looked for a pizzeria for lunch, took the Metro back to our hotel and enjoyed a brief siesta. Later we walked around our neighborhood, visiting more beautiful churches. Of special note was the church of Santa Maria Maggiore which has some of Rome's best surviving mosaics. We happened to visit during a service which featured beautiful chanting in Latin.
We met our group for the short walk to a restaurant for our farewell group dinner. Jim and I agree that this was one of the best dinners of the trip, especially the parmesan cheese bowl which held the first of 2 pasta courses. Many of our group, including Rainer will be leaving early tomorrow. I will always remember these people and how well we travelled together and especially Rainer's leadership.  He is the epitome of guides.

Sunday, May 19

It was wonderful to be able to sleep late this morning before we began our long walk to the Villa Borghese Garden and Gallery. It was a near perfect day, sunny but cool and it seemed as if all of Rome came out to enjoy the spring weather. Once we located the gallery we found a bench on which to enjoy our picnic lunch and the music of the nearby accordion player. Our gallery reservation was from 1-3 and we used every minute to enjoy the artistic treasures of the Borghese which RS calls one of Europe 's most sumptuous art experiences. There are world class sculptures as well a paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and Rubens.

 After our museum experience we set out on a long and confusing walk to find the old Jewish Ghetto, made more difficult because of map issues and Carol's shopping eye. Eventually we found it and stopped at a restaurant to sample the tradition of the Roman Jewish community, a deep fried artichoke which was served in the Roman ghetto to break the fast of Yom Kipper. The artichoke is trimmed but left whole with a stub of stem and fried upside down in oil. Our waiter instructed us to eat the whole thing! And we did.  Of course it was good - it was deep fried!
Our long walk back allowed us to stumble upon interesting sites including the Victor Emmanuel Monument, Trajan's Column, and numerous ruins.
Close to our hotel, we stopped for the last meal of our Italy trip - pizza and salad.
We packed one last time and set a 5:30 am wake up call.

Monday, May 20

We took a cab on the 20 mile ride to the Rome airport with 4 of our travel group and checked in and cleared security with relative ease. After grabbing a bite to eat, including the best cup of coffee I have had since leaving home, we went to our gate to await boarding. Arrivederci, Italia!

Our flight was uneventful, which is what you would want a flight to be! We left about an hour late, arriving in Chicago around 2:00 but the time until we left for the Twin Cities at 7:00 passed quickly. We arrived home tired, but well satisfied by our Rick Steve's Italy tour. Steven picked us up at MSP and we dropped our suitcases at the door, and our bodies into bed.
No place like home!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

About Cream Pitchers and the Cruelist Month

It's funny how something like a little stainless cream picture on a restaurant table can open a floodgate of memories on a cold April Day. My friend Kathy who died of breast cancer in April of 1979 judged restaurants by how they served the cream for her coffee. Those little plastic containers just didn't do it for her but she would have approved of this charming pitcher and I smiled at this memory of her when the waiter set it down. 

We were both young brides when Kathy and I became friends and it was clear her upbringing had better prepared her for the kind of domestic life we were both aspiring to. She knew about fine china and furniture periods and decorating styles, how to set a table and get all those forks from our wedding silver (hers for real, mine silver plate) in the right place. From watching her I learned about napkin rings and placemats (none ever graced my family's table) as well as hostess towels in the bathroom and a crystal candy dish in the living room. I didn't know what it was when she gave me my first sprigs of bittersweet one Fall day, arranged ever so artfully in a pottery vase.  Since then I have always welcomed Fall by harvesting the bittersweet that now grows abundantly on my back fence, a seasonal reminder of my friend.  I guess I am saying that Kathy was there when I first began to discover my domestic self and she was an early inspiration. I am sad to think again of all I missed in losing my friend so soon.

It was an April morning 34 years ago that she lay dying in her childhood home. She and her young husband had moved there in the last months of her illness so that her mother could help him care for her. It had been a long cold winter just like this one, made even darker by the sad reality of her advancing cancer. And it was a Spring (and I use that term lightly) just like this year. I remember that the snow and cold just wouldn't end and Kathy grew weaker each day, all of us talking about and longing for nicer weather to somehow lift our spirits. And then one gray and gloomy afternoon while I sat with her, she said she was just waiting for Spring to come - she didn't have to say it but I knew she was talking about death and she wanted to see the flowers and hear the birds one last time in her short life. Unlike this year, Punxstawney Phil hadn't called for an early spring but in a way that made me happy because it gave me a few more days with my friend.

Kathy died on April 30 that year and as I recall the days before her death were the first beautiful days of Spring. I remember getting up very early when the call came,  and I went for a run in the bright Spring sun, with the birds chirping and the flowers blooming. It was everything she had been waiting for.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Finding Dad

Driving north on Highway 218 and then 35W in a rare Minnesota March rainfall, I wondered how many times in my almost 67 years have I travelled these roads between Austin and the Twin Cities? J and I have lived in St. Paul for 43 years and since we both are from Austin, it is no surprise we have made frequent trips to see family, but I also have to count all those years I made half the drive when Grandma Kramer lived in Faribault. From birth until at least through my high school years, we visited her every week. And now history repeats itself and we visit dad every week.

With both my brothers off enjoying warmer climes, J and I have spent a few overnights these past weeks keeping company with dad in his apartment at the Cedars. Moving him there for a few months during the worst of winter was his idea and while it has turned out pretty much as we expected, it was still a worthwhile experiment. It confirmed what we thought - he really won't take advantage of any of the amenities a senior community or assisted living situation offers and the best plan is to continue to support his wish to be in his own home. He is happiest sitting in his chair, gazing out his picture window at the deer feeding in the field across the street, or the birds at the feeder, or the wild turkeys eating the corn he has shelled and tossed out the front door. He looks forward to the daily visits of his housekeeper or nurse who perform their tasks admirably and faithfully. They cheerfully accept his frequent calls and respond to his every request. They are there when we can't be and after witnessing the aging parent problems among my friends, and the cafeteria of solutions available in this society, this seems to be the best for him, and for us.

It occurred to me during this visit that I am getting over my need to "do something" when I am with him, and just "be there." I have accepted that at 92 it's just fine if all he wants to do is sit in his chair (with the tv blaring across the room) and everything he needs or wants in the world within arms reach. He likes to be waited on but I am also comfortable with the knowledge that he can do for himself when no one is there. He refuses offers to go for a walk in the hall, with the excuse that his shoulders are too painful , and when he is feeling no pain he fears " moving around might start that pain up again." His face does light up when he gets on the scooter he recently acquired and he has been known to take it for a spin to his mailbox. But overall I can count on my fingers the number of times he has left his apartment since he moved there February 1st. And that's ok.
After years of being a caregiver to mother, dad had become someone I barely recognized. Exhausted, bitter and angry at his inability to fix her, he resisted our efforts to help when we moved them to an assisted living facility and he blamed everyone for interfering. By the time she died we all wanted to be done struggling with him and gladly returned him to his house as he demanded. We agreed to support him as best we could, to keep him in his house.

And then the most amazing thing happened - he gradually emerged from that shell of bitterness and anger and began to talk, and reminisce, and show interest in life again. He accepts our help and advice and is pleasant and appreciative and most days it is a joy to talk to him, or be with him. He rarely shows the dad we had all come to despise - the loud mouthed, know-it-all who overpowered mother's weakened voice and spirit. Sometimes I am so sad to think that he is NOW the person she most needed in her final weeks. But I also find some comfort in the thought that maybe there was something going on between the two of them that we couldn't see - maybe she could see past his suffering and find her real husband of 67 years.
Thinking and talking about those last days of mother's life won't change a thing. What really matters is that we did the best we could for both of them. Sadly, I did lose her but there is comfort in getting dad back.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Things Matter Too

I just finished reading a book - "The Things That Matter" by Nate Berkus, an interior designer made famous by his own work and his frequent appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show. Something he wrote struck a cord with me - enough that I copied this paragraph and stashed it in my "Think more about this File." He is talking about the things we have in our homes, the objects we choose to display:

"Each object tells a story and each story connects us to one another, and to the world. The truth is, things matter. They have to. They are what we live with and what we touch each and every day. They represent what we've seen, who we've loved, and where we hope to go next. They remind us of the good times and the rough patches and everything in between that's made us who we are."

Often we hear that things aren't important, that we shouldn't become attached to "stuff" but I have always been a little suspicious of this thinking and am feeling quite vindicated by his words. Several years ago I terminated a relationship with a decorator after she suggested that I " clear out" a shelf area of my living room where I continually rotate the "things" that matter to me. As I recall, she wanted to replace these things with "statement pieces" which she would select!

While Berkus doesn't write specifically about the things of Christmas, as I was decorating the house this week I certainly reflected on his words. As we unboxed the objects of Christmas, I was struck by how the history of our Christmas' unfolded before me: the felt banner I made the first year we were married; the angel that has topped every tree since I made it in 1971, the year we moved to our first house; the wreath I sewed using scraps of fabrics from other garments I had made. And then there are the tree ornaments - enough to cover several trees - gifts from friends and family, paper ornaments made by the girls in childhood, ornaments carefully carried home from faraway travels - each one tells a story, carries a memory.

As I carefully unwrapped each figurine of the Hummel Nativity set I inherited from my mother, I thought back to how joyfully she built this set in her later years, once commenting how happy it made her to know that I would treasure this collection and pass it on to my children. The only crèche we had while I was growing up was the cardboard set of the 50's - so many families had this fold-out stable that became worn and tattered by the love of many little hands through years. In addition to the Hummel set, I have acquired other nativity sets in travel and enjoy displaying them all.

Santa Bears are among the biggest "things" of Christmas at our house. First sold by the Daytons store in 1985 and issued every year for 20 + years after, these bears came to be the heralders of the season for us. They appear on St. Nicholas Day and disappear on Twelfth Night, all 28 of them! Each Santa Bear has a unique costume and it's hard to have a favorite, but I lean toward the "baker bear" who occupies a spot in my kitchen

Other "things that matter" at Christmas time include our collection of Swedish figurines. J and I bought the first ones in 1976 when we were in Denmark. We have lovingly added to the collection over the years during other travel and at annual visits to Ingebretsons Scandinavian Market in Minneapolis where we get our Christmas ham and lefse. N especially has delighted in these figurines and recently she asked if she could have the collection someday. I am pleased to know they matter to her, as much as they do to me!

And then there are the angels! Mother gave me Anri angels for several years during the time she worked at a religious store in Austin. They are beautifully crafted, but delicate, and a few show the years of display by sporting carefully repaired wings and halos! I also have a set of 6 angels, each standing no taller than an inch, each holding a musical instrument. These were given to me by my "secret Santa" during one of my college years and have been displayed during Christmas in some room of our home for the past 40+ years.

Looking around I see other things that matter - the needlepoint Christmas goose picture from good friend, G ; antique candle sticks made from parts of an old loom, a gift from P&R; a bird carving from D&M; Grandma K's antique sewing machine.

Things don't matter just because they've been around for a long time; there are more recent things, like the beautiful glass candle sticks from C, the amazing coffee table book of crèches that N gave me, or the growing collection of snowmen that occupy the display spaces in my kitchen. Just gazing on these things evokes a feeling of connection - to the people who gifted me, or to the places I've been, or the people I've met while acquiring these things.

These people matter - and so do these things.