Italy Vacation 2019 – Pisa/Florence

Monday 12/2/2019 PISA

It may be taking me quite awhile to get these posts down on paper, but that should be a sign as to how much this trip meant to me. The memories are dimming a bit, but the photos will always be with me. And then I just have to see one word, one picture or something simple and they all come rushing back. On Monday we were still in Florence, but quite a bit of the museums are closed for the day so we took the opportunity to take the train to Pisa. The weather was supposed to be cloudy with a good chance of rain, but we didn’t travel this far to be stuck inside due to weather.

On the train ride to Pisa it did in fact rain, but by the time we got there it had stopped. And as we walked through town to get to the Tower and Duomo the day cleared and became quite beautiful. It took us about twenty minutes to get to the tower and it was through what seemed like just any other town. We made our way down the pedestrian only streets, passing shops of all kinds and kept moving since this was on Christine’s “bucket list”. Its kind of cool for me to help her hit some of those bucket items, especially considering just how much traveling she has done.

We were still trying to figure out how to get there – since we had a vague map from a local hotel – when out of nowhere we looked up and in the distance could see the tower itself. My first thought sounds rather obvious – “wow the tower really is leaning”. But you don’t quite realize just how much until you see it in person. And as we drew closer you can really see just how much of an angle there is. Even standing right there, it is still conceivable to think “okay so its a bit of an angle”. But then you climb the 254 stairs to the top and really start to feel the angle. Not only do the stairs narrow to a little more than shoulder width at times, but they angle to the extreme and its hard not to lean against the walls.

The views were once again incredible and despite the earlier rain, the clouds had cleared and we could see for miles. There is a cathedral – Duomo – there as well and it is just as beautiful as the other cathedrals I have see on this trip. The cathedral was a massive room with stone columns, balconies and an amazing altar. In addition there were several smaller altars along the sides dedicated to specific saints. When we finished touring through the Tower and the various other sites there we headed back to the train. Along the way we stopped for an incredible pizza lunch and then strolled through many of the shops before getting back to the train and then back to Florence.

There was one part of this day, and the day before that will not only stay with me but touches me. And it reminds me why I have learned to love traveling. You truly never know where the day will take you. When I was in Florence and had climbed the top of the Duomo there I had been taking pictures, videos, and selfies when this young girl – maybe 12 or 13 – comes up and asks if I speak Spanish. I say no, but she motions to take a picture and I nod. To my surprise there about a dozen other girls and a couple of ladies with them. I take several pictures with her phone of the group and as much of Florence as I can get. When we are finished she motions for my phone and takes about a dozen photos of me as well. On the way back down we get caught in a traffic jam and while waiting the group of girls starts singing. It was a fun time and made me smile thinking of how much they must be having on their trip.

While Christine and I had been riding the train to Pisa I told her the story and she thought it was very nice. While we were walking around Pisa – and it was rather crowded – I passed a couple of girls and to my surprise realized one was the girl from Florence. I stopped, smiled and waved but I could tell she didn’t quite remember me. Then I made the motion of taking a picture and held up my phone. Suddenly her eyes went wide and with almost no warning she vaulted the few feet into my arms and gave me a big hug. After several minutes she realized that Christine was watching us. I managed to introduce them and only then did I learn the young girl’s name – Kristen. I guess you have to travel six thousand miles sometimes before a Christine and a Kristen can meet each other over a photo opportunity. Of which she insisted on taking our pictures at the base of the tower.

 

Tuesday 12/3/2019 – Florence

On Tuesday morning we got up early and made our way to the Galleria di Academia where the statue of David is kept. This was our last day in Florence and I was a little sad to say goodbye, but thrilled at what Rome had in store for us. We had an appointment to see David at 815 and since we were not sure how far it was we were up and out of the hotel by 730. It turned out to be incredibly close so we stepped into a local cafe and had a bite then back in line we went. We were the first in line and it worked out quite well. After security we went straight to the statue and since the people behind us got hung up we had about five minutes all to ourselves. 

The definition and attention to detail of the statue doesn’t quite come through in photos, but when you have the time to take it all it is incredible. And walking around it several times I realized that David is actually holding the rock in his hand, the slingshot running over his shoulder and down his back. The museum held quite a few well known statues, but also had a room of samples. These are cut out of alabaster or other stone for the future “owner” to decide if the artist should go ahead or make any changes. One of the other statues is called The Rape of Sabine, which is more about a young man overcoming an older man more than it is about anything else. Both David and this statue are also in one of the squares that I had wandered through earlier in the week. 

We took a long walk back to the train, passing by the Duomo and eventually ending up on the Ponte Vecchio. Which was kind of a thrill for me because now I could experience it with Christine. The past few days were wonderful and I took away some great gifts – Christmas for Christine – and even more better memories. The food, the culture, and the people these past few days have been a real treat and I wish I could share more pictures with you so that hopefully you too will see what all the fuss is about.

Italy Vacation 2019 – Part 2 Florence

Saturday, 11/29, 645pm – Florence

A new city and a new cafe. Well this time it is more of a pizzeria, but I am sure the food will be just as good. I sit here at a large square, across from our hotel – the Grand Minerva. The hotel seems quite nice even if I have only spent about an hour there so far. I have five things on my list for Florence, including the Duomo which was the only thing that was preplanned. After spending four hours to take a twenty minute walk I can say without a doubt – I am glad to have the extra day here in Florence. What a city. The walk from the train station and the hustle and bustle took five minutes, and then I was in this beautiful square. It is surrounded by narrow, winding streets full of high-end as well as local, small stores and cafe after cafe. One minute you are on a small street full of people shopping or just walking past and the next you are surrounded by Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Tiffany, Burberry, and too many more to mention.

As I said I have five things on my list. I was out for four hours and only got to three of them. And honestly one of them was by accident. One wrong turn being distracted by the beauty and history of the city and I found myself at the Ponte Vecchio. I also got sidetracked in one of the many Piazzas by a march/display of people dressed as they would have centuries ago. A slow walk back – after some delightful gelato of course – and I made my way to Santa Croce. It amazes me that such a plain looking church could actually be so amazing. It is the burial place of so many including Galileo and Michelangelo. There is also the world renowned Florence Leather School. This is the kind of city it is with a seemingly odd combination of churches and businesses which also seem to go together quite easily. The mix of old – ancient really – and new is evident everywhere and just makes you stop and stare. There is just no way to ignore the beauty and wonder of this city.

Sunday, 12/1 – Florence, Duomo

I will start this off with some “simple” stats about the Duomo and the Bell Tower. They are both incredibly high. The Duomo is 463 steps to the top, and the Bell Tower is 414 steps. All in a total of 877 steps with views that cannot be found anywhere else in the city. These are not new steps, so they are well worn, uneven, and incredibly narrow. So close that at different times you have to really squish yourself against the wall just so others can get by. The tower is square so the stairs were also, but still just as uneven and narrow. The tower did have a couple of stops along the way – with each stop being a full wide open level offering its own views of the city. And of course an option to go back down. But then I didn’t travel this far just to go back down.

I was early for my timed walk up the Duomo, and accidentally ended up starting up the steps to the bell tower. I honestly didn’t know that’s where I was until I got to the first level. And as breathtaking as it was from the first level, I knew I had to keep going. As I climbed it and looked out over the city I was amazed at the idea that this building was built in the 14th century and was a design so spectacular and innovative that several other cathedrals followed the design. But I also considered that while we often focus on the design of places like this, actually building it must have taken as much of a feat. Building this must have taken on a life of its own, and you couldn’t just say that the builders were just that. They had to be artists as much as the designers, putting all of their craft and love to work in this building.

After climbing the tower I waited in line for the Duomo only to find out that I had been in the wrong line and ended up in the chapel itself. I found the gift shop and the woman behind the counter didn’t speak English well, but she used a toy model to show me where I needed to go. Since I had a timed entrance, the guard allowed me to skip the line – or he felt bad for the lost American. The club to the top of the Duomo was long, curved, and narrow. And as I approached the top there were a lot of stops as we had to wait for people going back down to pass. The top of the Duomo was no less incredible than the bell tower and I had to take several turns around the top to make sure I didn’t miss anything. As I headed back down though we got caught in one of the narrow – but flat – passageways for about fifteen to twenty minutes while we waited for people coming up. Who knew there would be more traffic in the Duomo than outside of it.

After the Bell Tower, the Duomo, and the Bapistry (no steps) I made my way to the museum. My heart and mind wanted to see and learn more, but unfortunately my legs weren’t in it. As I walked back to the hotel I thought about my day. Yesterday I had walked around Florence seeing some of the beauty it has to offer from the ground. Today I saw it from way above ground level, but it was just as beautiful if not more so. The red roof tops, the mountains, the clouds drifting in and out carrying a threat of rain that would eventually come, but for now it was just breathtaking.

Italy Vacation 2019

Christine and I finally, after talking about it for fourteen years, took a wonderful vacation to Italy. We were supposed to go to Venice while we were there, but there was bad rain storms and flooding. So with a week to go before the trip we decided to put it off and go to Venice on the next trip, because one thing for sure – we would be going back. The best way I could sum up this trip is to say that it was incredible. Everywhere we went there was a chunk of history, and not just history from the “recent” past but from centuries ago. There was beauty in the history, the buildings, the people, the food, and the culture. But it was also the people that made the country come alive. It didn’t seem to matter whether they spoke English or not, because they always found a way to communicate. The following are some of the notes I wrote while I was having dinner or just sitting and admiring the country.

Friday, 11/29 645pm – Rome

Sitting at a cafe, outside in the cool, comfortable air. The rain from earlier still fresh on the cobblestone street leaving random puddles along the Via Del Corso. This is a shopping street that only allows for one car to pass once in a while. The Pinot Grigio blending nicely with the fried Calamari and then the fresh pasta which came next. When in Rome do as the Romans – and surely must dine on pasta. I didn’t know it at the time but the best part of the evening was having dessert – what would become a staple for me – Tiramisu and a double espresso.

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The small cobblestone street is just a block from the hotel. No cars here, just people going to and from wherever. The world wanders or streams by, carrying shopping bags as plentiful as the motorbike or vespa helmets. After walking past this cafe for the past couple of days I had to stop by, and I am glad I did. The Cacie e Pepe was served with home made Tommarelli pasta. It is a thick, rope like pasta/spaghetti and served with a very light cheese, butter and better sauce. And as I said, it only seemed appropriate to end the night with a plate of Tiramisu, double espresso and a shot of Limoncello.

Our first couple of days here in Italy were full of some of the “typical” touristy efforts. We saw the Spanish steps and the Trevi Fountain, both of which were just incredible. Its amazing to think that at one point they were just a flight of steps to get from one place to the next. Or just a fountain. But once you get there you realize they represent so much history, and are as much a part of the city as anything else. The steps may still be a way to get from one place to another, but for a lot of people they mean a lot more. I saw both during the day with Christine then later I went back at night. That is when the fountain looks really spectacular, with the lights turning the water from a light blue to a deep green. We also found a Piazza nearby that was more than just a square (since it was round) but it too had stairs that led to beautiful gardens. And an amazing Da Vinci museum that illustrated just how much of a genius and ahead of his time – by centuries he was.

This is how you sit, relax and let time go by. Enjoying a good meal, good service and manage to meet a family traveling from America. Christine went to Paris to spend time with some friends, so the only reason for me to know the time is to know when she lands. As I sit thinking about the past day or so I can only imagine what the rest of the trip will be like. If this is what Rome is like – and I have only seen a very small portion – then I can only imagine what Florence will be like. Or the rest of Rome when we return next week. This is truly the gift of travel. Being able to put aside the worries and stress of work and instead focus on life. To sit at a cafe and enjoy a good meal with no rush, no hassle, and no fuss. Thinking – it will be there tomorrow. The gift is to learn, to taste, to see and smell a new culture. To just relax.

 

A New Year

Here it is – the first week of the new year and the new decade. If you ask most people they are starting to take stock in their lives and coming up with resolutions, or contemplating life-changing decisions. For some people this means standing in front of a mirror and asking themselves what it is about themselves they need to change. Some will look back on 2019 and consider what they didn’t accomplish or perhaps what went wrong. I won’t lie – in some ways I have been doing the same for the past few days. Looking back on 2019 and thinking – wow, that did not go as I had planned it. And boy are their things that I need to change – or worse – fix in myself. As I sit here watching one of the NFL playoff games I have to smile because in some ways the football teams playing will be doing the same. If they didn’t there is a good chance they wouldn’t make it past the first round.

But that is not the same with our lives. In football if you lose a playoff game you get a few months off and then get to start over. I sometimes think it would be nice to get to start over on January 1st. To forget about what happened in the past year and start over with a whole new you. I don’t want to forget about what happened last year – in fact, I have learned some very important things about my life and myself. Last year was not a good year for me, but it was part of my life and it is now a part of what makes me – well, me. Not only that but I don’t really want a whole new me. Saying I need to change means I don’t like who I am, and that is never a good way to start off a new year. Instead I want to improve different parts of me, making me a better version of me. And considering it is 2020 – saying a “Me 2.0” seems to fit rather nicely. There are so many cliches when you cross years like – its 366 blank pages to write your story. I like to think I have a pretty good story going, so again – not going to write my whole story in one year, instead I will work on a new chapter.

As I said, when I think back on 2019 and look forward to 2020 I have decided to improve on some things. And to do so I have to look at 2019 and consider what happened. I had a couple of serious health issues and one that is literally a pain in the back. I also lost my Father and my Mother is getting a little more fragile. What does all of this mean to 2020 and improving myself – it means I have to focus on my health more. It means that I have to continue to find things that can help and listen to others – like adding yoga to my life. It means that I have to eat healthier and continue to go see the doctor when I need to. And it means starting off the year with a 5k power-walk or taking the long way to and from the train for work. For the rest, I am going to focus on me and my family and that means figuring out a better work-life balance. And go back to the things that make me happy – like reading and writing (hence the first blog in quite awhile).

Another important thing for 2020 is to focus on the good things that life has to offer. I don’t want 2019 to seem like it was all bad, because it wasn’t. I still got to travel – including going to Italy for the first time in my life. And spend two and half days by myself – Christine took a weekend in Paris to meet up with some friends – wandering around both Rome and Florence by myself. That reinforced to me just how much I have come to love travel, to learn about different people, different cultures and enjoy different foods. The food – please don’t get me started on just how good the food was. In fact, that might end up being a whole other blog. I guess at the end of the day (or blog) what I am simply saying is that a new year doesn’t mean you have to change, it doesn’t mean you should forget about the past year. Instead consider the past year and ways that you can continue to improve yourself, and take both the good and bad from the past year and use them to build your own “Me 2.0”.

An American in London

If you have read my blog before you know how much I love to travel. This is all thanks to my wife, because even before we were married she showed me how enjoyable it can be to travel. Part of the joy that I have in traveling is meeting new people, learning new customs, experiencing new things, and trying new foods. Part of the reason I enjoy going to Europe is for the history and how similar, and yet different these countries are from America.

A perfect example is the game of football. While they carry the same name, football refers to two different games between the United States and Europe. In Europe “football” refers to the game we (Americans) call soccer. In Europe there is no game like American football. While the two games are very different, there is one common factor between them. The passion that the fans have about their teams. And this comes through whether watching the game in your local pub or bar, or sitting at the game watching it in person.

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This past week I was lucky enough to experience American football in London when the Philadelphia Eagles played the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Eagles have been struggling this year, like a lot of teams after winning the Super Bowl the year before. This game was no different, but at the end of the game they were the winners with a final score of 24-18. It was an incredibly exciting game, and our seats were good enough that we were sitting quite close. The pictures below were taken with my iPhone and I did zoom in, but hopefully this gives you an idea.

Truthfully, as incredible as the game was, the really special part were the people that we got to meet. I sat next to a Minnesota Vikings’ fan, and there were also fans of the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, Greenbay Packers, New England Patriots, and other teams. Everyone was incredibly friendly – no matter which of the two teams playing they were rooting for. This was a Jaguars’ home game, and they had a lot of fans there, but everyone really got along quite well. And the fact that this game had a record attendance of more than 85,000 people didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

Before the game, Christine and I had a chance to talk to a some British fans who were there as much to enjoy the game as they were to root on either of the teams. This also gave me a chance to see some of the foods they eat at a game – like a two foot long sausage with pulled pork and macaroni and cheese. Throughout the day before and for a couple of days after we ran into Eagles’ fans who never shied away from a chance to give the Eagles’ chant. Even at a showing of Hamilton (the musical) we went to see on Monday night.

I took the opportunity this trip to get a haircut and cut-throat razor shave at Ruffians. And we also took a tour of Parliament, the Banqueting House, the Queen’s gallery at Westminster Abbey, the British museum, and after a tasting at Newby Teas a tour of the Chitra Collection. This was a special showing of a private collection of tea pots, cups, and full services. The collection was amazing and a special opportunity being able to visit it. And then we capped off the visit by celebrating our Anniversary with a formal, afternoon tea at one of our favorite hotels – the Savoy.

London and the UK are one of our favorite places to visit. But, it is traveling in general that Christine has shared her passion for. It is the opportunity to learn about new things, new people, foods, and seeing new things. As long as we have been drinking tea, I learned new things about the differences in teas – like the exclusive white teas or green teas. I also learned about the shadow cabinet positions that the Opposition party holds.

I don’t know where our next adventure will take us, but I am looking forward to it. Our vacations may not always be relaxing, which is just fine since it means we are experiencing new things. I don’t know if I would have ever had the chance to experience some of these things, but I will be forever grateful that Christine chose me to share it with. You may never thing you have the time, or the money to travel, but I will always recommend it. Every time a vacation ends I am happy to be home, but I am even more happy to review the photos and be reminded of the experiences of that trip. I hope you can find the opportunity to create your own adventures.

Father’s Day

As Father’s day approaches I find myself thinking about “it”. About being both a Father and being a child – or in my case, a son. My Father isn’t a young man anymore, and he isn’t as healthy as he used to be. I was reminded of this even more when I recently visited him. He is older than I remembered and frailer than he used to be. But that is what happens when we get old.

My Father hasn’t always had an easy life, but he has had a good life. He hasn’t always had money, but he has always shared what he has. He always made sure that his family was cared for, and not just his four children, but his growing family. His twenty-plus grandchildren and at least as many great-grandchildren. It is still a growing family, and it is an extended family. My mother always “adopts” new family members, because they might be away from their own family. Or just because they need a hug. My Father wasn’t really one to give hugs when I was young. That was my mother’s job, but I always knew he loved me. 

My Father taught us about the important things in life. To love the people close to you. And appreciate the blessings of having those people in your lives. He taught us to work hard, and to care about the job we do, to be proud of it. No matter what it is we do, make sure we do it the best we can. Ultimately, that is what is important – people will always listen to what we say, but our actions are much more important.

When I meet strangers and I tell them who my parents are, their faces tend to get a little brighter and their smiles a little broader. Then they proceed to tell me how my parents helped them, by opening their home to these “strangers”. To inviting them in and making them a part of their family. There was also an extra seat at the table, and extra bite of food, and even an extra spot to lay their heads.

The other night before dozing off my Father reminded me of some of his experiences as a child growing up in small town America. And it reminded me of going back to see the house I grew up in. As with most kids – we think our house and the trees around it are huge. It also reminded me of going back to visit it as an adult and seeing the house wasn’t as big I thought. I smile when I think of how our memories are different as children and as adults.

My Father is struggling with his failing memory, and sometimes I can see the confusion in his eyes. But when he smiles I can still see the life in his eyes. I don’t see an older man looking back at me with tired eyes. I see the Father I love, and I hope I can be as good a person as he is. I hope my Father is proud of the man I have become, as I am of the man that he has always been.

During my last visit, my Father’s physical therapist visited. He comes three times a week and they work on being able to stand up. It was maybe fifteen or twenty seconds each time, and despite the obvious pain my Father didn’t give up. Later, my Father commented that he would “keep on, keeping on.”

When I left to come home it was very late at night. I looked in on him, and saw him resting peacefully. I was about to go in and kiss him goodbye but I was afraid I would wake him up. So instead I gave my mother an extra kiss for him. I will call when I get home, because my mother asked me to. But, also so I can tell him again how much I love him.

As a Father I hope my kids are happy, and I hope they know how much I love them and how proud I am of them. They are two young, amazing people with their whole lives ahead of them. They can do anything they want, and I only want one thing for them. The same thing I have always wanted – for them to be happy. And when someone asked me about them recently I summed up who they are as ‘good people’. I love spending time with them, and maybe soon I will start telling them about my life growing up in small town America.

As they begin their adult lives, I want to tell them about the mistakes I have made. About the lessons I have learned. And if I do, I hope they will listen. But ultimately they have their own lessons to learn. And while I may be their Father, and as much as I want them to learn from my mistakes and experiences, I know they can’t. We are all our own selves, our own individuals.

Maybe that is the lesson my Father wanted me to learn all these years. That we are all individuals, and we all have our own lessons to learn. And no matter how much the lessons might hurt, or get us down, we have to “keep on, keeping on”. That we can’t ever give up on this life – its the only one we have. Because at the end of the day, we have a lot of blessings in our life. And I know that I don’t need a Father’s day to celebrate it, because I am blessed with a wonderful family and that makes every day a Father’s Day!

New Year

As Christmas has passed and I await the New Year I find myself reflecting on the past year. Like so many others we consider what went well, what didn’t, and what we want to “fix” for next year. I don’t know why people always think we have to fix things in our lives. I don’t consider my life broken. I look back at the year and instead think of ways to improve.

Sure there are the obvious choices of places to improve. The cliches that come with New Year Resolutions. Let’s be healthier, happier, more positive, and enjoy work more. Who couldn’t use a little healthy eating, or working out in their lives. Fortunately, I have a good support partner who is just as determined as me to improve. So, we will start off the year right by doing the right things – eating healthier and working out more. Skip meats, use the elliptical unit for something more than a conversation piece.

I’m pretty happy with my life, so don’t feel the need to “fix” it. But, there are always way to improve things. I’m generally a pretty positive person, always looking for ways to see the positive side. Unless I’m driving, then I am positive no one else on the road can drive but me. That leaves me with work. Some days it’s a job, not a career and I don’t really feel like going in. But it’s a good job and I take pride in my work – both in the outcome as well as the effort. I like to think that I am improving things and making it better and easier for the people I support, but I know there is always room for improvement.

If you are reading this, thank you. It’s been awhile since I posted to my blog and this is one of my resolutions. To do more of it – more writing in general, more positivity, and more blog writing. I’ve had an amazing year of travel, seeing and experiencing new things. And I look forward to the 2018 adventures that we will have. This isn’t just a new year, its a new opportunity to write a new chapter in our personal books.

I hope that as you look back on the past year you see the many good things and use those to carry you in to 2018. Enjoy this New Year in any way you can. And don’t forgo the list of resolutions. Let’s all stick with them. Together. I hope you have a good year full of joy, happiness, love, and success.