Sunday, May 29, 2011

And just like that, it's over..


Hi All!  I'm back from vacation and anxious to catch up with everyone.  I'm also anxious to catch up the laundry, mail, email, etc., but those pesky nuisances can wait a little while longer.

So, how was the trip?  In a word, incredible.  I'm a traveler and student at heart, so the past three weeks have been completely inspirational for me (and totally exhausting I'm afraid for dear hubby).  I won't bore you with the minutia but hope you don't mind me sharing some highlights with you as I have time to edit pictures (around 3000) and review my travel diary.  Yes, I am a nerd...but you knew that already, right?

Quickly, here's a nutshell:

Italy is captivating.  It is chock full of the best, greatest, most unique, oldest, rarest and most precious treasures the world has ever seen.  If you are into art, history, religion, architecture, literature, romance, mystery, comedy/drama, music, food, wine, photography, cooking, collecting, biking, hiking, sunbathing, etc., Italy is for YOU.  I love(d) it all - seriously.  For me, it was the total hedonistic experience. 

Italy is also chock full of tourists from every corner of the world.  More on that later.

Best things I did before the trip:
  • Set up a savings account (like a Christmas club) and saved (for years) for the trip
  • Lost weight - (like, a lot of weight)
  • Learned basic Italian
  • Packed an empty carry-on (for souvenirs, gifts, museum books, etc.)
  • Studied street maps of the major cities we were visiting
  • Used Rick Steves' website as a tool to plan the trip

Stupidest things I did:
  • Planned a three week, six city vacation to a place I'd never been instead of using a travel agent
  • Packed six pairs of shoes (I know, I know...)

What I wasn't prepared for:
  • Nerve wrecking noise levels in Florence and Rome
  • Encountering fellow tourists who were having a miserable time because they (multiple choice/fill in the blank): were having trouble communicating, couldn't understand the menu, had to walk too far, had to wait in line too long, wanted something in another size or color but it wasn't available in that size or color, etc.
Why do people go to foriegn countries on vacation and expect it to be like EPCOT?  Come on people!  You are in ITALY!  They speak ITALIAN here (many also spoke English very well).  And, SO WHAT if you had to walk half a mile to see the basilica of St. Peter?!?  On several occasions, I found myself feeling angry at the B.A.Ts (bad attitude tourists) and feeling sorry for Italians who put up with them day after day after day.  The longer we were there, the more empathetic I became.  While I was hesitant (nervous) to use the little bit of Italian I had learned at first, I quickly learned that ANY Italian was better than none at all and was GREATLY appreciated by the locals.  

Imagine being a waitress in a small cafe in your hometown.  You serve coffee and sandwiches for 12 hours a day.  Now imagine that of the 1200 customers you will serve today, 800 of them will not speak a lick of English and probably half of those will get upset AT YOU for not understanding exactly how they want their coffee and sandwich.  And you do this 6 days a week in order to barely scrape by.

One thing I noticed right away was the eye contact.  I'm big on eye contact.  When I'm having a face-2-face conversation with someone, eye contact is essential to me.  If I'm not given eye contact in return, it honestly hi-jacks my train of thought.  I can't carry on a conversation without it.  I don't know why.  Can't explain it.  I carry on phone conversations just fine.  But in person, I need you to look at me if we are going to have a conversation.  So, what I noticed was many of the waiters, clerks, and hotel staff did not make or sustain eye contact with tourists.  It struck me as peculiar - maybe a cultural thing..maybe not...  I watched.  It was definitely a pattern.  Then what I discovered, quite by accident, is that the instant I began to sputter my broken Italian... Boom ... Eye Contact!  They would look up from their order pads, key pads, cash registers, and smile at me!  And talked to me in their best English.  I'm sure my childlike language skills were amusing to them but honestly, I didn't care.  By trying to learn their language in order to communicate clearly, what I had done was found a way to connect to a people who are overrun, daily, with thousands of visitors from every corner of the globe who don't speak a single words of their language. 

I had a lot of fun trying out my Italian everywhere~ even in the gift shop where the two teenage clerks talked about how I had touched everthing in the store and probably wouldn't buy anything (yes, directly in front of me).  I continued to browse quietly for a few minutes, then, in my best Italian, said "Do you take credit cards?  I would like three of these in blue, please. They are gifts for my family back in the US.  Will you wrap them?  Thank you."    The girls looked horrified.  One dashed off to the stockroom, never to be seen again.  The other couldn't have been more humiliated.  She turned red, called me 'madam' about a dozen times, threw in a couple of freebies and gift wrapped every thing very nicely.   :-)    As I was leaving the shop, I threw in a "You have a great day", just for good measure.  Big self-satisfied smile, exit, stage right.  Wished I knew the word for 'darlin'. 
I hope this doesn't sound horrible.  I wasn't mad at the girls. They were just being kids.  I was just terribly pleased with myself.  :-))

Other than shopping, and eating, and visiting churches, galleries and museums, we walked, a lot.  In three weeks of pasta, pastry, cheese, wine and daily gelatos (plural), I lost five pounds.  Okay, so I was a little OCD about getting up early and beating all the tourists to the best places for the best picture taking opportunities.  Many mornings, I would get up and out before 6 o'clock and run around all over the historic districts in order to get a few unhurried shots.  This was one of my favorite things to do and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves to photo-document their vacations and isn't on a fixed schedule.  By 9:00 am., in Venice, Florence, and Rome, you were shoulder to shoulder with a million other tourists.  You've been warned that pickpockets abound and traffic (in Florence and Rome) is a nightmare, so stopping in the middle of the street or bridge or evening making your way across a plaza to take a picture was not easy, if even possible.

If I haven't gushed enough for you to tell, I loved every minute of it.  Except maybe toting my luggage off and on countless trains.  I didn't love that part.  I hated that part.  I hated that part enough to think to myself, Why didn't I just book a bus tour?  Then I'd just have to get my luggage from the room to the bus.  Easy breezy, lemon squeezy.  But nooooo...We had to be 'independent travelers'.  Just two tourists, a train pass, six cities and increasingly heavy luggage.  Yes, that part sucked.  I'm sure my chiropractor will have a full blown fit when he gets a glimpse at what I've done to my back - but, what the heck, I may never get to see Italy again, so it was worth it!

That's enough for now.  I'm off to the laundry room.  

Here's hoping you and yours have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!

Let the SUMMER begin!!! 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roman Holiday


Today we depart the ancient and inspiring city of Florence and head off to Rome for the remainder of the week.  I'm sure by this time, my camera card(s) are full, my pants are too tight and I am wishing that I had brought yet another empty suitcase!

Monday is dedicated to Vatican City (there is a virtual tour of the Sistine and Pauline Chapels available on the website that will take your breath away)

Honestly, I can hardly wait.  With tickets in hand, I've been anxiously anticipating seeing the world's most valuable collection of art (Popes have all the greatest toys), St. Peter's monument, the dome of the cathedral, and of course, the Sistine and Pauline Chapels.   I could just faint.

The rest of the week will be focused on ancient Rome and all of it's magnificent offerings:

the Roman colosseum

Trevi fountain

the Spanish Steps

Of course this just skims the surface of what all there is to do and see in Rome.  While we are taking in the Steps and surrounding area, I hope to be able to visit the Keats-Shelley Memorial House and also take tea at Babington's Tea Room.  If we can't find time for tea, I know we'll find time for a pizza!
And what visit to the eternal city would be complete without a stop at Villa Medici:

and Villa Borghese too before heading back home, that is if I can find my way to the airport.. (hummmm..)

Movie suggestions:  Roman Holiday, National Lampoon's European Vacation, and Eat Pray Love

I'm sure it will take me more than a day or two to get sorted away back home. Until then, Basta Pasta, amici!  :-)   

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bye-Bye Venice, Hello Florence


After four magical days and nights in Venice, today we are training down to Florence in the heart of Italy. 

Michelangelo Buonarroti's "David"

While I was designing our Florence itenerary, I had to make some tough choices about what to leave out.  It seems that every single thing that was ever done in Florence, or by Florentines, or brought to Florence is simply put, incredible.

Trivia:  Did you know that Pinocchio (and his creator) was from Florence?

Highlights of Florence
  • tour the Duomo (cathedral)
  • crossing the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) built in 1345
  • the Accademia to see Michelangelo's David
  • the Uffizi museum to see Botticelli's The Birth of Venus
  • the Bargello museum to see Donatello's David
(don't you just hate name droppers?)

Artists and architects, poets and engineers, musicians and philosophers seemingly burst from the Florentine womb spewing forth masterpiece after masterpiece.  I could honestly spend all summer in Florence and never get bored.

Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter, but in my book, Leonardo was "the man". 

It gives me chills to think I will be walking the actual streets that he walked five centuries ago.

Movie suggestions:  The daVinci Code, Much Ado About Nothing

If I haven't already been forced to buy myself an auxiliary stomach, I plan to try every "Florentine" dish I see between now and Sunday when we leave for Rome.

Hopefully, we can squeeze in a side trip to Assisi, the home of St. Francis (or San Francesco, as they say...) before plunging head-long into Rome.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday the 13th - Che fortuna!

* * *

It may be Friday the 13th, but it feels like my lucky day.  For just about as long as I've known there was a place called Italy, I've longed to see Venice.  It feels pretty surreal, still, that hubby and I will be sailing down the Grand Canal to reach our hotel today.  

  gondolas near Hard Rock, Venice Italy

For such a small place, there are about 100 things on my "To Do, See, Buy" list.  Glass beads (aka Venetian pearls), Venetian marbled paper, carnivale masks, Hard Rock t-shirts (but of course), and every other tourist-y thing they are all geared up to sell me.  The challenge is always finding the nicest quality without breaking the bank.  Ha!  Who am I kidding - by now I'm sure I am broke as a joke, but I never let that stop me.  :-)

On Sunday, I think we'll visit the neighboring isles of Murano and Burano to see the amazing glass and lace makers, first hand. 

We're told Sunday is a good day to visit Mur-Bur since many tourists assume the shops are closed.  That means that only 300 people rather than 400 will be sharing my personal space.  :-)  Gotta love Europe!

Burano (Venice, Italy)

Naturally, we'll explore St.Mark's square, the basilica  (bas-ill-ee-catta), the Doge's Palace, the Accademy of Art and much much more, but first, perhaps a cafe at the Danieli...

Movie suggestions:  The Tourist (Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie), The Italian Job

On the menu:  since Venice is an island, in a lagoon, lots of fresh fish and fruit are on the menu.  Yum.  Gotta save time for a Peach Bellini at Harry's Bar, the birthplace of the Bellini.

Italian phrase for the day:
  • There are many tourists in Italy = Ci sono molto turisti en Italia.
  • Che bella! = How pretty!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mama Mia, I'm in Milano

* * *

It's Wednesday already so hubby and I are leaving tranquil Como shortly after breakfast and training to the fashion metropolis of Milano today.  I think I'm looking forward to seeing our hotel as much as I am daVinci's Last Supper:

Leonardo's fresco at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Milan, Italy

We should be checking in no later than 1pm (7am back home). 

I'd have to pull the records to be sure, but I'm pretty positive that this is the most expensive hotel I'll ever have the good fortune of staying in. (omg/choke/cough/sputter she says as she clings to her souviner money)

But fear not!  There will be shoe shopping.  (whether you are a shoe fan or not, you're going to want to click that link).

Key phrases for the day:  
  • I need these shoes in black in size 40. 
  • My dear husband has our money.


I'm told that Milan has just about everything you can imagine, but from the looks of the super-mall located right next to our hotel...

I know this is going to be a different kind of shopping, altogether.

May the force be with me...and my VISA card.

For dinner, maybe Something (Pork/Chicken/Whatever) Milanese.  Or spaghetti pomodoro?  Or risotto primavera?  Or maybe just a pizza.  But, before I leave Milan, I MUST MUST MUST find the gelateria with the Nutella gelato.  Are these people geniuses or what?

OMG - my mouth waters just thinking about it. mmmmmmmmm

Friday, May 6, 2011

Italy - Here We Come!

Today is a very exciting day for the hubs and I.  We are on our way to Italy!  It's a trip that has been 4 years in the making, so to say I'm excited to actually be boarding a plane is the understatement of the century.

I've pre-written these next few posts to keep the "fam" up with our travels.  Please feel free to follow along and experience la dolce vita with us..  Stitching posts will resume in June.

D (as in Departure) Day:

Arrivederci, USA! 

Buongiorno Italia!

Saturday 5/7:  We should be landing in Milano around 9 am Italy time (3am Eastern Standard Time-USA) and training directly to Lake Como for a few days.   Barring all snags, we should be unpacked and enjoying a freshing beverage by noon-ish (6am back home/ five o'clock somewhere).

Lake Como, Italy

Perhaps a quick nap will be in order after lunch (a pesto panino perhaps?).  I'm psyched to watch the sunset across the lake and enjoy our first Italian dinner tonight.  I have not yet decided what I'll eat but I feel sure I'll be sipping a new-to-me red wine tonight.  Maybe a Chianti???   And later (to help me stay awake past 6pm...) I foresee an espresso, or 'cafe', and tiramisu for dessert.

:-P  (that's my tongue hanging out my mouth, btw)

Thank goodness I packed the stretchy pants.  :-)

While here ("Base Camp Alpha") we will majoring in "Wining, Dining and Loafing 101".  Lots of down time by design, but a couple of fun things to do (like shopping for pretty silk baubles in Bellagio and maybe even a bottle of Lemoncello) before heading off to the Fashion Capital of the World, Milano, next Wednesday.

If you'd like to see more about Lake Como, click HERE.

Until then, ciao amici!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chicken Stitchin'

What's kickin' chicken?

Isn't this pincushion just about the cutest thing you've ever seen? 

I thought so too!  My thanks go out again to my EGA chapter Education Crazy Smart Genius, Liz, for bringing this project my way.  Since our Education theme is Traveling Around the World, Liz draws inspiration from folk needlework from all over the world.  Our chicken pincushion was found on a Russian blog, so he is our Russian chicken.  :-)  

To make your own, you only need to stitch a rectangular shaped piece about 3"x7".  If you want your chicken to look symmetrical, keep in mind that it's "spine" runs down the middle of your design (landscape orientation). 

Click here for the tutorial and to see many different chickens.  I "heart" the plaid one. 


Speaking of birds!  I caught one of the pileated woodpeckers with the camera the other day.  They don't get too close to the house but this one seemed to be very intent of getting the attention of another woodpecker.  My guess is that it was not paying too close attention to where they were.  You can't miss those bright red heads!

Hubby and I are off for our great adventure tomorrow.  I've set up a series of posts that should publish automatically while we are gone, to let all the fam know where we are and what we are doing.   Feel welcome to follow along..