Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It is Finished

No, we didn't fall off the face of the Earth! After Pompeii and Naples, we spent a few days in Amalfi. We relaxed, read, and ate more great food.
Then we headed down to Sicily. It was a great place to end this adventure. In several ways it reminded us of the things we've been missing about Africa. In Palermo we wandered around the fish markets, vegetable stalls, churches, and port. When we ventured outside of Palermo we found the beautiful countryside was lush green with rolling hills, the coastline was stunning, and the people continually went out of their way to help us and make us feel welcome. We loved the Valley of Temples in Agrigento, built by the Greeks around 500 b.c. Unfortunately, for the first time on our trip, we had a deadline to catch a flight. We'll have to hike Mt. Etna next time.
From Italy we flew to Dublin for two nights, then on to Raleigh, NC. Being reunited with Scout was everything we'd hoped. Of course she remembered us! We are thankful that she was so well cared for. We also got to meet Lillian Garrity, and had a great time with Payton, Ryan, Holly, Bill, and Jodi. From there we drove back to Minnesota and have been in Hibbing for a couple of weeks already. We are trying to find jobs--we hope in the Twin Cities. We have been a little reclusive so far but hope to make it to Wisconsin and the cities for visits soon.
It means a lot to hear people say they have enjoyed reading our blog. Thanks to everyone who made comments here or via email or facebook; you're what kept us blogging! Let us know if you'd like to see some of our video!

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Everybody has heard of Pompeii. I knew it was the city that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius a long time ago. I figured it would be a pretty incredible place to visit, but wow.

Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius behind

We have seen a lot of Roman ruins by now, from Egypt to Turkey to Verona and Rome. Spectacular reconstructions of some of the most prominent buildings of those long ago abandoned settlements have amazed us before. Pompeii is different. Everything is still there. It's a big city, and still you can see the remains of not only the prominent religious and political buildings, but the hovels and villas occupied by plebeians and patricians. You can walk the streets and see how the city was planned. Very little imagination was required to picture toga-wrapped Romans leaving their villa and walking to the amphitheatre to see the gladiatorial combat.

One of the two theatres
I think this is a public toilet

By now I know that the wealthier Romans lived luxuriously. Some of the villas provided further proof. They had multiple bedrooms, dining areas, peristyle gardens, formal courtyards, some even had space dedicated to exercising. Essentially every room had tiled mosaic floors, and most had frescoed walls. At Pompeii we saw it all, from simple geometric mosaics to intricate battle scenes.

A garden fresco

A guard dog mosaic entryway

What surprised me was that even the smaller, less obviously wealthy houses were decorated with mosaics and frescoes also. We realized that the middle class of Romans was bigger than we thought, and certainly bigger than the Egyptian one.

Some of the wall frescoes

We also saw the horrific final moments of the city preserved in plaster casts. I read that the cloud of gasses and rocks was aloft for twelve hours before descending on the city with a speed of 50 mph and a temperature of 400 Celsius, instantly killing all those who remained. If that wasn't terrifying enough, Kim said she wants to get up close with Mt. Etna, an active volcano, before we leave!

Casts of the victims and excavated remains

Of course the site is too big to see everything, but one the must-sees is a tiny brothel. I think it will be my favorite memory of Pompeii, but probably not for the reasons you're thinking right now. On the walls are frescoes designed to inspire the clients to try some new and different techniques. We learned that they were probably copies from a Greek instructional manual that was circulating at the time. While it was interesting to see 2300 year-old erotic art, it was hilarious to people watch there. Remembering the retired Americans elbowing each other in the stomach while pointing and giggling like a bunch of middle school kids, or eavesdropping on some septuagenarians using words atypical of that generation still makes me smile. I think it always will!

More fine mosaics

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Papal Shoutout

So many things to say about Rome really. I feel overwhelmed at the task of relaying back what an incredible place it is. Kim and I looked through our Rome pictures, trying only to choose good ones, and two hours later we uploaded something like ninety photos. Each one has a story, but one of my favorites happened when we went to St. Peter's Square on Sunday for the Pope's weekly blessing.
We had been to the Vatican twice before this, but Sunday's atmosphere was certainly different. Everyone was waiting excitedly for the Pope to appear in his window, about 5 stories up and 800 meters from the crowd. He appeared to a great cheer from the crowd and commenced his blessing in Latin.
I'm obviously not a Latin scholar, but I could tell when the important part was happening, the sign of the cross, something about patri and spiritu sanctu. He then spoke a few words in some other languages I recognized. Then the strange part. It went something like this, "Gibberish gibberish gibberish BARCELONA!" Big cheer from a small section of the crowd. "Gibberish gibberish gibberish MADRID!" Big cheer from a different small section. I said to Kim, "I think the Pope is giving a shoutout!" It went on. And on. More gibberish and then a city name that we could understand, followed by small groups cheering wildly. It was at this point that the occasion of going to be blessed by the Pope changed suddenly from solemn religious event into cheesy rock concert, and consequently into one of my favorite memories!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Today I Nearly Lost an Eye

As you travel further south in Italy, you are warned that the cities become more dangerous. People tell you to be very careful. Don't keep anything in your pockets. Use a purse that goes over your shoulder. This is where the Mafia originated, and organized crime is still prevalent. So far on this trip we have been quite careful and certainly lucky. Well, I was thinking, I have been to Nairobi, Kenya! This can not compare to Africa! I will be careful, but I know what I am doing.

The talk of bribery and corruption, the garbage on the street, mopeds zooming around everywhere carrying three people and/or Cat-in-the-Hat like stacks of goods--Naples sure seems a lot like Africa. But I was not prepared for the danger that was in store here.

Today I nearly lost an eye.

Michael and I discussed tonight how, as we travel through Italy, our stereotypes have become more and more fulfilled as we move south. Both of us have Italian grandparents, and we learned that our ancestors came from the south. Turns out most Italian emmigration originated in the South, so I guess that makes sense. The people here look like we imagined they should; they sound like we imagined, and they gesture like our mothers! The dangerous issue here is...the hand gesturing! So far we have even seen extremely theatrical hand gesturing by people having conversations on their cell phones, while driving and conversing with the person on the back of their motorcycle, and as if that is not enough, today I ran into a giant tree branch on the crowded sidewalk to avoid being jabbed in the eye with a cigarrette by a lady walking down the street telling a story. I have made it through allright, but a little shaken.

If you are headed to Southern Italy, consider yourself warned.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Our Front Door View

THIS (follow the link and then click on street view)is the view from our front door. We've rented a small apartment, 230 square feet, complete with kitchen and bath. We about 100 feet from the ruins of the huge Theatre of Marcellus, and just outside the door are the 2000 year-old ruins of a portico built and named for Augustus's sister Octavia. We're having a fantastic time here in Rome--more to follow!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Softest Sell Ever

Yesterday we headed for the Tuscan hillside to do a little wine tasting. We have been drinking wine with most of our dinners, ok, all of our dinners, but usually just the half-litre of the house red. Sometimes we splurge for a bottle, but even then we stick to the bottom third of the price list. So this trip was exciting because we would be tasting some of the finer wines.
As it turns out, we did a lot more than just "taste" a handful of wines. Our gracious host Luigi, owner and operator, placed a plate in front of each of us with a generous helping of delicious cheese, bread, and salami. Then he poured a dinner glass' worth of the first wine. He stood back, asking us to show him our wine tasting technique. Of course Kim got high marks for her sloshing, but I think I also scored well due to my swirling and smelling. After we had established ourselves as seasoned wine tasters, he kept the glasses coming, stating that you need a big mouthful to really appreciate the wine. He also wanted us to try each wine with the cheese, bread, and salami to determine our favorite combinations.
Nine fantastic wines later, he simply explained to write down the quantities of each type that we wanted delivered to our home. He was a very charismatic salesman, full of information about wine making, but I doubt he ever has to make a really hard sale. After two hours of delicious wine and snacks, who says, "I think we'll pass"? We ordered some bottles on one condition, that he could delay the shipment for a few weeks. We've trusted our mothers with souvenir shipments before, but not this time!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Won!

For months we've been planning to ski. Many of the Eastern European countries we've been to have had slopes that would have been more than adequate for us, but for one reason or another, we just kept putting it off. Well, Italy is it. That's right, this is the last country we plan to visit before heading back to The States. It was time to find a place to ski. After months of trash talk about who is the better skier--faster, more experienced, most daring--it was time prove myself. We made our booking in Aosta, a town in a valley of the Italian Alps not far from Torino where the 2006 Olympics were held. We picked up some snow pants, a three day lift ticket, rented skis, and we were off.
The first stage up the mountain is in a cablecar. From Aosta it takes you up 1200 meters, quickly. That is the vertical distance. My pulse was definitely quickening. I was trying to stay focused on the shocking beauty of the mountains. How I've never felt quite so tiny and swallowed up by the landscape like this before. But my heartbeat was so loud! After the cablecar, it was time to put on my skis and climb further up the mountain on the chair lift. Holy shit! What was I thinking! I haven't been skiing since gym class during the Fire Break--that was ninth grade! And I'm not in good shape anymore! The only exercise I've had in nine months is walking around, leisurely walking!
Michael seemed calm and collected on the outside, but I sensed he had exaggerated his skills, maybe almost as much as I had. We made it to the top of one of the two "easy" hills, and off we went. I felt a little off at first, but then I heard that "swish swish" we'd been talking about for months. The skis didn't feel quite as foreign as I had feared. The crisp cold didn't seem so chilling as we weaved down the mountain (past multitudes of under ten-year-olds). When we finally arrived at the bottom Michael told me he was struggling with his left turns. Victory! I had won! I was the better skier!Okay, okay, over our three days on the mountain, I must admit, Michael proved himself a bit more gutsy. He took on the steeper parts of the hills, and he made his descents faster, and with less fear than I sometimes felt. I fell once, and he never did. He claims he was ready to take on a Black hill if we'd one more day. But I think if we'd had a few more days I would have come out ahead. One thing is certain; we had a fantastic time. We were sad to have to leave the slopes.From Aosta we went to Riomaggiore in the Liguria region. It is one of the five small villages that makes up Cinque Terre, and was the perfect place to rest our tired muscles. We took the winding stroll between our village and the next one over. The weather was beautiful. Liguria is the source of pesto. Needless to say, we enjoyed the stunning views and ate well. After two nights there we moved on to Bologna, with a day trip yesterday to Parma. This region is considered the gastronomic heart of Italy (the world?). The standard antipasti, seen below, includes Parma ham (Proscuitto), Parmesan cheese, green olives, salami, and bologna (Mortadella). Mmmmm. In the morning we're off to Florence. If you've been to Italy, and you want to suggest your favorite places, please do!