Archive | April, 2010
April 28, 2010

ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME

TREVI FOUNTAIN

Sacagawea strikes a pose at the Trevi Fountain in 2008.

TREVI FOUNTAIN

. . . and again, striking a pose in 2010.

Civitavecchia, Rome’s port, is one of those sprawling port cities that conjure images of seafarers, trade routes, and debauchery.  For most, it’s a place you pass through, headed to the bigger draw.   Memories flooded back of our last visit here, two years ago, when we had lunch under the olive trees in a backyard trattoria near Rome’s catacombs.  To this day,  the best meal we’ve ever had.   That time, we had a driver for the day and stormed Rome with a vengeance.  This time, we’re on a different budget, and a different mission, exploring by foot and by train.  From tourists to travelers perhaps?

In St. Peters Square, we joined the throngs for the weekly papal address.  A sunny spring morning, the sun glistening off the imposing architecture, designed by Bernini to intimidate.  It still works, hundreds of years later.   It was one of those moments – and as a homeschool traveling parent skipping the traditional route for a road less traveled, I live for these moments — when it all comes together.  Like a gentle tap on the shoulder, “oh yeah, this is why we’re doing this.” This choice, this lifestyle, it’s working.

Rome inspires.  It’s just one of those cities.  We love the chaos, the sprawl, the old amidst the new, tourists, travelers, and locals all jostling for space.  Wandering the Vatican with Agnes, our RomeWalks guide for the morning, we learned of Papal intrigue and holy discord, along with a good dose of history, art appreciation and local culture.   Sacagawea hung right with her, particularly amused by the story of Michelangelo’s debate with the church to  “clothe or not to clothe” the minor players in the magnificent mural of the Sistine Chapel.  Seems that one of the Pope’s advisors held a strong anti-nudity view, and lobbied the Pope mercilessly, much to Michelangelo’s irritation.  (Remember, he didn’t really want to do this job in the first place.)  The master prevailed, of course, and to forever remind the Pope’s advisor of his failing, painted him into the crowd being tossed to the jaws of hell – naked, of course – with a serpent wrapped around him, jaws aimed towards a particularly delicate region.  (Ouch.  Moral of the story:  Don’t argue with the master.)

As the day drew to a close, we found our way to the Trevi Fountain, a personal tradition of coin tossing and gelato.  Sacagawea and Dundee were determined, and took off to find that favorite photo spot, and that gelato joint.  They remembered is perfectly and led the way.   We tossed our coins and jockeyed for position to snap the family photo – same spot, two years later.  A new family tradition, it seems.  And one that’s likely to be honored again and again.

April 26, 2010

Global Currency and a Chocolate Doughnut

Money, no matter the currency, is a great motivator.  Just ask Sacagawea and Dundee. Conduct a meaningful transaction in another language, I proposed, and earn a euro each time.  Anything counts – buy something, ask directions, order in a restaurant, converse with the cabbie – anything but simple hellos, goodbyes, please and thank you.  (Figure you should do that automatically, no money required.)

Once in a while, an idea is inspired.  This was one of those ideas.  Transformed before me, two multi-cultural children emerged.  Haltingly at first, practicing repeatedly before leaping in, they took the bait.

Cadiz, Spain, on a sleepy Saturday morning, we pulled up a chair at a tiny café for tapas and people watching.  “Uno mas cola, por favore,”  Dundee asked (after numerous dry runs under his breath.)  “Si!”  cried the old guy who seemed to own the joint.  Voila! One more cold Coke plus an E ticket experience in communication.  Unleashed, he couldn’t be stopped.  Chatting up our waiters, ordering for all of us, paying the tab, and asking directions . . . it was his show, and he reveled in it.  As for me, I kicked back and enjoyed the ride, passing the reins to him, except for the occasional cerveza order, of course.

Second great motivator:  sibling rivalry.  Sunday morning found us in Almeria, a coastal Spanish port known more for trading than tourism.   Strolling the streets with local families pouring out of church,  Sacagawea spotted her prize – a chocolate-iced pastry that looked like a doughnut for the Jolly Green Giant — in a tiny side-street coffee shop.  We stepped inside, mingling with the young family at the bar and the old women with their pushcarts.  Standing at eye-level with the countertop, the matronly shopkeeper didn’t notice her at first.  Undaunted, she waited; finally, her moment came.  Reciting those words she’d practiced so carefully, she ordered.  Smiles, hand signals, pointing to the case, she and the shopkeeper made the choice, bagged it, and exchanged payment and change.  From the back corner, I watched, exchanging smiles with the old ladies taking in the red-headed little girlAlcazaba Fortress, Almeria Spain trying out her Spanish.

Chocolate fingers and mustache, she chomped triumphantly down the street, proclaiming it the best doughnut she’d ever eaten. Clearly, I’ll need to find another ATM and replenish the euro stash.

April 24, 2010

IF IT’S THERE, WE CLIMB IT

It’s just what we do.  If it’s there, we climb it.  Bell towers, church domes, watch towers, even the leaning tower of Pisa.  Somehow, the promise of a steep staircase, endless stairs, and a pay-off view of some magical sort seems to call to us.  Elevator?  Nah.  Don’t bother.  We need to work for the view.

And so with this adventure, we’ve climbed.  In the lovely port city of Cadiz, Spain, our climbing obsession took us on a mission to find the church’s bell tower.  We’d already seen the cathedral – the plaster falling from the ceiling, the ornate carvings, the catacombs that were reminiscent of a “Night at the Museum” type of locked-in-overnight experience.  It was the bell tower we had to find.  When our broken Spanish and hand signals with the docent sent us right instead of left, however, we turned up empty handed.

Not to be outdone, we headed for the city’s watchtower instead.  Paranoid of attack, ancient Cadiz residents built a watch tower on every house, shop, church and bakery in town.  As the favored port of Conquistadors and pirates, seems everyone had a vested interest in knowing who might be heading across the pond.  But this watch tower was special – the tallest in town and equipped with a new-fangled contraption that reflected the city’s sprawling view onto a 360 degree viewing stand – and we had to climb it.

Wandering through the winding streets, up and down alleys, around churches, shops and homes, we kept coming up empty handed.  The map might insist it’s right here, but our navigational skills didn’t seem up to the task.  We’d almost given up – something we don’t do easily when there are steps to climb – when we literally rounded a corner and ran headlong into an old, crusty Spaniard, rushed to be somewhere before siesta.

“Deutsch?” he says hurriedly.  Confused and surprised, I shake my head.  “Francais?”

Slow on the uptake, I finally realize he was trying to find a common language.  “English!”  I announced, sounding a bit too eager, I sheepishly realized, as it leapt from my mouth.

“Ah.  I speak that one too,” he replied.  “Now where are you going?  What are you trying to find?”   To our surprise, it seemed that whatever had been the rush before turning this corner, our new friend now had a new mission – to escort us through his home turf. “Easy!”  he announced, when I explained our intent.  “Dis way!”

Transformed, the alleys and cobblestone streets opened up to us, no longer a mass jumble of confusion.  Under his tutelage, we meandered, his voice-over narrating the history and culture, interspersed with a few local anecdotes and personal greetings along the way.  Delivering us to the bell tower, he disappeared as quickly as he’d rounded that corner a few blocks earlier, resuming his rush to get somewhere before siesta.

And us?  We climbed.  It’s what we do.

April 22, 2010

LAND HO! Exploring Madeira

Madeira Portugal basket Sleigh ride“In Madeira, everything’s about the flowers,” our cab-driver Roberto explained.  “If you have a home without flowers, people talk.  They tell you it’s not a home; it’s a stable.”  (Note to self: remember to put those vases to use when we get home.)

Madeira slipped into view in the early morning hours today as we sailed into Portugal’s waters.  No matter how crusty a traveler,  the sight of land after a trans-Atlantic crossing conjures images of yesteryear, explorers, conquistadors, and early adventurers spotting these little islands after bobbing at sea for weeks.  Columbus’s Santa Maria  (or at least its replica) sits docked at Madeira, looking more like a weekend run-about than an ocean faring celebrity up against our behemoth cruise ship.  For us on Holland America’s Westerdam, the “Crow’s Nest” is an elegant, window-bedecked lounge at the top of the ship where sunsets are welcomed with cocktails and slack-key; on the Santa Maria, the shimmy to the nest must’ve made the view (and the cocktails) all the better.

Roberto took us first to Monte, a tiny village up in the hillside where screaming down steep, narrow winding, streets in a wicker basket sleigh  – dodging cars, dogs, and pedestrians – is the main attraction.  (You can’t make this stuff up.  Really.)  Roberto knew the sleigh drivers – the guys who pull the basket and keep it from sliding into the gutter on the way down – and he quickly ushered us to the front of the line, tucked us into a prime basket and snapped photos with our cameras as we took off screaming down the lane.  Whoosh!  Drivers’ straw hats slipped under our basket seat (to keep them from blowing off, we guessed?) we careened wildly through the streets, narrowly escaping guttural demise then holding our breath through a movie-like moment barreling towards a fork in the road, wondering whether we’d go left,  right, or God forbid, straight into the pastoral cottage (with flowers in the windows, of course).   We veered left, but relief was tempered when, like at the top of a roller coaster before the tip to the other side, gravity rocketed us to the bottom of a particularly steep finale.  Like all skilled adrenaline junkies, we beamed and giggled hysterically, itching to hike back up the hill and do it all again.   Roberto counseled us to stick to our one early morning trek, however, before heading off to the rest of the island.   “It’s safe and I recommend, before lunch,” he confided.  “But after lunch . . .” he whispered, tipping his hand in cup-like fashion near his mouth, “they’ve relaxed a bit, get more adventurous you know…  After lunch, not so much.”  Good to know.

For Sacagawea, Dundee and me, Madeira was one of those special places  –  an utterly captivating spot with cobblestone streets, moss-covered cobblestone step-ramps, and terraced gardens nestled into the hillside, along with just enough chaos, color and corruption to give it character.    Vehicular bedlam ensued each time Roberto took his claim to the narrow streets simultaneous with the next guy, generally resulting in two cars barreling headlong towards one another in a version of Portuguese chicken.  Fortunately for us, Roberto was a skilled gamesman, leaving us unscathed but for the pounding heart.   Detouring around a particularly grizzled fisherman as we strolled through the streets of Camara, an old-world fishing village, Roberto discreetly explained our man of the sea had seen more jail than bait in recent years, a result of the area’s increasing drug trade.

With snarky local waiters to entertain us with their sarcasm, humor and street-side antics, we wiled away the afternoon enjoying perfectly grilled fresh local fish with a bit of local wine and port to wash it down . . . it is Madeira, after all.  (Me of course, not the kids; they were entertained by the kooky Canadians at the next table )  Ah yes.  Back in Europe and loving it.

April 21, 2010

THE TEXAS TRAVELERS

THE TEXAS TRAVELERS

“You’re not children, you see.  You’re small adults,” our tablemates explained to Sacagawea and Dundee,  chatting  over dinner.  “Just other adults don’t always take the time to realize that.”

The Texas travelers,  we dubbed them.  An elegant pair from San Antonio, her with a heavy drawl and him, handsome, quiet and a bit understated.  Something about them suggested there was way more to the story.    Over crab legs and beef tenderloin, we were captivated by their global adventures.  We think we’ve gone places, done things!   From Mumbai to the ‘Stans (Uzbekistan, Kakakstan, and the others I can’t remember, or spell), they’ve made it their mission to see the world.  Couldn’t really pinpoint when they morphed from the occasional vacation to a nomadic lifestyle…it just happened, they say.

Maybe it was after their only daughter lost her battle with cystic fibrosis at 26.  She loved travel, too.  Just needed a bit of a nudge from time to time.  “Uggh!  I don’t want to go to Italy!”  she insisted once when they suggested it.

Skilled parenting is an art.  “Any interest in seeing Pompei?” mom asked casually one day.

“Oh yes!  That sounds fascinating!  I’d love to see that!”

A week or two later, mom struck again.  “By the way, wanna see the coliseum, the home field of the Roman gladiators?”

“I’ve heard about that!  It sounds wonderful!  Let’s go there instead!”

Patiently biding her time, mom waited again.   “The isle of Capri sounds awfully  interesting,” she finally mentioned casually over dinner one night.

“So exotic!  Let’s see that too!”

“Wonderful, my dear!” Mom explained, “seems you want to go to Italy after all.”

Traveling.  Taking a new land – seemingly different and intimidating from a distance – and cultivating a new friend.  Finding the special nooks and crannies, it’s best kept secrets (as well as those not-so-secret spots),  discovering the qualities,  quirks, and peculiarities that give it life, then weaving that tapestry into your own.

Taking it out for a spin and getting to know yourself in the process.  Never planned to travel the globe.  Just figured there were some spots around the corner that deserved to be explored.  And here we are.

April 16, 2010

Yep. That’s Us.

It’s an odd thing, bobbing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, chugging from one continent to the next. No land in sight, no weather reports on CNN (if you can get CNN), no clue to what’s ahead. Yet we do it, just as our ancestors did before us. That was our dinner conversation last night . . . what an adventure it must have been for our ancestors, all of European descent, to board those ocean liners for the New World. How brave they were – an adventurous spirit far beyond what we have today – to give up all that was to known to them to head towards a world they knew so very little about.

Sea days – no matter the vessel or the era – seem meant for reflection and rejuvenation. Books devoured, subjects explored, goals considered and retooled.

Settling into life at sea, as they always do, Sacagawea and Dundee have found their rhythm. Eager to get schoolwork done before we hit Europe, they’re chastising me when I procrastinate, preferring instead to lounge, read, nap. I love their commitment, and their energy; I hope it’s contagious, though I’ve shown precious few symptoms so far.

“Have you met the other kids onboard?” they were asked yesterday as we chatted with our fellow cruisers. “Seems there’s a family sailing with us,” our new friend continued, “homeschooling and traveling the world. The kids are just your age – 10 & 13 – and they’re keeping a blog of their adventures. You really should meet them!”  Sacagawea and Dundee just smiled. Yep . . . think we’ve already met.