Rome

The challenge of driving into Rome and finding the address of the apartment was significant.  The combination of the car GPS and Google maps on the cell phone got us in the vicinity.  Traffic was nuts.  Scooters and motorcycles fly by within inches on either side.  Somehow they zip between cars  and then abruptly cut in front of you. We knew we were close to the apartment so took the first space we found on a quiet side street.  Marcia directed effort from the curb.  It took at least 7 forward/backward moves to finally park it.  There was a most 6 inches in the front and 6 inches in the back. Even after we were parked the alarms for being too close in the front and in the rear were ringing loudly.  (Once parked I figured out how to turn off the alarms.) It was a big relief to have the car parked so we could find the doors to the apartment and get settled.

On our first outing we headed to the Spanish steps.  Since the girls had done some homework in the morning, we ran into the big afternoons crowds around the fountain at the base of the step. It was a beautiful day.  Since we were not to be in Rome very long, on the first day we decided to take a double-decker bus that allows you to hop on and hop off at 10 or so stops around the city.  They gave us earphones to allow us to listen information about what we could see at the various stops.  After several stops, the people who had the front seats on the second level departed.  The girls jumped to move to the front seats.  Marcia and I followed and enjoyed the 270 degree view.  The sun went in and it started to drizzle, making it a chilly ride.  The previous afternoon had been sunny in the ’70s, so the cold was not welcome. We had hoped we had left the cold behind.

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Panoramic view from the top of the Spanish Steps

When I saw a Burger King sign, I suggested we go for some classic American food.  It was in part a gesture to the girls, but there was some self-interest involved as well.  It was a hoot eating amongst a crowd of Italians in a Burger King.  I think we were the only ones in the place whose native language was not Italian. There were families with kids and couples on a date. In the second floor dining room almost every seat was full.

Ella always asks for catsup and the rest of us use too much salt so I had to return to the counter and ask for catsup and salt.  The girl at the counter said the catsup was 10 cents a packet.  With .5 eur we had 5 packets.  The salt was free.

Our second day coincided with the Rome Marathon. From the website we learned the runners were to pass directly in front of our apartment.

It was quite a scene with a continuous flow of thousands of runners.  From where we were standing I could not get a decent shot of the runners because of the strong sunlight.  The runners were backlit and it wasn’t until much later that I got to position to obtain a picture that you could actually see the runners.  As time passed the pace of the runners slowed and we headed back up to our fourth floor apartment (fifth floor in the US  because our first floor is floor is zero, not first).  DSCN1578After a quick snack we headed out to lunch. It was a challenge to get to the restaurant because we had to cross race course several times. Nevertheless, we arrived at Ba’Ghetto to have a grilled dish for two.  Excellent preparation.  As a late appetizer we had their speciality a grilled artichoke.

After the meal, the kids were not up for the museum that Marcia wanted to see. So we walked to a bridge that crossed the Tiber River.  We took the stairs that led to the river level on the island between the banks of the river.  There were a lot couples relaxing in the sun.  We walked the full circle around the island.  We sat for 15 minutes and watched the river.

When we walked back up to the bridge, there were the usual individuals selling knock off Prada and high end purses.  I made the mistake of being too obvious when looking at purses while walking by.  The salesman was polite when I shook my head to signal, no. No sooner than passed the another individual with purses for sale, two guys ahead of us who had been selling jewelry and purses gathered the sheets on which their goods were placed. With all their goods quickly scooped up, they ran to the edge of the bridge and tossed their goods over.  Then they disappeared as they ran off the bridge.  The were motivated by the presence of uniformed and plainclothes police.  The below picture shows the police below the bridge gathering up the goods.  We were not sure what motivated the police; selling without a license, failure to collect tax, or trafficking counterfeit goods.

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Pisa, Italy

IMG_1402We were warned against staying in Pisa.  I think the warning came after we had already booked a two bedroom apartment a block away from the Leaning Tower.  It is another case where low expectations led to a pleasant surprise for the five of us.  Who would have thought looking at building with a 5 degree tilt would be amazing?  Tourists everywhere posing as though they were holding the tower up.  A few were posed to make the picture appear their finger was on top of the tower.  It was interesting to watch the communication between the picture taker and the one posing.  Only one couple was trying to get the shot of the wife pushing the tower over.  Their communication was clearly broken. The picture taker tried repeatedly to change the pose, without success.

Strangely, it felt good to be amongst so many tourists.  Unlike Albenga, in Pisa there were Brits, French, German, Chinese, and Spanish in family clusters and in big tour groups of 20 to 25.  We did not detect American accents.  It was nice to hear English with a Bristish accent.  We talked with a Londoner with his girlfriend.  He was a snowboard instructor in the Alps and talked about 900 eur tips and working with a high end clientele from Russia.  His girlfriend had worked on cruise ships for the past years.  They had to depart to board their cruise ship.  They mentioned it would have been nice to spend more time exploring and relaxing on land.

When locals asked us where we were from, they smiled when we told them the US.  With big grins they said, “Americanos.”  It is nice to feel welcome.  It is feeling we have had for the past six weeks.

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Similar to Paris, there were guards with automatic rifles.  Unlike Paris, they did not have their fingers on the trigger guard.  They lacked the seriousness of those in Paris.  Of course the Parisian guards felt the proximity of the Brussels and the November terrorism. *Note the lack of a line to climb the steps.  The guide books suggested buying the tickets online.  Perhaps because it was April and not summertime, there weren’t masses waiting in the queue.
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At the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Great view after negotiating very worn marble steps, all the while adjusting for the tilt. Going up was not as much of a challenge as going down.
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View from the Leaning Tower.  It was a beautiful day, about 70 degrees, much warmer than we became accustomed to in Paris.

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The Leaning Tower was designed to be a bell tower for the adjacent cathedral.  The Tower was started in 1173.  Due to the lean construction stopped after the first three floors were completed.  99 years passed and it was assumed the ground would have settled.  To compensate for the lean additional height was added to the side of the wall that was tilted.  The additional weight on that side increased the pressure on the base and caused further lean.  The weight on the base was calculated to be 14,500 tons.  For 900 years the tilt increased by 1-2 mm annually.  To avoid the eventual collapse in 1964 a team of engineers and historians gathered to come up with a plan to stabilize the tower.  They used an 800 ton lead counterweight buried in the ground opposite the lean.  More details at: www.leaningtowerofpisa.net.

Rachel stands at the base of one of the 24 largest pillars holding up the cathedral.  Each pillar is a solid stone that has a base diameter of about 4 feet.  They extend up approximately 30 feet high.   Imagine in the 10th century they were able to quarry, cut a single stone into a column, move it Pisa, and then stand it upright. For the main columns this had to happen 24 times, without one column toppling another.  I did not count the other supporting columns but there were at least 30 of those.  Amazing engineering.

 

Albenga, Italy

Originally, we were going to stay in Cannes.  We found an apartment on the harbor with a view of the marina full of sailboats.  The reviews on VRBO mentioned good restaurants a few steps from the door, and outdoor cafes for a drink.  The VRBO calendar said it was vacant during the three nights we wanted to stay there. I  submitted the request and assumed everything would be set, so we moved on to reservations in Pisa and Rome.  After our deposit was accepted in Rome, the word came from Cannes – not available.  After writing to at least seven different apartments in Cannes it was apparent that there was a big TV convention in Cannes during the weekend we expected to stay.  I learned that the apartments were open but the price was three to four times the normal rate.  They also wanted to charge $1,000 eur for deposit. Cannes would have worked out great because we were trying to keep driving from one place to another to a manageable four hours or less (based on the Google maps estimate).

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Street scene, notice how the space between the buildings shrinks.  Entering that alleyway leads to a maze of alleyways and small squares.

Since we had a three day hole in our schedule and had to find a place east of Cannes, the search was on.  Nice was an option but prices were high, there was no washer/dryer, or one of the kids would have had to sleep in the living room.  We had never heard of Albenga, but the apartment had three beds, good reviews, and the pictures looked interesting.  The expectations for Albenga as a town were low.  I figured we would be nestled in a small town on the Italian Riviera.  As it turned out, the apartment was a relatively new structure built behind a wall that dated to the middle ages.  We were able to park the car in a reserved spot and easily unload the car next to the outer door of the apartment.

Going out very old and large wooden double doors at the back of the apartment,we entered a maze of alleyways that were too tight for a car.

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The view out our apartment window.

Even a Smart car would have scraped mirrors.  The historic passages were surrounded by three or four story residences.  The ground floors were shops; restaurants, bakeries, and even a hardware store.  There were a few tourist shops sprinkled in the mix.  The alleyways were interconnected with small squares were a restaurants and tapas bars had outdoor tables and chairs.  The whole effect was charming.

Exiting the alleyways opened up to a city street that eventually led to a boardwalk.  By the time the girls finished homework it was 1:00 pm.  Except for cars buzzing about, it appeared the town was closed.  Even the restaurants were dark.  When we reached the boardwalk, all the shops and restaurants appeared to be closed for the season.  While walking the length of the boardwalk, Marcia talked to a high school, maybe college age, girl who was waiting for her friends to catch up her.  She had been jogging.  She explained that everything would be closed till 3:30.  We had read about offices closing down from 12:30 to 3:30, but did not realize how pervasive the closures would be.  Even the restaurants were closed.

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At about 4 pm the shops opened.

It was nice to be in a town without tourists.  We did not hear English, French, Spanish, or German for three days.  While some of the waiters and waitresses spoke limited English, it was not like Paris where almost everyone had some command of English.  We managed to catch-up on the laundry, get some homework done, and have a relaxing three days.

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Lilies blooming on one of the squares within the historic district of alleyways.
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A service center with Total gas/diesel and one of the restaurant we had a pleasant lunch break.
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Notice the mountains in the backround.  We were impressed with the highways in France and Italy.  Expensive but well maintained.

 

Normandy Cemeteries

I was surprised to see a large parking lot that was almost full of cars.  There were three or four high end tour buses parked in a special area.  The Omaha beach visitor center was large building with an long endless reflecting pool on the lower level.  The exhibits were were numerous and supplemented with multiple flat screens.  The Images of Omaha Beach and the cemetery frequently appear in the media.  President Obama’s 2014 visit for the 70th anniversary of D-Day resulted in much press coverage. Before arriving I had a clear image of what to expect, i.e., long rows of crosses, and a generalized sense of depression.

Among the thousands of crosses, it was rare to see the Star of David.  GIs reportedly had three options for religion on their dog tags; “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic, or “H” for Jewish (from the word, “Hebrew”), or (according to at least one source) “NO” to indicate no religious preference.

According to a letter to the NY Times,

Many Jewish G.I.’s omitted from their dog tags the indication that their religious identity was Jewish for the prudent reason that in the event of falling into German hands, their lives would be at greater risk if they were identifiable as Jewish.           PAUL LIPPMAN Hoboken, N.J., June 14, 1994

From talking to friends and family who previously visited Omaha Beach, I expected to feel much sadness.  In fact I felt more angry about the wasted lives than sadness.  Marcia reported sadness.

We also visited the German cemetery where 7000+ Germans were buried. We arrived to see three cars in the parking lot, no tour buses and no one staffing the small visitor center. Like the American counterpart there were crosses, but there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a cross and a deceased soldier.  The actual grave markers were flat on the ground.

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It bothered me that I felt more depressed at the German cemetery than at the American.  I also felt angry about wasted lives.  Based on dates it was not uncommon to see that teenagers were buried in some of the graves.  The feeling was exacerbated by the thousands of German lives that seem to have been forgotten.  

There was plaque at the base of the monument.  I noticed a family discussing the plaque, so I ventured a question in English. Of course they spoke English well. The dad was able to translate some of the statement.  The essence was that the graves were a testament to darkness of war.  Light and hope were represented in the crosses.  It turned out the couple was from Belgium and had the same reason for visiting the German cemetery as we did. They wanted their kids to see both sides. After talking to the couple for several minutes, we learned that they were from Brussels and that exactly one week ago the terrorists had struck the Brussels.  They described the whole city being shut down.  It was a Monday and people were stuck in their offices. We mentioned the Eiffel Tower was lit in the colors of Belgium and  many Belgian flags were hung on government buildings. Collectively, we lamented that horrors of war are still being felt by innocent citizens today in the middle east.

Rather than head back to the hotel we went on to Mont St Michel. The girls were not thrilled about driving 2 hours out of our way.  Despite their protests, their parents had the final say.  The girls retaliated by complaining for a at least 30 minutes.  They were relentless.  When we arrived at the Mont St Michel is was overcast and cold. As the kids were starving, we located a quaint restaurant that was warm and had nice ambiance with stone walls.

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It was low tide when Sarah, Rachel and I walked back to the car.  At high tide the sandy area is completely covered.  Ella and Marcia took the bus.

After all the complaining, the girls had a good day climbing various stairways to get up and around the island.

Normandy

DSCN1528We picked up our new car in Paris and headed to Normandy to visit Roger and Sharon, our neighbors from Bloomington. They retired, put their Bloomington house up for sale and moved to France.  The live near Vimoutiers.  It is directly south of Le Havre, and about 35 km from the English Channel.  Sharon gave us a walking tour of the town.Vimoutiers was leveled from Allied bombing during WWII.  The only structure left standing was a church.

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Church & Mill on River Vie

We saw two statues of Marie Harel, who is credited with the invention of Camembert cheese. Her statue was beheaded during the 1944 bombing. In 1948, William Foster, CEO of Borden Foods wrote to the mayor of Vimoutiers and said 400 employees of Borden Foods wanted to replace the statue.  Below you can see the headless statue and its replacement.

 

Sharon made us a typical French meal; chicken, salad, baguette, and dessert from the bakery.  It was a nice treat to catch up with Roger and Sharon. They are living an adventure.  Before we left they asked if we had seen the Tiger Tank on the way into Vimoutiers.  They said it was one of only two that still exist.  To avoid us getting lost on a shortcut to get pictures of the tank, we followed them in our car.  The steel body of the tank was two inches thick.  DSCN1535

Girls’ favorite museum

IMG_0979“Dad, this is so much better than Musée d’Orsay”, said Rachel. Ella and Sarah with devilish smiles instantly agreed. After writing this sentence, I asked who said it was the best? In unison, each one said, “I did.”

It was a rainy afternoon and we were clearly where the action was.   One of the big surprises was the horde of people loaded down with candy emerging from the boutique . Each family had enough candy to easily fill up a paper grocery sack. The parents and kids coming out of the boutique seemed happy with their haul.

I could not believe that we paid an entry fee for both adults and kids to go to the Haribo’s Musée du Bonbon.   Unlike some of the world-class museums we had visited, the kids took time to read the panels, read the English subtitles on the videos, and take their time passing through the various displays. They emoted a lot of positive affect.

Earlier in the day we went to Lascaux II. Marcia and I thought the girls would be intrigued with the cave paintings. The contrast with the Musée du Bonbon was stark. The cave tour was something I had looked forward to for almost a year. I viewed the videos at http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en#/fr/00.xml , several times prior to leaving for Paris. Given that location is off the beaten path in a mountainous area about two hours north of the Mediterranean coast, I was surprised to see a large parking lot that was full of cars with many groups of four or five people heading to the entrance. There were many  parking spaces for tour buses, but we arrived at 9:30 and beat the tour buses that were scheduled to arrive at 10:00.

Lascaux II had the feel of going to Disneyland. It was my understanding that we would be in a cave near the original in which artists had recreated the scenes. My expectation was that it would be in a real cave environment. Upon entering Lascaux II, I had my doubts as the authenticity of the cave. Some of it looked real but the stalagmites did not drip and pools of water reflected like plastic. The audio guide was good as it introduced the primitive hand art first. At times I saw each kid listening to the audio. The raised path snaked around the cave. We were in a group of 25-30. When we first entered the cave there were two other groups of comparable size that we could see at stations ahead. The live guides were presenting in French. Our audio was in English. At a given station, the live guide would be using a laser point to draw attention of a feature while the English audio would be describing the features in a different order. The best part of the cavern was the reproductions of the cave art. The quality of the Palaeolithic cave painting reproductions was impressive. That people who populated the area 20,000 years ago produced scenes with such accuracy is awe inspiring.

The Bradford Foundation includes the following text about the original Lascaux cave.

The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories – animals, human figures and abstract signs. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Of the animals, equines predominate [364]. There are 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle, bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. Among the most famous images are four huge, black bulls or aurochs in the Hall of the Bulls. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long – the largest animal discovered so far in cave art.

New Jawad

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We had a great meal at New Jawad, an Indo-Pakistani restaurant, at 30 Rue de Longchamp, about a block from our apartment . It was 10 pm as we walked into the restaurant. I was a little worried we were arriving as they were getting ready to close. It was such a welcoming experience that contradicted the notion that French waiters are cold, aloof and slow. We had Chicken Vind Allou, Chicken Tikka Massala, Shrimp Jawad, Punjabi Chicken, Basmati Rice and Garlic Nan. I was proud of Sarah who ventured into new territory with the Punjabi Chicken. At the conclusion of the meal our plates were super clean and there were smiles all around.

After a wonderful meal, we departed the restaurant. Marcia, Ella and Rachel headed back to the apartment. Marla, Ian, Sarah and I headed to the Eiffel Tower. We walked under the tower and marveled at the lighting of the structure. Living so close to the Eiffel Tower, it was a sight I had seen before. Regardless, it was moving. Then we walked up the steps at the Trocadero and waited for midnight when the tower would twinkle. Standing on the upper level of the Trocadero, a well dressed young man said that he had been living in Paris for three years and seeing the Eiffel Tower still feels like it did the first time. While we were talking to him, he asked where we were from and told us he was from a small town in Poland. To me it sounded like Krakow, but he said it was 1,000 kms south. With all the warnings about pickpockets on the Metro and in museums, I couldn’t help but be wary that I needed to be aware of my phone and credit cards. After departing I realized my cautiousness colored the interaction. I guess that is the way it has to be in a big city, whether it is Paris, Rome, or New York.

A moveable feast

The week following the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the bestselling book was Hemingway’s A moveable feast. Marcia bought the book for me in December.  I was at the midpoint of the book when we arrived in Paris.  Even after I finished it, I was not sure why Hemingway’s posthumous memoir,  A moveable feast, resonated so well with Parisians.  Eventually, I learned that the French title of the book is “Paris is a Feast,” which could be translated as “Paris is a Celebration.”

The book captures Hemingway’s interactions with  the post-WWI lost generation of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Picasso, as well as lesser known authors, Ezra Pound and Evan Shipman.  There is much discussion about the process of writing and the merits of various authors’ works.  The interactions take place in cafes and streets of Paris and their respective apartments.

The English title of the book implies the feast moves with an individual.  My interpretation is that memories of  good times in Paris will travel with you regardless of where you happen to be. Everyone hopefully has memories of their metaphoric Paris, whether it is a beach on Lake Michigan, a puebla in Mexico, or a place near home.  It is a pleasant thought that memories of Paris and other places during our trip will stay with us.

 

 

Easter in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower

DSCN1470While on a walk along the Seine, we happened on an Easter Egg hunt.  (When Rachel read the first sentence she introjected, “Dad we were not walking along the Seine, we were complaining about walking along the Seine”.) We saw kids at booths and kids running about looking for eggs.  It took a little while to figure out how it worked.  The kids at the booths were not trading tickets for the opportunity to knock over a stack of cans.  The kids were getting prizes and lots of praise from the volunteers staffing the booths. The volunteers were also signing a sheet that looked like a glossy newspaper insert.  Sarah and Rachel were excited about the prospect of getting Kinder eggs.  Ella wanted to go back to the apartment, (in Rachel’s words, she was a pain …)  Eventually we figured out how it worked.  The glossy sheets were 5 Euros.  Finding 3 different colored eggs allowed you to get a bag with Kinder eggs.  Visiting the various booths allowed you to get small prizes and lots of verbal reinforcers from the volunteers.

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